Object Title

Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield sniper rifle with Periscopic Prism Company telescope (PPCo) sight

Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield sniper rifle with Periscopic Prism Company telescope (PPCo) sight


The centuries leading up to the First World War had seen the military use terms such as 'rifleman' and 'sharpshooter'. However the birth of sniping as a military discipline came of age during the First World War.

The art of sniping was never embraced by soldiers of either side. Snipers often used trees, shell holes and hollow logs in which to conceal themselves. Occasionally hollow metal trees were used, carefully put into place under cover of darkness. Unpopular amongst their fellow comrades as well as the enemy, Frederick Sleath, a British sniping officer commented, 'there was something about them that set them apart from ordinary men and made soldiers uncomfortable.' The killing of individuals from a secret location was seen as deceptive and unsporting, whilst it was perfectly acceptable to bayonet an enemy to death in close-quarter combat.

Ongoing developments in scope technology during the War allowed the sniper a clearer sight picture. Teamed with the ability of stalking and concealment, these scopes contributed to the overall efficiency of snipers. In early 1915, realising that the list of casualties caused by enemy snipers needed to be reduced the British began their search for a rifle to counteract the enemy. Most of these were hunting rifles and although they could pierce enemy sniper plates, they were only available in non-standard calibres. Their recoil also made them difficult to shoot from the prone position. It was suggested that the Enfield Pattern 1914 might be suited to the task, however the need to convert it from .276 in to .303 in was thought to be a lengthy and costly operation. Instead the standard issue infantry Short Magazine Lee-Enfield (SMLE) rifle Mark III, was chosen for sniper conversion. 

Manufacturing a telescopic sight for the SMLE, was even more problematic. Most optical glass was being used to manufacture artillery gun sights, telescopes and binoculars, and a set pattern for mounting sights on rifles didn't exist.  Eventually, after a rush decision in May 1915, three primary patterns were agreed on. These were the British PPCo, the British Aldis and the American commercial Winchester A5. However other British manufactures such as Evans and Watts, and even German and French scopes were also used.

Use and effect

Used by both British and Commonwealth snipers the PPCo, although robust enough for life on the Western Front, had only 2x magnification. The German Goertz scope, which was attached to the Mauser Gewher 98 rifle, provided its user with 3x magnification. Higher magnification resulted in a clearer, brighter and larger sight image. The PPCo scope was also offset, forcing the sniper to either raise their head from the stock when aiming, or to shoot with the left eye. Both would compromise accuracy. In contrast the Mauser's design provided two available platforms for scope mounts to be fitted. The scope was mounted in a more central position, allowing the snipers head to become more naturally aligned with the barrel thus providing greater accuracy.

It was not purely the scope which determined the efficiency of a sniper. Despite the British scopes not being as sharp as their German counterparts, the capability of the German snipers on the Western front was due to a combination of abilities. Many German soldiers had experience of marksmanship, observation and stalking, due to their game-keeping heritage and with these basic skills already in place, the German army could quickly train skilled snipers. The existence of superior scope technology was a bonus.

Early teams of British snipers were referred to as 'The Suicide Squad', due to their lack of training and the technology available to them. Although by 1915 scoped rifles started to appear on the Western front, many had no idea how to use them effectively. This was observed first hand by Major Hesketh-Pritchard:
'I had gone down on duty…and there found a puzzled looking private with a beautiful new rifle with an Evans telescopic sight. I examined the elevating drum and saw that it was set for 100 yards. "Look here," I said, "You have got this sight set for a hundred. The Hun trenches are four hundred yards away." The private looked puzzled.
"Have you ever shot with this rifle?" I asked.
"No Sir."
"Do you understand it?"
"No Sir."'

Realising the need for 'trained' snipers to accompany their enhanced sniper rifles, Sniper Schools were set up in late 1915 /early 1916. Teaching students how to determine range, the effect of windage, correct manipulation of the rifle and the importance of camouflage, the British sniper finally became a force to be reckoned with.


Action / Operating system Bolt
Barrel length 73.7 cm (29 in)
Calibre / Bore 7.7x56mmR (.303 in)
Capacity (rounds) 10
Country of manufacture Britain
Date entered service about 1915
Effective range 503 m (550 yd)
Feed Internal Magazine
Manufacturer PPCo
Muzzle velocity 744 m/s (2441 fps)
Overall length 1.125 m (44.5 in)
Primary operator Britain
Weight 4.960 kg (10 lb 15 oz)


Lisa Traynor