THE ULTIMATE SNIPER by MAJ John L. Plaster USAR (ret.) [Book Review & Interview]

Aug 11th, 2010 | By | Category: Book Reviews, Historical, Military/LE, Strategies, Tactics


Anyone who has been in the sniping community since the 1980s easily recognizes a number of names like Capt. Jack C. Cuddy USMC, Gunny Carlos Hathcock USMC (ret.), Major Edward J. Land Jr. USMC (ret.), and Major John L. Plaster USAR (ret), those who’ve made profound improvements on the US training of snipers, and building sniping’s reputation within the military. My first recollection of Major Plaster was a name call out from my instructor when I was going through longrange tactical shooting training at CEMFA, the major military training installation in the east of the El Salvador during the war. At that time Major Plaster’s sniper’s instructional tome had not yet been published, but his work creating and refining a number of lessons with the community, along with a distinguished career in the Army Special Forces with MACV SOG in Laos during the Vietnam War, was legendary.        

It’s because of representatives of the sniper community like Major Plaster that what was an unenviable, almost outcast, position in the military (perhaps you remember the derogatory remarks made to Tom Berenger’s lead character by his fellow Marines in the film Sniper) has become highly regarded. Nowadays, snipers are given the same recognition and hero status of Navy SEALs, Air Force Combat Rescue and Army Special Forces, especially after the successes of SEAL snipers in their rescue of merchant ship Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in April 2009.        

Quite an improvement over the slower than molasses days of the past: I remember arguments with Salvadoran officers about the best utilization of snipers—so traditional military in their attitude, it was hard get them to more effectively use sniper teams than just have them as one-man components of a patrol. The more traditional officers were so resistant to sending them out as independent two-man hunter killer teams, or even for very subtle recon teams.        

Salvadoran Navy SEAL sniper stuck to his team


Thankfully, the US military, which learned its own lessons from having scant sniper resources to combat the refined German, North Korean and Japanese snipers of wars past, instituted a better program with the onset of the Vietnam War, and is presently even more developed in the war against fanatic Islamic terrorists.        

A lot of this improvement in relationship between the traditional military and the sniper is due to the improvements education: not just for the sniper, but the military as a whole. Much of this knowledge (minus the more advanced information that no one is going to make publicly available in mass market), is available in The Ultimate Sniper, whose first printing was in 1993, the latest an “updated and expanded” version 2006.        

If it were up to me, I’d require that every serviceman and woman, in all branches, go through an introductory course in sniping. This would be mainly for their own safety, especially so as most modern wars are presently insurgencies relying on terrorist tactics that incorporate sniper tactics. A sniper rifle in the hands of an Iraqi or Aghan insurgent can definitely have a demoralizing effect on a counterinsurgent—especially for counterinsurgents that don’t know the downfalls of snipers and how to counter them.        

The Ultimate Sniper

Opening with a great overall introduction to snipers, equipment and organization, Plaster takes the reader to what makes a sniper, next to his unique skills and mental attitude: the rifle and optics. A realistic take on what makes a rifle accurate is priceless, taking into account the different kind of rifles out there. There’s also little things you can do to make yourself that much more accurate with very reliable, but field-expedient tools, like a small tripod fashioned from paracord and three sticks—I keep one in my pack made from three wooden dowels. European, American, Russian and Chinese sniper rifles, bolt and semi-auto, are well covered, even the take-down versions and their cautionary.        

If you don’t see them before they see you, it can get pretty hairy, don’t you think? Well worth the read on the sniperscope and other optics. You’ll learn a lot about glass and focus and why one glass is better than another, no matter how much it costs. Use the optics test pattern that’s available on page 97—you’ll be happy you did!        

Milranging continues to be a dilemma for many shooters. Plaster goes into detail so that there should be no question of how to use mil dot and do the calculations. Not having used the mil dot since I left Central America in the late 1980s, I’ve since gone back to making sure all my rifle scopes have a mil dot reticle or reticle hash marks, with target knobs, for my hunting rifles—they don’t get in the way of a close running shot and they’re handy for range estimation and even doing Kentucky windage when there’s no time for “come-up”. It’s pretty much a standard in tactical scopes these days.        

The section on bullets is well researched and very informative. Not only are American and NATO rounds covered, but also Soviet ammo. Some may wonder why so many sections on Soviet ammunition, weapons and tactics, but considering most of the present terrorist organizations received their initial, or grandfathered, training and firearms from the old Soviet Union and its allies, it’s very appropriate in a number of sections of the book.        

International Law

What I found most interesting is the legal section on open-tipped match bullets. As one who has seen up close the explosive effects of Soviet-made FMJ ammo (explosive because the copper was cheap and the bullet acted like a softpoint hunting bullet), namely fired out of an AK-47, I’ve wondered why in the world there’s still this back and forth on what makes a dumdum bullet, and what doesn’t. The section on match bullets, which are BTHP bullets in the civilian market (and supposedly illegal according to the “rules of war”), makes for good reading.        

Basic and Advanced Marksmanship

If only these sections were taught to everyone who picks up a rifle. In the basic section Plaster writes about sniper attitude, proper sight picture, shooting positions and breath control and one shot sighting in. With the advent of the Caldwell Lead Sled, I found this to be one of the easiest to perform.        

When Plaster gets to the advanced marksmanship techniques, there’s information in there that not only will improve your shooting, but keep you alive, such as the most effective way to cycle through rounds without revealing your position.        

Special Shooting Situations

Calling on his combat and training experiences stretching back to Indochina, and experiences of his references, a few of which is a long line of distinguished military and law enforcement instructors and support personnel, offers this section which I think really helps the sniper improve by thinking out of the box.        

One technique of walking rounds in on a target from an O-1 Bird Dog, I can personally attest to its effectiveness, based on personal experience in El Salvador when the Huey I was flying in was providing cover for a Salvadoran LRRP unit (they used to call them PRAL) that found itself in an ambush by the FMLN. The chopper pilot was yelling at me to help the doorgunners as I had a weapon. Using an M-16 loaded with a magazine of all tracers (I normally carried them to direct fire toward enemy positions hidden from my platoon), I was able to walk the rounds toward a target. Locking up your left arm (I’m righthanded), turns it into a great pivot point. It was a modification of shooting a Belgian FN-FAL on full-auto that I learned from a Contra commander, whose nombre de guerre was “Mike Lima”, and had lost his arm during a mortar accident in Honduras: assault slung across his shoulder, he stiff armed the hook of his prosthesis against the front stock to hold down the FN-FAL on full-auto to keep the muzzle from being kicked up by 7.62 NATO rounds—works even better with your legs hanging out the hatch of a Huey, on semi-auto, and your waist secured by a tether to a floor ring, locking an M-16’s accuracy on a target 100 feet below.     

Cork Graham in San Miguel after a detour to help some PRAL (LRRPs)


Understanding and exploiting echo is a subsection not to be glossed over, either, and actually does take a bit of rereading and rereading to really get the whole gist. It’s not only worthwhile because of how it could save your life in understanding echoes, but also how to incorporate echoes into your tactics.        

Specially Added…Countersniping in Iraq

One of the sections that really stands out is the one directed toward those deployed to the Middle East. Plaster goes into detail on the equipment and tactics of the enemy sniper in Iraq and a little bit on the Afghan sniper. Of note is how Chechen fighters, that the Russian had been addressed with in their own counterinsurgency, have offered their skills and training to the Iraqi insurgents. Most distressing is a report on the emerging .50cal threat coming in from Iran, via a sale of 800 .50-caliber sniper rifles to the government of Iran by Austrian arm manufacturer Steyr. If you don’t know who Iran is, it’s the Cambodia and North Vietnam of past, rolled up into one nation—not outright in the fight with the United Statesa and its allies, but arming and directing the insurgency…        

Close to the Earth

One of the most important points to take is that about how the best snipers had a connection to the earth that went way back to their childhoods. From all parts of the world, it has turned out that a majority of the most impressive snipers (Australia, Canada, Scotland, Russia and the US) had a hunting and woodcraft background that started in childhood. Close to the earth has relevance in a number ways. It’s the background of snipers, like Vasili Zaitsev (hunted wolves and wild boar in Siberia), Chuck Mawhinney (hunted elk and deer back in Oregon) and Carlos Hathcock (hunted squirrels and other game for the table in Arkansas), all well-grounded in a youth of hunting and learning wood craft. It’s the deep inner knowledge of who we are related to the earth and how we standout and how we can blend in with this earth.        

It’s also the level of awareness that almost seems psychic in its ability to detect and enable a sniper to be two or three moves ahead of the target. It’s almost innate in someone who was introduced to firearms as a hunter, as compared to just a competition shooter. Remember that the German sniping instructor sent by Hitler to hunt down Zaitsev was better equipped, but Zaitsev relied on his “cunning” as the Germans liked to comment, and was carried in the Soviet sniper’s motto: “While invisible, I see and destroy.”        

Major Plaster puts forward a hypothesis that the reason there were hardly any well-trained snipers in the Iraqi Army during what would have been a great environment for snipers, the trench warfare during the Iraq-Iran War, goes out without a blip because a society that historically had a reputation for longrange shots in the desert, was by modern times gone, due to an enmasse move of the hinterland population into urban areas, like in many parts of the world. They basically lost cultural and field skills that would previously have been instilled and developed through years of pre-service experience hunting and shooting in the country.        

Those Who Forget the Past, are doomed to…

Some of the information in The Ultimate Sniper, might at first glance seem outdated (especially with historical references to wars that probably occurred before your great-grandfather was born), especially with all the advances in technology that occur every year. But, if you know the military the way I know the military, you’ll know that often skills and knowledge can be lost only to have to be relearned again in the next war (case in point with so many successful counterinsurgency tactics and strategies gained and used in Vietnam and Central America, but had to be relearned in the war in the Middle East). My suggestion is to order The Ultimate Sniper and read it through once.        

Then, give yourself a section objective and reread that section, then review it through your own deployment understanding. Take stock of the information and see how you could employ that specific knowledge in your own environment, and even better, how you could improve on the knowledge imparted in the book—that’s effective use of historical and tactics and techniques.       

Tips and Techniques directly from the Master

Major John Plaster is well represented on two websites. As an advisor at Millet Sights, he has written a number of articles to help the shooter that downloadable there. He has his own, where he sells his books and has a shipload of worthwhile information for the military/LE tactical shooter, not the least of which are pdf scans of historical books going back to mid-1800 printings about sniping. Plaster also has the Choate-Plaster rifle stock that has been used by a number of nation’s military and law enforcement. He’s also got a new collapsible stock worth checking out.        

The Ultimate Sniper is available at these outlets:      


For your daily commute on your MP3 player – Download and Enjoy Major John L. Plaster’s interview on GCT Radio:

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