What is the best caliber for a sniper? This is one of those topics that sometimes gets misconstrued by new shooters at the beginning of their long range journey. It is not a simple “one cartridge fits all” type of answer, and it shouldn’t be. There are a ton of factors that go into this question that have to be considered. Let’s take a look at some of those factors.
What is a Sniper?
According to the Oxford Dictionary a Sniper is “a person who shoots from a hiding place, especially accurately and at long range”.
Now if you ask a Marine Scout Sniper their definition it would be “A Marine highly trained in field craft and marksmanship, who can deliver long range precision fire on selected targets from a concealed position on selected targets”.
Now, in most cases, actual “snipers” are going to be individuals working for a government agency or some type of organization. If they don’t work for some authoritarian power then the definition of “sniper” gets a lot more muddied and leaves a lot to interpretation and the individual’s own imagination.
Snipers have been shooting 7.62×51 for decades. Every few years, someone comes along with the great idea of updating to a new cartridge, to something more modern. There is always a list of benefits such as better ballistics, flatter trajectory, less wind deviation and better terminal ballistics. The data is always enough to start a formal evaluation to see if a new cartridge will accomplish the mission.
Next, there will be a year of testing and evaluation for both a new rifle and a new cartridge. In each evaluation, the result has always been the same. The new cartridge tests better than the 7.62 in every category ,but it is always rejected, resetting the program back to its default setting of 7.62×51.
It has always been difficult for people who work outside of large bureaucracies to understand why this happens. It essentially comes down to logistics and organizational bias. Large organizations despite new things. They love doing things that have always been done, because that’s how they have always done it.
When it comes to cartridge selection, the first hurdle is getting the gatekeepers to admit that there is something better, and that industry has continued to advance while they have stagnated in their knowledge. This can be a daunting task, especially with the high turnover of positions within the military and law enforcement.
Logistics is the other roadblock in this process. Not only are there literally millions of rounds of the current cartridge in the current supply chain, but you had the hurdle of getting the other agencies on board with the new idea as well.
Sticking with the military side, it could get difficult if the Marine Corps and the Army started using different calibers. No longer would they be able to share ammo in an emergency, or out of convenience.
The even bigger picture is NATO.
Most NATO countries all utilize the same cartridges currently, which allows for them to support each other during combat operations. This supply chain, like the gatekeepers, doesn’t like change. This is because it causes things to not run as smoothly right after the initial change.
Now, if you are able to navigate the political hurdles you now have to determine what the needs for your intended application are.
A military sniper needs to be able to accurately engage targets out to approximately 1000 yards. In recent years, that range has been extended to match the capabilities of enemy forces. This extension of distance prevents their snipers from out ranging ours. The selected cartridge for a military sniper needs to be able to remain consistent at an extended range.
Military snipers also need a system that is completely man portable and capable of being suppressed. Depending on the situation they may find themselves in, they may also have to use this rifle as their primary weapon system. Using something that is very bulky, heavy, or slow to operate will be less than ideal.
Law Enforcement Snipers
Law enforcement snipers have very different needs and restrictions than military snipers. They only need to be capable of shooting out to approximately 600 yards with a majority of shots being taken at less than 100 yards.
The Sniper will almost always be in an established position and will not need to transition to clearing rooms with their sniper rifle.
Law enforcement agencies also don’t run into many of the big picture logistical roadblocks that a military sniper will run into, since they only need to navigate their local politics.
Once you have determined your application for your system you can start to look at how far you need the cartridge to remain effective.
There will be multiple options that will all meet your needs, especially if you are only shooting at short to medium distances.
If your needs extend to longer ranges, you need to ensure that your chosen projectile will remain in the supersonic range through its entire engagement area. This prevents issues of instability during its transition to transonic. Some projectiles can become unstable and lose accuracy when this transition occurs.
Terminal ballistics is the effect a given projectile has when it hits its intended target. Snipers are only ever engaging one type of target in the application of their duties and the chosen projectile needs to have the ability to inflict maximum damage to the intended target. This is the main reason that snipers typically avoid smaller, faster calibers like .243 or 6mm. They are phenomenal long range calibers with many national records at 1000 yards, but they lack the terminal ballistics to be reliable long range calibers for a snipers application. Especially once armor is added to the mix. Larger Calibers typically offer better performance and are more widely used.
Another consideration is the ability of a selected projectile to go through mediums such as glass. For law enforcement snipers in particular, it could be necessary to take a shot through a window. The projectile needs to be able to maintain a certain level of precision and integrity after hitting the glass.
This allows for an accurate shot to be taken on the intended target without risking collateral damage. Typically heavier projectiles are better suited for this.
For example, a 175gr .308 is slightly more consistent after striking a window than a 155 gr .308 projectile. This is a relatively easy test to conduct and should be done prior to selecting a cartridge and projectile.
Every projectile, no matter how heavy or how fast you push it, suffers from wind deflection. That being said, some cartridges are significantly better than others. There are a couple of factors that affect this. Bullet weight, bullet velocity, and ballistic coefficient of the round are the main factors. The heavier a projectile, the more force is required to move it. Heavier projectiles will have slightly less wind deflection than a lighter projectile at the same velocity.
However, a heavier projectile at a slower velocity may not maintain this benefit, especially at longer distances when the retained velocity drops off. The ballistic coefficient of the round also has an effect on the wind deflection. This is because the more efficient a projectile cuts through the air the higher the retained velocity and the easier it cuts the wind.
If you are shooting at extended ranges the lower the wind deflection of your cartridge, the higher your chances of a successful first round impact on target. A law enforcement sniper however will notice that most caliber options will have minimal deflection in their engagement area, and this factor may not be as high on the priority list.
The Cost of the round is also a factor that needs to be heavily considered. Not only is this for a budgeting factor but it is for training as well. Some highly specialized cartridges can be very expensive. The plus side to these, is they typically get high marks on all the categories we look at. The downside is that it may limit the purchasing ability of the unit or section, to the point that they cannot train with their selected ammo.
This also needs to be considered for the longevity for a sniper section as well. Even If the current snipers are well trained with the cartridge, will a new sniper to the unit be able to get up to speed with restricted training, due to the cost? It would be better to use a less expensive option that still meets the snipers needs, while also allowing for a consistent training program. This should also be considered when changing cartridges. It may be better to stick with something that allows for current rifles to just be re-barreled versus completely replaced.
The topic of “The best” of anything, is always murky. In most cases the “best” option is never the most practical option. In regards to the best cartridge for snipers, there is no exception. It is hugely dependent on each individual factor we have discussed in this article. What works for a military sniper is different from a Police Department sniper, which could be different from a Federal LEO Sniper.
There is no one stop shop for rifle cartridges that is the best at everything. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves every time we buy a new rifle.