If you ask any given number of people what the definition of a sharpshooter is, you
will receive a varied amount of responses. It is like asking folks around the country,
"what is a hoosier?" You'll nearly get a different answer for each person you
Let's begin with some common fallacies. A sharpshooter is NOT a sniper. The word sniper is a "modern" term. The term sniper is a "trade specific" or jargon term. Its definition today applies to the modern, elite, highly skilled and trained soldier with a specific duty. If you are interested in learning more about "snipers" please read the book, Sniper written by Adrian Gilbert. Or, if you want a personal look into what goes through the mind of a young man who is a sniper, read Dear Mom, A Sniper's Vietnam written by Joseph T. Ward.
If I may, I will quote from Adrian Gilbert's book on the definition of the term, "sniper".
"For most of the nineteenth century, the words 'sniper' and 'sniping' remained confined to the British areas of the English-speaking world; elsewhere, accurate rifle fire at selected individuals was merely called 'sharpshooting'. It was not until the twentieth century that sniping came to describe a specific military activity, separate from sharpshooting. Although the distinction remains one of degree, a sniper in the British or US armed forces is considered a specialist, whose prime function is to kill selected high-value targets at long range using superior skill and armament. A sharpshooter, by contrast, is a rifleman (proficient or otherwise) who acts in an opportunist manner, taking shots at the enemy when the chance arises." - page xi of the Introduction to the book Sniper by Adrian Gilbert.
Let me expand upon that definition by outlining the role of the Civil War sharpshooter, in general.
A sharpshooter was most often used in the Civil War as a skirmisher. Sharpshooters belonged to a regiment just like all other soldiers. Their job was to seek out, prod, and engage the enemy as a group. They were deployed in a skirmish line and advanced toward the enemy, or where the enemy was suspected to be located. This skirmish line was most always a single rank with distances of several yards between each man. In many cases, sharpshooters carried Enfield rifles as well as sporting or target rifles.
Sharpshooters, in general, were not independent. They did not independently wander around shooting specific targets. This may not be glorious, "noble", or "fun" for reenactors. But, the majority of sharpshooters were members of a regimental unit who participated in battles as skirmishers and line infantry. They were riflemen, not modern day "snipers".
Independent sharpshooters, however, were sharpshooters attached to the Battalion or Brigade. They were at the disposal of the command officers. The number of men were very few, unlike a full regiment of sharpshooters. These men scouted and, at times, advanced to the battlefield to attack specific targets. These independent sharpshooters often carried rifles with attached scopes. The famous Winslow Homer picture with a sharpshooter in a tree was of an independent sharpshooter.
Some of the confusion and misinformation is due to the publicity that Hiram Berdan received in the Civil War. He was not the only commander of a sharpshooting unit, and his unit was not the only sharpshooting unit in the Civil War.
There were a large variety of rifles and rounds used during the Civil War by sharpshooters. Picket bullets and Swiss Chauser bullets are some of the most prized rounds for many sharpshooting buffs. These rounds are most always found in known locations where sharpshooters were in camps and battlefields.
The debate of the term "sniper" vs. "sharpshooter" will probably always continue as long as there are people who reenact the Civil War and are enthusiasts about shooting. There is a documented historical difference between the two terms and when they were first used.