The American Hero

American Sniper

a film directed by Clint Eastwood
Sebastien Micke/Contour by Getty Images
Former Navy SEAL and expert sniper Chris Kyle, Dallas, Texas, April 2012

If the guys are tired of talking football at a bar near a military post where enlisted men from elite military units do their drinking on a Saturday night, you might get an argument going with a different sort of question, like what, exactly, was the greatest single rifle shot ever made by an American marksman in combat? The celebrated American sniper Chris Kyle was not history-minded but he was born and died in Texas and I imagine that Texas pride and his own modesty might have prompted him to say: Why, there’s no room for doubt about that—it was Billy Dixon at Adobe Walls on the Canadian River in Texas in 1874 when he shot a Comanche warrior off his horse at a distance of just under a mile using a fifty-caliber Sharps buffalo rifle firing a bullet one-half inch in diameter from a brass cartridge loaded with 110 grains of powder.

A flat claim of that sort invites exception. Dixon’s was a remarkable shot for drama, perhaps, and it certainly brought the Adobe Walls fight to an end as abruptly as Hiroshima ended the war with Japan, if practical result is all you are interested in. But distance is the challenge for a sniper. The greatest shot must be the longest shot that still did the job. Some US Army surveyors with General Nelson Miles showed up at Adobe Walls after the fight and measured the distance from Dixon’s rest—the spot where he steadied the gun while he aimed and squeezed the trigger—to the bluff off in the distance where a group of Comanches on horseback were silhouetted against the sky while deciding whether to go on with the fight. The surveyors came up with a distance of 1,538 yards, about nine-tenths of a mile. Very nice shot.

But the friends of Chris Kyle and around a million other Americans who have read or at least bought Kyle’s book, American Sniper, would all know, and somebody in the circle at the bar would be bound to say, that the longest shot, making it the greatest shot, was not Dixon’s. The longest would have to be the shot that Kyle fired one day through the window of a second-story room of a house in a small village just outside Baghdad in 2007. He was on the last of his four tours in Iraq. During the ten weeks he spent in the area Kyle had about twenty confirmed kills but the one he remembered was the long one. He refers to his equipment as the .338 Lapua and includes a photograph of it in his book. He doesn’t name the weapon but it looks a good deal like the .338 McMillan TAC sniper rifle. It’s not as fancy as you might…

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