Sharpshooters and Marksmen have been around probably as long as there have been rifles – in fact “rifling” the bore of a musket was originally invented in order to provide hunters with more accurate firearms so that they could take down game more reliably and consistently.

Although most military-issue firearms continued to be smooth-bore muskets up until the early 1800’s, it took until the invention of breech-loading, repeating rifles firing brass cased cartridges filled with smokeless gunpowder for things to really get interesting.  And so it was that the stalemate of trench warfare in WWI gave birth to the first official, dedicated sniping units.  The Germans apparently got there first, but it didn’t take long for the British to not only catch-up but outstrip their enemy in terms of tactics, training and equipment.

In 1916 the Lovat Scouts became the British Army’s first official sniper unit – the Lovat Scouts Sharpshooters – and were the first unit to make use of the garment that came to be known as the ghillie suit.

British World War I sniper's suit (image: Imperial war Museum)

Being a Scottish Highland Regiment, the Lovat Scouts contained within their ranks many former gamekeepers (known colloquially as a “ghillie”) and deer stalkers.  These professional Ghillies and deer hunters passed on their extensive knowledge and understanding of terrain, stalking, personal camouflage and concealment and marksmanship to create the most highly-trained, dedicated sniper unit the world had seen up to that point.

File:Lovat Scouts Badge.jpg

Besides the ghillie suit, the Lovat Scouts (and later other units as well) were also renowned for their use of camouflage-painted clothing on the Western Front – some of these items were even somewhat “mass produced” according to defined patterns and colour schemes.

In the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London is one such so-called “Camouflage Robe” which is a hand-painted, linen coat with a matching affixed hood and face mask – apparently there were a pair of matching mittens that went with it as well.  The camouflage scheme is comprised of blobs and streaks of various colours applied on what appears to be a tan-coloured base.

Bear in mind that this item was painted by hand by a gamekeeper or hunter almost 100 years ago – long before there was any sort of established camouflage science, long before there were fractal-generating computer graphics programs – or even computers, and long before designers could avail themselves of the conveniences of modern technology and scientific studies to help them try to create effective camouflage patterns.  And yet – look at that pattern – does it not remind you a bit of certain 21st Century patterns that so many people think are so ground-breakingly NEW and impressive?  😉

A big thanks to Roger Dix for alerting me to the existence of this item and for sending me these photos.

– Lawrence


Photos copyright Imperial War Museum.  Catalogue number 6060.