by Jack Coughlin and John R. Bruning
JANUARY 9, 1815 – THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS
The Shooter stood tall on the earthen rampart, his rifle at his side. His right hand held its barrel while his right foot backstopped the weapon’s hand-carved stock. He wore buckskin leggings, a shirt and pants of woven linsey-woolsey, which gave him a tramplike appearance. A broad-brimmed felt hat shadowed his predator’s eyes.
He stood alone, immune to the battle raging around him. The din had no parallel in his life—the crash of gunfire, the roar of cannon juxtaposed against distant bagpipes, and a New Orleans band belting out “Yankee Doodle.” Around him, men died by the hundreds.
Across the battlefield, a group of British officers rode together. One, Lieutenant L. Walcott, sighted the Shooter and marveled at his poise. Suddenly, the Shooter moved. He shouldered his rifle and its barrel swung toward Walcott’s party. The officers began to laugh. The American was over three hundred yards away, no way he could hit any of them. The gesture seemed ridiculous.
The Shooter pulled the trigger and shot one of the British officers right out of his saddle. His lifeless body flopped to the ground. The others in Walcott’s group gaped at their dead comrade, shocked that one of their own could be killed so effortlessly at a distance that rendered their own weapons ineffective. Several long seconds later, they wrenched their attention back to the rampart. The Shooter had returned to his statuesque stance, rifle in hand, stock at his toes again. Beneath the brim of his hat, he tracked them and selected another target. The rifle came up and belched black smoke. The officer next to Lieutenant Walcott jerked back and fell off his horse.
Two shots, two kills. Walcott later recalled, “The cannon and the thousands of musket balls playing upon our ranks we cared not for; for there was a chance of escaping them … but to know that every time that rifle was leveled toward us … one must surely fall … that the messenger of death drove unerringly to its goal, to know this and still march on was awful.”
The Shooter reloaded and resighted his weapon. Walcott and his surviving comrades exchanged terror-filled glances and wondered who would be the next of them to die.
Death on the battlefield is a random act. In the middle of a fight, a man can endure flying bullets and falling artillery because of their indiscriminate nature. The soldier in the heat of combat has built in psychological defenses to such incoming. It can’t hit me. The odds are with me. They aren’t aiming at me.
The Shooter stripped away those defenses, leaving Walcott naked to the primal fear aimed fire instills. For Walcott’s group, there was no escape, and they realized it after the Shooter’s second kill. Such a realization causes entire units to seize up in the midst of battle. Men who moments before were filled with courage or resolve will forget everything as their self-preservation instincts kick in. They will go to ground. They will cease advancing. They will lose control and run. Such elemental fear breeds panic, and in a test of arms, the ability to create panic wins battles. We call this the Shock Factor. It is a sniper’s greatest weapon.
The Shooter’s finger curled around the trigger, his rifle’s front sight pinned on the officer riding beside Lieutenant Walcott. The Shooter had no scope, just his remarkable eyesight and a knack for gauging the wind and his bullet’s drop. He took a breath, released half of it, and gently squeezed the trigger. Another of Walcott’s friends was shot out of the saddle, probably dead before he even hit the ground.
Unlike his targets, the Shooter was not a professional officer. He was a frontiersman, born and raised in Tennessee or Kentucky, where a man’s marksmanship determined the margin between life and death. His rifle was his most valued possession, precision-made by hand with loving care, its stock inlaid with ornate silver designs. It had probably been a family heirloom, handed down from one male member of the family to the next as part of his culture’s rite of passage. Like his fellow “Dirty Shirt” frontiersmen, he joined this battle carrying his personal weapon. There were no government-issued guns waiting for him at the end of his passage south to face the British.
That was fine with him. His rifle was an extension of himself. In all likelihood, he’d been shooting it since he was a boy as he learned to hunt with his father or uncles. Bullets and powder did not come easily, so every shot counted in his world. In time, he developed such precision with his weapon that he could kill a squirrel by shooting the branch it was sitting on and sending wood shrapnel into the creature. That left the animal intact and edible. On the battlefield, such skill translated into deadly precision—and lots of headshots. He was an American rifleman; marksmanship was coded into his DNA. At New Orleans, future president Andrew Jackson had assembled the only sharpshooting army in United States history—and being on the receiving end of it must have been horrific.
Lieutenant Walcott was one of the lucky few British officers to survive the Battle of New Orleans. American rifleman killed or wounded virtually the entire British chain of command in less than twenty-five minutes of battle. The 93rd Highlanders, who marched toward our Shooter on the rampart with bagpipes blasting, went into the fight a thousand strong. Just short of the American lines, their regimental commander ordered his men to halt. Seconds later, an American rifleman killed him with a headshot. The rest of the regimental leadership went down before anyone could give an order. The 93rd stood there, shoulder to shoulder, its veteran soldiers completely at a loss for what to do next. They had never faced this sort of accurate fire before, and it paralyzed them. Not a man even returned fire.
The American dirty shirts poured it on. Six hundred Highlanders went down before the unit finally broke and ran. All across the battlefield, other British units did the same thing. Men who had never taken cover during a fight now sought any fold in the landscape that might offer respite from the deadly American bullets.
General Adair, commander of the Kentucky Riflemen, walked his line, pointing out targets to his men. He tapped one dirty shirt from behind and said, “See that officer on the gray horse?” The marksman nodded at the distant, moving target. Adair ordered, “Snuff his candle.” The Kentuckian took aim and shot him right off his horse.
On the opposite side of the battle, a British colonel named Rennie led an assault on an isolated American redoubt emplaced ahead of the main rampart. He struck an impressive figure at the head of his men, coaxing them forward. The Americans in the redoubt abandoned their posts and scampered back to the main line. Rennie pressed forward and scaled the rear wall of the redoubt with two of his officers by his side. As he turned to urge his troops onward, several shooters from the New Orleans Rifles, a militia unit from the Big Easy, opened fire. All three officers went down. The leaderless British soldiers froze, then fell back pell-mell, their ranks savaged by the American fire.
Afterward an argument broke out among the New Orleans sharpshooters over who killed the British colonel. The best marksman in town, a merchant named Mr. Withers, flatly said, “If he isn’t hit above the eyebrows, it wasn’t my shot.” After the battle, the New Orleans Rifles retrieved the colonel’s body from a ditch—and found he’d been struck in the forehead. That settled the debate.
GUNNERY SGT. JACK COUGHLIN is the author of SHOCK FACTOR: American Snipers in the War on Terror and is the New York Times bestselling author of the autobiography, Shooter (with Donald A. Davis). He served with the Marines during the drive to Baghdad and has operated on a wide range of assignments in hot spots around the world.
JOHN R. BRUNING is the author or coauthor of fifteen nonfiction books. He received the Thomas Jefferson Award for Journalism for an article he wrote while embedded with the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade in Afghanistan.