- Nicholas Irving, former Special Operations sniper, rates 11 sniper scenes for realism in movies.
- Known as “The Reaper,” Irving reportedly killed 33 enemies as a sniper for the US 3rd Ranger Battalion. He is the coauthor of “Reaper: Drone Strike: A Sniper Novel.”
- Irving breaks down movie scenes such as “Enemy at the Gates” (2001), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “Gemini Man” (2019), “American Sniper” (2014), and “Jarhead” (2005).
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Below is a transcript of the video.
– [rifle shot]
Nicholas Irving: Not happening. To the left? Good to go? My name’s Nicholas Irving. I’m a former 3rd Ranger Battalion special operations sniper and currently a New York Times best-selling author. I spent six years in special operations, and I’m known as The Reaper for 33 kills in about a three-month time span in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Today we’re gonna be looking at a few sniper scenes in movies.
“Gemini Man” (2019)
No one ever really does that.
His use of the equipment was really, really good. He has his, you know, his pad to lay on, he has his range finder, he can measure the wind, barometric pressure, the altitude, density altitude, his DOPE book. The word DOPE is an acronym for snipers, and it actually stands for data on previous engagements. So he can go back and refer to all these things that he’s engaged before that and have, like, some good reference point. He applied all of his DOPE in his data to the scope itself. I rarely see that in movies, where, you know, he applies the elevation and the windage.
The impossible portion about this whole thing was the actual shot itself. The train is moving way too fast. You have to, you know, defeat gravity in some ways. So you’re aiming up, and the bullet’s dropping almost down at that distance. And shooting through glass, panes of glass, angled glass and different types of glass may deflect and alter the bullet’s flight. You’d have to be one really, really, really, really lucky guy, or, after that, get up and go walk on water. But now that I see it, I almost wanna simulate it, but it’s kind of, you know, it’d be almost impossible to simulate. I can’t find a target moving at a bullet-train speed.
Yeah, so this is a very basic bolt-action rifle. Remington. It shoots a 6.5 [millimeter] Creedmoor round. Very, very fast rounds. Small caliber, but I use it essentially because of the speed of it. I use it to defeat the wind. If there’s a lot of wind or shifty winds or anything like that, it’s a good bullet because of the velocity of it, how fast it’s moving. He had a suppressant on his. I don’t have one. But for, you know, overseas work and stuff like that, if I had to make a one shot, one kill, I would probably take something along the lines of a bolt-action rifle. Then you have your bipod legs, and that’s just for, you know, stabilization. Have a scope, and of course you have your trigger and buttstock. There’s not much to a sniper rifle. His eye position, his cheek weld, where you put your cheek on the rifle itself, where it rests, his was pretty much perfect on his. You’ll see in movies sometimes the guy will have his eye pressed all the way up on the scope, and, you know, unless you want a huge black eye and a nice, you know, bloody eyebrow, you wouldn’t do that. I keep both eyes open. That way, I can use my peripheral vision to, you know, keep my situational awareness. Good body position behind the gun. You want your body to be, you know, almost perfectly aligned with the gun. That way when the recoil comes back, you know, you’re not bouncing off target, you can get a good follow-up shot. Your skeletal structure is gonna support all that recoil. If you cant it off to the side, that gun is gonna hop. So being perfectly behind the gun as much as you possibly can be.
That was a solid eight. Maybe even a nine. It was the shot itself that was a one. I would never take that shot.
Troy: 900 yards.
Nicholas: That was good. That was really good. All the dialogue, you know, between spotter and shooter, were really, really good. He kept his firing hand on the rifle the entire time while he adjusted the scope with his left hand. 900 yards, though, definitely not gonna take a headshot. And with that scope, it wouldn’t even look like it’s that close. It would look, you know, he would look way smaller than that.
Troy: Permission to fire. [door bangs]
Lincoln: What’s the f— frequency are you on?
Swofford: Oh, f—. Lincoln: We got air. I’m calling it in.
Swofford: We have permission to take the shot.
Lincoln: Tough break. You were just gonna shoot one guy.
Nicholas: I think where it gets a little wacky is where the guy busts into the room and tells them to stand down. Snipers like to set up sniper hides, and they’re essentially in a sniper hide, and there’s booby traps and stuff like that in there. Maybe that colonel, or the guy who walked up the stairs, may have hit a trip wire or being, you know, maybe engaged by the sniper team itself once he came into the room like that. But if they have permission from the colonel, I would have taken the shot anyways. I’m not too sure why this guy felt that he had the authority to do that. I would’ve taken that shot.
Lincoln: This is dollar four-
Troy: Goddamn it, he’s dead anyway! Just let us f—ing do it!
Nicholas: That is a moment. It’s a weird moment, where you’re looking through the scope and you see your target, and you know for a fact that, hey, I’m about to end this guy’s life. It’s a life-altering, emotional-roller-coaster experience. I can see the emotion behind it. Scale from one to 10 for that one, I’m giving that one a nine.
“Clear and Present Danger” (1994)
[crickets chirping] Sgt. Maj.: Stop. Touch that light-colored grass. Sniper at your feet.
Nicholas: It’s exactly like sniper school. For one, that sniper scope is not, that reticle inside the scope is nothing like what you would use in real life. Yeah, you usually have these little mil dots on there. They’re like little circles, and you have four of them on each the horizontal plane and the vertical plane inside the scope, and they’re used for measurements. So, let’s say, for example, if I had a target that was 40 inches tall, and I wanted to find out how far away something is, but what I would do is take the 40 inches and multiply it by a constant, which is 25.4, and that comes out to 1,016. And I would take the mil dots, and, let’s say, if the target measures 2 mils high, I would divide 1,016 by 2, and that comes out to 508. So I add 508 yards on the target, on my distance, and I would apply that to the scope of my gun.
Sgt. Maj.: Damn.
Nicholas: Going to that trigger squeeze, that was not really good. You wanna use the pad of your finger. He kind of curled the entire trigger finger. It’s a precision weapon. You’re looking at harmonics and stuff like that, so imagine, like, a tuning fork, you want everything to be as smooth and less friction on the sides of that railing inside the gun as possible. So having the trigger come straight back is what you really wanna look for, not so much of that curled trigger finger. And it’s exactly how they used it in sniper school, where the, you know, the instructor, he’s telling the guys on the outside, “Hey, come in, sniper at your feet, X, Y, and Z.” It’s pretty much exactly how it works.
Sgt. Maj.: All right, you won this one. Come on out.
Soldier, how did you get that close to me?
Nicholas: Sneaking up on someone is extremely tough because of the stalking portion. It’s not really an easy tactic, and not too many guys are good at being that sneaky. For the training portion, I would give this one a seven.
“Saving Private Ryan” (1998)
It really doesn’t get any better than that. I grew up with this movie, and what he does is actually just wounds the guy. Usually if you wound someone, it’s gonna take one or two more individuals to come pick him up or drag him out, so you get a chance to kill three targets instead of just one. Really good tactic if you’re a cruel sniper. I would have never done that. You know, US military, we train one shot, one kill. The enemy sniper, how he put the burlap over his rifle to match the inside of the burlap behind him inside that little bell tower, that is perfect.
The Germans actually mastered the skill of sniping, from camouflage to long-range position.
[gunshots] Snap-bang theory. He hears the bang of the rifle. Or, first, Vin Diesel gets shot. The guy gets shot and he goes down, then you hear the crack of the rifle, and it’s almost like lightning and thunder. So he’s counting really quickly to determine how far away the sniper is, and he’s picking known, likely, and suspected positions where that enemy sniper may be. Everything about this clip is just how I would do it. You know, it’s the calmness behind him, how he creeps up and puts the rifle on the rocks and slowly gets behind it. And you can barely even see the guy, you know, behind that rubble. The way he blends it in with the rubble, and his position, everything. Look at that. That is almost…. By the time he saw him, it was too late.
That’s target detection at its finest. That is something you do teach, or learn, in sniper school, is target detection, TD. The instructor will place out, like, a toothbrush and one bullet, or something very, a protractor at 100 yards away, and as a sniper, you have to find 10 objects.
The issue with this shot, it’s a lot like the Carlos Hathcock story, where, you know, he shoots, and the bullet goes through the scope and hits the guy in the eye. And he’s shooting at an upward angle at a target up in a bell tower. And how bullets fly, if anything, he would have just got the guy in the head. He’d have to almost be, you know, directly in line at a very short, very close distance for that bullet to travel all the way through the scope and then hit the guy in the eye. I’ve been in an exact position like this, pinned down by an enemy Chechnyan sniper, but he was 800 yards out. We never got him. He didn’t get us, but it was essentially like playing volleyball with bullets, and we did that for about three hours. And he had us pinned down with his sniper rifle. He was in a position just like this guy in “Saving Private Ryan,” the enemy sniper, and we were, my reconnaissance team and my sniper team, we were in a small little 4-foot-diameter hole pinned down and surrounded for about three hours. The whole firefight lasted almost the entire day, like, 19 hours or something like that.
So I give this one a 9.5.
“The Hurt Locker” (2009)
James: He’s moving, he’s moving, he’s moving, to the building. Follow him. You got him?
Sanborn: Got him.
Nicholas: Really nice.
James: He’s down.
Nicholas: That was really good. I think, well, there’s a few things that I saw wrong with it. Going to, well, the sniper dialogue, it was OK. It wasn’t the best sniper dialogue that I’ve ever heard. It was the second shot, where he moved 20 meters to the left of the building. Really good sniper dialogue, the spotter talking on the sniper to where the target’s at. After that first shot with that .50 cal went, as a spotter, he should have called out immediately, “Hey, you’re, like, 2 mils low.” Inside that reticle there’s, like, mil dots, mil radian circles in there, and they’re used for measurements. At that time when he missed that shot, the spotter, the guy on the scope, should have told the sniper, “Hey, aim up 2 mils and, you know, send it again.” He should have never let that guy get up to run.
James: Window, at the window, at the window. [shot]
Nicholas: This shot, where he’s engaging the targets in the building, the two guys in the building, little fly on the eye, that was pretty neat to add in there. It shows that dedication to the, you know, to the spotter and to the sniper team. You’re in this little bubble. Only you exist, nothing else does. And the single shot with the .50 cal is, I’ve never seen it, never heard of it, but I guess it makes for a good movie. Not too, too bad. On the scale from one to 10, I’d give it, as a sniper team, a four.
“Lone Survivor” (2013)
That was really, really good. “Lone Survivor” is one of the most realistic movies I’ve seen when it comes to combat. I’ve used that same rifle overseas in Afghanistan. My deployed rifle was an SR-25, but I used that one when I was a designated marksman. That shot right here, it’s, I mean, it’s real. It’s real. It shoots at a 5.56, so it’s not a very powerful round or anything like that. And being in this environment, I was just getting into special operations, first day in the barracks when the guys were coming back in stateside after rescuing Marcus Luttrell. You deploy every six months overseas, and we were averaging about 120 missions per 90 days. Your average troop won’t even touch that in a year. The unit I was with holds the record for killing and capturing the most high-value enemy targets in the global war on terrorism in Iraq or Afghanistan. Whether you’re a Navy SEAL with special operations, you’re a green beret, special forces, Marine Force Reconnaissance, you know, Delta Force, whatever you wanna, you know, all special operations, then very small group of guys, they go through a very, very grueling experience and they get the best of the best of the best training. They could be sleeping in your attic, and you wouldn’t even know it. That’s what special operations is like. That’s what I think about. You know, being a ninja. It’s like being a ninja. This should be, like, the modern-day standard for wartime movies. This is a 10, in my opinion, in my book.
“American Sniper” (2014)
I had a chance to meet Chris Kyle in Vegas one time. Bradley Cooper looks like Chris Kyle. Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL sniper, and he’s accredited with the most kills in the US military as a sniper. Before him was Carlos Hathcock and I believe his spotter. Carlos Hathcock had 93. I remember hearing about Chris Kyle when I was in Afghanistan, and there was a rumor about this Navy SEAL guy who was like, you know, had over 100 kills, and I was like, there’s no way, but yeah, yeah, way.
For one shot, one kill, I would say, dude, that’s extremely tough. In sniper school, you know, you learn how to shoot one mile, and you do it in training every once in a while, but the odds of a one round first hit, not likely. I do like the fact that they use that flight time to show you how long it takes for a bullet to travel, you know, one mile. It’s not immediate. And, you know, with that distance, you’re looking at so many factors that come into that. I’m even looking, probably in a mile, I’m starting to calculate for the Coriolis effect as well. And that’s where you take the spin of the Earth, and you’re, you know, taking that into consideration and putting that and plugging it into the formula. That long flight time, the Earth is still spinning, you know, 1,000 miles an hour or whatever, so you have to kind of, you know, account for that. They did put a lot of work into it. You know, Chris is a good guy, but for movie aspects, I’d give it a… oh, wow. I’d give that one about a seven.
“Enemy at the Gates” (2001)
That was epic. That was a really… I was almost playing along in my head with them as, you know, who would I take out first? And it was in that order. I would take out the guy in the shower first. Well, going back, that was a, I think that’s a Mosin-Nagant rifle, maybe? It’s pretty accurate for open sites. That position, shooting through something like that, is, one, it’s extremely scary. You have to understand, you know, how your rifle works, how much you have to aim up so your rifle, so what you’re looking at, you’re not actually hitting the bottom portion of that brick wall. And in the beginning, he even sets his range, where he licks his finger. He’s taking off the mud on that slide. So, there’s, like, a little slide. If you ever have a chance to look at the top of an AK-47, he slides that little lever up, and that raises the rear sight, and it adjusts the elevation. It’s essentially like a scope, just without the scope.
Dude, the most I’ve taken out in a row is five. A good sniper, a good sniper, not even a great one, a good sniper could pull that off. And how he wraps his hand around the sling to make it nice and tight, that is perfect. You never really see that in movies. They teach you that in sniper school. Yeah, that was really fast and really good. Look at that. Wrap, over the top. Nice and tight. Boom. That’s perfect. I would say 70% of my shots overseas were from the knee. And at that distance, with that rifle, that’s not a hard shot, that’s definitely not a hard shot. He’s gotta be less than 100 yards away. That’s a 10. That’s a 10. I cannot argue with this whatsoever.
“Smokin’ Aces” (2006)
Before I was a sniper, I was a machine gunner with a .50 cal. That round is devastating. Where she uses that little laser finder, probably not gonna happen, ever. That’s a very, you know, fine object to point. The sniper in the window should have known where the elevator was at or where she was gonna be shooting at anyways, but….
People don’t look like that when they get hit with a .50 cal. It’s usually just a puff of moisture and mist. The guys returning fire from the inside essentially just killed or injured a bunch of civilians on the street. I do like the use of the sniper, how she’s using the bed frame and not, like, out the window, like you see in most movies. And, yeah, she’s backed away. So, yeah, I would have used that same tactic. As long as that rifle is not hanging out the window, she should be fine. And she’s not shooting through glass. I’d give it… ah. A three.
Not happening. There was a shot like that back in the ’90s. It was a police SWAT sniper. It was 98 yards away, where he shot the pistol out of the guy’s hand, but at this distance? That wind? You gotta think, you’re on top of mountains. Well, a true sniper would never take that, no matter how good you are. If you look at her hair, her hair is not moving that much, so there’s obviously not a lot of wind on target. I’d give that a good 3, 4, or 5 mile an hour wind. You wouldn’t dare take that shot. I would debate even taking a headshot at that distance. At that distance, through a real scope, you wouldn’t be able to see. You’d be able to see maybe a black toothpick. By the time you put your crosshairs on whatever you think was the shotgun, the crosshair itself would probably cover up the shotgun. If you go back and you can see where his scope is, not covered in the front portion. You see that black hole there. Any good counter-sniper would have picked out, all this white terrain, and then boom, there’s this black circle there. Marky Mark would’ve been hit a long time ago if I were on that other end.
Prior to this going off, him shooting the gun out the guy’s hand, I’d give it a five, 5.5. With that, I give it a two.
“Rambo IV” (2008)
Sarah: Wait, what is it? What? What?
Nicholas: The sniper who’s on that team, mercenary team, has a large .50 cal. That gun weighs about 38 pounds, and the guy soaking wet was maybe 150 pounds, and he’s moving miles and miles and miles at a high rate of speed with this rifle. I wouldn’t do it. What they would do is separate it into two pieces. So one guy would have the upper portion, the other guy would have the lower portion of the rifle. It kind of distributes the weight. It’s about as tall as I am. You know, I’ve had to jump out of a plane with it one time, portion of it, and it’s an extremely uncomfortable gun to carry. I would give that a two. I’d give that a two.
They could be sleeping in your attic and you wouldn’t even know it. That’s what’s special operations is like. That’s what I think about. You know, being a ninja. It’s like being a ninja.
“Reaper: Drone Strike: A Sniper Novel” by Anthony Tata and Nicholas Irving is out now.