Profile of Scott Tyler, professional sniper.
Credit: Photograph by John Lee
At a shooting range outside Nevada City, far up in the wooded, mountainous eastern corner of California, not far from Reno, Tyler lies motionless on his belly in his khaki uniform, his heels pressed flat on the wooden platform, an Austrian-made Steyr Mannlicher .308 collector-grade sniper rifle pressed against his cheek. The rifle is brand-new and belongs to a range member named Rod. Next to Tyler is a box of Hornady 150-grain, lead-core, copper-jacketed, high-impact bullets with polymer tips. The tips are harder than the surrounding lead, so the synthetic red cone will be driven back on impact, causing a small explosion of lead fragments into the target, thus creating a larger hole at the back of a man than at the front. These bullets will travel more than half a mile per second.

Each rifle a sniper uses has unique characteristics that are compounded by the ammunition and many, many exterior factors. There is wind. There is humidity. There is the spin of the Earth. There is even the fact that as a rifle is fired, its barrel heats up, the metal contracts, and the bullets are propelled faster. As a sniper Tyler had a "quiver of rifles," including a huge .50-caliber McMillan Brothers bolt-action, a .300 Winmag, and an MK 12, which he liked because it was light and small, though it "didn't pack much of a punch" in the recoil. But his favorite was a CheyTac .408, a weapon he discovered late in his career and never used on a human. "It was accurate up to 2,500 yards," he says. "The round had a very stable flight. Most rounds, when they go from supersonic to subsonic, start to tumble. This one tumbles and then restabilizes."

I ask Tyler about the drama shots we see from snipers in the movies, like how they always seem to be shooting one another through their scopes. "It's mostly Hollywood," he says. "Head shots seldom happen. Anywhere from here to here" – he indicates the lower chest to the neck – "is good. There are so many variables. A shot that's off by an inch at 100 yards will be off by 10 inches or more at a thousand yards."

To ensure he's as accurate as possible, Tyler meticulously charts the results from his practice shooting, logging all the variances he can think of – temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed, direction. He's looking for patterns – not just, say, how one type of bullet might vary from another, but how one particular batch of that bullet might vary. "That way when it comes down to game time you know what's going to happen," he says.

In combat Tyler never took a shot from more than 400 yards. But at a practice range in Idaho, he once hit a foot-square metal target from 1,600 yards. He was shooting across a valley, amid a furious wind and rain, and still hit the target on his first try. "We used the ballistic computers to deal with the environmental conditions," he says matter-of-factly. That bullet was in the air for well over a second, rising, spiraling, descending, and fading to the right like a Tom Brady Hail Mary pass.

As astonishing as that feat was, it doesn't come close to the long-distance killing record that was recently set by a Canadian sniper in Afghanistan. His fatal shot traveled 2,657 yards – more than a mile and a half. That bullet was in the air for four seconds and dropped 146 feet, while also curving to the side a good amount. "Those Canadians," Tyler says, "they're raising the bar pretty high."