Karl Fairburne is the steely-eyed, gruff-voiced protagonist of the Sniper Elite video game series. He can often be found sneaking into enemy bases, blowing up emplacements and assassinating high-ranking Nazi generals. According to the game, he’s an elite American sniper recruited by the SOE and OSS during the Second World War. But is that really accurate? How does Karl Fairburne fit into the real-life history of the Second World War? Is he even a sniper at all?
To find out we’ve delved into the IWM Collections with Ian Kikuchi, Senior Curator. We’re going to take an in-depth look at Karl’s weapons like the Lee Enfield No. 4 Mk1 (T) and Welrod Silenced pistol. We'll also explore Karl's missions and tactics, comparing them to the true stories of men and women who actually fought in the Second World War. All to answer one big question - who is Karl Fairburne?
Who is Karl Fairburne?
This is Karl Fairburne, the steely-eyed, gruff-voiced protagonist of the Sniper Elite video game series. He can often be found sneaking into enemy bases, blowing up emplacements and assassinating high-ranking Nazi generals. According to the game, he’s an elite American sniper recruited by the SOE and OSS during the Second World War. But is that really accurate? How does Karl Fairburne fit into the real-life history of the Second World War? Is he even a sniper at all?
To find out we’ve teamed up with Ian Kikuchi, one of the lead curators on IWM’s brand-new War Games exhibition. We’re going to take an in-depth look at Karl’s weapons, his missions and his tactics. As well as the true stories of men and women who actually fought in the Second World War. All to answer the big question - who is Karl Fairburne?
I've been a curator at IWM for almost 15 years but I've been a gamer for more than 30. Now I know video games are entertainment. They're not history textbooks, they're not documentaries, so it's not fair to judge them on their history alone. Even so, I think there are things we can learn from Sniper Elite about the history of the Second World War.
First though, a quick refresher on Sniper Elite for those who haven’t played. Sniper Elite is a third-person, tactical sniping game set during the Second World War. You play as Karl Fairburne, an elite sniper tasked with taking out key targets to dismantle the German war effort. The game is best known for its big open maps and gory kill cam, which we’ll come to a little later on.
But first, let's look at some of Karl’s weapons. Luckily, we do have a few in our collection. This one was a key part of Karl’s arsenal in Sniper Elite 4, but it’s also going on display in our brand new War Games Exhibition opening in September at IWM London.
This is a No.4 Mk1 (T) sniper rifle. It's essentially a standard British infantry rifle in the Second World War. It's a single shot, 303 calibre, bolt action rifle, modified with a telescopic sight. To make the cut as a sniper rifle, rifles like this had to be capable of hitting a 5-inch target at 200 yards with 7 out of 7 rounds and a 10-inch target at 400 yards with 6 out of 7 rounds. While a rifle like this one would still be lethal at anything up to 1,000 yards or even further, extremely long-range shooting will have been relatively rare. From the markings on various parts of the rifle, we know that this rifle and telescope were a pair. The serial number for the sight is stamped on the stock here and on the telescope mount, you have the rifle's serial number. So this was to ensure that the same sight stayed with the rifle that had been zeroed for. While it's common now for games to let you customize your game guns in all sorts of wacky ways you couldn't really mix and match scopes like that on a rifle like this one.
So this rifle is spot on for Karl both in terms of the time period and his role. As you’d expect, in-game it looks and sounds fantastic. Hours of painstaking work go into photographing historical firearms and recreating them in the virtual world. But what about its performance, how does it feel to shoot?
So one thing that games always struggle to convey is the physical dimension. This rifle weighs more than 5 kilos. I’ve only been holding it up for a few minutes, and it already seems to weigh more than it did a few moments ago. I'm sure that if I'd just climbed up a tree with it, or up into some attic it would seem to weigh a lot more. A good game can certainly make your heart race, but few have ever left me physically exhausted.
You have to remember that sniping is a skill that involves your entire body and also your brain. Snipers have to be skilled at judging distance, and able to interpret signs in their environment – like the sway of a tree – to know how the wind is blowing for example. Sniper Elite tries to give you a sense of sniping as a skill that you have to master. You have to adjust for distance, wind and for your character's breathing. But the game will also hold your hand along the way. I myself could never quite wean myself off the helpful little red box that tells you where your round will land.
So the guns in Sniper Elite perform accurately as well. Even if the difficult skill of sniping is made slightly easier that only helps make the game more accessible. And of course when Karl hits his target then the player sees the gruesome kill cam. The camera follows the bullet through the air before cutting to an x-ray view of that bullet piercing a body. This kill cam brings the player into Karl's mind. This is what he thinks about every time he takes a shot.
Killcam is a fascinating thing. On the one hand, it's a fairly realistic depiction of the terrible things that real bullets do to real bodies and it always gives me a slight shudder. And yet for a real sniper this isn't something you'd see. A real sniper isn't going to climb down from his hiding place and conduct a detailed post-mortem on the enemy he's just shot. More than anything kill cam illustrates the horror that has made enemy snipers so hated and feared. They can inflict sudden death even on troops who think they're safe.
William Hanna. British Sniper, 1st Battalion Hampshire Regiment:
"Where did you aim if you were aiming at an individual?
It depends on how much of the individual was exposed. If you just had the head exposed you aimed at the head or if you had a full body exposure then you would obviously go for somewhere near the heart somewhere in that direction.
Did you shoot to kill or to wound?
No to kill. No there was no shoot to wound no."
So Karl has all the skills of a sniper and his weapons certainly do damage like one. But what about his missions and tactics? What did Second World War snipers actually do?
By the time of the Normandy campaign when Sniper Elite 5 is set, British infantry battalions had a sniper section. This would be eight men typically a sergeant, a corporal, two lance corporals and four privates. A sniper had a range of jobs. By taking up positions in the front line they could use their binoculars, their telescopes, and their telescopic sights to observe activity at long distances. Snipers were taught to recognize enemy badges of rank and would prioritize as targets enemy officers and also specialist troops. Snipers were also highly trained in field craft and would be skilled at moving across country undetected. With a good position and able to put the range of their rifles to good use, snipers could dominate the ground around them. But although there's a certain amount of glamour attached to the skill involved in sniping, snipers weren't always popular. Their shots from the front line could draw enemy mortar or machine gun retaliation. And many soldiers instinctively disliked what snipers represented, the chance of being killed without warning.
That sounds a bit less like Karl. Although you can play the campaign in co-op mode with your friends, Karl spends most of his time alone. He's usually behind enemy lines infiltrating facilities, sabotaging equipment, and eliminating high-value targets. The people who did that weren't snipers. They were Special Operations Executive or SOE. SOE's job was to gather intelligence, to foster resistance in occupied countries by supplying arms and equipment, and by sabotaging enemy installations. Their secret mission was summed up by Winston Churchill "Set Europe ablaze". The best-known wartime assassination is that of Reinhard Heydrich, a senior Nazi and one of the men most responsible for the Holocaust. Two Czechoslovakian operatives trained and equipped by SOE ambushed Heydrich's car as he travelled to his office. Heydrich survived the initial attack but was badly wounded and eventually died of his wounds. So the assassination team got their man, but the consequences for them were severe. One died of wounds received in the course of a final gunfight and the other committed suicide rather than be captured by the SS.
This brings us back to Karl’s weaponry. SOE was able to develop much of its own specialised equipment specifically for clandestine use. We’ve got a few of them in our collection including this., the Welrod silent pistol.
To look at it you'd imagine that the Welrod had a long barrel. In fact, the barrel is only three and a bit inches long. The barrel is also vented so it releases propellant gases as the bullet passes through, reducing muzzle velocity and noise. The rest of this is taken up by a mass of rubber discs and steel washers. When a round is fired they slow the expanding propellant gas reducing the explosion at the muzzle. The result is an extremely quiet firearm. The Welrod is a single-shot pistol. After firing each round you turn the bolt knob and pull it back to eject the spent cartridge case. Then push it forward to feed the next round and twist shut. This is not a pistol to get into any kind of firefight with, the rate of fire would be slow. The Welrod is something of a fixture in the Sniper Elite games, it gives the player a reliable way of taking out guards while remaining stealthy. But I think the game tends to overstate the weapon's reliability particularly when used at the limit of its effective range. Indeed the Welrod was most effective if it could be used at point-blank range or even directly in contact with a target.
So once again Sniper Elite gets its weapons pretty much spot on, even if they are made slightly more reliable. But let's dig closer into Karl's missions and his tactics. In the latest instalment Sniper Elite 5, the player is given a huge sandbox with various ways of completing their objectives. You make a plan, then things go awry, and then you have to make difficult decisions under intense pressure. Of course, Karl usually ends up shooting his way out of problems, but what did real-life SOE agents do when things went wrong?
Sniper Elite picks up aspects of SOE's work, sabotage, assassination. But it emits significant parts too. To me, one thing that's missing is the social context. An SOE agent's first job after landing by aeroplane or parachute was to integrate themselves into the local population. They had to learn their cover story and embody their false identities. Their lives could depend on their ability to evade a patrol, to lie convincingly, or to shake a hostile tail. IWM's Lord Ashcroft Gallery is dedicated to those individuals who demonstrated the highest levels of courage. So in this showcase, we have two pistols associated with SOE agent Odette Sansom. After being captured in April 1943 she was tortured, but she stuck to her cover story claiming to be married to Winston Churchill's nephew. The claim was enough to convince the Germans to keep her alive.
Sniper Elite also chooses to avoid certain other sensitive subjects. For instance, in reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich two entire villages were raised to the ground, their inhabitants being killed. In video games we have the luxury of being able to play out an imaginary version of the Second World War in which our actions have no consequences. But for SOE the potential consequences of their actions weighed heavily on their minds.
It seems then that Karl isn't really SOE either. He carries their weapons and carries out their missions, but he does so in completely different ways with completely different consequences. Instead, perhaps the best way to understand Karl Fairburne is as a classic video game protagonist -- a super soldier.
Karl takes on hordes of enemies by himself, he has a seemingly inexhaustible set of skills across every discipline, and he never fails to complete even the toughest of missions. That's not to say that there weren't extraordinary people during the Second World War the IWM collection is full of them. This story of an SOE agent's encounter with the Gestapo sounds more like a boss battle than a war story.
Harry Rée. British SOE Agent:
"I said, "what about a drink?". I got a couple of glasses and a bottle and when I was walking behind him with the bottle I hit him on the head with it. And he was wearing a hat actually it was stupid on me, I didn't hit him anything like hard enough. And he stood up, turned around and fired. I remember thinking 'god how extraordinary they must have blanks in them'. Then he got my head in one of those bloody grips. I remember going through my mind was 'if you're ever going to see your daughter you've got to get out of this one'. I put my hands right back and pushed them up into his stomach and then he fell back against the wall and said "sortie, sortie". So I went stumbling across the fields, it was pouring with rain, and I put my hand inside to see if it was going through and it came out covered in blood. I said, "oh god they weren't blanks!"."
I love the Sniper Elite games. I think they tell us something about the way we remember the Second World War. We've long told war stories about the daring do and adventure of highly trained individuals. Violet Szabo and Odette Sampson both had feature films made about them as early as the 1950s. One of the earliest and most successful first person shooter games Wolfenstein 3D from 1992 cast the player as a captured Allied spy. When Stephen Spielberg director of Saving Private Ryan sketched out a concept for the first-person shooter game Medal of Honor it once again put the player in the shoes of an Allied spy.
If you think of the First World War too traumatic, too tragic, too futile people think. Somehow the Second World War has always felt different. With its Nazi villains and archetypal good versus evil story, the Second World War has always felt like a suitable setting for stories of individual heroism and adventure. Our films and our entertainment reflect that and so do our video games like Sniper Elite.