A sapper is an individual engineer soldier usually in British or Commonwealth military service. Called a combat engineer by the Americans, a Pionier by the Germans and a sapeur by the French, a sapper may perform any of a variety of tasks under combat conditions. Such tasks typically include bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, demolitions, field defences as well as building, road and airfield construction and repair. In other words, the sapper's tasks now involve facilitating movement of allied forces and impeding movement of enemies.

Historical origin

A sapper, in the sense first used by the French military, was one who excavated trenches under defensive musket or artillery fire to advance a besieging army's position in relation to the works of an attacked fortification, which was referred to as sapping the enemy fortifications.

Saps were excavated by brigades of trained sappers or instructed troops. When an army was defending a fortress with cannon, they had an obvious height and therefore range advantage over the attacker's own guns. The attacking army's artillery had to be brought forward, under fire, so as to facilitate effective counter-battery fire.

This was achieved by digging what the French termed a 'Sappe'. Using techniques developed and perfected by Vauban, the sapeurs (sappers) began the trench at such an angle so as to avoid enemy fire 'enfilading' (passing directly along) the sappe. As they pressed forward, a position was prepared from which cannon could suppress the defenders on the bastions. The sappers would then change the course of their trench, zig-zagging their way toward the fortress wall.

Each leg brought the attacker's artillery closer and closer until (hopefully) the besieged cannon would be sufficiently suppressed for the attackers to breach the walls with their artillery. Broadly speaking, sappers were originally experts at demolishing or otherwise overcoming or bypassing fortification systems.

Specific usage

British Commonwealth

Sapper (abbreviated Spr) is the Royal Engineers' equivalent of Private. This is also the case within the Indian Army Corps of Engineers, Canadian Military Engineers, Royal Australian Engineers, South African Army Engineer Formation and Royal New Zealand Engineers. The term Sapper was introduced in 1856 when the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners was amalgamated with the officer Corps of Royal Engineers to form the Corps of Royal Engineers.

Indian Army

The term 'Sappers', in addition to the connotation of rank of engineer private, is used collectively to informally refer to the Engineer Corps as a whole and also forms part of the informal names of the three combat engineer groups, viz. Madras Sappers, Bengal Sappers and the Bombay Sappers. These Sapper groups are descended from the Sapper and Miner groups of the East India Company and later the Indian Army of the British Raj.


In France, the civil firefighters and the military firefighters of the Paris Fire Brigade and other town or country brigades are called "sappers-pumpers" (sapeurs-pompiers, SP): the first fire company created by Napoléon I was a military sappers company. Apart from this, the sappers are the combat engineers.

U.S. Army

In the U.S. Army, Sappers are combat engineers who advance with the front-line infantry, and they have fought in every war in American history. The designation is earned as an additional proficiency.

The U.S. Army authorizes four skill tabs for wear above the unit patch on the left shoulder. Three of these tabs identify soldiers who have passed a course proving their leadership and adaptability: the Special Forces tab, the Ranger Tab, and the Sapper Tab, in that order of wear from highest to lowest. The President's Hundred Tab is worn by the one hundred best marksmen in the Army.

To wear the Sapper Tab, a Soldier must complete the Sapper Leader Course which is operated by the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The Sapper Leader Course is a 28-day course designed to train joint-service leaders in small unit tactics, leadership skills, and tactics required to perform as part of a combined arms team. The course is open to enlisted Soldiers in the grades of E-4 (in the Army, specialist) and above, cadets, and officers O-3 (Army, captain) and below. Students can come from any combat or combat support branch of the service, but priority is given to engineering, cavalry, and infantry soldiers. The course is in two Phases.

Phase I lasts 14 days and covers general subjects including medical, navigation, demolitions, air and water operations, mountaineering, and landmines and weapons used by enemy forces. Phase II is the remaining 14 days. It covers basic patrolling techniques and battle drills that emphasize leadership. The subjects include urban operations, breaching, patrol organization and movement, and reconnaissance, raid and ambush tactics. It concludes with a three-day situation training exercise, and five-day field training exercise. These missions are a 60/40 mix of engineer and infantry missions.

Leadership is emphasized throughout the SLC. During the course leader roles are rotated regularly and each student is evaluated at least twice on leadership. The results of the Sapper Leader Course are soldiers who are hardened combat engineers who are qualified to fight and lead on today’s battlefields.

U.S. Marine Corps

In the U.S. Marine Corps, the term sapper is commonly used as a call sign amongst combat engineer units to designate them as engineers when attached to infantry units. Combat Engineers in the Marine Corps, unlike their Army counterparts, are a sort of jack of all trades. During Basic Combat Engineer Training, a Marine is trained in a variety of fields which as a whole encompass the 1371 MOS. Subjects covered include Demolitions, Breaching, Woodframe Construction, Concrete Laying, Land Clearing, Survivability Positions, and Counter Mobility. Depending on the type of unit the Marine is assigned to will determine what tasks they will be used for primarily. For example, a Marine assigned to a Marine Division will primarily be required to perform tasks involving infantry tactics, breaching, and mine clearing. That same Marine if assigned to an Air Wing on the other hand would be more likely to perform construction work and tactical airfield construction and maintenance. In any case, a Marine Combat Engineer is required to be proficient in all areas to include infantry tactics and weapon systems.

PAVN and Viet Cong

PAVN and Viet Cong sappers, as they are called by US forces, are better described as commando units. In fact, the Vietnamese term "đặc công" can be literally translated as "special task". Thousands of specially trained elite fighters served in the PAVN and Viet Cong commando/sapper units which were organized as independendent formations. While not always successful, at times they inflicted heavy damage against their enemies. These elite units served as raiders against American/ARVN troops, and inflitrating spearheads during the final Ho Chi Minh campaign in 1975- where they seized key road and bridge assets, destroyed installations, attacked command and control nodes in the enemy rear, and otherwise helped PAVN's fast mobile forces to advance. A typical PAVN/VC sapper organization is shown here. The raiding force was usually grouped into assault teams, each broken down into several 3-5 man assault cells. Overall, there were generally 4 operational echelons.

Fictional references

  • In Predator (film) the men constantly refer to the Predator as "sappers" thinking that it is simply a small team of Guerrillas from the encampment they destroyed earlier in the film.
  • In the novel The English Patient Ondaatje's character Kip is a sapper during World War II.
  • In the fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen several of the characters in the Malazan army are sappers.
  • In the Shannara series of novels by Terry Brooks, Dwarven Sappers are often used in defensive roles, collapsing bridges to deny enemy advances.
  • In the 1978 Cold Chisel song, "Khe Sanh", about an Australian veteran of the Vietnam War refers to the "sappers round Khe Sanh".
  • The computer game Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness has a military unit called Goblin Sappers (though they are actually suicide bombers) which are used to demolish enemy units and structures.
  • In Commandos, Inferno, an explosives expert on the team is referred to repeatedly as merely "The Sapper". The computer game City of Heroes includes a secret paramilitary organization called the "Malta Group," which employs agents called "sappers," equipped with distinctive and widely dreaded endurance-draining weaponry. In Age of Empires II, it is possible to research a "Sappers" upgrade that increases the damage villagers cause against buildings.
  • In the computer game series Icewind Dale, Dwarven shock troops were designated "sappers," although they acted more in the manner of kamikaze shock troops (explosives fitted to their backs and said dwarves charging the Player's party).
  • In the video game Team Fortress 2, the spy class can "sap" engineer-constructed structures, using his electric sapper, thus destroying them.
  • In the WWII RTS game Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts the British army can recruit a squad of four Royal Engineers Sappers to build defences, clear minefields and repair vehicles.
  • In the MMO-RPG Everquest in The Ruins of Kunark expansion there is a race of badger-like Non player characters known as Burynai. Some of them have the designation of sapper to distinguish them from other classes of their race.
  • The MMORPG Tabula Rasa features a "sapper" character class, which is available at Tier III in the Specialist line. Sappers have (among other abilities) the use of automated "Crab Mines", robots which track the user's target and detonate. At the Tier IV level, Sappers can become Demolitionists (area of effect damage experts) or Engineers (specializing in automated turret and shield drone construction.)
  • Rudyard Kipling describes the 19th century job in his poem
  • A harrowing account of the role of the sappers in digging tunnels under enemy lines in World War I can be found in Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War by Sebastian Faulks.
  • Sappers are mentioned in the musical Les Misérables, based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name. In the song "The First Attack", as the National Guard advances on the students' barricade to quash a rebellion, one of the revolutionaries shouts, "Platoon of sappers advancing toward the barricade!"

See also



  • Ott, David Ewing, Maj.Gen., US Army Center for Military History, Vietnam Studies, "FIELD ARTILLERY, 1954-1973", DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY, WASHINGTON, D.C., 1975

External links

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