Police Sniper Training By John Plaster, Major Director of Instruction Minnesota National Guard Counter Sniper School St. Paul, Minnesota
You have one shot, one scoped sight, one compressed controlled breath, one squeeze of a honed trigger. In twenty one-hundredths of a second, you will be either a ”hero” who saved an innocent life or an incompetent who caused the death of a helpless hostage. Fellow officers, department officials and city administrators await the sound of your rifle. Possibly, the entire Nation sits riveted to television sets for news of the outcome. Life or death, success or failure, is only one sensitive squeeze away.
One of the most pressured situations in law enforcement occurs when a police sniper is called upon to neutralize a suspect. In no other police encounter is so critical a responsibility reduced to the perfect execution of one shot. There is no room for error. For example, in a recent hostage incident, a police marksman’s fire hit the suspect three times. The shot was accurate, but not precise; deadly, but not instantaneously so. The badly wounded suspect survived long enough to kill a female hostage before dying himself.
The point here is not to criticize one officer’s performance under incredible pressures. Rather, it is to better understand these pressures and how to address them in police rifle marksmanship training.
This article summarizes the critical training techniques that can contribute to perfect performance during an actual police sniper engagement. These special shooting exercises can improve the likelihood of perfect one-shot performance, even under physical and psychological stress.
The Minnesota National Guard Counter-Sniper School is a 7-day course for sniper teams, including those of law enforcement. At the beginning of the course, instructors issue one live round to students and caution them that during the final course of fire, they must hit a specially designated target with this single round or fail the course. Throughout the training, students are continually reminded that their success depends on hitting one target with this round.
After 7 days of training, and a 10-shot record fire, instructors provide students with a fresh round for the one they’ve carried for the past week. Then, each student is called upon to engage one special half-size silhouette. The stress accompanying this shot is purely psychological and largely self-induced. No one shouts at the students; no physical stress accompanies this special one-shot kill.
Yet, based on experience, some 33 to 40 percent of all student snipers fail what is a relatively simple shot. For those students who are police officers, the failure record is 1 in 12. These are the same students who achieved high scores in the preliminary 10-shot record fire. In fact, at times, the same marksmen shot perfect record fires, only to miss the one-shot kill event. In all probability, some special stress factors affected a sniper’s performance when emphasis was placed on that one shot. But the stress factors that emerge during training are similar to those a sniper must overcome to achieve perfect one-shot performance during a real incident.
FACTORS AFFECTING PERFORMANCE
”Know Thyself/Know Thy Rifle”
To achieve near-perfect performance, police snipers must develop complete confidence in their weapons and their abilities. To paraphrase an old adage, ”Know Thyself/Know Thy Rifle.” Since no two rifles fire precisely the same, officers should be issued one rifle each exclusively for their own use and should practice firing it under many different conditions–summer/winter, day/night, close range/long range, slow fire/rapid fire, uphill/downhill. Snipers must know exactly where the round will impact when set for a particular distance. Although for urban situations the zero at 100 yards is best, firing at other zero-distances is recommended to become familiar with the scope or to determine if the scope has a bullet drop compensator.
Firing only one type of round is also recommended. The round should be match grade, preferably of the same lot number. Based on the rifle’s performance, snipers should each develop a ”data card” that notes precisely how the rifle is ”held” or ”lead” when engaging targets at various distances under varying conditions. Consistent use of these techniques develops a sniper’s confidence in the rifle, scope, zero, and ammunition, so that the sniper knows with certainty where the rounds will impact.
Patience and Discipline
By developing the qualities of patience and discipline through a concept referred to as, ”This is the last shot for the rest of my life,” snipers become conditioned to regard each round fired in practice as a single, final event with an exact beginning, a definite end, and a standard for achievement. During range fire, they should individually remove each round from the cartridge box, load it, fire it, ”call” it, observe the results through the spotting scope, and then record it.
Recording each shot individually is critical. Police snipers should each maintain a record book to note the history of their fire with a particular rifle. Not only does this help snipers to concentrate on each shot, but it also helps them identify minor deviations in the ”book” data versus their rifle and ammunition. This generates information for the data card. For example, a sniper may learn that the first shot fired in practice–the so-called ”cold barrel zero”–could vary by several inches from subsequent shots. It’s only through such exacting attention to detail that the sniper can develop into a precision marksman who focuses not on three-shot groups but on individual shots.
Snipers should pace their practice fire by mentally planning each shot, then analyzing it afterward. It is also useful to dry fire between each live-fire shot. Only five rounds should be fired into a single target to better focus the shooter’s concentration. Also, accomplished marksmen should fire no more than 15-20 rounds total during a practice session to prevent them from sliding into undisciplined ”banging away.” By habitually applying these proven techniques during practice fire, snipers develop the patience, concentration, and discipline critical for precision shooting.
Pressure to Perform
Pressure to perform is purely psychological and self-induced. It is the result of allowing concentration to waver once the person realizes others expect exceptional performance. It reflects a drop in self-confidence, a subtle doubt that success is attainable.
To perform successfully, police snipers must not allow themselves to feel rushed merely because someone gives them the ”green light.” All doubts must be channeled mentally into oblivion. Contrary to belief, public competition does not alleviate these doubts. The pressure to perform when all attention is focused on the sniper alone, by those who expect perfect results, is totally different from the pressure experienced during competition. During the real incident, a sniper is competing with no one.
Again, learning to overcome external distractions by concentration is the matter at hand. During some shooting exercises, snipers should fire individually while being observed by teammates, as well as when they are experiencing noise and light distractions. Even the conspicuous presence of nonsniper observers increases pressure during firing exercises.
The last factor, ”opening day syndrome,” occurs when individuals suddenly find themselves facing a situation more real than what was expected. Police officers joke about rookies who mistakenly trip the trunk release when reaching for the shotgun selenoid switch. While fate eventually forgives, this is not so for police snipers. Less than 100 percent achievement when called upon to perform is not acceptable.
Police snipers cannot be expected to learn from error, except in training. This is why proper training and practice fire is so valuable. Realistic training allows snipers to prepare physically and mentally to function during a stress-filled incident. Just as other officers drill in shoot/don’t shoot scenarios and practical pistol courses to hone their skills in realistic settings, so too must police snipers train beyond ”bullseye” shooting so that they can perform effectively and turn the mechanical act of shooting into a mechanical act of shooting accurately under pressure.
PRACTICAL SHOOTING EXERCISES
Taking into account the various stresses under which police snipers must operate, exercises have been developed to help them acquire the qualities needed to perform–concentration, patience, discipline, and confidence. First, practice sessions should be clearly divided into two phases–practice fire and exercises. During practice fire, officers fire at bullseye targets individually and at their own pace, using a prone-support position with bipod or sandbags. They record each shot and confirm their zero, thus preparing themselves for the exercises that follow.
In the second phase, snipers engage specially modified silhouette targets. Learning to focus on vital areas makes the exercises more demanding. Therefore, affixed to each silhouette is a balloon, either on the head or center chest. The size of the balloon is proportional to distance–3 inches at 100 yards, 5 inches at 200 yards, 10 inches at 300 yards. By using balloons, a less-than-precise shot that otherwise would be credited as ”excellent” now becomes a complete miss. And psychologically, the instant feedback of watching a ”bad guy” wave back causes snipers to resolve to hone their skills. Likewise, confidence soars after repeated successes. The purpose of these exercises is not marksmanship practice, which the sniper has already completed, but the application of it.
To underscore further the emphasis of one-shot kills, snipers receive only one round for each engagement. If they miss a balloon, they cannot engage it again. This helps them to recognize mentally the finality of each shot fired. Also, to instill a ”pressure to perform,” snipers complete several exercises individually while others watch or with external light and sound distractions. For variety, snipers fire the exercises in daylight and at night under artificial illumination. Interestingly, most students who fired well during the bullseye practice have exaggerated expectations when they first fire these exercises. And typically, they initially miss. However, after several drills, they quickly acquire the necessary skills for successful engagements.
The Fleeting Target
This is the most frequent exercise used in training because it almost duplicates reality. The rifleman, who has been issued a green light, knows generally where the suspect will appear, but must wait until the target surfaces, which will only be for a few seconds.
At the start of the exercise, the snipers are allowed to see the target and comfortably ”lock on,” readying themselves and their rifles for what could be a long wait. Then, the target is lowered and rotated. At some point over the next 30 minutes, the target reappears only once. Students start with a 15-second exposure, and as their skills improve, the time of exposure lessens to 5 seconds. This exercise helps riflemen to develop patience and concentration.
For ranges that lack rotating targets, the same simulation can be achieved by a range officer with a stopwatch. While pacing back and forth behind the shooters, the officer suddenly shouts, ”Green light,” and slaps a particular shooter’s leg. This puts the shooter on notice that within the next 30 minutes, the subject will appear and should be fired upon. This version, too, is conducted randomly.
In this exercise, two similarly colored balloons tightly bracket a third balloon, which represents the suspect. The other balloons are the hostages. If arranged horizontally, the balloons indicate the need for a correct adjustment for wind; vertically, they emphasize adjustment for trajectory/range. By adding hostages, the pressure escalates from concern for a possible miss to concern for accidentally hitting a hostage. Even a slight crosswind bounces the balloons about, requiring a very carefully placed shot and forcing the highest level of concentration. Noise and light distractions and the presence of observers enhance the pressure applied during this exercise.
This timed exercise elevates the complexity level of hostage rescue shooting. Down range are three 8 1/2 x 11-inch portraits juxtaposed on a target. At the start of the exercise, the shooters, positioned 25 yards from the firing line, are allowed 10 seconds to study the mugshot of the suspect. Then, each shooter must dash halfway to the firing line, snatch one round, low crawl the final 12 1/2 yards to the weapon, load it, spot the correct suspect, engage the suspect, and dash back to the finish line with the expended cartridge. The timing starts from the instant the shooters see the mugshot. The exercise is a ”no go” if a shooter fails to hit the suspect, mistakenly hits the hostage, or fails to bring back an expended cartridge. This exercise teaches the student to focus on a suspect’s face instead of attire (to preclude changing clothes), as well as to develop concentration, discipline, and physical conditioning.
Using photographs of similar-looking people increases the degree of difficulty. For example, targets of all white males with short hair, using side views of the suspect, or altering a suspect’s appearance with sunglasses or changing the hairstyle or length of hair make it harder for the shooter to select the correct target. When firing from more than 150 yards, this becomes a team event that requires both a sniper and spotter with a spotting scope to ensure correct identification.
The Simultaneous Engagement
Three balloons are arranged exactly as in the multiple hostage exercise, only this time there are one hostage and two suspects. This requires that two snipers engage exactly at the same time. One officer, called the base sniper, coordinates fire with a partner, confirms each is ready to engage their respective suspects, and then calls a ”three, two, one” countdown. Both fire when they hear the ”n” in one.
For the base sniper, this drill teaches how to control breathing in order to be able to both fire and talk. The partner learns how to time fire the weapon so that an accurate shot can be squeezed off at someone else’s order. In addition to being useful against multiple targets, this technique can be used to smash through plate glass with one round and take out a suspect accurately with a round arriving a split second later.
Noise and light distractions increase this exercise’s difficulty. Also, voice-activated radios enable two snipers to be positioned some distance apart.
This exercise demands true precision, for it challenges the shooter to place accurately a round in a suspect’s neural motor strips or brain stem, the tiny impact points for head shots that neutralize a human almost instantly. This is a ”no option left” engagement, because the suspect is pressing a weapon against a hostage and anything but a neutralizing shot could still allow the trigger to be pulled.
Since the intended impact points are less than 2 inches wide, this exercise should not be practiced or attempted from more than 200 yards, although 100 yards is preferable. The targets should be life-size human head photographs, side views for engaging the neural motor strips (above each ear), or a back view for engaging the brain stem. These areas should be highlighted, both to help the sniper focus on the correct impact point and to evaluate the results clearly.
This exercise can be made more demanding by imposing a time limit, or by adding visual and noise distractions and the presence of onlookers. The most demanding level would be to combine it with the fleeting target exercise.
The Fog of Battle
This exercise pits three or more snipers against a single target. However, only one rifleman will actually fire and under considerable peer pressure.
Posted 100 yards down range is a single target board displaying three different 8 1/2 x 11-inch facial photographs. All sniper rifles are grounded on the firing line, and the shooters are clustered behind the line, around the range officer. On the range officer’s command, one or more smoke grenades are released down range. While the smoke builds, the snipers study a mugshot identical to one of the target photos. The range officer then gives one live round to each sniper. When satisfied the targets are thoroughly masked by smoke, the range officer issues the green light and all snipers rush to their weapons.
Peering through rifle scopes, the snipers wait for the smoke to dissipate enough to identify the correct photo. The first shooter to shout, ”Got him,” is the only one allowed to engage, and this shooter has 5 seconds to do so. Some shooters ”call” the target prematurely; others miss or don’t even get a shot off. Others are prone to choke up in front of onlookers.
This exercise helps to overcome these handicaps, while helping snipers to gain confidence in each other’s judgment and shooting abilities. It can be repeated merely by having several sets of mugshots and photos/targets posted down range. However, it must be conducted at 150 yards or less to facilitate identification through a rifle scope.
The Followup Shot
This exercise is actually a contradiction to the philosophy of one-shot kills. In this drill, snipers must rebolt their weapon instantly and prepare to re-engage the same target. Why? Even the most perfectly fired shot can be disrupted by a sudden gust of wind, can be slightly deflected by an invisible wire, or can result in only a wounding hit.
For this exercise, two or more balloons are placed on a single silhouette. The sniper is issued the same number of rounds, all of which are loaded into the rifle. To add pressure, this is a timed event that begins when the first shot is fired and ends with the last shot fired. Regardless of time lapsed, the shooter earns a ”no go” if no balloon is hit.
Accuracy is not the sole determinant of a police sniper’s performance. Qualities such as concentration, discipline, confidence, and patience must be honed to fire successfully under pressure. These procedures and shooting exercises can contribute to a shooter being psychologically and physically prepared to neutralize a suspect–one of the most pressured situations in law enforcement.