Training for public venue sniper deployments

These environments are complex and create many unique challenges for police snipers


A lot changed for our nation’s police, and particularly our tactical teams, on October 1, 2017. It was on that night that an active shooter opened fire on concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, in Las Vegas, Nevada, from his perch on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel. The shooter reportedly killed 58 and injured another 413 before he committed suicide in the hotel room, prior to a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department tactical team making entry.

This was certainly not the first time that an elevated sniper had fired upon innocents, and it was also not the first public venue attack of note. Police had been forced to deal with elevated snipers as far back as August 1966, when another madman killed and injured dozens from atop the clock tower on the University of Texas, Austin campus.

Similarly, attacks on public venues were nothing new to police in North America – Police1 readers will probably recall the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, for example, and there have been others since.

Training at the venue began with an impromptu call out exercise, with officers dressing out and racing to the scene. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Training at the venue began with an impromptu call out exercise, with officers dressing out and racing to the scene. (Photo/Mike Wood)

But the attack in Las Vegas was notable because it dramatically influenced the demand for police to provide security and overwatch at public venue events. Police had always been a part of these, particularly since the September 11 attacks, but the Harvest 91 Festival attack really increased the demand for deployment of police tactical teams at public venues.

New challenges

This spike in demand placed significant pressures on police tactical teams – and particularly their sniper elements – because there simply weren’t enough of these resources to go around. Using a deployment matrix to help allocate scarce resources was helpful in relieving some of the pressure, but the demand for snipers and tactical teams continued to outstrip the supply.

Getting the bodies in the right place was only part of the problem, though. Even more daunting was the fact that many police tactical teams were unprepared for the public venue security mission. Some teams are strictly “warrant teams” by nature, while others are trained and prepared to handle more complex operations, like hostage rescue, but very few of them have much background in providing security for large venues like stadiums and arenas.

These environments are complex and create many unique challenges for the police sniper. The typical police sniper engagement is a short distance, flat (or relatively flat) angle shot from a prepared position against a single target, but those characteristics may not be present in a public venue sniper engagement. Instead, the police sniper may have to fire upon multiple hostiles from an elevated position that creates a high-angle shot, against a background filled with innocents. The shots might have to be taken over much longer distances (perhaps hundreds of yards) from a hastily prepared position, and the targets might be more difficult to hit – particularly if they’re fast-moving, heavily armored vehicles, or persons armed with bomb vests (personnel-borne improvised explosive devices).

Training required

To perform these tasks well, additional training is required for the police sniper. The rub here is that many police training facilities don’t offer the capability to replicate the public venue environment. Many ranges are too short to offer long-distance training, and others don’t have elevated firing points to simulate the large angles. Almost none of them can replicate the complex geometry associated with arenas and stadiums, with their multiple levels, sharp angles, shadows, and unique wind currents.

The solution is to train as much as possible in the actual environment, but this has traditionally been difficult for logistical, political and liability reasons. Simply put, there was a lot of resistance to shooting live ammo inside of facilities worth hundreds of millions of dollars!

A new model

Students had just a few minutes to set up a hasty position, make adjustments and be zeroed in on a target before the clock stopped in this first exercise. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Students had just a few minutes to set up a hasty position, make adjustments and be zeroed in on a target before the clock stopped in this first exercise. (Photo/Mike Wood)

Thanks to the pioneering work done by TACFLOW Academy, however, training in these environments is fast becoming the routine.

TACFLOW’s Director of Sniper Training, Mark Lang, has led his team of instructors to provide onsite sniper training at 23 stadiums and arenas in the United States and Canada, training more than 700 officers in the skills required to operate in these unique environments.

The TACFLOW team starts students in the classroom, progresses them to a traditional range, and eventually places them inside of stadiums and arenas to conduct live-fire training in these venues. I was fortunate to observe some of this training at a large sports stadium in California and walked away with a strong appreciation for the challenges of operating in these environments, and an even stronger appreciation for the high-quality training provided by the TACFLOW team, which readied their students for the challenge.

Crawl, walk, run

The TACFLOW approach begins with classroom instruction that introduces students to the public venue security mission.

Students got to work with the latest counter-drone technology as part of the program, (Mike Wood)
Students got to work with the latest counter-drone technology as part of the program, (Mike Wood)
Multi-tiered facilities present unique challenges for police snipers and force some awkward shooting positions. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Multi-tiered facilities present unique challenges for police snipers and force some awkward shooting positions. (Photo/Mike Wood)

Some of the topics discussed by the TACFLOW instructors include:

  • Site assessment: Learning how to identify weaknesses and likely avenues of attack, and how to prepare appropriate defenses (interior and exterior);
  • Selecting sniper positions: Where to place sniper teams so they cover the desired areas with appropriate overlap;
  • Team integration: How to integrate the efforts of fixed-position counter-sniper teams with mobile sniper teams, immediate reaction teams, airborne teams, tactical bomb technicians, K-9 teams and other specialties;
  • Armored vehicle operations;
  • Enemy methods of attack (IEDs, firearms, chemical, biological, radiological);
  • Vehicle interdiction;
  • Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) threats and available counter-drone systems;
  • External ballistics of high angle shooting.
These heavy – but portable – bullet traps allowed students to safely conduct live fire training in the venue. (Photo/Mike Wood)
These heavy – but portable – bullet traps allowed students to safely conduct live fire training in the venue. (Photo/Mike Wood)

Students then go to the range where TACFLOW instructors evaluate their marksmanship and offer necessary instruction to ensure they can meet a 2 Minute of Angle (2 MOA) standard of precision with their equipment while firing from improvised, supported and tripod-supported field positions. This 2 MOA standard is necessary to ensure the officers are capable of placing their rounds in the desired target area while minimizing the danger to innocents in the densely populated environment of a public venue.

With that accomplished, the students begin training in the public venue. Specialized bullet traps are placed throughout the venue to present targets for the sniper students, who are led through a series of exercises that introduce them to operating in this environment. The instruction and practical exercises expose students to the following areas:

  • High angle shooting from stadium seating, catwalks, suites, roofs, light standards, walls and other elevated positions – and the associated ballistic issues such as wind and bullet drop;
  • Rapid deployment of mobile sniper teams throughout the venue;
  • Precision rifle and large caliber rifle deployment;
  • Shooting from improvised rests and tripod rests;
  • Using optics efficiently;
  • Tracking moving targets.
Students trained with a diverse array of rifles and learned to shoot all of them better. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Students trained with a diverse array of rifles and learned to shoot all of them better. (Photo/Mike Wood)

Essential training

As I observed the students go through the training exercises under the watchful eye of their instructors, it quickly became apparent that there is no substitute for this kind of training. The students were learning things about their equipment, tactics, techniques and abilities that they could never discover on a flat range.

I saw students discover how difficult it was to establish a stable shooting position while they were crammed into rows of stadium seats, and watched them struggle with equipment setups that worked fine on a flat range, but not when they were firing from the awkward positions required by high angle targets. I saw them struggle with trying to determine the required compensation when the rifle was being fired straight down, over a railing, and the bullet didn’t trace its normal, gravity-influenced arc.

Similarly, I saw students experience equipment failures that would not have been identified on a flat range. One student, in particular, discovered that if his rifle wasn’t held in the proper orientation when he was shooting over a railing at a target located below, the ejected case could reenter the chamber backwards and completely jam the action. You can’t put a price on a lightbulb training moment like that. 

Getting stable while shooting from cramped conditions in the stadium can be a challenge. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Getting stable while shooting from cramped conditions in the stadium can be a challenge. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Some shooting was done from lower levels, while other stations were up high. Mechanical offset was a real consideration – note the rail in the foreground. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Some shooting was done from lower levels, while other stations were up high. Mechanical offset was a real consideration – note the rail in the foreground. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Suite-level shooting stations incorporated the use of tripods for added stability. (Photo/Mike Wood)
Suite-level shooting stations incorporated the use of tripods for added stability. (Photo/Mike Wood)

No substitute

This kind of education can only be achieved by training in the actual environment, and dealing with the actual conditions it presents.

Our police snipers are spending more of their time than ever before on assignments to protect public venues, particularly since the deadly Route 91 attack. The threat against public venues is both substantial and increasing, and police snipers need training like this to be fully prepared for the mission.

If you or your fellow police snipers aren’t getting this kind of training, I encourage you to check out the TACFLOW Academy’s offerings and take advantage of their expertise in this area.

Train hard, and be safe out there.

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