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Intermediate barriers and the police sniper

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By Detective Sergeant John V. Savage, Special contributor to Police1

There rarely exits a SWAT call out where you, a Police Sniper, will not have to consider and evaluate the potential effects of one or possibly numerous intermediate barriers within your target area. Intermediate barriers often can and do pose a very real problem and not knowing the effects and dangers involved with shooting through an intermediate barrier can only make things worse. However, when the proper tactics are employed the success of the operation can be greatly enhanced.

Besides having potential negative results on the bullet, the Sniper themselves can be directly affected by intermediate barriers. The barrier may make it difficult, if not impossible to make proper target and threat identifications due to glare, reflection, or visual distortions.

Some common intermediate barriers are glass, screens, fencing, shrubbery, grass, and construction materials such as doors. Basically they are any material that may effect or deviate the flight of your bullet as it travels from your rifle to its intended target.

As the bullet leaves the barrel of your rifle, in flight to its intended target, it stabilizes and travels on its intended flight path for which you have aimed and adjusted your scope to. Should the round come into contact with an object / intermediate barrier while in flight a number of dangerous effects can result, such as, a deviation from your point of aim to the point of impact. This deviation can be relatively minor if the bullet strikes the intermediate barrier close to the intended target or it can be severe should the bullet strike a intermediate barrier soon after it leaves the barrel. Bullet fragmentation and jacket separation can also result as the bullet strikes and passes through or glances off from an intermediate barrier. This could cause the bullet to fail to penetrate the barrier or send off fragments in directions other than at your point of aim. Should the bullet penetrate the barrier it may lose so much energy that its terminal ballistics are no longer sufficient to provide an immediate incapacitating kill shot. When glass is the barrier, the bullet strike will most often cause spalling which will send shards of glass rearward in a progressively increasing cone shape and possibly cause collateral damage to victims / hostages. Depending on the type of glass, you may encounter a loss of a sight picture after the bullet strikes, which will prohibit you from evaluating the effect of your shot or to deliver a follow up shot if necessary.

Besides having potential negative results on the bullet, the Sniper themselves can be directly affected by intermediate barriers. The barrier may make it difficult, if not impossible to make proper target and threat identifications due to glare, reflection, or visual distortions. The barrier may be at an angle or provide a very narrow filed of view / field of fire. And it may be very difficult for the Sniper to properly evaluate the barrier while remaining unexposed due to lighting, weather conditions, inadequate optics, or poor knowledge of commonly used materials used in residential and commercial construction.

Some questions that you should be answering prior to shooting through an intermediate barrier are: Can proper target and threat identification be made? Is the caliber of my rifle sufficient to successfully penetrate the barrier and immediately incapacitate the suspect? Is there a sufficient back stop or safe area for any deviation or over penetration of the bullet? Where are victims / hostages and perimeter officers located? What are the possibilities of a follow up shot or use of coordinated sniper fire? And, last but not least, what is my back up plan should the shot not work?

Given the aforementioned problems that can be encountered with intermediate barriers here are a few suggested tactics and alternative courses of action. If possible, get the target away from any intermediate barriers through negotiations or deception. Have Snipers position themselves as directly on to the barrier as possible. Have multiple Snipers engage the same target through coordinated sniper fire. Use bullets that are designed to remain intact when passing through a barrier. Depending on the barrier, employ the use of a larger caliber rifle. Use a polarizing scope filter to help eliminate glare and reflection off of glass. But, perhaps the best tactic to be used is for you to go out and do some testing of your own on a variety of barriers, with a variety of ammunitions, and under a variety of different conditions. Most commercial and automotive glass stores are happy to provide you with samples or partially damaged pieces they have lying around as well as provide information as to where different types of glasses are used: schools, commercial buildings, residential housing, etc. The neighbor who just had his windows replaced in his house is another source. Your local Public Works department or construction contractor can often provide old doors, storm doors, screens, fencing, etc. for you to use. They too could provide information as to what construction materials are being commonly used. In my department, we regularly take a decommissioned patrol car to the range and shoot it up in an effort to constantly improve and evaluate our equipment and tactics. We have also had good luck with getting old vehicles from area automotive repair shops that have wrecked vehicles waiting to be junked. Just going out and shooting through tall grass will open your eyes to the very real likelihood of bullet deviation should it strike an object in flight.

Use your imagination, think outside the box and remember Murphy’s Law is alive and well so train hard and fight easy. It is through this testing that you will learn the limitations of your equipment and yourselves. And, you will thank yourself for the knowledge and confidence this testing will provide the next time you are on a call out behind your rifle, looking through your scope at that barrier.

Detective Sergeant John V. Savage is a 20 year veteran of the Syracuse Police Department (NY) and currently supervises a multi agency gang task force. John has more than 13 years as a member of departments Emergency Response Team Sniper Unit. For the past 10 years, John has served as Sniper Team Leader. John is Chairman of the Board and Membership Coordinator for the NYTOA. He can be reached at

The New York Tactical Officers Association (NYTOA) is a not for profit corporation established to promote training, professionalism and the exchange of information between members of law enforcement, tactical units and crisis negotiation teams within, and surrounding, New York State.