Snipers: Police vs. military

All snipers, regardless of branch of service or law enforcement agency, share and use the same core skills

All men were created equal in the eyes of the creator. At least, that is what I was told several times throughout my life. That being said all men think they are better than all other men. The debate has waged on ever since two men were sitting in the cave together with their days bounty of hunting and gathering laid out before them on the floor. Immediately, the debate will start among their clansman of placing a value on each item in the pile based on quantity and preference of each item. Everyone loses sight of the bigger picture — everything before them is of equal value because it all keeps you and everyone around you alive for another day.

The same can be said about a sniper, or if you prefer the academically correct title, Designated Marksman. We could get more technical and use the ever so politically correct term, Designated Defensive Marksman. The correct title could go on for longer than I care to talk or debate about, for the sake of the article I am going to use the term Sniper simply because every military or police diploma I have ever received says in big bold letters: Sniper. So invariably, I see my job as what can only be described as that of a Sniper.

I’ve been asked several times if there was a difference between police snipers and military snipers and the best answer I’ve been able to come up with is depends. We are all sheepdogs looking to protect the herd of sheep by providing precision fire on select targets from concealed positions with a secondary task of collecting and reporting information/intelligence. However, by the different nature of the same job requirements, the accepted use of a sniper by military and law enforcement varies by current mission and the area of operation.

All snipers, regardless of branch of service, law enforcement agency or even country of origin, share and use the same core skills, but each one has learned to add additional skills that do not necessarily apply to the other. As much as they want to there is not a high need to train police snipers on the finer arts of writing a fire mission to drop a 500 lb bomb on a suspect or his house. There are a lot of overlapping skill requirements, but the ones I am going to write about here are marksmanship, fieldcraft, and tactics.

Anything on snipers would not be proper if we did not at least mention and discuss marksmanship. Everyone associates our job as being the preeminent subject matter experts on marksmanship and everything related to it. As great as that may sound it is only partially true. I’ve met competition shooters that can outshoot every sniper I know and several backyard hand reloaders that know more about rifle ballistics than any sniper school has the time to teach.

So biggest the barrel measuring contest ever. Who has better marksmanship, military or police snipers? The best shooter I’ve met to date was a police sniper but fundamentally the best shooters as a whole are the military snipers. I started my sniper career as a police sniper and I was consistently shooting half MOA groups out of a rifle that was rated to shoot that. When I went back into the Marine Corps to be a Scout/ Sniper I was happy to shoot ¾ MOA groups. It was simply time on the gun. As a police sniper, I had almost unlimited ammo and I shot every other week. In the military I took my rifle everywhere, and I am always setting it in position to build the best shooting position I deem possible. Unfortunately I only shot it at best twice a year for maybe a grand total of 200 rds. That much time on a gun will make an exponential difference in keeping shooting consistent.

Another substantial long-term difference between the marksmanship skills of military snipers and police snipers is time on the gun. What made the police officer so good was his time as an operational sniper. He had been operating as a police sniper for over 20 years. A typical military sniper will be moved to a leadership/training role after 3-4 years, at which time his sole responsibility is to train and get his subordinates ready to attend their branch of services sniper school. Rarely do they ever get to train to maintain the skills they learned in school. That is a big time difference for someone who is committed to the craft to develop proper shooting fundamentals.

When I graduated my first police sniper school I had an understanding of the basics of marksmanship. I knew fairly well where my round would strike at a particular distance and how to adjust for whatever wind I thought was needed. Unfortunately, I didn’t even know the basic concepts of how to conceal myself or even create a hide within any given area. When I graduated my second police sniper course, a one hour class was given on the basics of camouflage. During my military schools I had over a week of just training in camouflaging myself and my equipment. Then, every day for several weeks, I was tested and evaluated to ensure I was applying the proper techniques. Once I showed proficiency at that, I had to conceal an entire team of 8 snipers. Recently, several other military snipers and I hid in a beach volleyball court and concealed a sniper 30 feet away from 20 military personnel – in a matter of 40 minutes. The skill took time to learn and develop, and it was only available through military sniper
fieldcraft training.

And now the subject of tactics. It makes every tactical operator, whether military or police, automatically pasture up and say, “I’ve got this.” It’s understandable that no sniper, regardless of agency or branch of service, wants to be seen as a tactical liability. All snipers I’ve worked demonstrated they were tactically sound for their area of operations. Police operate in almost a completely permissive environment. As a side note, as police sniper, every time I stepped out of a tactical vehicle a I didn’t think about IEDs. While operating as a sniper in Afghanistan, I’m not going to lie - foot placement was a constant concern.

Every police sniper knew normal operating procedures for both patrolman and tactical operators. Every military sniper I worked with regardless of branch of service or country of origin knew what the infantry units were going to do. Ultimately, all snipers knew what was the best way to effectively support their unit. Their tactics were sound for their area of operation permissive environment or not.

There are only minor things I can compare — different sides of the same coin. Every police sniper course I have attended taught me everything there was to know about marksmanship fundamentals, fieldcraft and all other essential skills in 50 hours or fewer. Only the basics and on-the-job training would provide the needed skills to operate effectively. The military taught the same snipercraft, but it was enforced day and night for months. I could not graduate the course until I demonstrated a level of proficiency at each and every skill, which is a reason why US military sniper schools are recognized internationally and police sniper schools usually are not.

A note on the administrative side. Law enforcement tends only to use snipers for precision fire and overlook their reconnaissance and surveillance skills that are second nature for a sniper. Whereas the military employ their snipers for their observing and reporting skills, and if they get to engage a few targets, it’s just an added bonus for the command head shed to put on their morning report. As said earlier, we are all sheepdogs looking to protect the same flock of sheep. We are just operating in different parts of the world. Recognize and admire each other for the fact that we are the volunteers of the volunteers, doing a job 90% of the world doesn’t want to. Out of that 10% that want to, 90% are afraid.

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