Creating a precision environment: Technique and process for the LE sniper
The tools, techniques and emotional connection to both that a good sniper brings to the game
On January 17, 2023, Daniel Defense sponsored “Creating a Precision Environment: Technique and Process for the LE Sniper” as part of SHOT Show’s LEEP (Law Enforcement Education Program). The session was presented by Jeff Chang and Tyler Ellsworth of Standing Offhand. It builds upon the 2022 session that I covered here.
The previous session focused on the person and how to select a sniper for your team. This session described the tools, techniques and emotional connection to both that a good sniper brings to the game.
Rules of engagement
Like last year, Jeff impressed upon us that while military snipers can make the transition to LE, the rules of engagement have little in common, and an ex-military sniper who cannot live with never taking a shot is the wrong person for the job.
Jeff says that at his agency, the average LE sniper shot is taken at 36 yards, the distance from one house directly across the street to the front door of another (versus 1,000 yards for military), and using the appropriate scope, the shooter can see all the emotions going through their subject’s mind. The object downrange is no longer just a target, but is a living, breathing human being.
As you are watching for your shot, you can see the wheels turning through their expressions and body language – and you can be drawn into what they are thinking. If you don’t have the emotional ability to deal with the aftermath of taking the life of someone you are just getting to know, you are in the wrong job. Imagine a veteran sitting in his car contemplating suicide. You can see all the stages they are going through – and you might recognize some of them inside yourself.
Technique vs. process
Technique is the way technical details are treated or basic physical movements are used, while process is a series of actions or steps needed to achieve a particular end. That is, process is a way to achieve a technique. Techniques are flexible and adaptable to circumstances; a process is mechanical and robotic.
As a precision shooter, you need to “become intimate with the rifle” by getting behind it properly and feeling the shot from your hands to your toes by focusing on the reticle and following the bullet from muzzle to target. That is a technique. The process to achieve that differs among shooters.
Rather than the more common “muscle memory,” Jeff likes to use the term “unconscious competence” (Joel Turner at ShotIQ uses “Motor pathways”). Just like a pilot goes through a checklist to validate that each part of the aircraft is functional before putting it into the takeoff configuration, you need to do the same to your body before taking a shot. If everything doesn’t feel right, you’re not going to take the optimal shot.
After verifying the function of their tools, a sniper’s mental checklist continues through the function of their body position – which needs to be dependable and repeatable. Are they all in the exact same place they are when you practice – so that you know where your shot will hit?
Jeff’s checklist looks like this:
Toe to head
- Check off each body part, step by step.
- Position and muscular tension.
- Through the head, down the arms, all the way to the trigger.
- Breath control.
- Connect to the pad of your finger.
- Follow the bullet to the target.
You only will be accurate if you have taken deliberate actions, with each step considered. You need to be consistent in the order and execution of those actions, robotic if you will, with every action applied as precisely as possible. In exigent circumstances where a shot is the only reasonable option, an experienced and well-trained sniper will have the ability to modify his checklist or pre-firing sequence because he’s competent enough intrinsically to know his body/mind is following his process.
And speaking of practice, how do you practice? Do you always shoot from the same position at the same distance, or do you practice real-life scenarios such as shooting from inside a vehicle, from a rooftop, or sitting with and without external support such as a pack, fence, or tripod? Do you practice for qual, or do you practice working the bugs out of every position you might need to be in to take a shot? Finally, do you practice in inclement weather like rain, sleet, and snow, or do you wait for nicer weather?
Do you sight in and shoot at 100 yards because someone tells you to, or do you practice at various distances? Have you surveyed your jurisdiction to determine the average distances that you might face when taking a shot? There is a big difference in parallax and holdover when taking shorter-range shots vs. 100 yards, especially if you need to take a headshot.
Tools of the trade
You need a weapon that fits you and with which you practice repeatedly. If you have a different cheek weld or hold your eye in a different position each time you shoot, you will have hits in different places due to variations in the optical path from eye through scope to target.
It’s the same if you borrow someone else’s weapon. Two people using the same weapon, looking through the same scope at the same target will have different hits.
Jeff’s personal weapon is a Remington 700 in a fiberglass stock, molded and sanded with a scope mounted at the perfect eye relief distance specifically for him, which he has tweaked over many years (figure 1).
If you are outfitting a team, buying each sniper a custom-stocked, hand-tweaked Remington 700 might seem like a great choice. However, the effort involved in changing length of pull and comb height as team members come and go is not as efficient as the alternative of using a modular or chassis-mounted system.
Modular rifle systems
Modular or chassis rifle systems are skeletonized and have enough adjustments on them to be custom fitted to the Hulk today and re-fitted to Tinkerbell tomorrow. There are dozens of them on the market and some don’t even need tools to adjust. A favorite sniper rifle is the Remington 700, and several companies build chassis systems for both short and long Remington 700 actions.
Remove the 700 action from its sporting stock, install it into the chassis and you now have a fully adjustable rifle. Other manufacturers make ready-to-run chassis-based weapons, such as the Daniel Defense Delta 5 Pro (Figure 1 bottom). Note the adjustable thumb rest above the grip – it can be swapped out for any AR-15 compatible grip that the operator prefers.
When a team member rotates out and a new one comes in, the rifle can be adjusted by loosening bolts, moving parts, then tightening them again. Get it on the range to test and repeat until your new team member has the perfect fit.
Which of the two weapons pictured in figure 1 do you think is more accurate? Trick question. Both can be just as accurate – for the shooter they are tweaked to fit. Yes, the rifle on the bottom has a lot more technology, like the night vision scope, which can increase the mission profiles it can handle.
The mission dictates the gear
Before you start buying gear, you will want to spec it to the missions you run. Tyler tells us that you need to ask yourself, “What equipment do I need to be mission ready?” A team in Fairbanks probably has different mission profiles than a team in Houston. Similarly, an urban location is very different from rural farmland.
Part of a sniper’s job is to watch over the entry team as they perform outside recon, breach and entry. A low magnification scope will give you the safety margin of a wide field of view. You shouldn’t run a scope bigger than you need – and a first focal plane scope set at low magnification will make the reticle so small that it becomes a distraction and may become useless to help you with distance and holdover calculations. Tyler and Jeff both recommend a 2nd focal plane scope for metropolitan police snipers due to the reticle being easy to reference at lower magnification.
If you are bad at estimating distance, get help. Along with a Kahles K318i and EOTech M2124 night vision scope, the Delta 5 demo rifle also had an L3 Harris SPEAR rangefinder up top. This chassis system has an adjustable buttstock which offers length of pull and butt pad height adjustments without the need for tools, and a cheek riser adjustable for preferred height, yaw, and drift.
Don’t let specs get the best of you. Jeff tells us that even though Kahles has some of the greatest glass he’s ever used, he wouldn’t say it is the best glass for his missions.
There is no I in TEAM
Before you place your first purchase order, your team needs to agree on the common platform for everyone. It’s all or nothing. That goes for rifle, caliber, optics, and measurement system. There can be no exceptions and don’t let the brass override your team’s choice.
Since you won’t be getting new gear for a long time, buy the best you can afford. Fight for what you need to complete your missions. What is available over the counter now was previously the work of small custom shops, costing significantly more, and with lead times of 6-18 months. The rifles available to us are phenomenal with many capable of 1moa accuracy.
Don’t stagger equipment purchases. Get complete identical gear setups for every team member. Although you might want to add one or two identical platforms that use a more powerful cartridge for special use cases, mixing gear will cause tears when it comes to training.
Before you select optics, you need to decide on a common measurement system – Mils or MOA. You cannot mix and match; everyone needs to call the same. Which one is better? You’ll have more luck getting an agreement on Coke or Pepsi. The answer to this question is, “whichever one works for your team.” And what type of reticle? Call the manufacturers to get samples to take to the range for some realistic testing at mission distances.
Today’s ammunition is highly reliable and consistent. Match Grade ammo is very good and can be counted on to meet expectations, although it still must be tested with live fire through the rifle it’s meant to feed. It is not fiction that some weapon/ammo combinations are better than others.
After you have broken in your weapons, run a few hundred rounds of several brands and types of ammo to see what gives you consistent feeding and hits under different mission profiles. You don’t have the option of hand-loading for duty use so it’s your responsibility to find the commercial ammo your rifle shoots best. When you find something that works, remember to lay in enough for practice, qualification, and missions.
While Gold Medal Sierra MatchKing is some of the best ammo for punching holes in paper, it is not meant to punch through glass – which is what many LE snipers encounter. In fact, Federal representatives are telling LE not to use their match ammo for anything but paper. Instead, you should be looking at precision hunting or self-defense ammo.
Jeff likes Hornady polymer-tipped bullets, and according to San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office sniper Sgt. Dave Padilla, the .308Win ELD Match TAP 155 gr. ammo they chose for their SWAT team uses Hornady polymer-tipped bullets (figure 3).
Weapon, ammunition, shooter skill and environmental conditions all affect what a rifle can do on any given day. You cannot control the weather and shooters can have good and bad days, so you want the most reliable and accurate weapon and ammunition so that they aren’t the limiting factor.
Jeff says that every sniper should draw up a range card (or this example – be patient, this page takes time to load) because it forces them to think. Snipers also need D.O.P.E. cards, ballistic data cards (figure 4), and log books.
Range cards let snipers pre-range various reference points to aid in quick range estimations when targets appear and pre-identify reference points for target acquisition in sniper/spotter communication. Sniper Central has a good write-up.
Creating a dope card is easy and most major ammunition manufacturers have them for their factory loads. Dope data will include bullet drop in inches, MOA, and Mils, which you can dial in to help ensure that your point of impact (POI) is the same as your point of aim (POA).
Raw data from the manufacturer is just the start. Each sniper needs to tweak the data to their weapon, and at LE sniper distances, which we’ve already said are shorter than military snipers. If everyone has identical configurations, you should be able to share a dope card, but you need to confirm that on the range.
A very important number is the deviation between your weapon’s first shot and follow-up shots, called Cold Bore Shift. This is a consistent and repeatable deviation between the point of aim and the desired point of impact that occurs when the rifle has been fired in a state in which the temperature of the bore and the ambient environmental temperature is the same.
There is a possibility that some rifles can have an uneven compression of materials as it is repeatedly fired. This then creates a slight change in the dimensional characteristics between parts as it is heated beyond ambient temperatures, thus altering the point of impact of a follow-up shot.
It is a long but easy process to determine whether your weapon is subject to cold bore shift since you must let it cool back down to ambient before every shot. If it is not, no worries. If it is, you need to document and be aware of it. How to determine cold bore shift is outside the scope of this article, but the process is freely available.
Every bullet sent downrange should be logged, and this can be done on ballistic data cards which are inserted into a logbook for permanent record keeping. If you are involved in an OIS, all of the above documents will become part of the court record along with your training and practice records.
A process-driven attitude toward behavior and equipment allows us to control variables at the limits of our ability. Trial and error and exhaustive repetition result in highly reliable and consistent results. It might not be you, it might be the gear, and isolation of specific performance data points create tangible evidence for or against a theory, either proving or disproving it. This creates a durable and repeatable checklist to go through virtually guaranteeing consistency and precision.