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Book excerpt: Foundations of Sniper Markmanship

We must first identify the common characteristics of a police sniper’s target and work backward from there to design and implement our training

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The fundamentals of scoped rifle marksmanship explained, designed to be relevant to a police sniper.

The following is excerpted from John Simpson’s “Foundations of Sniper Markmanship,” published by Looseleaf Publications and available for purchase here. John discusses his book and some of the ancillary skills required in order to become a proficient sniper on The Everyday Markman podcast.

The 4 Characteristics of Sniper Targets

Shooting on rifle ranges is a means to an end and not an end in itself. As obvious as that sounds, I still encounter snipers and instructors in this business conducting training on a rifle range who completely ignore the realities of deploying against a human being.

We must first identify the common characteristics of a police sniper’s target and work backward from there to design and implement our training.

Sniper targets are:

  1. Dynamic;
  2. Non-cooperative;
  3. Robust;
  4. Restricted.

What follows is a brief discussion of each point.


This simply means that the target can change: change their orientation (meaning we can’t aim at eyeballs) change their threat level (simply by raising a gun from their side to shoulder level or surrendering), change their position (standing to kneeling to sitting, etc.). Paper targets are 2D and people are 3D. Real people can change their shape. For example, if making a chest shot against someone in full-on stance is about 19" across the shoulders, by facing to the left a target can become 9" wide. This change may also come without warning and be performed quickly.


This can attempt to place cover or concealment between you and them if they know or think they know where your position is; they can move if standing still and they can suddenly stop if moving (Marine Corps snipers train against a stop and go mover for instance that pauses at random in its travels). Can run or crawl or dive to the ground. In a nutshell they’re not cooperating with your efforts to shoot them. Last but not least they can shoot at you as well.


Best wound ballistics is effected by aiming at a 4-inch sphere within the cranial vault. This area remains constant regardless of how the head is oriented. Also, the need for a rapid follow-up shot is always a possibility.


A cop with a sniper rifle is still a cop. All policies involving use of deadly force to save your life or third parties still apply.

Just to eliminate any confusion, a Dynamic target may move around while talking to negotiators, whereas a Non-cooperative target is consciously using that movement to try and prevent you from taking a shot.

So even though we may use two-dimensional paper targets, by remaining mindful of the characteristics of real-world sniper targets, we can see that using a slow trigger squeeze against dynamic, non-cooperative targets while under restrictions is a non-starter.

For example, you’re watching Joe Taxpayer in his front yard while he’s having a bad day and he’s walking back and forth (Dynamic); however, his weapon is pointed at the ground so you can’t shoot (Restricted). It takes a second for him to snap his arm up (Dynamic) and point it at the Negotiator, allowing you to shoot him (Restricted). That’s not the time to get your breathing cycle down and start slowly squeezing the trigger. Training on the range with a time limit of, say, 5 minutes to fire 5 rounds isn’t going to help you that much. Or consider that you have Repulsive Brogan cornered after he previously takes shots at police. He keeps ducking from behind cover a couple seconds at a time (Non-cooperative).

I can’t tell you how annoyed I am seeing snipers in training single loading their rifles or failing to cycle their bolt immediately after firing. Let’s use the characteristics of a sniper target to see the source of that annoyance: Counting on a single shot to hit a Dynamic, Non-Cooperative and Robust target makes no sense. Unlike a paper target you may miss with the first shot. If you manage a hit, the target’s movement may cause the bullet to land in other than a vital area. He may be seriously wounded but still able to shoot (Robust).

And so on.

When we use best wound ballistics science available to define our target, we find that rather than pursuing some arbitrary “best of the best” principle like one inch at a hundred yards, we have a specific area that can be in a Dynamic, Non-Cooperative target. I’m not arguing for carelessness in marksmanship, but I would argue having unnecessarily high standards “just for the heck of it” causes the sniper to go:

  • “I can’t make this shot from this distance.”
  • “I can’t make this shot from this position.”
  • “I can’t make this shot in this time frame.”

My description of the 4-inch cranial vault is the “Goldilocks” target because the mythical one-inch target is too small with an area of 0.79 square inches, the whole “head target” is too large at 45.8 square inches, but the cranial vault is just right at 12.54 square inches.

But you see my point.

You’ll also find that this list applies to equipment as well.

Many years ago, I was asked to evaluate a shooting mat designed by a famous sniper instructor. This mat had a curved groove with little scallops cut into the edge so you could push your bipod legs forward and lock them in. I’ve no doubt that this was crackerjack against a hostile paper target, but really was not all that useful for a target with legs that’s both dynamic and non-cooperative.

Anyway, look these over, put your feet up and think about them for a bit, and then see if they change the way that you approach sniper marksmanship for the better. Better yet, talk this over with your fellow snipers and discuss how you approach your training, as well as why you do things a certain way. Set up a range scenario and have someone video your shooting technique. How long does it take to acquire the target, how long to take the shot, how long to chamber a new round and so on? You might be unpleasantly surprised.

Standards based on what the objective target is actually like will serve you a lot better than standards dreamed up by a few guys sitting over coffee asking, “I dunno, what do you wanna do?”