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What makes a successful LE sniper?

A SHOT Show LEEP session profiled both the professional and personal components to be fit for sniper duty

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A police sniper watches over an interfaith vigil against anti-semitism and hate at the Holocaust Memorial, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, in Miami Beach, Fla.

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

There are two components to a LE sniper’s job: personal and professional. The professional component is the easiest – job description, equipment, maintenance, mission readiness and skills. The personal component is much more complicated and rests on the sniper’s physical, mental and emotional fitness for duty.

These categories can be further broken down into stress management, spiritual beliefs and life priorities. The SWAT sniper cannot let his or her priorities get jacked up over the job – nearly every LEO knows what this means, because after all, we’re all human.

This SHOT Show LEEP (Law Enforcement Education Program) session was presented by Jeff Chang and Tyler Ellsworth of Standing Offhand.

Jeff let us know that the session was not going to focus on the gun or the ammo but was to be about the person and their technique. He started us off with the concept that combat sniper techniques don’t translate 1:1 to LE snipers. Military snipers, like Jeff himself once was (Semper Fi!), do not need to be retrained per se, but there are significantly different rules of engagement, legal considerations and desired outcomes.

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From left to right, presenters Jeff Chang and Tyler Ellsworth stand behind a Daniel Defense Delta 5 Pro LE edition rifle, next to Dave Mason and Jason of Modern Tactical Creations (Modtac). Along with other Modtac accessories, their carbon fiber suppressor shield helps prevent mirage for the L3 EOTech M2124 clip-on night vision device (CNVD) sitting up top in front of a Kahles 318i.

Ron LaPedis

Specific goals

The sniper is the solution to a specific problem and is expected to make the right decision within the law and take the perfect shot 100% of the time. Talk about failure not being an option! And while the sniper frequently is an island, assessing the situation on their own in fractions of a second, they also need to remain an active participant in whatever situation they are playing a part in. That is, they cannot be a passive observer but must be active participants in decisions being made as part of the entire team. And this team includes the jurisdiction that employs them. Without appropriate funding for equipment and training, the sniper cannot succeed.

For example, if the SWAT team is expected to respond at night, not only do they need to train at night, but they also need to be appropriately equipped. Look back at the photo of the sniper rifle at the top of this article. The Daniel Defense Delta 5 Pro lists at $2,499, but the Kahles K318i riflescope and EOTech M2124 night vision scope together cost about five times that amount. Sure, the city could cheap out, and when the sniper can’t take a lifesaving shot because the target is too dim or too fuzzy, then what?

While the sniper is an active participant with the rest of the team, it is not their job to watch the team. Rather, part of the sniper’s job is to protect the team before and after they make entry by watching for threat targets. For example, while the breacher is in place in front of the entry point, the sniper needs to watch for someone taking aim at them from an upstairs window.

And once inside, the sniper should be watching where the team isn’t to see what else is happening and who else is moving around inside and outside the premises.

Candidate selection

Skills can be learned. Personality, character traits and attitude are innate. SWAT leaders need to make the effort to choose wisely for the open role. That is, don’t just “find a place for the new officer.” If you don’t have a specific role in mind, you cannot possibly determine the right fit – the open position must define the candidate.

Members must have humility along with creativity. Proficiency can be developed over time – and if it doesn’t, well you may have made a bad choice and you need to deal with it – not live with it. Pair senior members with junior members to shadow them for mentoring. This is part of the humility. If a junior member is not willing to be mentored, they probably need to take a hike. Until the senior member signs off, the junior member doesn’t get slotted.

Training

If your organization doesn’t have enough live events, figure out what events you need to stage for training and evaluation. Qualification is not training. Every training event needs a purpose with specific goals towards a culminating exercise. This is about skills building and not simply shooting a qual.

The junior member needs to grow by learning new skills and decision-making processes. The potential sniper must be able to recite local use of force and other laws which impact every shoot/don’t shoot decision.

Training may be limited by equipment – for example, if your agency doesn’t supply night vision gear, you cannot train appropriately – and of course, command staff need to know that nighttime response will be compromised because of their short-sightedness.

Don’t postpone training because of bad weather conditions – relish it. SHTF events don’t stop because it’s raining or snowing, and you might be called to act upon a threat in just these conditions.

Training in bad weather might show you that your gear cannot take it. Maybe your firearms won’t cycle when it’s freezing outside. Much better to know when training than when responding. And if this is the case, you better spend some time figuring out what you need to do to fix the problems.

Risk-taking

A good sniper doesn’t gamble. They make carefully calculated decisions based upon skills, training, experience and governing laws – weighed against the consequences of taking or not taking a specific action.

While the public thinks that every cop has pulled the trigger of their sidearm at suspects multiple times, brothers and sisters in blue know that the average officer has never fired their sidearm at anything more than a paper target downrange. And snipers are no different. Tyler tells us that in his 15 years of being an LE sniper, he pulled the trigger all of one time.

Equipment

While the session was more about the person behind the trigger, Tyler also had some ideas about appropriate sniper gear. In his opinion, the most important feature of a sniper’s weapon is the fit. Whether bolt or semi; what caliber; suppressed or not; mils or MOA, be consistent. Every squad weapon should be the same for ease of training, response and failure mitigation.

The only differentiator between each member’s assigned weapon should be how it is fitted to them. That means buying weapons that are 100% adjustable so that team members can make them their own. That is, until a current team member becomes an ex-team member and the replacement can make the weapon their own too. Tyler also recommends weapons that can be fitted and locked down without special tools. If a sniper’s weapon fails at the most inopportune moment, they may need to grab and adjust someone else’s to complete the mission.

Look back at the opening photo and notice the number of adjustable parts, like length of pull and cheek weld. Some firearms offer weights that can change the point of balance.

Unlike military snipers, LE snipers aren’t taking one-mile shots, or even 400-yard shots. Tyler says that most times LE snipers only need to reach out a few dozen yards through a window. He likes a riflescope with a large second focal plane reticle. Whatever scope you choose, Tyler recommends that the reticle and zero must stay constant from minimum to maximum magnification and back again.

As stated earlier, if your jurisdiction expects you to deploy at night, then you need a clip-on night vision device in front of your scope that can be removed for daylight missions. A high-quality QD locking mount will give the CNVD a guaranteed return to zero when you put it back on. If your mission or tactics change, your weapon and accessories may need to change too. Something to think about when budgeting.

So to recap, personality, spiritual beliefs, humility and life priorities along with personal and professional skills and training all are important to the success or failure of a SWAT sniper. The type and caliber of the weapon are not as important as fitting it to the operator. And above all, adherence to the law and respect and engagement with your other team members also is important. A sniper shouldn’t watch their other team members during a mission but rather needs to watch for threat targets against them.

Stay safe!

Ron LaPedis is an NRA-certified Chief Range Safety Officer, NRA, USCCA and California DOJ-certified instructor, is a uniformed first responder, and frequently writes and speaks on law enforcement, business continuity, cybersecurity, physical security and public/private partnerships.

He has been recognized as a Fellow of the Business Continuity Institute (FBCI), a Distinguished Fellow of the Ponemon Institute, Master Business Continuity Professional (MBCP), and a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP).

Contact Ron LaPedis

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