Delivering precision fire in SWAT operations
Each body position available to the sniper — prone, bench rest, kneeling, sitting, and standing — varies in its ability to stabilize the weapon
By Don Hollenbaugh
SWAT Digest and Red Tail Tactical
The things that are often overlooked because they seem so “basic” are the basics. Often our own pride gets in the way of properly applying the fundamentals because we are obviously “beyond” such “basic” elements. Any coach of any sport will tell you that those who have mastered the basics and take the time to refresh basic fundamentals are those who become the champions.
There is a difference between practice and training. Practice establishes the muscle memory required to perform fine and gross motor skills. Training incorporates multiple elements of motor skills, thinking processes, equipment familiarity, and tactical proficiency. Training helps us to identify areas that we need practice. Once identified those elements can be isolated and exercised individually. The dynamics of SWAT operations place the operator in such obscure and uncertain situations that he constantly performs basic functions without any conscious thought towards them. This is one reason why we should all be vigilant to watch each other to identify when these basics are being compromised. Professional constructive criticism along with a little self deprecating humor should always be shared between operators. This keeps us sharp as individuals and unifies us as a team.
The fundamentals of shooting are among some of the most violated principles because shooting multiple magazines slow and methodically just isn’t very entertaining to do or watch. The tendency is to start slow just to take the jitters out of 50,000 lbs of pressure going off in our hands. Which is a disconcerting feeling and highly unnatural to say the least. Once the jitters are gone and we think we have overcome that initial tendency to jerk we quickly move into multiple shots then progress to multiple shots with multiple targets. Now we are having fun. Problem is we have left something behind. Conducting such training can lead to improper application of the fundamentals over the course of time. So ends this lengthy introduction into the fundamentals of marksmanship for the sniper.
Due to the importance of delivering precision fire, the sniper makes maximum use of available support. Supported positions refer to supporting the weapon in two places, the front of the hand guard region and the butt stock. Support can be in the form of sand bags, bi-pods, crossed sticks, or field expedient tripods, etcetera. Improvised support can be made from sand or dirt stuffed into socks or bedding or clothing stuffed into a pair of pants. Supported positions vary in stability and stability reflects greatly in the accuracy of the shot and in turn the range at which a shot can be taken with confidence in accuracy.
Each body position varies in its ability to stabilize the weapon. The positions available to the sniper are the prone, bench rest, kneeling, sitting, and standing. All of these positions can be either supported or unsupported. In unsupported positions the use of a sling can be a tremendous aide in stabilizing the weapon. The two most stable positions are the prone supported and bench rest. Snipers in urban areas use tables and other furniture to achieve a bench rest position. An important note here is that when a weapon is zeroed in a certain position like bench rest or prone, the recoil of the weapon will perform in a certain manner. Whenever a sniper changes his position the physical elements that effect recoil have changed and thus so will the impact of the round.
The point at which the rifle naturally rest in relation to the body position of the sniper and the aiming point is called the natural point of aim. The method for checking for natural point of aim is for the sniper to close his eyes, take a couple of breaths, and relax as much as possible. Upon opening his eyes, the scope’s cross hairs or iron post should be positioned at the aiming point. It may be necessary for the sniper to adjust his body position until the rifle points naturally at the desired impact point. Once the natural point of aim has been determined, the sniper must maintain his position to the target. To maintain his natural point of aim in all shooting positions, the natural point of aim can be readjusted and checked periodically. To change the elevation of the natural point of aim the sniper should slid his body forward or to the rear. Rear-ward movement will raise the natural point of aim, moving forward will lower the natural point of aim.
The prone position is one of the steadiest positions. It should be used whenever possible. To assume the prone supported position, the sniper should lie down and place the weapon on a support that allows pointing in the direction of the target. Keep the position as low as possible. Remove the non firing hand from underneath the handguard of the weapon by folding the arm underneath the receiver and trigger, grasping the rear sling swivel or butt stock support. This prevents the sniper from subconsciously trying to exert control over the weapon’s natural point of aim. Keep the elbows in a comfortable position that provides the greatest support. Keep the body in line with the weapon as much as possible, not at an exaggerated angle. This provides the most body mass to absorb recoil and will assist the weapon in recoiling straight to the rear. The legs should be spread a comfortable distance apart with the heels on the ground or as close as possible without causing strain. Coking a leg will help to lift the diaphragm off the ground aiding in breathing and breathe control. The prone unsupported position offers another stable firing platform for engaging targets. To assume this position, the sniper faces his target, spreads his feet a comfortable distance apart, and drops to his knees. Using the butt of the rifle as a pivot, the firer rolls onto his non firing side. He places the rifle butt in the pocket formed by the firing shoulder, grasps the pistol grip in his firing hand, and lowers the firing elbow to the ground. The rifle rests in the V formed by the thumb and fingers of the non firing hand. The sniper adjusts the position of his firing elbow until his shoulders are about level, and pulls back firmly on the rifle with both hands. To complete the position, he obtains a stock weld and relaxes, keeping his heels close to the ground.
Bench rest shooting automatically brings to mind extreme long distance competition. Basically it is a seated position with the weapon on a table that is cut out to allow the shooter a proper body position. The weapon is supported by shooting pedestals and under-stock sand bags. Using the new adage from practical to tactical or vise versa this is truly a “which came first, the chicken or the egg.” Snipers in urban environments have always occupied elevated positions in rooms or loop holes covering avenues of approach. Available furniture such as table and chairs have been used for positions and field expedient materials used to support the weapon. It is very shocking to see the lack of emphasis on this position in both law enforcement and military sniper courses. This is the one of the most stable and flexible firing positions available. In Falluja, Iraq a sniper kill was recorded at 1.05 miles (1,848 yards, laser and GPS confirmed) from a field expedient bench rest position. The table and chair were white plastic lawn furniture. A khafia with sand tied in it was used for the stock support and bi-pods were used for front support. I witnessed this first hand it was quite amazing.
The sitting position can be used alone or in conjunction with long bi-pods or other weapon support. To assume the sitting position the sniper faces approximately forty five degrees off of the target line and to his firing side. The front foot is then crossed under and behind the rear foot. At the same time the sniper bends his knees and sits Indian style. The butt of the weapon is placed in the pocket of the firing shoulder and the non firing hand supports the front of the weapon. The elbows rest on the meaty pocket created by the bend in the knees. Because people are not created the same physically this position may be difficult for some to perform. Once the position is assumed the natural point of aim is adjusted by shifting the buttocks for left right adjustments and by moving the foot under the front supporting knee back and forth for elevation. A sling will assist in maintaining this position. Another effective sitting position is when a vehicle, tree or wall can be used as a back support. The sniper will sit with his back against the tree with his knees bent and feet comfortably apart. His non-firing side should be toward the target area. The weapon is placed in the shoulder pocket and brought perpendicular across his body. By slightly leaning forward the arms are crossed and the elbows rest on the knees. The weapon rests on the non-firing arm. This position is good for long occupation of areas.
The kneeling position can be assumed and recovered from quickly. It is also very flexible allowing the sniper to engage a wide area. This is a great immediate action position or when the sniper needs to see over small brush or obstacles. It is assumed by stepping offline of the target by 45-degrees. The sniper will kneel with his firing leg keeping his non firing leg as perpendicular as possible to the ground. The sniper will sit back on his firing leg calf and heel. Turning the toes in or out and laying the foot flat on the ground rather then sitting on it is more stable and allows for the sniper to remain in that position longer. The weapon is placed in the pocket of the shoulder and supported by the non firing arm by placing the lower triceps of the non firing arm on top of the non firing knee. Leaning against a tree, building, or vehicle for body support helps to stabilize this position greatly.
An alternate kneeling position utilizes buildings, vehicles or other objects as support and cover. The sniper kneels approximately arms length from the cover with the non firing leg. The sniper should kneel on his non firing knee. The non firing palm is placed on the edge of the cover with the thumb and fore-finger supporting the front of the weapon. The firing arm is supported on the firing knee adding stability to the rear of the weapon.
The standing position is the least desired method of attempting to place well aimed accurate fire. It is primarily used only as an immediate action position to react suddenly to a threat or when obstacles prevent the sniper from taking up any other position. Keep in mind that instability reduces the range that accurate discriminatory fire can be achieved. To assume a standing position the non firing palm is placed on the edge of the cover with the thumb and fore-finger supporting the front of the weapon. With the weapon supported by the non firing hand and the butt stock in the shoulder pocket the sniper should lean into the weapon so that pressure is placed on the butt stock and supporting palm. This method can be used for both vertical and horizontal support structures by varying the support hand position.
Trigger control is one of the most important aspects of the marksmanship. The shot should break when the sight picture is at its best. There should not be any extraneous influence on the gun that would cause the gun to move at the time of the shot. The trigger finger should be placed on the trigger so that the trigger is center of the muscle pad on the index finger. The finger should be placed as low as possible on the trigger without coming into contact with the trigger guard. When a steady body position is held and the sights are on target the finger is placed on the trigger. As the natural respiratory pause is entered initial pressure is applied to the trigger. This initial pressure will remove any slack from a two stage trigger.
Constant and uniform pressure is increased as the natural respiratory pause continues and the sniper stops his breathing. This pressure should be applied straight to the rear as the shot breaks. The trigger is held to the rear until the recoil of the gun has stopped and the sight is back on target. This is known as follow through. Only then is the trigger released to reset or to cycle the bolt. Do not “milk” the trigger to feel for the reset. Adrenaline and muscle memory, which is usually a good thing, will cause a tendency to short stroke the trigger causing a failure to reset. This is usually an issue with semi-auto weapons.
Common mistakes of marksmanship are fighting the wobble, anticipating recoil, jerking the trigger, flinching. One or more of these mistakes can be done at the same time. In fact if a shooter has one of these problems he probably has more.
The wobble is naturally occurring movement that is seen in the sight picture. This movement causes the sights to move in a pattern much like the infinity sign (∞). Positions that are less stable will have more wobble. The tendency is to fight this wobble by trying to stop it with additional pressure on the gun. This reaction puts more tension into the gun making for inconsistencies in each shot because the amount of tension can not be consistently applied. The other tendency in fighting the wobble is to fire as the sights pass through the desired point of aim. This is known as ambush shooting and can lead to trigger jerking. This is not to be confused with the ambush method of engaging a moving target.
Anticipating recoil is the body’s natural tendency to prepare for the impact of the gun moving to the rear. The firing shoulder begins to move forward just before the shot breaks and consequently moves the gun off target. The more a person shots the less this tendency will become a factor as long as it is identified early and the sniper makes a conscious effort to correct it.
Jerking the trigger is quickly pulling the trigger in such a way as to cause the gun to move before the shot actually breaks. This is caused by ambush shooting… or a combination of the other common mistakes. Flinching is actually a combination of the other mistakes. The body’s sympathetic nervous system responds to the anticipation of the shot causing it to move there by moving the gun. This also is usually due to unfamiliarity of the weapon and inexperience in shooting.
Follow through is continuing to apply all the marksmanship fundamentals as the weapon discharges through the point that the weapons settles again. Follow through ensures the weapon is allowed to fire and recoil naturally and completely. This includes everything from proper position techniques, head position on the stock, keeping the trigger to the rear, focusing on the front sight or reticle, and relaxing. After a complete follow through of the shot and recoil of the weapon system has stopped, the sniper releases the trigger from the rear position. On semi-auto weapons this will reset the sear and allow for an immediate second shot. On bolt action systems the sniper will cycle the bolt to reload another round. Here it must be said that in certain sniping situations, usually military scenarios, the sniper will want to cycle the bolt slowly to recover the brass so as not to leave any trace of evidence of his position once evacuated. The semi-auto system user will want to plan ahead on how he will deflect the brass to a position where the brass can be recovered quickly.
Breath control is important with respect to the aiming process. If the sniper breathes while trying to aim, the rise and fall of his chest causes the rifle to move. He must, therefore, accomplish sight alignment during breathing. To do this, he first inhales then exhales normally and stops at the moment of natural respiratory pause. A respiratory cycle lasts 4 to 5 seconds. Inhalation and exhalation require only about two seconds. Thus, between each respiratory cycle there is a pause of 2 to 3 seconds. This pause can be extended to 10 seconds without any special effort or unpleasant sensations. The sniper should shoot during this pause when his breathing muscles relax. This avoids strain on his diaphragm. A sniper should assume his firing position and breathe naturally until his hold begins to settle.
Many snipers then take a slightly deeper breath, exhales and then pauses, expecting the shot to break during the pause. If the hold does not settle enough to allow the shot to be fired, the sniper resumes normal breathing and repeats the process. The respiratory pause should never feel unnatural. If it is too long, the body suffers from oxygen deficiency and sends out signals to resume breathing. These signals produce involuntary movements in the diaphragm and interfere with the sniper’s ability to concentrate. One of the major and immediate effects of oxygen deprivation is vision degradation. About 8 to 10 seconds is the maximum safe period for the respiratory pause. During multiple, rapid engagements, the breathing cycle should be forced through a rapid, shallow cycle between shots instead of trying to hold the breath. Firing should be accomplished at the forced respiratory pause. However this is not always possible because of limited exposure targets therefore the sniper must immediately stop breathing align the sights and fire. This is called interrupted breathing pattern. The ability to effectively engage limited exposure or snaps and targets that are offline of the snipers body position are what separate a skilled sniper from the average sniper.
About the Author
Don Hollenbaugh served in the United States Army from 1985 ~ 2005. The last seven years were with the 1st Special Forces Operations Detachment ~ Delta (Delta Force). He has performed in operational environments of direct action, counter-terrorism, strategic reconnaissance, and foreign international defense, conventional and unconventional warfare. He has combat tours in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He has worked with other government agencies to plan, coordinate and conduct nationally sensitive missions. He has participated in joint training operations with allied foreign counter-terrorist units and trained multiple allied units in the spectrum of urban warfare disciplines to include close quarters battle, sniper tactics and explosive breaching. Other operations include integrating with the U.S. Border Patrol to conduct counter narcotics missions along U.S. borders and coastlines. Don has conducted personal security details for high-level dignitaries domestically and abroad. He has also worked with National Laboratories conducting national level emergency response communications and operations involving nuclear, biological and chemical response elements. As a Ranger Instructor, Don conducted platform instruction as primary instructor emphasizing tactical and technical elements of small unit patrolling and evaluated students on performance during field training exercises. He is extremely experienced in risk assessment and safety evaluations for high-risk training and real world operations including day and night live fires, airborne, air assault, and waterborne operations. Don first attended sniper school in 1987 and finished his last mission as a sniper was in Falluja, Iraq in 2004. Don was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Vice President Cheney for acts of heroism during the Global War on Terrorism. He owns and operates Red Tail Tactical a tactical training company www.redtailtactical.com. Don@redtailtactical.com.