Unfortunately, relatively little consideration is given for selecting personnel for a police sniper position. In my position as a sniper trainer, I have too often seen this attitude from students: “Of course, I’m a sniper. My name on the memorandum said I was!” Although a legitimate sniper school shouldn’t be afraid to flunk someone who can’t meet the course performance objectives, this is only the last link in the chain of a selection and assessment process which must have its origin within the agency.
In order to select personnel, agencies often turn to people with military backgrounds. Due to the current reduction of our military forces, many highly trained personnel are now becoming available. If the decision is made to recruit these people, close attention must be paid to a document which they will be sure to have in their possession: Department of Defense Form 214 (DD-214).
Contained in this form will be the official record of a candidate having attended a formal military sniper school. In order to read it, you have to know how to decipher it. Following are thumbnail sketches of some of the more likely military sniper schools, keeping in mind that course length and subject matter change from year to year and, sometimes, from class to class.
US Marine Corps Scout/Sniper, Scout/ Sniper Instructor and Advanced Sniper Schools: The Marine Sniper Schools as they exist today were started by returning Vietnam veterans in the mid1970s. Instruction was based around the bolt-action M40 and M40A1 sniper rifles. Courses ranged in length from eight weeks for the Instructor Course to four weeks for the Advanced Course. Curriculums emphasized field craft, with significant hours being devoted to map reading, hand-to-hand combat, calling in air support and marksmanship with a goal of 1000 yards. It is useful to know that, recently, the Advanced Course conducted practical exercises on shooting through glass to hit a target. These schools are located at Quantico, Virginia.
US Marine Corps Sniper Course: The Marines’ belief in snipers is demonstrated by there being two other six week sniper schools – one for the West Coast at Camp Pendleton in California, and one for the East Coast at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Special Operations Target Interdiction Course: This is the school where I worked for five years, known as SOTIC. When I left in 1990, it was a six week course teaching the bolt-action M24 system. Curriculum was different from the Marine Corps program, with more emphasis on developing initial marksmanship skills. Training started with fundamentals in three different positions (prone, sitting and standing) using slow and rapid fire while aiming with iron sights (basically, conducting a service rifle match). Students then transitioned to aiming with scopes while shooting at surprise and moving targets and engaging targets at 1000 yards. A full curriculum of silent movement, stalking and observation was also conducted. For my tenure, a hostage scenario was conducted at Fort Bragg’s urban warfare facility, with the sniper students reporting back their observations of the incident site. This school is still in operation at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There are also local SOTIC programs at most of the active Special Forces Groups which vary significantly in quality. This was renamed in 2007 as the Special Forces Sniper Course.
US Army Sniper School: This course was designed to train privates, and above, in marksmanship, military tactics, concealment and observation in a field environment. It is interesting to note that, although the school cadre borrowed heavily from the Marine Corps’ six week program, the original course length was only three weeks long.
Although the above is not a conclusive list (my SEAL friends will probably take offense at not mentioning their fine schools), it should be some help in screening the guys who insist they were “sniper trained in their units.”
Note: Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, you may start to see veterans with training in their records called “Long-range Marksman,” or “Squad Designated Marksman,” or something similar. Bear in mind that these folks have a really good head start on marksmanship as a police sniper, but they haven’t been trained as snipers.
My advice in this matter should not be construed to mean that I’m a licensed psychologist, but, under the principle that a police detective knowing the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor doesn’t make him a lawyer, I feel confident to point you in the right direction.
Many of the better sniper schools don’t practice psychological screening. The reason for this is due to the inadequacies of existing tests to accurately determine if someone will actually apply deadly force in a situation where the sniper may be 100 yards away from a terrorist who could be threatening harm to a third party. One test which is commonly used is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI. Although the MMPI in the hands of a trained professional can identify such undesirable traits as paranoia, I must again emphasize that the MMPI is not a predictor of future performance.
One test I do recommend you investigate is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality assessment. One reason is that you can reassure candidates that the Myers-Briggs doesn’t reveal any pathological, neurotic, paranoid or latent tendencies; it is a simple written test.
In the Myers-Briggs assessment, each personality type is made up of different combinations of values from four scales: introverted vs. extroverted, sensing vs. intuition, thinking vs. feeling, and perception vs. judgmental. Although the above description is accurate, it is an oversimplification due to space limitations.
A person’s tendency toward each opposing quality on the four scales makes a four letter “type.” For example, an Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceptive person would be abbreviated to INFP (the N, of course, from the second letter of intuition to avoid confusion).
Whenever I have discussed this subject in class (regardless of police or military), someone at this point asks if there is an ideal type for a sniper. The ideal type is not as simple a matter as looking for introverts or singling out any single quality. Although the ISTP (which makes up only five percent of the population) is often referred to as the “weapons type,” this should not be construed as making this the ideal type for a sniper candidate. Those interested in analysis of type are encouraged once again to talk to a certified professional.
Some additional things to keep in mind when selecting candidates:
1. Marksmanship Ability – This is a tricky one to evaluate because a candidate by definition has not enjoyed the benefits of your formal training program. As a start, however, ability with the existing service weapon (pistol or revolver) can give an indication of potential to learn the scoped rifle due to the transference of skills. If someone comes to you with extensive target rifle experience, keep in mind that he has been practicing in a structured environment. As street experience proves, the place he will be going to is essentially an unstructured environment. The type of marksmanship expressed by the military acronym BRASS (Breathe, Relax, Aim, Slack, Squeeze) is generally inappropriate for a fluid situation.
2. Physical Condition – This broad category must be further subdivided into:
a) Aerobic Conditioning – This type of physical condition relates directly to a person’s ability to literally “go the distance.” Cardiovascular conditioning has a direct effect on a person’s ability to deal with stress. Although simply having people run for time might test this, this is actually a better measure of running than of conditioning. Any test must include a measure and comparison of individual heart rates while under exertion and at rest. A candidate’s level of conditioning in this category can be improved with effort.
b) Flexibility – Too often, I’ve witnessed trainers who keep their police sniper students in the prone position while shooting. Although this works fine on a rifle range, it is of little use unless we are clever enough to maneuver the target onto a golf course. A sniper must be able to adapt his body to the immediate area. A candidate unable to assume a steady sitting position or unable to bend his prone position around a roof vent will be of little help to the tactical situation. To evaluate candidates objectively, administer this simple test endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine:
1. Place a yardstick on the floor and secure it with a piece of tape at the 15 inch mark.
2. Sit the candidate on the floor with the zero end closest to him. Position his feet approximately ten inches apart with his heels even with the 15 inch mark.
3. Have the candidate place one hand on top of the other with the tip of one middle finger on top of the other.
4. Then, have the candidate slowly stretch forward WITHOUT JERKING OR BOUNCING while sliding his fingertips along the yardstick as far as possible.
5. Conduct the test three times. The candidate’s score is the highest number reached to the nearest inch.
Note: The test should be conducted after allowing the candidate to warm up by walking and gentle stretching. Candidates are evaluated on the following chart:
These ratings will hopefully aid in evaluating potential candidates.
c) Strength – When conducting a typical sniper mission, a team will find itself burdened with radios, cameras, telephoto lenses, rain gear, water – and that doesn’t include rifles! Although aerobics plays a part in this, physical strength is also a significant factor in the equation
3. Left-handed/Cross Dominant – For agencies equipped with a bolt-action rifle operated with the right hand, having a left-handed shooter is a liability. As with all the other criteria to this point, this by itself should not serve to disqualify a candidate.
Early in my career as a sniper instructor, I was explaining a similar set of criteria to the class. One left-handed student quietly took this in. About a week later, he called me over to his position on the range and asked me to watch him shoot a rapidfire string. After accurately firing five rounds at least as fast as any right-hander in the class, I found out that he had been practicing every spare moment in the school, as well as at home after class and over the weekend. The one thing I learned from this is NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF SPITE.
A more significant handicap is the matter of cross dominance. Just as the majority of people have a right or left hand which they favor, so do the majority of people have a left or right eye with which they naturally line up. Cross dominance, although not a significant detriment to a pistol shooter, is a concern when dealing with a scoped rifle.
4. Mental Condition – Although a large portion of this was already addressed under the Myers- Briggs section, this category also includes intelligence. Sniping is not just a “hands-on” activity. A candidate must be expected to grasp subjects such as ballistics, tactics, and other theoretical subjects. In the author’s own 40 hour police sniper course, I often encounter students who just want to “grab it and go out to the range” as soon as they arrive. They are uneasy to find out that the first day is given over to classroom and dry firing. At the end of day one, however, everyone understands the need for getting the class “on the same sheet of music” despite different experience levels.
Now, I know that some of my colleagues recommend things like looking at tobacco use. Looking at how a guy is affected by nicotine is something with which every competition shooter coach is concerned. To that I also say we then need to look at whether the guys use caffeine or sugar since they can all contribute to the shot group opening up. After you have eliminated all of those people, you can go back and report that your selection criteria is so stringent that no one qualifies!
I’d like to point out that, in the previous list, the flexibility tables are divided by age and gender. I’m not a big fan of gender norming or adjusting for age because those all require some type of adjustment to come up with the standards. I’ve never been a big fan of the “best of the best” mentality when it comes to selection.
Take the typical push-up test, for example. Looking at the Army’s standards, in the 22- to 28-year-old range, a male gets 100 points for performing 75 push-ups in two minutes, while a female gets the same number of points for 50 push-ups in the same time limit. Although this is in response to real differences between male and female upper body strength, it makes the standard subjective.
An objective standard simply takes the form of something, like having candidates carry full loadout gear to include water, equivalent ammo weight, and so on, as well as a rifle or weight equivalent. Tell them that, as a two person sniper team, they have to get over a chain-link fence in a certain time limit (which you can base on the performance of existing team members). I like this because a 35 pound pack doesn’t get lighter because a female is carrying it and a three foot long, nine pound rifle doesn’t grow shorter and lighter because a guy is in his 40s.
When evaluating someone for vision, there is something which you should look for in addition to seeing if they have 20/20 vision: There is a test which an ophthalmologist can administer called a Contrast Sensitivity Test. Research is beginning to show that candidates with high levels of contrast sensitivity are better able to detect targets than those who don’t.
When selecting police sniper candidates, with the exception of mental condition, any inadequacies in the aforementioned criteria can be corrected through training and hard work. Physical condition can be improved through appropriate physical training. Marksmanship ability can be developed through marksmanship practice, and cross dominance can be corrected by forcing the shooter to shoot off of the same shoulder as his dominant eye.
The only criterion which must be there from the beginning is mental condition! The mind is the sniper’s greatest weapon and can only be developed so far through training.
At the risk of losing my law enforcement audience, I’d like to draw an example from the Navy SEALs. In basic SEAL school, the third week of training is known as “Hell Week.” All of the candidates up to that point are very physically fit. Starting on a Sunday and ending on a Saturday morning, SEAL trainees are kept awake nearly the whole time during grueling physical activity which stretches each man to the limit and maximum opportunity is given to allow students to quit. The survivors of this then go on to the more advanced and technical stages of their training. The point I am making is this: The purpose of Hell Week is not to train students not to quit, but rather to identify those who just don’t have it in them to quit. Any SEAL will tell you that this is more mental than physical.
Although this is an extreme case, I do believe this is appropriate from the standpoint of the importance of the police sniper candidate’s head “being in the right place” above anything else.
Additional police sniper articles:
- Proper Sniper Rifle Maintenance
- .308 Sniper Ammo: One Sniper’s View
- SWAT School Tips: Excellence not Mere Survival
About the Author: John C. Simpson spent five years teaching sniping to Special Forces at the Special Warfare Center in Ft. Bragg, NC, and three years in a Special Forces unit in Germany as a team sniper and the Company Master Sniper, and finally as Chief Instructor at the 10th Special Forces Group Sniper Committee at Fort Devens, MA, before retiring in 1994 as a Sergeant First Class. While at Ft. Devens, he trained police snipers in New York and Ohio as part of Project Northstar. John is currently a Staff Instructor for Snipercraft and the Director of Precision Rifle Programs for the James River Training System. He has written many articles on sniping and precision rifle instruction for publications such as Police and Security News, Journal of Counterterrorism, Tactical Shooter and others. He currently writes for the Snipercraft newsletter, as well as continuing to train police and military snipers.