First, I got angry. Then, I decided I had to do something about it. I was teaching an advanced sniper course in the Midwest a couple of years ago. As the week progressed, I watched with amazement as students struggled to do 20 push-ups when required. I saw them come back from a short 200-yard run gasping for breath, and struggling to regain their composure to the point where they could shoot accurately. In fact, one student was so distressed by this, he was routinely shooting targets three and four positions away from his own.
Keep in mind, these weren’t new candidates who may have been surprised by what they were being asked to do. This was an advanced class, filled with working snipers, veteran SWAT officers, officers one would expect to be in good to excellent condition. Only these guys weren’t. And the sad realization was that this was not the first time I had seen SWAT officers in such poor condition.
When I got home from that road trip, John Simpson and I discussed my observations, and we decided to develop some sort of physical fitness standard and testing process specific to snipers. We started with research into what the various service branches were currently using to test fitness standards for their personnel. We also examined a number of elite special operations teams to see what they were doing.
We noticed a movement away from traditional callisthenic-based test batteries, replacing them with tests more focused on “functional fitness.” A couple of years ago, the Marines adopted the Combat Fitness Test, which is a battery of physical tasks designed to integrate fitness with battlefield functionality. After studying this test in depth, we realized this was the direction we wanted to go.
In designing the test battery, there were several points we wanted to make sure were addressed. First, the battery needed to be a realistic test of job-related physical abilities. We didn’t think putting students through a regimen of exercises and runs in shorts and track shoes was a fair assessment of operational fitness. So, we followed the Combat Fitness model, in terms of trying to match the physical skills tested to actual field applications, and added to it the requirement of performing in full uniform and boots, just as officers would wear on operations.
In the real world, snipers are required to move from point to point, carrying all of their equipment. Therefore, the test would incorporate running and crawling with their gear in tow. Climbing barriers, like fences, would tax upper body strength and energy reserves. Explosive lower body strength is necessary for jumping over a culvert, or jumping up to grab a ledge or the top of a wall. And the quarter-mile run has a foundation in history as a distance snipers have had to cover prior to making a shot.
Second, the test battery had to be portable. We knew obstacles like fences and walls would add to the realism of the movement phases of the tests, but we also knew not every agency has access to an obstacle course or portable walls. The same consideration was given to including pull-ups, as a number of people suggested. But again, not every venue would be conducive to that inclusion.
So a major consideration in designing the test battery was making it simple to set up anywhere, with a minimum of props and necessary equipment. As it stands, all that is needed to run the test is four cones, a tape measure, a stopwatch, and a flat stretch of 100 yards. Everyone has a range, a park or an athletic field large enough to accommodate the last component.
Third, the test scoring and standards had to be gender and age neutral. The real world of tactical operations is not graded on a curve. People are either able to do their job, or they are not. Bad guys don’t temper their attempts to kill you because you happen to be 45 years of age. The distances don’t get shorter or the obstacles any easier just because the sniper happens to be a woman. With that in mind, we set a single standard for anyone taking the test. The standards were determined by looking at the full spectrum of preliminary test scores, set by men and women, aged 23 to 53, with no regard to categories.
We did trials with a variety of physical tests. After debating the merits of a number of different events, we eventually settled on five: Movement to Callout, Overhead Press, Core Strength, Standing Broad Jump and Callout Endurance. The events would be done in uniform and while carrying a predetermined equipment load. Because we had no idea what the scoring range should be, we starting administering the test battery to groups of students with instructions to simply do the best they could.
Over the course of four months, we were able to determine a substantial number of data points for each event. This in turn allowed us to establish a standardized scoring range. We finished the process by deciding the passing grade for each category would be 75 percent, which we felt was both challenging and reasonable across the spectrum. The sniper didn’t have to be a triathlete to be able to pass, but he couldn’t be a couch potato either. The Sniper Functional Fitness Test (SFFT) was official and ready for duty.
So far, the test battery has been administered to every Snipercraft basic and advanced student since January 2009. Although the usual feedback from each class starts with a breathless, “That sucked,” the follow-up remarks have been universally positive. Everyone thinks it is a tough but realistic test of sniper-related fitness requirements. It is seen as a good gauge of their current fitness level, and reveals any glaring weaknesses in their preparation.
We have found another detail worth noting. A direct correlation exists between performance during the fitness test and passing or failing of the qualification course. More than 90 percent of students who fail to meet the fitness standard are also failing the course. This would seem to say fitness levels can have an impact on a sniper’s ability to shoot and think under stress. As we continue to track scores, we will see if this remains a reliable predictor of class performance.
In the two years since the Sniper Functional Fitness Test has become a requirement in all Snipercraft classes, we have seen some positive developments. As the requirement is posted on our Web site, many potential students are now requesting copies of the test description in advance, and are starting to increase their training in anticipation of having to perform it. Most of our students are passing the test, which tells us their preparation is working.
A growing number of agencies have adopted the test as a permanent component of their sniper training, replacing whatever physical training standard they used before. Some teams have even modified the test slightly and challenged their entry team members to attempt it.
The SFFT is stimulating changes in the mindset, training and fitness levels of operational snipers. Training methods and goals are evolving to reflect operational needs. Instead of focusing on arbitrary benchmarks like push-up totals and mile times, snipers are preparing for the physical rigors of their assigned position. We have effectively raised the bar for the sniper community, and hopefully motivated them to focus on becoming tactical athletes who are fit enough to handle whatever the next callout requires of them. Derrick Bartlett is a 28-year veteran of law enforcement and a state-certified instructor in firearms and SWAT-related fields. As director of Snipercraft, Inc., he has provided instruction for snipers and supervisors throughout the U.S. He is also the president of the American Sniper Association and the creator of Tactical Vision. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sniper Functional Fitness Test Criteria
Snipers will perform most portions of the test dressed in their regular callout uniforms, which must include a long-sleeve BDU top or long-sleeve T-shirt, boots, gun belt and unloaded sidearm (dummy gun is acceptable). For the Core Strength and Broad Jump phases, the BDU top and gun belt can be removed. For Stage One and Stage Three portions of the test, snipers will be required to carry their unloaded sniper rifles. For the Functional Strength portion, snipers will need their rifle case as well.
The test is divided into three stages: Movement to Callout, Functional Strength and Callout Endurance. Each stage will be completed, one at a time. Snipers will be allowed five minutes to rest and prep for the next stage. Failure to start the next stage on time will result in a failure for that stage.
Based on statistical data collected during six months of control testing, a scoring range has been established. Point values have been assigned. There are 500 total points available. Snipers will be required to achieve an aggregate score of 375 points (75 percent) to pass the SFFT. If a sniper demonstrates weakness in a particular area, he can make up points with superior performance in another.
Movement to Callout
This stage is intended to test the sniper’s fitness level against the energy expenditure of executing individual movement skills under stress. The sniper will stand at the starting line with his rifle. He will sprint 50 yards, drop to his hands and knees, execute a high crawl for 25 yards, then low crawl for 25 yards. The sniper will turn 180 degrees while remaining in contact with the ground and will then execute 20 push-ups. Concluding the push-ups, the sniper will execute a low crawl, high crawl and sprint this course in reverse. Time stops when the sniper crosses the line. The maximum allowable time to complete the course is 5 minutes, 18 seconds.
The first phase is the overhead equipment lift using the sniper’s rifle inside its case. The case will be placed at the sniper’s feet. On the signal to start, the sniper will lift the case from the ground, over his head with arms fully extended, then return the case to the ground. This counts as one repetition. The sniper will complete as many repetitions as possible in two minutes. The minimum standard is 40 lifts.
The second phase taxes core strength. While wearing a BDU top, the sniper will assume the “Plank Position” and continue to maintain it for as long as possible. The time starts once the sniper is in position and stops as soon as any part of his body, other than his forearms and toes, makes contact with the ground. Start by lying face down on the ground. Place your elbows and forearms underneath your chest. Prop yourself up to form a bridge using your toes and forearms. Maintain a flat back and do not allow your hips to sag toward the ground. The minimum standard is 1 minute, 18 seconds.
The third phase is the standing broad jump. While wearing the BDU top, the sniper takes up a position, standing behind the start line. On his initiative, the sniper will execute a standing broad jump forward, as far as he can. The distance of the jump will be measured from the start line to the heels of the sniper upon landing. The sniper will be afforded two jumps, and the longer of the two will be recorded for score.
The sniper stands behind a line marked on the ground with feet slightly apart. A two-foot take-off and landing is used, with swinging of the arms and bending of the knees to provide forward drive. The sniper attempts to jump as far as possible, landing on both feet without falling backward. The minimum distance is 78 inches.
This stage is intended to test the sniper’s current level of stamina and endurance after sustained energy expenditure. The sniper will run 440 yards (1/4 mile), wearing full callout uniform and carrying his rifle in a case (soft or hard). The maximum amount of time is 2 minutes, 41 seconds.