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SniperWeek 2006

Written by Devon Black

In today’s world of special operations, having access to current and reliable information, job-realistic training, and the ability to network with likeminded entities is invaluable. Fortunately for the professional sniper community, such an outlet exists. SniperWeek is the largest and longest-running police sniper, training event of its kind anywhere in the world.

Since a humble beginning in 1993, this event has grown exponentially in size and reputation. Today, sniper teams and administrators come from all over the country to share information and receive hands-on experience in the art of the police sniper.

SniperWeek was conceived and orchestrated by Snipercraft Inc., a nonprofit training organization dedicated to the education and support of police snipers. Derrick Bartlett, a 16-year member of the Fort Lauderdale, FL Police SWAT sniper team, is the director of Snipercraft Inc. As they have done so often, he and his staff of friends and volunteers succeeded in putting on another outstanding training event.

SniperWeek is held each spring in Tampa, FL, hosted by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and sponsored, in part, by SRT Supply. The four-day event is divided into the Educational Seminar and the Snipercraft Challenge.

Lieutenant Jeff Felts is a former sniper team leader with the Western Wayne Township Police Department in Michigan, as well as the president of Center Mass Inc. He set the tone for the educational seminar with his presentation targeted toward the supervisors in the audience, meticulously spelling out their responsibilities and liabilities.

Seargent Mike Tkac, from the Newington, CT Police Department, Officer Todd Koster, with the Burnham, IL Police Department, and Deputy Mike Hansen, a sniper with the Palm Beach County, FL Sheriff’s Office, each presented debriefings of recent sniper incidents. Each situation had its own set of challenges and lessons learned.

Tkac was part of a multi-jurisdictional response to a cop killer who barricaded himself in his basement with a rifle. He and his teammates dealt with a highly emotional situation with great discipline and professionalism. In the end, the bad guy died, but the cost was too high. Tkac’s presentation ended with a very moving video tribute to the officer who was murdered.

Koster saved the life of a hostage by shooting an armed individual hovering over her in a darkened doorway and threatening to kill her. He talked about his difficulty in finding a functional sniper hide, especially dealing with lighting conditions. His shot came seconds after crawling into a position where he could see the threat.

Hansen was placed in the unenviable position of having to shoot an ex-police officer. His situation was mitigated by the fact the person was firing shots and making threats to kill the first SWAT officer to come through his door. When he came charging out the front door wearing body armor and waving a gun, Hansen did what was necessary to protect his team.

Seargent Major Mark Spicer is a former UK sniper, instructor and author. He made the trip across the ocean to give a lively lecture on sniping issues, with a British flair. Although salted with humorous quips, Spicer’s presentation was rich in tactical information, borne from years of experience in war zones around the world. He made the audience aware of the potential future threat presented to tactical teams by a terrorist sniper.

The most dramatic lecture came from Officer Norm Brice, from Arizona. Nearly five years ago, he was a first responder to a hostage situation. A man on a meth binge was barricaded in his home with a shotgun and an infant. He was on the phone making threats to kill the cops, the child, and himself. Brice was in position with his sniper rifle when the subject exited the house and started yelling demands.

Not getting the response he was looking for, the subject turned to go back into the house. As Brice told it, he felt he could not let the subject go back inside and place the child back in imminent danger. He made the decision to protect the child by shooting and killing the subject before he could step inside the door and retrieve his gun. He should have been celebrated as a hero.

Instead, he has spent the past four plus years fighting to get his job back. Although he has been cleared at every legal and civil level, his agency saw fit to demote him and strip him of his police status. His struggle to regain his job has cost him more than money.

His story stirred anger, frustration, and anguish in every sniper in the audience. For complete details on Brice’s story, visit www.notruthnojustice.com. This Web site has all the reports and documents related to the incident and the aftermath. He received a well-deserved standing ovation for sharing such an emotional and personal experience with the sniper community.

Disseminating this type of information, both the good and the bad, is one of the highlights of SniperWeek. Those who relive their experiences with them appreciate the honesty and openness of each speaker. The lessons learned here will not soon be forgotten. Some will be put to use in the future.

The Snipercraft Challenge

The Snipercraft Challenge long has been recognized as unique among the growing number of “sniper competitions.” First, the Challenge is designed to be a police sniper event. The emphasis is on courses, which will serve as realistic training. The Snipercraft staff constantly evaluates police sniper shootings that occur around the country. They look at the distances, shooting platforms, and target exposures, and try to develop courses of fire that incorporate those factors. Sniper teams are briefed, given a short background on the shooting the course was modeled after, and sent out to tackle it.

This approach differs greatly from the courses, which lean more toward the military sniper mission capabilities in distances and target types. Here, the longest shot is 100 yards, and the largest target is 3 inches in diameter. Every course includes time constraints and physical exertion, which help to ratchet up the stress level. Teamwork, communications, planning, decision-making and physical conditioning are given equal weight to marksmanship skills, just like real-world missions.

This year, 53 teams from around the country came to the Wyoming Antelope Club to test their skills against the devious minds of Snipercraft. The WAC, as it is referred to, is a private shooting club and range, nestled in an industrial park near St. Petersburg, FL. The WAC has hosted the Challenge for three years and has provided a friendly and versatile venue.

Day 1 starts with the customary safety briefings and a rundown of the rules. Teams are reminded to forget the gamesmanship that sometimes appears at competitions, and to treat this as training. To that end, the teams were required to shoot all eight courses while wearing their full callout uniform. Some teams later confessed that this was a new experience. Teams were divided into five groups and sent to different ranges to start the competition. Here is a brief descriptions of what teams faced and what was learned:

Hunter-Killer is a perennial course and one of the most disliked. This course requires an eye for detail and a plan for communicating with your partner. Target identification is an essential sniper skill. Watching teams attempt this course, it became clear who worked on those skills and who didn’t. The shooting was the easy part.

Sniper Hunt also required keen observation skills. Teams had to search a visually complex target array to find their specific targets and then shoot at a very small exposed area, while the clock ticked away. The pressure created by the time constraint did terrible things to some snipers’ shooting skills.

With a name like Impure Marksman, you instantly know this won’t be simple, and the course does not disappoint. Snipers are required to shoot from a variety of standard and nonstandard positions, while sucking air through a gas mask after doing scores of pushups.

Hearing they would be shooting a course where the target is only 10 yards away gave a false sense of confidence to a number of teams. However, if you have never tried it before, shooting a scoped rifle, so close to your target, is problematic. Such was the situation awaiting them in Rusty’s Rescue.

There was another cruel twist incorporated in this course, which I won’t divulge. When you hear the story of the actual sniper shooting this event was based on, you can only shake your head in admiration for a job well-done in tough circumstances.

“SWAT/sniper range training should prepare the sniper for his real-world mission. If it hasn’t, then all you have accomplished to date is punching some holes in paper,” Bartlett said. “Everything we ask snipers to do in this event, some sniper, somewhere else, has had to do in real life.” Based on comments overheard, as some teams were coming offline from some events, they have been found guilty of punching holes in paper.

More than a few snipers admitted to never having tried things such as shooting from awkward positions or while wearing a gas mask. Bartlett considers this a victory. “The Challenge is meant to be a measuring stick. These courses will quickly show a team their strengths and their weaknesses. If you haven’t trained to do certain things, there’s no faking it.”

The last course in the Day 1 rotation was a new addition this year. The Shooting Gallery forced snipers off their bipods and out of their comfort zones when choosing improvised shooting platforms. One shooter referred to them as “can’t quite positions,” as in you can’t quite stand, you can’t quite kneel, etc. Each position was taken directly from a police sniper shooting in recent years. That was little consolation to the teams battling time, small targets and discomfort to complete the course.

During the barbeque, which followed the first day of shooting, snipers sat around exchanging war stories and comparing lessons learned, both here and in the field. Many confessed they were going to be making changes to their training programs based on what they had seen so far.

Day 2 included three recurrent courses, the Cold Shot, Bullseye Course and the Bonus Round. The Cold Shot got the blood flowing and the adrenaline pumping with a hard run preceding shots on a hostage rescue target arrangement. Unfortunately, a few hostages ended up with misplaced bullet holes.

The Bullseye Course was fired from the comfort of the prone bipod position. However, snipers were forced to use their weak-side shoulder. This was another of those “we’ve never done this” moments for some teams. What was interesting was watching some snipers struggle with the mechanics of shooting a rifle using their weak shoulder and opposite eye.

The final event is the Bonus Round, which can turn into a game of high-stakes gambling. Teams know, going into the final round, where they are in the standings. They have to make a decision as to how daring they want, or have, to be shooting this round. Targets carry various point values, depending on the difficulty of the shot. Hitting a hostage carries an equal penalty.

A lot is at stake here, and teams have to approach this course with a clear strategy and great accuracy. I can’t tell you any more about the course than that, but it is fun to watch. Teams throw everything they have into this last hurrah.

As has happened nearly every year of the Challenge, the winners weren’t determined until the last shots were fired. Historically, the teams that win don’t do so by being spectacular at any one skill, point or course. Instead, they win by being good, consistently.

Larry Rodriguez and Mike Schaefer, federal narcotics agents, bought their own equipment and paid their own way to Tampa from Bolivia to compete this year. They practiced together for several months in advance of making the trip. In the end, their preparation showed. They held off all comers to win the 2006 Snipercraft Challenge.

Their efforts were rewarded with a pair of AE rifles, donated by event sponsor Accuracy International, and a Universal Night Sight, donated by co-sponsor Optical Systems Technology.

SniperWeek continues to live up to its reputation as the premier police sniper training event. We live in a dangerous world, and preparation is a necessity for those tasked with protecting us. Each year, Snipercraft manages to distribute relevant information, attract inspirational speakers, and provide hands-on training that is beneficial and fun.

Based on its scope, focus and content, SniperWeek remains a “must attend” event for every serious sniper team member. There is simply not a better opportunity to tap into the rest of the sniper community. For those of you who can’t make the trip to Florida, SniperWeek West is held each October in San Diego, CA. Information and dates for SniperWeek East and West can be found on Snipercraft’s Web site, www.snipercraft.org.

Devon Black is a former police officer and tactical team member with more than a decade of experience. He is currently a freelance writer, specializing in articles about SWAT and sniper issues. He can be reached at devonblack@bellsouth.net.

Published in Tactical Response, Jul/Aug 2006

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