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Special Application Scoped Rifle

Post 9/11, many in American law enforcement officers are striving to keep ahead of international terrorists, as well as motivated and sometimes well-trained criminals. Even so, many American police agencies are still forced to keep their response tactics “contemporary” in dealing with these new and more dangerous threats.

In the past, forward thinkers were thought of as people who “think outside of the box.” In the words of retired Master Sergeant Neil Morris USMC senior sniper instructor, “there is no longer a box to think outside of.” Considering this precept, the use of a large caliber, Special Application Scoped Rifle (SASR) system can provide the tactical police community with valid options, which were heretofore unheard of.

The use of an SASR system and training program is designed to be an additional tool for sniper teams and not intended to totally replace the more commonly utilized .308 caliber sniper rifles used by the police in the U.S. For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on the use of a .50 caliber weapon system, both semi-automatic or bolt action such as the Barrett M82A1 or the McMillan Tactical 50. This is not to limit the user from other large caliber variations.

The tactical application options of an SASR system include but are not limited to: heavy barricade penetration, disabling vehicles (automobiles, aircraft, trains, and armored vehicles), counter sniping, extreme distance engagement and safely destroying booby traps/explosive devices.

The SASR system is designed to be a crew served weapon and normally requires a two-man team to deploy and operate it. As with the Barrett M82A1, the SASR can be broken down into separate pieces for easier transportation. The estimated maximum effective range of a .50 caliber SASR is approximately 2,000 yards. Precision fire with the .50 BMG caliber SASR is largely dependant upon the marriage of proper ammunition and properly trained personnel.

Traditional ball ammunition is not designed to meet the accuracy requirements needed in police application of an SASR system. Ammunition capable of law enforcement level precision rifle fire with the SASR requires the use of AP (armor piercing) or AMAX projectiles.

As modern day building codes are updated, the windows and doors of many commercial and residential buildings are being fitted with heavy glass and safety films. This new technology is intended to withstand severe weather or unlawful forced entry and dependant on the nature of the incident, the police sniper may be required to fire through such barriers.

Engaging human targets through intermediate barriers is a topic unto itself and an important consideration for the police sniper. However, currently available .308 caliber ammunition has severe terminal performance limitations after first passing through an intermediate barrier such as hurricane glass.

The use of heavier projectiles, like those of the .50-caliber SASR, reduces the likelihood of deflection, fragmentation, and failure of penetration, which are common traits of standard .308-caliber sniper ammunition on various types of intermediate barriers. A certain level of risk and unpredictability associated with shooting through intermediate barriers always exists, no matter the caliber utilized. The key here is that a larger caliber projectile has greater predictability as it penetrates the barrier.

To meet modern threats, police need to evaluate the past and present methods currently being used by suspects and terrorists. As we saw with the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma, and are now seeing in Iraq and the Middle East, the use of mobile and improvised explosives is becoming a common tactic for terror. Our ability to predict and combat these types of attacks has been somewhat limited.

One example of a tactical option is to be able to control the avenues of approach to the locations we wish to protect. By controlling these avenues, it is a viable option to engage and disable a vehicle at long range before the vehicle can close and detonate. A standard caliber rifle may only enable a police sniper to possibly neutralize the driver of a vehicle, leaving a driverless, moving vehicle laden with explosives. This is unacceptable, as the vehicle is still a clear and present danger.

However, the use of a .50 caliber weapon system against an engine block or the vital working parts of a vehicle can be used with successful catastrophic result against the actual vehicle itself. The consequences of multiple shots on an engine block and or an axle should disable a moving vehicle. This is not to say that the vehicle will be immediately stopped cold due to basic physics and the laws of motion but rather that the vehicle will be disabled before it reaches the intended target.

The SASR can also be used against larger and heavier targets, such as trains, tractor-trailers, boats, armored vehicles, and aircrafts. Without this option, police can only watch and wait. The ability to engage the suspect or terrorist at our discretion serves as a tactical advantage. One example of this is the United States Coast Guard HITRON unit. This unit has been successfully engaging the engines of suspected marine craft entering U.S. waters and disabling them in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

Modern day terrorists and suspects may have high caliber weapons or basic sniper training equal or similar to that of the first responders. Dealing with trained or motivated individuals such as these may require that police have a long distance or “stand off” option from the suspect. These types of scenarios require that the police have the ability to engage targets at greater distances than the suspects or terrorists can engage the police.

Should this type of motivated individual barricade himself in a building or fortification, it is likely that the suspect will have the foresight to identify or develop kill zones. These are areas that potential victims or responders would be drawn into and where victim/responder casualties can be maximized for the greatest effect.

If a subject were to obtain high ground, for example on a tower, his position would need to engage from a longer distance and the possible existence of intermediate barriers again also comes into play. The University of Texas tower incident of the 1960s and the New Orleans Howard Johnson of the 1970s immediately come to mind.

Another consideration currently affecting modern law enforcement is the proliferation of clandestine meth labs. The criminals who operate these clandestine labs often tend to be users of their own product. A common side effect of meth is chronic paranoia which results in individuals who are highly alert to possible police presence. Clan labs are sometimes booby trapped and purposefully located in remote areas so that suspects can spot approaching vehicles and or persons.

The use of the SASR successfully accommodates both the long distance observation and engagement option, which are the primary functions of a sniper employed in such a scenario. Furthermore, the disposal of the equipment from these labs can be extremely dangerous and the use of an accurate SASR system can assist in destroying this equipment from a safe distance.

Technology being introduced into the American tactical community for the first time is often met with skepticism, myths and realities. These issues affect the use of the SASR even more so as a large caliber sniper rifle, which is mostly only used by the military, is often seen only as an unnecessary liability.

Many questions are asked from personnel with limited knowledge but often with the authority over whether an SASR program is implemented. Officers who have attempted to institute a SASR program are often required to field the same questions time and again.

The question of penetration and accuracy can be addressed simply. The large caliber rounds used by an SASR system are rifle rounds. The same concept of backstop and beyond applies to any firearm, discharged by any law enforcement officer, no matter the caliber. Ammunition selection and the knowledge and understanding of both its capabilities and limitations are critical. Large caliber rifle rounds are not magic; they need to be respected as well as understood.

The myth that an AP round will enter an object and keep on going is not true. During a recent training operation the author attended, AP rounds were fired at various portions of a vehicle. The rounds fired at the engine block penetrated deeply but remained in the engine block. Of the rounds fired at the cab of the vehicle, some entered the cab and several rounds lodged in the cab proper. Several rounds exited the vehicle but were found in close proximity (within 10 feet) of the vehicle.

The Fifty Caliber Shooter Association is a civilian competitive shooting association that has validated that the .50 BMG cartridge can be fired accurately at extreme distances with a proper weapon, ammunition and a competent operator. This is not to conclude that police snipers should build their operational response capabilities solely upon the successes of competition shooters, but as with all other response capabilities, there are lessons to be learned and gleaned from multiple sources of information.

Fortuitous outcomes reinforce bad tactics…so we should not be led into the false sense of security that “Nothing went wrong so we must have done it right,” or “We have been fine with what we have and what we have been doing.” The fact of the matter may be that we very well may have just gotten lucky and we need to be smart enough to realize it. 9/11 was a wake up call. Anything can happen anywhere.

The SASR system, while possibly controversial, is nothing more than an additional tool to enhance the response capabilities of police special weapons teams. The primary mission of the police in society “is to save lives”. If we continue to think outside of the box we will continue to have success. If we do things as we have always done them, we will get what we have always gotten.

David Agata is a police officer in Coral Springs, FL. He has been a tactical team member since 1996 and a police sniper since 1998. He presently serves as the sniper team leader. He is an adjunct instructor for Snipercraft and is member of the American Sniper Association. He may be reached at

Published in Tactical Response, Jan/Feb 2006

Rating : 9.7

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