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The Sniper's Most Dangerous Option

A decade ago, a sharpshooter in the Midwest saved a person from killing himself by shooting the revolver from his hand with a .308 Win sniper rifle. This was a shot heard throughout the sniper community.

Everywhere, snipers, tactical commanders, and departmental administrators debated and discussed the pros and cons of this instantly controversial tactic. Some were impressed with the success in this instance and felt it was a tactic that merited practice and consideration. Others took a more skeptical stand, realizing the dangers inherent in this course of tactical action.

The shot that day was absolutely perfect. Everything went as well as anyone could have hoped. The shot struck the weapon at precisely the right point; the weapon broke apart and was rendered inoperable. The subject holding the gun was unharmed, although, that was a matter of chance rather than skill. After all, a large piece of metal cut an equally large hole in the front leg of his chair. None of the many bystanders were hurt by flying debris or bullet fragments. And the subject was not carrying a second weapon. He sat quietly and waited until assault team members took him to the ground and into custody.

Of course, the team responsible took full credit for the success of their operation. The sniper was seen on national TV claiming to be able to place his shots “within a thirty-secondth of an inch.” Pretty amazing when one considers all of the uncontrollable factors that influence a shot. Strangely, even manufacturers of the finest sniper rifles guarantee no greater than a quarter minute of angle accuracy from their weapons. He knew exactly where to strike the weapon to make it inoperable, send the parts in a safe direction, and did it from 65 yards away.

Do we realistically attribute this end result to rifle skill, dumb luck, or a fortuitous blend of both? Unfortunately, their success made others believe that this was a reasonable tactical option.

What else could have happened? On another day, with another sniper shooting at another weapon, how might the story have ended? This particular incident was highly publicized, appearing in local and national news reports. However, other less publicized incidents have met with less perfect results.

The idea of keeping an individual from killing himself by shooting at him is frightening, dangerous, and in most states, illegal. Although I have always been very vocal in my opposition to the use of this tactic from the beginning, I felt it was important to conduct an objective study to document the facts, which support our belief. As a good friend of mine likes to say, “If I can’t show you the math, then it is just my opinion.”

To accomplish this, members of the American Sniper Association set up a controlled series of tests and recorded the results for analysis. Armed with these facts, plus anecdotal evidence, informed decisions regarding the employment of this tactic can be made. The decision to mount this project took on a higher level of urgency after another Midwest agency sniper shot a gun from the hand of a suicidal individual several months ago. A second incident in the South a few weeks later proved the tactic was still being touted and employed, in spite of efforts to steer teams away from it.

Ours is not the first test of this type, nor is it the definitive, comprehensive study on the topic. It was not our intention to develop a chart of statistical probabilities for various outcomes, but we did shoot at 20 different weapons. Percentages generated from this sampling would be irrelevant. Instead, the value of this study is seen in a review of the highlights among our test shots. Our tests were intended to collect empirical data, and demonstrate a spectrum of possible outcomes.

To conduct our tests, we constructed a clamping device. This was a platform made of 5/8 inch plywood to which a steel vise was bolted. This would be used to hold the test weapons in place. Certainly, the vise would hold the weapon a lot firmer than any person would grip it. However, for safety purposes we wanted to limit the movement of the weapons after they were impacted by our shots. This control was appreciated after the first firearm discharged on impact.

Foamcore backers were set up on three sides of the clamping device. White butcher paper was suspended between the cardboard panels. These “witness panels” would help us document the flight of any fragments, debris, and bullets. We fired shots at a variety of weapons, including revolvers, semi-automatic handguns, rifles, and shotguns.

Members of the American Sniper Association and the South Florida Community College Video Productions staff documented the entire test. High-speed videotapes and digital still photographs were taken of each shot and its aftermath.

Snipers from the Ft. Lauderdale, FL Police and the Collier County, FL Sheriff’s Office took the test shots. The snipers used bolt-action .308 Win rifles from 40 yards. This was done, in part, to help insure accurate shot placement at precise aim points on the targeted weapons. It was also a concession to the safety of the personnel involved in the testing. Anticipating the possibility of flying debris, we didn’t want to place our shooters too close. We started learning lessons of great value from the very outset.

First, we were made aware of the difficulty of placing the perfect shot. Each weapon was held stationary in a clamping device. The shooters fired from supported bench rest. Each sniper had to call his shot, designating his intended point of impact. Even under these controlled circumstances some of the shooters failed to place their first shots exactly on designated aim points. This proved to us that shooting a weapon from a hand, which could be moving in a random fashion, at any practical distance, is as much luck as it is skill. Don’t kid yourselves. Such a shot in real life leaves no margin for error.

The Results

This is a brief recap of significant results from our tests. Shooting a loaded Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolver in the cylinder resulted in the cylinder exploding in a shower of metal and lead shrapnel as four rounds detonated. Metal fragments penetrated several witness panels. A round through the slide of a cheap .380 ACP auto pistol resulted in a shower of metal fragments into the backer. A Makarov handgun was struck in the magazine well twice, but was still fully functional and capable of firing the round in the chamber.

Firing a single shot that struck just behind the cylinder area of a .22 revolver resulted in two rounds detonating and the gun exploding in spectacular fashion. Fragments and parts were seen penetrating the backers on three sides of the clamping device. Some of the recovered parts landed as far as 20 yards away.

Shots fired at several long guns yielded notable results. A Sako 30-06 rifle was shot in the bolt area. The chambered round detonated, blowing a large hole in a witness panel. Examining the weapon, we found that the single round in the magazine had also detonated.

A .308 Win was fired at the chamber area of a full stock Ithaca shotgun. The gun discharged, and the resulting recoil flung the gun over the witness panels. A second shotgun discharged a round from the chamber and a second from the magazine tube after being struck near the bolt.

On two occasions, the sniper round passed completely through the target weapon and punched a clean hole in the witness panel behind it. A constant in all of the weapons shot was the significant amount of metal spilling and fragmentation. The witness panels clearly captured this consequence of tactical disarmament. Most of the loaded weapons we shot at detonated as a result of being struck. This meant rounds being discharged in completely random directions. In a perfect world, on a perfect day, a single shot from a high-powered rifle can surgically remove and neutralize a weapon held in the hand of a suicidal subject. There will be no injuries caused by the bullet fired or secondary missiles. Errant rounds and sympathetic discharges will not endanger bystanders. However, we don’t work in a perfect world.

If you or your agency give any thought to using tactical disarmament as a tactical option, please be aware of the possible consequences and outcomes. The targeted weapon is probably going to be in motion and partially obscured by the hand of the person wielding it. The weapon is already a small target. In the case of firearms, the point needing to be struck in order to completely disable it is even smaller. Failure to disable the weapon with one shot can, and has, cause tragic outcomes.

The sniper will be shooting a frangible, high-speed, lead projectile at a steel object, possibly containing a number of explosive cartridges. When the weapon is struck, there is going to be substantial fragmentation, a mixture of metal and lead. Displaced metal will fly away from the point of impact at all angles and at speeds in excess of 1000 feet per second. These fragments will vary in size, but many will be large enough, and traveling fast enough, to lacerate, maim, blind, or kill. There will be no way of predicting or controlling the extent, speed, or direction of the fragmentation.

In the case of loaded firearms, there is a strong possibility it will discharge after being impacted by a rifle shot. The rounds discharged by the weapon will also depart in unpredictable directions. Striking the magazine or cylinder increases the danger of sympathetic detonations, adding more errant projectiles. By firing the shot, the sniper will place everyone in the vicinity at risk of injury or worse, including the person he is trying to “save.”

This is not meant to imply something bad will always happen when attempting to shoot a weapon from someone’s hand. It simply means something bad certainly can happen.

In Oregon, a weapon was shot from the hand of an individual threatening himself and others. The round wounded him and knocked the gun from his right hand. However, as police rushed in, he picked up the still functional gun with his uninjured hand and used it to kill himself.

A robber is Montreal held police at bay by pointing a loaded semiautomatic pistol at his head. The on-scene commander decided to use his snipers to disarm the individual at the first opportunity. The round fired from a distance of 22 meters and went through the magazine well of the weapon. At least one of the rounds in the magazine detonated. The impact, bullet strike, and sympathetic detonation resulted in a broken left arm, as well as the suicidal robber losing two fingers.

Not learning their lesson the first time, the same team was faced with a suicidal subject a few weeks later. The subject had been firing a rifle randomly in the neighborhood and trying to entice the police to kill him. A sniper was again ordered to disarm the subject. The sniper waited for an opening and shot the rifle away from the subject when it was pointed at the ground. As the arrest team rushed the subject to take him into custody, he picked the gun up and pointed it at the team. Not sure if the gun was still functional, the sniper felt it necessary to shoot and kill the subject to protect his team.

To this day, that agency in the Midwest still believes their actions were heroic, even though the commander on scene was recorded saying, “If the sniper screwed up, his career and mine would be over.” Not exactly a confident endorsement for a tactic.

History has demonstrated how hazardous this tactic can be. Knowing beforehand the high level of risk involved in employing tactical disarmament, any agency choosing to use this tactic should have an unlimited supply of settlement money on hand. There is no way to guarantee the safety of anyone at the scene of such a shooting.

The final outcome of this type of use of force is almost completely random. Avoiding injury or death is simply beyond the control of the shooter. Consider carefully whether or not this is still a viable tactical option. Careers, reputations, and lives may be riding on your final decision.

The American Sniper Association has produced a training video based on the information gained during their testing. "Tactical Disarming" is available on DVD for $20 plus shipping costs. Contact ASA at for details.

Derrick Bartlett is the president of the American Sniper Association and the director of Snipercraft, Inc. He has been a police sniper for 20 years and is currently a member of the Ft. Lauderdale, FL SWAT team. He may be reached via email at

Published in Tactical Response, Jan/Feb 2006

Rating : 10.0

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