There is more to sniping than shooting.
Snipercraft’s 20th SniperWeek
By: Devon Black
Twenty years ago, a brainstorming session by three Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Police SWAT snipers resulted in the creation of Snipercraft. The purpose was to facilitate organizing and hosting a sniper tournament in Florida. After months of planning, and surviving an interruption caused by Hurricane Andrew, they managed to pull it off. The Snipercraft Challenge drew about 30 snipers from around the state for two days of learning and fun. What was supposed to be a one-time event has turned into the cornerstone of the police sniper community.
Derrick Bartlett still serves as Snipercraft’s director and guiding force. He is also the President of the American Sniper Association. He has used his 22 years of SWAT/sniper experience to shape the mission of both organizations. Snipercraft emphasizes technical knowledge as much as it does tactical skill.
Training, competitions and support services have been provided by Snipercraft to agencies throughout the country. And for 20 years, Snipercraft has hosted a gathering of snipers from around the world called SniperWeek. This is the largest and longest-running police sniper training event anywhere. Snipers and SWAT officers from all over the United States, Canada, South America and Europe have attended, making this truly a world-class affair.
In 2012, over 300 people attended the SniperWeek conferences. Over 100 teams competed in the two challenges. This unique training event is held each spring in Florida, and each fall in California. SniperWeek starts with a two-day educational seminar. Speakers from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and expertise have stood at the podium over the years. Nearly everyone who is anyone in the sniper community has presented there.
Luminaries like Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Chris Kyle, Mark Spicer, Jeff Martone and Pavel Tsatsouline are among the impressive list of high-profile speakers who have addressed SniperWeek audiences. Twenty years ago, at the very first Snipercraft seminar, Major John Plaster was the featured speaker. His seminal book, The Ultimate Sniper, had just been published, and few in the room even knew who he was. His career has come a long way in the past two decades, and it was only fitting that he was the featured speaker at Snipercraft’s 20th anniversary.
In addition to Major Plaster, this year’s conference speakers presented relevant and stimulating subject matter. Giles Stock, a law enforcement representative for Hornady Ammunition, made a detailed presentation that answered every question snipers could have about how bullets work. He also addressed the dangerous beliefs some snipers still have about using boattail hollowpoint bullets for sniper work.
Tod Litt, with Nightforce Optics, brought an authoritative voice and years of technical expertise to the podium. He was able to provide an interesting and easily understood look at sniper optics, both current and what’s coming in the near future. One of the more provocative issues he addressed was his preference for second focal plane scopes for police snipers, as opposed to the latest market push in favor of front focal plane. He made a sound and surprising argument for choosing equipment based on operational needs, rather than hype.
One of the most impressive speakers at Florida’s SniperWeek was Laura Scarry. She is an attorney from Illinois, who has made a career out of providing legal assistance to police officers in use-of-force cases. Her personal background as a police officer added to her credibility with the audience. She clearly explained every aspect of the law as it pertains to use of deadly force and the subsequent investigations.
She dispelled many long-held beliefs about cases like Tennessee v Garner, or Graham v Conner, and administrative practices like the Use of Force Matrix. She was equally authoritative, informative and entertaining. Every cop who carries a gun for a living needs to sit in on one of her lectures, wherever she may appear.
Of course, the main attraction of the SniperWeek conferences is the many sniper incident debriefings. This year included incidents from Texas and California. While all were informative, the two which caused the most after-hours conversations were stories of shots untaken or unsuccessful. Each was a step-by-step blueprint of worse case scenarios made worse by bad judgment and administration.
Perennial issues like selection and training of personnel, deployment positions, equipment choices and leadership all came into play, and could have led to tragic outcomes. Hopefully, the open sharing of both incidents and the lessons learned by those involved will make future teams safer and more effective. This is just one of the benefits of SniperWeek.
Snipercraft enjoys the support of companies like Accuracy International, SRT Supply, Mile High Shooting Accessories, Black Hills Ammunition, Hornady Ammunition and Nightforce Optics. Every year, they are in attendance as primary sponsors. They have also provided assistance throughout the training year with product donations and literature.
The educational conference is followed by two days of live-fire range training. The Snipercraft Challenge and its West Coast equivalent, the Pacific Challenge, are not billed as sniper competitions. That term has been used by competitive shooters and fat old guys with scoped rifles to a point where it has lost its distinction. Instead, they are called competitive training events. Each course of fire is purposely designed to test a sniper team’s operational skills.
Using information garnered from the world’s most comprehensive sniper shooting database, Snipercraft is able to create courses of fire that incorporate situations, distances, shooting positions, and target exposures real snipers faced on real-world operations. Sniper teams are asked to demonstrate on demand their ability to perform what other snipers already have. The event serves as a crucible, a realistic yardstick by which a team can measure its readiness. It shows teams whether they have been training to be snipers, or just cops with scoped rifles.
Bartlett often reminds those in attendance “there is more to sniping than shooting.” The Challenges reaffirm that position. Anyone can lay down behind a scoped rifle and hit bullseye targets, some obviously better than others. Sniper teams here are expected to do the other things, like observe, communicate, process information and overcome physical stress, all while shooting accurately. These skill packages are tested by courses like Hunter-Killer and this year’s new nemesis, Math Wiz.
Hunter-Killer has been a part of the Challenge for nearly 10 years. It is a deviously simple premise. Snipers are given a target ID booklet to examine. Downrange is a target array with dozens of photographs. The team must properly identify, locate, and shoot their targets within a specific timeframe. However, there is a twist to the procedure that tests a team’s observation skills, their team communication, and their trust in one another. While some teams have the communications component required by this course mastered, others found themselves frustrated.
Math Wiz is equally simple, and insidious. Teams are given a booklet with four simple math problems in it. The teams must solve the problems with pen and paper (the old fashioned way), before they can go on to the next page. Their answers then correspond to target ID pictures, which they must now match up to their target down range. After making a proper ID, they must then shoot it accurately. All of this occurs with the clock running. For such a simple set of tasks, doing them under stress completely derailed some teams. It made some teams very unhappy.
Bartlett had a very good argument defending the course. On every callout, snipers are expected to take in information from a variety of sources – their briefing, what they see down range, what they hear over the radio, and any other sources that may arise. They will be constantly processing that stream of information and distilling it into intelligence, which will lead to them making decisions on what courses of action they will take during the callout, including whether or not to shoot someone. And they are doing this with a clock running, only in the real world, they don’t know when the clock hits zero.
Math Wiz was designed to force sniper teams to process streams of information, use the conclusions to move forward to make tactical decisions, and then shoot accurately under stress. Faulty processing leads to bad conclusions, which leads to bad outcomes. It is a controlled and repeatable model of the sniper’s job on a callout. As expected, some teams did very well on this, while others found they have work to do.
Each year the Challenge engages teams in seven or eight courses of fire, which push them out of their comfort zones, while testing the full range of their martial skills. And because there is always a historical precedent to each course, it is difficult to argue about the realism or relevance. Sniper teams are rarely allowed to shoot from a comfortable prone bipod position. Instead, they are expected to be able to assume not only the standards like standing, sitting and kneeling, but wicked variations like rollover prone and squatting.
Real world situations also justified forcing competitors to shoot while utilizing shooting sticks, as well as a stress course wearing a gas mask. Everything is shot under duress, and the added burden of peer pressure. The prepared excel; many other teams get a reality check. If you want to find out where your team is operationally, this is where you have to go.
The Snipercraft Challenge in Florida was won by Mike Bertucci and Phil Glover from Valley (Spokane), Wash. Police SWAT. The Pacific Challenge was won by Matt Emrey and Omar Mondragon with the Escondido, Calif. Police. Congratulations to both teams for doing what many have tried, but only a select few have achieved.
The 21st year for Snipercraft promises to be every bit as busy as the first 20 years. The training calendar is full, with classes held around the country. SniperWeek will be in Clearwater, Fla. on April 3–6. SniperWeek West will be held in Elk Grove, Calif. on Oct. 8–11. Since this is a professional training event, SniperWeek is restricted to law enforcement, corrections and military personnel. Details for all of Snipercraft activities can be found on the website. If you are looking for the very best in information, support and training for the police sniper, there is no better place to start.
Devon Black is a former police officer and SWAT team member. He now works as a freelance writer of police and SWAT related articles for a number of tactical magazines. He can be reached at email@example.com.