As the police sniper for your team on a callout you are 85 yards away from your target. The target is in a renovated condo building on the 15th floor. You are armed with your semi-auto .308 precision rifle. You have chambered a purpose built bonded round that you hope and pray can penetrate the glass that you are observing the suspect through. You have no near glass but the far glass may be a problem. At times the suspect comes directly up to the window but most times is at little off the window. You have requested through radio channels any and all information on the window type and thickness. You’re told it is structural glass. To make matters a little more trying you have swirling winds as you’re downtown with many tall buildings. If you had to fire at the suspect, there is no guarantee you could penetrate the medium - that glass - and hit the intended suspect. To make matters more complicated, you observe another person inside and it’s unknown if they are a hostage or another bad guy. These and other similar circumstances play out for the police sniper quite often.
Others factors, such as the suspect’s distance away from the ‘far’ glass and your angle to the glass, are all important. Complicate that even more with another innocent in the apartment within close proximity to the suspect and you begin to get the idea that you may need a little extra fire power to increase your chances of stopping the actions of the suspect if needed. Is there a legitimate need for special application rifles when you have possibly exceeded the limitations and capabilities of your .308 weapon system? Unequivocally, Yes!
The above incident was an actual operation. The particular callout emphasized the need to have a special application rifle that could defeat a structural glass medium. A .300 Win Mag would probably do the job. A .338 would most definitely. A .50 would be overkill. A Special Application Rifle is defined as a weapon system that has a purpose built capability to perform with superior ballistics to defeat a medium or stop a hard target and that exceeds the capabilities of the standard issued law enforcement precision rifle.
I will not turn this article into one about ballistics because frankly I may lose your interest (it’s a conversation that can get boring unless you’re really interested in it). Ballistics, simply defined, is the study of a projectile in motion. Internal ballistics focus on the projectile while it is within the weapon system. External ballistics focus on the projectile as it moves through the air between the weapon system and the target. Terminal ballistics focus on the projectile after it impacts the target.
With the above scenario we are concerned mostly with the terminal ballistics. What happens after the projectile impacts the medium and what the results are as it travels to the intended target. The majority of police snipers in the United States use some variant of the bolt action or semi-auto chambered in .308 Winchester. It has been the go to caliber for many decades. It has served the community well, but it is not the end all be all.
The mere mention of obtaining a rifle with a caliber greater than a .308 usually prompts supervisors to ask a slew of questions. Their comments may include:
- You have not ever needed one before, so why you are on this kick to get one now?
- You guys have not shot at any one in 25 years. The chances of us needing you to make that shot are rare, so let’s just keep trucking along with your trusty .308.
- Oh, by the way we don’t have the money.
What you should not forget is this simple concept: Operational needs drive obtaining new equipment. If you are a police sniper with an agency of good size, undoubtedly you have had operations in the past where the need for a greater caliber precision rifle would have been beneficial. After this occurred, what did you do or not do?
Let me be frank about this, you cannot rely on the next person to do the job. You should build your case from an operational need each time and present a solution to your chain of command. Perhaps you need to do some testing and evaluation. Simply going to the chief and asking for a .338 Lapua rifle and not having an established operational need combined with a testing & evaluation report at least started may doom you from the beginning. Set yourself up for success. How do you go about this process?
Testing & Evaluation
Many times SWAT officers learn of new equipment and are too fast to want it - like a kid at Christmas. This is a process and it may not yield results immediately. First, what is the operational need that has brought you to this point? Even if you did not fire your rifle during an operation where a need was demonstrated, you still can have success obtaining critical new equipment.
Second, identify what caliber you need. What is needed to defeat the issue at hand with certainty? Research the different ammunition manufacturers and see the different types of rounds available. Contact other sniper teams. The .300/.338/.50 are some of the more common caliber types under consideration by law enforcement and in use. Be careful to not fall into the trap of thinking there is a ‘magic’ bullet for either of these calibers. More than likely you will need a minimum of two types of rounds to serve you well.
Third, conduct your own independent testing of different weapon manufacturers to see what fits your team’s needs the best. At a minimum, get 3 different rifles for testing. At this point do not allow yourself to be swayed away from the more pricey rifles. Remember you are charged with public safety and you get what you pay for. Ask to have the representative or local vendor out for a demonstration, but ask to keep the rifle afterwards for you own testing. Most will accommodate you and understand your testing protocol. This also shows to your chain of command that you are taking this seriously and have a plan on recommending the appropriate special application rifle. Even invite your supervisor(s) out for testing. If they come, great. If not at least you extended an invitation as you try to keep them engaged.
This is where we sometimes drop the ball. You’ve done everything up to this point well. You submit paperwork requesting just one special application rifle. One rifle to serve all your sniper teams. This may occur for a few reasons. Perhaps, due to the overall price, including good quality optics, you are reluctant to ask for more than one even when you need it. In addition, you have ammunition to purchase. Maybe your peers are telling you there is no way you’re going to get two or three. Maybe a supervisor has counselled you to not ask for what you need but start small with the anticipation of getting more at a later time. Carpe Diem! It has been this author’s experience that asking for what you would like to have to cover any and all contingencies serves you the best in the long haul. Each police agency is different and at the end of the day you know your people best. That said, please keep these suggestions in mind.
Think Big, Not Small
You have only yourself to blame if at the end of the day you have not because you ask not. The police sniper should be one of the most well trained SWAT team members. If you find yourself beaten down by the system, find a way to remotivate and get going or relinquish the position. Strive for excellence and not mediocrity. The mediocre team members will be the ones who will tell you there is no reason to do all the work, because in the end they will just say no. ‘No’ should be when you kick it in high gear, not give up the project. As always take great pride in your profession, but give your best to your profession and protecting your citizens.
For whom much is given, of him much shall be required!