The callout shortly after midnight came as a surprise to me. My squad was not on call back and for this to occur meant that an ‘all skate’ or all SWAT report was in effect. While driving to the location where the pursuit of a subject who was the focus of the callout had ended, I tried to piece together all information being broadcasted on the police radio. After arriving at the scene and assembling the Barrett M82/A1 .50 BMG rifle, it was time to find an optimal position that would allow a view of the front of the armored van the subject was in which turned out to be a position approximately 70 yards away.
The suspect was relatively unknown at this time and intelligence gathering took a while to develop. He had already fired upon the front of our police headquarters entrance with a rifle and also shot at arriving officers at that scene. Based on all the mounting information and accounts, this appeared to be a planned and deliberate attack on the police headquarters. The van that the suspect was in had already been engaged by officers with their duty pistols and carbines with no positive effect with the van being disabled only after a female officer had been successful with some spike strips thrown under the vehicle as it fled the scene on its way to an unknown destination.
As the crippled, up-armored vehicle set motionless, I realized that only by some forethought and training was I behind a weapon, a Barrett .50 precision semi-auto rifle, that was capable to defeat the steel-encased mobile bunker we were facing. We had obtained the capability and training on how to use this weapon over the past ten years but wondered when the time would come if ever that it was needed. Nevertheless it was in our SWAT tool box. In the next few hours my observer and I would be involved in the first use of this powerful rifle to stop a gunman, who had already shot hundreds of rounds towards the police.
We recognized that the vehicle, preparations and tactics were similar to how terrorists would deploy and had negated most of our law enforcement counter-force options. After hours of rotating on and off the rifle there was a single shot taken by my observer partner that ended the threat. Without question we all knew the value of this kind of firearm for police sniping in a tactical operation. As a result I helped pioneer the training and use of the .50 BMG round in special conditions that were covered in a course I taught early summer in central Florida.
Recently the Polk County Sheriff’s Office in Bartow, Florida hosted Tacflow’s 50 Cal/Hard Target Weapons Operator and Instructor Courses www.tacflow.com The Operator portion consisted of one day and the Instructor development carried on for an additional two days. The host agency was 50 Cal capable with a Barrett M107/CQ model, but had no formal training. Along with the semi-auto Barrett M107/CQ we used a Semi-auto Barrett M82/A1 and a bolt-action AR-50A1 from Strategic Armory Corps (www.sacfirearms.com) so the students could have a full training experience. With the recent events on June 13th, 2015 where the gunman opened fire on Dallas Police Officers and their Headquarters, Polk County Sheriff’s Office wanted to obtain formal training for their SWAT team to begin a program of sustainment and operational readiness.
The Dallas Model
Little did I know, back in 2005, when my SWAT team begin the process to acquire two Barrett M82A1 rifles that it would be so consequential in 2015. For ten years, our team had a 50 Cal program. First established with formal training from Master Sergeant Neil Morris (USMC Retired). Neil introduced us to the Barrett M82, 95 & 99 rifles. At this time the thought of a SWAT team having this weapon was not commonplace. Not only did Neil spend time teaching us about the rifle itself, but also the different areas the rifle could be used in operational deployments. Neil also gave us our first training in Aerial Platform and also had us firing the Barrett M82A1 from our Bell Jet Ranger 206. Throughout the subsequent years, sustainment training consisted of bi-annual qualification and the occasional deployment as needed. I felt many in the community probably felt the 50 Cal was a bit much with an urban SWAT team, but fortunately to some ‘big’ thinking and not the ‘small’ type, we were ahead of the game in that respect.
It would be an understatement to say that the deployment of the 50 Cal rifles at our operation last year was typical. It was a rapidly developing incident that demanded immediate deployment of a hard target weapon system. The suspect was held up in an armored van complete with shooting ports on three sides. The suspect being IED capable was confirmed when there was an explosion in the parking lot adjacent to the police headquarters by a device that had been left by the suspect. Our two 50 Cal’s arrived on scene in a timely manner and were deployed immediately by police snipers on the team. From the two-man rotations on and off the rifle to the proper ammunition selection, everything was reflective of the training that had occurred over the past ten years. There was huge confidence being behind this rifle due in large part to the training. Several lessons learned from this deployment was the impetus for new training iterations with the Polk County group and other teams.
Many agencies’ that have a 50 Cal rifles in the United States are in need of formalized training and may find themselves in the position of having a large caliber rifle for a ‘zombie apocalypse’ type operation. The question that should be asked is whether this specialized weapon system is treated as a last resort weapon and is the training is treated in the same manner. For a SWAT team to procure a 50 Cal rifle and only to effectively ‘sit’ on it and not have it backed up with documented training could be disastrous not only for an operation, but also open you and your agency up to legal precedents of failure to train. A 50 Cal rifle should be viewed and developed as a ‘program’. A program that will delineate formal training and sustainment training standards to include frequency of training and proper ammunition selection. This program is a specialty within the SWAT team. Carefully consideration should be given to who is assigned to the 50 Cal team. Not every police sniper is cut out to handle this weapon system and a vetting of current snipers should occur by supervisors to determine the most capable to assume this role.
One way to sabotage your 50 Cal program is to train it, but never deploy it. With the threat of vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) alone, the deployment of the 50 Cal rifle is justified. Overwatch positions at public venues, parades, protests or any large gathering where there is the potential for VBIED’s to penetrate the area must be protected with a Hard Target Weapon. These weapon systems can reach out with long range capabilities and with enough retained kinetic energy to stop or mitigate such VBIED’s. Police sniper teams must get into the ‘business’ of proactive (OP’s) observation posts with the right weapon systems for threat mitigation. Limitations with the .308 Winchester round must be understood and conveyed to police administrators. We no longer can exist in a world where all our hopes and prayers are dependent on the .30 caliber round.
Unlike carbine and police sniper courses, before you impart on instructor development with the 50 Cal, you must have a base knowledge to operate from. The operator course for Polk County was a full day of information and performance driven on the range that begins with the (5) Five Commons Mistakes when shooting the 50 Cal Rifle presentation. The most common mistake a student makes is firing their 50 Cal rifle differently than their .308 sniper rifle. By doing so, they introduce shooting error’s that would not usually occur with the .308 rifle. The fundamentals of precision marksmanship do not go out the window when firing the 50 Cal. By getting in front of these mistakes first, students are able to identify them and make a conscious decision to avoid them. The (3) Three Ugly Sisters (Bucking, Jerking & Flinching) are always pronounced on heavy caliber rifle firing. These are very hard for a student to self-analyze, therefore a buddy or coach must intently watch the student as they fire. Structural alignment to the rifle and Natural Point of Aim can be slightly off in firing the .308 and can somewhat be forgiving. Firing of the 50 Cal demands getting you ‘butt’ behind the blast, not just once, but consistently. Other fundamentals that suffer include trigger reset and follow through. The other unique dynamic here also is the limited number of these rifles for the agency. Many will only have one with some of the larger full time teams having two. The problem this presents is the rifle is not built to one sniper, but must usable for several snipers that are a part of the 50 Cal team. Common issues are length of pull, eye relief and cheek riser height.
Bolt Action vs. Semi-Auto
There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to each. One must realize there is not one perfect 50 Cal rifle. Bolt action rifles may have a slower follow-up shot, but tend to be more accurate and with quality ammunition and are closer to 1 minute of angle (MOA) or better. Semi-autos allow for a quicker follow-up shot(s) which may be necessary when interdicting a vehicle engine. Some current semi-autos are slightly less accurate maintaining a 3 minute of angle average accuracy.
50 Cal Rifle Standards
Students were advised to report to the course with a baseline 100 yard zero already established. After 100 yard zero check confirmation with all the students is verified it’s time to get off the stomach. To a fault, shooting the sniper rifle in the prone position is done to ad-naseum. The common training mistake with large caliber rifles is that you cannot or should not fire them from anything but the prone position. That’s not real life training and could result in a painful training scar. What the police sniper cannot control is the suspect(s) or team member movements. Vehicle placement and movement on an operation usually causes observation positions to be relocated also. To that end, the police sniper must be able to relocate on demand from the prone position to kneeling and standing supported positions. Students were introduced to the (6) 50 Cal standards which test the students ability to deploy the rifle in a variety of firing positions. To round out the standards is push-ups and running with their rifle 50 yards and firing two rounds. Students are timed and can judge their efficiency against their peers. Successful completion of the standards was required for instructor certification.
After the students complete the Operator course, the remaining two days’ focus on Instructor development to include: Qualification course of fire; Safe range training; 50 Cal training development & Terminal Ballistic testing. Of great value is the Terminal Ballistics testing. Polk County supplied an old police Impala for this testing at their range. Students were approximately 200 yards away on an elevated berm firing off the Spec-Rest platform www.specrest.com. The down angle was only 10 degrees. Students fired (3) three types of rounds to include: Armor Piercing (AP), Armor Piercing Incendiary (API) www.stand1armory.com and the Engle Ballistic Research (WTP) Wide Taper Point www.ebrammo.com. The objective of testing was to demonstrate the capabilities and limitation of each round type. There is no ‘magic ‘bullet for the 50 BMG. Urban SWAT teams must be responsible and informed to know what type of rounds are purposed for each situation. During the course the recommendation is for three types of rounds to be maintained: Armor Piercing, Anti-Frangible and Match. SWAT teams should avoid having only the 50 ball round in their ammunition arsenal. While this is an adequate training round, it has limitations and is not purpose built for incidents that SWAT teams may encounter in urban areas.
The 50 Cal rifle for SWAT teams can be a hard sell to police administrators. Even in today’s climate with terrorist groups on U.S. soil, some want to debate its merits and challenge the need for such a weapon system. Unfortunately, some have a misguided view of the 50 Cal as a military-only rifle mounted to the rooftop of a HUMVEE and only fired in combat. One only needs to look to the incident in Dallas, Texas as a basis for justification for a 50 Cal rifle for your SWAT team.
I leave you with this statement. We cannot prepare for tomorrow’s threats with yesterday’s thinking. Always be moving forward and looking for ways to improve your teams’ operational readiness.