Throughout the United States, SWAT teams continue to purchase equipment that is not necessarily built for its intended purpose. Of considerable note, is the .308 bolt action rifle. For many, what worked well with the hunting community was adopted and somewhat modified for the SWAT community specifically the police sniper. Police snipers have used the bolt action .308 rifle for decades to serve as support and protection for team members and interdiction when needed. In the 1970’s & 1980’s there were limited availibility of precision-built .308 bolt rifles, and departments purchased rifles based on cost resulting in a variety of models, mostly designed and marketed for hunting being fielded by law enforcement.
However, in 2016, some 35 years later, departments still continue in large part to purchase and issue a hunting rifle variant to police snipers. Documented accidental discharges from one well-known manufacturer should be enough to cause a deliberate shift away from these rifles. Fortunately, many of these have occurred at the range, but the potential for loss of life to hostages, innocents and team members due to an accidental discharge should not continue to be ignored any longer. City leaders only understand liability and potential lawsuit payouts and until your police department faces one for an accidental discharge by one of their officers, it may be an uphill battle. The fact remains that the number one reason the hunting rifle is in service as a police sniper rifle is the relative low cost. This article will shed light on the limitations of the rifle and continued liability issues associated with using these rifles.
The .308 hunting bolt rifle was designed to kill varmints not people. Consequently, the follow up shot or shots required was not as important if the shooter missed and the animal got away. Who could possibly need more than four or five rounds at the ready? The ability to reload on demand and continue to engage a target(s) is critical for the police sniper. The interior magazines design only support (4) four rounds compressed and a (5) fifth round chambered. The police sniper is only good for a maximum of (5) five rounds before he has to hand load a single round into the chamber, close the bolt and fire. Depending on the snipers training and efficiency in performing this, it may be the difference between saving a life and losing a target of opportunity. Some police snipers have opted to retrofit the magazine of the rifle to accept a (5) five or (10) ten round detachable box magazine. This adaptation occurred as a direct result of the limitations of the interior magazine design. Purpose built sniper bolt rifles for police snipers and the military are box magazine fed and do not rely on an interior magazine design. These bolt rifles are designed from the ground up to serve the requirements of the police sniper. Those requirements differ from the requirements of the hunting community. One can take a bolt-action rifle designed for the police sniper and the casual hunter will be able to use effectively in the hunting world. However, what has been the case for decades is forcing a police sniper to use and adapt to a bolt-action rifle that was designed for the hunting community.
Rifle stock limitations for the sniper and equipment
The basic hunting rifle stock does not support night vision, infrared illuminator or multiple sling attachment points out of the box. After market modifications and equipment have to be used to support any of the devices that are becoming commonplace for today’s police sniper. Furthermore, cheek adjustments to establish a correct stock weld have to be fabricated from isopad or aftermarket cheek risers and are essentially taped onto the rear of the rifle much like a kid taping items onto his skateboard. Length of pull adjustability (checking to see if the right amount of the trigger finger is making contact with the trigger) is usually not available on the hunting rifle stock. Officers have to build up the rear butt stock to establish the correct length of pull for their trigger finger or sacrifice it altogether due to the limitations of the rifle stock. Rifle manufacturers that design this type of rifle do not understand what all goes into building a precision rifle to fit the police sniper. Their main target buyer is the casual hunter or sportsman. Attend any police sniper course and you will see variety of weapon systems in use. This author still sees that the majority of bolt-action rifles in use are basic hunting rifles modified as much possible to get the job done in training and real operations. The average American hunter does not need a rifle built to his exacting needs like the police sniper, and therein lies why the manufacturer does not offer any adjustability in the rifle stock. Why make a better stock if the police departments continue to buy the status quo and make do? In the end, police departments purchasing from these manufacturers make up only a small portion of the overall sales for those companies.
Accidental Discharges. Let’s first correctly understand the difference between an accidental discharge and a negligent discharge. Many times officers incorrectly identify the inadvertent firing of the weapon. It was an ‘AD’ when it was an ‘ND’, or it was an ‘ND’ when it was an ‘AD’. Accidental Discharges is defined as the unintentional discharge (firing) of an officer’s firearm (pistol, carbine, precision rifle) that was not caused by any negligence or failure to follow established safety protocol or procedures. A Negligent Discharge is defined as the unintentional firing of a firearm due to negligence on part of the officer and/or violation of the basic safety firearms rules. Plainly spoken, an AD should not occur with a rifle that is in service by a police department as a part of SWAT equipment issued to police snipers. More to the point, a particular rifle that has documented accidental discharges by the manufacturer and that has been the focus of print and television segments should not be in use by police departments. If the issue has been brought to the agency’s attention and the agency continues to purchase such rifles, it is essentially deliberate indifference on their part.
Police administration culpability
Police departments continue to purchase and place themselves in a very litigious situation with little thought or concern given to the officer behind the rifle. Pay now or pay later is too simplistic of an equation with the accidental discharge lingering as a possibility. When someone’s life could be at risk, the thought process should drastically change. So who exactly is to blame for the continued purchasing of rifles not purpose built? As much as we would like to gang up on the manufacturer, ultimately decisions made by agency or departmental administrators are where much of the blame should lie. A $700 rifle is not worth the risk potential for an accidental discharge lawsuit compared to a $15-20 million dollar lawsuit payout. The police sniper has responsibilities also. If he/she has had an accidental discharge, it should be documented and the rifle should be taken out of service immediately. Failure to do so and the continued use of that rifle constitutes gross negligence. The officer must with great clarity prepare any reports necessary by his agency’s protocol documenting the firing.
“Every police department around us uses these rifles…”
Herein lies a poor excuse. Your team does not have anything better because everyone else is using the same rifle. The reasons why this mindset exist are too numerous to address in this article alone. Unfortunately, the big boy SWAT team on the block may be using the same modified hunting rifle you are. When the chain of command tells you to call around and see who is using what, you find yourself back at the starting point. One must think big and not small. Reach out to other vetted sniper instructors and agency’s in different areas of the country and find out who is using what. A sampling of other teams also prove to be advantageous for you and your team. If you are a part time collateral team then contact other part time collateral teams. If you are a full time team then contact other full time teams. Get out there and find out what other police snipers are using. Unfortunately, it may be reduced to just a geographical issue for your team. Once you venture out a bit from your part of the country, you will find other teams using purpose built rifles for the application.
The continued use of hunting rifles modified and adapted for police sniper work could prove to be tragic one day. Unfortunately, a team member, hostage or innocent civilian could potentially lose their life from an accidental discharge. If you are a police sniper with a rifle that has had an accidental discharge in the past, ask yourself what you have done on your part to bring a solution to your chain of command to transition to a purpose built weapon system. The process for formal changes begins with the end user, the police sniper. Never underestimate your ability to promote change and do not settle for weapon systems that could prove to be tragic at the range or in the field.