Snipers Briefing For Henwood Ranch Range Day For Writers

NOTE: Please address questions of comments to:

This briefing is for writer attendees of today’s Henwood Ranch Range Day. I had been scheduled to serve as a range safety officer and demonstrate the use of a scoped 30.06 rifle as a example of a sniper weapon. An athletic injury prevented me from attending. In the following article, I’ll try to cover some anticipated questions based on those which I got at the previous Range Day

Why This Post?

This briefing is based on my experience with a type of weapon that has been used by snipers, and on research I have conducted with military snipers and document research. It also reflects my own author efforts to create credible sniper characters for several of my published books, including a more recent unfinished work one with a white-hat, female “guardian” sniper.

The ideas and links below reflect some of my experience and research. This also assumes that you (as an attendee) may be considering a book about a civilian murder using a sniper weapon. In this context, I’m ruling out mass shootings carried out by psychologically damaged individuals whose goal is mass casualties of people, and who do not plan to escape or remain anonymous and which which do not target specific individuals.

That given, if you choose sniping as your antagonist character’s preferred murder method there are fundamental considerations to consider.

First of all, homicide by sniping is not a crime of passion. It is a cold, calculated act:  shot through with malice and aforethought. There are no extenuating circumstances. If caught, and convicted, the killer will receive no mercy from the court.

Your character should be aware of, and concerned by the consequences of his/her actions. That recognition needs to be addressed at some point, either at the beginning, or at some OMG point in the process. Arrogance, desperation, or some sense of internally justifiable obligation needs to overcome the OMG consequences.

To be a credible and potentially successful character, your sniper needs to be lot more than a good shot with a rifle.

That means that, to be true to character and interesting to your reader, the sniper must be astonishingly patient, painstaking methodical, creatively inventive, obsessed with details and capable of putting emotions aside. The assassin in Day Of The Jackal is a good study.

If your sniper character is a good guy/gal in a military, law enforcement, or other protective context, must have the same characteristics only guided by a moral compass.

Extensive Planning


To make a good shot and escape capture requires extensive knowledge of the target’s life to plan where in their routine would make the best kill zone. Home, work, recreation, favorite restaurants, and physical fitness centers. and running routes are among potential sites.

Your sniper needs to observe the target’s patterns of activities especially routines: what time, what day, where and for how long. Once a pattern is observed, the sniper need to locate a shooting site that allows for a good shot.

Requirements include a good site line — usually somewhat above the target which minimizes interference from obstacles. It also minimizes the chances of being seen since people usually look mostly straight ahead (or down) when walking or driving.

The site line from the shot site should preferably be one one in which the target is stationary or moving minimally and slowly. This could be as they enter an exit or door in a building or vehicle. Window shots, while spectacular in the movies, are possible but often inaccurate due to interference of the glass.

When a stationary shot is not possible, the best alternative is when the target is moving (walking/running/driving) straight at — or away from – the sniper.

The shot site needs to provide the ability of the sniper to access it and shoot without being seen or causing suspicion. Preferably, it should be in an area where the gunshot will either not be noticed, or in an area where the sniper can escape without being seen.

This is why tops of buildings, abandoned buildings, buildings being renovated are popular in cities. Wooded or brushy hills also offer potential kill sites, but offer fewer opportunities for a clean shot. These may be necessary if the shot to be taken is of the target at his/her home.

Your sniper needs to have a laser rangefinder such as those sold for golfers, and use it to estimate the distance of the shot from shoot site to kill zone. For the average person familiar with shooting a rifle, the maximum distance from shoot site to kill zone should be no more than 100 yards.

To be realistic, you should — in your real author life — scope out a hypothetical kill zone  location where the target could be shot in your book. In other words, you need to become the sniper and the victim and walk in their fictional shoes. Get a good feel for the area so you can describe it vividly. Then look around to determine if you can spot a possible shot site that’s no more than 100 yards away.

For maximum verisimilitude, once you have selected a shoot site, carry a shoulder bag and a hockey stick as a stand-in for gear and a rifle and see whether or not you can get the everything to your shoot site without being seen. The location and time of day should coincide with times that surveillance indicates the target will be present.

Be aware of security cameras including home surveillance devices like the Ring system. A smart sniper will take measures to blend in by dressing like people in the shot site and kill zone surroundings. And perhaps apply cosmetics to further obscure his/her appearance.

If you are the author of previous published books, it could be useful to carry one of those with you on your search for a shoot site and/or kill zone. This can be especially handy if you will scoping out be in an area with government buildings, gated communities, corporate and financial companies and other sensitive areas.

I learned this directly when I was scoping out a shoot site and kill zone in London for my mid-80s bestseller, Queensgate Reckoning. The target in that book was a diplomat working at the Iraqi Military Consulate. To write the scene, I spent some time scoping out shoot sites, and settled on a nearby building under renovation that was covered in scaffolding and mesh screening.

It did not take long before I was accosted by four very large, well-armed security guards, two from the London PD’s diplomatic security service and two in military garb. My suspicious behavior — like I was looking for a shoot site — had brought me to their attention. They were aggressively skeptical when I said I was looking for site to put in a book I was writing. About that time, a sedan arrived which was supposed to take me in for questioning.

Things changed when I offered them a paperback edition of my previous thriller, The Delphi Betrayal. Radio calls were made. Finally, I was allowed to leave (without my book) and told not to be seen in the area again or suffer unstated consequences.

The mobile or shoot & scoot site

In rural areas, an auto, or 4×4 vehicle may be the only alternative for a shoot site. A thinly populated area is good for not being spotted. However, the same holds true for the visibility of a vehicle traveling a remote area. License plates and the sheer size of the vehicle can be memorable to locals. Better to park in an area where other vehicles are parked, then trek in to the shoot site.

A dirt bike with a good muffler could be less noticeable, but would not only leave tracks, but also would expose a rider with a weapon slung over the shoulder. It would all depend on the terrain, the area and the traffic. Being spotted and exposed by a hiker or birdwatcher could unravel the sniper’s identity.

Obtaining the weapon

Using a weapon already in the possession of the potential sniper is risky. Friends and associates may remember it.

Buying a new weapon in the United States is out of the question because of registration requirements. Even an illegal purchase at a dicey gun show means face-to-face exposure to the seller and potential fingerprints left behind at the purchase site.

Theft/burglary is most likely the best acquisition method. This is made relatively easy by the fact that too many gun owners do not lock or otherwise secure their weapons — a prime reason for accidental deaths and injuries to children and others

What to steal?

One common, lethal weapon to steal would be the relatively common .30-caliber hunting rifle such as the .30-06 commonly used by deer hunters. (Please see this link for various dissertations on .30-caliber ammunition.)

On the other hand, stealing an AR-15-style rifle may be easier because they have become common, and their owners are less likely to secure their weapons than hunters. This is because many AR-15s are trendy and currently bought by relative newcomers to firearms.

Known as “Legos for adults,” or “Mr. Potato Head of the gun world,”  AR-15-style rifles come in a wide variety of interchangeable modules that are attractive to firearm newbies.

This design also makes it easier to dispose of a barrel (to avoid tracing) and related parts rather than an entire conventional rifle. Barrels for these come in 16, 18 and 20 inches. The longer the barrel, the greater the accurate range. While most are chambered for 5.56mm (roughly .22-caliber) some are configured for a 7.62 NATO round (roughly .30-caliber). A hit with the 7.62mm will inflict more damage than the 5.56mm because it has triple the bullet weight with only a slightly slower muzzle velocity. The 7.62mm’s killing power is comparable to a .30-06. The 7.62mm will be heavier.

While the workmanship offered by the wide variety of manufacturers varies greatly, the range and accuracy approach that of more conventional rifles. Finding one with a quality scope could be difficult, although retail purchases with cash do not require identification.

The “AR” stands for Armalite Rifle, named after the company that originated the design. The letters “AR” do not stand for “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle.”

Overview of weapons in use by professionals

While variations of .30-caliber rifles are still in use by military snipers, the current standard is .50 caliber. See: Top 10 Sniper Rifles for a 2023 list of rifles favored  by the military.

It’s significant that .50-caliber rifles are far fewer in number, and highly secured by professionals. Stealing one of these is likely to have a fatal outcome for the thief.

Getting into a discussion of the vast array of .30-caliber rifles is way more lengthy than this brief document can even begin to begin. It is worth noting that .50-caliber dominates in the pantheon of longest sniper kills, even though .30-caliber and the .30-06 do make the list as also-rans.

It’s a sobering reality that one of the most tragic sniper kills, that of the Assassination of American Civil Rights Icon Martin Luther King Jr. was made with a .30-06, deer-hunting class rifle. This report from the U.S. National Archives, offers a sobering description of events leading up to the event, including the acquisition of the rifle.

How to practice

Visiting a firing range is a bad idea. The sniper can be connected to the weapon by the many other people attending.

The best alternative is to use public land. Many areas of the U.S. Forestry Service and Bureau of Land Management allow shooting. The shooting elevation should be as similar as possible to the proposed site, and the targets set up using the distance from shoot site to kill zone previously measured with the golfers laser range finder.

Random facts

Murder by Sniper In The U.S.

The U.S. Department of Justice does not seem to keep statistics on individual sniping incidents or victims. However, a sniping murder would probably be covered in the relatively small number of number of homicides by rifle:

This link offers somewhat more information, but is limited to one class of rifle: Criminal Use of the 50 Caliber Sniper Rifle.

As we will see, the number of murders by sniper rifle are very small. This tends to draw more attention to the crime which can be a disadvantage to a civilian killing. As we will see below, it also narrows down the field of potential suspects.

On the other hand, because the number of snipings is comparably small, the reservoir of experts qualified to properly investigate them is also very limited and beyond the expertise of most small police departments.

The Military Sniper, Background

It’s worth noting that, military setting, a sniper is not a lone, deranged psychopath who loves to kill. That sniper is one of the most effective combat weapons, and offers near surgical results with zero, or minimal, collateral damage. S/he is there to protect the troops, and contribute to carrying out the unit’s mission.

Given the sudden and unexpected results of a successful shot, the sniper also terrorizes the enemy because the source of the shot is sudden and enemy personnel cannot immediately be determined. The sniper becomes an invisible hand of death.

A military sniper attack also carries with it the same fundamental moral considerations as a military operation sanctioned by a nation state or law-enforcement agency.

The military sniper will have had

  • extensive training,
  • an extreme familiarity with a:
  • high-quality weapon specially configured for the task and
  • provided by his/her authorized agency
  • extensive range practice time
  • a spotter to assist in target acquisition, assessment of environmental conditions (heat, wind etc.), and a set of eyes to watch the shooter’s back and monitor other conditions at the shooting site.

All of this tends to minimize stress and distractions, allows for maximum concentration and increase the odds of a clean shot at a target with whom the sniper has no personal experience — thus eliminating issues of anger and other emotional complications.

Most of this could also apply to a professional sniper for hire.

Unless you are writing a humorous tragicomedy with a bumbling, semi-competent, part-time trigger man who keeps missing the target, but somehow escapes arrest because of law enforcement mistakes and stumbles by the target and/or his/her client.

Civilian sniper on the other hand …

The civilian murderer, intent on killing with a rifle, has few, or none, of the professional’s advantages listed above and a truckload of disadvantages which makes a successful shooting at a distance a chancy affair.

Fitting the right character for the sniper killer

You need to fit the skill and psychological skill set to your villain. It’s easy to go for a trite-and-true psycho-former military sniper who snaps. To be really interesting to readers, get past that over-done stock villain and assemble someone original. Someone with some small redeeming character/life experience that the reader can connect with. The villain of pure evil is way overdone.

Read one of these:

Super helpful.

  • Special Forces Sniper Training and Employment, Field Manual Headquarters, No. 3-05.222 Department of the ArmyFree PDF online
  • UPDATED: TC 18-32 Special Forces Sniper Training and Employment

Crafting your sniper

  • Some experience with firearms is a must if you want to have a believable character.
  • But remember, as their level of expertise increases, so too, the chances that their background may be better known, and that experience could make them a suspect.

Background: Public Sniper Murders

More References

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