Selection of Sniper Personnel

24 August 2001
By John C. Simpson
Originally posted on the International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professionals (IACSP) website

Seminar Topic: Selection of Sniper Personnel

Speaker: John C. Simpson

Presentation of the Speaker: John Simpson is a Contract Instructor in Kennesaw, Georgia specializing in sniping and tactical rifles. May I present to you, John C. Simpson.

Thank you and welcome to the CTS Virtual Expo Seminar on Sniping

When an agency seeks to create or maintain a sniper capability, much thought goes into equipment issues, and sometimes a lot of discussion goes into where an operator is going to be sent for training. Unfortunately, relatively little consideration is given for selecting personnel for a sniper position. In my position as a sniper trainer, I have too often seen an attitude from students of "Of course I'm a sniper, my name was on the memorandum that said I was!".

Although a legitimate sniper school shouldn't be afraid to flunk someone who can't meet the course performance objectives, this is only the last link in the chain of a selection and assessment process that must have it's origin within the agency.

Military Background

In order to select personnel, agencies often turn to people with military backgrounds. Due to the current reduction of our military forces, many highly trained personnel are now becoming available. If the decision is made to recruit these people, close attention must be paid to a document that they will be sure to have in their possession: Department of Defense Form 214 (DD-214).

Contained in this form will be the official record of a candidate having attended a formal military sniper school. In order to read it, you have to know how to decipher it. Following are thumbnail sketches of some of the more likely military sniper schools, keeping in mind that course length and subject matter change from year to year and sometimes from class to class:

XVIII Airborne Corps Sniper School.

This was a unit school that was "the only game in town" for the Army when it started in the late 1970's. Training was about a month long and covered such subjects as map reading, concealment, observation, and marksmanship all based around the gas operated M21 sniper weapon system with the Leatherwood ART scope. It should be noted that my research indicates that the myth of the no-reflex medulla shot started here. The school closed it's doors in the early 1980's.

US Marine Corps Scout-Sniper, Scout-Sniper Instructor and Advanced Sniper Schools.

The Marine Sniper Schools as they exist today were started by returning Vietnam veterans in the mid-1970's. These initial cadres visited Canada and the British Royal Marines courses for further insight. Instruction was based around the bolt action M40 and M40A1 sniper rifles. Courses ranged in length from 8 weeks for the Instructor Course to 4 weeks for the Advanced course. Curriculums emphasized fieldcraft with significant hours being devoted to map reading, hand to hand combat, calling in air support and marksmanship with a goal of 1000 yards. It is useful to know that recently, the Advanced Course conducted practical exercises for shooting through glass to hit a target. These schools are located at Quantico, Virginia.

US Marine Corps Sniper Course.

The Marines belief in snipers is demonstrated by there being two other 6 week sniper schools. One for the west coast at Camp Pendleton in California, and one for the east coast at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Special Forces Sniper School.

After the closing of the XVIII Corps school in the 80's, this 8 week course was started. The curriculum was very similar to the Marine Corps courses. This school closed after several classes probably due to an excessively low graduation rate. In the author's experience, two kinds of sniper programs are closed down: Those that don't pass anybody and those that pass EVERYBODY.

Special Operations Target Interdiction Course.

This is the school that I worked at for five years. Known as SOTIC, in 1985 it was a four week course based upon the previously mentioned M21 sniper system. When I left in 1990 it was a six week course teaching the bolt action M24 system. Curriculum was different from the Marine Corps program with more emphasis on developing initial marksmanship skills. Training started with fundamentals in three different positions (prone, sitting and standing) using slow and rapid fire while aiming with iron sights. Students then transitioned to aiming with scopes while shooting at surprise and moving targets, and engaging targets at 1000 yards. A full curriculum of silent movement, stalking and observation were also conducted. For my tenure, a hostage scenario was conducted at fort Bragg's urban warfare facility with the sniper students reporting back their observations of the incident site. SOTIC was designed to train sergeants and above from within the Special Operations community. This school is still in operation at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There are also local SOTIC programs at most of the active Special Forces Groups which vary significantly in quality.

US Army Sniper School.

Even though it opened it's doors two years after SOTIC, this course was hailed as "the first Army sniper school since the Korean War". This course was designed to train privates and above in marksmanship, military tactics, concealment and observation in a field environment. It is interesting to note that although the school cadre borrowed heavily from the Marine Corps six week program, the original course length was only three weeks long.

Although the above is not a conclusive list (my SEAL friends will probably take offense at not mentioning their fine school in Maryland), it should be some help in screening the guys that insist they were "sniper trained in their units".

Psychological Screening

My advice in this matter should not be construed to mean that I'm a licensed psychologist, but under the principle that a police detective knowing the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor doesn't make him a lawyer, I feel confident to point you in the right direction.

Many of the better sniper schools don't practice psychological screening. The reason for this is due to the inadequacies of existing tests to accurately determine if someone will actually apply deadly force in a situation where the sniper may be 100 yards away from a terrorist who could be threatening harm to a third party. One test that is commonly used is the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory or MMPI. Although the MMPI in the hands of a trained professional can identify such undesirable traits as paranoia, I must again emphasize that the MMPI is not a predictor of future performance.

One test that I do recommend that you investigate is the Meyers-Briggs Personality Type Inventory. One reason is that you can reassure candidates that the Meyers-Briggs doesn't reveal any pathological, neurotic , paranoid or latent tendencies. It is a simple written test that was first brought to my attention in sniping by one of my Marine friends (Gunnery Sergeant Wade Lewis formerly of the Scout-Sniper Instructor School).

In the Meyers-Briggs, each personality type is made up of different combinations of values from four scales: introverted vs. extroverted, sensing vs. intuition, thinking vs. feeling, and perception vs. judgement. Although the above description is accurate, it is an over simplification due to space limitations.

A persons tendency toward each opposing quality on the four scales makes a four letter "type". For example, an Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceptive person would be abbreviated to INFP (the N of course from the second letter of intuition to avoid confusion).

Whenever I have discussed this subject in class (regardless of police or military), someone at this point asks if there is an ideal type for a sniper. The ideal type is not as simple a matter as looking for introverts or singling out any single quality. Although the ISTP (which makes up only 5% of the population) is often referred to as the "weapons type", this should not be construed as making this the ideal type for a sniper candidate. Those interested in analysis of type are encouraged once again to talk to a certified professional.

Selection Criteria

Some additional things to keep in mind when selecting candidates:

  1. Marksmanship Ability.
  2. This is a tricky one to evaluate because, a candidate by definition has not enjoyed the benefits of your formal training program. As a start, however, ability with the existing service weapon (pistol or revolver) can give an indication of potential to learn the scoped rifle due to the transference of skills. If someone comes to you with extensive target rifle experience, keep in mind that he has been practicing in a structured environment. As street experience proves, the place he will be going to is essentially an unstructured environment. The type of marksmanship expressed by the military acronym BRASS (Breathe, Relax, Aim, Slack, Squeeze) is generally inappropriate for a fluid situation.

  3. Physical Condition.
  4. This broad category must be further subdivided into:

    1. Aerobic Conditioning.
    2. This type of physical condition relates directly to a persons ability to literally "go the distance". Cardiovascular conditioning has a direct effect on a person's ability to deal with stress. Although this might be tested by simply having people run for time, this is actually a better measure of running than of conditioning. Any test must include a measure and comparison of individual heart rates while under exertion and at rest. A candidates level of conditioning in this category can be improved with effort.

    3. Flexibility.
    4. Too often I've witnessed trainers that kept their sniper students in the prone position while shooting. Although this works fine on a rifle range, it is of little use unless we are clever enough to maneuver the perp onto a golf course. A sniper must be able to adapt his body to the immediate area. A candidate unable to assume a steady sitting position or unable to bend his prone position around a roof vent will be of little help to the tactical situation. To evaluate candidates objectively, administer this simple test endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine:

      1. Place a yard stick on the floor and secure it to the floor with a piece of tape at the fifteen inch mark.
      2. Sit the candidate on the floor with the zero end closest to him. Position his feet approximately ten inches apart with his heels even with the fifteen inch mark.
      3. Have the candidate place one hand on top of the other with the tip of one middle finger on top of the other.
      4. The candidate then slowly stretches forward WITHOUT JERKING OR BOUNCING while sliding his fingertips along the yardstick as far as possible.
      5. Conduct the test three times. Candidates score is the highest number reached, to the nearest inch.

      NOTE: Test is conducted after allowing candidate to warm up by walking and gentle stretching. Candidates are evaluated on the following chart

      Age: 20-29 30-39 40-49

      High >19 >18 >17
      Average 13-18 12-17 11-16
      Below Average 10-12 9-11 8-10
      Low <9 <8 <7

      Age: 20-29 30-39 40-49

      High >22 >21 >20
      Average 16-21 15-20 14-19
      Below Average 13-15 12-14 11-13
      Low <12 <11 <10

      These ratings will hopefully aid in evaluating potential candidates.

    5. Strength.
    6. When conducting a typical sniper mission, a team will find itself burdened with radios, cameras, telephoto lenses, rain gear, water, and that doesn't include rifles! Although aerobics plays a part in this, physical strength is also a significant factor in the equation.

  5. Left handed/Cross-Dominant.
  6. For agencies equipped with a bolt action rifle operated with the right hand, having a left handed shooter is a liability. As with all the other criteria to this point, this by itself should not serve to disqualify a candidate. Early in my career as a sniper instructor, I was explaining a similar set of criteria to the class. One left handed student quietly took this in. About a week later he called me over to his position on the range and asked me to watch him shoot a rapid fire string. After accurately firing five rounds at least as fast as any right hander in the class, I found out that he had been practicing every spare moment in the school as well as at home after class and over the weekend. The one thing I learned from this is NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF SPITE. A more significant handicap is the matter of cross-dominance. Just as the majority of people have a right or left hand that they favor, so the majority of people have a left or right eye with which they naturally line up with. Cross-dominance, although not a significant detriment to a pistol shooter, is a concern when dealing with a scoped rifle. A more in-depth study may be found in an article entitled "Do the Eyes Have It?" in the March 1981 issue of The American Rifleman.

  7. Mental Condition.
  8. Although a large portion of this was already addressed under the Meyers-Briggs, this category also includes intelligence. Sniping is not just a "hands on" activity. A candidate must be expected to grasp subjects such as ballistics, tactics, and other theoretical subjects. In the author's own 40 hour police sniper course, I often encounter students who just want to "grab it and go out to the range" as soon as they arrive. They are uneasy to find out that the first day is given over to classroom and dry firing. At the end of day one, however, everyone understands the need for getting the class on the same sheet of music despite different experience levels.

    When selecting candidates, with the exception of Mental Condition, any inadequacies in the above criteria can be corrected through training and hard work. Physical condition can be improved through appropriate physical training. Marksmanship ability can be developed through marksmanship practice, and cross-dominance can be corrected by forcing the shooter to shoot off of the same shoulder as his dominant eye. The only criteria that must be there from the beginning is Mental Condition! The mind is the sniper's greatest weapon, and can only be developed so far through training. At the risk of losing my law enforcement audience, I'd like to draw an example from the Navy SEALs. In Basic SEAL School, the 13th Week of training is known as Hell Week. All of their candidates up to that point are very physically fit. Starting on a Sunday and ending on a Saturday morning, SEAL trainees are kept awake nearly the whole time during grueling physical activity that stretches each man to the limit and maximum opportunity is given to allow students to quit. The survivors of this then go on to the more advanced and technical stages of their training. The point I am making is this: the purpose of Hell Week is not to train students not to quit, but rather to identify those beyond a doubt who just don't have it in them to quit. Any SEAL will tell you that this is more mental than physical.

    Although this is an extreme case, I do believe this is appropriate from the stand point of the importance of the sniper candidates head "being in the right place" above anything else.

This point, which needs to be constantly reemphasized, is best summed up by the following story contained in a student handout used by the Canadian Master Sniper Course. With the exception of my clarifying some military acronyms and terms, it is presented as is with the hope that the lessons it has to teach don't have to be relearned the hard way:

VIEWPOINT By: Capt KA Nette 1987
Reproduced: Feb 92
(The Life You Save May Be Your Own)

The scene is a rather nasty Internal Security operation. A young Lieutenant is face down in a pool of his own blood and he is very, very dead. His right arm is gone and there is a gaping hole in his chest. Everyone had seen it happen. The entire platoon had watched the young man run out from the crowd and throw the homemade bomb. No one had done anything to try and stop him. That morning they had all been carefully briefed that the battalion sniper section would be covering them from nearby rooftops, against exactly that type of situation. Who was the bastard who let our platoon commander get blown up, they all think. He's going to have a lot of explaining to do.

On a nearby rooftop, Corporal Smith tries to wipe the mist from his eyes with the back of his vibrating hand and tries to control his shakes. He tries to think of his mother, his girl back home, anything but the scene below. Suddenly he is jerked into a sitting position by his partner who gives him an icy stare of open contempt and points to the spotting scope beside him. "Have a closer look at what you just let happen", he says. "Three times I told you to fire. You killed him just as if you'd thrown that bomb yourself."

"Yes, I killed him", Smith thinks to himself. His partner had picked out the man with the suspicious package five minutes before. They had both watched him open it and arm the bomb. He had held the crosshairs on him for a full ten seconds before he threw it, but he couldn't bring himself to squeeze off the shot. "I just couldn't shoot the guy", he blurts out and begins sobbing uncontrollably.

Who really caused the young lieutenant's death? On the surface, Smith shirked his duty and can be held responsible, but was it really all his fault? To fully analyze this we have to go back several months to the day the young platoon commander walked into the OC's office and said, "Excuse me Sir, do you have a minute. It's about Private Smith. Remember I spoke to you about him last week. He's just come back from Egypt and he needs another primary combat function. If he doesn't get it by next month, he won't get his promotion to Corporal on schedule."

"I've already solved the problem", the Major replied. "There's a sniper course starting next week and Smith is on it. You'd better take him out to the range before then and make sure he can shoot."


The next morning the platoon commander took Smith to the range, in company with one of the section commanders, a recent graduate of the Combat Small Arms Course. Smith wasn't really all that keen on the whole thing. He'd heard that the sniper course was pretty tough and what he really wanted to be was an Armored Personnel Carrier driver. The lieutenant played on his vanity, however, and convinced him that the special status he would have after the course was worth a few weeks discomfort.


As it turned out Smith was a very good shot and the platoon commander stated to feel proud of himself. "All Smith needed was a little motivation", he said to the Sergeant. "I'm sure he'll make an excellent sniper."


Everything went fine until the last week of the course. Smith developed into an excellent shot and he did very well on his written exams. There was something about him, however, that the Sniper Sergeant didn't like. He was too cavalier about the whole thing and he lacked patience. Several times he had been caught out on stalking exercises because of stupid mistakes; things like taking unnecessary risks just to save a little time. He had a chat with Smith's platoon commander about it, but hadn't really accomplished anything. The officer had given him a lecture on the Canadian Forces Training System and told him bluntly that if Smith passed all his PO Checks he was entitled to his qualification. "And if you are thinking of failing him", he added, "you'd better have it well substantiated because he really needs another qualification."

Three days later, during the retest of his stalking PO Check, the Sergeant should have failed Smith. He knew that the suspicious looking bush coming over the ridge was Smith but didn't nail him for it. "That's the same mistake he made yesterday", he said to himself, "but how do I fail someone who is top shot on the course and has a 87% average on written tests." With the lieutenant's words fresh in his mind, the sergeant chose not to make waves and passed Smith on the PO Check.


Private Smith's course report stated that he should only be employed as a sniper under close supervision. (A stupid statement if ever there was one. How do you supervise a sniper?) The Sniper Sergeant was surprised, therefore, when Smith, now a Corporal, was cross-posted to recce platoon for employment with the sniper section, he made a point of voicing his objection to the recce platoon commander. "You should have thought about that when you passed him on the course", the captain replied. "I'm afraid you're stuck with him. With Jones and Farron posted to Germany and Wilson off to jump out of airplanes, I'm afraid Smith is the best we can do."

Two months later the young lieutenant, who started it, was dead and Smith was inches away from a nervous breakdown. The blame for the whole messy incident must be shared between the Company Commander, the Platoon Commander and the Sniper Sergeant. They all contributed to the disaster in one way or another. Let's look at their contributions.


His view that the basic sniper course is just another [qualification] course indicates complete ignorance about what sniping is all about. It takes a special type of soldier to be a sniper and applicants (and I stress applicants) must be thoroughly screened. The mental condition of a sniper is very important. An infantryman, in the heat of battle kills an enemy instinctively as a matter of survival. Not so the sniper; he must kill calmly and deliberately, often stalking his prey. He must not be susceptible to feelings of anxiety or remorse. This mental condition cannot be taught or instilled by training. In Smith's case, the Unit Medical Officer and possibly the Base [mental health] should have been consulted.


Sniper candidates must want the job. The fact that he had to be talked into it should have disqualified Smith as a candidate. The lieutenant also placed way too much emphasis on Smith's shooting ability. Agreed, sniper candidates must show a certain amount of skill with a rifle, but it shouldn't be the only thing you look at. The lieutenant should have considered Smith's physical condition. Did he have the reflexes, muscular control and stamina required? Did he wear glasses? Although many expert riflemen wear them, glasses reflecting light can betray a sniper's concealment. Eyesight is the sniper's prime tool and he could be rendered helpless by losing or damaging his glasses. Did he smoke? Smoke or an unsuppressed smoker's cough can betray a sniper's position while prolonged abstention may cause nervousness and irritability. Was he left or right handed? The C3 [Canadian sniper] rifle is designed for right handed shooters. The additional movement required to reach over the scope and work the bolt with the left hand might well give the sniper away (sorry all you southpaws out there but I didn't design the rifle). How was he in fieldcraft? Did he have the patience to stalk slowly and deliberately for hours at a time or was he prone to impatience and impulsiveness? And last, but not least, was he intelligent? Had he displayed decisiveness, self-reliance, good judgement and common sense?

No, the lieutenant didn't consider any of these points. His worst crime, however, was not listening to the Sniper Sergeant. That was what drove the final nail into his coffin.


Regardless of the lieutenant's attempt to intimidate him, the Sniper Sergeant is not without blame. He knew in his own mind that Smith would never be a dependable sniper and yet he had passed him on the course. He took the easy way out of an awkward situation and his mistake came back to haunt him. Had he done what he should have done, the lieutenant might well still be alive.


The above story is straight fiction. The points brought out, however, are all valid. The battalion sniper section is composed of seven men, less than 1% of the total battalion strength. We can afford to be selective in picking it's members. Platoon and Company Commanders should be constantly on the lookout for likely candidates, and competition for the vacancies on each course should be stiff. The desirable characteristics are well documented in Chapter 1 of CFP 305(5) (The Canadian Army Sniper Manual). It takes only four minutes and 15 seconds to read.

One last word of warning. Never count on the sniper course to give a soldier a critically needed PCF (primary combat function). Sniper standards are extremely high and many people who are otherwise first class soldiers just don't have what it takes, despite an all out effort on their part. Don't ever put your unit Sniper Sergeant in the embarrassing position of being expected to "slip a man through" because he needs his "ticket punched". The minute that is allowed to happen once, the credibility of the entire sniper training program becomes suspect.

If you are interested in what eventually happened to Cpl Smith I'm afraid I can't help you. The story ends with the lieutenant's death. It doesn't really matter, though, because Smith doesn't really exist. Or does he??

Thank you for coming today and please enjoy the other seminars while you are visiting.

Feel free to send correspondence to:

John C. Simpson
2470 Lakewood Drive
Kennesaw, GA 30152

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