Recap: Sniper Fest 2011

They whanged .308 bullets off steel targets the size of coffee cups at 300 yards. They practiced one-handed combatives while protecting their rifles. They benchrested on mailboxes, sprinted to firing positions, and were debriefed on retired Marine Corps sniper Steve Reichert’s story of a mile-long kill-shot in Iraq.

They were more than 50 snipers from more than 15 agencies around the Southwest who convened for two days last week at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Range for the second annual Sniper Fest 2011. The practice was beneficial, the tactics were effective, the weather was perfect.

But arguably the biggest benefit of such an exercise is the chance for officers to work with members of other agencies, the chance to develop a familiarity with other officers who might someday be working the same situation.

“From personal experience,” says Deputy Mike Puente, Sniper Team Leader of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Tactical Operations Unit, and organizer of Sniper Fest 2011, “when the large and dangerous incident happens, and chaos is present, it makes the operators and snipers feel so much at ease when they know the guys they are working with. This enables them to focus more on the task at hand—saving lives.”

Several shooters at the event said that meeting officers from nearby agencies and spending two days shooting together makes a vast difference when working together. Just recognizing a face can make a world of difference.

The value of trading tactics, handshakes, and stories is much appreciated, and interagency training is common among departments across the country. Last week in Orlando, Florida, the annual SWAT Roundup International brought together SWAT teams from around the world for the same reasons.

“These guys are all competitive, and they all want to beat each other in these competitions,” said Maricopa County undercover officer whose identity could not be revealed. “But the fact that we’ve all been out here today and all gone through this together, means that we all have some common ground. If we can say, ‘oh, I remember you from Sniper Fest,’ that’s worth a ton.”

The event, which was orchestrated by Deputy Puente of the MCSO, was set up in a block-style of training for the two days. The blocks were hand-to-hand comabtives, rapid-deployment/unorthodox positions, and engaging target at extended range (300 yards).

The instructor brought in for the close-quarters combatives with a rifle was Rigo Durazo, a 30-year veteran of martial arts and an expert in Silat and Kali disciplines. He’s been instructing such courses for the last 12 years, and is a good friend and teacher to Deputy Puente, who says the work has been invaluable. Durazo’s company is

The rapid deployment/unorthodox positions course had the snipers sprinting from station to station to engage targets at various ranges from various positions.  This forced the snipers away from the prone position and hit targets at unknown distances.

The extended range exercise was simple: small targets at 300 yards.

For the final event of the two days, shooters drew five colored poker chips from a bag, sprinted 200 yards to a firing position, and then engaged the targets in the order they drew their chips. Some officers were smart enough to write the order of chips on their hands. Others were not.

One thing that all departments involved could enjoy was the 70-acre, state-of-the-art facility. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Range was built in 2008, and it’s a dandy. They have four rifle bays—three offering targets at 100 yards and one at 300 yards. The bays each have room for 40 shooters, and the targets can move, tilt, and rotate.

Stadium lighting means the agency can shoot at night. There are clean, bright classrooms for instruction. Targets are set up in the desert scrub to offer longer, unconventional shots. But the coolest part of the facility is the Explosive Ordnance Disposal range.

“They loaded a pickup bed full of C4 and let ‘er rip,” said Deputy Puente. “There were pieces of that thing everywhere.”

Maricopa County is the third largest county in the country. Deputy Puente and the Sheriff’s Office Sniper Team perpetuate events like Sniper Fest to keep them abreast of the latest tactics and gear, but also to help prepare for what they don’t know will happen.

“We try to change tactics as the bad guys change,” Deputy Puente says. “We train hard so the mission is easy.”

For more information on the event, contact Deputy Puente at

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