By Will Grant
Last weekend at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Firearms Range outside Phoenix, 60 snipers from military, corrections and law enforcement agencies across the country convened for the third-annual SniperFest—three days of training and competition hosted by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. This year, the event was expanded to include more agencies, more vendors and an extra day of training.
To those who attend it, SniperFest is most valuable as a chance to compare ideas, techniques and equipment. And of course, a lot of trigger time. The event supports interagency cooperation by bringing together officers for a chance to shoot and work together.
“We got some junior guys out here, and we got some senior guys out here,” says MCSO Sergeant Lupe Rios of MCSO, who’s been with the agency for 17 years. “But for all of them, it’s just a great opportunity to see what other guys are doing, other ways of doing the job, to get a little better at something one way or another.”
The first two days of the event, Thursday and Friday, were devoted to training. Shooters were schooled in close-quarters combat, unconventional shooting positions, hand-to-hand combatives, low-light shooting, rapid deployment scenarios, and engaging moving targets, among other fields. As has been the case in years past, there were also guest speakers on hand.
Dr. Lyman Hazelton, a former NASA physicist with two doctorates from MIT, gave a lecture on ballistics. Hazelton also recently developed one of the most advanced ballistic PDAs in the world, the Advanced Interdiction Master – Empyreal, or AIM-E. Two former Marine Corps soldiers also gave debriefings on their deployments. Both are double amputees. Retired sergeant Collin Raaz was a sniper team leader during two tours in Afghanistan. Retired Staff Sergeant Dave Lyon, co-founder of the veterans adventure organization Rogue Corps, was an EOD technician and served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both men are an inspiration to all who serve.
For the competition on Saturday, two-man teams of shooters negotiated three drills. All three drills were timed events, and scoring was based on number of hits, versus misses, and time to complete the tasks.
The first drill required shooters to negotiate an obstacle course before engaging four targets. Starting in a desert wash, the team had to get over an eight-foot high chain-link fence, run over hurdles, slide through a window, run through a wash and up an embankment and then shoot at four targets in any position other than prone—one target at 50 yards, another at 100 yards, a third at 200 yards and a fourth at 300 yards.
“The secret is to hurry for the first 100 yards,” said an MCSO officer timing the shooters, “and then let your hear rate come down before you shoot. Hurry first, and then take your time with the shots.”
The second drill required shooters to negotiate through a building (shoot house) before running to the top of a large berm to engage another four targets. By the time shooters reached the top of the berm, their hearts were pounding and the clock was ticking. On average in the first two drills, shooters successfully engaged three of the four targets, which underscored the difficulty of shooting well under pressure.
“We qualify on targets half this size,” said a member of the Yuma Police Department after missing two of the four targets. “Just stupid mistakes.”
The third drill allowed each shooter only two rounds, and unlike the other drills, shooters started with a round in the chamber. They started in a sand wash. As they ran through the sand, they encountered a paper target of a man with a weapon at a range of about 20 yards. Using a sniper rifle at such close range was unconventional—some had red-dot sights canted to the side of their rifles for CQB, some looked over the top of the scope, others just missed the target.
As the shooters continued another 100 feet, they found two hostile men who had taken a female hostage. From an uncomfortable, steep gravel slope, shooters engaged the targets at about 80 yards. Some shot the hostage, some shot the hostage takers. Some rested their rifle on their partner’s back; others slid and fumbled in the dirt. But because shooters were allowed only two rounds, communication was paramount.
“For this drill, comms, or lack of it, makes or breaks a team,” said Sgt. Lupe Rios. “When they get here [to the gravel slope] they each only have one shot left and there are two targets to shoot.”
Officers Randy Wills and Shane Utley from the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office won the competition, each receiving, among other prizes, a $750 gift certificate to McMillan, a top producer of precision rifles, stocks, and accessories. Several prizes, including knives, range bags from Glock, and other things a shooter would want, were also raffled at the end of the competition.
Shooters who attend SniperFest don’t receive a certification—it’s not an accredited class or course—but they do receive instruction, they do get the chance to work with other professionals, and they do get the chance to shoot at MCSO’s top-of-the-line shooting facility in Buckeye, Arizona. And at a cost of $20 for three days of shooting, training and ideas sharing, it seems well worth the time and effort to send a shooter. Even the meals cost as much as the entry fee.
“We’re here to share industry best practices,” says Deputy Mike Puente, Sniper Team Leader of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Tactical Operations Unit. “We have to keep up with the industry, we have to keep changing as the bad guys change. Being the largest county in Arizona, and one of the largest in the country, we see it as our role to bring officers together.”
To learn more about SniperFest or for information about sending members of your agency next year, contact Deputy Mike Puente at M_Puente@mcso.maricopa.gov.