Gear, Parts and Accessories

Why Such an Emphasis on Accuracy?

According to the surveys I’ve read, the average distance for police sniper shots in the US is just under 60 yards, and median is closer to 35 yards. At 60 yards, even a ratty AK47 with surplus ball will produce a group not much greater than two inches. A two inch group means dispersion of only one inch from the point of aim at fifty yards. So why is everyone obsessing about sub-MOA accuracy in sniper rifles?

The reasons are several. First, average and median numbers are no comfort for those snipers who get the less common but not altogether rare longer-range cases. Second, police snipers are working to much tighter standards than so military snipers. It’s not enough to score a hit, it’s usually necessary to hit the brainstem and completely shut down any voluntary or spasmatic movement, such as pulling the trigger on a hostage. The instant turn-off zones on a human are tiny, about five inches wide by two high from the front and roughly a two inch square from the side. Third, all deviations from the desired point of impact may add up — the errors in range estimation, the movement of the target, the imprecision of the sniper’s aim and the dispersion inherent in the firearm can all contribute to the point of impact being off by far more than the inch or so induced by the 4MOA limitation alone. This is also why higher-velocity rounds are preferred for most police sniping, to reduce the impact of any errors in range estimation as well as to limit over-penetration. A one-MOA rifle adds at most a quarter inch of error to the shot at fifty yards. Since the desired result is not an abstract group but a very precise match to the moving, bobbing target, that quarter inch minimizes the chance of the cumulative error growing beyond acceptable value. Other ways to reduce that error include getting closer, using a steady support, waiting for the perpetrator to become stationary and having multiple snipers fire on cue.

About the Author:

Oleg Volk

Oleg Volk is a creative director working mainly in firearms advertising. A great fan of America and the right to bear arms, he uses his photography to support the right of every individual to self-determination and independence. To that end, he is also a big fan of firearms.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (16)

  1. I think steyrguy has the final word on this. I’ve often found similar discussions about killing game animals such as the venerable whitetail deer.
    Does it really matter whether a deer drops like a stone or after a short death run?
    To always achieve the former is both impossible and unnecessary. So many variables and imponderables are involved we end up “shoveling smoke”. However, the discussion is not without merit. If nothing else it can focus our awareness.

    Except for the law enforcement commentators here, the possibility any of us will shoot a human in any circumstance is a fantasy. That’s good also. I suspect actually having to pull a trigger on anyone will be an unwanted memory not capable of being expunged. I know that’s true for combat vets.

  2. Matno makes a great point about the “instant turn-off zone”. I’m not a brain surgeon but I am a retired cop and FBI trained police sniper. All of our training mandated the brain stem shot as the only reliable method of “turning off the lights” instantly as you so thoroughly explained the necessities of such a shot in your article. That said, it is a very small target and he is also correct that rifle shots to the head, eyes, etc., even with the venerable .308 Win (7.62×55), the most common police sniper rifle chambering, will not reliably sever the brain stem. Trust me, I have seen enough head trauma than anyone cares to know about and just because you blow off the neo-cortex entirely doesn’t mean that you will sever the lines of communication from the brain’s Thalamus (reptilian brain), which is located deep and at the base of the brain and controls instinctive responses, through the brain stem and spinal cord to other parts of the body (i.e., fingers) which can and will continue to move involuntarily. I won’t go further to explain where those critical shot locations are on an open web forum but rest assured they are very small targets. That said, this was an informative article which explains and answers a common question. Perhaps the few minor errors were an intentional act by Olegv to keep from putting out information that would be controversial to publish. Either way, no one is perfect and no one knows every possible thing. Enjoy reading what you want and ignore what doesn’t appeal to you. Then everyone is happy.

    When a man starts to take himself too seriously, everyone else stops.

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  4. Yes those examples are anecdotal. There aren’t any “randomized control trials” for this sort of thing, so most of our evidence comes from anecdotes. But that guy shot in the head was about as much of a “straight through shot” as you could have (in between the eyes, out the back of his skull). Not a high powered rifle, but a .40 cal pistol at less than 10 feet. Didn’t even lose consciousness.

    The example with the elk was meant to show that multiple hits to the brain (they were all intracranial) do not necessarily instantly incapacitate. Perfectly relevant to this discussion. I’m sure any one of those shots would have killed her eventually (and she wouldn’t have “lived to tell about it”), but the fact is that she remained standing, waiting 30-60 seconds between each shot. If you’re trying to avoid spasm on a trigger, you HAVE to disrupt the brain stem with your first shot. NOTHING else gives you an instant “turn off.”

    My main point is that I think the kill zone in the picture is too wide. I’ve seen a couple cases where people were shot in the edges of that zone and the bullet just went around the inside of the skull and out the back without causing much actual damage to the brain (kind of the way bullets are supposed to go if they make it to the inside of a soldier’s helmet). Again, anecdotal, but if it has happened in more than one instance, I would be uncomfortable relying on that zone for a “guaranteed” kill.

  5. Here in Florida we had a recent news story of a diving accident. A guy was shot by his dive buddy with a SPEARGUN right through the front of his skull and out the rear 3-4″, and lived to tell about it. Every situation is different, while most hits to a certain area are “turn offs”, there is always the exception to the rule. Aim carefully and be ready for a follow-up shot just in case…

  6. @Matno, your points are anecdotal. While I don’t doubt your first anecdote I have a couple of questions. What was the caliber of the round? The range? These things matter. Further, during precision engagement training we learned that the engagement area for turning off a person’s computer assumed a straight through shot. In your anecdote that clearly did not happen. Your second point is wholly without meaning. How on Earth can you compare the experience of shooting a cow elk with that of shooting a human being? It’s not even apples and oranges.

    And, having acknowledged that anecdotes don’t really mean a whole lot, after 15 years in the Army and numerous deployments to the world’s finer crapholes, I can state with 100% certainty that I have never seen anyone shot through that roughly deck of cards sized area and live to tell about it.

  7. Richard,
    penetration correlates with velocity for solid, round-nose projectiles. A typical expanding or fragmenting rifle bullet will penetrate less at higher velocity. Within the same cartridge, light and fast bullets usually penetrate rather less than heavy and slow.

    Were all of the examples you cite from pistol-velocity ammunition? It’s been my impression from talking to military veterans that pretty much any high-power rifle bullet that gets inside the skull will reach the brainstem either directly, with fragments or with shockwave. A pistol bullet or the old round nose .30 carbine, 6mm Lee or similar would not produce nearly the same disruption though they would penetrate much further.

  8. I think I’m missing something. How does a higher-velocity round limit over-penetration? My previous understanding was that penetration tended to be positively correlated with velocity.

  9. Where do you come up with the “instant turn-off zone”? Only a hit to the brain stem will instantly drop someone. As a trauma surgeon in the Bronx, I saw a guy who was shot directly between the eyes (exactly where the central hole is in the picture), with the bullet exiting the back of his skull at the mastoid process (the big bump about an inch behind your ear). Guy was perfectly FINE. Had loss of 1/4 of his visual field in one eye is all. I’ve also seen a cow elk shot in the head with a .357 magnum from 6 inches into that zone. Just stood there while 5 shots were fired. Finally on the 6th shot, we put the gun at the base of the skull and she dropped like a rock. To reliably get an instant drop with no “spasmatic” reaction (the word is actually “spasmodic”), you have to hit the brain stem or spinal cord above the level of the C-5 vertebra.

    1. First, yes I know this post is old, but when I see such blatant BS I gotta call it. So, I think your FOS about the Elk. There is NO WAY on Gods green earth you ‘SAW’ a cow get shot in the head 5x with .357 Mag at 6 inches. The 180gr at 0ft produces 960 ft-lbs centered at a roughly 1/3 inch hole, after skull penetration it tears through the grey matter at over 1500fps, that’s over 1000MPH! Now why is that force number important? Well because, it only takes 687 ft-lbs to break a 1.5 in (38.1mm) concrete slab. So do I believe you? NO.

      Oh, I almost forgot, HOW DID YOU KEEP IT FROM KILLING YOU? ESPECIALLY WHILE YOU TOOK ALL THIS TIME SHOOTING IT IN THE HEAD OVER AND OVER? The next thing your going to tell me is that you had it in a cattle type gated pen, locked in on all sides, right? Be careful here………..

      So, in a nutshell, I think ur a nutjob, do I think your a ‘brain surgeon’ hell no. I think your the typical internet ‘expert’ that his job changes back on what manure he shoveling that day. I can already see your mouth in my mind saying, ‘what freaking credentials does this guy have to accuse me of lying, and/or who the F does he think he is. Well not that it matters, but since you asked, I’m an avid hunter and shooter with over 40 years experience, with 22 years military service in there, almost 10 of which were assigned as a LRS-D (Long Range Surveillance (Division)) precision marksman. So I know just a smidge or about shooting, ballistics, etc…

  10. I don’t see any esoteric “jargon” either. What; “MOA”? Google it. “Velocity”, “Penetration”, “Spasmadic”, “Brain stem”? Google, or a simple dictionary, will serve you well. You’re sitting right there at yout computer with an internet connection, right?

  11. to olegv: I’m sure you know by now that the first sentence should read “average” and then “median”, not median twice.

    Chevy: Yeah, I know some terms will elude a country cop or a deep rural resident like me, but average is a number obtained by totaling a bunch of data points and then dividing that total by the number of points. For example, a batting average, that is, the total number of hits divided by the number of at bats.

    Median is a fifty cent word to define the mid point of values on a list. Example: A list may include 100 items. The median would be the about number fifty on the list with about half above and half below that place on the list.

    Relax everyone, I’m tossing out these pearls without charge.

    Warning. You get what you pay for….


  12. I am just an old country cop so maybe you can start writing with the READER in mind and stop with all the trade Jargon and use plain english please….or at leave use (plain english word) brackets to explain the jargon.

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