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How Firing Squads Have Worked Throughout History

Updated September 12, 2019 504.4k views21 items
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As soon as mankind learned to shoot, it figured out how to use that power to kill. The history of shooting squads is very long, though the practice is quickly becoming a relic of the past. If you're wondering "when did shooting squads start?" or "how did shooting squads start?", hold your horses, that information is coming, along with a number of other fascinating facts and anecdotes about the history of firing squads.  

The invention of gunpowder (and the firearms that use it) was the catalyst for firing squads becoming the standard method of execution for militaries across centuries. Many traitors, spies, and war criminals met their end to men with rifles, and are memorialized in the annals of shooting squads in history.

Even though guns are more lethal than ever in the 21st century, firing squads are out of fashion. Many countries have banned them, and the countries where firing squads are still legal are slowly becoming disinterested in them as a form of execution. However, you can always count on one aggressive or militant nation to carry on the tradition (in the event you want the tradition carried on). If you’re curious what firing squads have been like across history, check out the list below.

  • The Size of a Firing Squad Varies

    While it may take only one bullet to kill a man, firing squads use several to get the job done. Aside from the symbolic nature of the act (a lone dissenter against the orderly group), using a group of executioners ensures there will be enough hits to finish the job. But how many is enough?

    Well, it depends. In the past, firing squads have had as many as a dozen members, but a 2004 execution in Utah employed only five. The reason for this may come down to the accuracy of modern weapons. The Utah executioners used .30 Winchester rifles, bound to hit their mark more easily than a musket. In the picture above, there are seven men (plus an officer) in the squad that executed Emperor Don Maximiliano I in Mexico.

  • Civilian Firing Squads Are Typically Made of Volunteers

    In the 21st century, firing squads are easier to assemble than finding someone to administer lethal injection. In 2006, 298 anesthesiologists turned down the job of giving a lethal injection which goes against the Hippocratic Oath. There are plenty of people in the world, on the other hand, eager to volunteer to blow someone away. Despite the potential psychological damage of murdering someone, Utah State Representative Paul Ray (the only state using firing squads for the death penalty in 2016) has said, "There are always more volunteers than spots on the squad."

    In the instance of a military death by firing squad, members are conscripted from ranks. 

  • In 21st Century America, Firing Squads Follow a Very Specific Procedure

    Video: YouTube

    Formal firing squads typically follow a step-by-step process. In Utah, the only state to use firing squads in 2016, the condemned is sat in a chair in front of a wooden panel flanked by sandbags. The sandbags are designed to stop bullets from ricocheting. A target is placed on the condemned's heart, because the chest is a large, easy target. The condemned is given two minutes for final words, which in the past have ranged from feelings of remorse to one final clever comment. The firing squad is then instructed to aim, then fire. 

  • The Transition from Military to Civilian Executions

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    It's unknown when, in the United States, firing squads transitioned from military to civilian executions. According to Louis J. Palmer, Jr, author of An American Citizen's Guide to Understand Federal and State Laws, death by firing squad was part of civilian law by the 1850s. In making its transition from a military to civilian punishment, firing squads attracted criticism, some going so far as the argue they're unconstitutional, as per the Eight Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment).