• Weird History

How Firing Squads Have Worked Throughout History

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.

  • How Traditional Firing Squads Work

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A traditional firing squad is a basic set up, one you've surely seen in movies, paintings, or historical photographs. The condemned stands before a surface from which bullets won't ricochet ( a wall, a hill, a mound, sandbags), is sometimes tied to a post or restrained in another way, is more often than not blindfolded, and faces a line of armed men or women who mow the condemned down in a fusillade of lead. If the condemned doesn't die in the initial hail of bullets, the commanding officer of the squad may shoot him or her in the head with a pistol. 

    Firing squads typically use rifles, though in some cases pistols have been used. All members of a firing squad are ordered to fire simultaneously, to avoid singling out a shooter as the one who fired the fatal shot. The firing squad generally targets the chest, both to avoid unnecessary damage to the head and face (for burial purposes), and because the chest is a larger, easier target than the head. In some places, there's a tradition of carrying out execution by firing squad at dawn, hence the phrase "shot at dawn."

  • The Blindfold Serves Two Primary Purposes

    The hood worn by prisoners during execution by firing squad serves two primary purposes. It dehumanizes the condemned, making it easier for the firing squad to perform its function without an emotional response. The target on the chest further reinforces the notion that the firing squad isn't killing a human being, but merely aiming at a target and firing. Secondly, it prevents the condemned from witnessing his or her own death, saving the individual, in his or her final moments, from looking into the faces and down the barrels of the guns that will bring about imminent demise. However, it's not unheard of for a prisoner to request to go without a hood or blindfold; to look death in the face. 

  • Death by Firing Squad Is Typically a Military Execution

    Photo: US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Sure, there are hangings and beheadings in the annals of military executions, but firing squads have been the go-to method of dispatching soldiers for a few centuries, chiefly for symbolic and disciplinary reasons. Using a firing squad makes punishment a communal event. The offender is killed by his or her peers, using weapons the soldiers all use in combat. It also reinforces the idea of the community (the firing squad) over and against the individual (the offender). 

  • Executioners Sometimes Get Guns Filled with Blanks

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Even if executing a soldier for desertion or treason, you might get a little emotional when pulling the trigger. After all, you might be killing someone with whom you served, whose family you know well. Or maybe you don’t want to live with the guilt of killing an unarmed man. Hence the custom of at least one member of a firing squad receiving a gun loaded with blanks. No one on the squad knows which gun is loaded with blanks, so it's impossible to know who fired the shot that killed the condemned.