Shot at dawn! Execution by shooting & the firing squad

In most countries, up until the 20th century, shooting was reserved for military personnel with civilians being executed by other methods, mostly hanging. For some reason, shooting was considered a more honourable death for soldiers than hanging. From the military perspective it had obvious advantages - the necessary personnel and equipment for a firing squad were always readily available.
Shooting became the standard form of execution in most Communist countries during the 20th century, and they are still the main users, even where they have abandoned Communism. The former Russian states have now all but abolished the death penalty although shooting executions were common up to the early 90's, mostly by a single pistol shot to the back of the head or neck.
Shooting executions seem to be declining rapidly in the 21st century as the main user, China, moves increasingly to lethal injection. The conventional firing squad is less and less used nowadays due to the difficulties in finding suitable volunteers and the expense of setting up a suitable place where people other than the prisoner will not be injured by flying bullets. Shooting is a gruesome business, which is off-putting to the governments of democratic countries with a free press who do not wish to have the bad publicity that inevitably follows a gruesome or botched execution.

Countries using shooting in the 21st century. Click here for a picture of a modern firing squad execution in the Middle East.
Sixty nine countries had shooting as a lawful method of execution up to 2000, either exclusively or for some classes of crime or criminal (e.g. military personnel are shot whist civilians are hanged as in Egypt).  Executions by this method are steadily declining and countries such as China, Guatemala and Thailand have moved to lethal injection.

At least 55 executions by shooting were carried out in China, Indonesia, North Korea, Somalia, Taiwan and in Yemen during 2013, including one woman in Somalia, 25 year old Miss Ruqiyo Hasan Mahamed Yusuf.  It is reported that Taiwan anesthetises the prisoner prior to the executioner firing a single pistol shot to the head.

2012 saw at least 22 executions by shooting in six countries, although there were almost certainly more unreported ones in China, North Korea and Yemen.  The Gambia executed nine prisoners, including one woman by firing squad and shooting was also used in Abu Dhabi, Belarus, China, North Korea, Taiwan and Yemen.

11 confirmed executions by shooting were carried out in the Belarus, China, Dubai, North Korea, Palestine and Taiwan during 2011.  Dubai and Palestine use a conventional firing squad whilst Yemen lays the prisoner on the ground and a single executioner shoots them through the heart with an automatic rifle. It is thought that in Belarus, China and Taiwan the executioner fires a single shot to the back of the prisoner’s head. It is unknown how North Korea carries out shooting executions. Some provinces in China continue to use shooting which is carried out by a single bullet to the back of the head.

There were 58 confirmed executions by shooting in ten countries during 2010.  The US state of Utah had one by firing squad, there was one in Bahrain and two in Belarus.  Equatorial Guinea executed four men by firing squad, Libya carried out 18 executions by firing squad and there were at least five in North Korea and three in Palestine.  One man was shot in Somalia, four in Taiwan (the first since 2005) and 19 in the Yemen. Several shooting executions were reported in China but there is no means of knowing how many there actually were.

29 confirmed executions by shooting were reported in 2009.  There will have been more but China does not release details of the method used in most cases and reports of executions in North Korea are at best hazy.  Those countries which used shooting in 2009 comprise Indonesia with 13 executions, Vietnam with nine and Yemen with seven. 

During 2008 executions by shooting were carried out in Belarus, Indonesia, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, the UAE, Vietnam and Yemen.  China continued to use shooting which is carried out by a single bullet to the back of the head.  It is not known how many of the 48 reported executions were carried out by this method.  Indonesia, North Korea, Somalia and UAE use conventional firing squads.  Indonesia finally executed the three Bali Bombers in November and had 111 persons on death row at year end.  Yemen lays the prisoner on the ground and a single executioner shoots them with an automatic rifle. Somalia also uses a single executioner with an automatic rifle.  Asir province in Saudi Arabia uses shooting, at least for female criminals.

30 executions by shooting were recorded in 2007, with 15 in Afghanistan, one each in Belarus, Ethiopia, Indonesia and North Korea, three in Somalia and eight in Yemen.  It is assumed that the execution in Belarus was by a single shot to the back of the head.  It is not known how many shooting executions were carried out in China but shooting was still in use in some provinces there.

In 2006 just twenty confirmed executions by shooting were recorded. There were three in Bahrain on the 11th of December 2006, the first executions here since 1996. Jasmine Anwar Hussain was reported to have taken 10 minutes to bleed to death after she and her accomplice were executed in Bahrain’s Jaw prison.  They were each tied to a chair and either blindfolded or hooded before being shot through the chest by a six man firing squad.
Three men were executed in Indonesia and three more in Somalia. The United Arab Emirates executed 3 men by firing squad, the first executions there for 3 years. Vietnam recorded just 6 executions (four men and two women). Two men were shot in Yemen.  Somalia uses a single executioner with a machine gun. The other countries mentioned use conventional firing squads. It is not known how many executions in China used gunshot in this year.

China.
China has the death penalty for 58 crimes including murder, drug trafficking, rape, re-selling VAT receipts, pimping, habitual theft, stealing or dealing in national treasures or cultural relics, publishing pornography, selling counterfeit money, economic offences such as graft, speculation and profiteering and even killing a panda.
During the "Strike hard" campaign against crime in China during the Spring of 2001, Amnesty International recorded a staggering 1,781 executions. This figure is greater than the total number of executions carried out in the rest of the world put together.
China does not publish statistics about the death penalty - these are a state secret.
Executions were often carried out immediately after a public sentencing rally and the criminal's family is made to pay for the bullet.
The prisoner's arms are shackled behind them and they are made to kneel down before receiving a single bullet fired at close range into the back of the head or neck by a soldier or policeman or by a bullet fired into the heart from behind using an automatic rifle. (
Click here for photo)
Chinese laws do not specifically state the site of execution grounds and shootings are carried out at military target ranges and along river banks and on remote hill sides, the prisoners being transported in open lorries from the sports stadiums where they were sentenced.
Condemned criminals are not executed inside prisons because it is regarded as inhumane for other inmates to hear the sound of gunfire.
In a typical mass public execution in December 1995, 13 men and women convicted of murder and highway robbery were shot after the Court dismissed their appeals.  Chinese television showed the nine men and four women being paraded at a sports stadium in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 before being taken to the execution ground on a nearby hillside.
Frequently the kidneys, hearts and corneas are removed from the dead prisoners and used in transplants at local hospitals. "Execution is one of the indispensable means of education," China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, once said.

Iran.
In the years following the 1979 revolution, Iran shot hundreds if not thousands of criminals, reaching a peak in the early 1980's. Their crimes included murder, drug trafficking, adultery, prostitution, armed robbery, political violence and religious offences. Typically those who were to be shot were lined up in groups seated on the ground along a wall and blindfolded. They were each shot by a Revolutionary Guard standing in front of them using an automatic rifle. Since then Iranian executions have been mostly by hanging.

Nigeria.
Nigerian law allows both hanging and shooting and on Saturday, July 22nd, 1995, executed 43 convicted armed robbers at the Kirikiri maximum security prison in Lagos before a hushed crowd of around a 1,000 people.
It was the largest number of executions in one day in Nigeria for decades and was intended to crack down on a recent upsurge in violent crime.
The prisoners, some of whom had been on death row for as long as 16 years, were tied to stakes at the Kirikiri shooting range before a 12 man firing squad of soldiers marched in from behind the prison walls and opened fire. The soldiers dressed in camouflage and with black shoe polish on the faces used semi-automatic weapons to execute the convicts in three groups of 12 and one of 7.
The executions began at 9:30 a.m. and ended at 11 a.m. Three doctors, one a woman, certified the deaths, and an Irish Roman Catholic priest and a Moslem Imam witnessed them.
Armed robbers are frequently sentenced to be shot and at one time in the northern state of Kaduna, the Military Governor thought that shooting gave the prisoner too quick a death and decided that their agony should be prolonged by ordering the firing squad to aim at the feet and legs and then progressively higher up with each volley until the prisoner died.

Thailand.
Uniquely, Thailand used a single executioner with one stand mounted machine gun per prisoner, to put murderers and drug traffickers to death. Over 500 people were shot in Thailand between 1937, when shooting replaced beheading and October 2003, when Thailand moved to lethal injection as its sole method of execution.
All those sentenced to death there were held at Bang Kwang maximum security prison, about 20 miles outside Bangkok. The virtually soundproof execution chamber, known as the "Place to Relieve Suffering," contained two wooden crosses and two stand mounted Heckler & Koch 9mm machine guns. 
Prisoners were confined in heavy leg irons from the time of sentence to the time of execution, which could be anything from a few weeks to a few years and were told of their fate only hours before they were shot. 
On the day of execution, the prisoner was taken from their cell, photographed and fingerprinted. They were then taken to the execution chamber and handcuffed to a cross like wooden frame with their back to the machine gun, four meters behind them. A white cloth blindfold is applied and the hands tied with a sacred Buddhist cord. Flowers are hung from the prisoner’s hands as an offering to Buddha and a canvas screen is pulled between the condemned and the gun. A target is fixed onto the screen level with the prisoner’s heart and the gun aimed at the centre of the target.  The executioner takes up his position, watching another member of the execution team who raises a red flag, and on the signal from the prison governor, the flag is dropped and the executioner fires a fully automatic burst of 15 rounds into the victim’s heart.  Fourteen men and one woman faced this death during 1999. Only one execution was recorded in 2000. There were at least six in 2001 and another six in 2002 and four in 2003. Click here for a photo of Thai execution.
Five men were shot on the 18th of April 2001 and the local media reported the preparations as follows.  At 5.30 p.m., Lee Yuang-kwang, a Hong Kong Chinese man convicted of drug trafficking, was taken to the execution chamber. He was blindfolded with a white cloth before being led into the chamber with his legs and hands shackled. He managed to smile and walked unaided. About 20 minutes later, Boonkerd Jitpranee and Chu Chin-kuay were taken in. Chu appeared grim, his face ashen, while Boonkerd looked nonchalant. They were followed 25 minutes later by the final pair, Vichien Saenmahayak and Romali Tayeh who were shot at 6.38 p.m. The short bursts of fire from the two machine guns were barely audible outside the chamber.  After each execution, the place was quickly cleaned up and the blood washed away, to prepare for the next prisoners. Through a glass door, a black cloth could be seen, blocking the view of the condemned.

Vietnam.
Executions were carried out by a firing squad comprised of seven policemen.  Six of the men fired rifles while the captain fired a final shot to the head from a handgun if required.  The prisoners are blindfolded and tied to stakes at execution grounds in the suburbs of Vietnamese cities.  Relatives of the condemned are not informed of the execution beforehand, but are asked to collect the prisoners belongings two or three days afterwards.  There are 29 capital crimes recognised in Vietnamese law, although drug trafficking accounts for the majority of executions there.  Nine people were put to death in 2009 and just three in 2008. The Vietnamese legislature voted on the 17th of June 2010 to replace firing squads with lethal injections from July 2011, according to the VietnamNet online news service.

The American state of Utah.
Utah is the only state to have used the firing squad in recent times. Only Utah and Idaho allow this method and will only use it again if the prisoner specifically elects it.  Three of Utah’s remaining condemned prisoners have indicated that they will choose this option. 
On the 17th of January 1977, Gary Mark Gilmore became the first person to be executed in the U.S. in almost 10 years after putting up a strenuous campaign to be allowed to die. He chose shooting. Under Utah law in force at the time, the condemned man had the choice of shooting by firing squad or hanging. He was executed by five volunteer shooters in the old canning factory in the prison grounds using Winchester Model 94 lever action repeating rifles loaded with Winchester Silver Tip 150-grain .30-30 caliber cartridges. Only four of the rifles had live ammunition, the fifth containing a blank round so that the firing squad would not know who had fired the fatal shots.
He was tied to a chair and had a white target pinned over his heart. After the death warrant had been read to him, he was asked if there was anything he wanted to say and uttered the famous line, "Let’s do it." His execution renewed the capital punishment process in America and was graphically described in the Norman Mailer book and subsequent film "The Executioner's Song."

Nineteen years later, John Taylor became the second person to suffer the same fate.  Taylor, 36, was convicted of the 1988 rape and strangulation of 11-year-old Charla King and was duly executed on the 26th of January 1996 at 12:03 a.m. Mountain Time. One of the nine media witnesses, Paul Murphy of KTVX-TV Salt Lake, described the scene saying, “we saw this very large man strapped to a chair. His eyes were darting back and forth". He was strapped to the chair by his hands and feet and lifted his chin for Warden Hank Galetka to secure a strap around his neck and place the black hood over his head. At 12:03 a.m., on the count of three, the five riflemen standing 23 feet away fired at a white cloth target pinned over Taylor's heart. Blood darkened the chest area of his navy blue clothing, and four minutes later, a doctor pronounced him dead. Very little blood spilled into the pan under the chair's mesh seat.
As the volley hit him Taylor's hands squeezed up, went down, and came up and squeezed again.  His chest was covered with blood." The prison doctor came in, cut holes in the hood and examined Taylor's pupils to verify he was dead. "The image I have when I close my eyes is of his chest heaving upward after he was shot," said witness Kevin Dale Stanfield.
" John Albert Taylor was pronounced dead at 12:07," said Ray Wahl, director of field operations at the Utah State Prison. "It went like clockwork, just like we rehearsed," prison warden Hank Galetka told reporters. "There was no hesitation at all," "Taylor went to his death with steely determination even though only hours before he had to be given medication because his stomach was "doing flip-flops."

Post 1988, all Utah executions take place at the Utah State Prison in Draper, in a purpose built execution chamber.  This is a white painted room 24 feet long and 20 feet wide, built in 1998.  On each side of the chamber there are three bulletproof glass enclosed witness rooms. One is for the state's witnesses. On the other side of the execution area are two witness rooms: one room for witnesses selected by the offender; one room for media witnesses. At one end of the chamber is a seat equipped with straps, while at the other end the wall has two gun ports.  The steel and mesh execution chair (see photo) is painted a dark blue and has a pan beneath the seat to catch the inmate’s blood and is surrounded by sand bags on each side to prevent ricochets. This facility had only been used once previously, for the lethal injection of Joseph Mitchell Parsons in 1999.

Friday the 18th of June 2010 saw Utah’s third firing squad execution when 49 year old Ronnie Lee Gardner (see photo) was executed at the State Prison in Draper just after midnight.  Gardner was sentenced to death in 1985 for the murder of attorney Michael Burdell while trying to escape from a Salt Lake City courthouse in April 1985, where he was on trial for the murder by shooting of barman Melvyn John Otterstrom during a 1984 robbery.  Gardner also shot and wounded court bailiff George "Nick" Kirk who died 11 years later as a result, according to his family. A female accomplice had smuggled the gun into court and slipped it to Gardner prior to the escape attempt.
Just after midnight Gardner, wearing just a dark blue jump suit, was led the 90 feet from the observation cell to the death chamber.  Here Gardner was strapped into the execution chair and put to death in accordance with Utah’s normal protocol as described below.  Asked if he had any last words he told the warden “no, I do not. No.”  The firing squad leader counted down from five and the squad fired on the word two.  Reporters who witnessed the execution noted that Gardner's arm twitched momentarily after the volley had been fired at 12.15.  He was pronounced dead at 12:17, two minutes later.  Four bullet holes were visible in the wood panel behind the execution chair after the body was removed.  Gardner was cooperative throughout the procedure.

Yemen.
Almost all executions in Yemen are for murder and are carried out in public, normally attended by relatives of the victim.
One of the most notable executions was carried out on the 20th of June 2001 when Sudanese mortuary assistant, Mohammad Adam Omar, nicknamed "the Sana'a Ripper," was shot in front of a crowd of 50,000 for the rape and murder of two university students. He was brought into the execution ground (a sports stadium) with his hands cuffed behind his back and was ordered to lie face down. His executioner fired three shots into his heart with an AK-47 assault rifle and as Omar was still moving, fired a fourth shot from close range into his head.  At least two shooting executions were recorded in 2013.

The firing squad in Britain.
As mentioned earlier, the firing squad has always been the preferred method of military execution, no British civilian having ever been shot. (Click here for a photo of a typical firing squad execution.)
It is not known when shooting was first used as a method of execution in Britain, but there are records of soldiers being executed by shooting during the English Civil War in the 17th Century and Roche's 18th century map of London shows an area adjacent to Tyburn gallows "where soldiers are shot."
On July 18th, 1743, three members of the Royal Highland Regiment (the Black Watch) were shot at dawn on Tower Green, against the south east wall of the Chapel, by an 18 man firing squad from the 3rd Regiment of Guards.  They were Corporals Samuel and Malcolm MacPherson (clansmen, not brothers) who were executed for desertion and Private Farquhar Shaw for striking a superior officer.
During World War I, 346 soldiers were shot for desertion, murder and 18 for showing cowardice and two for the unique military crime of “sleeping on sentry”. There has been a long campaign to get posthumous pardons for them which came to fruition in 2006 when the Government decided to pardon all of them. A monument to them in the form of an Arboretum containing a statue of an unnamed soldier facing the firing squad has been created at Alrewas in Staffordshire. 2006. Desertion ceased to carry the death penalty after 1930.
Foreigners convicted of spying in World War I were normally sentenced to die by firing squad, the executions taking place on the rifle range in the Tower of London or in the Tower Ditch in two cases. According to usual practice, the condemned was tied to a chair with a target pinned over his heart and shot by a eight man firing squad from the Scots Guards regiment. One of their rifles contained a blank round. Twelve men were to suffer this fate, 11 during World War I and one during World War II, when on Friday, August the 15th, 1941, Josef Jakobs, a German spy, was executed. It is thought that Jakobs was shot as he was an NCO in the German Army. All other spies captured during World War II were hanged at either Pentonville or Wandsworth prisons in London.
Two American soldiers were executed by firing squad at Shepton Mallet prison during World War II. They were 20 year old Alex Miranda, who shot his sergeant, for which he was in turn shot on the 30th of May 1944 and Benjamin Pyegate, who had stabbed a fellow soldier to death for which he was executed on the 28th of November 1944. Soldiers convicted of murder (or rape in the case of U.S. soldiers) were hanged either in British civilian prisons or at the U.S. Military prison at Shepton Mallet. For more on British firing squad executions visit
http://www.stephen-stratford.co.uk/

How shooting kills.
Shooting can be carried out by a single executioner who fires from a short range at the back of the head or neck, as is the case in China, Taiwan and the USSR (before abolition). The intention of shooting at short range is to destroy the vital centres of the medulla (lower brain stem), as happens when a captive bolt is used for slaughtering cattle.  This method typically results in instant unconsciousness due to concussion caused by the fracturing of the scull and destruction of the brain tissue.

The traditional firing squad is made up of three to six shooters per prisoner who stand or kneel opposite the condemned who is usually tied to a stake or a chair. Normally the shooters aim at the chest, since this is easier to hit than the head. A firing squad aiming at the head produces the same type of wounds as those produced by a single bullet, but bullets fired at the chest rupture the heart, large blood vessels and lungs so that the condemned person dies of haemorrhage and shock. It is not unusual for the officer in charge of the firing squad to have to give the prisoner a "coup de grace" - a pistol shot to the head to finish them off if the initial volley has failed to kill them.

A bullet produces a cavity which has a volume many times that of the bullet. Cavitation is probably due to the heat dissipated when the impact of the bullet boils the water and volatile fats in the tissue which it strikes. According to Dr. Le Garde, in his book "Gunshot Injuries," it is proved both in theory and by experimentation, that cavitation is caused by the transfer of the momentum from the fast moving bullet to the tissue which is mostly comprised of incompressible liquid.
Persons hit by bullets have been reported to feel as if they have been punched - pain comes later if the victim survives long enough to feel it. One of our readers has kindly shared his first hand experience of being shot (in the arm) as follows “Upon the bullet penetrating my flesh there was an immediate and intense pain that may best be described as having a large gauge, extremely hot wire piercing my arm. The sensation was so strong that I cried out in pain and leaped rather high in the air while grasping the wound before my friend had even realized what had happened.” In his view “any person being executed by firing squad that has been shot in the heart would experience intense and overwhelming pain before being rendered unconscious from cerebral hypoxia.”

The British Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1953) considered shooting as an alternative to hanging, but rejected it on the grounds that "it does not possess even the first requisite of an efficient method, the certainty of causing immediate death."  Those giving evidence to the Commission frequently emphasised their belief that execution should be rapid, clean and dignified.

When all goes well, shooting can provide a quick death but there are many recorded instances of it failing to kill the condemned person immediately. There are also instances of people surviving their execution. It would seem that one of the problems of the firing squad is that it is, typically, composed of volunteers rather than professional executioners and it is a task that many people would not find easy to perform when the time comes to actually squeeze the trigger. Shooting is always a gruesome and bloody death.

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