Applications of the Death Penalty: Shooting

by JoHarrington

Examining the murky history and gruesome use of the firing squad or gunman as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.

In an Arboretum in Alrewas stands 346 wooden poles. They are arranged in formation facing a row of large poplar trees.

At their helm is an over-sized statue of a blindfolded boy. This is Private Herbert Burden, who was only 17 years old when he was tied to a similar pole and shot.

The whole Arboretum is a memorial to millions of people killed during centuries of war. This particular corner reminds us about those British soldiers who received the death penalty: Shot at Dawn.

They have all since, without exception, been post-humorously pardoned.

At the time of writing, the British newspapers are screaming stories about the use of the firing squad in capital punishment.

The United Arab Emirates has confirmed that an unnamed 21 year old British man has been sentenced to death by shooting.

Along with his 19 year old Syrian friend, he was arrested after selling £262 worth of cannabis to an undercover policeman. The sting, in Abu Dhabi, also netted a Sudanese man and an Emirati teenager.

Meanwhile, in Florida, USA, Republican Brad Drake has sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives.  It removes lethal injection as a method of execution in his state, replacing it with the firing squad. 

Death Row felons retain the option of dying on the electric chair instead.  The changes come into operation on July 1st 2012.

It is assumed by many that the firing squad only kills in wartime for those deserting or committing treason.

Martyrdom of St Sebastian

It's not. It's one of the most active methods of capital punishment in the world today.  Being killed with bullets has overtaken the previous use of crossbows or arrows.

Death by shooting is currently on the statute books in Bahrain, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Libya, North Korea, Palestine, People's Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan), Saudi Arabia, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Viet Nam and Yemen.

The Execution of Private Slovik

Eddie Slovik was drafted into the army during World War II. He had a gun phobia, which meant that he couldn't fire the rifle in his hand. He was executed before a firing squad.

How Death by Shooting is Carried Out

It depends upon the century and the country, but the fundamental act remains the same.

Circa 288 CE, St Sebastian was apparently led to a field and bound to a stake with his hands behind his back.  Roman archers then fired arrows into his body and left him there for dead.

Not much has changed in the way that death by shooting has been carried out since then, except that the bow has been swopped for a gun.

In many ways, it is just like stoning.  The condemned person is pelted with missiles, until they die from their injuries.  However, this is not done by a crowd of participants.  There is either a lone executioner or a squad of five to nine gunmen.

In Belarus, death comes with a single bullet in the back of the head.  The families are not informed until after it is over.  In Bahrain, the victim lies face down on the floor and is shot in the chest through the back.

In Cuba, the condemned is either tied to a post or stood against a wall, facing a firing squad (as pictured to the left). 

The same occurs in Egypt, but this method of capital punishment is reserved only for soldiers. 

Equatorial Guinea also uses a firing squad, but has been criticized for the speed with which the death penalty is carried out. Often the accused are killed within an hour of being found guilty, after trials in which confessions extracted under torture are permissible as evidence.

Indonesian victims are taken into a field, where they stand before a 12 man firing squad. No other witnesses are allowed to be present. If a single bullet from each of the rifles fails to kill the condemned outright, then the commander completes the killing with a bullet to the head.

In Iran, the firing squad is rarely used these days, though it remains on the statute books. If more than one person is being executed, they are all shot at the same time. This might amount to a single bullet per person, as recorded in Jahangir Razmi's Pulitzer prize-winning photograph Firing Squad in Iran.

Israel has only ever executed two people in its legal history.  One of them was killed with a six man firing squad; and its commander was later charged with manslaughter, when the death penalty was deemed illegal in this instance.

A firing squad is also used in Libya, though individuals on Death Row may pay blood money to save their lives. They may also escape death by shooting, if the family of their victims forgives them.

In North Korea, executions by firing squad are held in stadiums and other arenas.  They are usually witnessed by hundreds of thousands of spectators.

There is a complicated situation in Palestine.  While a de facto moratorium on the death penalty is in place where the Palestinian Authority is in control, those under Hamas rule can still be executed. In recent months, this has involved the victim being shot in their legs and arms, before a final bullet enters their chest.

In China, the victims (an estimated 4,000 each year) are taken to a stadium or other public place. They are paraded in front of as many witnesses as wish to be present.

Then they are usually led elsewhere (a nearby hillside in some accounts) to be shot. It is a lone bullet to the back of the head, rather than facing a firing squad.

A single shot to the heart is the method used in Taiwan. However the victim is given a sedative or anesthetic first, so that they won't feel any pain.

If the condemned has signed to donate their organs after death, then the bullet is aimed at the brain stem instead.

Saudi Arabia has phased out death by shooting, in favor of decapitation. The last executions by firing squad were in the 1980s.

In Somalia, victims are taken to waste-land outside the cities and towns, then tied to stakes. A firing squad releases a volley of gunfire.  Afterwards, the bodies are buried at the spot where they were executed.

I have gone into detail about death by shooting in the United Arab Emirates further down this page.  The description of the execution of Rashid Rubaih al Rashidi is typical for this country. The use of the firing squad is very common in UAE.

In the United States of America, a five man firing squad is used.  The victim is strapped into a chair, which is positioned before sand-bags.  This country has largely moved away from this method of execution, with only one state (Oklahoma) still retaining an option to use it.

Viet Nam has also started to disdain its firing squad in preference to lethal injection. However, with the rest of the world refusing to supply the drugs, there are fears that the country will return to the bullet.

Finally, Yemen positions its victims face-down on the floor and shoots them through the back.

The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian

The Effect of a Shooting Execution on the Firing Squad

While those about to be killed are understandably traumatised, this method is more stressful than most for the executioners.

There is an aspect which is unflinchingly brutal about shooting someone to death. 

The executioner at a hanging or the guillotine can look away as they pull the lever.

It's not just one stone but many which kills in a stoning.

The electric chair's button is pressed in another room, as are the syringe depressions in a lethal injection.

Those raising a rifle or other kind of gun have no such respite. The whole killing relies upon them looking directly at their victim, then aiming true, as they release the trigger. 

For this reason, death by shooting is often seen as the worst method for those charged with carrying out the execution. They have to look into the eyes of the person they are about to kill. None of them would have chosen to be there.

During World War II, the German Einsatzgruppen initially used death by shooting to execute Jews in Russia. In August 1941, Heinrich Luitpold Himmler visited and he was struck by the 'psychological burden' that the method caused for his men. His answer was to order the manufacture and deployment of mobile gas chamber vans, which were then used from 1942.

The reason behind the switch was to create more 'humane' killing methods, in a spirit of 'care and concern', to save the sanity of the Einsatzgruppen.  

Sometimes there is rebellion from the proposed firing squads themselves.  When Andrija Mircovich was sentenced to death by shooting, in Carson City, Nevada, USA, the news quickly spread that no volunteers could be found amongst the prison officers.  The warden resigned his position.

A compromise was sought.  A killing machine was designed and quickly manufactured. It required Andrija to sit in front of a steel sheet, while a device was placed in front of him.  Weighing half a ton, the framework contained three ports, through which the muzzles of three rifles were glimpsed.

One was a dummy, but the other two fired live rounds.  The executioners merely had to cut strings in another room to release the triggers.

In Thailand, when shooting was the dominant method of killing, the authorities went further to protect the firing squad from having to face what they were doing. 

The condemned were handcuffed to a cross like structure with their backs to the gunmen. A canvas sheet was draped between them and the firing squad. The rifles were aimed at a target upon it, which corresponded with the level of the individual's heart.

At other times and places, the victims have also been positioned facing away from the firing squad, as during the execution of Pancho Villa's rebels in Mexico.

Accounts of First World War Soldiers Shot by Firing Squad

Desertion and/or cowardice could incur the death penalty for soldiers. NB though there are two books entitled 'Shot at Dawn', they are different histories.

The Execution of Rashid Rubaih al Rashidi

On February 10th 2011, Rashid was killed by firing squad in Dubai. This is how it happened.

Having been physically and mentally abused by his stepmother throughout his life, Rashid was a bitter and disturbed man. He also had a very skewed notion of what was right and wrong, when dealing with children.

However, those mitigating factors could not save him when he entered the courtroom. 

His lawyer only agreed to take on the case, as long as Rashid pleaded guilty.  No other legal representative would touch it.

The issue was the nature of the crime.  United Arab Emirates law demanded that every accused individual be given a lawyer, but this was heinous.

Rashid was eventually found guilty of luring a four year old boy into the washroom of a Mosque. There he raped the child before killing him.  The thirty year old had been drunk at the time, which, in itself, would incur a six month prison sentence.

The story shocked Dubai society, inside and outside the prison walls.  Rashid had been in solitary confinement since his arrest, two years previously, for fear of other inmates making good on their death threats against him.

Rashid's final appeal against his death sentence came the day before his execution. It was unsuccessful and, with no higher authority left to address, he knew that he was going to die.

Terror gripped him. His two brothers visited, but there's no record of the conversation that passed between them. Rashid was left praying to Allah, desperately begging forgiveness of his God. He couldn't eat and slept fitfully.

When dawn came, he did not face his execution day bravely.  He was wide-eyed with panic, as he was forced into his black prison suit and his hands were pinioned behind his back.  Then he was led into a car and driven out of Dubai Central Jail to a nearby wasteground.

Nine police officers were awaiting his arrival.  They were under the command of Essam al Humaidan, Dubai's Attorney General, who would give the order to fire.  One of the guns would fire only blanks.  It allowed the executioners the comfort of knowing that they might not have been the one to kill him.

The officers were familiar with the terrain.  This was where they usually came for target practice.

By now, Rashid was practically petrified with fear.  He entered sluggishly, staring at the stake driven into the ground to hold him.  He quietly asked if he could pray one last time.  His request was granted and he knelt on the ground, but it seemed that Allah was in no mood for divine intervention.

Standing alongside, as witnesses, were the parents and two uncles of the murdered boy. It had not seemed certain that they would be able to attend, as the judge's decision on that had only come hours before. They wanted to see. They wanted this closure and revenge.

A black hood was dropped over Rashid's head and he was dragged to the stake.  His hands were tied behind his back securing him to it.  He could not move now, neither to sit down nor to faint.

Grand Mufti Dr Ahmed al Haddad stepped in to ask him if he had any final words. Rashid mumbled, "I want God to forgive me for what I have done."  He then asked that the family forgive him for what he did to their child.  They refused.

At 8.35am, the rifles were raised and Essam gave the order to fire.  Rashid jolted, then fell forward against his binds. 

Mukhtiar Ahmed Khudabaksh, the murdered boy's father, was allowed to examine Rashid's bleeding body to ascertain that justice had been done.  Following that, at 8.37am, the doctor pronounced the man dead.

Did Rashid Rubaih al Rashidi deserve to die like this?

Please also include your views on the use of the firing squad per se in capital punishment.

Yes, this was justified because...
Charna robbins on 04/24/2015

He farted

colette on 08/09/2012

whatever upbringing this animal had ,and whether he was drunk or not was no excuse for the rape and murder of a child .

MHeart on 07/09/2012

He committed a horrible crime

Debate Surrounding the Firing Squad Execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner in Utah, USA.

Both sides of the argument are given in this discussion in 2010. NB Utah has now abolished death by shooting, in favor of lethal injection.

Botched Executions in Death by Shooting

The firing squad can kill a person very quickly, if done correctly. But that last is the rub.

French chaplain Father Joseph Vernet, who was present at many firing squad executions, was scathing towards those who thought them humane. 

He commented, "The consciousness, in spite of the coup de grâce, remains for long; this method is among the cruelest ones. In fact the execution takes place at daybreak, in a blockhouse, far away from everybody's eyes".

It is possible to survive being shot, even in judicial circumstances.  On board HMCS Prince Rupert, during the Second World War, was one Canadian sailor who had done just that. He was embarrassed about showering with other members of the navy, because they'd see his upper body peppered with bullet wounds. The firing squad had failed to kill him.

Though botched executions are more rare with bullets than with other methods, they do still occur.  Here are just a few examples:

  • May 16th 1879: Wallace Wilkerson (Utah, USA).  Wallace was determined to die like a man, so he refused all restraints and blindfold.  The governor agreed and Wallace sat down. But as the order was given to fire, he braced himself by straightening in the seat.  This moved the target of his heart up by a couple of inches. Four bullets had entered his body, but not one had struck a major organ. One had shattered his left arm.  It took 27 minutes of writhing in agony on the floor before Wallace finally died of blood loss and shock.
  • September 10th 1951: Private Eliseo J Mares Jr (Utah, USA). None of the bullets entered the 18 year old's heart. There was some suggestion that it was on purpose that they instead lodged in his hip and abdomen.  After all, he had been found guilty of killing a fellow American soldier.  Eliseo eventually bled to death. Clark Lobb, a reporter witnessing the execution, recorded that the teenager had 'died silently and horribly'.
  • June 20th 2001: Mohammad Adam Omar (Sana'a, Yemen). Lying on his stomach, with his hands tied behind his back, three bullets were fired into Mohammad's back. But they failed to kill him. He struggled on the ground until the executioner leaned forward and shot him at point blank range in the back of his head. (Mohammad's trial was also controversial for both its speed and the fact that his alleged murder victims turned up alive and well. He was still executed.)
  • December 11th 2006: Jasmine Anwar Hussain (Buhair, Bahrain).  It took ten minutes for Jasmine to bleed to death, after the firing squad missed her vital organs.
  • August 22nd 2011: Abdisankus and Abdullahi Jirow (Mogadishu, Somalia). The marksmen appeared utterly unable to hit the two men tied to the stakes. Ten rounds of ammunition emptied into the dust of the scrub land between and behind them, but neither man was hit. For excruciating minutes, Abdisankus panicked, squirming against his binds in an effort to escape. Then a bullet finally hit him and he slumped. Beside him, Abdullahi wasn't so lucky.  He only died when a horrified officer rushed forward and shot him in the heart at point-blank range.

Pancho Villa's Men Executed in Mexico circa 1912

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More Articles in this Series

Examining the murky history and gruesome use of death by needle as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of electrocution as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of hanging as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the religiously motivated and gruesome use of stoning as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Updated: 04/05/2015, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 08/28/2012

Only in relative terms. Outside the debates on assisted suicide and abortion, I find any situation in which a human being is killed to be morally reprehensible. Even in the aforementioned discussions, there are some aspects that would make me have to think long and hard.

nickupton on 08/28/2012

I would guess that in some ways this would actually be the most humane method of execution? Would you agree?

JoHarrington on 06/28/2012

I admit that I haven't found any botched executions from people being shot in the brain stem.

Missing the heart seems relatively common though, but you can't blame even the most crack marks people. It's an horrific situation for the firing squad. When Slovik was killed, a witness said that he was calmer than those assembled to shoot him. (And again, it took him a long time to die.)

I will look up the Einsatzgruppen, as I haven't encountered them before. Merci.

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