Blood Atonement - Death By Firing Squad

by Rocky Hulse

It is estimated that 340 men have been executed in the U.S. by firing squad since 1600. Many of these were military executions carried out in the civil war. In modern times only Idaho and Utah have allowed execution by firing squad but in practice only Utah has used it since the resumption of executions in 1977.

Nevada carried out one execution by shooting using an "execution machine". This was on May 14th 1913 when Andrija Mircovich was executed for murder. It is however the most common method of execution in use worldwide - 71 countries use shooting as the method of execution, either exclusively or for some classes of crime or criminal.


Under Utah law since 1852 the condemned man had the choice of shooting by firing squad (which complies with the Mormon doctrine of Blood Atonement) or hanging, most prisoners choosing shooting. To date, there have been forty-eight legal executions in the state of Utah. Of these, thirty-nine were by firing squad, six by hanging, and two by lethal injection.

On 17 January 1977 Gary Mark Gilmore became the first person to be executed in the U.S. for ten years after putting up a strenuous campaign to be allowed to die. He had been convicted of the murders by shooting of a motel owner and of a gas station attendant. At the time of the killings Gilmore was on parole from a twelve-year sentence for armed robbery.

Gilmore chose shooting. He was executed just after 8.00 a.m. by six volunteers in the old canning factory in the prison grounds using .30-.30 rifles only five of which had live ammunition, the sixth 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 "Lets 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".


19 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 26th 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 (see picture) 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 standard Winchester Model 94 lever-action rifles. Four of these were loaded with a single Winchester Silver Tip 150-grain .30-.30 cartridges while the fifth contained a blank round. The relatively light bullets which expand well at short distances, were fired at a white cloth target pinned over Taylor's heart. Blood rapidly 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. According to a witness 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, pronouncing him dead at 12:07, according to Ray Wahl, director of field operations at the Utah State Prison. "It went like clockwork, just like we rehearsed." prison warden Hank Galetka said. "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."

Utah’s protocol on execution by firing squad.

Executions are carried out at Point of the Mountain state penitentiary near Salt Lake City. The firing squad is composed of six members who have volunteered for the job.

At the appropriate time, the condemned prisoner is led to the execution area or chamber. The prisoner is placed in a specially designed chair which has a pan beneath it to catch the blood and other fluids. Restraints are applied to the prisoner’s arms, legs, chest and head. A head restraint is applied loosely around the prisoner’s neck to hold his neck and head in an upright position. The prisoner is dressed in a dark blue boiler suit with a white cloth circle attached by Velcro to the area over the his heart. Behind the execution chair are sandbags to absorb the volley and prevent ricochets. Dark sheets are draped over the sandbags.

Approximately 20 feet in front of the prisoner is a partition. This has firing ports for each member of the execution team. There is a platform rest inside the partition, below the firing ports, for the shooters to steady their rifles. 30-30 caliber rifles are used with standard Winchester Silver Tip 150-grain ammunition.

On one side of the execution area is a room 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.

When the prisoner is restrained, he is asked by the warden if has any last statement to make. When he has finished a black hood is placed over the his head and the warden leaves the room.

The firing squad members stand in the firing position and take aim at the white cloth circle on the prisoner’s chest. On the command to fire, they fire simultaneously. A physician and medical personnel from the Utah Department of Corrections examine the prisoner after the volley has been fired to determine death.

The estimated average length of time that elapses from the time that the prisoner is restrained to the time that death is determined is eight to ten minutes.

Individuals authorized to attend an execution by firing squad include witnesses selected by the offender, the victim’s family, government witnesses, and administrative staff (as determined by the executive director).

It is possible that other prisoners will elect to die by firing squad in Utah over the coming years, rather than choose the lawful alternative of lethal injection.

How shooting kills

Shooting can be carried out by a single executioner who fires from short range at the back of the head or neck as is the case in China. The intention of shooting at short range is to destroy the vital centers of the medulla (lower brain stem), as happens when a captive bolt is used for slaughtering cattle.

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 chair or to a stake. 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 hemorrhage and shock. It was not unusual in earlier times 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 after the initial volley failed to kill them.

A bullet produces a cavity which has a volume many times that of the bullet. Cavitation is caused by 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 feel as if they have been punched - pain comes later if the victim survives long enough to feel it.

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.