In the military the firing squad members of the group fired simultaneously, thus preventing both disruption of the process by a single member and identification of the member who fired the lethal shot. To avoid the disfigurement of multiple shots to the head, the shooters are typically instructed to aim at the heart.
The prisoner is typically blindfolded or hooded and restrained. Executions were carried out with the condemned either standing or sitting. There is a tradition in some cases where the executions were carried out at sunrise, hence the phrase "shot at dawn". Before the time of firearms, bows or crossbows were often used.
The method used to be employed by military courts for crimes such as cowardice, desertion, espionage, murder, mutiny, or treason. In some cases, one or more members of the firing squad may be issued a weapon containing a blank cartridge so that no member of the firing squad knows if he is using live ammunition. This is believed to reinforce the sense of diffusion of responsibility among the firing squad members and makes the execution process more reliable; members are more likely to aim to kill if they are not entirely blamed for it, or if there is a chance they did not fire the lethal shot. It also allows each member of the firing squad to believe afterwards that he did not personally fire a fatal shot.
Actually, after the shot is fired it is possible to tell if the round was live or a blank because the absence of any recoil will indicate that the rifle contained a blank cartridge. In more recent times, rifleman may be given a dummy cartridge containing a wax bullet instead of a lead bullet, which provides a more realistic recoil.
In the American Civil War, 433 of the 573 men executed were shot by a firing squad. During World War II, Army Pvt. Edward "Eddie" Slovik was the first soldier executed by firing squad for desertion since the American Civil War. It was probably a misscarriage of justice given Slovak’s circumstances.
In 1913, Andriza Mircovich became the first and only inmate in Nevada to be executed by shooting. After the warden of Nevada State Prison could not find five men to form a firing squad a shooting machine was built to carry out Mircovich's execution.
John W. Deering allowed an electrocardiogram recording of the effect of gunshot wounds on his heart during his 1938 execution by firing squad. Afterwards his body was donated to the University of Utah School of Medicine, at his request.
Utah's 1960 execution of James W. Rodgers became the last execution by firing squad in the United States for nearly two decades.
Since 1960 there have been three executions by firing squad, all in Utah: Gary Gilmore was executed in 1977.
John Albert Taylor chose a firing squad for his 1996 execution. Taylor justifying his choice because he did not want to "flop around like a dying fish" during a lethal injection.
Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad in 2010, having said he preferred this method of execution because of his "Mormon heritage". Execution by firing squad was banned in Utah in 2004, but as the ban was not retroactive and three inmates on Utah's death row have the firing squad set as their method of execution.
Idaho banned execution by firing squad in 2009 temporarily leaving Oklahoma as the only state in the union utilizing this method of execution, but only as a secondary method. Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued in Arthur v. Dunn: "In addition to being near instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless ... And historically, the firing squad has yielded significantly fewer botched executions."
During the 120-year span from 1890 to 2010, nearly 9,000 people were legally executed in America. Of these, an estimated 276 were “botched” in some way—in other words, the execution didn’t proceed exactly as planned and may have required additional attempts. In many cases, it also involved unplanned suffering on the convict’s part to the point where witnesses were traumatized.
However, out of the 34 that were by firing squad, none were botched. That’s not to say it can’t happen.
Wallace Wilkerson (about 1834 – May 16, 1879) was sentenced to death by the Territory of Utah for the murder of William Baxter. While claiming he was innocent, Wilkerson chose to die by firing squad over hanging or decapitation.
On June 11, 1877, Baxter stopped at a saloon where he met Wilkerson and the two began to play a card game of cribbage for money. An argument broke out between them over accusations of cheating. Baxter attempted to back out of the argument, but was fatally shot in the forehead and temple by Wilkerson, who then fled.
The next morning, the coroner examined the body of Baxter, who was determined to have been unarmed at the time of the shooting. Authorities quickly captured Wilkerson and kept him under guard to prevent him from being lynched.
Wilkerson was indicted for premeditated murder by a grand jury. On September 29, 1877, he pleaded not guilty, but was convicted and sentenced to death and set an execution date of December 14, 1877. Wilkerson chose to be executed by firing squad instead of the other options of hanging or decapitation that were legal in the territory at the time.
On May 15, 1879, Wilkerson was transferred from Salt Lake City to a jail in Provo and spent his last day together with his wife until half an hour before the execution. He declined visits by the clergy.
When Wilkerson was brought out of his cell by the Sheriff, a deputy and a U.S. Marshal he was dressed in black with a white felt hat and a cigar which he kept through the execution. Wilkerson gave a farewell speech thanking the law enforcement officers and shaking hands with some of the 25 people present in the jail yard. About 200 spectators were estimated to have gathered outside. Wilkerson stated that he bore no grudge against anyone except a witness that he accused of committing perjury at his trial. Some of the witnesses of the execution recalled that he appeared to be drunk.
Wilkerson was seated on a chair at a corner of the jail yard about 30 feet away from the shooters and declined to be blindfolded. He insisted that restraints were unnecessary, stating: "I give you my word... I intend to die like a man, looking my executioners right in the eye."
A white three-inch paper target was pinned on Wilkerson's chest over his heart and Wilkerson yelled, "[A]im for my heart, Marshal!" At approximately noon on May 16, 1879, the marshal signaled the men who were concealed in a shed to shoot. When Wilkerson heard the end of the count, he stiffened up in the chair, unwittingly moving the target and the bullets missed his heart, one of them shattering his arm and the rest hitting his torso. Wilkerson jumped off the chair and screamed, "Oh, my God! My God! They've missed it!"
Four doctors rushed to Wilkerson, who was on the ground struggling and gasping on the ground. Officials were concerned at one point that they would have to shoot him again, but he was pronounced dead 27 minutes later, having bled to death. According to some accounts, he appeared to have actually died in about 15 minutes.
Wilkerson's body was carried to an office at the county courthouse and after being washed and placed in a coffin covered in black, the body was turned over to his wife.
The Deseret News which at the time was published by Brigham Young Jr., the son of the deceased Latter Day Saint movement, proclaimed that "divine law has been executed and human law honored" because Wilkerson "atoned for that deed as far as it is possible so to do by the pouring out of his own blood." The Ogden Junction criticized the botched execution and claimed "...the French guillotine never fails."
It could have been worse. In 1979 a Thai woman named Ginggaew Lorsoongnern was executed for conspiracy in a kidnapping and murder plot. She was only the second woman in Thai history to be executed by firing squad.
She had been fired from her housekeeping and childcare job by a Bangkok couple with a six-year-old son. Her 28-year-old boyfriend, who already had a criminal record, suggested kidnapping the boy ransom. A total of six conspirators were identified by Thai authorities.
Sometime around the middle of October 1978 she picked up the boy from school and took him to their hideout. According to the ransom instructions the boy's parents were to look for a white flag marking the drop point while en route between railway stations and deposit a bag there. But, the night was dark and the parents failed to see the flag.
The kidnappers stabbed the boy repeatedly before burying him alive. According to authorities, Lorsoongnern attempted to stop the murder but couldn’t.
She was was sentenced to death by firing squad on January 12, 1979. She was delivered to be executed on January 13, 1979, but her heart was on a different side than in most humans, so she survived the initial execution rounds. Authorities initially believed she was dead, but they discovered her in the morgue attempting to stand up after hearing her scream. She died after getting shot a second time. One of the others kidnappers sentenced to die by firing squad also died after two rounds of bullets.