Execution by firing squad

"Firing squad" and "shot at dawn" redirect here. For the UK memorial, see Shot at Dawn Memorial. For other uses, see Firing squad (disambiguation).
An execution by firing squad, from the painting,The Third of May by Francisco Goya, in 1814

Execution by firing squad, in the past sometimes called fusillading[1] (from the French fusil, rifle), is a method of capital punishment, particularly common in the military and in times of war. Execution by shooting is a fairly old practice. Some reasons for its use are that firearms are usually readily available and a gunshot to a vital organ usually kills relatively quickly. Before the introduction of firearms, bows or crossbows were often used Saint Sebastian is usually depicted as executed by a squad of Roman auxiliary archers in around 288 AD; King Edmund the Martyr of East Anglia, by some accounts, was tied to a tree and executed by Viking archers on 20 November 869 or 870 AD.

A firing squad is normally composed of several military personnel or law enforcement officers. Usually, all members of the group are instructed to fire 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, sometimes aided by a paper target. The prisoner is typically blindfolded or hooded, as well as restrained, although in some cases prisoners have asked to be allowed to face the firing squad without their eyes covered. Executions can be carried out with the condemned either standing or sitting. There is a tradition in some jurisdictions that such executions are carried out at first light, or at sunrise, which is usually up to half an hour later. This gave rise to the phrase "shot at dawn."

Execution by firing squad is distinct from other forms of execution by firearms, such as an execution by a single firearm to the back of the head or neck. However, the single shot by the squad's officer with a pistol (coup de grâce) is sometimes incorporated in a firing squad execution, particularly if the initial volley turns out not to be immediately fatal.

Military significance

The method is often the supreme punishment or disciplinary means employed by military courts for crimes such as cowardice, desertion, espionage, murder, mutiny, or treason. For servicemen, the firing squad is symbolic. The condemned serviceman is executed by a group of his peers indicating that he is found guilty by the entire group. Although a court-martial might be presided over and prosecuted by officers, the instruments of execution are the ordinary weapons fired by members of the group from which he is being expunged. Furthermore, in judicially approved executions, the condemned man is allowed to stand, rather than kneel; in many cultures, the ability or the will to stand in the face of adversity or danger is considered a salient feature of individual pride. Finally, the group action on one side (being the firing squad), with the condemned standing opposite, presents a visual contrast that reinforces to all witnesses that solidarity is an overriding necessity in a military unit.

If the condemned prisoner is an ex-officer who is acknowledged to have shown bravery in their past career, they may be accorded the privilege of giving the order to fire. An example of this is Marshal of France Michel Ney.

Blank cartridge

In some cases, all but one members of the firing squad may be issued a weapon containing a blank cartridge.[2] Sometimes all but one member have live rounds.[3] No member of the firing squad is told beforehand if he is using live ammunition. This is believed to reinforce the sense of diffusion of responsibility among the firing squad members. This diffusion of responsibility makes the execution process more reliable because the members are more likely to aim to kill if they aren't entirely blamed for it, or if there is a chance they didn't 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[4]—for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the "conscience round".

According to a Private W. A. Quinton, who served in the British Army during the First World War and had the experience of being in a firing squad in October 1915, he and eleven colleagues were relieved of any live ammunition and their own rifles, before being issued with replacement weapons. The firing squad was then given a short speech by an officer before they fired a volley at the condemned man. He said about the episode, "I had the satisfaction of knowing that as soon as I fired, the absence of any recoil, [indicated] that I had merely fired a blank cartridge".[5]

In more recent times, such as in the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner in the American state of Utah in 2010, a rifleman may be given a "dummy" cartridge containing a wax bullet instead of a lead bullet, which provides a more realistic recoil.[6]

By country

The revolt of Czech units in Austria in May 1918 was brutally suppressed.


On 1 April 1916, Belgian woman Gabrielle Petit was executed by a German firing squad at Schaerbeek after being convicted of spying for the British Secret Service during World War I.

During the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, three captured German spies were tried and executed by a U.S. firing squad at Henri-Chapelle on 23 December 1944. Thirteen other Germans were also tried and shot at either Henri-Chapelle or Huy.[7] These executed spies took part in Waffen-SS commando Otto Skorzeny's Operation Greif, in which English-speaking German commandos operated behind U.S. lines, masquerading in U.S. uniforms and equipment.[7][8]


The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 expressly prohibits the usage of capital punishment in peacetime, but authorizes the use of the death penalty for military crimes committed during wartime.[9] War needs to be declared formally, in accordance with international law and article 84, item 19 of the Federal Constitution, with due authorization from the Brazilian Congress. The Brazilian Code of Military Penal Law, in its chapter dealing with wartime offences, specifies the crimes that are subject to the death penalty. The death penalty is never the only possible sentence for a crime, and the punishment needs to be imposed by the military courts system. Per the norms of the Brazilian Code of Military Penal Procedure, the death penalty is carried out by firing squad.

Although Brazil still permits the use of capital punishment during wartime, no convicts were actually executed during Brazil's last military conflict, the Second World War. The military personnel sentenced to death during World War II had their sentences reduced by the President of the Republic.


An accused anti-Batista insurgent is blindfolded and executed by firing squad, Cuba 1956.

Cuba, as part of its penal system, still utilizes death by firing squad. In January 1992, a Cuban exile convicted of "terrorism, sabotage and enemy propaganda" was executed by firing squad.[10] The Council of the State noted that the punishment served as a deterrent and stated that the death penalty "fulfills a goal of overall prevention, especially when the idea is to stop such loathsome actions from being repeated, to deter others and so to prevent innocent human lives from being endangered in the future."[10] During the Cuban Revolution, both sides employed death by firing squads. According to Humberto Fontova, a refugee from Castro's Cuba, Che Guevara was responsible for hundreds of deaths by firing squad.[11]

A Soviet infiltrator being executed by a firing squad during the Continuation War.


The death penalty was widely used during and after the Finnish Civil War (January–May 1918); some 9,700 Finns and an unknown number of Russian volunteers on the Red side were executed during the war or in its aftermath.[12] Most executions were carried out by firing squads after the sentences were given by illegal or semi-legal courts martial. Only some 250 persons were sentenced to death in courts acting on legal authority.[13]

During World War II, some 500 persons were executed, half of them condemned spies. The usual causes for death penalty for Finnish citizens were treason and high treason (and to a lesser extent cowardice and disobedience, applicable for military personnel). Almost all cases of capital punishment were tried by court-martial. Usually the executions were carried out by the regimental military police platoon, or in the case of spies, by the local military police. One Finn, Toivo Koljonen, was executed for a civilian crime (six murders). Most executions occurred in 1941 and during the Soviet Summer Offensive in 1944. The last death sentences were given in 1945 for murder, but later commuted to life imprisonment.[13]

The death penalty was abolished by Finnish law in 1949 for crimes committed during peacetime, and in 1972 for all crimes.[14] Finland is party to the Optional protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, forbidding the use of the death penalty in all circumstances.[15]


Execution at Verdun at the time of the mutinies in 1917.

Private Thomas Highgate was the first British soldier to be convicted of desertion and executed by firing squad in September 1914 at Tournan-en-Brie during World War I. In October 1916, Private Harry Farr was shot for cowardice at Carnoy, which was later suspected to be acoustic shock. Highgate and Farr, along with 304 other British and Imperial troops who were executed for similar offenses, were listed at the Shot at Dawn Memorial which was erected to honor them.[16][17]

On 15 October 1917, Dutch exotic dancer Mata Hari was executed by a French firing squad at Château de Vincennes castle in the town of Vincennes under charges of espionage for Germany during World War I.[18]

During World War II, on 24 September 1944, Josef Wende and Stephan Kortas, two Poles drafted into the German Army, entered across the Moselle Rivers behind U.S. lines in civilian clothes, posing as Polish slave laborers, to observe Allied strength and were to rejoin their own army on the same day. However, they were discovered by the Americans and captured. On 18 October 1944, Wende and Kortas were found guilty of espionage by a U.S. military commission and sentenced to death.[19] On 11 November 1944, they were shot in the garden of a farmhouse at Toul. The footage of Wende's execution[20] as well as Kortas[21] are shown in these links.[22]

On 15 October 1945, Pierre Laval, the puppet leader of Nazi-occupied Vichy France, was executed by firing squad at Fresnes Prison in Paris for treason against France.[23][24]

The memorial "Shoes on the Danube Promenade" created to honor the Jews who were lined up on the banks of the Danube and shot dead by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II.


Execution by firing squad is the common capital punishment method used in Indonesia. The following persons were executed (reported by BBC World Service) by firing squad on 29 April 2015 following convictions for drug offences:

Fabianus Tibo, Dominggus da Silva and Marinus Riwu were executed in 2006. Nigerian drug smugglers Samuel Iwachekwu Okoye and Hansen Anthoni Nwaolisa were executed in June 2008 in Nusakambangan Island.[25] Five months later, three men convicted for the 2002 Bali bombingAmrozi, Imam Samudra, and Ali Ghufron—were executed on the same spot in Nusakambangan.[26] In January 2013, a 56-year-old British woman was sentenced to execution by firing squad for importing a large amount of cocaine; she lost her appeal against her sentence in April 2013.[27][28][29] While on 18 January 2015, under the new leadership of Joko Widodo, 6 people who were convicted of producing and smuggling drugs into Indonesia who had been sentenced to death were executed at Nusa Kambangan Penitentiary shortly after midnight.[30]


Following the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, 15 of the 16 leaders that were executed were shot by British military authorities under martial law. The executions have often been cited as a reason for how the Rising managed to galvanise public support in Ireland after the failed rebellion.[31]


Italy had used the firing squad as its only form of death penalty, both for civilians and military, since the unification of the country in 1861. The death penalty was abolished completely by both Italian Houses of Parliament in 1889 but revived under the Italian dictatorship of Benito Mussolini in 1926.

On 1 December 1945, Anton Dostler, the first German general to be tried for war crimes, was executed by a U.S. firing squad in Aversa after being found guilty by a U.S. military tribunal for ordering the killing of 15 U.S. prisoners of war in Italy during World War II.

The last execution took place on 4 March 1947, as Francesco La Barbera, Giovanni Puleo and Giovanni D'Ignoti, sentenced to death on multiple accounts of robbery and murder, faced the firing squad at the range of Basse di Stura, near Turin. Soon after the Constitution of the newly proclaimed Republic prohibited the death penalty except for some crimes, like high treason, during wartime; no one was sentenced to death after 1947. In 2007, the Constitution was amended to ban the death penalty altogether.

Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, by Édouard Manet, 1868


During the Mexican Independence War, several Independentist generals (such as Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos) were executed by Spanish firing squads.[32] Also, Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico and several of his generals were executed in the Cerro de las Campanas after the Juaristas took control of Mexico in 1867.[32] Manet immortalized the execution in a now-famous painting, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian; he painted at least three versions.

Firing-squad execution was the most common way to carry out a death sentence in Mexico, especially during the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero War. An example of that is in the (attempted) execution of Wenseslao Moguel, shot ten times, one point blank, and lived because he fought under Pancho Villa.[32] After these events, the death sentence was reduced to some events in Article 22 of the Mexican Constitution; however, in 1917 capital punishment was abolished completely.[33]


During World War II, some 3,000 persons were executed by German firing squads. The victims were sometimes sentenced by a military court; in other cases the victims were hostages or arbitrary people passing by who were executed publicly to intimidate the population and as reprisals against the resistance movements. After the attack on high-ranking German officer Hanns Albin Rauter, about 300 persons were executed publicly as reprisal. Rauter himself was shot near Scheveningen on 12 January 1949, following his conviction for war crimes.

On 13 May 1945, five days after the capitulation of Adolf Hitler's Wehrmacht, a German firing squad executed two of their Navy sailors on the wall of an air raid shelter near the Ford plant in Amsterdam for desertion. At the time, the execution was supervised and under Canadian control in Amsterdam.[34]

Anton Mussert, a Dutch Nazi leader, was sentenced to death by firing squad and executed in the dunes near The Hague on 7 May 1946.[35]


Nigeria executed criminals that committed armed robberies, the likes of Ishola Oyenusi, Lawrence Anini, Monday Osunbor, as well as military officers who were accused of plotting coups against the governments, officers such as Buka Suka Dimka, major Gideon Okar by firing squad. It has not been used since the advent of democracy in recent years.


Vidkun Quisling, the leader of the collaborationist Nasjonal Samling Party and of Norway during the German occupation in World War II, was sentenced to death by firing squad for treason and executed on 24 October 1945, at the Akershus Fortress.[36]


Jose Rizal was executed by firing squad on the morning of 30 December 1896, in what is now Luneta Park, where his remains have since been placed.[37]

During the Marcos administration, drug trafficking was punishable by firing-squad execution, as was done to Lim Seng. Execution by firing squad was later replaced by electric chair then lethal injection. By 24 June 2006, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo abolished capital punishment by Republic Act 9346. Existing death row inmates, who numbered in the thousands, were eventually given life sentences or reclusion perpetua instead.[38]

The mass execution of 56 Polish citizens in Bochnia, near Kraków, following the Nazi invasion of Poland, December 18, 1939
Serbian prisoners of war are arranged in a semi-circle and executed by an Austrian firing squad, 1917 (World War I).


Nicolae Ceausescu was executed by firing squad alongside his wife while singing[39] the Communist Internationale following a show trial, bringing an end to the Romanian Revolution.

South Africa

Australian soldiers Harry "Breaker" Morant and Peter Handcock were executed by a British firing squad in the South African Republic on 27 February 1902, for war crimes during the Second Boer War; questions have since been raised in Australia as to whether they received a fair trial.


Both sides in the ongoing Syrian civil war have employed firing squads. In January 2013, a Syrian civilian described how he narrowly survived a firing squad assembled by government supporters that resulted in the deaths of some 20 people.[40]

United Arab Emirates

In the United Arab Emirates, firing squad is the preferred method of execution.[41]

United Kingdom

Execution by firing squad in the United Kingdom was limited to times of war, armed insurrection and within the military, although it is now outlawed in all circumstances, along with all other forms of capital punishment.

The Tower of London was used during both World Wars for executions: during World War I, 11 captured German spies were shot between 1914 and 1916. All spies executed on British soil during the First World War were buried in East London Cemetery, in Plaistow, London.[42] On 15 August 1941, German Cpl. Josef Jakobs was shot for espionage during World War II, the last person to be executed at the Tower.

When the U.S. Army took over Shepton Mallet prison in Somerset in 1942, renaming it Disciplinary Training Center No.1 and housing troops convicted of offences across Europe, two men were executed by firing squad for murder; Private Alexander Miranda on 30 May 1944 and Private Benjamin Pigate on 28 November 1944. Locals complained about the noise, as the executions took place in the open air at 1am.

Since the 1960s, there has been some controversy concerning the 346 British and Imperial troops including 25 Canadians, 22 Irish and 5 New Zealanders who were shot for desertion, murder, cowardice and other offences during World War I, some of whom are now thought to have been suffering from combat stress reaction or post-traumatic stress disorder ("shell-shock", as it was then known). This led to organisations such as the Shot at Dawn Campaign being set up in later years to try to uncover just why these soldiers were executed.[16][17] The Shot at Dawn Memorial was erected at Staffordshire to honour these soldiers.

United States

The Civil War saw several hundred firing squad deaths, but reliable numbers are not available.

In 1913, Andriza Mircovich became the first and only inmate in Nevada to be executed by shooting.[43] After the warden of Nevada State Prison was unable to find five men to form a firing squad,[44] a shooting machine was built to carry out Mircovich's execution.[45]

John W. Deering allowed an electrocardiogram recording of the effect of gunshot wounds on his heart during his 1938 execution by firing squad.[46]

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:

Andriza Mircovich was the first and only inmate in Nevada to be executed by shooting.
  1. Gary Gilmore was executed in 1977.
  2. John Albert Taylor chose firing squad for his 1996 execution, in the words of the New York Times, "to make a statement that Utah was sanctioning murder."[47] However, a 2010 article for the British newspaper The Times quotes Taylor justifying his choice because he did not want to "flop around like a dying fish" during a lethal injection.[48]
  3. Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad in 2010, having said he preferred this method of execution because of his "Mormon heritage." Gardner also felt that lawmakers were trying to eliminate the firing squad, in opposition to popular opinion in Utah, because of concern over the state's image in the 2002 Winter Olympics.[49]

Execution by firing squad was banned in Utah in 2004, but as the ban was not retroactive;[50] three inmates on Utah's death row will be executed by firing squad.[51] Idaho banned execution by firing squad in 2009,[52] temporarily leaving Oklahoma as the only state in the union utilizing this method of execution (and only as a secondary method). In March 2015, Utah enacted legislation allowing for execution by firing squad if lethal injection drugs are unavailable.[53]

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Firing squad.


  1. "fusilade". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. p. 208 Huie, William Bradford The Execution of Private Slovik 1954 Duell, Sloan & Pearce
  3. "Crime Library: Firing Squad". Crime Museum. 2016-05-25. Retrieved 2016-05-30.
  4. 1947 US Army Manual 27-4 "Procedure for Military Executions"
  5. Carver, Field Marshal Lord. Britain's Army in the 20th Century (1998) pp 126-128 Macmillan Publishers Ltd. ISBN 0 330 37200 9
  6. "How and why Gardner was shot". BBC News. June 18, 2010.
  7. 1 2 Pallud, p. 15
  8. Military police execute German spies in Belgium.
  9. Article 5 of Brazilian Constitution (See Paragraph XLVII-a)
  10. 1 2 "Cuban Firing Squad Executes Exile". New York Times. 21 January 1992.
  11. Jamie Weinstein (4 September 2013). "Author: Hemingway watched Che's firing squad massacres 'while sipping Daiquiris'". Daily Caller.
  12. War Victims of Finland 1914-1922 at the Finnish National Archives
  13. 1 2 Yliopistolehti 1995
  14. Kuolemantuomio kuolemantuomiolle at Statistics Finland (in Finnish)
  15. Finnish public treaty number SopS 49/1991
  16. 1 2 The Shot at Dawn Campaign The New Zealand government pardoned its troops in 2000; the British government in 1998 expressed sympathy for the executed, and in 2006 the Secretary of State for Defence announced a full pardon for all 306 executed soldiers from the First World War.
  17. 1 2 The Daily Telegraph, Ben Fenton, August 16, 2006, accessed October 14, 2006
  18. Mata Hari is executed
  19. David Kahn (June 2000). Hitler's Spies: German Military Intelligence In World War II. Da Capo Press; 1 edition. p. 363. ISBN 0-3068-0949-4.
  20. A German spy is executed by U.S. Military Police firing squad in Toul, France, during World War II
  21. A German spy is executed by the Military Policemen and is carried away covered in white sheet in Toul France
  22. David Kahn (June 2000). Hitler's Spies: German Military Intelligence In World War II. Da Capo Press; 1 edition. p. 504 and 505. ISBN 0-3068-0949-4.
  23. Vichy leader executed for treason
  24. Pierre Laval
  25. Agus Maryono and Suherdjoko (June 28, 2008). "Nigerian drug smugglers buried a day after execution". The Jakarta Post.
  26. "Bali bomb burials stoke tensions". BBC News. November 9, 2008. Retrieved March 27, 2010.
  27. 11 Feb 2013 (2013-02-11). "British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford appeals Indonesia death sentence". Telegraph. Retrieved 2013-07-25.
  28. Karishma Vaswani (2013-01-22). "BBC News - Bali drugs: Death sentence for Briton Lindsay Sandiford". M.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2013-07-25.
  29. "'At least a bullet is quick': British grandmother on death row in Indonesia for smuggling drugs prefers firing squad". NY Daily News. Retrieved 2013-07-25.
  30. AFP (2015-01-18). "Fury as Indonesia executes foreigners by firing squad". Daily Mail. Retrieved 2015-01-18.
  31. English, R. Irish Freedom, (London, 2006), p. 264-276.
  32. 1 2 3 Known history of the Mexican Revolution
  33. Mexican Constitution, Article 22
  34. [ The Execution of German Deserters by Surrendered German Troops Under Canadian Control in Amsterdam, May 1945]
  35. "Dutch Nazi Executed," Amarillo Globe, May 7, 1946, p1
  36. Knudsen, Harald Franklin. I was Quisling's Secretary, Britons Publishing Co., 1967, p. 176
  37. "Philippines 'restores' death penalty". BBC News. December 21, 2003. Retrieved May 2, 2010.
  38. Sun Star Cebu. 25 June 2006. Arroyo kills death law
  39. Emma Graham-Harrison. "'I'm still nervous,' says soldier who shot Nicolae Ceausescu | World news". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-05-30.
  40. Alexander Marquardt (10 January 2013). "Syrian Describes Surviving Firing Squad". ABC News.
  41. United Arab Emirates (UAE): Death penalty, Amnesty International (Urgent Action), April 3, 2002.
  42. British Military & Criminal History in the period 1900 to 1999 -- German Spies caught in the UK during the First World War (1914-18)
  43. "Nevada State Prison Inmate Case Files: Andriza Mircovich". Nevada State Library and Archives. Retrieved November 8, 2010.
  44. "No One To Shoot Murderer". The New York Times. August 12, 1912. Retrieved November 9, 2010.
  45. Cafferata, Patty (June 2010). "Capital Punishment Nevada Style". Nevada Lawyer. State Bar of Nevada. Retrieved November 8, 2010.
  46. Boese, Alex (2007). "Heartbeat at Death". Elephants on Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 246–249. ISBN 9780156031356. Retrieved December 20, 2010.
  47. "Firing Squad Executes Killer". The New York Times. 1996-01-27. Retrieved 2008-06-16.
  48. Giles Whittell (2010-04-24). "Utah death row inmate Ronnie Lee Gardner elects to die by firing squad". The Times. London.
  49. Donaldson, Amy (1996-02-09). "Inmate threatens to sue if state won't let him die by firing squad". Deseret News. p. A1. Retrieved 2010-09-25.
  50. "Methods of Execution". Death Penalty Information Center. 2010. Retrieved 2010-06-17.
  51. Dobner, Jennifer (January 22, 2004). "Plan to abolish firing squad advances". Deseret News. pp. 1–2. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
  52. "Recent Legislative Activity". Death Penalty Information Center. 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-30.
  53. Associated Press. "Firing squad gets final OK. So how does it work?" Salt Lake City Tribune (March 24, 2015).

Further reading

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