Adam Johnson and his Fight-Ending Sniper Pistol

The Barrett Light Fifty is a great tool for long-range engagements against hardened targets. However, it would have been tough for mounted patrolman Adam Johnson to carry concealed.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

In the world of tactical shooting, you pick the right tool for the right target. There is some overlap, to be sure, but you wouldn’t choose a Walther P22 if you were trying to ring steel a kilometer distant. By the same token, a Barrett M82 .50-caliber anti-materiel rifle is a suboptimal choice if your goal is exploding water-filled Coke cans in the backyard of your rural home. While pretty much everybody who has ever squeezed a trigger is familiar with these facts, apparently nobody bothered to tell Austin, Texas, mounted patrolman Adam Johnson.

The Shooter

Ummm, yeah. Whatever this is. Perhaps I’m just jealous.

By any reasonable metric, Steve Mcquilliams was one seriously quirky dude. Despite being shot to death by police under some truly extraordinary circumstances back in 2014, his Facebook page still remains active. It depicts an enormous white guy with a shaved head and an affinity for both the martial arts and renaissance fairs. One image has Mcquilliams striking his best Mr. Clean pose surrounded by, I counted them, seventeen scantily-clad belly dancers. I have no idea what that was all about.

If the police reports are to be believed, Mcquilliams had some pretty eccentric political views as well as a fairly impressive rap sheet. He was arrested for both drug and armed robbery offenses and had done time in federal prison. He was a self-described “High Priest of the Phineas Priesthood.” I had to look that up. 

I had never heard of the Phineas Priesthood before. Apparently it is something like this.

It Gets Weirder

Wikipedia claims, “The Phineas Priesthood, also called Phineas Priests, are American domestic terrorists who adhere to the ideology which was set forth in the 1990 book Vigilantes of Christendom: The Story of the Phineas Priesthood by Richard Kelly Hoskins.” Once again, I have no idea what all that means. Mcquilliams split his time between Austin, Texas, and Kansas City, Kansas, before apparently losing his mind one fateful morning in 2014.

Austin, Texas, is a pretty left-wing place. My son used to live there. The motto of the Austin Independent Business Alliance is, “Keep Austin Weird.” They take that mandate seriously.

No idea why this guy struggled to find a respectable job. He seems a natural choice for child care, hair styling, life coach, or psychiatry to me.

The cops postulated that Mcquilliams had difficulty finding a decent job and projected his failures onto others. Mcquilliams found himself mightily agitated that illegal immigrants were being so vigorously coddled while he struggled to make ends meet. He honestly had a point, but he chose a pretty strange method of expressing it.

The Attack

The Arsenal SLR95 is a nicely-executed Bulgarian-made, forged-receiver Kalashnikov rifle.

At 0218 on Friday 28 November 2014–Thanksgiving weekend–shortly after the local drinking establishments closed, Steve Mcquilliams produced a Smith and Wesson M&P-15 .22-caliber rimfire rifle along with an Arsenal SLR95. The SLR 95 is a fairly high-end Bulgarian-made Kalashnikov. He was decked out in a tactical vest full of magazines and a CamelBak hydration system. He was also carrying a bunch of those miniature propane cylinders designed for camp stoves.

Mcquilliams cranked up the party by shooting up the federal courthouse. He then indexed to a local bank and peppered it with gunfire before turning his attention to the Mexican consulate. After riddling the facade with bullets he tried and failed to set it afire. He then made his way to the headquarters of the Austin Police Department. 

Austin, Texas, is an objectively attractive city. It’s just weird.

Kicking Over the Hornet’s Nest

It was the middle of the night, but there were still lots of folks wandering about in the streets. Thankfully, these first three buildings were all but deserted. However, there are always cops at work. There were plenty of folks at the police HQ.

Mcquilliams’ rampage lasted roughly ten minutes. During this time he fired about 100 rounds. Miraculously, he didn’t actually hit anybody. Whether he was a sucky marksman or perhaps just wasn’t in a particularly homicidal mood has been lost to history. Regardless, you can’t shoot up the heart of Austin, Texas, and expect everybody to be good with that.

The Solution

I found this on Steve Mcquilliams’ Facebook page. Nobody realized where it was going at the time.

That’s the problem with crime. You just never see it coming. I have been privy to a couple myself, and it is always out of the clear blue when you least expect it. In this case, police Sergeant Adam Johnson was just putting away his horse.

Even this deep into the Information Age, there yet remains a place in American Law Enforcement for horse-mounted patrols.

The Austin fuzz used mounted patrols to help maintain order in the party district. Horses are obviously fairly docile creatures, but they are also both huge and intimidating. My little town maintains mounted patrols as well. If nothing else, the horses are so cool that lots of drunk folks get sufficiently distracted petting the beasts that they tend to avoid trouble. In this case, SGT Johnson and his partner were occupied putting their mounts to bed when they heard gunfire. 

I kind of doubt that Steve Mcquilliams was wielding a real-deal automatic weapon. However, truth be known, the presence of a genuine giggle switch doesn’t really make all that much difference, particularly in untrained hands. Get some, Vasquez…

Actual Machineguns Are Pretty Rare

The official police press release described it as, “Distinct sounds of loud automatic bursts of gunfire in the area of the main police headquarters.” I’d have to inspect the entrails of that rifle myself before I’d actually believe that. Regardless, it was obviously nonetheless still pretty unsettling.

SGT Johnson’s partner quickly tossed him the reins to his horse, drew his service pistol, and ran toward the sounds of gunfire. SGT Johnson now found himself holding onto two restless horses while also striving mightily not to get shot to death. Forensic assessment the following day showed that Mcquilliams cranked off at least five rounds toward Johnson and his horses from a range of about one hundred meters but missed.

Magnificent Marksmanship of Adam Johnson

Johnson wisely ducked behind a cement pillar that was part of a parking garage as Mcquilliams merrily blasted away. Then the hulking shooter ran dry. As he paused to reload his Kalashnikov, Adam Johnson did something truly extraordinary.

The Smith and Wesson M&P is an exceptionally well-executed service pistol.

While still holding the reins to not one but two agitated horses in his left hand, SGT Johnson drew his department-issue Smith and Wesson M&P .40-caliber service pistol, steadied his right hand against the concrete pillar he was using for cover, took careful aim, and fired a single round. From roughly the length of a football field, SGT Johnson shot Steve Mcquilliams straight through the heart, killing him where he stood. Wow. Just wow.


SWAT competitions allow tactical teams to polish their skills in a collegial environment.

Several years ago I read about a memorable SWAT competition. I’ve been to a couple of those. They are generally convivial and fun, offering an opportunity to cross-pollinate, learn new skills, polish techniques, and cultivate friendships all in the spirit of healthy competition. 

The capstone exercise had the unit sniper in an overwatch position while the entry team cleared a structure, engaged bad guys, and rescued hostages. The timer started when they blew the front door and ended when the building was secured and the sniper struck a 12-inch steel plate located one hundred meters downrange. All went well for one particular team until the sniper suffered a mechanical failure with his rifle.

Ticking Clock

I don’t recall the specifics, but it was one of those breathtakingly improbable events that so rarely occurs with a bolt gun. Regardless, the clock was ticking, and the man’s rifle was out of the fight. The sniper in question immediately popped up onto his knees and drew his issue Beretta 92 service pistol. Taking a steady two-handed hold he struck the 100-meter plate with a single 9mm round and stopped the timer.

 The circumstances under which a Law Enforcement officer might be called upon to make a live pistol shot a football field away are obviously vanishingly rare. However, Adam Johnson and Steve Mcquilliams showed us that, while the odds are indeed small, they aren’t quite zero. 

Creepy Details

This is Steve Mcquilliams in happier times. With the benefit of hindsight, he was just a strange guy who really went off the deep end.

Nobody knows what was going through Steve Mcquilliams’ mind the night of the shooting. Unlike many spree shooters, he did not leave a manifesto. Some of his Facebook posts are fairly colorful, but they didn’t give me a mass shooter lunatic vibe. Two days before the attack he posted a link to the Audioslave song “Set It Off.” That fateful Friday morning he changed his profile photo to a Tarot card that read, “The Hierophant.” 

According to Wikipedia, a hierophant is a person who brings religious congregants into the presence of that which is deemed holy. I obviously had to look that up as well. When the cops got to his body they discovered that he had written, “Let Me Die” on his chest with a Sharpie Marker. He also left a stack of nice clothing folded at his apartment with a note on top that read, “Funeral Clothes.” It’s just tough to get your head around all that.

Steve Mcquilliams could pass for Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman in dim light. However, I’d just as soon not encounter either of them in dim light myself.
This is Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman. You gotta admit, he kind-of favors Steve Mcquilliams.

Crack Shot Adam Johnson

So, here we have a big geeky bald-headed John Fetterman doppelgänger who enjoyed LARPing his way around Renaissance fairs and hanging out with belly dancers but apparently couldn’t land a decent job. For reasons unknown, he went berserk and shot up downtown Austin, Texas, at 2 o’clock in the morning over Thanksgiving weekend. A crack-shot horse cop named Adam Johnson ended all that with a single .40-caliber round fired at a range of roughly one hundred yards…while also simultaneously managing a couple of skittish horses.

Steve Mcquilliams was a big, weird guy. Early one morning he just snapped.


We’ve made light of Steve Mcquilliams’ sordid circumstances here today. His entire story is actually quite tragic. Mcquilliams was obviously a lost soul who just never quite found his place in the world. It was terribly fortunate that no one else was hurt.

READ MORE: Dr. Dabbs – Chalino Sánchez: Dead Man Singing

Ballistic savant Jerry Miculek has successfully made a 1,000-yard shot with a 9mm handgun, but that guy is clearly not human. For us normal folk, tossing a little handgun ammo in a parabolic arc at distant targets can be quite the enjoyable way to kill a lazy Saturday afternoon at the range. I find it simply fascinating that Austin police Sergeant Adam Johnson actually pulled that off for real.

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  • James April 19, 2024, 8:57 pm

    That was an interesting read, thanks for sharing.

    I always enjoy and look forward to reading your work.

  • Jerry April 15, 2024, 8:16 am

    Not impossible shots. Merely rather difficult. Miculek, keith, gates, mcgivern, hickock, and scarce few others.
    “If they can do this, so can i”, goes thru many heads!

    • ejharbet April 15, 2024, 9:35 am

      definitely went thru my head a couple times. it’s how you discover the usefulness of a good rifle.
      great story from the good doctor. some folks need killing.

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