The Evolution of Police Long Guns
That Which is Perceived as Real Becomes Real in its Consequences.
Despite their limited effective range, shotguns have traditionally been the standard long gun of uniformed American patrol officers.
It’s easy to understand why. Most city police field contacts are at conversational distances. Staring down the cavernous bore of a 12 gauge from the business end can certainly give one pause.
Using Firearms to Effect Arrests
Contrary to current popular belief, when a cop points a gun at a suspect and issues a command to affect an arrest, the intent is to up the ante till the bad guy decides “not today,” and surrenders. The idea is to PREVENT bloodshed, by convincing the bad guy that he doesn’t even have chance to use any weapons he may have. A long gun is more likely to effect that desired outcome than a pistol, which isn’t nearly as intimidating.
Using Firearms to Put Down a Rabid Dog
If, on the other hand, the bad guy is already in the process of killing (or trying real hard to kill) officers and / or civilians, the intent is not to prevent bloodshed, since blood is already being shed. Rather, it’s to prevent FURTHER bloodshed by the bad guy. There is no nice, safe, neat, pretty, painless way to do this. The quickest, most effective ways usually involve shedding the bad guy’s blood. In that case, a more powerful weapon like a shotgun or rifle is more likely to end the killing faster. A rifle can do it more precisely, with less chance of throwing projectiles beside the bad guy, rather than through him.
The Venerable Scattergun
I’ve witnessed the shotgun’s intimidation factor on more than one occasion. Once, when I was a state park ranger, I was literally “riding shotgun” with Todd D, the deputy blasting the keg in the photo. We were in pursuit of a stabbing suspect. We found a man matching the suspect’s description in a construction yard, where the suspect was supposed to be sleeping off a hangover. He climbed down out of a truck, and approached us. Todd was waiving his pistol at the guy, one handed, ordering him to stop and get down.
The subject was saying “No habla! No habla!“–and continued to close the distance.
It’s important to remember here that knives are “contact” weapons; one needs to get close to use them. Tests conducted by police trainer Dennis Tueller, the decade before this incident happened, found that an “unarmed man with a knife,” as our sitting president would say, can cross seven yards in the time it takes the “average” police officer to draw and fire one shot. Accordingly, if a man with an edged weapon won’t stop getting closer, you may need to assume he means to harm you. I could not yet see a knife, but I had just seen what the suspect was capable of; I’d treated the suspect’s uncle, who had been stabbed in the stomach and chest about 17 times. This guy was inside of 7 yards, and getting closer.
My Spanish was even worse then than it is now. Always had a problem with the verbs. I could remember manos but not levante las or parate or acuestate. I pointed that Mossberg 12 gauge at him, pumping a shell into the chamber–and discovered the shotgun’s usefulness as a universal translator. The subject immediately went prone, put his arms out, palms up, and looked away.
It doesn’t always work that way.
When I was in the Border Patrol, my partner and I were laid in on a group landing on the northern shore of the Rio Grande, southeast of Harlingen, Texas, in the gathering dusk. We were hiding in the jungle-like foliage near the top of the bank, waiting for them to move north so we could get behind them and cut off their escape back toward the Rio. But more and more kept crossing the river on rafts and inner tubes, and staying near the water’s edge.
My partner, Travis Attaway, had an issued 12 gauge Remington 870, with night sights and a few other upgrades by Scattergun Tech. Turned out he didn’t need the sights that evening.
One of the coyotes started scouting out the top of the bank, apparently to look for pinche migra like us. He stepped off the trail, perhaps to take a leak, but perhaps to investigate something about the brush we were in that didn’t look right. He almost fell on top of Travis, who was crouched down next to me. Travis stuck the shotgun muzzle in his groin–at about Trav’s shoulder level–and pumped a shell into the chamber, which got the subject’s undivided attention. The subject was immediately compliant, and Travis was able to take him into custody.
The others, however, scattered like quail when they heard the commotion–and there were lots of them. Several jumped in the river, which is what we had been waiting to avoid. I didn’t care if they swam back, but some might not have been very good swimmers. We didn’t want anybody to get hurt or drown, and El Rio is plenty deep enough to drown in, that close to where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico.
Travis had the first guy under control, so I grabbed Trav’s shotgun and scrambled down the bank to the water’s edge.
The guias, the guides, were good swimmers, of course. One was treading water near the north bank, smiling and squirting water from his mouth at me. He knew I wasn’t planning to get wet apprehending him. I ordered him out of the river, hoping the pollos would follow suit.
“Porque?” he asked.
“Porque tengo una escopeta,” I replied. Because I have a shotgun.
“Perro,” he said, “no vas a usarla.” But you’re not going to use it. He called my bluff, ’cause he knew cops on the US side follow rules (he wouldn’t have gotten any such courtesies from Mexican cops, unless his bosses had paid them off). I hadn’t been pointing it at him, and he knew I wasn’t going to shoot him.
The mere presence of a weapon, even a powerful one, isn’t always enough to illicit cooperation.
Incidentally, Senior Patrol Agent Travis Wayne Attaway drowned on duty in the Rio Grande a few years later. SPA Jeremy Michael Wilson, his partner, was also killed, when their patrol boat flipped on 19 Sep 2004.
The Mexicanos call it El Rio Bravo del Norte, and right they are.
The Pendulum Swings
In the 1960s, there was a growing perception that US law enforcement agencies were oppressive and ignorant. The phrase “police brutality” was bandied about quite a bit by the news media. This led to reform laws requiring more LE training (never a bad thing, as long as the training actually improves performance or decision making in the field; much modern computer based training is useless).
By the late 1970s, though, the rise of terrorism and well funded narco-trafficking organizations led to situations where Stateside police, with their revolvers and shotguns, were clearly outgunned. On 09 May 1980, San Bernardino, CA deputies faced off with bank robbers sporting H&K G3 and 93 rifles, an AR, semi-auto pistols, pump shotguns, and (bizarrely) a katana sword.
G-men (FBI) and revenuers (ATF) had used Thompson SMGs (and Browning Automatic Rifles) during the Gangster Wars of the 1920s & 30s. State, local, and federal LEOs still issue SMGs to warrant service teams.
Secret Service Uzis
The Secret Service issued Uzis for many years. Secret Service Uzis were distinguishable by the shiny crowns of their muzzles; the barrels had been cut to make them more concealable.
Secret Service Uzis vs Nut Job with a .22
Watch video of the Reagan assassination attempt of 30 Mar 1981. After the wannabe assassin was tackled by angry citizens, Uzis appeared in the hands of Secret Service agents, as if by magic. You can see one with his back against a wall, scanning the crowd in case it was a coordinated attack.
Put Your Back to a Wall
Heloderm teaches armed citizens and LEOs to put their backs to a wall to prevent being flanked by the bad guy’s partners or surprised by layoff men.
Jump Him–What Have You Got to Lose?
One other HUGE lesson of the Reagan assassination attempt of 30 Mar 1981 applies to victims of active shooters. President Reagan was surrounded at all times by well trained and heavily armed guards whose sole purpose in life was to defend him, unto death if need be. A bit more protection than your teenage kids will have if some InCel looser walks into their high school to kill everyone. The lesson is, Reagan’s would-be assassin was NOT shot by Reagan’s armed praetorian guard. He only fired for something like 1.7 seconds before he was tackled and pummeled by all and sundry who were within reach. The same method–POUNCE!–can work for any able-bodied member of your family, if they get caught up in an active killer event at close range.
Secret Service Uzis vs Pirated Helicopter
Earlier, on 17 Feb 1974, an Army helicopter mechanic stole a Huey (Bell UH-1B) from Tipton Field in Maryland. He had enlisted in the Warrant Officer Pilot program, but with the drawdown of the war in Viet Nam, the Army stopped losing helicopter pilots to enemy fire at such a prodigious rate, so they tightened up the funnel of incoming pilots. This guy was an adequate pilot, but not an outstanding one. Army flight instructors washed him out of pilot training during the instrument flying phase, and made him serve out his hitch as an enlisted soldier (if I’d been a cadet in 1944, instead of 1984, perhaps the Dean might’ve looked past my Fs in Physics and Mechanics of Materials). He felt it was unfair. Well, it was; and on the day I enlisted we were all informed in no uncertain terms that life is not fair. The erstwhile Warrant Officer flew the Huey to DC and landed on the south lawn of the White House, intent on appealing his circumstances directly with the Commander in Chief, Richard Nixon.
Secret Service and White House security personnel fired “over 300” rounds at the helicopter. 5 rounds struck the fledgling pilot, wounding him superficially, but he landed it in one piece. The chopper was riddled, but turned out to still be flyable later.
Uzi Grip Safeties
Two of the Uzis agents had trained on the helicopter would not go bang (much less rat-tat-tat). Their operators transitioned to revolver and got back in the fight. According to John Recknor, Secret Service (and later NRA Law Enforcement) firearms instructor, examination of the Uzis after the incident proved that they were in perfect working order. The operators had failed to depress the grip safeties far enough to disconnect them.
Open bolt SMGs are some of the few guns outside of Hollywoood that can actually go off when dropped. Accordingly, Uziel Gal incorporated a large, stout grip safety into the design of the SMG that bears his name. Unlike, say, an M1911 grip safety, which is almost entirely passive, the Uzi grip safety required significant movement and squeezing pressure on the back of the grip. I failed to depress one deeply enough the first time I tried to shoot an Uzi. If you look at photos of Israeli soldiers during the 6 Day War, many have used electrical tape to disengage the Uzi grip safety, just to be sure (they were more concerned with not being able to shoot their enemies than they were about the SMG going off when dropped).
A note regarding pinning grip safeties off: as Chris Rock said about OJ knifing his ex-, I don’t condone it, but I can understand it.
SMGs for Patrol Officers?
Till close to the end of the 20th Century, state and local patrol officers in the USA droned on with mostly the same firearms their grandfathers had carried, while bad guys continued upgrading their hardware in an almost completely one-sided arms race.
By the 1980s, European police and counterterrorism outfits had armed themselves with SMGs. In the 1990s, most US police departments had traded in their wheel guns (revolvers) for large capacity semi-auto pistols, which was a good start, but most of us were still falling back on shotguns for serious work.
In the US there was some talk of patrol officers trading in their shotguns for SMGs. With slugs, shotguns have an effective range of 80 – 90 meters. SMGs, with their pistol cartridges, could reach out more accurately (on semi-auto) than a shotgun with slugs, to 100 meters or more. Like shotguns, SMGs could put multiple projectiles in a person in short order at typical “field interview” distances (several bullets making up, again, for lack of punch).
SMGs were certainly handier in tight quarters, such as a hallway, or the small rooms of a trailer. They also kicked a lot less, which made them easier to train. The business end of a SMG is a lot closer to its center of gravity than a shotgun’s, which makes it easier for smaller statured officers with less upper body strength, like me, to keep aimed in.
North Wildwood, New Jersey issued MP5s to their patrol officers, as did a few other departments, but for the most part SMGs were not the 2-hand guns of rank and file street cops.
When I was on patrol, most of us wanted an SMG–they had major cool factor, even if they were not much more than a 7 pound 9mm. But there weren’t that many sub guns in police armories. The ones they had went to SWAT. There were shotguns galore.
On 18 Sep 1996, toward the end of my first stint at FLETC, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, an instructor named Garcia did a demo to increase our confidence in shotguns. 5 or 6 targets were set up in a line from left to right. Agent Garcia started with an H&K MP5 SMG, a fine weapon if there ever was one. He emptied an entire magazine on full auto, sweeping left and right, back and forth, till he ran dry. Somebody timed it; it took less than 4 seconds.
Garcia invited us to go forward and count the hits. Out of 30 rounds, each target only had one or two. Some might have 3; one or two others had no holes. Some of the hits were peripheral, toward the outside of the target. We marked the holes and went back to the observation area.
Then Agent Garcia took a standard issue shotgun and unloaded a charge of buckshot into each target. It took Garcia about the same amount of time to unlimber the shotgun at each target, as it had for him to empty the MP5. We went to count. Each target had 8 or 9 well centered 00 buck holes (can’t remember if they were using 8 or 9 pellet shells). A lot fewer rounds zinged into the backstop without having passed through a paper target first.
That demo was a bit slanted. If our instructor had aimed a short burst of full auto 9mm at each target, they all might have been effectively engaged, in not much more time–although the shotgun would still have put more projectiles in each threat. We got the messages, though:
- the shotgun will do just fine for a lot of social work at conversational distances, and
- spray ‘n’ pray never works.
It’s important to note that although most deadly encounters occur at close range, not all of them do.
Beyond about 30 – 35 yards, most buckshot patterns from shotguns are wider than the width of a man (some newer defensive loadings keep pretty tight). You are responsible for the final resting place of every projectile you launch.
With effective switch to slug training (and slugs available) you can push the effective range of your scattergun a bit, but you can also push the range of a SMG or pistol caliber carbine even farther by selecting semi-auto and aiming carefully.
What we, as cops, wanted to be armed with didn’t matter anyway. Public perception of oppression kept SMGs from becoming standard patrol officer equipment. Shotguns evoke images of Doc Holliday, old west lawmen, or Pinkerton security agents riding shotgun on a stage coach. SMGs evoke images of Nazi stormtroopers, or “Hans Gruber’s” thugs (no matter what my wife says, Die Hard is a Christmas movie). As I wrote in the beginning of this article, that which is perceived as real becomes real in its consequences.
The need vs perception dichotomy led to law enforcement specialization into what Jeff Cooper characterized as two main subgroups: social workers with guns (patrol officers), and infantry (SWAT, Special Weapons and Tactics teams), who had the equipment and training to handle bad situations. Mere mortal patrol officers were schooled in the Cs: Communicate, Contain the situation, Call for SWAT.
Unfortunately, the rapidly devolving nature of crimes in progress often can’t wait for SWAT. SWAT operators finished the North Hollywood shootout of 28 Feb 1997, but only after two poorly trained but armored scumbags with rifles fired 1100–count ’em, 1100–rounds into the neighborhood, maiming 20 people, over the course of 44 minutes.
The Los Angeles Police Department had upgraded to high capacity 9mm Beretta pistols by that time, but they lacked armor punching ability, and range. LAPD officers literally “borrowed” AR-15s from a local gunstore, but having more capable weapons only helps if you are trained how to use them. We may assume that many of LA’s finest were prior military, and (if a bit out of practice) were at least familiar with AR series manipulations, but either way the ARs would have been handy much earlier in the confrontation.
Hardware was not the only problem; LAPD were also not trained for, and discouraged from taking, head shots, which might have ended the situation much sooner. But the engagement distances were long, and head shots would’ve been difficult to pull off anyway at those ranges–especially while someone is emptying a rifle in your direction. I wasn’t there, but that’s what LAPD Officer John Caprarelli, who was, said in his book Uniform Decisions.
Pistol Caliber Carbines
There had also been talk (and still is, occasionally) of US law enforcement agencies converting to pistol caliber carbines, such as the Marlin Camp Carbine, Beretta C4X Storm, or Colt Commando (essentially a CAR-15 / M4 shooting 9mm) for those occasions when a long gun is called for. These days, there is a plethora of AR pistols that take Glock magazines. Pistol caliber carbines can have the logistical advantage of taking the same ammo, and sometimes even the same magazines, as the officers already carry on their belts. But being pistol caliber, they lack punch. They are often just as long, nearly as heavy, and certainly just as “oppressive” looking, as more powerful, farther reaching M4s.
Perhaps surprisingly, in all my decades, I only remember seizing one pistol caliber carbine from a bad guy. It was a Marlin Camp Carbine in .45, if I recall correctly. He’d been using it to escort a load of drugs from Sonora Mexico to Arivaca, Arizona.
It was in a single-wide trailer. Two guys squirted as we approached. We left them for the Blackhawk crew to track down and made entry. The door entered into a living room. There was dope stacked chest-high in the kitchen to our left. I took the hallway to the right. A partner squeezed my shoulder from behind and we dumped into a door on the left side of the hall.
There was a open closet door to the left, and a bed on the right. Two people were in the bed. The .45 carbine was leaning up against the far wall, next to the bed.
Our order of priority was (and still is):
- Open doors
- Closed doors
In other words, first and foremost, we dealt with any people we found. If there aren’t any, or they are already being covered, you should cover any open doors you find. If there are no open doors, closed doors constitute the next highest threat to you.
I raced across the room, knowing my partner would cover and clear the closet, and pinned the carbine up against the wall with my hip. I pointed my M4 at the couple in the bed, holding the stock over my shoulder to keep the muzzle as far back out of reach as I could, barking “¡Nadie se mueva!“
The lady in the bed, who was closer, raised her hands over her bare shoulders and said “English, please. I don’t speak Spanish.”
Turned out the stash house was also a brothel of sorts. The dopers had hired two young ladies from Arivaca as incentive for the mules to get their loads up there.
I may have seized more carbines, but if so I don’t remember them. I have seen High-Points and semi-auto Thompsons (the latter looks like a SMG, but is usually a .45 carbine) in evidence lockers.
One of the Columbine High School killers used a High-Point pistol caliber (9mm) carbine. They also had a Intratec TEC-DC9, a piece of crap if there ever was one. Most active shooters, like most violent street criminals, use pistols–just pistols, not pistol caliber carbines–for most crimes, owing to their concealability. Pistols cartridges are woefully underpowered for stopping determined, aggressive enemies, but they are powerful enough to massacre defenseless school girls.
Terror on Our Soil
Sicarios and other narco-terrorists of the Southwest border region are particularly fond of the Kalashnikov. Cuerno de chivo, they call it: “Goat’s horn,” in reference to the curved magazines. Seemed like every other stash house or dope load we took down had an AK or two. The AK, of course, shoots an intermediate rifle cartridge.
In addition to the North Hollywood Bank Robbery of 28 Feb ’97, and the FBI’s “Miami massacre” of 11 Apr ’86, two turn of the 21st century phenomena helped swing the pendulum in favor of rank and file cops upgrading to police patrol rifles:
Deputy Neil Gardner, the community resource officer assigned to Columbine High School on 20 Apr 1999, engaged the killers when they were still outside, from a range of about 60 meters. Not surprisingly, Gardner had difficulty connecting with his duty pistol while taking fire at that distance. The High-Point carbine one of the killers was using was certainly capable of connecting at that range. The first time I unlimbered a High-Point carbine, I had zero difficulty hitting a small steel target at 100 meters. But in yet another example of how these active shooter bozos are NOT Navy SEALs, the killer didn’t even hit the cruiser Gardner was using for cover once, out of more than ten shots. (Dave Cullen, Columbine, especially pages 50 – 51)
It took SWAT, who DID have rifles, 3 hours to respond to and clear Columbine. Among other things that slowed them down, the high school was plastered with nearly 100 IEDs (improvised explosive devices). In the meantime, victims were bleeding out.
And on the 12th of September, 2001, nobody in the US was complaining about cops having “military grade” equipment. Rather, they were demanding it.
Officers working in open / rural areas have always favored the rifle for when things got serious. Highway Patrolmen, Game Wardens, and Border Patrol Agents have had a rifle–even if it was a scoped, bolt action deer rifle, or an M1 / M1A–in reserve for decades.
I have often patrolled my nation’s border alone, and at night. I was damned if I was going to do that, in areas notoriously infiltrated by narcos with AKs, without a long gun. I knew from personal experience how comforting it could be to have a rifle, one zeroed for you, that you knew how to use well, in-hand during stressful situations. Like when a trip flare went off in the middle of the night, about 80 meters in front of my position, during Operation Desert Shield.
Sometimes, when I was in the USBP, I carried a shotgun–especially if I got assigned to City Patrol–but more often than not it was a rifle. I could, because the BP issued rifles.
That was not in response to some Trump administration “militarization of the border.” The Border Patrol’s mission has always been quasi-military. Protecting a nation from invasion has traditionally been what armies are for. The US is practically unique in world history, for using our military to protect other nations from invasion (for example, our Desert Storm eviction of the Iraqi squatters from Kuwait), while using police officers to patrol our own borders.
Coincidentally, most other nations consider terrorism a military, rather than a law enforcement, problem. The Special Air Service, which has successfully gunned down terrorists on British soil, is NOT a police organization.
When I joined the US Border Patrol, we had beat up Army surplus M-16A1s, and even some M-14s. They used the latter primarily for funerals and other honor guard ceremonies, but occasionally for APers (anti-personnel) work.
“You know we’re going to have to do this”: BPA Stephen Brooks and his M14
On 19 Aug 1997, a maniac with an “optically sighted” AR-15 shot New Hampshire State Police Trooper Scott Phillips, who had pulled him over. Phillips who was wounded in multiple places, including a hand, returned fire, emptying his duty pistol, but did not connect. Trooper Phillips retreated into the tall grass of an adjacent field. The murderer pursued him into the field.
About that time, Trooper Leslie Lord arrived to back up Phillips. The killer took aim from about 50 meters. Lord slammed it into reverse, but the bad guy killed him in his car. Then the murderer found and finished Trooper Phillips with a head shot.
The killer stole Phillips’ police cruiser and hunted down part time judge Vickie Bunnell at her office. Colebrook News and Sentinel editor Dennis Joos tackled the killer, but was shot 8 times in the wrestling match.
The killer crossed into Vermont. Vermont Game & Fish Officer Wayne Saunders found him, and got shot for his trouble, as he reversed his car out of the kill zone.
The killer parked his car on a farm, got out, donned a trooper’s “smokey bear” hat, and back-tracked about 75 meters up the road and waited in the woods atop a bank by the road. When the farmer called in that the car was on his property, an ad-hoc multi-agency task force swarmed in. Responding officers included:
- Vermont State Trooper Eric Albright
- New Hampshire State Trooper Jeff Caulder (later shot in the groin)
- Vermont Sheriff Amos Colby
- New Hampshire State Trooper Robert Haase (foot injury)
- US Border Patrol Agent (BPA) John Pfiefer (shot in the chest)
- Vermont State Trooper Russ Robinson (with a K9)
- New Hampshire State Trooper Charles West
The cops took cover at the bank beside the road, but the bad guy, concealed in the woods, had the high ground. West dragged Caulder out of there.
In an early example of the now national best practice “rescue task force,” BPAs Stephen Brooks and Marty Hewston escorted an ambulance crew far enough up to take over the care of Caulder. After the ambulance crew moved out, Brooks, Hewston, and New Hampshire Fish and Game Warden Sam Sprague, carrying rifles and using Colby’s moving jeep as partial cover, moved down the road to rescue BPA Pfiefer.
The bad guy ambushed them again, from about the same location. BPA Brooks told Trooper West, “You know we’re going to have to do this.”
The two climbed the bank and went over the top. When the bad guy leaned out from behind a tree to shoot them, West unlimbered his shotgun (with slugs) and Brooks shot several times with his USBP issued M14. The bad guy, who was wearing body armor that would have stopped pistol bullets, was hit a total of 4 times, and died.
Not surprising; shotgun slugs are nearly 3/4 (.72) of an inch wide, and the M14 shoots .30 caliber (7.62x51mm). Both are very hard hitting.
Much of the information about this New England incident comes from the article “Shots Fired: Bloomfield, Vermont 08/19/1997” by Dean Scoville, in Policemag.com.
M14 & M4A1 in the Rio Grande Valley
When I was stationed on the opposite border, I got a USBP M-14 issued to me (along with a case of match grade ammo for practice and competition) to represent McAllen BP sector in the Texas Police Games. Ah, free ammo (heavy sigh) . . . Those were the days.
But that M-14 was back home in my safe on 07 July 1998, when Cameron County deputies found the getaway vehicle used by three men who had shot three people with an AK in Rio Hondo, Texas. The county requested interagency assistance to track them.
Tracking people through the brush is what Border Patrol Agents do best.
Over a year before, in about March of 1997, my Border Patrol station had cashed in their old M-16s for M-4A1s.
I took the iron sighted M-4A1 I always drew from our armory pool, that I had personally zeroed, with me on that man hunt. My partner, Ed K, brought a shotgun. Midnight shift agents responding to the scene came directly from the River. Day shift agents responded from coffee shops. All with pistols.
It turned out, I was the only person there with a rifle–that is, apart from the one bad guy who stuck around to ambush us. He had an AR-15.
Cameron County had recently traded in all their long guns, and their revolvers, in a group discount deal to obtain high capacity Beretta pistols. They were planning to start reacquiring long guns with money from the following (1999) fiscal year.
Consequently, like most of the FBI in Miami over a decade before, Cameron County deputies went hunting for known, heavily armed murderers with only handguns.
The problem with hunting killers is, sometimes they find you.
When he ambushed the police looking for him, the bad guy killed Agents Susan Rodriquez and Ric Salinas, and severely wounded a deputy. As with Deputy Gardner’s fight at Columbine, the statistically exceptional distances between the antagonists favored the rifle.
Concerns About Rifle Bullet Over-Penetration
For a long time, resistance to city cops having rifles stemmed from concerns about over-penetration: if a good guy or gal shoots a bad guy (and it’s almost always a guy; lone wolf terrorism, indeed most violent crime, is one glass ceiling ladies don’t penetrate much), a bullet from a more powerful cartridge could go completely through the bad guy and strike innocents behind.
This is why police carry hollow points. It’s not to be extra mean. In theory, the hollow point should open up like a parachute, slowing down and stopping in the suspect, rather than over-penetrating.
Hollow points don’t always work. In the 07 July 1998 gun battle I mentioned above, multiple officers shot back, striking him 8 or 9 times with 9mm and .40 hollow points. Only 4 or 5 bullets stayed in him; the remainder over-penetrated. Fortunately it was in a corn field in a very rural area, with low population density and few farm houses.
Myths About Penetration
In theory, it stands to reason that faster bullets penetrate more, but in practice that isn’t always so.
In May of 1999, I toured Heckler and Koch’s US headquarters near Chantilly, Virginia (they have since moved to Georgia). The highlight was a stop in their conference room. If I recall correctly, they called it the “Grey Room,” owing to the color of the walls, which were covered with various firearms H&K produced. We got to fondle, among other things, their prototype caseless rifle, the G11.
The caseless rifle was an emerging technology that went nowhere because just as it was about to be fielded, The Wall came down. The Soviets had stockpiled massive munitions in East Germany and the reunified country suddenly had more serviceable AK-74s than it knew what to do with–along with a massive population of relatively underproductive, former communist slaves dependent upon handouts from a socialist nanny state–so the former (productive, and therefore wealthy, West German) budget for procuring state of the art rifles immediately dried up.
One thing that surprised me in H&K’s Grey Room was that 5.56 rifles they had designed for CQB–close quarters battle, i.e., room to room combat–had longer barrels.
When I asked why, the H&K rep explained that the faster a (then standard NATO 55 grain) 5.56 bullet goes, the more likely it is to break up on impact with something, resulting in less over-penetration. A longer barrel means more time for the burning powder to accelerate the bullet, so all other things being equal, the same cartridge will shoot the same weight bullet out of a longer barrel faster.
Compare the graphic above, for full metal jacketed, military 5.56 mm ammunition, with the one below, for typical pistol bullets. Out of a longer barrel (at velocities over 2700 feet per second), 5.56 mm rifle bullets actually penetrate less ballistic gelatin than the pistol ammo, while delivering far more kinetic energy to the target.
The difference is even more pronounced when high velocity hollow point and soft tip rifle ammunition is used, as evidenced below.
For the purposes of this discussion, .223 is virtually the same thing as 5.56x45mm (aka “5.56”), although the latter operates at higer chamber pressures.
In February, 2007, I took a Police Carbine Operator course, to get better acquainted with my Customs issue Steyr AUG-P. The penetration graphics in this article were some of the handouts from that course.*
The Carbine instructor, Giles Stock, told us of a bad guy who held a knife to the throat of a woman in a Portland bus terminal. Two officers responded; one had a patrol rifle. The rifle operator was “dialed in” with appropriate hold over for the distance, about 5 yards from the hostage taker. With the rifle aimed at the kidnapper’s head, he could no longer clearly see the hostage, who was on her knees.
“Does he still have the knife?” the patrol rifle operator asked.
The hostage taker answered before his partner could. “Fuckin’-A [meaning that’s affirmative] I still got the knife, and I’m gonna kill her–“
That was all the officer behind the rifle needed to hear. The rifle bullet hit the hostage taker squarely in the head. The woman was unscathed.
There was a concrete wall about 25 yards behind where the hostage taker had been. Investigators scoured the wall for bullet fragments, but found none.
Mr. Stock also noted that according to tests, rifle bullets that go through interior walls have FAR less subsequent penetration than typical pistol bullets, as shown in the graphic below, which outlines patterns in ballistic gelatin after bullets have penetrated two sheets of drywall. For the tests illustrated, two pieces of 1/2″ drywall were mounted with 1.5″ dry wall screws to 2×4″ fir studs, which kept the walls about 3.8″ apart. The closest wall was 10 cm from the gelatin block they were firing into.
This echoed what I had heard at Gunsite during my training there, starting in 1994. Penetration tests of common building materials conducted by Gunsite instructors indicated that pistol bullets, having greater mass but moving slower, stay in one piece and penetrate farther through interior walls of structures. Hollow points tend to fill with drywall and become, in essence, round nosed. 5.56x45mm, on the other hand, tends to break up after it punches through anything solid, like building materials.
We attempted to replicate that for the agents in my office. Not as ammunition testing; only our National Firearms Unit (NFU; later named National Firearms and Tactical Training Unit) could test and procure weapons and ammo for our agency. Rather, we did it to show our agents the dangers of over-penetration.
We built two interior walls, 1/2″ drywall on either side of 2×4″ studs spaced 18″ apart, and an exterior wall with 5/8″ drywall on the up-range side and T111 siding on the downrange side (stucco would’ve been too involved and costly to make for the demos). We placed the “interior” walls on a firing range, at the 7 and 15 meter lines. The exterior wall was placed at 25.
In later versions of the same demo, we put fiberglass insulation in the exterior wall. It became a staple of my kids firearms safety classes, to show them that if they have an “Oops!” playing with mom or dad’s gun in their bedroom, it might not only go through Sally’s room (and possibly Sally), but even out into the neighborhood, potentially killing their friend Billy next-door.
The first time I did that demo, our issued 9mm and .40 hollow points went through all three walls. So did shotgun slugs, to no one’s great surprise. So did, to some agents’ surprise, 00 buck. “But now, watch this,” I said, unlimbering a 55 grain 5.56mm.
It key holed after the first wall, and “banana’ed,”–but it went through all three double-layered walls, including the exterior wall.
This is what we in the biz of firearms instruction call an “epic instructor fail:” when you set up a demo to show one thing, but your students see the opposite.
Our heavier “core-locked” 5.56mm bullets also went through all three walls. I’m not sure if Gunsite was using longer M-16 barrels, but our shorter, standard length (14.5″) M-4 barrels would not push even flimsier 55 grain 5.56 fast enough to cause it to break up in common household building materials. Later, our agency chopped the rifle barrels to about 11,” reducing the velocity of that tiny 5.56mm bullet even further (to roughly 2400 FPS).
“Considering that approximately 80% of the rounds fired by law enforcement officers engaged in violent encounters do not strike the intended targets, it was deemed somewhat unrealistic to attach too much significance to the potential risks of over penetration on the part of those that do.”
–John Hall, Chief of the FBI’s Firearms Training Unit, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Nov 1989
Shotguns Become Specialty Weapons
Many people died in 2020. So did my old city police department’s patrol shotgun program.
As time had marched along, fewer and fewer old-school officers were carrying it anyway.
“The Gauge” has increasingly become a specialty weapon, say for deploying less lethal (beanbag) rounds, or door breaching (“Avon”) munitions.
Less Lethal Rounds . . .
. . . are so-called because rubber and beanbag projectiles can still kill, especially if fired at close range. However, given a choice, most suspects would probably prefer rubber bullets to lead.
One of the most famous rodeos on the circuit is Cheyenne, Wyoming’s Frontier Days. Every year in July tens of thousands of cow people converge on the small town to participate or watch (2020 was the first year Frontier Days had been cancelled in over a century). The Cheyenne Police cannot take non-emergency leave during those two weeks, and work a lot of overtime.
During the 1995 Frontier Days, a drunk cowboy refused to drop a knife. He was not approaching the officers, but he was not surrendering either. A 12 guage beanbag round to his solar plexus took all the wind from his sails and dropped him, also causing him to drop the knife. He was taken into custody without incident.
It’s important to note, though, that if he had suddenly charged after being struck ineffectively (or missed) with the less lethal munition, officers would have had no choice but to use deadly force. In any such operation, a “lethal cover” officer MUST be present, with deadly force firearm at the ready.
It’s also worthy of note that there were a lot fewer problems with drunk cowboys that year, after word of that incident got around.
One of the greatest dangers of “less lethal” is that unless it is a dedicated platform, lethal ammo might accidentally get chambered. I know of one Airport Authority department where each patrol vehicle had a shotgun–with a red painted stock, to be kept loaded with only beanbag rounds.
Like explosive breaching, using Avon rounds to blow a door off its hinges is fun, and may even be necessary in some specific situations, but in my limited experience rams and Halligan tools are just as effective, not much more time consuming, and less risky for innocents or hostages on the other side of the door.
Patrol Rifles Become the New Normal
Now, at least every squad, and often every officer, on most departments has an intermediate cartridge Armalite series rifle–I mean, uh, AR carbine (which somehow sounds warmer and fuzzier)–in their cruiser rack or trunk. In larger departments with bigger budgets, those rifles might be issued M-4s or semi-automatic M-4 clones. On most smaller departments, officers have to provide their own, usually a semi-auto only AR.
On 28 Oct 2020, a suspect shot a pistol at a man in a car, striking the car, before pointing it at another bystander, in Tucson. The suspect ran into the (dry) Santa Cruz riverbed and fired two more shots. A TPD officer with a rifle took him down from one of the river banks. It’s hard to tell the distance from the body cams, but I’m guessing it was in the 40 to 60 meter range.
On 09 Jan 2021, Phoenix cops took down a man brandishing a gun, while he was holding a toddler. The officers were responding to calls from the mother, and witnesses, that she had been assaulted and her baby kidnapped. It turned out the boy was his child too, but he should not have been a father if he was willing to use his young child as a shield while shooting up a neighborhood. The bottom line for this discussion is, those cops would not have been able to accomplish that level of precision, at some considerable distance (Google the video), with a pistol or shotgun.
Phoenix PD has a robust and well thought-out patrol rifle program. World class trainers Giles Stock, Ed Stock, and Chris Luebkin influenced its development and direction. I’ve been fortunate to enough to train under each of those excellent instructors at different points in my career.
Long Distance Shots
To a military sniper, “long distance” means 800 to 1000 meters or more. In law enforcement, it means something like 150 to 400 meters. The fact that police shootings over 80 meters are rare does not make them beyond the realm of possibility.
Once, while searching for a fugitive in a rural area, a Phoenix metro area officer was posted on hilltop, with binoculars–and a patrol rifle. He had spotted the armed individual in the open fields, and directed a helicopter to the bad guy. When the fugitive shot at the helicopter, the observer on the hill took the bad guy out at several hundred meters, which is almost unheard of in Stateside law enforcement.
Again, the Pendulum Swings
Today, again, the pendulum regarding perceptions of police has swung in the other direction. Cops are being blamed for all the socio-economic imbalances in our society, just as Vietnam Vets were blamed for our elected officials’ policies in Southeast Asia. Recent executive orders have returned us to Obama-era restrictions on law enforcers obtaining “military” equipment.
Which begs the question:
Why should police officers carry rifles in their cars?
For that matter, why should you?
The Civilian ASR Rifle
Here’s an excerpt from an email I recently sent to a student. He had requested a course improving his skills with an Arsenal SAM7, one of the “PDWs,” the Personal Defense Weapon breed of stockless (or braced) rifles which is legally a pistol. In order to tailor his curriculum to his needs, I needed to know what he intended it for.
Important Safety Tip When in ASR mode:
Unlimbering an ASR rifle is something you might need to do for your fellow man in the first few moments after things go south. But running around at an active shooter scene with a long gun, hunting active shooters, without a law enforcement uniform on, is a great way to get shot by the good guys. That’s why, in our Rifle / Carbine courses, we have our students practice dropping that rifle like it’s on fire as soon as they detect the cavalry charging over the hill to save the day (law enforcement arriving on scene).
I expanded upon these concepts in the article ASR Rifles and ASR Med Kits.
Advantages of the Patrol / ASR Rifle
You’ll probably never need to take a shot over 140 meters–but if you do, it’s not likely you’ll connect with a pistol, shotgun, SMG, or pistol caliber carbine.
More Precision–Especially in Hostage Situations
Closer, a rifle will give you much greater precision (say, for a hostage taker who has a knife to your little girl’s throat) than a pistol or shotgun. In those extreme situations, holding over to compensate for the mechanical offset between the sight line and the bore line at close range is imperative. We practice holdover extensively in our Carbine courses.
More Punch Through Armor
When I took the Trident Concepts Combative Carbine course, former SEAL Jeff Gonzales told us to default to center of mass when shooting rifles at bad guys. For one thing, it’s harder to miss when you aim at center of mass. In contrast, some Tier 1 operators train to default to head shots with pistols, owing to the lower possibility of one shot stops from pistol bullets hitting the torso, or being stopped altogether by soft body armor. 5.56mm probably won’t penetrate a Level 4 plate, but owing to it’s small cross section and high velocity, it will easily poke like needle through most soft body armor. 5.56x45mm will also zip through both sides of the standard PASGT (“Fritz”) helmet they started issuing to GIs in the 1980s.
Standard capacity AR magazines hold more ammo than standard capacity pistol magazines. You can never have too much ammo (unless you are swimming or on fire; see The Lie: How Much Ammo do you Need?) Ironically, you typically end up needing less ammo with a rifle (see below).
More Stopping Power = Fewer Bullets Slinging Through the Neighborhood
Lastly, a rifle bullet has much greater chance of putting him down with one shot than a pistol bullet from a pistol or SMG. A shotgun with buck or slugs has similar stopping power to, but not the precision or range of, a rifle.
–George H, lead instructor, Heloderm LLC
*Wound profile illustrations are excerpted from Gary K. Roberts’ “The Wounding Effects of 5.56mm / .223 Law Enforcement General purpose Shoulder Fired Carbines Compared with 12 ga. Shotguns and Pistol Caliber Weapons using 10% Ordnance Gelatin as a Tissue Simulant,” published in Wound Ballistics Review 3 (4): pp. 16 – 28, 1998.
Roberts was a Dental Doctor, on the staff of Stanford University Med Center, as well as a Lt Commander in the Naval Reserve, and a Reserve Police Officer in the San Francisco Bay area.
The gist of the paper was what the law enforcement community as a whole was starting to realize, that a 5.56mm rifle will do everything expected of a law enforcement firearm, better, under almost all conditions–although Roberts did recommend 7.62x51mm (.308 / NATO) for extended ranges, or when penetration of structures / vehicles is required.