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July 18, 2011
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Richard Fairburn Law Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

Beyond the patrol rifle: Adding a 'Designated Marksman' capability

The U.S. military refers to them as 'Designated Marksman,' and I propose we adopt similar terminology and the same weaponry for perhaps one in 10 patrol officers

I saddled up my first patrol rifle, a Colt AR15, in a Chevrolet Blazer 4x4 patrol vehicle in 1985. The other two patrol deputies in my county had their own semi-auto rifles in locking racks, one carried a Beretta AR70 (also in 5.56mm caliber) while the other had a H&K Model 91 chambered for the much more powerful 7.62x51mm NATO round (.308 Winchester). While more than one potential human target saw the business end of our rifles over the years, no one ever challenged their authority.

Now we see patrol rifles in the hands of many U.S. police officers, generally a variation of the AR15/M16/M4 system. I have long believed a rifle is the long gun “answer” to most police shooting situations, now it seems most agencies agree. So, I’ll try to stay one step ahead by suggesting we now need to move a few of our officers “beyond the patrol rifle.”

The other dominant rifle form in U.S. police usage has been the sniper rifle, generally referred to as a counter-sniper rifle in its earliest days following the “Texas Tower” massacre committed by Charles Whitman in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1966. What I propose now is that we equip and train a percentage of our patrol officers to a capability midway between those equipped with a patrol rifle and snipers who generally only deploy as one element of a SWAT team. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are fielding these intermediate-level marksmen in significant numbers and they are proving to be extremely effective in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military refers to them as “Designated Marksmen,” and I propose we adopt similar terminology and the same weaponry for perhaps one in 10 patrol officers.

In February 2009, only a few months after the terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, PoliceOne ran my three-part series on how we should be training and preparing to counter terrorist teams of active shooters. In the development of that series of articles, I ran the drafts by LTC Dave Grossman, noted SWAT trainer Sgt. Ed Mohn, and a couple of military SpecOps dudes I know, adding their valuable input to the final product. I was more than a little gratified when I saw the Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York City police departments and the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) organize and train officers in ways that paralleled our early recommendations — the most common program being Multiple Attack Counter Terror Action Capabilities training, or MACTAC. It was in part three of that series that I first suggested the need for Designated Marksman (DM) capabilities when responding to a Mumbai-style attack.

Adding a Designated Marksman (DM) Capability
The most simple and inexpensive way to improve on our existing patrol rifles is to upgrade existing 5.56mm carbines with low- to medium-power optical sights. This enhances the shooter’s ability to deliver precise fire at longer distances than we can generally muster with iron sights. In addition to optics, any 5.56mm DM rifle should be coupled with a heavy 5.56mm projectile like the 77gr MHP bullet in the Mk262 load. Most Army DMs are equipped with an M16 variant using a 4x optical sight and the Mk262 load. Many patrol rifle shooters can already quickly mount scopes or 3x magnifiers for low power optical sights.

But ideally, I think our Designated Marksmen should be equipped with a more powerful rifle to deal more effectively with both distance and light intervening cover. The AR15 platform can be upgraded to larger cartridges like the Remington .30 AR or the 6.8mm SPC, but stepping up even further makes more sense. The USMC Designated Riflemen generally shoot an updated M14 chambered for the 7.62x51mm (.308 Winchester). Our LE-type DMs should also opt for the 7.62mm/.308 round, but instead of firing the 168gr Match Hollow Point (MHP) round our snipers use, we should opt for a 150 grain expanding projectile. The sniper’s match hollow points are designed primarily for accuracy and give erratic terminal performance. Choosing a round like Federal Ammunition’s P308E, which uses a 150 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet, or Black Hills Ammunition’s Black Hills Gold load that uses a Hornady 155 grain A-Max projectile, would provide devastating terminal performance and a reduced chance of over-penetration, coupled with the ability to switch interchangeably to military M80 Ball ammunition. The M80 Ball load is a trajectory match for a 150-155 grain expanding bullet and allows both reduced cost training as well as better penetration against barricaded targets.

The Marine Corp’s modified M14 DM rifle can be duplicated with an M1A rifle from Springfield Armory, their Scout Squad model is particularly handy. If you would prefer a semi-auto rifle with the same operating controls as your AR to simplify training, a number of AR makers offer a variation of the AR10 which is chambered for the 7.62mm round. A police DM rifle should be equipped with a scope sight of about 4x magnification (or a variable-power scope that will zoom up to at least 4x).

An alternative to a semi-auto would be Ruger’s Gunsite Scout bolt-action rifle, also chambered for the 7.62mm/.308 Winchester. If we envision a police DM as someone who will provide precision support to a team of officers armed with high-capacity semi-auto carbines, fighting in military team formations, a bolt-action rifle in the hands of a skilled shooter can provide very credible service. The Ruger Scout uses detachable magazines holding up to 10 rounds, allowing a DM to quickly switch to ball ammo for added penetration or even tracers to mark a specific target and draw “directed fire” support from his teammates.

Beyond the Patrol Rifle
When police agencies train MACTAC, they should consider upgrading the weaponry of a few officers. Going beyond the patrol rifle by adding a percentage of Designated Riflemen to the teams, using a powerful and precise .30 caliber rifle, will make your agency so formidable any terrorist with half a brain will seek out an easier target.


About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

Contact Richard Fairburn





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