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Home  >  Topics  >  Patrol Issues

December 05, 2011
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Richard Fairburn Law Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

Shooting to kill an animal: A sad but necessary skill

Even if an animal drops instantly to a high shoulder shot, a 'finisher' to the brain should be administered from close range to anchor the beast

If you are a police officer with a PETA-type mindset, stop reading until you consider this:

If you are a police officer who cannot bear the thought of killing a crippled animal, sit down and have a long, serious talk with yourself. If you are incapable of killing a creature to end its suffering, why should we believe you could take a human life in self-defense or to save the life of a fellow officer or citizen? Reach a solid conclusion on this matter before you read on — your coworkers deserve to be backed up by someone who can do what needs to be done.

I’m sorry to begin with that preamble, but I have known two officers who refused to destroy crippled animals at traffic crashes — another officer had to come do the dark deed. So, the question of their ability to use deadly force must be resolved before I can discuss the proper weapons and techniques for killing animals in the course of police duties. Okay now, read on.

The Noah’s Ark Massacre
This topic came from a recent conversation with PoliceOne Senior Editor Doug Wyllie when I commented on the recent “Noah’s Ark Massacre” of loose zoo animals in Ohio. The scope of that tragedy was staggering, but the killing of large and/or dangerous animals is a regular occurrence for cops.

Scanning the Internet will generate many articles of officers forced to kill creatures ranging from cattle to tigers to a rampaging circus elephant. The elephant story involved one named Tyke, who in 1994 killed her trainer and gored a handler before the Honolulu police opened fire — a total of 86 rounds according to one report. The unfortunate incident was caught on video and the elephant reportedly took two hours to finally bleed to death. Having never personally shot an elephant, I can only claim the ability to have done a better, more humane job because I have killed dozens of other creatures, large and small, both as a hunter and a police officer.

Killing dangerous or nuisance animals is never enjoyable work, but in some cases there is a degree of satisfaction involved. I am an unabashed dog lover, but bad dogs simply cannot be tolerated. On one call, I arrived to find that a blind lady had been attacked at her rural home by a pair of Doberman pinschers. The caretaker there described the Dobermans who had knocked down the lady and injured her lap dog. A short way along the Doberman’s escape route was the county landfill, where I found the dozer operator who confirmed the escaping dogs were still in the area. When it was all over, my AR-15 had two more bad canines to its credit. I removed the collars and tags and turned the carcasses over to the landfill guy — justice was done.

Whether you must kill a small animal like a cat or dog or beasts as large as horses or cattle, you owe the creature as quick and humane a death as possible. I hear some of you whining that these animals should put down by a veterinarian’s needle. If you think that, you grew up in the city. Country folks rarely have the time or spare cash to call a vet for the task.

I once responded to a burglar alarm which turned out to be a set of commercial widows broken by a buck deer crashing through. We blood-trailed the buck to the downtown area, where the Chief of Police wouldn’t let me shoot the suffering beast because “it would look bad” to the gathering crowd. So, we called a vet and waited 45 minutes while the buck suffered — one horn was broken and dangling and a huge shard of glass had penetrated his chest cavity. Even then, the vet had to repeatedly dart the deer with about triple the normal-deadly dose of drugs. A single bullet would have produced the same final result and saved the deer 45 minutes of needless pain.

Ammo, Weapons, and Aiming Points
The average Police sidearm is a rather poor animal killer except when you can hit the brain or upper spine. When you can get close enough, and the target is somewhat stationary, a 9mm or larger handgun bullet will reliably penetrate into the cranial vault of any animal up to the size of domestic cattle, causing instant incapacitation and a quick death. But, the bullet must be placed precisely and even a large bull has a brain about half the size of a human, protected by a tough skull.

The simplest way to calculate your aiming point, on almost any animal you may be called upon to kill, is to draw two imaginary lines up across the head, linking an eye to the opposite ear (left eye to right ear, etc.) and X marks the spot. Since the X will be at the top of an animal’s head, you need to shoot from above or use the X to help you judge an appropriate aiming point from the side.

Generally, but not always, a level shot at the base of the ear angling toward the imaginary center point the X illustrates will do the deed, but be prepared for follow-up shots. Body shots from your sidearm into the heart/lung area will eventually kill the creature, but even with small animals like a pit bull, the death will rarely be quick. As we saw on the recent video of Canadian officers shooting cattle, you may have to empty your pistol (and even a second or third magazine) before the animal goes down. If people are in danger, your handgun is a poor choice of weapon.

Patrol rifles, generally firing a .223/5.56mm round, can be effective killers of all but the largest animals. Ideally, a brain/spine shot is still the best choice for instant incapacitation — remember, your AR15/M4 bullet will impact as much as 2.5 inches below your point of aim at close range. Most .223/5.56mm soft point and hollow point projectiles deliver marginal penetration on animals beyond the size of a large dog, even with heart/lung shots. The best all-around .223/5.56mm animal loads are controlled expansion loads like Federal’s Tactical Bonded (55gr or 62gr) or Black Hills Ammunition’s loads using a Barnes TSX bullet (50gr, 55gr or 62gr) or either of the military Full-Metal-Jacket (FMJ) rounds (55gr M193 or 62gr M855).

The controlled expansion bullets cause serious temporary cavities to about 10-inches depth then continue to penetrate to at least 13 total inches. When still traveling at near muzzle velocity, FMJ bullets will penetrate a few inches, destabilize and fragment severely, giving a total of about 12 inches of penetration. I have shot many dog-to-deer size animals with the 55 grain M193 load and I have never seen anything more than a small bullet fragment exit — they dump all of their energy inside the target.

The broadside main-body aiming point most likely to drop the animal instantly when firing a long gun is a high shoulder shot (see illustrations). With the traditional heart/lung shot used by most big game hunters, the animal may stay on its feet for a time, even running a fair distance before they collapse. A running, wounded animal looks bad to a crowd of onlookers and can be downright dangerous. Even if the animal drops instantly to a high shoulder shot, a “finisher” shot to the brain should be administered from close range to anchor the beast.

Probably the best all-around weapon for destroying animals is a 12 gauge shotgun. Buckshot can be devastatingly effective at very close range, but rifled slugs are the most consistent performers. Most police rifled slug loads use the “Foster” slug which is a one-ounce lead cup. On big stuff, like cattle and horses ... or elephants, these slugs may not give adequate penetration. An old friend of mine, who was a park ranger in Alaska, recommends the German-made Brenneke slugs for killing large animals with a shotgun. He said a Brenneke slug will blow through both front shoulders of even a large brown bear, generally dropping it on the spot. Keeping a couple 5-packs of Brenneke slugs on hand is cheap insurance for dealing with large livestock, bears, and big cats like the lions and tigers encountered recently in Ohio.

Lions and Tigers and Bears ... Oh My!
For elephants or the odd rhinoceros which might escape from your local zoo, even a Brenneke slug may not penetrate to their vital organs, leaving them up and dangerous. It is doubtful a .223/5.56mm FMJ bullet will penetrate to the brain of an elephant and, according to my old African hunting books, an elephant’s brain is pretty difficult to precisely locate, especially when it is charging you.

A FMJ bullet from a .30 caliber military rifle (.30-06 or 7.62x51mm NATO) should penetrate the skull, but it might take something like a .458 Winchester to put down an elephant or rhino quickly with a body shot. If your department keeps a .458 Winchester “elephant gun” on hand you’re in luck, but if all you have is an M4 carbine, you can eventually kill one of these monsters with enough heart/lung shots, but it won’t be pretty.

God help us if they ever do build Jurassic park, we’ll need to carry Barrett .50BMG rifles!


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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