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Tactical Ops: The long guns

Why police patrol rifles make sense

By Jeff Chudwin

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In a northern Chicago suburb in the fall of 2003, a random murder and attempted carjacking brought police rushing to the scene. The first-responding officer located the offender, who fired his handgun at the officer, wounding him in the arm and shoulder. Injured but determined, the officer stayed in the fight, armed with his duty pistol. He exchanged gunfire with the offender, who remained in his vehicle, a barrier of sheet metal and glass.

The second officer on scene deployed a .223 carbine and fired at the offender seated behind the windshield. His .223 polymer-tipped bullets were shattered by the laminated auto glass and did not strike the offender, but the gunfire into the glass drew the attention of the shooter away from the wounded officer. Running from the vehicle, the gunman was taken under fire by a third officer armed with a .223 carbine. At a distance of 20 yards, this officer hit the offender in the head, killing him.

The officer’s ability to stop the gunman that day with a single, precision shot was the deciding factor. The patrol rifle, combined with the department’s training program, gave the officer the skill and equipment to prevail.

Officers arriving on scene during in-progress, violent incidents must have the means to effectively respond. To do so, the patrol rifle/carbine is an essential piece of police equipment.

Lessons Learned

How does law enforcement make the transition in thinking to consider the patrol rifle standard-issue gear? First, we must apply what we’ve learned in the field and in tests. A sailor once noted that naval regulations are written in blood—injuries and deaths led the way to change. Law enforcement is little different. New equipment, training and policy came about through tragedies in Austin, Norco, Miami, Los Angeles, etc.

Gunfight statistics compiled by the FBI, the New York City Police Department (NYPD), and other police agencies illustrate that the majority of officer-involved shootings have been close-quarter matters with little warning. Therefore, it’s no surprise most police firearms training focuses on using the handgun in the short-range defense scenario.

However, when officers face armed, violent criminal offenders located and acting beyond the typical training distances, the handgun becomes the tool of response by necessity, not choice. It’s unrealistic and dangerous to expect officers in high stress, life-threatening situations to direct aimed, accurate handgun fire beyond these training distances. Failure to train and equip patrol officers—the first responders—with needed equipment can put the public and police at a deadly disadvantage.

Given the FBI and NYPD statistics, we know officers armed only with handguns evidence a low hit-ratio on offenders in short-range incidents. Testing we conducted at my department with police range officers shows that even an above-average shooter, when put under physical stress and restricted time constraints, cannot effectively, on demand, engage a target with a handgun at 25 yards.

In one exercise we conducted, a partially concealed gunman leaned around the corner of a 75' hallway. With handguns, officers hit the target significantly less and slower than when they were armed with a .223 CAR-15 (AR-15 carbine). Using the same course of fire, they quickly and accurately put hits on target with the carbine, clearly illustrating the patrol rifle provides officers and the public a life-saving advantage we can’t ignore.

Safety, Liability & Cost

Questions from administrators typically focus on the safety of issuing long guns to patrol units, liability issues and training costs. Primarily, they question if these firearms are too much gun for the job. But does the maximum range and penetration of centerfire rifle cartridges pose an increased hazard to innocent persons in the area of police-involved shootings?

Some claim any rifle cartridge is excessively dangerous in the urban environment because of distance the bullet can travel.

While the rifle round has a potentially greater range, all projectiles fired from any type of police firearm will travel more than a third of a mile, and most can travel well over a mile. Any stray round is a hazard, and it’s illogical to claim one type of firearm is more or less dangerous than another based only on its maximum range.

We must instead focus on the penetration and ricochet potential of the bullet type and caliber. Contrary to common folk lore, a .223 Remington cartridge loaded with hollow-point or soft-point bullets penetrates significantly less against residential wall construction and poses far less ricochet problems than typical law-enforcement pistol and shotgun rounds. Ballistic test data proving this are available through the FBI Ammunition Test Facility at Quantico. Additionally, Federal Cartridge Company publishes extensive documentation and photographs of similar ammunition testing.

Liability issues require consideration when you develop operational policy and a training program. While federal court decisions supply us with some legal parameters, the sufficiency and validity of training is determined on a case-by-case basis. The U.S. Supreme Court spoke to the benchmark issue of “deliberate indifference” as it applies to supervisory and municipal liability for failure to provide adequate training. Part of the Court’s decision in Canton v. Harris recognized the importance of training officers in the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force (Canton v. Harris 489 U.S. 378 [1989]).

For example, city policy makers know to a moral certainty that their police officers will be required to arrest fleeing felons. The city has armed its officers with firearms, in part to allow them to accomplish this task. Thus, the need to train officers in the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force (see Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 [1985]) can be said to be so obvious that failure to do so could properly be characterized as deliberate indifference to constitutional rights.

 The Court did not say what the training content should be or how to form a class curriculum. The agency will have to support the validity of its policy and training by effective management and documentation. Should litigation arise, experts from both sides will be called on to attack or defend your program.

Finally, how long does it take and what does it cost to develop a patrol rifle program? It does take time and there are costs involved, and you must factor them in when considering making the change. I’ll cover this topic in the next issue.


Historically, the rifle was the primary fighting tool of early law enforcers of this country. Photos of sheriffs, marshals and rangers in the Old West invariably show them holding close their lever-action Winchester rifle. Given a choice, a knowing peace officer didn’t go into harms’ way armed only with a handgun. Today, we face similar tactical problems, but with liability constraints unknown in the past. Liability issues should not be the main focus of whether rifles/carbines are deployed by patrol officers, however. Public safety and officer survival should remain our primary considerations.

Next issue I’ll discuss several important considerations when developing a patrol rifle program: ammunition selection, firearm selection, sight systems, accessories, training and deployment issues.                           

Jeff Chudwin is president of the Illinois Tactical Officers Association and chief of police and range master for the Village of Olympia Fields, Ill. Chudwin has been a competitive shooter and firearms/use-of-force trainer for more than 25 years. He developed Illinois’ certified 40-hour Rifle/Carbine Instructor Course for N.E.M.R.T/IL Mobile Training Unit #3 and assists with instruction of the rapid deployment/active shooter training course.

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