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4 ways PDs can justify a patrol rifle program

We must convince public officials that all law enforcement officers should be supplied with and trained to use high-powered patrol rifles


An AR-15 rifle, a shotgun, a vest and other safety gear is pictured in a police patrol car in Edmond, Okla., Thursday, July 14, 2016.

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

This article is reprinted with permission from the National Narcotics Officers Association Coalition Spring Magazine 2018.

The average police officer in America is armed with a 9mm, .40 caliber or .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol and fitted with soft body armor.

These are the officers who arrive first at the scene of an armed bank robbery, a gang firefight or an active school shooting, where they do not have the time or luxury to wait for the arrival of tactically trained special operations units.

After Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, San Bernardino, Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and now the Parkland school shooting in Florida, waiting for SWAT is not a viable option. Officers are now being trained to immediately move in and engage the armed perpetrators.

In the absence of high-powered, high-capacity rifles, officers called to confront high-risk situations are operating at a palpable and distinct disadvantage. They are ill equipped to confront felons armed with high-velocity shoulder weapons. The body armor police wear will be immediately defeated by rounds fired from these weapons and their handguns are greatly inferior to the high-powered rifles being fired at them by event perpetrators.

We must convince public officials that all law enforcement officers be supplied with and trained to use high-powered patrol rifles to simply match the firepower of weaponry used by violent offenders. Our first responders should not be sent into kill zones with handguns when their adversaries are armed with devastating high-velocity weapons.

Here are four talking points PDs can use to engage in this dialogue with community leaders:

1. In 2016, long guns were used in 40% of firearms-related LODDs

The FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Injured (LEOKA) statistics for 2016 show that 62 officers were fatally shot. Of particular concern is the fact that 40% of these officers were murdered by suspects with long guns (24 rifles/1 shotgun).

The percentage of officers killed with long weapons in 2016 demonstrated a dramatic increase from the percentage of officers killed with long weapons for the period of 2006 through 2015. In that 10-year period, LEOKA statistics reveal that 454 officers were murdered by firearms and 122 of that number were killed by long guns. The percentage of officers killed by long guns from 2006–2015 was approximately 27%.

These statistics demonstrate that on average more than 25% of the officers murdered by firearms annually are killed with long guns. The 2016 statistics show that dangerous felons appear to be relying even more heavily upon long guns when confronting law enforcement in deadly force situations.

These weapons in the hands of untrained and undisciplined shooters place the public at high risk for serious injury and death. Likewise, law enforcement officers are placed in grave peril when confronted by felons in possession of this kind of weaponry. This is especially true when they are immediately outgunned upon arrival at a deadly encounter.

2. Long guns outperform handguns

Automatic shoulder rifles such as the AK-47, M-16 and M4 rifles and semi-automatic rifles such as the AR 15, fire at a velocity of approximately 2400 to 3200 feet per second. Police handguns generally fire rounds at a much lower velocity of 900 to 1100 feet per second.

The rounds fired by these rifles will go right through police soft body armor. Conversely police handgun rounds will not penetrate soft body armor worn by bad guys.

Unlike semi-automatic handguns, these high-velocity rifles are deadly accurate from much longer distances and easier to control and fire. Under normal circumstances these long guns utilize magazines containing 20 or 30 rounds per magazine. This means that the shooter can fire numerous rounds before needing to reload.

Officers with handguns will need to stop and reload long before their adversary. Police officers confronting armed felons in possession of these weapons are obviously in real jeopardy.

3. High-velocity rifle rounds are far more lethal than handgun rounds

FBI firearms training expert Urey Patrick (now retired) authored a wound ballistics training treatise while serving as a firearms instructor at the FBI Academy.[1]

In the treatise, Patrick explained that the goal of an officer involved in a gunfight must be to end the encounter as quickly as possible. He points out that the only way to immediately end a gunfight is to shoot an adversary directly in the brain or upper spinal cord (i.e. the central nervous system). Absent a direct hit to this critical area, the only other way to end a gunfight by bullet wound is through the circulatory collapse of the adversary from massive blood loss.

Circulatory collapse results from significant blood loss with a corresponding deprivation of oxygen to the brain. Circulatory collapse does not happen immediately. Rather it is a process that can take several seconds to several minutes or even longer. During that time an officer’s adversary will remain functional and able to continue efforts to kill the officer. In fact, Patrick reports that a bullet wound that destroys a suspect’s heart will permit him to continue to shoot at an officer for 10 to 15 seconds after receiving a fatal bullet wound.[2]

Patrick reports that handgun rounds will cause a permanent cavity (i.e., a hole caused by bullet destruction of body tissue) along the length of the bullet’s path through the body. The width of the permanent cavity will include the diameter of the bullet plus any expansion capability of the bullet nose, e.g. hollow point round.[3]

Absent a direct hit of a major organ or major blood carrying artery or vessel, the handgun round strike is highly unlikely[4] to cause massive bleeding and circulatory collapse.[5]

Patrick reports that “[b]arring central nervous system hits, there is no physiological reason for an individual to be incapacitated by even a fatal wound, until the blood loss is sufficient to drop blood pressure and … the brain is deprived of oxygen.”[6] This will permit the officer’s adversary to continue deadly mayhem upon all in the kill zone for several seconds, minutes or longer.

Patrick instructs that the velocity of handgun rounds is not sufficient to cause damage outside of the permanent bullet wound track, i.e., little or no temporary wound cavity damage to tissue, blood vessels or organs located outside the permanent track.[7]

Likewise, lower handgun velocity will result in bullets remaining essentially intact, i.e., no fragmentation. [8] This lack of temporary wound cavity damage and lack of bullet fragmentation is highly significant in permitting an officer’s adversary to continue aggressive deadly action against the officer.

High-velocity rifle rounds fired from an AR-15 rifle for example cause devastating injury to the bullet’s recipient. The bodily wounds caused by an AR-15 rifle wound are significantly more serious than the wounds caused by any modern handgun rounds.

Dr. Peter Rhee, a trauma surgeon at the University of Arizona reports that a high velocity rifle round fired from an AR-15 will cause a body wound that “looks like a grenade went off in there.”[9]

The .223 (NATO 5.56) rounds fired from an AR-15 contain so much Kinetic Energy that it can literally disintegrate 3 inches of human leg bone.[10]

Dr. Donald Jenkins a trauma surgeon at the University of Texas Health Center, San Antonio, states that this round will “just turn [a human leg bone] to dust and the human liver to “Jell-O mold that’s been dropped on the floor.”[11] He likewise reports that these rounds can cause exit wounds the size of an orange.[12]

The dramatic differences in wound damage from high-velocity rifle rounds in comparison with handgun rounds are caused by the velocity of the rifle rounds and the corresponding kinetic energy from those rounds deposited into the human body upon impact.[13]

Suffice it to say that there is no comparison between wound damage caused by high-velocity rifle rounds and modern handgun rounds. The high-velocity rifle rounds are far more lethal. Trauma surgeons can immediately recognize whether they are dealing with high velocity rifle wounds or semi-auto pistol wounds.

4. Nationwide, violent offenders outgun law enforcement

Law enforcement history contains numerous examples of situations involving law enforcement officers being outgunned by violent offenders.

On February 28, 1997, two heavily armed men entered the Bank of America in North Hollywood, California. The men carried fully automatic assault rifles with 100 round magazines, 3,300 rounds of armor penetrating bullets and wore homemade hard body armor with metal plates. They had been involved in previous bank robberies and had murdered an armored car guard. During the robbery on February 28, they fired 100 rounds inside the bank. They exited the bank and were immediately confronted by several uniformed LAPD patrol officers. The responding officers were armed with handguns and some had shotguns.

None of the initial responders were in possession of high-powered rifles. Police officers fired over 650 rounds at the robbers. Almost all of these rounds either missed or failed to penetrate the hard body armor worn by the robbers. The robbers, in turn fired 1,100 rounds at the responding officers. Ten officers and 7 civilians were wounded in the shootout. Miraculously no officer or civilian was killed.

Although outnumbered many times over, the robbers continued to pin down the surrounding officers with automatic gunfire for at least 18 minutes before SWAT arrived. First responders went to a nearby gun store and obtained high-powered rifles while the fire fight was in progress. Once SWAT officers arrived, armed with AR-15 rifles, one of the bank robbers killed himself rather than surrender, and the second one was shot and killed by a SWAT officer with an AR-15 rifle.

On April 11, 1986, seven FBI agents confronted two heavily armed armored car robbers who had previously murdered one man and severely wounded a second. After a vehicle pursuit and car crash, a deadly firefight erupted. The agents were armed with handguns and a shotgun. One of the robbers had a shotgun and the other was armed with a Ruger Mini 14 rifle that fires .223 rounds in semi-automatic fashion. Although outnumbered by the FBI, the robbers had the tactical advantage of superior fire power.

The robber with the Ruger rifle responded with devastating fury. He received a non- survivable handgun wound early in the four-minute gun battle. After being shot, he was able to shoot and kill two FBI agents and seriously wound several more. Before dying, both robbers received a total of 18 bullet wounds. All told, seven agents were shot that day, the worst day of carnage in FBI history. Later, the surviving agents recalled the devastating affect that the robber’s Ruger rifle had on them. In this case, the FBI agents were simply outgunned by a violent offender in possession of a high-powered semi-auto rifle.

On July 17, 2016, a former Iraq War veteran – armed with an IWR Tavor SAR 5.56 rifle – ambushed several Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers with devastating results. The man killed three officers and wounded three more before being shot and killed. The suspect was killed at a distance of 100 yards by an officer who used a patrol rifle.


High-powered rifles continue to be the weapon of choice for violent offenders confronting law enforcement officers and innocent civilians across America. Police chiefs and other high-level law enforcement leaders must stand up for their line officers. It is their duty and obligation to educate elected officials to the absolute necessity of providing proper armament to our officers. It is their duty and obligation to demand proper armament and training for their officers. Political correctness and refusal to recognize reality must be set aside. Nothing less is acceptable.


1. Urey PW. Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness. FBI Firearms Training Unit, 1989.
2. Ibid. p.8.
3. Ibid. p.11.
4. Author’s conclusion based upon careful reading of Patrick’s treatise.
5. Ibid. p.8.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid. p.6.
8. Ibid. p.5.
9. Zhang S. What An AR-15 Can Do to the Human Body. Wired, 6/17/16.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. DiMaio V. Gunshot Wounds, Third Edition, p.53.

John Michael Callahan served in law enforcement for 44 years. His career began as a special agent with NCIS. He became an FBI agent and served in the FBI for 30 years, retiring in the position of supervisory special agent/chief division counsel. He taught criminal law/procedure at the FBI Academy. After the FBI, he served as a Massachusetts Deputy Inspector General and is currently a deputy sheriff for Plymouth County, Massachusetts. He is the author of two published books on deadly force and an upcoming book on supervisory and municipal liability in law enforcement.

Contact Mike Callahan.