Breaching: Which option is best for your team?

Intelligence of the target and the nature of the tactical situation determine the best breaching option

Egyptian military forces were the earliest recorded assaulting force to use breaching tactics to enter an adversary’s stronghold. A painting on the walls of Intis Tomb at Deshasheh depicts soldiers assaulting a gate and wall with pry bars to gain access into an Asian fortress. The soldiers are breaching the weakest points of the gate and walls where the sandstone was used to erect the fortress. The painting also depicts a ladder with wheels attached.

These early recordings indicate that these warriors understood the importance of breaching operations to the overall success of the mission. They spent much time and effort developing and training in the art of breaching tactics.

Breaching barriers is a science that requires knowledge and experience. I began my breaching career just out of high school in the US Army, blowing up anything that got in the way of the combat soldiers that my unit was supporting. We had heavy machinery, explosives – every type of tool a soldier would need to breach an obstacle.

Members of the Roswell Police Department SWAT team perform explosive breaching training Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008.
Members of the Roswell Police Department SWAT team perform explosive breaching training Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008. (AP Image)

I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but breaching obstacles is as important as any other single element on a combat mission. If your breach fails, there is much to lose – hostages may die or your officers may be endangered as they are sitting ducks with nowhere to go if fired upon.

After leaving the Army, I found myself assigned to SWAT and quickly learned that teams were having problems breaching reinforced doors – especially the reinforced dwellings of drug caches. I recalled my military days and realized that a little Det-Cord or C-4 could get inside those doors and walls.

A few SWAT teams around the country were starting to use a little-known tactic in law enforcement called explosive breaching. I sought out the foremost trainer for law enforcement and the military at that time in explosive breaching and attended all of his courses. After that, I was hooked on explosive breaching. My first explosive breaching demonstration and training session for our SWAT team had the same effect on the team.

I was fortunate to have a progressive thinking SWAT commander and it wasn’t long before explosive breaching was being used on SWAT calls by our team.

Four Breaching Options

Much like the ancient Egyptian forces, my team commanders understood the importance of breaching a stronghold in a timely and safe fashion. In addition to the option of explosive breaching, we had a tactical wheeled vehicle with a boom and all of the latest breaching tools.

SWAT cops usually have four types of breaching options at their disposal: mechanical, ballistic, thermal and explosive. Each of these styles has their own advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a look at each in detail.

1. Mechanical
This is the simplest form of breaching but can be slow and can position the breacher in a dangerous place: standing in front of the door he or she is attempting to breach. Mechanical breaching utilizes a variety of tools and methods. Breaching tools can include a ram, sledge hammer, pry bar, axe, bolt cutter, pneumatic and hydraulic tools, chain saws and the jaws of life. Mechanical breaching is only limited to your imagination.

2. Ballistic
This type of breaching is simply firing a shotgun with a 12-gauge projectile designed to break up the door lock with no other ballistic value. This provides a safe means of entry. Ballistic breaching is fast and the breacher spends little time in front of the door, but I have witnessed too many failed breaches at the muzzle of a shotgun. I prefer this method once inside a large stronghold – such as a school – to quickly neutralize a large locked door.

3. Thermal
This method of breaching is simply cutting through steel. It is very time consuming as your breacher is burning through the steel objective, but it too has its place in the SWAT arsenal. The team faced with a large steel barrier and with time in their favor may select this option as it is not as loud as an explosive breach.

4. Explosive
Explosive breaching provides a fast entry but must be performed precisely or you place the occupants of the stronghold in danger. Explosive entry is a non-lethal force option, but it should only be used when you can justify that spending any length of time in front of a door with a mechanical breach would be too dangerous for the officer conducting the breach or that mechanical breaching would fail on a reinforced objective.

The biggest advantage of explosive breaching is the ability to make an entry port on any wall – including bricks. If you want to distract, confuse and create a ruse for a hostage taker, conduct an explosive breach on his door as a distraction, then conduct a second breach on the wall near the hostages a split-second later.


I have been asked by team leaders and commanders which breaching option is the best for their team. My answer is simple: All of them. Thinking back to the ancient Egyptians using a forged pry bar and a ladder with wheels demonstrates the strategy needed to ensure a successful breach on your adversary’s stronghold. The longer it takes to breach a door or wall, the more time your adversary has to react to your actions and respond with deadly force.

Intelligence of the target and the nature of the tactical situation determine the best breaching option. However, teams should not limit themselves to just one technique. That’s a dangerous proposition and a disservice to your team. If your team doesn’t have all of these capabilities, then find a local team who does that is willing to provide mutual aid in the event their service is needed. Keep in mind, training with that agency is very important.

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