Since the birth of law enforcement in the United States, the judicious use of force – including deadly force, if absolutely necessary – has been accepted by the vast majority of Americans as one of the duties of a peace officer. Today, police officers in every state and almost all large cities in the nation carry handguns as one of several “tools” they might have to use to apply force.
Handguns are portable. Also, and despite the fact that they are generally accepted as a necessary tool of the trade, they can be concealed if and when necessary. They usually are effective – if used properly. Their most important quality, though, is that they satisfy the first rule every law-enforcement officer quickly learns about a gunfight: Have your own gun with you, and ready for use.
There is one frequently ignored problem about handguns, though – they often are carried because they are so convenient, rather than because they are necessarily the most effective weapon for any and all situations the law-enforcement officer might face. Because they are not.
Many law-enforcement agencies have relied on the shotgun as a backup or supplement to the handgun. A handgun can be a devastating weapon when used within the boundaries of its effectiveness, but it has certain limitations. It is often used at ranges it was not designed for, for example, and it requires ammunition not always suited to the patrol environment. Shotguns also are difficult for many officers to control, partly because of the shotgun’s powerful recoil, but more often because they have not been given the training needed to use shotguns effectively.
Moreover, when using multiple-projectile rounds, shotguns significantly increase the possibility of serious injury, or death, and/or other damage that might be caused by a stray bullet.
It is for these reasons that a number of the nation’s more progressive police agencies have been shifting in recent years to the use of rifles for general patrol use. The use of rifles rather than shotguns usually represents a major step forward for these agencies – but only when senior decision making officials have made a firm commitment to provide the resources needed to fund a successful rifle program – and no program can be fully successful without the frequent and effective training of all persons involved in the program.
Commitment: The First Prerequisite The lessons learned by agencies that have developed effective rifle programs are worth studying by other agencies considering similar programs of their own. The principal lesson learned, as stated earlier, is that the first prerequisite is to have a firm commitment, from the top, of the administration having jurisdiction over the agency. That commitment must include the development of operational objectives governing deployment policies and procedures. These should be in place prior to the start of a rifle program, as should be the funding needed for both initial training and continued training, on a regularly scheduled basis, of the patrol staff. The requirements for rifle training and qualification must be equivalent to the agency’s handgun training and qualification requirements.
It is worth repeating, and emphasizing: If the commitment to training is not established, the program is almost sure to fail.
It is axiomatic in law-enforcement agencies that when a new weapon is introduced the maximum benefit to the agency must be realized. Many agencies, unfortunately, have followed what might only be described as “halfway” measures in establishing their rifle programs – deploying a weapon that looks like a rifle, to cite the most common example, but that fires handgun-caliber ammunition.
This mix usually provides an increase in accuracy, but loses the true advantages of using a center-fire rifle. The muzzle energy of a 9mm round fired out of a 16-inch-barrel carbine can be 300-400 pounds of energy, depending on the specific type of ammunition used. The same 16-inch-barrel carbine, chambered for a .223-caliber round, delivers 1,200-1,400 foot-pounds of energy. Because of the differences in bullet configurations, the .223 caliber, even though 3-4 times more powerful, has a much less chance of over-penetration than any of the law-enforcement handgun rounds now being marketed.
There are several pistol-caliber rifles currently being offered to law-enforcement agencies. The manufacturers of these weapons tout such advantages as ammunition compatibility (handguns can use the same ammunition, in other words) and allegedly lower costs. In addition, the smaller-caliber ammunition is less offensive in appearance. But the most important advantage provided by a center-fire rifle, from a law-enforcement point of view, is the accurate delivery of power it provides, without over-penetration, to stop an aggressive act at distances up to more than 100 yards.
Perhaps the biggest problem with several of the pistol-caliber rifles now being marketed to law-enforcement agencies is that they were not designed for the frequently rugged conditions encountered in patrol use. Although somewhat less aggressive in appearance, they were designed for sporting use, and would not necessarily stand up to the firing of the thousands of rounds needed for the training and deployment of a patrol rifle.
The Combat-Tested Option There is, fortunately, another option available: rifles of military origin (and their semi-automatic counterparts), which before acceptance by the military had to withstand the rigorous endurance standards required for use on the battlefield. Heat, cold, dirt, and water have little effect on the performance of weapon systems such as the Colt M-16/AR-15 (the AR-15 is the semi-automatic clone of the fully automatic M-16) and other weapons manufactured for the military forces of the United States and/or its allies.
There are several ways by which a law-enforcement agency can acquire the type of rifle it needs for patrol use. The most common way is through the normal budgetary process. The second most common way, for a number of agencies, has been to acquire weapons through the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service (DRMS), the federal agency with jurisdiction over the distribution of original U.S. government surplus property. Under a DRMS program formerly known as “North Star” but now known simply as the 1033 program, the agency can supply government-issue M-16 A-1 rifles to municipalities at no cost.
The DRMS rifles are always in serviceable condition, and in some cases are new. The 1033 program allows law-enforcement departments and agencies, regardless of their size or budget, to obtain equipment that they otherwise might have to go without.
The way the program works is as follows: The governor of each state appoints a coordinator for the 1033 program. The agency seeking to acquire surplus equipment must contact the coordinator, who would name a screening officer to work with the agency and help it obtain whatever surplus equipment it needs, and that is available anywhere in the country.
The 1033 program is not limited to the acquisition of weapons. Thousands of agencies have obtained vehicles, for example, ranging from pickup trucks to armored personnel carriers, to helicopters and boats (for search-and-rescue operations). Surplus clothing also is available, and a variety of other equipment useful in patrol and tactical operations.
Shipping and Modifications Extra One problem encountered by some agencies is that, although the surplus equipment is available, free of charge, the shipping or transportation of such equipment is the responsibility of the acquiring agency. That is not a major problem with a few cases of rifles. The shipping of a helicopter, though, would be much more difficult.
The M-16 A1 rifles provided to law-enforcement agencies come in their original military configuration – i.e., fully automatic, with a 20-inch barrel and a full butt stock. The program allows the acquiring agency to modify the weapons, at its own cost, in any way it desires, so long as it is done safely. Among the most common M-16 modifications have been the reconfiguration of the rifle to a semi-automatic weapon, replacing the longer barrel with a shorter and more maneuverable 16-inch barrel, and – for easier transport and storage – replacing the original butt stock with a collapsible butt stock. These and other modifications usually can be carried out by an agency-trained armorer, or by having the weapons retrofitted by the manufacturer.
Once it has received some 1033-program weapons, the department is expected to maintain rigid control over them. To ensure program compliance and accountability, state coordinators carry out periodic on-site inventories every year or two.
The possibility of obtaining reliable patrol-type weapons free of charge should be a powerful incentive for any agency that wants to participate in such a program. But the top-level support needed to fund an appropriate training and deployment program must be in place beforehand. Lacking such support, some departments have acquired weapons nonetheless, but then did very little with them except to keep them stored in the department’s armory, where they collected dust and became a recurring headache because of the periodic inspections required.