Rock 'n' Roll Never Forgets.
I was a teenager of the '60s. With that, it's a given that rock 'n' roll music was, and still is, a big part of my life. From The Beatles to "American Pie" to The Eagles and beyond, I dig rock 'n' roll music. But I was a Marine during the late '60s as well, and that period included another application of the words "rock 'n' roll": I was trained to use an M-16 on full auto. After that, in the '70s, I signed on as a police officer and, in some ways I remain a cop of that decade. Those were my formative years and a lot of the lessons from that era have stayed with me. However, that does not mean that I haven't adapted to the changes of the ensuing years. One of them is in the use of select fire, full auto weapons.
Runnin' & Gunnin'?
To many folks, including police administrators and young new SWAT dogs, the term fully automatic is sometimes erroneously interpreted as emptying the gun and its magazines indiscriminately. Like many ideas in our consciousness, this is often shaped by movies and other media. One Hollywood film depicted the hero running through a battleship's passageways with a submachine gun in each hand blazing away. Accuracy and professional use were non-existent. Had it been for real, the ricochets alone would have probably killed him. (Then again, that might have been a service to the movie-going public.) It was all pure pulp fiction, but such scenes can trigger a real world misunderstanding of how to use these weapons properly.
Spray & Pray?
Each tactical commander or chief should choose whether or not full auto weapons are the right choice for their officers. It should be an educated decision. A common mistake is to equate the full auto selection as a "spray and pray" option. In truth, the more appropriate terminology for managers and SWAT cops should be "surgical shooting." Simply put, the logic behind full auto is to put more accurate bursts of fire on a target faster than semi-auto allows in order to stop the threat.
Under most tactical circumstances, that is what the modern use of full auto in a law enforcement application is all about. To that end, both the philosophy behind and the mechanics of using this lethal force option should be clear. I am in favor of officers armed with such weapons making the decision on which selector setting (semi- or full auto) they will use. But this should come only after they have learned how to use the weapon properly and absorbed some important guidelines. If they don't agree with the professional application of fully automatic and receive the necessary training to be really competent, then there is no need for them to even have that option.
The ability to move the selector from "safe" to "semi" to "full" and back should be a developed skill set. Failure to master this predicts problems: Erroneously stopping at "semi" but assuming the selector has advanced farther may lead to the mistaken belief that the gun has malfunctioned when only one round was fired. Conversely, progressing to full auto when the intent was to stop at semi could lead to unwanted rounds downrange. To fix this, officers should dry fire practice, moving the selector back and forth.
One of the very real issues with full auto is the question of ammo management. For a SWAT cop loaded down with 10 or more 30-round magazines, it may not be as pressing as it is for patrol officers issued only two mags for their M-16. My opinion is that a patrol rifle officer should be equipped with at least three or four magazines. This is driven by both the reality of past events—the North Hollywood robbery shoot out in February 1997—and the realization that similar challenges will happen again.
By definition, full auto provides the ability to burn through a lot of ammo quite quickly. To deal with this proactively, a training program should teach officers to knowingly use the surgical shooting approach, even if semi-auto is the gun's only setting. The old adage "We own every round we fire or it will own us," holds even truer in this context.
Running on Empty
There are two initial live fire drills that can be used when teaching this force option. With the first exercise, the officers are allowed to run the gun dry for just one time. However, this is not a Yippee-ki-yay moment. (Stumped by that one? Try searching "Bruce Willis in Die Hard.") Instead, the first learning objective is to demonstrate how quickly the gun can be emptied. In essence, this disarms the shooters if they don't instead control their fire. Incorporated into this is the message that "Ammo management is your responsibility."
One student at a time, the instructor brings them close to the impact zone. Before loading, the student's positioning can be spot-checked with a simple process. First, the weapon is confirmed as unloaded. Then the instructor simulates recoil by using the palm of the hand to tap on the front sight assembly; not the muzzle. If the student rocks back with this slight impact, he is already in trouble. An aggressive stance with the shoulders in front of the hips is required to pass this test. After the dry fire check, the shooter loads and makes ready for fully automatic fire.
Mounting the weapon firmly into the shoulder and picking a target area, the student is cleared to fire with the provison that if the muzzle starts to climb, the trigger is to be released. That "muzzle starts to climb" warning is important both from a safety standpoint and for technique. Muzzle climb translates into the body rocking back on the heels, reflecting a poor stance. (By the way, shooting from the hip a la Tony "Say Hello to My Little Friend" Montana is not a proper stance.) As a safety precaution, the instructor should be no farther away than arm's reach. If the barrel does start to move upward, the possibility of rounds missing the intended target and hitting something or someone else increases. When this happens, the gun is, in essence, controlling the shooter rather than the student controlling the gun. The latter is a full auto must.
The other purpose for this range drill is to create that "ah ha" moment. It focuses on being able to accurately control the weapon at an appropriate distance. Full auto recoil will push an officer back unless there is a consistent opposing force exerted as long as there's ammo available and the trigger is held to the rear. It is not as easy as it looks in the movies. For law enforcement, it is usually a short range application of lethal force to get accurate shot placement.
For What It's Worth
The second range drill closes in on the more tactically sound surgical or burst approach to full auto. The initial goal is to train the brain and trigger finger to fire three or four rounds or even less than that, as circumstances require. Begin by having the shooters try to fire a three-round burst. Target analysis is part of this process. If they produce tight three-round groups, then they are obviously applying the fundamentals–including full auto trigger control–properly.
However, if the target shows a progression of rounds in a more or less vertical fashion, the student is allowing the muzzle to climb and/or relaxing the stock from the shoulder too soon. Renewed focus on proper stance can correct this. This drill typically starts at a relatively close range. Then it moves back until reaching a distance where the shooters realize they can no longer get accurate hits with full auto.
An added component is "mechanical offset" awareness. This refers to the distance between the front sight and the center line of the bore. At close range, it's important because in order to get accurate hits, a point of aim somewhere above the intended point of impact is necessary. While the aiming point will vary with different weapons systems and their zeroing distances, as students progress through the burst drills, they will be on target if this concept is kept in mind. Otherwise, rounds fired at close distance will pattern lower than desired.
Three Shall Be the Number
Once a three-round burst can be consistently delivered, the next step is to develop the ability to consciously fire a variety of rounds working for that full auto brain/trigger finger coordination. For example, alternating between four rounds, one round, three and two fired compels the shooters to really apply proper technique.
The firearms instructor should also communicate the truth that such training may not approximate a real, full auto lethal force encounter. A dynamic tactical response requiring shooting and moving rather than a stationary position makes it even more difficult to hold the weapon on target. In order to use it correctly and accurately, constant training is a must. Officers have to accept this concept rather than engage in a self-deception that they will be able to control a select fire weapon without practicing.
During a mission to save a young child from her armed, drugged out father, SWAT officers were forced into a running gun fight. This ended when he was cornered while holding his daughter as a shield in front of him. Officers responded with full auto fire. This killed the suspect but one round also hit the 18-month-old girl in the head, taking her life. Make no mistake—the officers involved were extremely courageous and committed to saving that child. However, in the aftermath of this tragedy, public criticism and the media zeroed in on the use of full auto. The message is that officers have to be extremely confident and highly trained for this lethal force option. But to balance this out, during something as critical as a hostage rescue with innocents in dangerously close proximity, it may be wise to stay with the one shot per trigger press of semi-auto.
Let's close by agreeing that a full auto weapon like an M-4 or my all-time favorite, the H&K MP-5, carries with it some significant responsibilities. A critical component is mature awareness, recognizing when full auto would or would not be tactically sound as well as being within one's marksmanship capabilities. Officers will be professionally—and personally—accountable for how that weapon is used. Within this context, a surgical shooting philosophy is the right choice.