The Patrol Rifle

The 1920s and ’30s were violent decades, fueled by Prohibition and gang wars. Making the front-page news of the times, tough, well-armed and unyielding lawmen hunted down public enemies, capturing or killing them in shootouts. These murderers had to be stopped, and in the end, they all went down. The FBI played a large part in their demise.

On a family vacation that included a tour of the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., I saw the displays from the gangster shootouts, including Baby Face Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde. FBI agents, along with local law officers, were armed with a variety of firearms, including Thompson submachine guns, Browning automatic rifles, Remington Model 8 rifles, Winchester ’07 SLR .351 rifles, Colt 1911 A1 pistols in both .45 ACP and .38 Super calibers, and short barrel 12-gauge Model 1897 Winchester and Remington Model 11 12-gauge shotguns. The FBI men were at war with the most violent bank robbers and murderers, and they took the best tools they could get to the fight. The deadly action often took place in and around automobiles and included the use of the earliest version of “soft” body armor.

To get stopping hits, these determined federal agents knew they had to get their rounds through whatever barrier stood between them and the bad guys. But the criminals adopted the same thinking and came to the fight similarly armed. All of the firearms I looked at had specific purpose: large magazine capacity and short length—.45 caliber for the Thompsons; a full rifle caliber for the military designed 30-06 BAR light machine gun; the easy-to-handle .25, .30, .35 rifle caliber Remington M-8s. Some chose the Super .38 Colt 1911 over the .45 ACP for increased penetration capability, and the Winchester ’97 pump and Remington Model 11 semi-auto riot guns loaded with buckshot for close-in work. In most cases, this wasn’t handgun work. The power and distance capability of the long guns made all the difference. The lawmen ultimately won, but it was tough, bloody business that cost dearly. It wouldn’t have been possible without the right equipment.

A key lesson for law enforcement during those deadly years: You must be properly trained and armed to be ready to fight the most violent criminal offenders—whether you’re expecting the ecounter or not. Surrender wasn’t part of their thinking or planning. To the arch criminals of that time, it was fight to escape or fight to the death.

Much Forgotten

In the decades that followed, that generation of lawmen and criminals passed along, and much that was known was forgotten. The second world war was fought and won and the memory of the outlaw years faded from the public. The urgency was gone, and with it, police practices “modernized.” Law enforcement put the “big guns” into armories and lockers, and rifles and automatic weapons were seldom seen again on the street of the big cities and towns.

Not all forgot. The Winchester lever guns continued their long service to Western lawmen, some still working horseback in the rough country. And occasionally, when desperate and violent criminals loomed, the Thompsons were issued again.

History Repeats

The 1960s were times of war, assassination and rioting. Violence against police was escalating. The year I started in law enforcement, 1974, remains the deadliest year of record for police officers. LAPD had developed SWAT, and street officers and agents who saw the light were once again looking hard at the training, tactics and gear we carried.

My hands-on introduction to police firearms came in the late 1960s. I had been shooting since I was a kid, and the local police officers took me under their collective wing. The Olympia Fields (Ill.) Police Department, where I would later go to work after college, had several U.S. military surplus .30 caliber M-1 carbines. The officers took me with them on range days that included .38/.357 revolvers, 12-gauge shotguns and the M-1s. Shooting into the old railroad embankment was basic compared to what we do today, but I took away lessons that started me down the path of law enforcement firearms and tactics study.

The books and articles I studied from the early era included Border Patrol Agent Bill Jordan’s No Second Place Winner, and everything written by Col. Jeff Cooper. While the issue of revolver vs. semi-auto handguns was in full debate and taking up lots of ink, little was written on the use of rifles in police work. Our M-1 carbines were a creation of WWII. Millions were produced, and the M-1 was widely used in the in brutal, close jungle fighting of the Pacific. The same attributes of reliability, accuracy, lightweight, higher magazine capacity and short overall length that served the military so well were welcome in police work. The 110 grain bullet in the .30 caliber carbine cartridge that some considered “low powered” got the job done.

I clearly remember the scenes from the civil unrest and rioting in the major cities in the late 1960s. In Chicago, officers with individually owned M-1 carbines were on duty. My longtime friend from Chicago PD was one of them, and he later told me about the intense gunfire directed at him and others from rooftops as buildings burned as firefighters and police were targeted.

When I began at the department, we had a choice of long guns—shotgun or the carbine. The patrol rifle concept as such didn’t exist. We had a chief who was a shooter and wanted us to have the best gear. Although taking a carbine on patrol might have been unusual for the time, for us it was just another tool of the job. I found the carbine to be accurate to 100 yards and beyond, light on recoil for fast follow-up rounds and, with 15-round magazines, extremely reliable. I once had an opportunity to assist with a function-and-accuracy check on 50 carbines going to an agency in the South, and each was as good as the next.

If you have them, use them.

I’ve been asked if the “old” gear is still serviceable. Are the ballistics and utility of the venerable M-1 still relevant to law enforcement operations? The original loading was a .30 caliber 110 grain bullet at 1900 fps. Comparing it to the M1-Garand battle rifle in 30-06 with a 150 grain .30 caliber bullet at 2800 fps clearly shows that it’s a middle-weight fighter. Don’t believe that it lacks capability. I saw the end result of a vehicle-to-vehicle ambush against a moving full-size sedan. A killer with a .30 carbine punched full-metal-jacket (FMJ) rounds through the vehicle, back and side glass and metal with fatal results to those inside. In recent times, the .30 carbine cartridge gained a significant upgrade when Peter Pi at Corbon Ammunition came out with a 100-grain DPX loading using a Barnes X solid copper hollow point bullet. This loading truly enhances the capability of the carbine.

In our tests, the DPX penetrated effectively against hard barriers and expanded in ballistic gel. It defeats soft body armor and auto glass—two important factors on the street. The original FMJ and soft point/hollow point rounds of the past penetrated well, but lacked expansion. The .30 caliber M-1 carbine remains a highly useful and effective police patrol carbine. For small stature officers, it’s the right size, and the recoil is a fraction of a 12-gauge slug gun. So if you have one, make use of it. Upgraded pistol grip type stocks and tactical type slings are available from Choate, Brownells and Savvy Sniper.

In the early ’70s, I found a newer system in the Armalite AR-180. The original AR-18 was designed to compete with the Colt M-16A1 as a full-auto capable battle rifle. It had many features that made it a serious contender: side folding stock, ambi-safety, integral scope mount, right side bolt handle, among other enhancements. The Armalite couldn’t take on Colt as a U.S. military rifle and wasn’t adopted, but the semi-auto version AR-180 became the civilian model.

The AR-180 was marketed for many years by several manufacturers. The first and best were built in Costa Mesa, Calif. I had the good fortune to find one with the original 3X quick detachable scope. It was chambered in .223 caliber, and with minor modification, the AR-15/M-16 magazines could be used. I carried this rifle for many years, and it truly exemplifies what a police patrol rifle could and should include.

More than 30 years later, we see the AR-15 type rifles and carbines being designed or fitted out similarly to the 180, with collapsible stocks, ambi-safeties, rails for scopes and red dot or magnified optics. The accuracy and reliability of the 180 is improved with good ammunition. Other than the magazine difference with the AR-15, which is easily converted, the AR-180 is every bit as good today as other patrol rifle systems. The downside: Parts replacement can be difficult. Some have complained that the side folding stock can be a mite loose, but that wasn’t the case with mine. Cost is high, because the Costa Mesa rifles are viewed as collector items. Other AR-180s built by Howa of Japan or Sterling of Great Britain lack collector-grade value. If you find one at a good price or have one, the AR-180 makes a solid police patrol rifle.

A Look at the Future

A few years later, in the mid ’70s, a friend was selling a new, in-the-box Colt SP-1 CAR-15 carbine. He wanted to trade me for a nickel-finish 4-inch barrel Colt Python I had. In those days, the .357 mag. Colt Python was the police revolver, and with a bright nickel finish, it was in high demand. I made the trade, and the early model AR carbine was mine. Instead of a side folder like the Armalite, it had a two-position collapsible stock. It was either fully closed or fully extended. This wasn’t the best design.

Of course, this was just the beginning and current versions run to six possible locking positions. Incorporating some of the features of Colt’s military version XM-177E2 shorty M-16, it was the carbine version of the civilian legal AR-15 rifle. The 16-inch barrel was new to the scene and, with a collapsed stock, could be carried in a short length case. The CAR-15 proved to be a fine patrol carbine. It has a skinny barrel that reduces weight, a fixed-carry handle with integral sights, and is the basic AR-15/M-16 system.

One downside of the early AR-15/CAR-15s was they lacked a brass deflector. For a lefty, like myself, that meant every piece of ejected hot brass tried to find my face. I often looked like a red-hot octopus had grabbed my right cheek. I soon learned how to “adjust” an ejector spring to retime the angle of the ejected case away from my skin. The SP-1 CAR-15 became the test bed for my AR-15 training and patrol use. There was no denying that this was the future of the police patrol rifle, but it would be many years before it became obvious.

By the 1980s, I convinced our chief to purchase the first AR-15 rifle for the department. It was a heavy-barrel, full-size rifle we incorporated into our SWAT training and response. The M-1 Carbine remained in service for many years, but the AR-15 design and ballistic capability clearly made it the choice.

The ammunition choice for the .223 in those days was either military 55 grain FMJ, or the varmint type loading in 55 grain soft point or hollow point. We found that the hollow point ammo was designed for bolt-action rifles. The bullet wasn’t crimped into the case mouth to hold it tightly in place, and at times on chambering, the tip would hit the feed ramp, and the projectile was pushed back into the case, or stubbed. This created a feed malfunction, and we dropped the use of hollow point ammo.

The soft-point ammo fed better but had reduced penetration against hard surfaces in our tests. We shot water-filled milk jugs and auto windshields to test bullet design for expansion and penetration. A far step from the more scientific testing that Dr. Fackler (Col. US Army), and later the FBI, developed with ballistic gelatin. It was the 55-grain FMJ we used for many years. Significant improvements in bullet design for the .223/5.56 m/m round today offers upgraded performance and has changed my choice, but more on that later.

Why the Slow Change?

I saw something in the early years that held back adoption of the .223 cartridge and AR-15 for law enforcement use. One of the ballistic tests some writers and salesmen of the time would conduct was to shoot concrete blocks. It was very dramatic and proved nothing more than that a high-speed projectile will break a concrete block, especially if shot multiple times. Sadly, many administrators were then told that the .223 bullet could shoot through school buildings, etc. I sat in a chiefs’ meeting where it was said that an M-16 would shoot through three concrete block walls. This type of statement and urban legend dramatically slowed full law enforcement utilization of the .223 round for street work.

It was as factually incorrect then as today, but as I and others pushed for wide-scale adoption of patrol rifles, I heard this myth repeated many times. We knew then that one benefit of the .223/5.56 mm round is that penetration is actually reduced compared with many handgun and shotgun loads. That wouldn’t become current knowledge for another 10-plus years, and even today the discussion of this caliber and its role in police operations is saddled with misinformation.

The early years were great times, filled with opportunities to work on new approaches to vital officer safety issues. As long as firearms are a basic tool of law enforcement, we must constantly review and test both our beliefs and our gear. You can see where I started. I continue to be a student of the “ART” as my mentor and longtime friend John Farnam calls our efforts.

What worked in the days of Prohibition, and in the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, would be equally effective today. If we have this gear and nothing else, we can and should make good use of it.

However, we have more modern designs, and Thompsons and BARs are truly museum pieces. But good gear that matches the threat will always remain good gear in the hands of well-trained and motivated law officers.

Jeff Chudwin is the Law Officer Tactical Ops columnist. He’s also the 2009 Law Officer Trainer of the Year. He retired this past year as chief of police after 38 years of service for the Village of Olympia Fields, Ill. A founding member and current president of the Illinois Tactical Officers Association, Chudwin is a former assistant state’s attorney and has been a firearms, use-of-force and emergency response trainer for more than 25 years.

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