Should Your Department Issue Patrol Rifles?

May 9, 2008
Law enforcement officers have been issued handguns and shotguns for years. But, do law enforcement officers who are not on the SWAT team need patrol rifles?

In general, law enforcement agencies tend to be reactive as opposed to proactive, and often it takes tragic incidents to force action.

We saw this in the 1960s and 1970s, when events like the Watts Riots and Symbionese Liberation Army shootout led to the creation of special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams, which most agencies now have in some form. More recent tragedies like the North Hollywood shootout in 1997, the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings have helped shift protocol again.

Because of these and other incidents, all officers are trained in active shooter response. Law enforcement first responders now are trained to enter the situation instead of setting up a perimeter to contain the situation, and then call in the SWAT team.

Benefits of a Patrol Rifle

Patrol rifles equip officers with another tool to solve problems they are unable to handle with a handgun or shotgun.

Officers carry handguns because they are convenient. Shotguns have been a traditional police weapon since the inception of law enforcement in this country. Both are valuable tools, but they do not work for every situation.

Accuracy and Range: Shotguns and handguns simply do not have the accuracy and range of a rifle. A properly trained officer can use a rifle at the same distances as a handgun or shotgun, but also can use it from 50 yards to 200 yards if necessary. With a shotgun shooting buckshot, the pattern of the nine .33 caliber projectile spreads as the distance to the target increases. With a rifle, one projectile is hurled toward the target with maximum accuracy and increased effective range. Even indoors, it would not be unusual in a school, factory or office building to have a possible shot down a hallway that is 50 to 100 yards to the intended target.

Increased ammunition capacity: The patrol rifle also gives officers an increased ammunition capacity when compared to a shotgun. The shotgun has a limited magazine capacity and is more difficult to reload quickly. With the rifle, you can use a 30-round magazine, which is easily replaced with additional magazines when all the rounds have been discharged.

Less recoil: The patrol rifle’s recoil is much less than that of a shotgun, which makes it more attractive to officers. Officers may not train enough with a shotgun because of the pain associated with shooting it on a regular basis.

Penetrate body armor of an assailant: As witnessed in the 1997 North Hollywood incident, criminals can obtain body armor. Most soft body armor is not designed to stop rifle ammunition, so a rifle gives the responding officer a better tool to end an incident when body armor is worn by the assailant.

Other advantages: As compared to a shotgun, a patrol rifle is lighter and more ergonomic. In addition, a rifle can be fitted to any person’s stature and can be bought with an adjustable stock.

Implementing a Rifle System

Research: The most common rifle in use in law enforcement is the AR-15 series of rifles, which basically is the same weapon system used by the military. It’s based on the semi-automatic version of the M-16, and it’s user-friendly. You also should consider the caliber of the rifles. The .223 or 5.56 caliber may be the answer for a municipal or urban agency, whereas a larger caliber (.308 or more) may be necessary for a rural agency in need of increased effective range to engage targets at a further distance.

Costs: Costs are always an issue, but patrol rifles can be obtainable. Most of the manufacturers want to supply law enforcement agencies with their weapon systems and will most likely work with you.

Training: Training is available from numerous reputable sources. The Texas Engineering Extension Service, or TEEX, offers operator and instructor programs for rifle use. TEEX trains operators to use rifles, but also trains others to do the training for their agencies. Visit for more information on rifle training.

Implementing a rifle system can be a daunting and expensive task for a law enforcement agency, but it may be the difference in saving officer and civilian lives.

Lee Santo is the TEEX Central Texas Police Academy training manager. Santo has been training recruits and officers for 15 years and has 16 years of experience as a peace officer. Santo is a certified firearms instructor and PPCT Defensive Tactics Instructor Trainer. He has served as a deputy sheriff, municipal police officer and detective, SWAT officer and enforcement agent for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. Prior to working for TEEX, Lee was the director of Public Safety Training for Wharton County Junior College. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.

The Texas Engineering Extension Service, or TEEX, is a member of the Texas A&M University System and offers hands-on, customized first-responder training, homeland security exercises, technical assistance and technology transfer services impacting Texas and beyond. TEEX programs include fire services, homeland security, law enforcement, public works, safety and health, search and rescue and economic development.

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