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Features

5 Gunfights That Changed Law Enforcement

In the past 25 years, American law enforcement tactics, procedures, and policies have evolved because of these horrific incidents.

May 04, 2011  |  by


Crime scene photo of the infamous FBI Miami shootout, showing suspect and agents' vehicles and battle debris. Photo: Miami-Dade PD.

Twenty-five years ago, eight FBI agents pursuing two armed robbery suspects attempted a felony stop that resulted in a hail of gunfire, four deaths, and a reexamination of law enforcement weaponry, duty ammunition, body armor, and vehicle-stop tactics.

The gear and training employed by officers is much different today, partly as a result of the FBI Miami shootout. There have been other game-changing gunfights in the last quarter century. The following article examines each of them and how they changed your tactics, procedures, and policies.

We've ranked each one in order of importance (from fifth to first) and settled on an even five just to simplify matters. There are others, and there's no doubt a few readers will mention the Newhall incident in which four California Highway Patrol officers lost their lives in a fierce gun battle on April 6, 1970. But we wanted to stay within the past 25 years. (We encourage you to send us feedback about our choices.)

We spoke to police trainers, firearms experts, and tactical instructors to help us spell out the lasting impacts of these events on patrol officers. As noted by Massad Ayoob, director of the Massad Ayoob Group, in addition to horrific circumstances, these incidents contain plenty of bravery by law enforcement officers.

"One thing you take from all of these is the tremendous courage of cops fighting against the odds, for their brothers and for the public they serve," Ayoob says. "It's inspiring."

Carl Drega Rampage

Aug. 19, 1997: Bloomfield, Vt.

Recluse Carl Drega took his one-man war with society across state lines on Aug. 19, 1997, launching a rampage that started with the murder of two New Hampshire troopers attempting to ticket him in the parking lot of a LaPerle's IGA market in Colebrook.

Drega, who armed himself with an AR-15 and ballistic vest, stole the trooper's cruiser and drove to Columbia, where he killed a judge and newspaper editor. He then crossed into Vermont, running a game warden off the road and firing on responding officers who located the stolen cruiser.

Two New Hampshire troopers and a U.S. Border Patrol agent with an M14 .308 rifle providing mutual aid eventually stopped Drega by shooting and killing him. The gunman had also been struck in the vest with a rifled shotgun slug.

Following the incident, rural agencies began equipping their officers with patrol rifles, says Ayoob, who is also a reserve officer in New Hampshire.

"Drega sold more police patrol rifles than the entire firearms industry sales force," says Ayoob. "It reminded the public that smalltown, rural departments were just as likely to face this sort of thing as the municipal departments."


New Hampshire State Trooper Charles West helped end Carl Drega's homicidal rampage.

FBI Miami Shootout

April 11, 1986: Pinecrest, Fla.

A close-quarters gun battle involving eight FBI agents and two heavily armed suspects during a felony stop in southern Miami, this incident led FBI Firearms Training Unit Director John Hall to conclude that the carnage was primarily "an ammo failure."

The FBI's after-action report solidified Hall's belief, because it showed that Michael Platt and William Matix—an Army Ranger and Army MP of the 101st Airborne, respectively—sustained fatal wounds yet continued to bring the fight to the agents. The agents had fired .38 Special and 9mm rounds from revolvers and semi-auto pistols, which lacked adequate stopping power, FBI officials said afterward. Only Special Agent Edmundo Mireles deployed a long gun—his Remington 870 pump-action shotgun.

One bullet, in particular, was singled out as the "shot that failed." Fired by Special Agent Jerry Dove, this 9mm bullet struck Platt's right forearm, entered his right ribcage, and stopped an inch from his heart. Platt survived to fight for four more minutes, eventually killing agents Dove and Benjamin Grogan.

Matix had also apparently been taken out of the fight early with a .38 Special +P round fired by Special Agent Gordon McNeill from his S&W Model 19 that struck Matix in the face and contused his brain. According to Dr. French Anderson's "Forensic Analysis of the April 11, 1986, FBI Firefight," the wound "must have been devastating." After he lay unconscious for more than a minute, Matix became alert, left his car, and joined Platt in agent Grogan's and agent Dove's vehicle.

Following the tragedy, the FBI phased out revolvers and .38 Special ammunition. Agents were also eventually issued H&K MP5 submachine guns for high-risk encounters.

"The FBI went looking for a pistol round with deeper penetration," says Dave Spaulding, a retired Ohio police lieutenant and pistol instructor. "It's not important that you hit something, it's important that you hit something important."

The FBI's adoption of 10mm Auto to attain greater stopping power popularized the then-obscure round. The FBI later switched to a subsonic load (the "10mm FBI") to better tame the full-powered 10mm that delivered about 38,000 pounds psi, says Ayoob, who's written extensively about the incident.

Later, the FBI switched to the .40-caliber S&W that is now the most prevalent duty ammo in law enforcement. The .40-caliber provides similar ballistics to a 10mm in a shorter casing.


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