Talk to any SWAT team leader, and he will tell you that one of, if not, the most important members of his team is the breacher. After all, on a raid, on a search, on a hostage rescue, nothing happens until that door or obstacle entry point is moved. The whole operation depends on a successful breach.
Gone are the days when team leaders would simply pick the biggest and often the least experienced team member for the very important role of the breacher. Today's breacher has to be part locksmith, part construction worker, part engineer, and have the flexibility and patience to pick and choose the right tool for the job.
It's a given in any armed combat that the best laid plans usually hold up until contact is made with the bad guys. Helmuth Graf von Moltke said that better than I just did, but you get the point.
The failed attempt on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, is a classic example of how bad things can go when a plan hits reality. And the best way to prevent a Waco-type disaster is to have good intel regarding your capabilities and the capabilities of the opposition.
Before a successful breach can be executed you have to identify the weaknesses of your team and compensate for them with training and planning.
Examples of weaknesses include:
- Lack of training
- Failure to corroborate intelligence
- Lack of planning (no breaching plan)
- Unfamiliarity with equipment
- Inadequate equipment
- Unnecessarily complicated plans
- Unfounded optimism (Bad things are not going to happen to us just because we have a great attitude. Don't bet your life on it.)
Know Your Enemy
Now that you know yourself, you have to know some information about the opposition and their location.
Things that you should know before conducting a breach include:
- Are there firearms involved?
- Are there fortifications?
- Are guards posted? Are they armed?
- Are their dogs?
- Is the condition of the building itself a hazard?
- Are there hazardous materials stored inside? For example, the precursor chemicals in a drug lab.
Other special considerations that you may need to plan contingencies for include: cameras (cctv), motion sensors, monitors, warning systems, booby traps, scanners, mirrored windows, suspect sympathizers or family living nearby or next door.
The methods of gathering intelligence on the structure that needs to be breached vary but could include some or all of the following: CI testimony; drive-by, walk-by, run-by, bike-by surveillance; static surveillance, utility disguise surveillance, aerial photography, and blueprints. Remember, there is no such thing as too much intelligence.
Know Your Target
A lot of the intel gathering that we've discussed so far is an agency or team effort. But the breacher needs to do some special analysis.
The breacher has to select an entry point that gives his team a maximum tactical advantage. For example, the front door may not necessarily be the best point of entry. Whatever the primary point of entry is going to be, make sure that your team can get through it.
It is also critical that you have a backup plan. In other words, select a secondary entry point and study it, too.
You need to know what types of locks are on the structure, which way the door swings, what side the hinges are on, and what the doors and windows are made out of.
In addition, you also need to do some close-up inspection before you hit the door. Look for aftermarket security additions like sliding bolts, chains, door bars, knob braces, or external bars.
Tactical Deployment Options
Types of entries can be broken down into three classifications:
- Dynamic: Dominating the structure and occupants with controlled aggression.
- Covert or Slow Methodical: No reason to rush in, keeping noise down to a minimum, hopefully the suspect has no idea you're there.
- Administrative: This category covers alarm searches, welfare checks, exigent circumstances.
Tactics vary depending on what type of entry you need to make. Regardless, stacking positions have to be considered. You have to determine where the breacher will be in the stack. You also have to determine whether you need a ballistic shield to cover your approach.
Methods and Techniques
There are only so many ways to go through a locked or barricaded door. You can pick the lock; you can knock it down with rams or Hallagan tools; you can blow a hole in it or blow off the hinges with explosive charges; or you can yank the door off with some hook attached to a vehicle. Which method you use will be determined by the construction of the door or window and your agency's policies.
A large majority of American homes built since the 1980s have six-panel doors. Such doors are very popular with builders, as are doors with stained and/or lead glass. The standard American house door is usually 13⁄4 inches or 13⁄8 inches thick.
A wide variety of doors are found on commercial buildings. For example, composite doors are normally used in harsh environments such as chemical storage rooms and wet rooms, and in saltwater environments.
Metal doors also come in several different forms. Proper gauge (metal thickness) is generally determined by the application of the environment. Interior hollow metal door thickness is usually 18 gauge and exterior hollow metal doors are a minimum of 16 gauge. Hollow metal doors like the average weatherized metal exterior door at a home will usually be of lighter gauge, less than 16.
Remember, regardless of how a door looks at first glance, it can be reinforced and strengthened. Common methods for hardening a door include edge and seam wielding and lock reinforcements, for example.
Knocking Off the Hinges
Generally, the weakest point of any door is the hinges. So it's a lot easier to knock off the hinges than go through the door or smash the lock. It takes about 1,100 foot-pounds of energy to defeat a standard dead bolt, 800 foot-pounds to smash the door lock, but only 400 foot-pounds to defeat a hinge.
Doors up to 60 inches high with a standard width of 37 inches usually have two hinges. Doors that are more than 60 inches but under 90 inches that have a standard width have three hinges. Doors of more than 90 inches but less than 120 inches with a standard width have four hinges. Extra-heavy doors or doors wider than 37 inches may have additional hinges.
On a door with a maximum width of 36 inches weighing between 75 and 175 pounds, the hinge will be 4.5 inches long. Doors weighing more can have hinges from 5 to 6 inches in length.
Two things should never be sacrificed in police work: safety and training.
Safety should be maintained for the operators. They need the proper equipment and protection to do the job. This includes steel-toed boots, vision protection, helmets, protective clothing, gloves, tactical armor, and other protective gear.
During a breaching operation, civilian safety is also a concern. For example, to enhance civilian safety, you can warn the occupants of a building to stay away from a door when you are using a shotgun to breach a lock.
Whatever you do, don't jeopardize yourself or your team. Watch out for that fatal funnel. And always have the right tools for the job.
Why Are You Telling Me This? I'm Not a Breacher
Let's say your team is executing a search warrant where the suspect(s) is considered armed and dangerous and your breacher steps into that fatal funnel and starts to do his thing. But it's a tough entry. So after five or six good swings, the breacher calls for a "tap out." Guess whose turn it is to take up the ram?
OK what if you're not on a tactical team? Believe me, you don't have to be SWAT to do a breach. Remember, a breach can in fact be effected by a first responder under emergency circumstances.
Mechanical Breaching Tools
There are three common types of mechanical breaching tools: Manual such as rams, Hallagan tools, sledges, axes; power-assisted tools such as the rabbit tool, jamb spreader, and saws; vehicle-assisted such as "J" hooks, chain, or rope.
Entry rams continue to be the workhorse of many breaching operations and are used primarily on inward opening doors. However, there have been some advances in ram technology that you will want to consider.
The proliferation of methamphetamine labs and other explosive environments has spurred the development of rams made from electrically non-conductive and non-sparking materials such as aramid polymer. You also want a "controlled flex" ram, which reduces impact stress on the breacher.
Your team should have at least two heavy-duty entry rams, so that the primary and secondary breach location can be attacked at the same time. Having only one ram can impact the overall operational success of the mission and in many documented cases it has. A smaller ram for confined spaces is also a good idea.
Sledges are durable tools that can deliver the sufficient energy needed to defeat a barricaded door and are used to support rams. Axes can also be used to cut through thinner doors and double as wedges. They can also be used to gain access through walls.
Prying tools such as the Hallagan Tool are used on outward opening doors, outward opening commercial doors, travel trailers, mobile homes, and security doors.
Bolt cutters are good for padlocks, chains, cables, light security bars, and steel rods. Like any other entry tool they should be available with an electrically non-conductive handle system. Long-handled bolt cutters tend to provide better leverage.
Paul Pawela attended Team One Network's "Tactical Breachers Techniques Course" to conduct research for this article. He wishes to thank John Meyer Jr., president of Team One; Ty Weaver, Mid-Atlantic Regional Manager for BlackHawk Products; and Sgt. William "Bill" Sandman of the West Palm Beach (Fla.) Police Department for their assistance. Pawela has more than 25 years of combined military and law enforcement experience. He has served as both a firearms and a defensive tactics instructor.