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Keep Your Finger Off the Switch

Is ‘Full-Auto’ really necessary for urban police deployment?

April 01, 2001  |  by Peter G. Kokalis


The sheriff's department in the county in which I live is contemplating the acquisition of a Browning M2 HB .50-caliber heavy machine gun. Presumably, I was told, because they can get a "great deal" on one. This carries law enforcement's sometimes-fatal fascination with fully automatic weaponry to a terrifying new level of absurdity. The 750-grain FMJ .50-caliber projectile leaves the Browning machine gun's 45-inch barrel at a velocity of 3,050 fps at a cyclic rate of 550 rounds per minute. Just imagine the mayhem one 100-round belt of this could bring to an urban environment.

Let it be clearly understood at the onset: belt-fed, tripod-mounted machine guns are area target weapons, just like artillery, mortars and automatic grenade launchers. As such they have no legitimate police applications. When a machine gun is fired in bursts, no matter how sturdy the tripod or how many sandbags have been placed on its legs, the bullets do not all follow the same trajectory like some sort of laser beam. They fly in different directions. This is a function of vibrations induced by varying tolerances between the gun and the cradle and between the cradle (or flex mount) and the tripod itself. In addition, each cartridge will have enough of a difference in propellant and projectile weight and configuration, no matter how minuscule, to produce a slightly different trajectory. Furthermore, shifting winds and other non-homogeneous atmospheric conditions will also spread the trajectories in a burst group.

This group of trajectories formed by a single burst is called the cone of fire by machine gunners. When this cone of fire strikes the ground it forms an elliptical pattern referred to as the beaten zone. As the range to the target increases, the elliptical shape of the beaten zone becomes shorter and wider. Bullet dispersion of this type is correctly applied to groups of men, not individuals or so-called point targets.

Lethal weapons deployed by law enforcement agencies are by tactical doctrine and legal liability exclusively point target weapons, even shotguns firing multiple pellet loads. This is as it should be, as every round and/or shotgun pellet a police officer fires must be accounted for.

Tactical Team Sub-Guns

But what about point target weapons with selective-fire capability, such as submachine guns and assault rifles? Certainly they are useful adjuncts to the SWAT team's arsenal, right? Unfortunately, most often the answer is no. Hollywood is in no small way responsible for putting a "machine gun spin" on modern police work. During the 1930s and 1940s, gangsters firing blazing Thompsons out the windows of their careening Ford sedans filled the silver screen. Today, machine guns are still blazing across celluloid frames, but they are now Heckler & Koch MP5s and M16s in the hands (or rather asbestos gloves) of ninja-clad special response teams. Far too many police officers have been mesmerized by these images. The lust for automatic weapons is now almost universal within police departments throughout the country. Small departments fantasize that their stature will increase accordingly if they have a "pro team" and racks full of burp guns and rifles with rock and roll selector levers. Often, not enough attention is paid to the skills and programming required to deploy such weapons successfully.

Proficiency Levels

Several years ago I taught the submachine gun operators courses at Gunsite Training Center. In retrospect, I think I learned more than most of the students about the limitations of a submachine gun in an operational environment. The amount of time and the expenditure of ammunition required to reach the true proficiency required to justify issuing automatic weaponry to police officers is far more than most small departments can afford. Indeed, usually more than administrators of larger departments would be inclined to allocate.

The proficiency levels of most, but not all, of the police officers who attended the Gunsite submachine gun operators class in those days were, at the commencement of the class, appalling. After firing almost three thousand highly disciplined rounds during a five-day period, many of them exhibited significant progress in programming the skills necessary to successfully and safely deploy a submachine gun in a real-time law enforcement scenario.

Professional training with automatic weapons requires all of the skills needed for the handgun, urban rifle and shotgun plus a significant number of programmed manipulations and tactical procedures peculiar to full auto submachine guns and rifles. For example, training in fire-with-movement and/or firing-on-the-move is almost the same whether dealing with a pistol, scattergun or Colt AR-15. However, when the weapon has a selector lever a person must coordinate the firing mode with the limitations imposed by distance, especially if firing on the move.

From contact range to about 15 yards you can employ two-shot bursts (a skill in-and-of-itself) with considerable success. However, when you withdraw beyond that distance, you had better think seriously about rotating the switch to single-shot fire. Beyond 15 yards, the danger of the second round in the burst flying just over the target's right shoulder is relatively high. It becomes higher as you continue to withdraw or if you are advancing, until you approach 15 yards. It was for this reason that Heckler & Koch came out with a two-shot-burst trigger group for the MP5 as an alternative to the original three-shot-burst assembly. The much more powerful 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge fired by the M16 further exaggerates this phenomenon.

Transition from the rifle/submachine gun to the service handgun must also be mastered, as fully automatic mechanisms go down fairly frequently from one cause or another. This is a skill also requiring a great deal of practice and effort.

Are They Really Necessary?

Are you really dedicated to mastering the general skills required for success with rattle guns? Is your department dedicated to the amount of time and effort and ammunition necessary? Getting the guns on the rack is truly the easy part. In truth, the bottom line is that most police officers are better served with a semiautomatic-only Colt AR-15 than any machine gun, especially one firing only a pistol cartridge (but, that's a story for another time.)

Keep your heads down and "watch six."

Peter Kokalis has seen action in several arenas and has deployed machine guns of all types in the "real" world.

Tags: Submachine Guns


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