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Six Shooters to Plastic Wonders
When the suspect refused to stop, the deputy shot him with his .38 Special, stoked with my loads. The bullet struck the suspect in the side of the face, effectively tearing his jaw off at one of the temporomandibular joints. The suspect survived but that single shot succeeded in stopping the fight. The other deputies started referring to him as “Hollowpoint,” a nickname that stayed with him for many years. After that incident, orders for my special loads increased substantially.
My experience with police firearms from 1966 to 2005
By Jim Waddell
I was in my junior year in high school when an ad appeared in the local paper, encouraging students interested in law enforcement to join the Explorer Program and accompany deputy sheriff’s on patrol. I joined up and after a few years in that program, began a career in law enforcement that lasted the better part of 40 years.
Explorers at the time I joined wore uniforms similar to the deputies but did not carry guns or any other items on a duty belt. We were, however, invited to come to the shooting range during the monthly qualification shoots. I was fascinated as the deputies drew their revolvers at the command of the range officer. Prior to this first day on the range, I had never even seen or heard a pistol being fired in real life. We were told they were shooting .38 Special mid-range wadcutters, a low powered load designed to cut clean holes in paper or cardboard targets.
Considering my fascination with guns was already at a high level, it was only predictable my next purchase would be an S&W Model 15 .38 Special, the gun that was being issued to deputies at the time. It wasn’t that easy. During this time period in 1966-67, as the Vietnam War was gaining momentum, there was a shortage of Smith and Wesson revolvers of just about every type. I was told by one of the local gun shop owners that fathers of servicemen were purchasing them and sending them overseas.
In 1966, most police officers in California carried .38 Special revolvers. Our county issued the Smith and Wesson Model 15, a K (medium) frame, double-action, six-shot revolver. My county issued them with a 4 inch barrel. It came with the then standard small grips and an adjustable rear sight. The ramp-style front sight was designed to not peel pieces of the holster when drawn.
The problem with the standard grips was they left a void between the front of the grip strap and the rear of the trigger guard. When fired, especially in the double action mode, the gun hand would ride up and out of shooting position during recoil. The shooter then had to adjust his grip after each shot. This was anything but ideal in combat or when rapid firing was required on the range.
Many of the deputies remedied this shortcoming by purchasing grip adapters which clamped to the grip frame under the stocks. A more favorable solution was to purchase target stocks. It seems, looking back, that the officers who took an interest in shooting were the ones who purchased these add-on’s to improve their pistol’s shooting characteristics. For other officers, training with their firearms and their monthly qualification was looked upon as unfavorably as going to court on days off. For the most part, members of this group wouldn’t dream of spending their own money to improve county equipment.
Our sheriff’s department and many other law enforcement agencies gave their officers the option of carrying .357 Magnums. If the deputies opted to carry .357’s, they had to purchase them on their own. At the time, the only authorized .357’s were the Smith and Wesson Models 19 (called the Combat Magnum) and the Model 28 (Highway Patrolman) in either 4 or 6 inch barrel lengths. The department also authorized the Colt Python or Colt Trooper, also in both barrel lengths. I believe all those models are now discontinued.
In my county in the mid-60’s, officers had grown complacent toward their safety. It had been decades since the last officer involved shooting, and pistols seemed to be an unnecessary weight on some officer’s belts. Conditions in the country were about to change and the job was about to become more dangerous. I was about to be caught in the middle of it.
Now police academies emphasize officer survival and firearms training as the center pieces of their curriculum. Realistic training with equipment intended to give officers the best chance of coming home at the end of the shift were not part of the world I entered as a rookie officer.
The two most prominent holsters in the early days of my career were the swivel and the clamshell. The clamshell was hinged at the back and opened by depressing a mechanical button, accessible through the trigger guard of the gun. When activated, the holster would spring open, freeing the gun that hopefully was firmly in the shooter’s hand. This holster had some obvious drawbacks. If the opening device didn’t work for some reason, and Murphy’s Law says that will happen eventually, there was no other way of getting your gun out. It also required two hands to re-holster the gun. This was not a good scenario if you were holding onto a prisoner with your free hand.
The clamshell’s manufacturer claimed it was impossible for a suspect to take the gun away from an officer. The manufacturer did NOT take into account that most state prisons are actually crime academies where older, experienced convicts trained the rookies. In the real world, clamshell holsters provided perfect protection from anyone who would not dream of trying to disarm a peace officer. For those with evil intentions, all bets were off.
The swivel holster was more popular. It was constructed in two parts. The upper part slid over the duty belt and was attached to the holster itself by a large brass or chrome plated rivet. The gun was held fast by a safety strap that snapped over the hammer. With the safety strap released the gun could be drawn in the conventional manner. Swivel holsters were somewhat low-slung and resembled fast-draw rigs. Cops liked them because you could adjust the holster to ride parallel with your leg when seated in a vehicle.
They were a very nice holster indeed as long as you didn’t need to access and draw your gun while seated, especially when the seat belt was fastened. Accessing your gun while seated was as tricky as getting your wallet from a hip pocket in the same position. The swivel holster’s other drawback was its lack of security from an adversary during a physical struggle. I shudder to think just how many officers lost their lives by suspects disarming them during fights.
There were only two ammo carriers in wide use. The most common was the double dump box type. These were two leather rectangular boxes that held from 6 to 8 rounds each. They had snap covers that when released dispensed loosed a handful of cartridges for single loading into the cylinder.
The other type of carrier was the 12 loop slide-on that carried ammunition on the gun belt; similar to those in TV westerns. Some officers liked this better, maybe because it made them look more like gunfighters. Loading rounds singly in a revolver, in a combat situation was slow at best. The process, compounded by elevated adrenaline levels, running and poor light, worked about as effectively as Congress.
In the mid-1960’s there was one regularly used defense or service load for the .38 Special. It was the 158 grain round nose lead bullet that had a muzzle velocity between 800 and 900 feet per second. The Remington-Peters load was straight lead where Winchester-Western’s version was basically the same bullet but with a copper coating they trademarked as Lubaloy.
Either round penetrated better than the target wadcutter but had little shocking value. The round nose configuration pushed tissue aside rather than cutting its way through, creating a very small permanent wound channel.
The .357 Magnum loadings of the time were similarly limited, also in the 158 grain weight. Remington’s bullet featured exposed lead in a semi-wadcutter design which was a vast improvement over the round nose. Winchester’s version was a sharper cornered semi-wadcutter design also coated Lubaloy.
Both factory loadings advertised a muzzle velocity of around 1400 feet per second. They were excellent penetrators but did not expand.
While I was still a member of the explorer group, I did find a Smith .38 Special. With Dad’s blessing, I purchased it along with a set of reloading dies. I was probably 19 by this time. I was reading gun magazines and was absorbing the ideas of influential gun writers who favored bigger and heavier bullets of the semi-wadcutter design. Even if they didn’t expand going through tissue, the broad meplat would cut and chop its way through, creating more shock than conventional round nose bullets.
I found a box of .38 caliber Speer 146 grain semi-wadcutters in the inventory of one of the gunshops I frequented. The surface of the bullet that contacted the barrel was jacketed. As an added bonus, it had a hollow point. I asked the man what he thought about those bullets being suitable for police use. He said they would be great and that he didn’t understand why the major ammo makers weren’t using something like them. Sold. I bought a couple boxes and commenced to put them together.
I quickly tested these bullets and found a maximum load right at the limits suggested in a loading manual at the time, using Hercules (now Alliant) 2400 powder. Handgun powders in those days were limited compared to all the choices we have today.
It didn’t take long for me to make up a batch of those loads using Speer’s Jacketed SWC HP and take them to the sheriff’s office to show some of the deputies I had been riding with. Two or three of them (bold, trusting souls) asked me to make them some to carry on duty. At that time, our sheriff’s department had no policy prohibiting the use of reloaded ammunition. Many of the deputies wanted no part of this kid’s concoction. I don’t blame them one bit.
Not long after, on a hot summer night at the county fair, a deputy responded to a group of outlaw bikers who were ganging up on one victim. As the deputy approached and told them to stop, one of the suspects drew a large hunting knife from his waistband and started to advance in a menacing manner. When the suspect refused to stop, the deputy shot him with his .38 Special, stoked with my loads. The bullet struck the suspect in the side of the face, effectively tearing his jaw off at one of the temporomandibular joints. The suspect survived but that single shot succeeded in stopping the fight. The other deputies started referring to him as “Hollowpoint,” a nickname that stayed with him for many years. After that incident, orders for my special loads increased substantially.
A short time later a company named Super Vel came out with a 110 grain, jacketed hollow point. About the same time, Remington introduced a .38 Special with a 125 grain jacketed hollow point. These two ammunition companies revolutionized handgun ammunition. Law enforcement agencies throughout the nation went to the new loading that did wonders for stopping power.
The sheriff later appointed a different sergeant to the position of Rangemaster and Firearms Training Officer. The department started issuing the Remington 125 grain load and my very short career as an ammunition supplier came to an end. This sergeant had a bit more perspective and soon outlawed the practice of carrying any ammunition except the issue loading.
On another hot summer night in August of 1967, I was riding with a deputy when we responded to a reported stabbing in a trailer park in one of the raunchiest areas of the county. We found the stabbing victim being cared for by the trailer park manager. The victim was conscious and coherent. He knew and identified his attacker and told the deputy where he was located. The deputy stationed me out at the entrance to the park to wait for the ambulance to arrive.
I no sooner got there when I heard a series of gunshots. By this time I knew very well what pistol shots sounded like. I ran to a house, called for help and waited there until other officers arrived. The suspect had waited in ambush for the deputy to come to his residence. As the deputy knocked on the trailer door, the suspect came around from the back and started shooting at the deputy with a cheap, off brand .38 Special.
Detectives later determined the first shot from the suspect struck the deputy in his mace (aerosol tear gas) container, effectively blinding the deputy. The suspect fired all 6 shots from his revolver. The deputy returned fire from his Colt Trooper .357 Magnum, firing three shots, one of which struck the suspect in the lower abdomen. The suspect went down but crawled over to the mortally wounded deputy, picked up the officer’s .357 and fired two more into him. The suspect was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to life without parole when the state, in 1972, outlawed the death penalty. The suspect died of cancer in prison in 1991.
He was the first of several local officers killed by gunfire in the next several years. It was also the beginning of a very tumultuous time in the nation’s history with race riots and protests against the Vietnam War becoming the centerpieces of civil unrest. Assaults against the police were increasing at an alarming rate. In our daily briefings, where officers learn of new developments prior to starting their shifts, we were even cautioned not run over paper bags or anything else in roadway. The times had turned dangerous for officers.
Police officers throughout the country were convenient targets for attacks from extremists such as the Black Panthers, SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and several other groups of the counterculture who were not only ticked off about the war but despised anyone over 30 and anything government.
Then in early 1970 what would become known as the Newhall Incident took place north of Los Angeles where 4 California Highway Patrol officers were gunned down and killed during a traffic stop. This was the first of four major shooting events in the United States that took place during my career that forever changed police firearms and training practices.
CHP officers worked two officers to a car during night shifts at that time, and I believe they still do, at least in some of the busier areas. Two CHP Officers stopped a car containing a wanted suspect. As the officers approached, a passenger got out and shot one officer in the chest. The driver then shot the other officer. Both died instantly.
When a second patrol car arrived, the two suspects were waiting in ambush. In the exchange of gunfire, both officers were killed. Later, one of the suspects committed suicide after he was surrounded in a house. He used a shotgun stolen from one of the patrol cars. The second suspect is still serving a life sentence.
In this case, range training was forever changed. At the time, CHP issue shotguns had yellow tape around the forearm of their Remington 870’s. Officers had to write a detailed report if that tape was broken during their shift. It was also reported that at least one of the officers had placed his empty .38 brass in his pocket.
Police psychologists later concluded that under the stress of a gunfight, officers will revert back to their training, including carefully returning spent brass to a pocket. They also determined there was a mental block against using the shotguns because of the taped pump handles. Training at the CHP academy changed accordingly not only in that department but in many others across the country.
In April of 1986, what became known as the Miami Shootout took place in an unincorporated area of Dade County in South Florida. This case pitted FBI agents against two serial bank robbers. The FBI had the two suspects outnumbered numerically, 4 to 1.
The FBI agents were armed with Ithaca Model 37 shotguns. About half the agents had Smith & Wesson Model 459, semi-auto 9mm’s, and the others carried Smith & Wesson .38 or .357 revolvers, loaded with .38 Special +P ammunition.
Working on a hunch, agents met at a Home Depot parking lot to commence a “rolling stake-out,” believing the suspects, neither of whose identities were known to agents, were about to commit another robbery.
Their hunch proved correct. The suspect vehicle was located and two carloads of agents attempted to make the stop. After refusing to stop, the suspect vehicle was forced into a tree. The two suspects were armed with a 12 gauge shotgun and two .357 revolvers. In addition, they had a Ruger Mini-14, a .223 caliber semi-auto rifle.
The shootout involved 10 agents and 2 suspects and was over in less than 5 minutes. A total of 145 shots were fired.
This incident influenced the FBI to seek a more potent handgun. They also acknowledged that trying to load revolvers during the stress of a firefight was a chancy thing at best. Not to mention, six shots go really quickly when in a gunfight.
The FBI’s decision to adopt semi-autos was the catalyst that moved law enforcement agencies in general to convert from their old wheel-guns. The FBI initially settled on a 10mm Smith & Wesson Model 1076. I bought one in the early 90’s and found it to be heavy and cumbersome. Despite its size and weight, its recoil made rapid follow-up shots inaccurate. I’m speaking about my own experience and I’ve been involved in guns my whole life. Officers with less training and experience and those with smaller physiques would find this gun and caliber totally unacceptable.
The FBI came to the same conclusion which led to the development of the .40 S&W. It has a shorter case and substantially reduced muzzle blast and recoil. Surprisingly, the .40’s performance was not all that much less than that of the 10mm. After the FBI settled on the .40 S&W, California Highway Patrol followed suit.
Without researching the numbers, I’ll guess that today over 90% of the police agencies in the United States have switched to semi-autos. The three predominant calibers are the 9mm Luger, the .45 ACP and the .40 S&W.
Another change that emerged from the Dade County Incident was the consideration of rifles for police use. The Mini-14 had proven to be more than an equalizer for the suspects against pistol and shotgun armed officers. This incident moved many law enforcement agencies to take a hard look at the need for issue patrol rifles.
Two other shootouts that could be referred to as modern day versions of the O.K. Corral, happened in southern California. The first is known as the Norco Bank Robbery and the second, the North Hollywood Shootout.
The incidents were similar in that they involved bank robbers who were better armed than responding officers. Both the Riverside and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Departments were involved in the Norco Robbery. The Hollywood case naturally involved the Los Angeles Police Department.
In the Norco shootout, the bad guys were armed with AR-15’s, and two other assault-type rifles along with several handguns and an improvised explosive device. In that running gunfight that went on for 25 miles, two suspects and one deputy were killed. Nine officers were hurt, with 30 patrol cars and 1 helicopter damaged.
In 1997, two suspects armed with AK-47’s – with at least one modified to fire fully automatic – pulled a robbery at a bank in North Hollywood. One of the suspect’s rifles was equipped with a drum magazine. The suspects were well protected with body armor that effectively stopped bullets and shotgun pellet fired from police pistols and shotguns. Officers were forced to commandeer AR-15 rifles from a local gun shop.
When it was all said and done, over 1,100 rounds were fired by the suspects and over 650 rounds fired by police. Both suspects were eventually killed, despite wearing body armor with trauma plates that protected their chest area (the 10 ring in police jargon) from rifle rounds. Miraculously, no officers were killed although I believe 18 or so were wounded.
From Newhall in 1970 to North Hollywood in 1997, four major incidents that involved multiple suspects, in certain cases wearing body armor, armed with superior handguns and high-powered rifles changed law enforcement in America.
Today’s law enforcement officers, especially in larger departments, are armed with semi-automatic pistols with high-capacity magazines (14 or more rounds) in 9mm, .40 or .45 caliber. At the minimum, officers carry 2 extra magazines but many carry double that number, either on their belt or within easy reach in their patrol cars. It’s very common to see AR-15’s or some other type of semi-automatic rifle in patrol cars.
After the turn of this century, I noticed many agencies are getting away from shotguns and replacing them with the rifles. My last position was as a deputy sheriff in a remote mountain county in the Mother Lode area of California, (my retirement job). Although this county was not flush financially, our sheriff believed his deputies should have a fighting chance in shooting situations. We were armed with Glock Model 22, .40 caliber handguns and we were issued six magazines.
Our patrol cars were equipped with double locks for carrying the Remington 870 12 Gauge and next to it, the Colt AR-15 .5.56mm (.223) rifles. Range officers and SWAT members were issued full auto M-16 versions of the same rifle.
Many deputies declined carrying the shotgun which was their choice. Me? I had conducted too many building searches alone in the middle of the night with limited vision. I felt much more secure knowing my shotgun was right there with 6 rounds of 00 buckshot in the tube. My M-16 was right there also. As Billy Rosewood said in the movie Beverly Hills Cop, “you can’t have too much firepower.”
Finally, I have to comment on the discussion of what caliber in the semi-auto is best. Short answer: The largest caliber you can consistently shoot accurately. Many officers unwisely carry a .45 Auto they really can’t control. Those folks are really putting it on the line. It does you no good in a gunfight if you send a volley of 230 grain heavyweights down range that miss the bad guy. He won’t be impressed. What will impress him is a double tap in the 10 ring, followed by one to the head, with any practical pistol round.
Jim Waddell is a retired law enforcement officer and graduate of the FBI National Academy. In his nearly 40 years of service he worked for two sheriff’s departments and was a chief of police. Jim is a firearms instructor and competed in many statewide pistol matches. He lives in central California where he grows almonds.