September 23, 2010
By Mark Hanten
A SWAT veteran looks at the ArmaLite Rifle's vital role in law enforcement.
By Mark Hanten
Once vilified by military and civilians alike, the M16 (and its civilian cousin, the AR-15) has undergone an amazing evolution and enjoys widespread support from both camps today. Despite heavy legislation in recent years against "assault weapons," the popularity of the rifle seems to be at an all-time high.
With the escalation of the arms race on the streets of America, the law enforcement community has responded by better arming itself. From patrol officers and sheriff's deputies carrying carbines and heavy-barrel H-Bar weapons in their patrol cars to tactical teams deploying other variants to fit their needs, the AR-15 is the dominant rifle in law enforcement.
Police SWAT teams generally provide three functions during an emergency call-out. These highly trained units provide containment, sniper/observer capabilities and entry/reactionary functions; the AR-15 is at home in all of these roles.
Containment requires the most versatility, so most weapons outfitted for this function generally reflect this, having shorter barrels, light mounts and possibly a red-dot sighting system of some type.
The sniper teams, on the other hand, often use a semiauto rifle or carbine, allowing the observer to provide protection for the team member actually looking through the scope of the bolt-action sniper rifle. For this, the chosen AR variants tend toward the fullsize H-Bar with or without a low-power optical scope.
The entry/reactionary teams have the obvious requirement of maneuverability for close-quarters combat. The dominant weapon for this work is the 9mm HK MP5, but AR variants are gaining popularity. Variants used for this role have short barrels, light mounts, are often fitted with a red-dot sighting system and are frequently full-auto.
This custom AR is a blend of Bushmaster, DPMS and other aftermarket parts. The 24-inch stainless fluted barrel free-floats inside a vented handguard. The high-rider flattop upper holds a 2.5-10X illuminated IOR Bucuresti scope at just the right height for the laminated thumbhole stock.
Optimally, an entry team has both .223 and 9mm weapons to best take advantage of the benefits of each. The issue of overpenetration is a significant worry to law enforcement, and generally it is undesirable to have rounds going through walls within a house. On the other hand, being trapped in a room when a suspect starts shooting at you through a wall requires a response in kind, and you definitely want a round that will go through the wall and retain enough energy to do its job.
It is a surprise to many people that the round that works best for going through walls is the 9mm. With relatively higher velocities, the .223 bullets generally break up upon impact, even when hitting a thin sheet of drywall. The resulting small fragments quickly lose their energy. Bullet selection plays a part in this, but even the toughest FMJ bullet tends to virtually disintegrate when it hits wood or drywall at 3,200 fps.
Colt And Clones
One reason there are so many choices within the AR-15 system is the number of quality manufacturers who have focused on it. ArmaLite, Bushmaster, Colt, DPMS, Olympic Arms and Knight's Mfg. Co. are some of the primary names in AR-15 weapons and parts. More recently, prominent custom gunmakers like Les Baer and Wilson Combat have begun making AR-15s. Each has contributed its own ideas toward the improved versatility of these guns.
One of the biggest advances was the advent of the flat-top design, which allows for the carry handle to be removed, leaving a Picatinny rail for secure mounting of optical sights This spurred an increase in the type, quality and variations in the sighting systems available. Other variations such as free-floating handguards, gas blocks without front sights and high-rise and left-handed upper receivers are just a few of the options that make this weapon so adaptable for many tactical teams across the country.
Both ArmaLite and Knight's have focused a great deal of attention on .308 caliber variations of the AR but at a corresponding jump in cost. At $1,500 to $3,000, these may well be the highest-priced variants in the AR family. Each of the manufacturers listed offers .223-caliber variations ranging from long, heavy-barreled "varminters" to short-barreled, collapsible-stocked M4-style guns.
Leupold's Mark 4 CQ/T 1-3x14mm has an illuminated reticle that is powered by a single AA battery. The power range makes the scope practical for both close-quarters combat and medium-range engagement.
Ammo For The SWAT Rifle
Despite the recent revolution of ultra magnums and short magnums in the hunting world, the cartridge scene in the tactical world has remained largely unchanged. Due primarily to the military use of the .308 Winchester and .223 Remington (or 7.62x51mm and 5.56x45mm, respectively), these calibers reign supreme in tactical use.
There are some notable exceptions, particularly within the military sniper area. This is with good reason. The military sniper's expected range is from long to extreme. The .308 in not a very impressive distance round, and teams that need to really reach out are calling on bigger, better rounds. Notable among these are the .300 Winchester Magnum, .338 Lapua, 7mm Remington Mag. and of course the .50 BMG.
Within the long-range-competition community, the 6.5-284 seems to have a fairly strong following, and some of the ballistic advantages of this round may propel it into use by some snipers. But don't hold your breath, at least in the law enforcement arena. Snipers are very resistant to change, and most have great confidence in the .308.
The role of the .223 in tactical operations for both law enforcement and the military is generally different than that of the .308 and other larger "sniper" rounds. Many police agencies have .223s available to their SWAT entry teams for use in close-quarters combat, as well as perimeter weapons. The .223 has proven itself as an effective defensive round, and the versatility of the weapons systems that support it lends it very well to the specific missions in which SWAT and some Special Forces units are deployed.
For the .308 sniper rifle, the 168-grain boattail hollowpoint match bullet is generally accepted as the standard round. The reason for this is quite simple: Shot placement is the most important aspect of stopping a threat. There is no argument that the BTHP (boattail hollowpoin
t) match bullet has been proven to be extremely accurate, but there are some new, highly accurate bullets available that may provide better terminal ballistics. Several of the ballistic-tip bullets are as accurate as the BTHP, and they offer more consistent terminal results in terms of rapid, yet controlled expansion along with significant penetration.
Law enforcement's dilemma is that it wants a golden bullet that defies physics. It wants an extremely accurate bullet that will smash through glass or any other medium that may separate personnel from their adversary, hit the suspect and immediately incapacitate him, and not overpenetrate, causing a potential threat to innocent bystanders. Until that magic bullet is found, I predict most will stay with BTHP rounds despite sacrificing some terminal performance available in ballistic-tip bullets.
This lineup of .308 ammo represents some of the best options available for tactical situations. Left to right: Black Hills 165-grain Ballistic Tip, Federal 150-grain Ballistic Tip, Winchester 168-grain Ballistic Silvertip, Federal 164-grain GameKing, Winchester 150-grain Fail Safe, Federal 165-grain Tactical, Federal 168-grain BTHP Match, Winchester 168-grain BTHP Match, Black Hills 168-grain BTHP Match (moly) and Black Hills 168-grain Limited Penetration.
There have been some people toying with the idea of switching to other calibers such as the .243, .260 Remington or the 7mm-08 to address these concerns. Lighter, faster bullets expand more rapidly, causing their damage earlier within the target and providing less overpenetration danger. This is not a good thing when you are hunting elk or moose, but there is some logic when facing smaller, thin-skinned adversaries.
Some teams address the wide range of variables they face by training with specialty ammunition to deal with certain circumstances. The need to shoot through glass might warrant the use of a proven controlled-expansion bullet such as the Trophy Bonded used in Federal's Tactical Load. Other situations may heighten the concern of overpenetration and warrant the use of a special frangible or limited-penetration-type bullet. One such round is Black Hills Ammunition's Limited Penetration load. Based on a 168-grain bullet designed by benchrest shooter and varmint-bullet maker Clint Starke, the round is designed to violently expand and fragment into small pieces that quickly lose their energy. I've tested the round in ballistic gelatin, and I was very impressed with how quickly the wound channel begins to expand (within the first inch of initial penetration), how impressive the wound channel is and the lack of deep penetration.
For many shooters, this may sound strange because we generally want deep penetration, but not for this unique application. This is clearly not a round for all occasions. The key is training and knowing where this round shoots in relation to the general-purpose round selected for the particular gun, because without shot placement, the rest doesn't matter.
With most of the .223 ammo screaming along at more than 3,000 fps, the bullets are prone to flying apart when they impact virtually any medium. Even FMJ ammo breaks up dramatically when it hits sheetrock at these velocities. Because of this, one school of thought holds the .223 as the optimum round for tactical entries. At close ranges the velocities are extreme, which causes violent expansion and devastating terminal ballistics for small to medium-size thin-skinned animals. The violent expansion, however, significantly limits penetration, which can be a very good thing when engaging adversaries inside a building that is occupied by innocent bystanders and your teammates.
The use of hollowpoint and ballistic-tip ammo will tend to exacerbate this situation because the bullets are predisposed to rapid expansion by their very design. Lightweight varmint bullets like 40-grain ballistic-tip bullets really don't have a place for tactical use, in my view. They expand too quickly, and they lack the mass to penetrate reliably. The 55-grain ballistic tips such as those Federal uses in one of its Premium loads may be acceptable for all the reasons previously mentioned, but heavier loads like Winchester's 64-grain Power Point or Federal's 69-grain Tactical load offer more penetration and should be considered better general-purpose rounds for tactical situations. My experience with frangible rounds leads me to believe they are of limited benefit in the .223. The extreme expansion and fragmentation doesn't allow for adequate penetration in many tactical situations.
Optics For The Tactical Police Rifle
Most police "sniper" shootings occur within 100 yards. High-magnification scopes limit the field of view at close range and limit light-gathering ability. The lower-range variables provide the flexibility police snipers need. Anything over a 4.5-14X is too restrictive for the wide range of circumstances that might be encountered.
Tube diameter is of no concern to police snipers because they normally don't shoot at the extreme ranges that require the additional adjustment range you get with a larger tube diameter. Contrary to what some may believe, 30mm tubes do not allow more light to travel through the scope. Larger objective lenses do, however, and the 50mm and 56mm objectives are seen on many tactical scopes.
A state-of-the-art sniper setup comprises a Leupold Vari-X III 3.5-10x40mm scope with illuminated reticle in Leupold Mark IV mounts on a Remington 700 with an H-S Precision PST25 stock and H-S Precision fluted stainless barrel.
The additional light gathered by larger objectives is of little help if the lens and mirror coatings are not of the best quality. In many cases it is hard to determine much difference. One problem that excessively large objectives can cause is that they increase the height of your cheek weld on the stock and can cause accuracy problems. Generally, the 40mm, 44mm and 50mm objectives provide excellent results in quality scopes.
The difference in expected target distance for law enforcement also alleviates the need for complicated range-finding reticles. In most police situations, a regular duplex reticle is perfectly adequate. Mildots are generally not too complicated or distracting, and they still afford the opportunity to calculate bullet drop and wind drift if you do find yourself in the wide-open spaces. For military snipers, though, bullet-drop-compensating reticles can be very effective. My experience with a Springfield Government Model scope has shown me that a .308 can be used effectively on prairie dogs at significant distances.
Tactical sighting systems are avail
able to accommodate a wide range of applications. Clockwise from top: Leupold Mark 4 CQ/T, IOR Bucuresti M2 Tactical, C-More Tactical Sight and Trijicon Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight.
One of the really great new advances is the advent of the illuminated reticle. Frequently, SWAT and military actions occur in low light situations. The ability to quickly gain target acquisition in low-light situations can be critical. Nikon's new Tactical 2.5-10x44 is available with a dual illuminated mildot reticle, which has five intensity levels of both green and red illumination.
Leupold offers two of its tactical models with illuminated reticles, and I predict that that number will increase soon. IOR-Bucuresti of Romania offers several illuminated models including a 2.5-10x42 model and a 4.5-14x50 model.
Included within the umbrella of tactical scopes is a wide range of electronic red-dot and heads-up-display units designed for quick target acquisition. These sighting systems are generally designed for semiautomatic or fully automatic assault weapons or submachine guns. Initially plagued by problems with mounting systems, accuracy, reliability, battery life and ability to see the dot (wash-out), these types of sighting systems were previously relegated to the competition shooters and gadget collectors whose lives were not on the line. Many changes have elevated these scopes to a new level of performance. Now they are considered battle-proven and required equipment in certain tactical circles.
Since the Swedish Aimpoint was introduced in the United States in 1975 there has been a steady growth in popularity of these unique and effective sighting systems. Aimpoint continues to improve on its designs and has won several military contracts for scopes used by soldiers all over the world. The current tactical models are the CompML2 and the CompM2. They are identical except the CompM2 has different brightness settings to accommodate night-vision equipment. These compact, rugged, waterproof units run off one 3-volt lithium battery. They utilize a four MOA red-dot aiming point.
Leupold has been a leader in the optics market for decades but until recently shied away from tactical red-dot sighting systems. This seeming reluctance now appears to have been planning and preparation. Earlier this year, the Mark 4 Close Quarters/Tactical scope was introduced. This scope offers the flexibility needed by both the military and law enforcement for their respective tactical missions. The Mark 4 CQ/T uses a Circle Dot reticle, which is functional with or without illumination. In daylight, the reticle appears black like a conventional nonilluminated scope. When illuminated, the amber color of the reticle is easy to acquire yet not overpowering. There are 10 illumination settings, including two for night vision, that allow for a full range of lighting conditions.
Power is provided by a single AA battery. Another well-thought-out feature of the Mark 4 CQ/T is the variable power range. With a twist of the eyepiece you can change from a 1X setting to a 3X setting. In conjunction with the power adjustment, the dot size automatically changes from 9 MOA at 1X to 3 MOA at 3X. This incredible piece of ingenuity allows for true close-quarters "both eyes open" work, with no magnification and a very easy-to-acquire aiming point, as well as highly accurate midrange shooting with enhanced visibility and a fine aiming point.
C-More, Trijicon Reflex, EOTech, Bushnell HOLOsight, Tasco Optima 2000 and a few others make up this group of innovative tactical sighting systems. These sights project a laser (class II) onto a transparent display window. The laser "draws" an aiming point--either a dot or another pattern such as a circle dot--on the window, which is used as the aiming point much like more conventional red-dot type scopes.
Heads-up display-type scopes lend themselves very well to CQB shooting. With no tube to look into, it makes it easy to shoot with both eyes open and maintain the peripheral vision that is essential for dynamic-movement shooting. Since there is no magnification offered in these types of scopes, it makes it possible, depending on the types of mounts, to use iron sights as a backup in the event of a battery failure or other mechanical breakdown. Most of these types of scopes are available with different sizes of dots or different reticles, but frequently this is not a quick change. It generally requires tools and a little time to accomplish.
One of the big issues concerning all types of electronic sighting systems is battery consumption. With some types of electronic sights you are really out of luck if your batteries run down and you don't have a mounting system that allows for the use of iron sights. Trijicon's newest tactical sight, the TX30 TriPower Reflex, has addressed this problem by integrating fiber optic technology, tritium illumination and on-call battery backup. The TX30 is due for release later this year.
There are other optical scopes that we refer to as "tactical" due to their size and other features. The emphas
is for these scopes is general combat situations with ranges varying from intermediate to long distance. Trijicon's ACOG (Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight) 4x32 defines this niche well. This compact and rugged scope is a remarkable blend of functionality and precision. A simple bullet-drop-compensating reticle is precise enough for long-range shooting yet easy to acquire for intermediate-range encounters. Although not electronic, the ACOG employs tritium to illuminate the reticle for shooting during darkness.
Sgt. Mark Hanten has nine years with the San Diego Police Department SWAT team including each of the team's elements: Primary Response Team, Sniper Team and Special Response Team (full-time element). Sgt. Hanten's primary responsibilities have included tactical operations, testing and evaluating equipment, firearms instruction and tactical instruction.