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Real Lawmen: Three Books about Cops, Gunfights and Mindset

When discussing gunfights, most law enforcement trainers agree that mindset is just as important as equipment and skill.

Quality firearms and reality-based scenario training are both excellent tools that help prepare for the possibility of a life-threatening event. Police officers who have gone through training that replicates real life encounters have a distinct advantage when a deadly situation presents itself.

We train and hone our skills by practicing felony stops, firing at reactive range targets, training with force-on-force Simunition®, and even discussing encounters at roll call. All of these actions add to our law enforcement abilities and will help us get through a deadly force confrontation. But mindset is even more important.

Mindset is a police officer’s mental preparation for an armed encounter, and there can never be enough classes offered on this topic. Mentally recreating the gunfights other police officers have experienced can help officers obtain a mindset that will see them through a deadly ordeal. Because most police officers have never been in an actual gunfight, it helps to have at least imagined them in your head.

Reading true, real life accounts can also serve as a teaching experience, not just regarding tactics, but mindset as well. Learning about fellow law enforcement officers who lived through deadly force encounters can provide today’s police officers with the mindset to get through a confrontation that occurs during tomorrow’s duty shift.

I discovered through an Internet message forum that a new biography of a famous lawman was just recently published. I directed my browser to and typed the book’s title into the search box. A feature on the Web site then suggested, “Customers who bought this item also bought….” In an instant I had my summer vacation’s supply of three books to read while traveling.

“Legendary Lawman: the Story of Quick Draw Jelly Bryce”

Ron Owens, the author, is a 30-year veteran of the Oklahoma City Police Department, and his biography of Delf “Jelly” Bryce is an extremely in-depth book documenting the lawman’s life. The amazing amount of studious research conducted by the author is apparent throughout.

Bryce was born in 1906, and it’s noted that while growing up in Oklahoma, he was accidentally shot with a 22-caliber rifle by two other boys while shooting pigeons in a barn. Writer Owens foreshadows the rest of Bryce’s life with the line, “In all the harrowing adventures to follow in the next half century, no other bullet would ever touch him.” This fact is made even more impressive as “Jelly” Bryce was involved in 19 shootings in the line of duty.

Bryce participated in the U.S. Army’s Civilian Military Training Camps after World War I and got his start in law enforcement as a State Game Ranger in 1927. In 1928, Bryce was hired as an Oklahoma City PD officer. The legendary story is recounted of how he demonstrated a blindingly fast draw at a shooting competition that resulted in six double-action revolver shots in an area the size of a silver dollar and was hired on the spot. But the totality of facts is challenged by the author.

Digging into OCPD records, parts of the story are debunked by proof that those present did not hold the ranks which would have allowed them to hire Bryce on the spot. Author Owens concludes that part of the story is probably true, but not all of it. This theme of challenging facts continues throughout the book until only a true account of Bryce’s life is left.

Delf Bryce was always a sharp dresser, and he favored a felt hat with the brim snapped down. In the Roaring Twenties, the term “Jellybean” referred to a dandy or a sharp dresser. The author retells the story in which a bank robber exclaimed that he couldn’t believe he was shot by a “Jellybean” like Bryce. Several other possible versions are told, but the fact remains that the nickname stuck, and Jelly Bryce became a legend.

In 1934, Jelly Bryce was hired by the FBI, despite not having a college degree, and went on to create the FBI’s first firearms training program. Bryce also developed the FBI’s concealed carry holster and taught fast-draw to hundreds of agents. He got closer to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover than most and went on to become a Special Agent in Charge of several FBI offices.

Jelly Bryce’s career is further detailed in this biography, and as numerous stories are recounted of his dealings with high profile gangster arrests, his personality really comes through.

In addition to his skills with firearms (Bryce was timed at two-fifths of one second to draw and fire a revolver accurately), Jelly Bryce had the proper mindset to see him safely through to retirement. He lived a life filled with deadly confrontations during his long and storied law enforcement career.

“Jim Cirillo’s Tales of the Stakeout Squad”

The follow-up to Cirillo’s 1996 book, “Guns, Bullets, and Gunfights,” was supposed to be this highly requested elaboration on the New York City Police Department’s Stakeout Unit. Unfortunately, Cirillo passed away in 2007, but “Tales of the Stakeout Squad” is still very much Cirillo’s story, thanks to author Paul Kirchner’s much appreciated efforts in completing the book.

The first-person writing by Cirillo makes you wish you could sit with him for a few hours and just listen to him tell war stories. Reading this book comes close to it. An engaging and colorful story teller, Cirillo’s own words show he was as politically incorrect as any police officer who started a career in 1954, perhaps more so. Author Kirchner presents Cirillo’s straightforward, tell-it-as-it-was style because today’s police officers can take it. We understand exactly where Cirillo is coming from, and I found the book honest and true.

After years as a street cop, Jim Cirillo became a firearms instructor for the NYCPD until budgetary cutbacks put the instructors back on the street. Cirillo was talked into joining the Stakeout Unit (SOU), which was formed because so many grocery stores, liquor stores and candy stores were being robbed at gunpoint. Clerks were being pistol whipped and shot, and something had to be done.

The SOU’s 40-man unit was involved in 252 shootouts during its almost five-year existence. The confrontations resulted in the deaths of 43 offenders. The actual number of offenders who were shot but survived is not known. Amazingly, not a single police officer, victim or bystander was shot during the SOU’s run. Cirillo was involved in 17 armed confrontations during his career, 11 of them while a member of the SOU.

Cirillo was a student of the gunfight. He and his partners would be the first ones at the morgue to assist the medical examiners because they wanted to see how their bullets had performed. Cirillo became a ballistics expert by default. He witnessed the fact that the .38 Special 158 grain lead round nose duty ammo often failed to perform. Working with Super Vel, he designed his own bullets and developed tactics and shooting methods that worked in real life.

In addition to Cirillo’s own words, fellow members of the SOU, those who worked with him during his second career at U.S. Customs, and those who knew him at his third career as a professional firearms instructor help paint a picture of Cirillo’s prolific life. Most importantly for fellow police officers, Cirillo’s mindset to win armed confrontations is forcefully explained in his own words. This entertaining book makes readers wish they could have known Cirillo in person. I sure wish I could have.

“American Gunfight”

The subtitle to this book is “The Plot to Kill President Truman—and The Shoot-out That Stopped It.” Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge Jr. have provided an engaging account of the attempt to take President Truman’s life in 1950 that has been lost to most of us as just a footnote in history.

The book starts right off with the common conceptions of the failed attempt on Truman’s life. At the end of the quick introduction, the authors explain, “There is only one trouble with assigning these meanings to the 38.5 desperate, violent seconds of Nov. 1, 1950. Every single one of them is wrong.”

Two Puerto Rican Nationalists, one armed with a Luger and the other with a Walther P38, attempted to storm Blair House, where the president was residing during the White House’s reconstruction. The common thought put forth by the newspapers of the day was that the two would-be assassins were incompetent. However, the authors explain through careful research just how prepared and resolved the offenders were.

Stephen Hunter is the author of the best-selling fictional series of novels featuring the character of Bob Lee Swagger. I’ve read all of Hunter’s stories, and I’ve always been highly entertained. Hunter possesses the ability to convey the real life drama of this true tale just as well as he conveys the fictional drama in his novels. The authors provide an insightful look at the White House Police Department officers and the U.S. Secret Service agents who bravely confronted the attack on the man they swore to protect.

The year 1950 was a more simple time, and the violent assassination attempt is intricately described in “American Gunfight.” The attempt caused a whole new manner of approach at how political VIPs are protected today. It was also the beginning of the end of how police officers trained with their duty weapons.

Hunter is known for always getting the “gun stuff” right in his novels. He continues that tradition by describing in wonderful detail the dank and humid basement firearms ranges of the days after World War II. He explains how the one-handed, bull’s-eye-style manner of target shooting had little to do with the combat firing of a handgun during the duress of battle when lives are on the line. The lawmen who saved the president’s life were hampered by their training and their issued ammunition, yet they still performed their duty admirably.

Facts are intertwined with fiction in a manner that keeps “American Gunfight” a true non-fiction account of the event. Facts about White House Policeman Leslie Coffelt’s heroic performance on that fateful day are supplemented by the authors’ fictional accounts of what he must have thought at the time before and during the shoot-out. The style of writing made the book read like a novel.

The mindset of those who saved the president’s life comes through loud and clear via Hunter’s prose. Duty and responsibility, intermeshed with training and the need to protect the president, saved more than just the leader of the free world. The book also explains how important President Truman was at the time as several world crisis situations swirled around him.

The police officers on that fateful day may have saved much more than just one important man. There are those who say that President Truman chose not to run for re-election in 1952 because of his deep feelings for the police officers involved in the shooting who saved his life. If you don’t know much about the incident at Blair House, then the mystery of the true hero of that day will keep you turning the pages instead of turning out the light and going to sleep.

All three of these books will reinforce the reader’s mindset of how to get through an armed encounter. These true stories about real lawmen can inspire today’s officers with the ability to make it safely through an armed confrontation. Many things can be learned by reading these books, but the most important may be the ability to say, “These guys made it through safely when it happened to them, and so can I.”

Steve Tracy is a 22-year police veteran with 20 years of experience as a firearms instructor. He is also an instructor for tactical rifles, use of force, less-than-lethal force and scenario-based training. He can be reached at

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2011

Rating : 10.0

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