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Mechanical, Ballistic & Thermal Breaching

Regardless of the mission, a positive breach is critical for a successful operation. Fortified structures, barricaded doors and safe rooms each pose a unique obstacle to forcible entries. Law enforcement has traditionally used common breaching tools like rams, Halligans and sledgehammers with little to no formal instruction. Some cross training with fire and rescue units or tips of the trade passed verbally were often the standard.

Not only does this lead to concerns about the effectiveness of the breaching element, but it leads to liability issues. Twenty years ago, breaching courses were all but non-existent. This article examines one of the latest and most comprehensive programs available in the hope that it will be a catalyst for readers to objectively evaluate their own breaching programs.

The program taught by Tactical Energetic Entry Systems (TEES) looks at a wide spectrum of breaching options. It focuses on correct and efficient use of the more common tools and also presents gear and tactics that are outside the box. The company’s philosophy incorporates breaching options beyond the initial entry point, recognizing that there may be fortified doors inside the building or exterior obstacles to be overcome before reaching the entry point. Along with some specialized hand tools, the use of chainsaws and rescue saws are introduced in the program.

One common point for any type of forced entry is examining the obstacle (door, fence, window, etc.) to attack the weakest point. Target analysis coupled with knowledge of common construction techniques are valuable skills. General building practices are part of the presentation.

Another unique concept is the involvement of all team members into the breaching process rather than a dedicated breaching element. Each operator carries some type of tool. With this method, there is no delay when encountering an interior door that requires forced entry. If the stack splits or the floor plan varies from your initial intel, you have breaching flexibility.

Students examined commercial products for carrying breaching gear and field expedient processes. Each person affixed a short length of PVC pipe to the back of his vest as a tool holder. A length of webbing attached the tool to the front of the vest as a dummy/pull cord.

Although commercially-made versions were available, most students constructed their own belt retainer clips for the shotgun from stiff wire and duct tape.

By the end of the three days, the handmade items had lasted and functioned as well as the commercial products. Zip ties, webbing, 550 cord, snap links, duct tape and a little ingenuity are more than effective.

Mechanical Breaching

When learning correct methods for using the ram, Halligan and sledgehammer, tactics become a parallel focus with tools. The placement of cover men is incorporated to provide cross coverage for the breacher. Cover men adjust their positions as the breacher maneuvers, remembering that “their feet aren’t planted in concrete.”
The second protocol is that the breacher owns the obstacle until it is completely open. This prevents the stack from crowding the opening if the initial breach is incomplete. It also allows the breacher room to provide a final shove or kick if needed. Once the breach is complete, the breacher calls, “Open!” and the stack proceeds. This process proved straightforward with a smooth transition to room clearing.

Of the tools presented, the collapsible models proved popular and just as effective as their full-sized brethren. An interesting new tool was the “Jersey Boot”—a blunt section of square tubing with serrated teeth on one end. Designed to be used in pairs, one boot is used to drive the teeth of the other boot into the door jamb for prying. It can also be used as a conventional ram. The class feedback, however, was mediocre.

A pry bar with a built-in slide hammer was popular and efficient; it eliminated the need for a second man with a hammer to set the tool.
During this phase, most of the drills were conducted on two prefabricated steel breaching doors made by Breaching Technologies Inc. (BTI). These training facades are heavy, free-standing units that can mount to an existing structure. One style is for a ram, and the other is for pry tools.

Both doors incorporate a plastic shear pin that breaks rather than sacrificing the entire door and frame. The pin spans the door and jamb. With some ingenuity, a workable substitute could be fabricated using a solid core door and dowel rods for pins. The jamb on the lock side would need to be built up, with an open space incorporated for setting the dowel in place.


Chainsaws and rescue saws are two options often ignored by tactical units. Either can be made easily portable by attaching the saw to a rucksack frame. Chainsaws proved most effective on wooden doors by making a V-shape cut near the lock. They are also useful in cutting gun ports or even walk-through holes in wood frame exterior walls. The rescue, or “quickie,” saw also works for wooden structures, but it tends to gum up quickly. Aftermarket specialty blades, such as the Viper, somewhat alleviate this problem. Their greatest value is in the variety of substances they can cut: masonry, steel or wood.

Consider some common points for using gas-powered saws in tactical situations. Establish a simple standard operating procedure (SOP) for starting the saw. Rehearse the SOP until the saw can be started under stress and in low light. Warm up the saw and let it run before leaving the form up position or last cover/concealment (FUP/LCC). This allows a “hot start” when needed inside the stronghold.

Operationally start two saws when called for, preferably a chainsaw and a quickie saw. Whichever saw starts first does the breach, with the other saw in reserve. An exception is a hardened target that requires a rescue saw only. Start the saw away from the breach point and out of the fatal funnel. Be sure to have cover men in place.

Ballistic Breaching

Used in this application, the shotgun is a breaching tool—not a weapon. Because of the possibility of sweeping a partner, the chamber is left empty with the hammer fired until needed. The round is chambered at the door. After firing, the operator leaves the fired round in the chamber for safety and continuity. Drills are taught for “hot gun” and “half rack,” when the operator accidentally pumps the action.

Using a breaching stand with door knobs and replaceable wood inserts, students gain the experience of getting the correct muzzle angle without replacing multiple doors. Each drill begins with a student buddy trying the knob, calling for the shotgun and remaining to provide cover. The drill ends with the breacher kicking the door for added insurance and then withdrawing in a safe manner.

After rehearsing on the breaching stand, students progress to actual door breaching. A solid core door is modified to accept an insert made from a piece of 2x6 lumber that contains a locking mechanism. This insert can be removed so that the trainee can see the effect of his shot. This system allows quick turnaround among students. In training, birdshot can be used in most applications. In actual operation, commercial breaching rounds are the only choice.

For the rifle, Team NSA makes an attachment to the M16/M4 flash suppressor for cutting rebar and similar solid structures. The device uses a collet to fasten to the rifle and allows standard ball ammo to shear the metal. Even 55-grain soft-point bullets worked well on 3/8-inch rebar. Splatter is minimal. However, this system will not work on tubing or piping.

Thermal Breaching

Any agency with a jail or secure lockup facility should consider having this method in its inventory. Thermal breaching is effective on jail bars and doors where explosive breaches are not feasible and mechanical methods are not effective. This technique also works on commercial-grade fire doors commonly found in public buildings.

Exothermic breaching uses a consumable, non-ferrous tube and pure oxygen to produce a flame burning at 10,000 F. Initially designed for maritime purposes, torches rapidly cut heavy metal objects. Angle iron sections were cut in a few seconds, and several pieces of rebar (simulating jail bars) were severed in under a minute. Systems such as the BROCO Torch are backpack portable.

Thermal breaching is not to be taken lightly or without appropriate training. The operator uses a “wand” similar to a power washer handle. The wand is connected to an oxygen tank. When lit, the wand produces a brilliant flash and a shower of sparks while cutting. Improper hookups or maintenance can have catastrophic results. Once requirements are met, it is a straightforward and effective tool.

Practical Exercises

After learning the proper tool handling and some basic drills, it is time to put the knowledge to practical use. Having a close quarter battle (CQB) shoot house is an asset for this phase. Students begin running missions with at least one external breach point and with every interior door locked, barricaded or obstructed in some way. With this much multiplicity, each student in the stack has a chance to breach. The focus is not as much on room clearing tactics as on rapidly analyzing the situation and getting the correct apparatus into action while providing cover.

With each run, the difficulty level progressed. The house was reconfigured between exercises, and a new twist was thrown at the class each time. The primary entry point might be booby trapped, forcing a window insertion. Steel bars were set up behind a wooden door, creating a safe room. An existing doorway was framed in with studs and drywall. These were not arbitrary barriers, but lessons learned from actual missions. Look at case studies of actual operation and identify known obstacles in your area of operation; then replicate them in training.

There is no substitute for working on an actual structure. Abandoned buildings that are scheduled to be razed make exceptional training venues. Rural fire departments often have a line on buildings to be burned for their training, so you may be able to piggyback with them. After ensuring that all utilities are turned off and the structure is sound, training can commence.

Our target house was a combination of wood frame and cement block construction. The field training exercise (FTX) was a rolling assault to provide an extra level of realism. During the FTX, the class members hit both exterior doors and a window for a distraction; then they breached all interior doors. Afterwards, the class broke into small groups to try different tools and techniques on various portions of the house.

There were some unexpected surprises. Paneling had been glued over an interior block wall, thus defeating the chainsaw. Steel-framed casement windows on the porch required a quickie saw to breach. Cabinets attached to the inside of an exterior wall slowed the chainsaw. Just as in real situations, remodeling can add complications to your tactical plan.

The class was shown the relative ease with which a block wall can be breached using hand tools. Two operators using sledgehammers pounded a series of holes for the perimeter of the breach. Then two more operators finished the job using a ram. The hole was complete in a matter of minutes. To finish the session, the garage door was opened by attacking its weak spots.

Take-Home Points

Aside from primary SWAT training, a mechanical breaching course needs to be at the forefront of the training agenda. Too often teams will wing it when it comes to this important phase of any operation. Sure, anyone can grab a sledgehammer and eventually beat down a door, but questions remain. How long will that take? Is the team overly exposed? Is the mission being compromised? What is the risk to the hostages on a prolonged or failed breach?

Formal training will not only lessen your liability exposure, but it will also make your team more efficient at gaining entry and increase the probability of a safe, effective mission conclusion. So, here are some final tips.

Plan on breaching more than just an external entry point. Diversify your breaching options in case barricaded doors are encountered inside. Train every operator in basic breaching tasks and incorporate tools throughout the stack. Incorporate breaching techniques into all levels of the agency, including patrol and detectives. Consider a rapid-deployment scenario with the school in complete lockdown. First responders can access tools from fire or rescue units to make a forced entry if necessary. Buy-bust drug teams can also benefit from these methods.

Breaching courses are labor and material intensive. Incorporate plenty of time for making arrangements, gathering materials, etc. Start acquiring doors and windows and looking for training sites months in advance. Suitable training aids can be made with some ingenuity. This must be a hands-on course. Adults learn by doing. Plan on multiple rehearsals for each technique so students get the feel on real obstacles.

Whoever breaches the door, owns the door. In other words, the stack holds until the breacher calls “open.” This avoids confusion and false starts if the door or obstacle is not completely cleared on the first attempt. Always have two cover men for the breacher. They provide cross coverage from either side of the doorway. Cover men adjust their positions for the best angle as the breacher works.

Focus on the threat area when calling for tools. Call loudly and respond loudly. There is no need to look back to see if someone heard you. Taking your eyes off the threat for even a second can give the bad guy an opportunity to exploit, with deadly consequences. Target analysis with a knowledge of common building practices helps ensure a positive breach. Develop a checklist with the essential elements of information (EEI) as part of the reconnaissance phase of operational planning.

For any technical/detail questions, contact John Mayer at

Ron Yanor retired after 19 years in a multi-agency tactical unit, with the last nine years spent as the training and intel officer. He is the training director at Adamax Tactical Academy and remains as patrol division supervisor. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Dec 2009

Rating : 6.0

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