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Ram That Door!

Written by Darin Dowe

The success of a tactical operation is based on many elements, one of which is timely entry into the target structure. The primary point of entry (POE) is usually locked and may be fortified with additional locks and/or “burglar bars.” However, the breacher should always try to rotate the door knob and open the door, which, if unlocked, may negate the need for a forcible breach.

Many ways exist and many tools are available to accomplish this tactical objective. The primary means of breaching is by physical force, using a pry bar and sledgehammer for outward-opening doors, and a ram for inward-opening doors. Teams must train their newest SWAT members in these techniques.

If a team cannot gain entry into a structure when it needs to, the tactical objective (rescuing a hostage, arresting a suspect or securing a structure) may not be achieved. Some teams have dedicated breachers, and other teams train all their operators in breaching. I am a firm believer that everyone in the “stack” should be able to use these “tools of the trade.” Breaching tools are as valuable as the weapons we shoulder.

The element of surprise is preferred during an entry or when gaining ground (advancing through and breaching while inside a structure) during a tactical operation. Speed is another desired element in a tactical operation, in other words, dynamic entry. These go hand in hand during a breach—a speedy breach equates to surprising the adversary! If significant delay occurs during a breach, it may be due to lack of training, an improper assessment of the door/structure to be breached, or utilization of improper tool(s).

If this delay occurs and the breach team is “working” the door, their exposure time in front of a fatal funnel is increased until the door is breached. No matter what the case, the breachers will always be exposed when breaching. We can limit their exposure time by ensuring they have the tools and training required to quickly accomplish the objective.

Manual breaching is accomplished using three types of tools: ram, pry bar (Halligan) and sledgehammer. A breacher must be able to make an assessment of the POE(s), recognize potential obstacles to the objective, and advise command of breaching alternatives (shotgun, vehicle, hydraulic tools) if a manual breach is not appropriate.

Training

We must have formalized training, which includes the tactics/tools used to affect the breach and assignment (bar, hammer, ram, shotgun, etc.), and the breacher’s position in the stack both prior to, and after the breach. The best option for training is to obtain abandoned structures or structures slated for demolition. With simple hardware and wood, the doors can usually be re-secured for repeated training breaches.

Training doors that mimic both inward- and outward-opening doors also provide realistic training. Once the basics of door breaching have been taught and understood, the operators’ skill level will improve every time they affect a breach. A breacher will have comparable real world experience of physically breaching a door, coupled with the stress of being the person the whole team is waiting on!

Once the door is breached, the breachers will move out of the way of the entry team, drop their tools and enter if they have been given an entry assignment. Under no circumstances will they breach the door and step in front of the lead penetrator. This will slow the entry and could result in a team member being tripped, or prevent the lead penetrator from maintaining his field of view once the door is breached.

Initial Assessment of the Door

It is rare that we will attempt a door breach without some intelligence (inward-/outward-opening, limited workspace, reinforced, etc.). An equipment assessment should be conducted prior to the breach; whether information is provided by the affiant of the search warrant or from an operator on the perimeter of a barricade, basic information should be available. The assessment may also occur on the approach to, or when at, the door. If possible, breachers should conduct a “drive by,” allowing for a structural assessment. On a callout, team members provide structural information that is assessed by command.

The breacher should ask a number of questions when conducting a breaching assessment: Does the door open IN or OUT? For IN, a ram would be utilized, while for OUT, a Halligan is used along with a sledgehammer (or ram) to set the Halligan. Visible hinges indicate the door opens toward you and toward the side of the hinge (e.g., exterior door would open out).

Which way does the door open, LEFT to RIGHT, or RIGHT to LEFT? What is the door made of? Wood? Steel? Is it a hollow core or solid core? Does it also have panes of glass? What type of frame does it use, wood or steel? What types of lock are there—single, deadbolt, multiple throw (bank vault type)? What is the spacing of the locks? Breaching is more difficult if locks are spaced far apart. How about the door recess? It is hard to obtain leverage if the frame is significantly recessed in from the wall face. You may have to “chip” concrete to allow for the Halligan to move and obtain leverage in order to pry the door away from the frame.

How about the secondary doors, such as a screen door or barred door? An exterior screen door may obstruct entry because most are under pneumatic tension and will usually retract on the entry team. It should be pulled off the frame and moved away from the team. A barred door with a deadbolt-type lock will usually delay entry because two doors will need to be breached. Use a pull vehicle (straps/hooks) and dislodge it.

What is the work area for breachers? Is there debris/chairs/bushes adjacent to the breach point which may limit the breachers’ workspace? Is there enough space for the breach team to work? Is the door to be breached at the end of a hallway with walls on both sides (where a long tool may contact sidewall)? This will limit leverage and the ability of the team to provide lethal cover. If so, shorter tools should be considered; however, shorter tools also provide less energy on impact and less leverage when prying.

Types of Breaching

Manual breaching is accomplished by a variety of tools. The ram is used by one or two SWAT operators to “ram” an inward-opening door, separating the door from the frame. There are one-man rams (about 30 pounds and 30 inches) and two-man rams (about 40 pounds and 40 inches).

The ram must strike the door in the area of the locking mechanism(s) to be effective. The outer frame is the strongest and will respond best to ramming. If the ram strikes the center of a wood or steel door, the ram will likely go through the door, breaking out the wood or glass panels, or it will buckle without affecting a breach. If the operator strikes the door frame, which is set in wood or concrete, it is unlikely to have any effect.

When breaching a door, the operator should rotate his upper body (torso), utilizing its centrifugal force to maximize the foot-pounds of energy on impact, thereby increasing the effectiveness of the ram. The heavier the ram, the more effective it will be. However, heavier two-person ram teams will reduce workspace, which must be considered when working in a confined area. The operator should position himself so that the head of the ram strikes as perpendicular (flat) to the door as possible, thus transferring the most energy into the door.

The Halligan is commonly referred to as a “pry bar.” The pry bar is utilized in conjunction with a sledgehammer or ram. It provides a mechanical advantage, allowing the operator(s) to pry/separate the door from the door frame, freeing the locking mechanism(s)/throw(s), which are seated into the door frame.

The wedge end is placed between the door and the frame, usually below the deadbolt and above the door handle, with the pry foot (bar) across the door. This may not always be possible if a latch protector plate is in place. If this is the case, get as close to the deadbolt as possible—it usually has a longer, more durable throw. The wedge is placed by one breacher and seated when the second breacher strikes the pry bar with a sledge hammer or ram. The wedge must be seated in to a depth equal to the thickness of the door in order to be most effective. If the wedge is not fully seated, it may unseat or tear through the edge of the door. Once seated, the breacher(s) pull on the pry foot (end) of the pry bar opposite the lock side of the door and pry the door open. The most leverage is obtained by prying at the furthest point away from/opposite the wedge end of the bar. The second breacher may also assist by pulling on the Halligan tool once the wedge has been seated.

In some cases, the door and frame may be recessed in from the face of the load bearing wall. Even if the Halligan is seated properly, the breacher may not be able to obtain enough leverage to move the Halligan and pry the door open. The breacher must use the sledgehammer to “chip” concrete away from the wall corner. This will allow the Halligan tool to rotate toward the wall, obtaining additional leverage to pry the door open.

When breaching the door on a mobile home, trailer or manufactured home, it is important to realize that aluminum and mild metal doors are NOT always easier to breach. When seating the Halligan tool and beginning the breach, the tool may actually collapse into the structure. To prevent this collapse, cut an 8-inch by 12-inch piece of ½-inch plywood to assist with the breach. The wood is placed against the wall adjacent to the door so the pry foot comes in contact with it when rotated. This will disperse the force of the tool over a larger area and limit the structural degradation, allowing the tool to work effectively.

The Halligan tool can be utilized to pound, pull or puncture objects, such as windows, padlocks, dry wall, etc. The tang (pointed end—if pointed and not rounded) has successfully been utilized to puncture and pry impact resistant glass from the frame.

The Halligan may also be used in conjunction with a K-tool. By placing the wedge in the receiver well of the K-tool and prying, a cylinder lock will break free. The K-tool is utilized to get behind the ring face of a cylinder lock used in aluminum-framed glass store front doors. The K-tool is seated by applying downward force. Once the K-tool is seated, the Halligan is inserted and the cylinder lock is pried away from the frame. Once the cylinder has been removed, the key tool (metal pick) is inserted and the bolt is moved to the open position.

In addition to more obvious uses, the sledgehammer can be used to seat the Halligan/pry bar tool between the door frame and door by striking the wedge end of the Halligan tool. It can also be used to “chip” away concrete, allowing the pry bar tool to obtain more leverage to pry the door open. The pry bar tool is repeatedly struck with the sledge hammer until it is fully seated.

Sledgehammers are usually 8 pounds, 10 pounds or 12 pounds. A heavier hammer provides a physical advantage, requiring fewer strikes and less energy to seat the Halligan. The breachers should position themselves so the hammer can be swung horizontally, utilizing the centrifugal forces of their bodies. However, due to limited space, a breacher with a shortened hammer may have to kneel down and swing the hammer as if swinging an axe. Each situation will be different.

Don’t forget the option of using the weight of a vehicle (APC, tow truck, other vehicle) to breach fortified doors, burglar bars and/or perimeter fences that would impede the tactical operation. A tactical vehicle may be the ultimate sledgehammer. When in doubt about the breach, take ALL the tools you may need.

Lieutenant Darin D. Dowe is a 21-year veteran of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, FL, a veteran SWAT Operator, former Sniper, Tactical WMD Program Coordinator and a SWAT Instructor in multiple disciplines. He can be reached via e-mail at darin_dowe@sheriff.org.

Published in Tactical Response, Nov/Dec 2009

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