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Shotgun Breaching

Written by Scott Oldham

Shotgun or ballistic breaching is a necessary option for law enforcement tactical specialists. And it is truly an art form. At its highest level, this kind of force entry option is practiced by true masters of the art. Forcing entry into structures where those inside pose a risk to public safety is not for the novice practitioner. It can rapidly devolve into a tragedy if not done in a correct manner.

Forced entry operations by law enforcement officers are often thought to be something that is easy. It can be left to the newest officers on any tactical unit or special operations team who has the fewest tactical skills. Not true. Instead, forced entry should instead be looked upon as a genuine specialty, much akin to a counter sniper.

Breachers, as forced entry specialists are called, should receive a great deal of additional training over that of a “standard” assault team officer, as they will be required to perform acts of physical and mental skill that differentiate them from those officers. These officers must possess a maturity level and thought process that is beyond the others of the team. They must be able to evaluate not only the tactical implications of what they are doing, but also the structural implications to the area they are attempting to breach.

While most forced entry is done through a manual process using fairly common tools such as the ram, hooligan tool and other items, there are times when a manual tool and physical strength will be found wanting. In those cases, technology must be called into play so that officers may enter and clear structures where there are deemed to be risks far beyond the norm. This breaching technology can take many forms including vehicle supported, hydraulic, explosive, and ballistic breaching.

Vehicle supported breaching uses a vehicle to forcibly remove obstacles such as doors and windows using straps or chains attached to the vehicle and simply pulling those obstructions from the structure. Hydraulic breaching is really a tool system that is designed to augment standard manual breaching skills in that a hydraulic spreader system can be used to force apart door casings so that the locking system of a door can be defeated and officers can easily open the door with a ram or other device.

Explosive breaching is by far the most controversial and most misunderstood method of all the options. Explosive breaching uses a small quantity of explosives in a highly controlled and focused manner to create an entry point into the structure. Explosives are useful in their capabilities as they are not limited to only creating an entry point at a doorway.

Explosives can be used to create portals into the structure that do not normally exist. Walls can be subjected to explosive cutting charges that once detonated will leave a new entry point through which officer can flow and achieve dominance. Explosive breaching is by far the most dynamic of the group, but it is also time, money, and training intensive.

None of these techniques lend themselves well to use by a fast-flowing entry unit inside of a structure. Each of these techniques has as a drawback; the need for time to emplace, construct or deploy the device or use the technique. The one technique that is perhaps the most flexible for a quick-moving entry unit, i.e., ballistic breaching, is often little used, and like explosives, is often quite controversial.

Shotgun or ballistic breaching has been a reality for sometime but receives very little attention compared with other methods. Ballistic breaching is done using a 12 gauge shotgun and a special round that has gone by several names including a Hatton, Shok-lok, Lockbuster or Avon round. While many of these are the trade names used by the companies that manufacture and sell them, they are in effect all very similar in their construction and are identical in their use.

Most of these rounds are made using a compressed zinc powder or dental ceramic. Designed to be fired into the locking mechanism or hinges of a door, the round has been designed to expend all of its kinetic energy into the locking or hinge mechanism completely disintegrating in the process. In that regard, these types of rounds are remarkably successful. Officers with special training in the use of these rounds can be an extremely valuable asset during a crisis site assault.

A manual breach using a battering ram of one form or another will be the predominate method of breaching in the United States for the foreseeable future. However, problems exist with this form of entry.

The battering ram itself is usually a 45-pound piece of steel and is normally wielded by one of the strongest members of the entry team. Often times this tool is of a size and weight that it becomes very unmanageable when carried over long distances or used within the confines of a small target location.

Most teams will affect the initial breach into a target location using a ram but then do not have the tool brought inside as the assault progresses. If a locked door is located within the structure it is breached by another means, usually a foot with some teams, or the assault phase of the operation must be delayed while the ram is summoned from the exterior. Neither of these is optimal as there are times when fluidity of movement is absolutely paramount.

Speed and fluidity sometimes mean the same thing, but in this case, they do not. Fluidity of movement refers to the assault continuing to progress at a given rate without significant interruption. Teams sometimes believe that absolute blinding speed is needed but have wound up progressing through the assault at such a rate that they can not evaluate potential targets much less engage them should the need arise.

One way that teams can keep this assault progressing at an appropriate rate is by the use of ballistic breaching. A ballistic breach is done using the 12 gauge shotgun, a weapon ubiquitous to most teams. A specialty round is simply fed into the chamber, and the weapon is aimed at the locking bolt or hinge area of the door. Normally, the round is delivered into the locking bolt area and should be done so at a downward angle. This is done to minimize the chance that the round will over-penetrate and will strike someone within the room.

Officers should make no mistake that shotgun launched breaching rounds can be lethal when fired into a person, so great care must be taken when they are deployed. Also of note is that the locking bolt is what is targeted, not the locking mechanism itself. It is the bolt that holds the door shut; if only the locking mechanism is destroyed the bolt will still hold the door closed.

In addition to minimizing the possibility of striking a person with the projectile, or pieces of the projectile or lock, the downward angle of the shot forces debris down into the floor rather than having it thrown directly into the room parallel to the ground. Again this lessens the likelihood of striking a person inside.

Once the officer approaches the door to be breached, it is important to remember that the shotgun can not be placed directly against the door. A minimum safe standoff distance must be maintained before firing the round. There are several devices on the market that allow for an officer to rapidly gauge this distance. Several of these devices affix to the muzzle of the shotgun in a manner similar to a flash suppressor.

The breaching rounds can be fired from almost any 12 gauge shotgun with a cylinder bore. However, a definite advantage exists in having dedicated breaching shotguns rather than relying upon a shotgun-armed officer to carry breaching rounds in addition to a traditional buckshot or slug load-out.

For those agencies that follow the practice of relying on a shotgun-armed officer to first download a lethal round, then reload a specialty round during the heat of an entry, a disaster is in waiting. Many times officers have mistakenly loaded live, lethal rounds into a shotgun when they instead meant to load a specialty round. Deaths have occurred from these mistakes.

While these tragedies have normally taken place when the officer believed that he was loading a less-lethal round such as a beanbag in place of the live round, similar logic can be applied to the fallacy of having him load breaching rounds. Instead of the round disintegrating in the target area, i.e. the locking bolt, a slug or load of buckshot would carry through into the room and substantially increase the possibility of injury.

While virtually any shotgun with a cylinder bore can be used for breaching purposes, perhaps the best shotgun to use when setting up a dedicated shotgun for this use is the Remington Model 870 with a pistol grip (only) stock and a 12.5-inch barrel. This weapon was chosen as it offers many advantages over other systems as the reduced barrel length makes the shotgun become much more manageable in size and ease of deployment.

The Remington 870, long the mainstay of American law enforcement, has a safety that is mounted next to the trigger guard and can be actuated and defeated without the strong hand leaving the weapon. Other shotguns, such as the Mossberg series, have a safety system that is not as advantageous for this particular use.

While it is true that the 12.5-inch weapon is a NFA classified weapon and will require that departments seek ATF approval before fielding them, this is of little consequence as the ease of use and the necessity of having this tool available will quickly overcome the additional work spent in obtaining this option.

Many methods can be used for carrying dedicated breaching shotguns. Some of these have been very successful, while others unfortunately have not. One of the best methods for carrying a dedicated breaching shotgun is by using a shotgun harness system. The shotgun harness system is best described as being very similar to a handgun shoulder holster harness, but instead of a handgun holstered on one side of the harness, a shotgun is attached in its place.

This allows for an officer to be armed with a long gun or other weapon system while at the same time having the breaching capability of the shotgun without being hindered. The shotgun is left attached to the harness and is simply pivoted onto the target area by the officer.

Once the round is fired and the obstacle breached, the officer will simply drop the shotgun on its harness and will retain control of whatever dedicated lethal weapon he was carrying, be it a handgun or slung long gun, and continue through with the assault.

By using the shotgun harness, each team can carry with it the tools necessary to continue forced breaching while inside of a target location without the need of carrying a heavy ram or other cumbersome equipment along.

Ballistic breaching should not be looked at as an answer for every situation because it does pose some dangers that other methods do not, but with additional training that should be gained before initiating any such program, a great many options will become reality.

Officers who are engaged in ballistic breaching should be required by team or departmental policy to wear appropriate personal protective equipment on each operation. At a minimum, these officers should be required to wear ballistic-rated eye protection such as the excellent Oakley M-frames.

These glasses and similar equipment from other manufacturers are a necessity in that the officer will need to be looking directly at the target when the lock is breached, and flying debris is an unfortunate possibility. Officers should also be required to wear a set of good breaching gloves, again for protection from possible debris that is created during the breaching process.

Officers should receive thorough training in the capabilities and the limitations of ballistic breaching. Officers should be thoroughly versed in the dangers of this system because just as with the rounds that are designed with lethal intent, there is still the mandate that an officer is accountable for any round that is fired, whether it is in a breaching capacity or otherwise.

Departments that are looking for the “do-all” panacea of breaching will not find it using ballistic breaching. It is not a magic bullet. It does have downsides. However, those can be mitigated with careful training and a well-thought-out deployment policy. What ballistic breaching does is provide the capability for an entry team to constantly have an extremely portable solution to obstructions with it during the assault phase of an operation. In this regard, ballistic breaching is unmatched in its capabilities.

Ballistic breaching is a capability that can offer a great benefit to those teams that have a need to quickly breach doorways during entries into unknown or hostile territories. For those agencies that are willing to devote the time and training into establishing just such a program, this technology could prove itself invaluable and will, as a result, save lives and prevent injuries.

Scott Oldham is a supervisory sergeant with the Bloomington, IN Police Department where he is assigned to the Operations Division as patrol supervisor, as well as being one of the team leaders for the department’s Tactical Unit. He and his partner, Sergeant Mick Williams, provide contract instruction on a wide range of subjects, including tactical and patrol-based skills. He can be reached at oldhams@bloomington.in.gov.

Published in Tactical Response, Jul/Aug 2006

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