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Shooting with Gas Masks
For law enforcement agencies, this is the era of the gas mask. There are hazardous material spills, preparations against chemical, biological and nuclear terrorist attacks, and the gas and smoke employed by the police themselves in riot control situations and other tactical events, including the use of CS against hostage takers and active shooters. The problem is that too often law enforcement agencies are equipped with terribly outdated or nonfunctioning gas masks and inadequate reserve filter supplies.
Gas masks come in two basic types: commercial and military. Ballistic helmets may not fit well over some commercial gas masks as opposed to made-for-the-military masks. Some gas mask straps pull out the wearer’s hair and others do not. Water cannot be consumed while wearing many commercial brands of gas masks, and some commercial gas masks do not seal tightly. Remember, in a toxic environment, once the gas mask’s seal to a wearer’s face is broken, by an ill fit or otherwise, the person is dead.
A select few brands of gas masks can be ordered custom fitted, but the majority cannot. An example of a fitted mask is the M95 used by the Finnish armed services and now distributed by American companies. It has a computer-aided fit and easily forms a shooting cheek weld without having to force the weapon against the mask, useful when a SWAT team fires its subguns.
Protruding gas mask nubs are often a result of canister inlet ports located on both sides of a mask’s face piece. These are found in modern masks where filters are mounted on one side or the other, as opposed to other masks where the canister fits in front of the face piece. Ideally dual-canister mountings allow shoulder weapons to be fired from either side; however, in many masks, the nub caused by a gas mask’s canister inlet ports is often a raised protrusion that can cause a problem for a shooter to overcome when using a shoulder weapon.
According to Poughkeepsie, NY Police SWAT team member Eric Hawlk, shooting with gas masks takes a lot of eye/hand coordination. They train with emphasis on shouldering their stock-sighted H&K MP5 subguns with their Millennium Gas Masks on, working around any sight distortions caused by the bubble lens. The filter can be placed on either side, but there is a nub to get the weapon stock above.
Gas Mask Lenses
Traditionally, commercial masks were easily identifiable as those with one lens that was either bubble-shaped or curved in a partial wraparound. Military masks usually had two flat eyepieces on each mask so the eyepieces and gas mask fit closer to the wearer’s face. Identifying masks as either military or commercial because they had either a one-piece lens or two lenses is no longer the case.
Now more military masks appear to be produced with one lens instead of two. For example, polizei of the Lower Saxony, Germany, State Police use a Draeger military mask with its one-piece lens. In addition, more and more often the gas masks worn by the teams at the SWAT Round-Up—held annually in Orlando, FL—are one-piece lens gas mask in which the lenses can be either rigid or flexible.
The farther away the gas mask lens is from the shooter’s face, the more difficult it is to obtain a good spot weld for shooting shoulder weapons. Gas mask lenses with curvature to them can also lead to a greater possible target distortion when shooting. Acrylic lenses can scratch and bend causing additional sight distortion. If a lens cracks, the mask is no longer beneficial, placing the wearer at risk in a toxic environment. And the more space there is in a gas mask, such as those gas masks with a large bubble one-piece lens, the more effort has to be made to clear the mask since there is more bad air to purge.
According to SRT Supply, the availability of filters is a consideration when many are needed. In a recent national emergency, there were larger stocks of NATO 40mm filters available than commercial brand filters. Should such shortages occur, agencies using these filters should have a better chance of obtaining replacement filters. But filters must be kept up to date. Inspections have found that many law enforcement gas masks have filters years past their shelf life expectations. Modern gas mask filters have a shelf life of 10 years. Old filters often had a two- to five-year shelf life.
Training and Deployment
Training needs to match the law enforcement unit’s mission. Eye/hand coordination and managing visual distortions are problems. Access to the gas mask, donning it, and target acquisition under pressure are also training concerns.
Training should be performed with officers or deputies wearing their full tactical dress. Gas mask carriers should be accessible to the wearer’s support hand. All gas mask webbing should be extended by wrapping the webbing out and around the lens. This necessitates positioning the mask inside its carrying case to allow efficient one-hand gripping combined with one-hand donning. After practicing donning the mask at least a dozen times, the masking drill should be done faster and under low-light conditions.
The next step in training would be the addition of each respective weapon to be deployed while wearing a gas mask, paying attention to sight management and repeating the entire drill in live fire, malfunction and weapon transitioning patterns. Firing line distances should not be overlooked.
Realistically, seven yards is probably the outside range that can be expected in most gas mask encounters for law enforcement, and more than likely, they will be in the three- to five-yard range because they are generally indoors.
All physical endurance, shooting problems and psychological phobias associated with wearing gas masks for extended periods of time must be overcome. It also often comes down to fighting and performing with a gas mask that an agency already owns and the willpower to overcome whatever sight problems are present with it.
Operators training against the budget restrictions of their teams must therefore train all the harder in their masked, live fire evolutions. Repetition, mistakes and corrections, and lots of practice can make all the difference.
The next step is training in a gas-laden environment. If this isn’t done, the alternative is to wait until some real-world situation exposes weakness in the tactics of operating and shooting in chemical conditions. An agency can have the best equipment in the world, but the lack of serious training will negate the best of inventories.
In addressing the distortion of sight pictures while shooting with gas masks, Clyde Caceras of Crimson Trace said, “Any time you can’t marry your cheek to the stock, you can’t get sight alignment… In addition, vision is often obscured with masks and the (difficult in the best circumstances) idea of looking with clarity at iron sights AND your threat, becomes exasperating with a mask on.”
The advice is to turn to technology and evaluate the numerous lasers and reticule-assisted sighting systems. Crimson Trace and others offer lasersdevices for M16s, M4s and any long gun or subgun with rails, in addition to offering many such sights for handguns. The laser on a target helps to overcome the distortion factor because vision is directed to the point of impact. The police in Honolulu are using laser-sighted weapons with their gas mask deployment in pursuit of their Weapons of Mass Destruction response plan, as are a number of post-9/11 agency response plans of agencies on the mainland.
Other companies, like EOTech with its large see-through reticle target acquisition sight screen and Aimpoint sights which offer military-proven, both-eyes-open, rapid target acquisition, are quantum leaps forward in today’s sighting technology market.
The Clearwater, FL Police SWAT team prefers the wrap-around lens design of its US MCU-2A/P gas mask for a better range of vision. According to SWAT officer and police trainer Officer John Conner, gas masks with two eye pieces have restricted vision—for example the part of the mask between the two eye lens is a no-see-through zone—giving points to the masks with one-domed eye piece.
Clearwater SWAT used to have military M-95 two-piece-lens masks with notable filter nubs, but considered that their overall vision was closed off a bit. The US MCU–2A/P mask has a one-piece curved lens, with the actual lens probably being made of flexible polyurethane. This mask has a mic plug at the front of the voice window.
At issue is the rigid lens versus the flexible lens. When firing is done using the US MCU-2A/P gas mask with the lens cover still in place, this outer cover is rigid and can lead to shooting problems. Team members are not able to push or smoosh their weapons or weapon sights into the lens to obtain a good sight picture.
However, when the lens cover is removed, the weapons can be more easily pushed into the flexible lens underneath to obtain a better sight picture when using a shoulder weapon such as a long gun, shotgun or subgun.
SWAT team members learn to shoot with the lens cover off and the lens pushed inward. In addition, on this model the inlet canister port nub where the filter can be plugged into either side of the mask to accommodate both right- and left-hand shooters only protrudes slightly and is an unnoticeable factor to shooters.
At Clearwater PD, while SWAT uses the US MCU-2A/P gas mask, the rest of the department including its ERT team (crowd and riot control trained officers) uses 3M 7800 gas masks with a one-piece lens that is rigid, with little or no give to it. The 3M 7800 also has notably protruding filter receptacles or nubs.
Clearwater SWAT subguns are H&K UMP.40 caliber, the same caliber as the department’s Walther P990 handguns. The H&K UMP sighting system—the EOTech Holographic weapons sight used by the SWAT team—is also what is used on the street. Their shotgun and AR 15s are iron sighted and there is a little distortion in obtaining a sight picture with the doomed, flexible lens of MSA Millennium masks.
Consider these suggestions from Clearwater SWAT. 1) Choose a one-piece eye lens that is flexible. 2) Train and shoot while wearing a gas mask—this includes patrol level police officers. 3)Be aware that the raised inlet port nubs on a mask that allows the shooter to switch filters to either side may be an issue when firing a weapon. 4) Before buying gas masks, test them out with long guns. 5) Increase your physical abilities. In gas mask training, officers wear gas masks for long periods of time. Breathing is difficult since air must be drawn in through the mask’s filter. Clearwater SWAT team members wear gas masks while going through the department’s obstacle course. They also recommend playing touch football while wearing masks. 6) The time to find out if your team or department has issues with its gas mask is not when someone is shooting at you.
NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit’s gas mask is the MSA Millennium. When deployed, it addresses the need for a firm cheek weld. When the rigid eye safety-rated lens shield is removed, the soft, flexible, transparent lens conforms to the shooter’s face.
Also, in deploying their H&K MP5 subguns with extended sling in a triangular configuration combined with a collapsed stock, shooting CQB style from a central torso point of alignment eliminates the need to join the weapon to the shooter’s face. NYPD’s tactical team trains extensively with range drills orientated to donning, static shooting, shooting on the move, and various high-risk clearing simulations.
Gas masks, like police tactics, are progressing. Make the right choices for what works best for now, what will work in the future, and what belongs to yesterday.
Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, OH, Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER.
Mickey Davis is a Florida-based journalist. They may be reached at JWEISS2109@aol.com and MDavisFLA@aol.com.
Alfred Baker, a retired Lieutenant Special Assignment with the NYPD/ESU, is the inventor and President of Baker Batshields, Inc. A former training manager with the US Department of Justice and former director of training for Armor Holdings, Inc, Baker is available at email@example.com.
Published in Tactical Response, Mar/Apr 2006
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