Accuracy is not the issue—after-barrier performance is.
Ammunition for Tactical Operations
By: Tactical Response Staff
For years, SWAT snipers using the 308 Winchester caliber have fired the 168-grain Match BTHP as the primary duty load. Their thinking was long-range accuracy was the real issue, borrowing the training and engagement scenarios from the military. In fact, in the police tactical scenario, accuracy is not at all the issue: after-barrier performance is.
Three realities of police work come into play when selecting tactical rifle ammo. First, the typical engagement distances are close, minimizing need for Match-grade, ¼ MOA accuracy. According to the American Sniper Association (ASA), the average police sniper engagement distance is between 55 and 60 yards. This confirms the urban legend of a 58-yard average, a statistic loosely attributed to the FBI, but until now unsubstantiated. Accuracy is not the issue: after-barrier performance is!
Second, typical barriers are extremely harsh. This maximizes the need for high weight retention, which is the key to adequate penetration. This also calls for a bullet design that has the most flight integrity after penetrating plate or auto glass. The bullet must not break up, and must stay on course.
Third, a very real need exists to limit the total penetration of the rifle bullet used in open-air shots. We want the flexibility to deliver enough penetration after harsh barriers but no excessive penetration for shots that do not involve any barriers.
With the 308 Win, the first reality check for SWAT teams and ammo makers was the Good Guys incident on April 4, 1991 involving the Sacramento County, Calif. Special Enforcement Detail (SED). A SED sniper with 308 Win 168-grain BTHP fired on a sniper-initiated entry. The bullet hit the doorframe where it joined with the glass and was deflected, broken up, or rendered otherwise ineffective. The incident was judged, at least in part, to be an ammo failure. This was the beginning of the police tactical bullet.
Federal Cartridge Glass Tests
In wake of Good Guys incident, Federal Cartridge commissioned a series of glass tests with existing, popular hunting rifle bullets. They were objectively looking for the best “brush-busting” bullet, hoping this would also be the best anti-glass bullet with the best after-barrier stability and weight retention. Their logic: one test is worth 1,000 hunting stories; one test is worth 1,000 expert opinions.
The 308 Win bullets were light (165-grain), medium (180-grain) and heavy (220-grain) softpoints; light (168-grain) and medium (180-grain) Match BTHP bullets; and the medium weight (180-grain) Nosler Partition bullet. The barriers were ¼-inch float (commercial) glass, laminated auto glass, thermo pane residential glass, and tempered plate glass place at 45 degrees and then 90 degrees.
The winner of the side-by-side tests was Nosler Partition. It had the least average dispersion (the least change in point of impact after glass), the least absolute dispersion and the least fragmentation (the best weight retention). Next came all three softpoints, followed up in last place by the Match-grade hollowpoint boattails.
The problem was the Nosler Partition bullet is too expensive for large volume use by police. Thus, Federal Cartridge started their development with second-place load, the generic 165-grain softpoint. They selected a softer alloy of jacket than used in the typical hunting bullets. They also used a dead soft, 0 percent antimony lead core, instead of the lead core in the hunting bullet that may contain 0.5 percent antimony. Using solder flux, they took the ultimate hunting bullet step of actually soldering the lead core to the jacket. The Federal Tactical was born.
The Tactical ammo was soon released in 308 Win, then 223 Rem, and then a variety of handgun calibers. This is very similar to their Trophy Bonded Bear Claw (TBBC) bullet, which can indeed be used as a substitute in police scenarios. Federal went against conventional wisdom with their Tactical bullets. Their understanding of the dynamics of glass impact was that a softer bullet is better than a harder bullet. A soft bullet will deform to the exact angle of impact, then penetrate, then continue along the line of fire rather than to resist deformation and deflect or tumble (break-up).
For all the attention the 308 Win got, it is the 223 Rem that needs help getting through barriers and staying on course after barriers. The 223 Rem is based on a varmint cartridge, the 222 Remington, which had the reputation among varmint shooters of being able to be deflected by a twig or blade of grass.
For years, SWAT operators have used the 69-grain Match BTHP as the primary duty load. The thinking was that accuracy was the real issue, in part because many AR-15 platform rifles shoot in only the two to three MOA category. Again, accuracy is not the issue: after-barrier performance is.
The reality check for SWAT teams using 223 Remington was the Yukon SUV incident involving the Marion County, Ind. Sheriff SWAT on Sept. 7, 2000. Their M4 rifles with the 69-grain Match BTHP were used against a GMC Yukon SUV. After 50 rounds, well placed on the vehicle, a single 223 Rem fragment hit the driver in the shoulder. All of the 223 Rem bullets (69-grain Match BTHP) were found to have either deflected or broken up.
The ammo used in the Good Guys incident was, in part, a 308 Win ammo failure, at least there was room for improvement. However, the ammo used in the Yukon SUV incident was clearly a 223 Rem ammo failure. At rifle velocities, bullet construction is more important than either bullet weight or velocity.
Among the 223 Rem loads, Federal offers their Tactical® Bonded® in 55- and 62-grain loads. Hornady offers the solid brass 55-grain GMX® TAP® Barrier™ and the 62-grain TAP® Barrier®. The Remington 55-grain Power-Lokt uses an electroplated (bonded) bullet. In the Winchester line, it is the 64-grain Ranger® Bonded. For example, this Ranger Bonded softpoint penetrates 14.4 inches of ballistic gelatin after penetrating angled auto glass. For both general issue patrol use and tactical operations, strictly avoid the 69-grain Match BTHP.
Among the 308 Win loads, Federal offers their 165-grain Tactical Bonded. Better yet, they now have the 168-grain Tactical® Bonded Tip™ bullet. For typical police engagement ranges, both loads works with Bullet Drop Compensator data or scope adjustments designed for the 168-grain Match BTHP. From Hornady, check out their 165-grain GMX TAP Barrier and their 165-grain Interbond® TAP Barrier.
From the Remington line, their 165-grain Swift Sirocco Bonded is an excellent bonded rifle bullet for police use. They have lighter (150-grain) and heavier (180-grain) bonded rifle bullets, but the 165-grain load is the best fit for 168-grain bullet drop data. The best bet from Winchester in their law enforcement line is the 150-grain Ranger® XP3®.
Again, for these kind of tactical operations, strictly avoid the 168-grain Match BTHP, or have a clearly labeled second magazine with the Match load for longest-range, open-air shots. With ammunition for police tactical operations, accuracy is not the issue: after-barrier performance is.