Bushwhacked, dry-gulched, ambushed, waylaid — whatever you want to call it, law enforcement officers are being attacked and killed while seated in their patrol vehicles. The Officer Down Memorial Page lists 146 police deaths in the line of duty in 2016, and 16 of those centered on ambush-style killings, matching 2014 as the deadliest year for such attacks, according to USA Today.
There are essentially two types of ambushes befalling police officers: carefully planned and spur-of-the-moment. Fortunately, carefully planned ambushes on police officers are rare. Having been involved in the planning and execution of ambushes in Vietnam, I can attest to the fact that the likelihood of surviving one is slim to none.
The unplanned ambush can be sudden and deadly with little, if any, forewarning. Officers have been shot and killed while seated in their patrol unit writing a report or doing other required paperwork. Officers have been attacked in their vehicles while waiting in line at a fast food drive-thru or by simply driving down the street on routine patrol.
A police officer should never drive a marked police car without wearing soft body armor. As accommodating as it may be, taking a marked car to the range or anywhere else while in civilian clothing without wearing soft body armor is a dangerous habit. Soft body armor has saved approximately 2,400 lives, and can only save yours if you’re wearing it.
A marked patrol car or a uniformed officer can become a target at anytime and anywhere, requiring police officers to think tactically whenever on duty.
Tactical thinking simply means being prepared to evade a critical incident and defend your life with deadly force should it become necessary. As simple as that sounds, thinking tactically requires advanced tactical training.
Being attacked in or near vehicles presents several uncommon problems. Officers may not know where the fire is coming from, who is involved, weapon type, any possible escape routes, available cover, and they may not have the time to sort it all out.
The worst thing an officer can do in an ambush situation is hesitate and do nothing. If at all possible, either drive or back out of the attack area, stay low and use the bulk of the unit for cover. Patrol units can provide protection or become a trap, depending on the officer’s training. The car’s engine block, body, firewall and doors can provide protection against incoming fire.
For my personal knowledge, I have shot into and from inside several cars with handguns, rifles and shotguns. The knowledge I accumulated from this live-fire testing proved invaluable when training officers how to successfully engage targets when firing into and from inside automobiles.
The side glass provides little to no protection, and when hit by bullets, it will burst into hundreds of small flying sharp-edged projectiles unless the glass has been tinted. Aftermarket tinted glass will not burst when hit with bullets; it will stay in one piece and spider web, making it impossible to see through, and any additional hits will simply leave another hole. There is little if any bullet deformation, deflection or velocity loss when shooting through rear windows or side glass at 90 degrees.
The front windshields of automobiles are made of safety glass and are extremely destructive to small-arms projectiles. When penetrating safety glass, small-arms projectiles cause little damage, leaving a small hole and a few cracks around the hole. Bullet jackets will routinely separate from the core when fired into automobile safety glass and either deflect up or down.
Caliber and/or velocity had little bearing on the end result when fired through automobile safety glass. The slope of the windshield will deflect bullets up when firing from inside the unit, and will deflect them down when firing into a car.
The only bullets that always defeat safety glass and stay in one piece without jacket core separation are bonded bullets. The windshield will still cause a substantial loss in velocity along with bullet deformation and deflection. I have never seen jacket separation occur with bonded pistol or rifle bullets, but they do deflect and deform when penetrating safety glass.
The amount of bullet deflection and velocity loss is substantial at a close range. When fired into or from inside a car, bullets will deflect from 4 to 8 inches at a distance of approximately 8 feet. When firing from inside the unit through the windshield, aim low, as the bullet will be deflected up approximately eight inches after penetration.
While testing for the amount of bullet deflection, I also discovered a substantial loss of velocity when penetrating safety glass. The first round would not knock over a steel target that was calibrated to fall down with a centered hit from my 40-caliber duty pistol.
The reaction steel target was placed at the front bumper of the test unit facing the driver’s seat. I found it necessary to fire two rounds through the same hole to knock the test target over. Selecting a different spot of the windshield to fire through resulted in the same first-round failure to knock over the test target.
When firing into a car through the windshield at an identified threat, aim high as the bullet will be deflected down roughly 4 inches between the windshield and the target. Again, it is necessary to fire at least two rounds through the same hole for maximum effect.
The shooting decision
If shooting from inside a vehicle becomes necessary, there are several factors the officer must consider, including:
the construction and angle of the windshield
bullet deflection after penetration
point of aim for effective hits
accessing the secured sidearm
The muzzle blast will force the shattered glass away from the shooter, reducing the possibility of being injured from flying glass. Using the car for cover and evasion are skills that officers must be taught and then allowed to practice.
Acquiring enough unserviceable vehicles with glass in them for each officer to practice from is a difficult task. However, teaching the officer what to expect when shooting through automobile glass and how to draw and fire from a seated position is not. A slide or video tape presentation of the instructor drawing and shooting through the glass while seated in a car will illustrate the effects of bullets penetrating automobile glass.
Teaching the officer to draw from a seated position without letting the muzzle cross any portion of his/her body can be accomplished with a chair. The techniques of accessing, withdrawing and presenting the pistol are uncomplicated and can be performed on any range.
The following techniques should be practiced with empty handguns until the officers are confident in their ability to draw and not cross any portion of their bodies with the muzzle. The drawing techniques will start with the officer seated in a car (chair) with the door closed, both hands on the steering wheel and the seat belt secured.
Drawing to the front — right- or left-handed officer
The officer should use the support hand (nongun hand) and steering wheel to pull his/her body forward, simultaneously pushing the dominant (gun side) knee toward the support side. This movement will get the gun-butt away from the seat back and move the dominant leg away from the muzzle.
At the same time, the dominant (gun) hand will access, withdraw and present the pistol to the target. A two-handed shooting grip should be used with both hands joining and gripping the pistol as it clears the steering wheel.
Push the pistol fully forward as you push your body back into the seat for stability. Fire at least two rounds through the windshield with the second bullet going through the hole created by the first bullet.
Right-handed driver drawing to the passenger’s side
This technique will prevent the officer from crossing any part of his or her body with the muzzle. The officer should use the support hand and steering wheel to pull his or her body forward, simultaneously pushing the dominant leg toward the support side. Again, this movement will get the gun-butt away from the seat back and move the dominant leg away from the muzzle.
At the same time, the dominant hand will access and withdraw the pistol straight up to the target with the dominant hand only firing at least two rounds. With the multitude of electronic equipment installed in patrol cars today, pivoting in the seat to fully face the passenger side is impossible, forcing the officer to fire one-handed.
Right-handed driver drawing to the driver’s side
Drawing from the dominant side to the support side places the officer at a greater risk of crossing his or her lower body with the muzzle. The natural tendency is to move the pistol directly toward the target crossing the lower body with the muzzle. Considerable caution must be taken by the officer to prevent this from occurring.
The officer should use the support hand and steering wheel to pull his or her body forward, simultaneously pushing the dominant leg toward the support side for the reasons stated above. The dominant hand will access and withdraw the pistol forward and up to the steering wheel, then swing the pistol across the steering wheel joining the support hand for a two-handed firing grip.
To prevent the muzzle from hitting the side glass, the pistol must be held 4 to 6 inches in front of the face at eye level. With a two-handed shooting grip, lean toward the passenger side and fire two well-aimed shots. The muzzle blast will force most of the shattered glass away from the shooter.
Left-handed driver drawing to the passenger’s side
Left-handed officers have a slight advantage when firing from a seated position inside a vehicle. They will be able to use a two-handed grip no matter which direction the target is engage.
The officer should use the support hand and steering wheel to pull his or her body forward, simultaneously pushing the dominant knee toward the support side. The dominant hand will access and withdraw the pistol forward and up to the steering wheel, then swing the pistol across the steering wheel joining the support hand for a two-handed grip.
The officer’s upper body will pivot at the shoulders, allowing the officer’s chest to face the target while firing two well-aimed shoots.
Left-handed driver drawing to the driver’s side
The left-handed officer must transfer the pistol to the support hand when drawing toward the driver’s side. This technique will also work for a right-handed officer seated on the passenger’s side of a vehicle drawing toward the passenger side.
The officer will use the support hand to pull his or her body forward, simultaneously pushing the dominant knee toward the support side. The dominant hand will access and withdraw the pistol forward and up toward the steering wheel. The officer must then transfer the pistol to the support hand establishing a two-handed grip.
To prevent the muzzle from hitting the side glass, the pistol will be held about 4 to 6 inches in front of the face at eye level. With a two-handed shooting grip, lean toward the passenger side and fire two well-aimed shoots. The muzzle blast will force most of the shattered glass away from the shooter.
When a right-handed officer is riding on the passenger’s side, he or she will perform the same technique by drawing with the dominant hand, then transferring the pistol to the support hand, establishing a two-handed grip, leaning toward to driver’s side to prevent the muzzle from hitting the side glass. Again, the pistol will be held at a position of 4 to 6 inches in front of the face at eye level firing two well-aimed shots with the muzzle blast forcing most of the shattered glass away from the officer.
The ability to draw while seated in a vehicle without shooting oneself, and the knowledge necessary to successfully engage threats through automobile glass are of prime importance. Shooting through any barrier will cause most people to hesitate. As we know, hesitation can get officers killed.
If you can see through it and identify a threat, you can shoot through it.
By Larry J. Nichols | Exclusive MultiBrief
Larry J. Nichols retired in 2011 with 27 years of honorable service as the Senior Rangemaster/Armorer from the Burbank Police Department in California. Larry served five years with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department as their Firearms Instructor/Armorer before moving to Burbank. He has more than 40 years of experience as a professional firearms instructor, with more than 32 years as a law enforcement lethal and less-lethal force instructor.