A Brief History
On April 11, 1986, a tragic shootout between 8 FBI agents and 2 bank robbers in Miami, Florida, resulted in the deaths of 2 agents and both suspects, and the wounding of 5 other agents. The failure of the FBI tactics and firearms resulted in a revolution in police firepower.
The subjects had murdered another man and stolen his car, and then went on a robbery spree. Both suspects were US Army veterans (one had also served in the Marine Corps) and may have been responsible for the murders of their wives. Neither man had been convicted of a crime prior to the shootout. The suspects shot another man, left him for dead, and stole his car. That man survived to report the shooting and stolen car.
The FBI had identified the car used by the suspects and had flooded the area with FBI agents in government cars looking for the unidentified suspects, a technique called a “rolling stakeout” employing 14 agents in 11 cars. When the stolen car with 2 suspects was spotted, an attempt was made to ram the suspect vehicle and block it in with the FBI cars. A shootout ensued when the suspect vehicle was stopped, with 4 FBI cars containing 8 agents involved.
Unfortunately, 5 of the FBI agents were armed with .357 Magnum revolvers loaded with .38 Special +P lead hollow point bullets, limiting them to 6 rounds in the gun and ammunition that was not particularly effective at penetrating barriers (autos, auto glass, etc) and had marginal penetration in humans. The other 3 agents carried S&W Model 459 9mm semi-automatic pistols with 14 round magazines (bullet type unknown, but back then bullet technology was such that 9mm ammunition was nowhere near as effective as it is today). Before any FBI agent had been shot, an agent shot suspect Michael Platt, armed with a Ruger Mini-14 in 5.56mm caliber (M-16 ammo) with the bullet penetrating to within 2 inches of Platt’s heart. Had that bullet been a better bullet or heavier caliber, the fight could have ended then.
Suspect William Matix fired only 1 round of 12 gauge #6 shot before he was incapacitated and later died of 6 gunshot wounds. Platt fired a total of at least 42 rounds of 5.56mm ammo, bullets that had much greater penetration and lethality than pistol bullets, as well as being easier to fire accurately. He also fired 3 rounds of .357 ammunition from his revolver and 3 more from Matix’s revolver. One FBI agent lost his revolver when his car door opened during collision with the suspect vehicle and the pistol, which he had on his lap, flew out the door! This agent never got a chance to fire and was slightly wounded. The 2 agents that were killed fired 20 and 9 rounds respectively from their 9mm pistols. The other agent armed with a 9mm semi-auto emptied his 14 round magazine and instead of reloading, dropped his pistol and grabbed his .38 Special back up revolver, firing 1 shot from it (the only agent not wounded). Another agent used a 12 gauge shotgun, firing all 5 rounds of 00 Buckshot in it and then pulling his revolver and fired all 6 rounds, not reloading either gun due to wounds. The sixth agent fired all 6 rounds from his revolver, reloaded, and fired 6 more. Another agent lost track of his revolver during the car stop, and instead pulled his 5 shot .38 Special back up gun, firing all 5 shots before being disabled. The last FBI agent involved fired the 6 shots in his revolver before being wounded and did not reload.
Suspect Matix had fired only the 1 round of birdshot, slightly wounding 1 agent before being incapacitated. Suspect Platt was seriously wounded before he shot anyone, but continued to fight and hit agents with gunshots from the Ruger Mini-14, not stopping until he had been hit the twelfth time!
Taking 12 bullets to stop an offender in a gunfight was obviously not acceptable to the FBI. Only one agent put his vest on prior to the shootout, though each agent had been issued a vest capable of stopping pistol bullets, but not 5.56mm rifle bullets. Ensuring agents wore their vests was a partial fix, and providing vests capable of stopping rifle bullets for special circumstances was recognized as a “good idea.” (My quotes.) Providing rifle caliber carbines for serious shootouts and/or making the shotgun more accessible (than in the trunk) was also pointed out as part of the solution.
An FBI investigation of providing better stopping power quickly ruled out .38 Special and 9mm pistols and revolvers as inadequate in penetration. It was found that penetration was a key to putting down a suspect, with permanent wound cavity and tissue damage much more important than temporary (stretching type) wound cavity. Only extreme disruption to the nervous system or massive blood loss could reliably put a man down, otherwise even a mortally wounded person could keep fighting for several minutes. The use of semi-automatic pistols instead of revolvers was also blatantly obvious, with higher capacity and quicker, easier reloading. This made the .45 ACP caliber pistols the most likely answer, but a suggestion to try 10mm Auto caliber pistols, a new caliber since 1983. The .45 was found to be quite effective, as was the 10mm. The FBI adopted the 10mm, but found the round to have excessive recoil and result in a large grip size due to the length of the rounds (same problem for the .45) which gave women and small men a problem.
The FBI worked with Smith & Wesson to shorten the 10mm round to fit in pistols sized for the 9mm cartridge at reduced velocity, firing a 185 grain bullet at 950 feet per second. Called the .40 S&W, this became the FBI preferred round and was adopted by numerous police departments. With police departments across the country looking to the FBI, many switched to .40 S&W pistols or .45 ACP pistols. Other careful observers were ammunition companies, which worked feverishly to produce ammunition in most police type calibers that met the FBI specifications for penetration into flesh and through various barriers. The result has been a quantum increase in police ammunition effectiveness, regardless of caliber, though personally, I would always prefer a .45 ACP or .40 S&W pistol for duty carry.
The FBI found that overpenetration was simply not a realistic problem. About 80% of police bullets fired in shootouts miss anyway, so there are enough police bullets available to hit innocent people already. The FBI did come up with testing bullets against 5 sets of barriers to gauge penetration into flesh after passing the barrier, those being Wallboard, Auto Glass, Auto sheet metal, plywood, and heavy winter clothing, as well as bare ballistic gelatin (that simulate flesh). Ideal penetration is listed at 14 to 16 inches into the gelatin after defeating the barrier. Less penetration or overpenetration gets points taken away, with 100 points for each barrier test, or 500 total points. Theoretically, the bullet with the highest point total would be the best overall round, although of course passing each test would be mandatory. If this is not quite complicated enough, the FBI also grades bullet expansion and weight retention (of the bullet after shooting into the target).
Just to muddy up the waters once again, in 2014-2015 the FBI decided to test the latest 9mm pistols and ammunition and appeared to choose the SIG 320 chambered in 9mm (aka, 9mm Luger, 9mm Parabellum, or 9X19mm). Then, in 2016 the change to Glock 17 and Glock 19 was made instead of the SIG. Rationale for the switch to 9mm is the extreme improvement in 9mm bullet performance in the testing protocol, higher magazine capacity, less recoil=easier to shoot accurately, and less wear on the pistol. Oh, and the ammo is cheaper.
Just about every article you can find about FBI or police ammunition testing or selection references the 1986 Miami FBI Shootout, making this event one of the most important in police firearms history. Question for students (and subscribers): What pistol in what caliber would you prefer to carry on duty as a law enforcement officer? How important is cost? (Some cities may say, very important.) What matters more, shootability/low recoil, amount of rounds in the magazine, or lethality of the round itself? Please share your opinions on these matters in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Anderson, W. French. Forensic Analysis Of The April 11, 1986, FBI Firefight. Paladin Press, 2006.