Tactical Weapons Selection – A Primer

By Mark V. Lonsdale, Training Director

As the name indicates, Special Weapons & Tactics, weapons play a significant role in SWAT operations and training. Since most tactical operations are of the high-risk variety, often directed against sus­pects that are known to be armed and dangerous, it is obviously important that the law enforcement response have at least equal, if not superior firepower. However, it is equally important not to lose sight of the fact that select personnel, realistic training and competent leadership are the most important factors in resolving a tactical situation. As Mao Tse-tung wrote, “Weapons are an important factor in war, but not he decisive one; it is man and not materials that count”

    Training and philosophy aside, any man, woman or team intentionally going in harms way will benefit from the reassuring company of a suitable weapon. Exactly what constitutes a suitable weapon is the subject of this article.   


    Before a special response team can even consider responding to tactical operations in an urban environment, it is important that they first have a sound working knowledge of combat weapons, and more specifically close quarters weapons.  For CQB (Close Quarters Battle), building clearing and room combat there is no need at this point to concern ourselves with the longer range sniper weapons, high powered assault rifles, or squad automatic weapons. Because of their significant size, weight and lack of maneuverability, these larger weapons are simply not suited to hostage rescue training except as perimeter support weapons. It is handguns, submachine guns, carbines and, to a lesser degree, shotguns that are more suited to entry work and close quarters combat.

Mark Lonsdale test firing weapons at the H&K factory in the late 1980s


   Although many special operations teams consider the handgun a secondary weapon, only to be used if the SMG (submachine gun) malfunctions, at STTU we consider the handgun a potentially effective primary weapon in the right situations. Since most SWAT/HRT teams are drawn from the law enforcement community, and the handgun is the standard sidearm carried at all times, it is therefore logical that this be the weapon with which one should be most proficient. In addition, a high percentage of SWAT operations are directed against lone barricade suspects, in single level dwellings, with relatively small rooms. A four to eight man entry team can more than handle this with handguns if necessary. 

    Once a team acquires automatic weapons they tend to neglect their handgun skills. However, at STTU we have found that if an operator can shoot well with a handgun, he or she will be able to master the SMG or carbine with ease. But since handgun shooting is a perishable skill, those who do not dedicate time to disciplined, structured handgun shooting will lose these skills quite quickly.

    Another reason for emphasis on the handgun in tactical training is one of budget. A team will shoot less ammunition and attain a higher degree of accuracy with disciplined handgun training than they will with the hungrier burst‑fire and fully automatic weapons such as the MP-5 or M4 clone.

     A good handgun is also a valuable tool that is far more versatile when working covert operations, undercover, dignitary protection, or in plain-clothes mode.

    So let’s analyze exactly what constitutes a “suitable” handgun. A combat handgun must be first and foremost a reliable weapon with a proven record of good service under prolonged use in arduous conditions. This is important enough to repeat so read these words carefully. A handgun MUST be RELIABLE. I would personally rather stake my life on a marginally accurate handgun that goes bang every time I pull the trigger, than a custom built, high-dollar, state-of-the-art, race gun that periodically jams at the most inopportune times.    

    In addition, a combat handgun should have the following:

  • Simple, rugged design with good ergonomics (feel & natural point characteristics)
  • Sufficient power and penetration to reliably stop an assailant
  • Reasonable combat accuracy (but not so tight that it is unreliable)
  • Low-profile clear, rugged sights for rapid alignment  
  • A clean, crisp trigger and/or smooth double action
  • Adequate magazine capacity for serious “TCB”
  • A rust resistant, no glare finish 

    Finally, the weapon / caliber combination must be controllable enough to allow for rapid shot placement on multiple targets, or second and third shot follow‑up on a single determined attacker. The size and grip strength of the operator may be a consideration with recoil management.

    A large majority of US and overseas agencies are currently using high capacity nine millimeter (9 x 19mm  Parabellum) weapons, such as the Beretta 92F, SIG 226/228/229, H&K USP,  Glock, or Smith & Wesson. A few, including the British SAS switched from the venerable Browning Hi‑Power to the SIG P226, which is also an issue weapon for US Navy Seals. Both units are now also using Glocks. However, several of the elite teams are still firm believers in their tried and proven Government model forty‑fives (.45ACP). This includes components of US SOCOM, USMC Force Recon, DELTA (CAG), SEALs (DEVGRU), FBI-HRT, FBI-SWAT and LAPD SWAT.

Wilson Combat CQB in 45 ACP with light mount

     The Colt Government Model still reigns supreme for the “big bore” crowd but some police agencies have adopted the first round double-action Smith & Wessons, SIG P220s or HK USP .45s. US Special Operations Command has also opted for a forty-five in the form of the H&K USP Mk21, complete with optional suppressor, light mount and laser systems.


    Many an argument has been started over the topic of which caliber is the “best” man‑stopper – usually by armchair commandos and the so-called “experts” who write for gun magazines. Well let’s put it all to rest here and now. Any of the current combat calibers – including 9mm, .45ACP, .357 Magnum, 10mm, or 40 S&W – in the hands of a good shooter will do the job just fine. It is shot placement that is the single most important factor in stopping capability, not bullet design, velocity, diameter, or construction. As long as the bullet has sufficient power and structural integrity to penetrate the intervening body tissue and to reach a vital organ, everything else is secondary.

     Granted, permanent wound cavity is more important than temporary wound cavity, but the reality is that the projectile must penetrate to a vital organ before it dissipates its energy in expansion. A slow bleed-out is not acceptable in hostage rescue operations. Of significant importance in hostage rescue is that the villain cease all motor function immediately upon being shot, thus protecting the hostage and fellow rescue team members. So understanding that there is no “guaranteed first shot stop,” the venerable forty-five still seems to be one of the most popular rounds with a the solid track record for accuracy and reliability. But it could also be argued that more hostage takers and barricade suspects have been killed with 9mm than any other caliber. 

    So just to keep everything in perspective, a good shooter should not feel handicapped with a nine millimeter, provided the weapon has proven itself to be 100% reliable and accurate.  When teaching, I always demonstrate and shoot with the same make, model and caliber of weapon that is issued to the team that I am training, immaterial of my personal preferences or biases. It is more important that the trainees see their weapons shot well, than to lose confidence in the weapons because of my perceived preference for another make, model or caliber. However, if an agency is in the market to up-grade their handguns, then I will give them an opportunity to shoot a variety of combat handguns that we keep at STTU just for T&E purposes.


     Again, personal biases must be put aside when selecting a gun for a team. All team members should be issued the same type and caliber of weapon, and new weapons should be thoroughly tested on the range (at least 500–1000 rounds) before going into the field or used on operations. The only modifications permitted on the weapons should be those that enhance performance and do not include non‑functional gadgets that could loosen and become a liability.   

    Acceptable modifications could include:

  • Changing the grips to better suit the shooter
  • Adding rugged, high visibility sights – however most combat handguns now have these
  • Smoothing the double-action trigger and cleaning up a single action pull (but not necessarily lightening the trigger weight) 
  • Polishing the barrel feed ramp to aid feeding of hollow points
  • Open­ing the ejection port to eliminate stove pipes (Usually only required on Government models)
  • Adding night sight inserts
  • Adding a Sure-Fire light mount
  • Adding magazine pads to ensure better mag seating
  • A non-glare, rust preventive finish  

    Most of the currently available combat handguns (SIG, H&K, Beretta, Glock, S&W) require little or no work, and can be considered “combat ready” out of the box after checking for zero and reliability.

    Most feeding problems and malfunctions with modern combat handguns can usually be traced to bad magazines or inferior / incompatible ammunition. The easiest way to identify these problems is to test fire the weapon with a set of proven reliable magazines and high-grade duty ammo. Maga­zines should be marked and numbered to facilitate the identifica­tion of one that consistently causes malfunctions. If magazines have been dropped on a hard surface, the lips may have become bent and changed the angle of attack of the round trying to transition to the chamber. Some can be repaired, while others will have to be discarded.


    The primary advantages of the submachine gun (SMG) are greater ammuni­tion capacity (25-30 rounds), increased firepower and compact size. But more importantly, it is the number of accessories that can be attached to enhance performance for room combat – such as Sure-Fire light mounts and suppressors. Lastly, and not insignif­icantly, it is the confidence gained by the assault team members from the weapon’s appearance, increased capacity, and rate of fire.

    In selecting an SMG, keep in mind that it must be capable of not only rapid fire at close range, but also extremely accurate select fire. In close-proximity hostage situations, it is important that operators can engage armed suspects with precise, confident, surgical shooting, without endangering the hostages.  A “hose job” may be applicable in some military operations, but is not an acceptable form of shooting when dealing with drug raids or hostage rescues.

    There is also the psychological effect that the SMG may have on an adversary. Drug dealers, clandestine lab operators or even gang members may be less inclined to try and shoot it out with the authorities when it is noted that the raid team is armed with big, black automatic weapons. That said, an agency can’t count on the mere presence of a SWAT team and superior firepower to terminate a crisis.  There will always be political or religious fanatics gladly willing to give their lives for the cause – not to forget society’s over abundance of criminals and crazies. If you flaunt it, you had better be prepared to use it.

SWAT H&K MP5 and HK53 range time

     As with any weapon system, the SMG selection criteria should be: rugged reliability; time proven performance; accuracy; quality construction; and availability of spare parts and service. The selection of a submachine gun may well be the easiest choice your team has to make. There is one that has become the standard for most police and military special operations, and the one by which all others are judged – the H&K MP‑5, and its related systems.

     The MP‑5 was the trademark of the world’s elite – British SAS, German GSG‑9, French GIGN, US Army DELTA and US Navy SEALs. And on a local level, LASD‑SEB, LAPD SWAT, FBI‑SWAT and FBI‑HRT. This is not to say that the MP‑5 is the only suitable weapon out there, it is simply the most popular and has proven itself on countless occasions.  

     Keep in mind that the MP-5 is still only a 9mm – a caliber that is not very effective beyond 50-100 meters. Therefore many teams have opted to also issue the current version of the Colt Carbine, the flat-top M-4 in .223 Remington (5.56mm), or one of the many clones.  

     Where there is a risk of being caught in the open, or a little more range and power is called for, many teams have adopted the M4 or H&K‑53, a 5.56mm version of the MP‑5. US Customs teams were working with the Steyr AUG in .223 Rem, while others still have the Ruger AC556 in inventory. Our first choice at STTU is the M4 or one of many high quality clones with their wide variety of day and night optical and laser sighting systems.

FN M4 5.56mm with Leupold close quarters scope and light mount

    In our experience, for the teams who already have MP-5s, the HK53 makes for a very good partnership since both function the same and require little retrain­ing. But if the team is already familiar with and using the M‑16 / CAR-15, then the M4s in 5.56mm may be a more convenient or cost effective route to take. Retraining requires time, money and considerable effort and it is wise to avoid switching between functionally different weapons systems.

      One of the carbine or submachine guns’ most significant advantages over the handgun as an offensive weapon is the number of accessories that can be integrated into the weapon system. These include but are not limited to:

  • Integral fore‑end light mount for darkened rooms (Sure-Fire)
  • After market flashlight brackets
  • Conventional scope sights for longer range precision shooting
  • Red‑or Green-dot type laser projectors for enhanced shot placement
  • Invisible IR laser designators to be used in conjunction with night vision goggles (the PEQ)
  • Suppressors for those times when noise could compromise an approach
  • Blank firing attachments (BFA) for training purposes
  • Fixed or folding stocks for increased control or concealability
  • A sling attachment to allow hands-free work such as cuffing suspects, climbing or rappelling

     The most important accessory listed above is the light mount. If you can’t see ‘em, ya can’t shoot ‘em – or at least the correct ones. Since most criminal activity and the related tactical operations take place at night, and most room combat is in poorly lighted rooms, hallways, stairwells and structures, it is only logical that the shooter would need to be able to illuminate rooms, suspects and potential targets. It is also difficult at the best of times to juggle both a flashlight and a weapon, let alone open doors and handle the occupants. With the light attached to the weapon, the shooter can conveniently bring the weapon to bear, wherever the light is pointed. Light mounts are not intended or factory recommended as aiming devices, but they definitely hasten and simplify the aiming process. 


    The shotgun is an excellent multi‑purpose weapon in many situa­tions, but its role in crisis entry and hostage rescue is re­stricted. There is no denying the awesome knock‑down power of a full load of magnum buckshot at close range, but the shotgun’s limited magazine capacity (4 – 8 rounds) and marginal accuracy make it unsuitable as a primary entry weapon. In addition, the shotgun’s length makes it difficult to get through doorways and the heavier recoil only slows second shot follow‑up.

     Any assault weapon intended for CQB, must be able to make guaran­teed close proximity hostage-taker headshots. The increasing spread of the shot pattern (approximately 1″ per meter) will only serve to endanger the hostages, fellow team members. or other by‑stand­ers. 

    The shotgun can be used is as a perimeter or breaching weapon. Perimeter teams can use the shotgun to fire Ferret rounds (OC/CS/CN gas) or launch larger gas grenades into a structure. Entry teams can use the shotgun with the frangible Shok‑Lock type breaching rounds to blow hinges or locks, especially on interior doors. Some team members will carry a sawn‑off Remington 870 in a leg holster or on a sling, for the sole purpose of blowing locks and hinges, especially when internal door charges (IDC) are neither available nor appropriate.

    If for budgetary or policy reasons the team is stuck with shotguns as an alternative to SMGs, then the shooters have two options. They either use their handguns as the primary entry weapon, or put a lot of time into understanding shot spread and perfecting scalloping techniques for partially exposed head­shots. It is possible but it takes hard work and continuous practice.


    Ammunition is probably one of the single highest, recurring, budgetary ex­penditures incurred in the training of a special weapons team. It is not unusual for high speed teams to shoot 500 to 1000 rounds per week, per man. We often shoot 200 to 400 rounds per day, per man when involved in firearms training. After initial weapons skills have been mastered, a maintenance program should still allow each man 100 – 200 rounds per week for each weapon system – handgun, SMG, and carbine.  Agencies and operators training on less are incurring a significant liabil­ity exposure.

The basic criteria for ammunition selection should be:

  • Provided by a large, reputable manufacturer
  • Consistently high standard
  • Functionally reliable in all weapons
  • Sufficient penetration to reach a vital area (even with lateral chest shots)
  • Combat accurate (2-3” at 15 meters)
  • Purchased in bulk lot numbers for consistency and economy

    We recommend avoiding the expensive trick ammunition, “super hot” loads and  “killer” bullets that are constantly being advertised as the solution to all problems. They tend to be too expensive to train with, tend to have erratic feeding and function, and are seldom accurate. Go for consistency, reliability, accuracy, quality and economy.

    Rather than waste money on expensive ammo, simply invest in a larger quantity of less expensive but still reliable ammunition. More bullets means more practice and that is most important. Better to hit with one or two less expensive bullets than miss with several expensive bullets.


     Whatever weapons a team is equipped with, it is critical that they master them. There is no substitute for many hours of structured, disciplined training and trigger time behind the weapon. If the budget for new toys is simply not there, don’t waste time complaining about the issued weapons. Do the best with what you have and try to substitute good training and tactics for marginal firepower.

    Where training time is limited, SWAT team members should be encourage to hone individual shooting skills on their own time, and save those all too precious training days for working on team skills such as live‑fire entry and room combat. Team members who are not willing to spend some of their own time and money on individual training are not an asset to the team and should be replaced by more motivated individuals.

 For As We Train ‑ So Shall We Fight

For as We Fight – So Must We Train

“It is not sufficient that the soldier must shoot, he must shoot well”Napoleon  (1769–1821)

STTU books by Mark V. Lonsdale

About Mark V

Dedicated shooter, seeker, traveler, teacher, trainer, educator
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