Shotguns vs. Patrol Rifles

Shotguns vs. Patrol Rifles

In general, law enforcement agencies tend to be reactive as opposed to proactive, and often it takes tragic incidents to produce change. A North Hollywood shootout in 1997 brought attention to the fact that law enforcement agencies needed to be equipped with patrol rifles, but 21 years later, not all officers are issued one. 

The reasons, including higher costs and loyalty to the traditional shotgun, are many, but some law enforcement administrators are influenced by the AR- 15 being seen as more militaristic by critics.

Law enforcement patrol rifles are not military assault rifles, but similar to the 8 to 10 million civilian AR-15’s that are in the hands of private citizens. This is yet another reason officers should be issued a patrol rifle.

The debate between law enforcement long guns starts with shotgun advocates. They point to shotguns having the knock-down power to stop the fight with one round. On the other hand, AR-15 supporters tout its greater range and ammo capacity. The goal of this article is to realistically address these and other issues and how they directly apply to law enforcement.

Accuracy, Energy and Range

Shotguns simply do not have the accuracy and range of a patrol rifle.

Most law enforcement shotguns are equipped with cylinder bore or improved cylinder-short barrels and poor sights. The pattern of the nine .33 caliber projectiles spreads as the distance to the target increases. This limits the effective range to 15 to 20 yards. Even with extensive training and proper ammunition selection, there is still the possibility of a pellet missing the target. This is unacceptable in law enforcement because officers are accountable for each round fired.

When loaded with slugs, the shotgun’s range can be extended up to 35 to 50 yards depending on the style of sights installed. There is no denying that within 50 yards the shotgun delivers more energy than the patrol rifle, but there is a dangerous byproduct, over penetration.

The law enforcement community cannot afford a round passing through a suspect and striking someone else.

A patrol rifle, with a spin-stabilized projectile is much more likely to impact where it is aimed and not over penetrate, even at greater distances. An officer can effectively engage targets at 200-plus yards. Some may question the need to engage targets that far, but it is not unusual to find distances up to and more than 100 yards indoors. Office buildings, factories, shopping centers and schools all fit within this category and are filled with people.

Which weapon system would you want to deploy in these conditions?

Ammunition Capacity

One key advantage patrol rifles have over shotguns is the magazine capacity. Shotguns typically have a magazine capacity of 4 to 7 rounds. Patrol rifles, on the other hand, typically use a 20-30 round magazine. (Photo by Jim Robertson)

One key advantage patrol rifles have over shotguns is the magazine capacity. Shotguns typically have a magazine capacity of 4 to 7 rounds. Patrol rifles, on the other hand, typically use a 20-30 round magazine. (Photo by Jim Robertson)

The patrol rifle gives officers an increased ammunition capacity when compared to a shotgun. The shotgun has a limited magazine capacity of four to seven rounds and is more difficult to reload. When all the rounds are expended, most officers will be limited to what is physically attached to the shotgun; four to six rounds stored in a side saddle or in the buttstock. This provides the officer with a maximum of eight to 13 rounds of ammunition. If a magazine extension or ammunition storage is utilized, it produces a very heavy weapon system.

With the rifle, you can use a 20-30 round magazine, which is easily reloaded with additional magazines that can be stored on the rifle or duty belt. This provides the ammunition capacity to deal with even the worst case scenarios.

Body Armor Penetration

As witnessed in most mass shootings since a bank robbery in 1997, criminals are wearing body armor. Most shotgun ammunition cannot penetrate soft body armor, but a rifle round can. Even if the suspect is wearing rifle-rated plate armor, deploying a rifle is going to make it easier for the officer to engage the suspect in the head or pelvic girdle. The patrol rifle is providing the responding officer a better tool to end an incident quicker and safer when body armor is worn by the assailant.

Recoil and Rate of Fire

The patrol rifle’s recoil is much less than that of a shotgun, which makes it more attractive to officers and they tend to train more with it. The patrol rifle has 3.2 pounds of recoil energy compared to the shotgun’s 32 pounds. A negative result is poor marksmanship due to the anticipation of the increased recoil. Officers often will not train enough with a shotgun because of the discomfort associated with shooting it on a regular basis.

A positive result of the rifle’s light recoil is faster follow-up shots. Targets can be engaged at a much faster pace and more accurately. The shotgun, being a manually operated weapon system coupled with its high recoil, slows its rate of fire down significantly.

Weight, Adjustability and Operation

As compared to a shotgun, a patrol rifle is lighter and more ergonomic. In addition, a rifle can be fitted to a person’s stature with an adjustable stock.

The shotgun is a manually-operated weapon system. This can cause malfunctions such as short stroking the action and double feeds due to not operating it effectively. Either one can be bad news in the middle of a gun fight.

The rifle is an easier weapon system to operate due to it being a semi-automatic firearm, similar to the handgun officers are issued. The loading, unloading, reloading and malfunction processes are all very similar between the handgun and patrol rifle. This commonality between the weapon systems makes training and transitions from one to the other easier.

Hopefully this article has helped shed some light on why the law enforcement community has seen a shift away from the shotgun and toward the patrol rifle. There is no singularly-perfect weapon system or bullet, but law enforcement officers have to make smart, informed decisions on which to deploy.

For more information regarding this topic, email Joe Wallace.

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