November 17, 2023
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In a previous article, we used the publication of the new book by highly decorated FBI Special Agent Ed Mireles to explore the details of the 1986 FBI Miami firefight, of which he is considered the hero. His book, FBI Miami Firefight, Five Minutes That Changed the Bureau, is available at EdMireles.com. This firefight involved eight FBI agents versus two serial bank robbers, Michael Lee Platt and William Russell Matix — actually, for most of the fight it was seven FBI agents against one criminal (Platt) armed with a revolver and a Ruger Mini-14 .223…and Platt almost won.
Read Part 1 of The FBI Miami Firefight
After a near five-minute gun battle, an estimated 140–150 rounds had been fired, two FBI agents were dead, five were wounded (three critically), and the criminals were dead on scene…but the end of the gunfight was just the beginning of the controversy. The impact this incident would have on law enforcement was just beginning, and still continues to this day. I believe the 1986 FBI Miami shootout is the most influential gunfight in the history of American law enforcement, because of the changes it caused to law enforcement training, tactics, firearms, and ammunition. If you visit any online firearms forum that has been in existence for more than five years, you can find at least one very long thread dedicated solely to the FBI Miami shootout. In-between the ignorant armchair “experts”, hivemind hate, and tinfoil hat insanity that make up three-fourths of all forum posts everywhere, you can find serious people trying to work through the scenario those FBI agents were faced that day.
The posters’ thoughts tend to be grouped as follows:
- The FBI agents on scene seemed to be woefully unprepared and undergunned for the situation that they should have been expecting based on the activities of these two suspects.
- The FBI agents showed very poor marksmanship.
- Their marksmanship wasn’t the problem, the problem was the ammo they were using, especially the one bullet fired by Special Agent Jerry Dove that should have stopped the fight and prevented FBI agents from getting killed but didn’t.
- The ammo performed exactly as intended, it was a fatal wound. Handguns are poor fight stoppers. This is no surprise, it has been known since the 1800s — if you’re expecting a fight bring a rifle — see #1.
Because of how the FBI reacted to this incident the entire landscape of American law enforcement has been changed, from tactics to guns to ammunition, and those changes have had a drastic effect on private citizens and the commercial market as well. Let’s start by looking at the ammunition issue first.
The Magic Bullet
Like all law enforcement agencies, the FBI tends to circle its wagons around its people (Peter Strzok anyone?). As a result, they tended to focus the lion’s share of their attention, and more importantly the blame, on the handgun ammo they were using that day in Miami. They didn’t like how the handgun bullets didn’t penetrate cars. They specifically blamed the “poorly performing” bullet fired by Jerry Dove into Platt that, the FBI says, had it done its job, would have prevented the deaths of their agents and stopped the fight. Fired out of his Smith & Wesson Model 459 semi-auto, Jerry Dove’s 115-grain 9mm Winchester Silvertip bullet hit Platt in the lower part of his right bicep. It traveled up into his arm, severing the brachial artery and nerve, then exited the arm and hit the right side of Platt’s chest where it penetrated his right lung. The bullet punched into Platt’s right lung and stopped an inch or two short of his heart.
This was a fatal wound. A forensic analysis showed that by the end of the firefight Platt had lost approximately half his blood volume mostly due to this pistol bullet severing his brachial artery. This one bullet severed a major artery, punctured/collapsed a lung, and penetrated 8–10 inches of tissue between Platt’s arm and chest cavity combined. Many people would argue that the bullet did all that could be expected of a handgun bullet. The FBI found this unacceptable and repeatedly called this an “ammunition failure”. But…this bullet was one of only several handgun wounds Platt took that day…and he continued to fight. Having found their boogeyman, the FBI launched a massive effort to change the playing field when it came to defensive handgun ammunition. First it had to decide what good performance was. And that it had to come up with a way to test ammo under controlled, scientific conditions. And so, the FBI Ammunition Testing Protocol was born.
Developed by the FBI’s Firearms Training Unit (FTU), the “FBI Protocol” is a very involved process to test defensive handgun ammunition. Using properly calibrated 10% ballistic gelatin blocks as a tissue simulant the FBI came up with eight very specific tests. The FBI tests are very exact, down to thread count on the type of clothing put over the gel block, but here’s a brief summary:
Test 1: Bare gelatin at 10 feet, the “control” test.
Test 2: Heavy clothing over the gel block (cotton t-shirt, cotton overshirt, 10 oz down, 13 oz cotton denim).
Test 3: Steel — two pieces of 20-gauge galvanized steel set three inches apart, designed to simulate the weakest part of a car door. Gel block 18 inches behind the barrier covered with “light clothing” (one layer of cotton t-shirt material, one layer of thicker cotton shirt material i.e. flannel)
Test 4: Wallboard/drywall — two pieces of ½-inch drywall set 3.5 inches apart, simulating an interior building wall. Gel block 18 inches behind the barrier covered with light clothing.
Test 5: Plywood — one piece of 3/4-inch plywood. Gel block 18 inches behind the barrier covered with light clothing.
Test 6: Auto glass. One piece of 1/4-inch auto safety glass angled 45 degrees down and 15 degrees to the side, set 18 inches in front of a gel block covered in light clothing.
Test 7: Heavy clothing at 20 yards. A repeat of Test #2 only at longer distance.
Test 8: Auto glass at 20 yards.
In addition to the above, each cartridge is tested for velocity and accuracy through both a test barrel and an actual service weapon. It was a lack of penetration in the FBI shootout that the FBI was concerned with, so while expansion of a hollowpoint bullet is fine, and the more weight retention the better, the FBI ammunition testing heavily weights bullet penetration. They feel bullets should penetrate a minimum twelve inches but preferably not more than eighteen inches. The toughest test in the protocol is the auto glass. Auto glass tends to strip the petals off hollowpoints and the jackets off bullets, reducing their weight sometimes by half, and therefore reducing their penetration.
Ed Mireles was there when the FBI’s ammunition testing protocol was born, and has some interesting observations. From his book: “The study also proved something many law enforcement agencies have known: The expansion of hollow point bullets is unreliable. In the tests where hollow point bullets had to penetrate barriers like dry wall and plywood, expansion was rare. Shots through both wallboard and plywood showed that the hollow point was routinely plugged by material and the projectile deformed as if it were a round nose (ball) bullet. Shooting through car doors and front windshield glass was telling. Most shots through windshield glass and car doors stripped out about 50 percent of the bullet weight as it passed through the barrier.” No .38 Special or 9mm load of the day passed the FBI ammunition protocol tests. During the testing, FBI FTU agent John Hall used his personal Colt Delta Elite, chambered in the then-new 10mm cartridge. Everyone was impressed by the performance of the 10mm in the FBI ballistic tests.
To cut a long story very short, the FBI decided the 10mm cartridge was the way to go. Smith & Wesson cooperated and introduced a pistol or two for the new cartridge (including the S&W 1076 “FBI Model”), but FBI management soon realized two things: Recoil of the standard 10mm cartridge was more than what most agents could handle. Because the 10mm cartridge was the length of the .45 ACP, it could only fit into guns big enough to handle the .45 ACP, which meant female agents and those of small stature had issues gripping those guns. Issue #1 was addressed by downloading the cartridge. The FBI learned that the best performing load, achieving the desired penetration depth without excessive recoil, was a 170–180 grain bullet travelling 900–1000 fps. This was nicknamed the 10mm Lite. However, it still was the length of the .45 ACP, and it was short-lived with the Bureau. The .40 S&W cartridge, a joint venture between Smith & Wesson and Winchester debuting at the 1990 SHOT Show, was the solution. Engineers basically shortened the 10mm Lite cartridge to the length of the 9mm. Same bullet diameter, same bullet weight, same velocity, just in a more compact package designed to fit into pistols sized for the 9mm cartridge. The typical .40 S&W loading is a 180-grain .40 bullet traveling about 1000 fps.
This cartridge was basically invented to satisfy the requirements of the FBI Ammunition Testing Protocol, which was created out of the aftermath of the FBI Miami shootout. At the time of the development of the .40 S&W cartridge, bullet manufacturing technology was not anywhere as advanced as it is today. Getting a hollow-point bullet to expand at handgun velocities was a “maybe” proposition. Therefore, bigger bullets were always thought to be better. The FBI adopted the .40 S&W and where the FBI goes, the rest of law enforcement in America tends to follow. Ed Mireles writes, in FBI Miami Firefight, “Keeping in mind that the Wound Ballistics Workshop concluded that size does matter, and the ballistics testing demonstrated that shooting through barriers affects bullet performance, the FTU selected the .40 caliber round as the optimum service round to be carried by FBI agents.”
This is an interesting perspective from someone who was there at the birth of the FBI Ammunition Testing Protocol. Mireles added this caveat, which is telling: “It has been a long time since I retired, so maybe bullet manufacturers have improved their rounds to surpass the original test results.” They have. In early 2016 the FBI Training Division published a letter which is a complete reversal for the Bureau—a recommendation for law enforcement use of the 9mm for duty carry, and a summary of their reasons for this decision. In part they wrote, “Due to the elastic nature of most human tissue and the low velocity of handgun projectiles relative to rifle projectiles, it has long been established by medical professionals, experienced in evaluating gunshot wounds, that the damage along a wound path visible at autopsy or during surgery cannot be distinguished between the common handgun calibers used in law enforcement. That is to say an operating room surgeon or Medical Examiner cannot distinguish the difference between wounds caused by .35 to .45 caliber projectiles.” In the past 30 years there has been a huge improvement in handgun bullet hollowpoint design and performance. The main reason for this?
The FBI Ammunition Testing Protocol
By developing a standardized repeatable test for defensive ammunition, the FBI has inadvertently (or maybe not so inadvertently) pushed ammunition manufacturers to make better bullets. Today, most law enforcement agencies won’t even look at an ammo offering unless it advertised by the manufacturer to pass the FBI Protocol. Bullets have gotten so much better that the FBI recently announced that they were moving away from the .40 S&W…to the 9mm. Over the past 10+ years I have observed representatives from Hornady, Black Hills, Remington and Winchester ammunition companies put their handgun ammo through full FBI Ammunition Testing Protocols. I have also observed gel test demonstrations by Barnes and Doubletap, and done a huge amount of testing myself, often through FBI barriers (drywall, plywood, steel, etc).
To be honest, these days it is rare to see a handgun bullet that doesn’t meet the FBI standards for penetration, even through steel and auto glass. In part, that is because, to pass the FBI Protocol, ammunition companies have invented several ways to bond the core of the bullet to the jacket to increase retained weight after pass through tough barriers like steel and auto glass. Actually, bullet performance is now such a given that ammunition companies are experimenting with different techniques to achieve the desired results—take the Remington Golden Saber line of ammo, which uses a mechanical belt to bond the core, making this ammo cheaper than ammo with electrochemically bonded cores…yet it still passes the FBI Protocol. The FBI recently adopted the Hornady Critical Duty 135-grain 9mm+P round as their duty load. This entire ammunition line was specifically designed to pass the FBI Protocol.
The Switch To Semi-Autos
At the time of the FBI Miami Shootout law enforcement agencies were starting to adopt semi-auto pistols as duty weapons, although revolvers were still very common. Take a look at the 14 agents assigned to the C-1 Miami Bank Robbery Squad of the Miami Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (eight of which were involved in the famous FBI Miami Shootout). Five of those agents were armed with 15-shot 9mm semi-autos (S&W Model 459s to be specific), nine of them with revolvers. During the shootout, several of the FBI agents armed with revolvers struggled to get them reloaded. Gordon McNeill was shot in the right hand during the gunfight, and struggled to reload his revolver. After getting four rounds into the cylinder he tried to get back into the fight, only to discover he’d gotten so much blood (and bone fragments) into the cylinder of his revolver it wouldn’t close.
A check of the numbers showed the agents on scene armed with semi-auto pistols fired an average 15 shots, and those with revolvers fired an average 6 shots, with only one agent successfully reloading his revolver (Gilbert Orrantia, 40–50 yards away from the criminals). It’s no secret that revolvers hold fewer rounds than magazine-fed semi-autos, and are harder and slower to reload, but it wasn’t until the Miami shootout that the FBI decided to go with a semi-auto pistol duty weapon. As I said, law enforcement agencies around the country were already starting to move in that direction, but as soon as the FBI announced they were ditching revolvers and going with semi-auto duty pistols the gentle drift toward semi-autos away from revolvers became a nationwide stampede. Remember, where the FBI goes, American police agencies tend to follow.
The LAPD is one of the largest police departments in the country, and because of Hollywood the rest of America has gotten to know them — and their guns — very well. The LAPD was one of the first large agencies to move to semi-autos; in fact, they first authorized their officers to carry S&W and Beretta semi-auto pistols in May 1986, one month after the FBI Miami shootout. To some extent, everyone is affected by popular culture and two very successful movies highlighted the Beretta pistols carried by LAPD officers — Lethal Weapon (1987) and Die Hard (1988). Don’t think that didn’t sway some officers and police department administrators toward “high capacity” semi-auto duty pistols.
Detractors of the FBI like to point out the “poor” shooting displayed by the agents in this incident. The eight FBI agents on scene fired approximately 100 rounds at the bad guys (the term ‘suspects’ doesn’t seem an accurate description to me of people actively involved in a gunfight with law enforcement), scoring a total of 18 hits, five of which were from Ed Mireles’ revolver as he closed distance. Michael Lee Platt fired an estimated 45 rounds, almost all of those out of his Ruger Mini-14 rifle. He killed two agents and injured at least four more with that rifle. He was a military veteran who was an avid shooter, and even though he only hit about 25% of his shots in the gunfight — the rest either missed or were absorbed by the vehicles on the scene.
Still, Platt did a better job of hitting what he was aiming at, and the main reason for this is he was using a rifle. Handguns are the hardest type of firearms to shoot accurately at any speed, and are much harder to hit with at distance than a long gun. While the FBI repeatedly has stated that they weren’t “outgunned” in this shootout, and Mireles repeats that several times in his book, the fact of the matter is that agents armed with handguns went up against a bad guy with a rifle, and it is no surprise the rifle did a good job chewing them up. While publicly the FBI kept repeating the “we weren’t outgunned, it was a failure of ammunition” mantra, the fact of the matter is they procured more long guns for their agents: shotguns and semi-auto HK MP-5s. The increased number of long guns meant that every two agents would have a shotgun or MP-5 with them. Even though the 9mm round doesn’t hit much harder out of an MP-5s barrel than a pistol, it is far easier to hit targets at distance with an MP-5. Plus, the magazines of the MP-5 hold thirty rounds.
In fact, because of their new love affair with the 10mm round, the FBI had enough clout to leverage gunmaker Heckler und Koch to make MP-5s chambered in 10mm. There were never a lot of these guns made, but everyone I know who has shot one loved it. A shoulder-arm chambered in 10mm seems an awesome idea for an “urban carbine”. In fact, a few Thompson SMGs were chambered in 10mm for the FBI as well, and they are even more rare than 10mm MP-5s. The FBI also authorized agents — even regular non-SWAT trained agents — to purchase their own rifles for use on duty. The stipulations were that the rifles had to be consistent with the Colt M-16 platform, and if they didn’t have SWAT training the agent was restricted by buying a semi-auto rifle. The FBI also designed new gun racks for their vehicles to accommodate all these new long guns. As FBI cars are unmarked, the racks had to hold the long guns securely, allow them to be easily accessible by agents in the front seat, and yet keep the long guns out of sight.
Rifles in the hands and vehicles of regular agents? This was a huge change for the Bureau, and not that common in American law enforcement at the time. Rifles were usually only used by SWAT-team members — regular street cops had shotguns to augment their pistols, if anything. Over the past thirty years there has been a trend to get rifles and pistol caliber carbines into the hands of street cops and field agents, a trend that was jumpstarted by the FBI after the Miami shootout and one that has continued to this day. The current accepted term for these long guns is “patrol rifles”. American law enforcement en masse started considering the idea of patrol rifles after the 1986 FBI Miami shootout, but the trickle became a tidal wave after the 1997 North Hollywood Shootout.
Eerily reminiscent of the Miami incident, two heavily armed bad guys wearing improvised body armor decided to rob a bank and seemingly go out in a blaze of glory. They were armed with numerous rifles illegally converted to full-auto, and because of this the LAPD patrol officers armed with Beretta 92s never got much closer than 100 yards. The officers shot their handguns at the criminals, but without effect. LAPD cops went to a nearby gun store where the owner (being a good citizen) loaned them AR-15s in violation of the law (don’t think that went unpunished by the ATF), and the cops also commandeered an armored car to help retrieve wounded. Between the cops and robbers roughly 1,750 rounds were fired in 44 minutes, and while 18 officers were injured, none died.
The criminals were taken out by SWAT cops…using rifles. This upscaling of equipment over the past 30 years occurred in “SWAT” teams as well, where they upgraded from shotguns and surplus ARs to M4s, hard armor, and armored personnel carriers. In fact, this move to heavier body armor and rifles and tactical gear/clothing for regular street cops is what is called the “militarization” of modern police, and it can be traced back to the FBI Miami shootout. One of the most well-known of these patrol rifles is the semi-auto AR-15 made by Rock River Arms selected by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for their new carbine in 2004. These rifles, topped with EOTech holosights and equipped with Surefire weapon lights, were bought to replace the 9mm Colt SMGs the DEA had been using for years. These rifles weren’t meant for special “SWAT” agents, they went to regular field agents. I know, because one of my closest friends has been working for the DEA since 1991 — his Colt SMG is the first full-auto weapon I ever fired, and he actually preferred it to the RRA DEA carbine because it was shorter and (in his opinion) better when doing house clearings. The thing to note is he always used a long gun when possible, because even if they didn’t hit harder (some of the Colt 9mms issued to DEA agents were semi-autos), they were easier to hit with.
You Fight Like You Train
During the somewhat botched attempted felony car stop of Platt and Matix the bad guys rammed several FBI vehicles, and the FBI responded by ramming them, for a total of 12–15 impacts. This didn’t work out well, especially because it caused two agents to lose their guns inside their cars. Interesting to me is a fact Ed Mireles notes in his book — at the time of the FBI Miami shootout, the FBI did not train its agents in the PIT maneuver, although it was a known technique at the time to stop suspect vehicles. PIT stands for Precision Immobilization Technique, and it is a very simple and very effective technique for causing a vehicle you are pursuing to lose contact with the road and spin out. Drive up behind and to the side of the suspect vehicle so that your front bumper is just in front of their rear bumper, and then nudge the rear of their vehicle to the side. The nudge can be so gentle it doesn’t even scratch the paint of either car, and it works even at slow speeds (25+ miles per hour). Their rear tires will lose grip and their vehicle will usually spin out in front of yours.
This technique works better on suspect vehicles that are rear wheel drive, but it works on everything with four wheels. However, if you’ve never been trained to do it…during the middle of a felony car stop with two suspected serial bank robbers is not the time to learn. After this incident, the FBI began teaching their agents the PIT maneuver, as well as increasing the amount of training they received for felony car stops. And considering only two of the FBI agents were wearing body armor during the surveillance/at the time of the gunfight, the FBI put a much greater importance on its agents wearing body armor when doing anything that might be dangerous. As for criticisms of the agents’ shooting, yes, their hit percentages were low. 18 hits for roughly 100 rounds fired. While that isn’t great, you have to remember that the bad guys were shooting and moving and/or inside/behind automobiles which soaked up bullet after bullet — leading to the FBI reevaluating handgun bullet performance, as explained above. In truth law enforcement hit percentages in gunfights rarely average over ten percent, so the FBI agents here were on par with national averages…while injured and taking incoming fire from bad guys. FBI agents scored hits shooting weakhanded and injured (Gordon McNeill), at 40+ yards on a moving target (Ron Risner), while not being able to see well because their eyeglasses fell off (Ben Grogan), and stronghanded after being shot twice with a .223 (Ed Mireles).
Still, the FBI saw room for improvement. Even though they’ve had their infamous “Hogan’s Alley” for decades, after the FBI Miami shootout the FBI Training Division reviewed the Firearms Training Unit’s curriculum and started to add more “combat” shooting courses: moving and shooting, shooting one-handed, reloading one-handed, shooting with your weak hand, shooting at moving targets, shooting from cars, etc. Mireles, a former Marine, states early on in his book that in the FBI Academy he was issued a S&W Model 10-6 two-inch revolver. He writes, “During my initial training I found that I sucked with it…I was a former macho Marine who could shoot the eyes out of an ant at three hundred yards with a rifle, but I would find out that the handgun was a whole other world.” One more reason to get long guns in the hands of regular agents and street cops, wouldn’t you say?
Mireles wrote more about training in the book when discussing the shooting of the agents during the incident: “I recall that some of my colleagues and coworkers hated to go to firearms training. They viewed that as an inconvenience. I guess because if they did not pass, it could affect their employment. Or maybe it was too hot or too cold or too rainy. I always thought it was fun and challenging, an opportunity to get out in the sun and fresh air with friends. Plus, marksmanship is a perishable skill that needs to be well maintained.” Unfortunately, most FBI agents are like most cops around the country — uninterested in shooting enough to get good at it. I’ve seen this as a cop, and have heard this complaint endlessly from Firearms Training Officers from small to large (Chicago P.D.) police departments, as well as from FBI and DEA agents. My friend on the DEA has almost been killed on the range by fellow agents. More than once. Seriously.
The vast majority of police officers only fire their gun when they are required by their agency to qualify, which is usually just once every 6–24 months. This is a mindset issue — you can’t make someone get interested in something they’re not interested in. The only way to increase the skill of most police officers is to give them increased training, or require them to qualify much more frequently. One local Sheriff’s Department used to have its officers qualify at the range once a month — but that kind of training regimen costs a lot of money, money that most police departments don’t have. Evidence discovered after the Miami firefight showed that the two bad guys had fired 5,000 rounds of .223 ammo the week before the gunfight, and who knows how much shotgun and revolver ammo. So, a sobering reminder from Mireles, who later worked as a firearms instructor: “Bad guys practice too.”
While there were a number of different procedures for testing ammunition prior to the FBI inventing their Protocol, they weren’t standardized. There was no objective methodology. Today, the FBI Ammunition Testing Protocol is THE standard when it comes to evaluating the performance of defensive handgun ammunition in real world shooting situations. If you are an ammunition company introducing a new defensive load meant in whole or part for American law enforcement, it had better pass the FBI Protocol. In fact, most ammunition makers design at least one of their defensive handgun lines specifically to pass the FBI Protocol. But the ripple effect of the 1986 FBI Miami shootout — more specifically the changes it caused to gear and tactics — stretch far and wide. It accelerated the move away from revolvers holding five or six rounds to semi-auto pistols holding ten or fifteen or more rounds. It made more acceptable the idea of equipping officers in the field with long guns other than shotguns, something that really was reserved at the time for SWAT officers. And, yes, finally it caused the creation of the FBI Ballistic Protocol, which in turn has infinitely improved the performance of defensive handgun projectiles, which has probably saved countless lives over the past 32 years.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.