Fundamental Breaching Skills for SWAT Officers

Collage of police officers.

Eugene Nielsen

Swift execution plays a pivotal role in dynamic entries, highlighting the need for breaching techniques to combine speed and effectiveness.

There are a variety of methods – mechanical, thermal, explosive, and ballistic – which may be employed depending on what is to be breached, the door’s opening direction (inward or outward) and the tactical situation. For example, residential doors generally swing inward, whereas doors in commercial buildings typically swing outward. Although entries may be made through windows, skylights or explosively breached openings, the most common means of entry into a structure is through a door. Door breaching is an essential skill for law enforcement officers, especially those who are part of tactical teams. In this article, we will look at some of the most common methods.

Mechanical Breaching

Mechanic breaching can be used to break the latch, lock, hinges, or door itself. The level of damage can range from minimal to severe.

Try the door knob first. There is obviously no need to use a breaching tool if the door is not locked and can be opened easily. It is common sense, but it is amazing how many times it is neglected in the heat of things.

If the door is locked, breachers can try to force doors which open inward with a strong kick. The traditional approach of standing in front of the door and kicking it isn’t usually effective, nor is the classic shoulder strike seen in the movies. Most likely, attempting these methods often results in hitting the door without it budging, along with an injury.

What’s the answer? If absolutely necessary, utilize the mule kick. To execute a mule kick, position yourself facing away from the door, raise your leg to a 90 degree angle and forcefully kick backward with maximum strength. Ensure that you place as much of your foot flat and firmly against the door as possible. The kicker should aim to hit the door near the lock, but not kick the doorknob itself because that can easily cause injury.

Achieving balance is crucial and, if necessary, grasp onto something for support to ensure you can channel the maximum force into the door. To successfully breach a door, the wooden frame must splinter upon impact. Listen carefully for cues. A dull thud when your foot hits the door likely indicates a reinforced structure. The sound of wood cracking suggests the wood is fracturing and entry is imminent.

Try to identify the type of door you’re dealing with. Exterior doors are typically solid core and swing inward, while interior doors are often hollow core, filled with a honeycomb-like fiberboard lattice. Avoid trying to kick in solid core exterior doors; however, the less sturdy hollow core doors can be kicked open. If possible, look for signs of reinforcement before you kick to prevent injury and unnecessary exertion. Steel doors or frames are not worth the effort; look for bolts in the upper half which might indicate a steel rod or a two-by-four wooden jamb.

Lock picking with traditional lock picks is a method which causes minimal damage, but it is slow and needs a trained operator. Another option is to use a snap gun, also known as lock pick gun, pick gun or electric lock pick, to open the lock which is faster and easier.

For doors, a shove knife can be inserted into the door jamb and open the latch bolt without touching the lock itself. Another option is to take out the cylinder lock from the door using tools like an A-tool or K-tool.

Some law enforcement agencies occasionally use lock picking and covert entry methods in a variety of scenarios. These methods serve as a less destructive alternative when gaining access to a home or business. They offer a strategic entry option which can be used in situations when damage is best avoided.

The training in these skills covers a wide range of applications such as serving search warrants, responding to welfare checks, setting up sniper positions, serving arrest warrants, surveillance, and “sneak and peek” operations.

It’s crucial to remember that, while these skills are important, they are not suitable for every situation. The safety and security of both personnel and the community are of utmost importance, and there are instances where other entry techniques, including dynamic or destructive entry, may be more appropriate.

More dynamic mechanical methods use a lot of force to break the lock or door. Tools like the Halligan bar, pry bar, Denver tool, Kelly tool, claw tool, or “the pig” (a specialty firefighting tool which can be married with a Halligan) can be used to pry a door open. Other tools, like sledgehammers or battering rams, apply a large amount of kinetic force on the door to break the lock.

Doors may also be penetrated by using a circular saw to cut through the door material, although this method is considerably slower. While not exclusively related to door breaching, entry can also be gained through windows using a “break and rake” tool. This tool initiates the “break” in the window and subsequently clears away broken glass pieces and any window frame during the “rake” process.

Ballistic Breaching

Ballistic breaching uses firearms for breaching. For example, a shotgun can be used to shoot the hinges or the lock area to force a door open. This method is often used when speed is essential or when other methods have failed.

Although law enforcement teams often make the initial breach with a ram, there are advantages to ballistic breaching with a shotgun. When it is properly employed, a shotgun can provide teams with safer and faster door breaching than other methods. It is not limited to just doors. Shotgun breach can also be employed to breach iron barred windows and take out sliding glass doors and defeat padlocks. It is quicker than manual breaching, jamb spreading or ramming and is safer and requires less training than thermal and explosive entry.

Shotgun breaching should always be done with a dedicated breaching shotgun. Compact pump-action shotguns are frequently employed due to their reduced size and enhanced maneuverability. Additionally, some specialized breaching shotguns offer muzzle attachments to assist in this operation. These attachments secure the barrel in place while creating a slight gap, allowing propellant gases to escape. Having a shotgun armed operator carrying breaching rounds, in addition to traditional slug or buckshot rounds, is a recipe for disaster. Frangible breaching rounds should always be employed for ballistic breaching. Although standard rounds could be employed to defeat a door mechanism, they pose an extreme safety hazard.

When breaching a door, the frangible rounds to the lock side are fired at a point halfway between the lock or handle and the door frame in order to hit the bolt holding the door shut. In those situations in which a hinge must be breached, MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) doctrine calls for a total of three shots, one shot per hinge, followed by an attempt to open the door.

Frangible rounds should be fired into the jamb/door or window bar bolt at a 45 degree angle and 45 down or up. The exception to the 45 degree angle is when breaching a steel door, since employing the 45 by 45 degree angles could cause the steel to buckle and lock. When breaching a steel door, the shot should be 90 degrees into the door and 20 degrees down or up.

Shots should be fired at a downward angle if the shot is at chest height or lower and at upward angle if above chest height. The reason for this is to lessen the possibility of team members being struck by a projectile or debris.

One of the primary concerns is the risk of ricochet which can pose a danger to both the breaching team and any individuals inside the structure. Additionally, as mentioned, the use of standard rounds can create safety hazards for occupants of a structure. Another disadvantage is that ballistic breaching can be quite loud and this method requires specific training for the breaching team to ensure safety and effectiveness. Finally, although it can be used externally as a primary breaching tool, ballistic breaching is typically used internally and may not be as effective for external breaches. The use of the appropriate beaching rounds are essential for both safety and effectiveness.

Hydraulic Breaching

Hydraulic breaching is a method of door breaching which uses a hydraulic system to apply force and open the door. Hydraulic breaching tools can be powered by manual, pneumatic or electric sources, and they can be used to defeat different types of doors, such as inward opening, outward opening, or sliding doors. Hydraulic breaching tools are designed to be portable and easy to use by a single operator. They can also be used to breach windows or other barriers.

Hydraulic breaching has some advantages over other methods, such as being precise and minimally destructive. Hydraulic breaching can be useful for law enforcement officers who need to gain entry into a structure quickly and safely, without causing collateral damage.

Hydraulic breaching, while a powerful tool in the law enforcement arsenal, does come with its own set of challenges. One of the primary disadvantages is the requirement for specific equipment which can be heavy and cumbersome to transport and operate. This can slow down operations and may not be suitable for situations which require rapid response. Additionally, hydraulic tools can be noisy, possibly alerting individuals to the presence of law enforcement prematurely. They also require a certain level of training to operate safely and effectively, adding to the resource demands of law enforcement agencies. Hydraulic tools also may not be effective against all types of barriers, limiting their utility in certain scenarios.

Thermal Breaching

Thermal breaching is a technique which involves applying high temperatures to overcome physical barriers by cutting through them. It can be used to create openings in metal structures (most commonly, metal doors). Thermal breaching can be performed with a variety of tools, such as oxyacetylene torches, plasma cutters or BREACHPENs

Thermal breaching has advantages and disadvantages compared to other methods of breaching, such as mechanical or ballistic. Some of the benefits are that it can be quieter and more precise. Some of the drawbacks are that it can take considerable time, require specialized equipment and produce toxic fumes or sparks.

While thermal breaching is an effective tool in many scenarios, it is not suitable for use in potentially explosive environments, such as those which may contain natural gas, gasoline, petroleum, naphtha, alcohol, acetone, or lacquer. The high temperatures produced during thermal breaching could potentially ignite these combustible substances, resulting in an explosion and/or fire. As such, in these situations, it is recommended to use other breaching techniques which do not generate heat or sparks, to maintain the safety of everyone involved.

Explosive Breaching

Explosive breaching is a technique which uses explosives to create an opening in a door, wall, window, or other obstacle during a high-risk operation. This technique allows law enforcement officers to quickly enter a structure where a suspect or a hostage may be located.

Explosive breaching requires extensive specialized training and equipment to do so safely and effectively. According to the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), explosive breaching courses should cover topics such as explosive theory, charge construction, target analysis, safety procedures, legal implications, and operational planning.

Explosive breaching can provide a tactical advantage over other methods of entry, such as mechanical or ballistic, by creating a diversion, reducing resistance and minimizing exposure. That being said, other than some of the larger agencies, all things considered, most agencies will likely not have the need for it. The mandatory explosive storage requirements also must be factored in.

While explosive breaching can be an effective method for law enforcement to gain entry, it does have its drawbacks. One of the main disadvantages is the noise it creates which can alert occupants inside the structure and potentially escalate the situation. Additionally, these methods can be time-consuming and their success is not always guaranteed. If the suspects have heavily fortified a door (unbeknownst to law enforcement), this could lead to unforeseen complications. Furthermore, the use of explosives requires careful planning and execution to ensure the safety of the breaching team and any individuals inside the structure. Therefore, while explosive breaching can be an effective tool in certain situations, it is crucial that law enforcement carefully consider these factors before deciding to employ this method.

Choosing the Right Tools

When choosing breaching equipment, it’s important to look for simplicity and durability. Tools which are overly complicated can create lag times, especially under stress. The same applies to tools which might break, as tool failure can cause even greater time in the entry.

Ballistic, hydraulic and explosive breaching methods are almost exclusively employed by specialized units, such as SWAT teams, and require a great deal of training and safety precautions.

To Sum Up

Door breaching is a complex skill which requires a deep understanding of a variety of techniques and tools. Whether it’s mechanical, ballistic, hydraulic, explosive, or thermal breaching, each method has its own advantages and challenges. By understanding these techniques, law enforcement officers can effectively and safely gain entry during tactical operations.

It’s important to remember that each situation is unique and the best breaching technique will depend on a variety of factors, including the type of breach, the urgency of the situation and the tools available.

Training and practice are key to mastering these techniques and ensuring the safety of both the officers and those inside the building. If it’s not documented, it didn’t happen.

Eugene Nielsen is the owner and operator of a firm which provides private intelligence, security consulting and training services. He has a background in law enforcement and a BA degree from the University of California. He has written over 1,500 articles which have been published in various national and international journals and magazines. He was a member of SWAT Magazine’s contributing staff for more than 20 years.

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