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"Cop-killer" Bullets

By Mike Casey[*]
Knowledge is power. As a police officer I strive to acquire as much knowledge as possible regarding the potential threats I may have to face. Obviously the threat posed by an armed criminal is high on my list of concerns. In researching that potential threat I've learned that the public perception and media portrayal of the matter is far from realistic. The subject of so called "Cop-killer" bullets is a prime example.

The inflammatory headlines aren't hard to find; "Deadly Teflon Bullets Blast Through Police Vests"; "NRA Opposes Cop Killer Bullet Ban," etc. Likewise, the misleading scenes in television crime dramas and in movies are numerous. A memorable scene in one of the "Lethal Weapon" movies had Mel Gibson's character firing "Cop-killer" bullets through the blade of a bulldozer! The real story is significantly less dramatic.

In the mid 1960's, Dr. Paul Kopsch (an Ohio coroner), Daniel Turcos (a police sergeant) and Donald Ward (Dr. Kopsch's special investigator) began experimenting with special purpose handgun ammunition. Their objective was to develop a law enforcement round capable of improved penetration against hard targets like windshield glass and automobile doors. Conventional bullets, made primarily from lead, are often ineffective against hard targets especially when fired at handgun velocities. In the 1970's, Kopsch, Turcos and Ward produced their "KTW" handgun ammunition using steel cored bullets capable of great penetration. Following further experimentation, in 1981 they began producing bullets constructed primarily of brass. The hard brass bullets caused exceptional wear on handgun barrels, a problem combated by coating the bullets with Teflon. The Teflon coating did nothing to improve penetration, it simply reduced damage to the gun barrel.

Despite the facts that "KTW" ammunition had never been available to the general public and that no police officer has ever been killed by a handgun bullet penetrating their body armor, the media incorrectly reported that the Teflon coated bullets were designed to defeat the body armor that law enforcement officers were beginning to use. The myth of "Cop-killer" bullets was born.

In January of 1982, NBC Television broadcast a sensationalist prime time special titled "Cop Killer Bullets." Law enforcement officials had asked NBC not to air the program as the use of body armor by police officers was still not common knowledge and the "KTW" ammunition was virtually unheard of outside law enforcement circles. The safety of law enforcement officers took a back seat to ratings at NBC however and they not only broadcast the show, but re-broadcast it again six months later.

Following significant media hype and widespread misconceptions, Congress got into the act and proposed legislation that would have outlawed any bullet based on its ability to penetrate certain bullet resistant material. The FBI, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and other forensic experts cautioned that the proposed ban was too vague to be enforceable. The NRA opposed the proposed law since it would have banned not only the controversial armor piercing handgun rounds, but nearly all conventional rifle ammunition as well. (Most rifle ammunition will easily penetrate the most commonly worn protective vests.)

The NRA proposed alternative legislation based upon the actual design and construction of the bullets. The final, approved version of the bill (H.R. 3132 passed in 1986) prohibited the sale of armor piercing ammunition [which may be used in a handgun] other than to law enforcement and the military. Representative Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) the original bill's sponsor, stated that the final legislation "... was not some watered down version of what we set out to do. In the end there was no compromise on the part of police safety..."

Gun control advocates and the news media jumped on the NRA's opposition to the original, vague and ineffective proposal. They ignored the NRA's contribution to the final legislation insisting to this day that the NRA wants "Cop Killer" bullets to be available to the public.

Here are the facts:

- "Armor piercing" ammunition is only legally available to law enforcement agencies and to the armed forces.

- Rather than opposing the ban on "armor piercing" ammunition, the NRA was in fact instrumental in crafting the law that Congress ultimately passed.

- When properly wearing the appropriate body armor, not one law enforcement officer has ever been killed by a handgun bullet penetrating their vest. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) certifies three levels of body armor. The most commonly worn, Level IIA, offers realistic protection against all .22, .25, .32, .380, and .38, caliber handgun ammunition, against most 9mm, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, .45 ACP and .44 Magnum handgun ammunition and against 000 buck shotgun pellets. Level II and Level IIIA armor protects from even greater threats including 12 gauge shotgun slugs and the "hottest" .44 Magnum rounds.

"Cop-killer" bullets are a myth born from media hype and nurtured by unrealistic Hollywood portrayals and the deliberately misleading claims of the anti-gun lobby. An objective, rational look at the facts quickly separates the myth from the reality. Knowledge is power.

[*] Mike Casey (a pseudonym) is currently a Patrol Officer, Firearms Instructor and Field Training Officer in a municipal police department in Maine. He previously served as a Deputy Sheriff in the Detroit area and as a U.S. Army Armored Cavalry officer. Mike has served in a variety of law enforcement positions including horse mounted patrol, bicycle patrol and as a Special Response Team member. He holds a BA in Criminology.

For Further Reading

The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms: Armor Piercing Ammunition Under the The Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

Excerpt of an interview with one of the inventors of the "KTW" bullet.

Gun law author responds to the question:Why does the NRA support cop-killer bullets?

The NRA's History of Federal Ammunition Law Restricting Projectiles Based Upon Construction.

National Institute of Justice, Ballistic Resistance of Police Body Armor, NIJ Standard 0101.03, April 1987.

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