My last course in tactical firearms training was in the mid `90’s up in West Yorkshire at one of the National Firearms Training Centres. It was a Tactical Advisers course and was to equip me to officially share some of the blame at any firearms incident that I was called to `tactically advise ` on. I chose to go to West Yorks because they’d been having quite a time and were one of the busiest forces outside London for firearms incidents and fatal shootings and I wanted to hear it from the principal officers as I was working on a policy for post incident procedures in my own force. By this time in my service I’d attended hundreds of firearms jobs, some very scary involving real guns loaded with real bullets being pointed at real people, but all of them, mercifully, resolved without a single shot being fired. The superintendent in charge of a division is officially in charge of everything, including firearms incidents, but superintendents were rarely trained or sufficiently experienced in such matters to be able to make the right decisions alone. Consequently a Tactical Adviser would be sent to liaise with them, give available options and generally enable the superintendent to sign up for the necessary actions to resolve the incident. It was that last bit that they seemed to find the most difficulty in coming to terms with, especially as they were expected to sign their name to agreed options. Many times I’ve seen a steady hand start to pause and quiver over that dotted line in the operations logbook. I was happy, as I’d speeded the introduction of that logbook to my force and those quavering hands always confirmed to me that it was the right thing to do. In fairness, there were a few supers` who one always hoped to work with, but they were in the minority. I’m sure things must be better now.
I had come a long way from my early years in the 70’s. I was authorised to use any weapon in my force’s arsenal including barricade penetrating chemical munitions (CS) and pyrotechnics (flash-bangs). I’d been trained to rescue hostages, to abseil from high places, be a rifleman (nice term for sniper) or a VIP protection officer, done jobs where my team had been transported into the fray by the military, via the briny in fast boats, and I’d worked alongside special forces commanders on tasks to help HM Customs to arrest armed drug runners. In fact, like most police forces these days, my unit was expected to handle any situation up to the point where our senior command, out of technical necessity, would hand it all over to the military for the final, violent solution. In my latter years on the Tac Team I would occasionally catch a glimpse of myself reflected in a window and find myself wondering how the hell I’d ended up dressed up like I was about to parachute into a war zone. How indeed? Well it all started a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
An armed London policeman on patrol was nothing new, even in the 70’s. In fact, right up until the start of WW2, any Met police officer, `suitably experienced`, was entitled to draw a revolver if they wished, but for some strange reason only on nights. The long held belief that our police are unique in being `unarmed` has always been slightly at odds with the real history of British policing although it was true that for the vast majority of officers it was truncheons only. My first station in Metropolis, always had the highest concentration of armed policemen deployed on the streets of Britain.
It has never been part of the job spec’ of a British police officer to carry a firearm and it still isn’t. You have to volunteer. If and when you were earmarked for what used to be called the “Defensive Weapons Course” you always had the option to decline it. Courses were run at Old Street police station, a place that even today is still very much associated with the Met’s firearms unit, CO19. By current standards the course was incredibly short, a mere 5 days duration, and focussed almost totally on marksmanship and weapon drills. If there was any training in tactical planning I certainly don’t remember it although we did do some sessions on building searches for armed suspects that was quite exciting and the closest we came to confronting a realistic threat rather than just a paper target. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was taking the first steps into what would be many years of armed policing and the scope and intensity of the training I would receive over the following 20 years was probably beyond the imagination of most senior officers of that generation. For me and my mates on the front line, the need for the Met to seriously professionalise its approach to firearms operations was already evident and a subject that was often discussed after live incidents, which were many and varied.
Although I had definitely not volunteered and certainly didn’t put pen to paper requesting it, I suddenly discovered I was delegated to attend a defensive weapons course a couple of months before my 2 years probation was up, so I assumed my bosses felt I was definitely in the police for the full pension. In fact, during my entire 30-year career I never once asked to be considered for firearms training, I was always approached and asked if I would consider doing it. It was April 1973, I was 20 years and 10 months old and had been in the force for just 22 months when I arrived at the hallowed Victorian halls of Old Street police station. One of the first things the weapons training staff did, even before the first tea break, was to state in very sombre terms that this training was voluntary and that if anyone was not willing to carry a firearm and if necessary use it with the probable consequences of killing someone, they were free to leave without further ado and with their honour and character unblemished. To my surprise a PC stood up, said `Thank you very much` and walked out. One of the class reckoned he was a stooge planted by the staff to see how we’d react. There followed a pregnant pause, just like when the vicar at a wedding asks if anyone knows why the couple shouldn’t be married. I kept schtum. There was no way I was going to turn this one down.
Our two instructors had the bearing of a couple of old soldiers and so I wasn’t surprised when the first one, a wiry bloke with a friendly face confidently introduced himself as Nick, followed by an emphatic, “ex Royal Marines”. Our other instructor was Chris, who seemed a little older and sterner. Nick looked fit for his age and Chris had a capable manner and I’d quickly concluded that I wouldn’t argue with either of them. We were in the classroom for the morning and the first session was on the law and the use of force that, frankly, left me no more enlightened than when I heard it the first time during my basic training at Hendon. This whole use of force thing seemed ambiguous, couched in case law and numerous judge’s opinions and left me with the uneasy feeling that as a police officer, particularly an armed police officer, I was going to be permanently out on a limb and if the shit did hit the fan I’d be on my bloody own. The fact that this issue is still being argued about 35 years later confirms how right that feeling was.
After lunch we were divided into two groups, with officers from A Division and Special Branch (SB) forming group one, whilst the remainder became group two. This was because `Royal` A and SB would carry the Walther PP 9mm semi-automatic or `self-loading` pistol (SLP). The other poor sods would end up with the archaic Mark 4 Webley .38 revolver, which was actually considered obsolete decades earlier. Its muzzle velocity was so slow that on an outdoor range, at a target 50 yards away, you could often see the bullet wafting down the range towards the target! The Walther PP, however, was altogether more stylish and is almost identical to James Bond’s favourite, the Walther PPK. The only difference is that the PP is about an inch longer where it counts, in the barrel. (Sorry Bond fans!) `PP` stands for Pistole Polizei and `K` for Kurz or `short`. I would soon be using this fact to great advantage, impressing anyone who showed the remotest interest by telling them that my PP was bigger than James Bond’s.
The reason for its issue to A and SB officers was simple - we would be carrying daily and the Walther was more compact and therefore more easily concealed. In those days the Home Office and the police bosses didn’t feel that openly displaying firearms was appropriate. This need to protect public sensibilities was probably understandable to anyone who didn’t have the responsibility of carrying a firearm on the sharpest edge of the front line but with the appalling holsters we were issued with it just gave a few more seconds advantage to a would be attacker. Not only that, but there was no such thing as body armour, I mean the stuff had only just recently been issued to the bloody Army in Northern Ireland so why the hell should the plods get any? Despite this, there was never any outcry or demands from the Police Federation, whose Reps were not amongst the ranks of armed officers, we just got on with the job. We were clearly not expected to have the drop on the villains and the conclusion we drew was that it was clearly preferable, and far easier, for the organisation to square up a dead copper than it was a dead villain, or worse an innocent member of the public. And it seemed that nowhere in this mish-mash of blame were any references made to senior officers taking any responsibility at shooting incidents. Once again, how right we were to feel suspicious.
Before we could get our hands on the Walther we had to clear the first hurdle, handling the smaller, less powerful but quite deadly High Standard .22 calibre SLP. The lesser mortals went straight onto the Webley revolver, as the drills required were far less complex. I say `lesser mortals` because it was becoming obvious that us `Walther` men had started to develop a distinct air of superiority. I swear some were already developing their own `Walther walk` and Hollywood poses that would doubtless be practised later that night in front of bathroom mirrors or before bemused wives and girlfriends!
Although I don’t want to get bogged down with the technicalities and science of pistol shooting, I do feel it is appropriate to explain a little of what we were up to and to dispel any thoughts that this was an easy discipline to master, although some took to it more naturally than others. By day 2 both groups were on their respective `full bore` weapons and we were all hitting our targets at up to 25 yards and with varying degrees of accuracy. Initially, the Webley men had an easier time of things as this tired but trusty old warhorse had only two basic drills, `load and fire` (aiming is not a muscle-memory `drill` which is why I didn’t include that one). The Walther required a good deal more dexterity as not only did it have a 7-round magazine to load but there was also the matter of pulling the slide back or `making ready` followed by a controlled lowering of the hammer and flicking the safety catch off, using both thumbs, before holstering the pistol ready to rock and roll. This mode of carrying was unofficially referred to as “one up the spout, safety off” and although sounding a trifle risqué to the casual observer it meant that the first round could be fired without having to first release the safety catch, a useful contingency when you are facing a near-death experience. For this first shot the trigger pull was very long and required 12-14 lbs pressure, just like a revolver which doesn’t have a safety catch anyway because the heavy trigger pull is considered a safety feature in its own right. But for us Walther men, the real bonus was that it gave you a vital extra second and one less drill to worry about if the world suddenly went pear shaped and you had to draw and fire to save a life. Cocking a gun’s hammer back reduces the trigger pressure to a frighteningly light 2-3lbs, the merest twitch of the finger. It is not recommended as it can result in an unintentional bang, as many negligent shooters will have experienced. Cocking the hammer is only reserved for carefully aimed shots when you have time and cover or you are an actor and the director wants you to look more butch in the scene. For this very reason of not wanting negligent discharges (and doubtless to prevent officers from doing a `Hollywood`) many SLP’s currently issued to police forces are `double action only` models, but more about negligent discharges later.
By day 5 we had each fired hundreds of rounds at numerous targets in a variety of stances; standing, sitting, kneeling, prone and even using our weak hand. We were told that officers had been known to get shot in their good arm during confrontations and so we needed to be capable of shooting accurately with our weak hand – these guys thought of everything. I remember someone asking what we should do if the Walther suffered a stoppage and we only had one hand working, as you’d need your spare hand to operate the slide to clear the stoppage – I thought that was a great lateral thinkers question as that little problem would be a bloody nightmare. We were told that stoppages were rare and in any case there wasn’t time to show us on this course, but that it would be covered in our follow-up training. It never was, but that great lateral question would be answered sooner than any of us realised. Within a year the excellent Walther PP would be withdrawn after an incident during which HRH Princess Anne’s personal protection officer, Inspector John Beaton of Special Branch, would be shot, along with my colleague PC Mick Hills from Cannon Row and the Royal chauffeur. A deranged man named Ian Ball, armed with a revolver and an SLP, would attempt to kidnap `HRH` in The Mall. 3 bullets, the first of which would incapacitate an arm, would hit John Beaton. He would manage to get off one shot before his Walther PP would suffer a stoppage that he would not be physically capable of clearing. Ball is still locked up, claiming his conviction was down to an error in the way the police recorded the date of the incident, getting the wrong year on all their statements and incident logs. A truly inspired argument. He must have been referred to a top defence barrister. Maybe one day he'll be released. Maybe he would have been already had he not picked on the Queens daughter?
Not being equipped with the foresight of the vulnerability of the Walther’s magazine spring, we carried on working our pistols for all we were worth and by the final day our hands had sores and calluses from operating the pistol’s mechanisms. We were ready for our final exercise and the crucial qualification shoot that would ultimately decide if we were to become Authorised Firearms Officers (AFO’s). The only tactical exercise I can remember us doing was, by today’s police weapons training regimes, hopelessly inadequate but nonetheless was better than nothing and actually quite well put together. It certainly generated some stress, that’s for sure. The training area at Old Street Police Station had a series of rooms that were connected by doors. Each was set up to represent a room in a private dwelling. At the start point we were briefed that there had been a post office blagging and someone had been seen going in to these premises with what looked like a gun. Our task was to work our way through each room and react to whatever happened before us, just like it would be if we did it for real – in what could be a few days time as newly qualified AFO’s, just us, no body armour, no ballistic helmet (these `essentials` wouldn’t appear for nearly a decade) - simple as that.
Our instructors were clearly on a tight budget but they were nothing if not innovative and had set up some very ingenious targets. They would yank wires or throw switches, causing the targets to appear before us (or behind us if we missed checking a wardrobe). Some were unarmed `no shoots` and others were very definitely armed and dangerous, well deserving of two rounds at five pence apiece. This exercise was as much to test our judgment as our nerve and marksmanship and although the set-up was crude compared to the multi-million pound digital systems that now adorn police ranges up and down the country, it was all we had and it got our adrenaline flowing. As well as the spring-loaded targets there was a crude sound system that played pre-recorded conversations and various threatening noises. We were supposed to identify the threat presented to us and then deal with it `appropriately`. For this exercise our guns were loaded with wax bullets. This was a `home made` concoction of melted candle wax set hard in brass `empties`, re-fitted with primer caps that had just enough oomph to project the hard wax `bullet` onto the target, with remarkably good accuracy up to about twenty feet. Walther men had to use a revolver, as the primer cap was not powerful enough to work the self-loading action of the pistol.
We each took our turn at working our way through the dimly lit exercise rooms, issuing verbal challenges and snapping off paired shots when we thought it was appropriate. I had a pretty straightforward time and having been ambushed by both armed and unarmed `targets` I had reacted well to both sorts, which had settled my nerves by the time I’d got to the final room. I re-loaded my Webley and wiped the sweat from my eyes before shouting, `armed police` and booting the door open. They had clearly saved their best room to last for as soon as I stepped in, a mannequin target holding a sawn-off shotgun sprang up from behind a sofa. I quickly engaged it, dropping into a combat stance, pushing out the gun in a two handed grip and bringing it up until it broke my line of vision before snapping off two rapid shots, scoring a nice pair of hits mid-torso. There was much shouting and screaming from the back of the room, which sounded to me like criminals attacking terrified hostages. As I shouted another challenge and moved to the right, a second `villain` appeared to my left wielding a huge bowie knife. I snapped another pair of shots off and two more waxy splats appeared on the mad axeman’s chest – I was a killing machine! As I took cover behind an old filing cabinet, the final target was about to appear. At least I hoped it was the final target as I only had two shots left. There was more shouting and screaming followed by the sound of heavy footsteps on stairs. Suddenly a target rumbled into sight from the darkness at top of a staircase. I whipped up the Webley and was about to snap off my final pair of rounds when something made me check myself and I simply dropped down behind the cover of the filing cabinet, keeping the gun on aim but not firing, unsure if I had done the right thing. The instructor suddenly boomed out “ENDEX, ENDEX` which I later found out meant that the exercise was all over – Nick was in the Royal marines again.
Despite the lights coming back up to full brightness the room still seemed dim and I still couldn’t see the last target all that clearly but then I suddenly got that sinking feeling. I had cocked up. As I surveyed it from my position, squinting through the yellow light of a couple of meagre 40 watt bulbs, I could clearly see that it’s chest was full of recently patched up holes from my previous colleagues marksmanship, but I had not fired at this target. Shit! Nick talked me through my first two rooms and he seemed well pleased with my efforts, including the `no shoot` targets that I had clearly identified and whose lives I’d spared. But what would he say about the last one, the one with all the holes in it, the one that I’d failed to shoot? He seemed highly amused and a little surprised because the first thing he said to me was, “Nearly everyone shoots that one, especially the blokes from the Sweeney for some reason”, referring to the `legendary` Flying Squad. “Nice to see you got that one right, well spotted son”. I was quietly relieved. It was a `no shoot` after all. The trouble was that in all the excitement I still wasn’t sure why but had the nouse not to admit it, especially after Nick’s glowing critique. Trying not to make it too obvious, I casually strolled over for a closer look and then it all became crystal clear. I had actually been confronted by a life-sized effigy of a vicar, complete with dog collar and crucifix and brandishing the Holy Bible in a threatening manner – no wonder the Flying Squad blokes had filled him full of holes.
For the final qualification shoot I managed to drop only two shots out of fifty fired, a score that classified me as a `marksman`. That title always puzzled me as I figured, how could a `marksman` be allowed to miss a couple? I soon learned what a difference it was when fear of imminent death was entered into the equation, but this could never be re-created in a training range – never. Anyway, I was elated to have passed the course. Less than twenty four hours later I was in `Alpha 102`, the Met’s only armed response vehicle, knowing that if there was an urgent call to an armed job anywhere in Central London, I was likely as not to be the first AFO on the scene. I relished the challenge and hadn’t even heard of body armour. I was two months short of my 21st birthday and earning 20 pounds a week.