This is one of those stories that will never die, because every instructor (us, too, they said sheepishly) has found it useful as a way to hammer home the importance of training as you will fight. (We’ll quibble with some parts of that on another day: for instance, nobody should do 100% of range fires with hemmet and bodammoor, and any military unit that requires that is commanded by Simple Jack). Here’s the story, as recounted by one of our mo’ entertaining commenters:
But at a certain point, too much bad practice will get you killed.
There were always field reports of cops back in the day trained to shoot on square ranges, found dead after a gunfight as they were trying to put their ejected brass in their pockets, just like the penny-pinching departments had drilled into them at the range year after year.
It’s such a great story, that everybody who doesn’t know where it came from thinks it’s an urban legend. Massad Ayoob thought it came from cop talk about the Newhall Incident (multiple CHP killed in the 1970s). In this link Caleb mentions self-promoting assclown Dave Grossman, who is an Old Faithful of bad information, and Caleb, being a smart guy, discounts Grossman’s typically unsourced bullshit. Then, though, he paraphrases Mas citing Bill Jordan as a possible source of what he calls “anecdotal evidence from 2nd and 3rd hand parties”.
In his Handgunner article, Ayoob mentions that former Border Patrol officer Bill Jordan wrote in the 1960s of officers finding spent brass in their pockets after a gunfight with no recollection of picking it up. Unfortunately, that information is anecdotal at best, and as we’ve seen with the Newhall incident, anecdotal evidence from 2nd and 3rd hand parties isn’t reliable.
Apparently Caleb hasn’t checked the reference, which is easy enough to do. Jordan does indeed include the story in his book, No Second Place Winner, but it’s not, as Caleb seems to think, an apocryphal story. Jordan names a name and refers to a single, specific incident. So for Urban Legend hunters everywhere, here’s your chance to bag that trophy. I give you, Bill Jordan, US Border Patrol, circa 1965. We have added some paragraph breaks to introduce some desperately needed white space:
A question often asked of themselves by young officers is, “How will I comport myself in the face of fire? Will I stand up or will I break?” On the surface this would appear to be a question which can be answered only if it becomes an actuality. As a matter of fact the answer can be given with very little chance of error. Almost invariably a man, provided he does not have too much time to think, will automatically do what he has been trained to do. Again provided that his training has been thorough and intensive.
An example in support of this statement comes to my mind: A few years back a Border Patrol team became involved in a discussion with some contrabandistas in which they were considerably embarrassed by one of the smugglers holed up in some brush about 200 yards away. His presence unduly complicated the proceedings in that he was armed with a .30-30 rifle with which he was enthusiastically underscoring points in the argument made by the main group of his compatriots. The Border Patrolmen were armed only with .38 Special revolvers which put them at somewhat of a disadvantage under the circumstances. However, two of the three men applied themselves to the task of routing the nearby enemy while the senior officer, Sam McKone, took up the question of the rifleman in the brush.
They tell of a western epitaph which reads, “Here lies Tom Jones. Committed suicide by betting his pistol against a rifle at 200 yards.” This could be a normal result of such a contest, but Sam McKone is not one of the Jones boys. Among his other marksmanship awards is a gold medal declaring him to be a Distinguished Pistol Shot.
Additionally, being shot at was not a matter to distress Sam unduly, since it was not exactly a novel occurrence in his life. To make a long story short, by applying a little Kentucky windage and an educated trigger squeeze, Sam scored three hits which made the rifle shooter lose all interest in the fate of his companions and start thinking solely of his own welfare, here and hereafter.
What has all this to do with the statement that a man will do unconsciously as he was trained, provided the training was thorough and extensive? Well, after the fight someone noted that McKone’s pocket was bulging and politely inquired as to what might be spoiling the drape of his trousers. Puzzled, Sam thrust in an exploring hand. The pocket was full of fired cases. During the fight, without realizing he was doing so, McKone, an old reloader, had saved every empty!
And there you have it — the probable ur-instance of the story of the guy who saved his brass in a gunfight. And no, he didn’t wind up dead. Jordan’s book was a huge success for a shooting book, and generations of shooters have read it, and, as you can see by the excerpt, it’s entertaining to read. A lot of his ideas on revolvers and leather have fallen obsolete in the last 50 years, but a great deal of good info is in there, and it’s one of the classic books of pistol shooting.
You can find it online here, and download it in .epub (iBooks), .mobi (Kindle), or scanned, OCR’d .pdf file and a handful of other formats. The scan is of the 1977 printing of the 1965 original. It’s a very worthwhile book, even back in the seventies when we bought it for the first time.
Incidentally, in the Massad Ayoob article referenced by Caleb in the quote above, he references a “forthcoming book” on the Newhall murders by Mike Wood, which did indeed come forth, in 2013. The book is called Newhall Shooting – A Tactical Analysis: Survival Lessons from One of Law Enforcement’s Deadliest Shootings, and despite the cringe-inducing “tactical” in the title, it’s a fantastic book — and germane to this discussion.
On pages 56 and 57 of that book there is an extensive footnote about the facts of Officer Pence’s brass (which he ejected onto the ground, it was not in his pocket) and some informed speculation about how the brass-in-pocket story got started: at the same time as many Newhall-driven changes in training, CHP also changed training to eject empties onto the ground, not to save them. Here’s a tiny excerpt of a very long footnote:
In the wake of Newhall, the CHP made an intensive study of training practices and made many corrections to ensure that bad habits that would jeopardize officer safety on the street were not taught during training. One of these corrections was a requirement to eject brass onto the ground during training and to clean it up later, rather than eject it neatly into the hand and drop it into a can or a bucket, as has been the practice before. It is believed that instructors and cadets of the era may have mistakenly believed that this change in policy was due to a specific error made by Officer Pence during the fight. The myth began, and it was innocently perpetuated throughout generations of officers in the CHP and allied agencies.
Wood’s book, like Jordan’s, is outstanding, but we can’t give you a link to a free one — you’ll have to buy it like we did.