Austin PD’s 104-Yard Pistol Shot: Real or Not?
On November 28th, 2014, an active shooter shot up downtown Austin.
Unfortunately, that type of incident isn’t uncommon. The active shooter was a forty-nine year old man who was apparently angry at the government. That’s not uncommon either. Fortunately, before he managed to murder anyone he was killed by Austin police Sergeant Adam Johnson. That’s great, but it’s not exactly the most noteworthy aspect of this incident.
What really caught my attention was how the suspect was killed. Sergeant Johnson shot him from 104 yards away, with one shot from a pistol, firing one handed, while holding the reins of two horses.
A few comments I’ve read online suggested the 104-yard pistol shot was an Austin PD conspiracy, because such a shot is impossible. I’ve also heard people say Johnson must be lying or exaggerating. You just can’t shoot someone with one shot, one handed with a pistol from over a hundred yards away.
My own experience and training leads me to a different conclusion. That shot would be amazingly difficult, but not impossible.
My first experience with a long-distance shot
Most police officers never train to shoot past twenty five yards. I’ve worked for three departments, plus served as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo, and I can’t recall ever shooting a pistol at long range during police training. But I’ve taken a few pistol courses from private training companies. One of them was at Tiger Valley, near Waco, Texas.
The owner/instructor, TJ Pilling, lined us up on the pistol range one day and said we were going to have a competition. He told us to fire one shot at our targets, which were half-size steel silhouettes. We were at twenty-five yards, and we all hit. He backed us up to thirty-five yards and told us to fire again. We all hit. Forty-five yards. A few missed. Fifty-five yards. Only I and one other officer hit. Sixty-five. I was firing a .40 Glock 22, and aimed just over the top of the target’s head. I missed. The other officer hit.
TJ asked me if I aimed high. I told him I did. He said, “Aim center mass.” I did, and shocked the hell out of myself by hitting the target.
TJ walked us to a bay with a full-size silhouette target at 110 yards, and said, “If you have a 9mm, aim center mass. If it’s a .40, aim at the neck.”
The guys with 9mms started pinging the crap out of the target. I fired several shots standing and couldn’t get a hit, so I went prone and tried again. Eventually, after a spotter helped me walk the rounds in like a mortar, I made repeated hits.
I was, to put it mildly, surprised. I’d been a cop for twelve years at that point, and all my training had focused on shooting twenty-five yards and closer. I’d been in the military seventeen years but received almost no pistol training from either the Marines or Army. Conventional wisdom taught me pistols were last-ditch, close-in weapons, and shooting at someone even twenty-five yards away was stretching it. I had struggled to make accurate hits at twenty-five, had missed a target at that range more than once, and had seen cops and soldiers miss numerous shots even closer than that.
So how the hell was I hitting a target at 110 yards?
Tiger Valley’s training course taught me that my duty pistol was capable of far better accuracy than I thought. But I figured if I ever got into a real shooting on duty factors like movement, incoming rounds and reduced lighting would reduce my accuracy by about half. If I had a smaller off-duty pistol, the results would be even worse.
Then I went to a Graham Combat class
Last June I attended a Graham Combat class in Virginia. The instructor, Matt Graham, asked if we had ever fired a pistol at 100 yards. I told him about my experience having to lay prone and walk rounds in. He smiled and said, “We’ll fix that.”
At that class I was firing a 9mm Beretta Nano, more or less a pocket pistol. It’s a tiny gun, with a tiny barrel, and there was no way I’d make long-distance hits with it. Everyone else in the class was firing full-size Glocks and Colt .45s, and I figured they’d way outshoot me at any distance.
After we fired several hundred rounds during numerous drills, Matt lined us up at twenty-five yards and started the distance drill. As we backed up I found myself surprised again; I was hitting steel well past what I thought my pistol’s max effective range was. I didn’t start missing until we got to around seventy-five yards, but even then I was able to make adjustments and get back on target (the further we got, the further low and left I had to aim). We kept backing up, and I kept managing to put rounds on target. Some students quit, but a few of us kept shooting.
Eventually we were at 130 yards, the max we could do on that range. An officer with a Colt .45 went first, and made a hit with her first shot. Nobody else wanted to do it. I stepped up.
The Nano has a double-action-only trigger; every time you shoot, it’s like firing a revolver with the hammer forward. A trigger pull that long and heavy causes muscle strain that makes the shooter’s hands tremble, which decreases accuracy. That, along with the fact that at seventy-five yards I was aiming way off the target, convinced me I’d have to fire at least several shots before I managed to make a hit (if I was able to hit at all). I picked an imaginary spot in the dirt about three feet low and five feet left, focused on the front sight, and started to squeeze.
My hands were shaking badly. The trigger squeeze took forever. My front sight seemed to bounce all around my imaginary aiming point. The weapon fired. What felt like a long silence followed.
Then we heard a loud “ping!” as my round hit the target.
Surprised exclamations erupted from the other students. I probably yelled something like “holy S**t!” Then I looked around. We had two professional photographers with us. Neither had recorded the shot. Damn my luck. There was no way in hell I was going to try the shot again. Now I’d have to listen to my buddies accuse me of being full of crap, because I had no proof I had done it.
But I had again learned a valuable lesson about my weapon’s capabilities. Contrary to conventional wisdom and my own prior beliefs, even a small concealed carry pistol is good at distances past 100 meters. A good pistol plus good training equals a shooter capable of making hits at much longer distances than most people think possible. Graham told us he’s had students make pistol hits at 230 yards during his classes.
But training classes are far from the only proof that decent shooters can make long-distance shots with pistols.
An Airman’s long, lucky shot
On June 20th, 1994, an Airman provided proof of a pistol’s effectiveness. That day, another Airman about to be discharged from the Air Force against his will walked into a building on Fairchild Air Force Base, in the state of Washington, with an AK-type rifle. He killed a psychiatrist and psychologist who had recommended him for discharge, went on to kill two random victims, and also shot twenty-two others.
As the shooter walked outside, twenty-five year old Airman Andrew Brown, a military police officer, approached him on a bicycle. Brown jumped off his bike, drew his Beretta M9 and ordered the shooter to drop his weapon (for future reference, if someone is wandering around with an AK murdering people, there’s no reason to order him to drop his weapon before you engage). Brown was approximately seventy yards away when he shouted the order.
The shooter opened fire on Brown. Brown crouched low and fired four rounds. Two missed, one hit the shooter in the shoulder, and one hit him right between the eyes. The shooter fell dead. Airman Brown had made an amazing shot, killed an active shooter and undoubtedly saved numerous lives.
Trick shooters and freaks of nature
Then there are guys like “Instructor Zero”, a former Italian Army soldier known for unreal weapons skills. Zero has a YouTube video where he makes several 300 meter hits with a pistol.
Crazier than that is this video, where champion shooter Jerry Miculek hits a balloon at 1000 yards with a revolver.
There seems to be no question that highly skilled and experienced pistol shooters can outshoot most rifle shooters.
“The Austin Police Department must be lying about that pistol shot.”
Probably not. Sure, any one cop can lie about what he did on a scene. But on a shooting scene, you have multiple entities crosschecking evidence. Patrol officers and supervisors make the initial assessment, secure the scene and any evidence they can see. Then homicide investigators arrive, usually with a Crime Scene Unit. Then investigators from the Medical Examiner’s office conduct their own investigation. In this case the FBI investigated as well.
Even if the patrol supervisors, Homicide investigators and CSU simply accepted Sergeant Johnson’s version of events (they wouldn’t), the Medical Examiner’s people and FBI wouldn’t. Distances are measured by each investigative division, the angle of the round’s impact is analyzed to determine what direction it came from, and the location of spent shells is recorded (shells are usually what’s under the little plastic markers you see in crime scene photos and videos). Everything about the shooting is documented and recorded. Each agency reaches its own conclusions about how the shooting unfolded. My educated guess here is that Austin PD chief Art Acevedo didn’t make his announcement about the 104-yard shot until after the Medical Examiner and FBI corroborated Austin PD’s conclusion.
But let’s assume Johnson shot the suspect from much closer, then lied about where he shot from. He would have had to shoot, then pick up the spent shell, then drop it at a different location further away. And he’d have to do it while a flurry of activity was going on around him, since a mass shooting in downtown Austin is kind of a big deal and brings out lots of witnesses. And Johnson would know tons of potential witnesses were around who could say, “Wait a minute, I was looking out the window during the shooting and saw the cop in a totally different spot than he claimed.” This was a high-profile shooting, investigated by multiple agencies. The chances of pulling off a whopper of a lie like “I shot the suspect from 104 yards away”, when the real distance was only 10.4 yards, would be next to impossible.
I don’t see how Johnson could lie about this one and get away with it.
But could Sergeant Johnson really make a 104 yard shot one handed?
That’s a fair question. Yes I made hits at over 100 yards, Instructor Zero did it at 300 meters, Jerry Miculek did it at 1000 yards, and Airman Andrew Brown made two shots at seventy yards when it really counted. But all of those were with a good two-handed grip against mostly stationary targets. How could Johnson make that shot one handed, probably against a moving target, while holding the reins of two horses that were also probably moving?
The answer is, he was extremely lucky. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have pistol skills; without significant training and experience, he would have hit nowhere near the suspect. But with so many factors involved, luck played a huge role. Maybe the suspect moved six inches in the half-second it took the bullet to leave the pistol and hit him, and that six inches caused the round to hit his heart instead of a non-vital area. Maybe the suspect stopped in front of a brick wall with nobody else around, and Sergeant Johnson was under less stress because had no concerns about hitting innocent people. Maybe the suspect had no idea Johnson was there (he was reportedly under pressure from other officers advancing on him), and that gave Johnson plenty of time to aim in and slowly squeeze the trigger rather than rush the shot. Whatever the factors were, they must have all come together perfectly to help Johnson hit him from that distance.
As far as I can tell, Sergeant Adam Johnson made an amazing and lucky shot, when the city of Austin really needed him to. I hope I get to shake his hand someday.
Chris Hernandez is a 20 year police officer, former Marine and currently serving National Guard soldier with over 25 years of military service. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and also served 18 months as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo. He writes for BreachBangClear.com, Iron Mike magazine and has published two military fiction novels, Proof of Our Resolve and Line in the Valley, through Tactical16 Publishing. He can be reached at email@example.com or on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ProofofOurResolve).
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