Lessons from the Pine Ridge Shootout

On June 26, 1975, FBI Special Agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler were murdered on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. While attempting to serve a Federal arrest warrant, a massive gunbattle ensued. The Agents’ cars were hit with 125 bullets and they were severely wounded early on in the gunfight. Eventually, they were overwhelmed and executed.

Details and the sequence of events of the shootout are available in my article on The Tactical Wire.

Be wary of driving or walking into an ambush. The situation the Agents faced in this case was referred to as a ‘firesac’ in Soviet military doctrine. This is an ambush that occurs from multiple simultaneous directions. Initially, they encountered a blocking position. Then, they began to take fire from multiple angles. The only way to escape a situation like that is to retreat as quickly as possible. Retreating is a tactic we don’t practice much but we should.

Look at the pictures of the Agents’ cars. Vehicles are bullet magnets. When rifles are involved, most parts of a vehicle are as bulletproof as a piece of toilet paper. If you’re being shot at while in a vehicle and you can’t drive out of the kill zone, your best bet is probably to get away from it. In a firesac, even if your vehicle is armored, there are no safe angles.

Agent Williams' car

Agent Williams’ car

If you have someone with you, be prepared to drag them away from the car because they may no longer be mobile. Practice this ahead of time because it’s not easy. Wearing flip-flops will make it all the more difficult. Some of my friends weigh 100 pounds more than I do; it’s going to be work for me to move them. Without a decent pair of shoes on, it’s probably not going to happen.

We like to think that reinforcements, aka ‘The Cavalry,’ are always going to be available and quickly. That’s just not always true. At Pine Ridge, approximately five hours passed before the Agents could be reached. This was due to the suppressive fire encountered by the incoming reinforcements. The Agents were long dead before they could be helped. Be mentally prepared for the fact you may have to extricate yourself and anyone with you without any help. You’re not doomed until you give up. Then you’re doomed for sure.

The concept of ‘fight your way to your rifle’ is of dubious worth in actuality. Saying that is probably heresy but it’s true. Once the shooting starts, if all that’s within arm’s reach is a handgun, most likely the handgun is what you will use until the conclusion of the encounter. If you think a fight is coming, better get the long gun out before the first gunshots sound and before you are seen. Notice Coler’s trunk, as soon as you open that trunk, you have targeted yourself. The same thing happened to Gordon McNeil in The Miami Massacre 11 years after Pine Ridge.

Agent Coler's car trunk

Agent Coler’s car trunk

The probability of being stuck with a handgun means that practicing exclusively at zero to seven yards with your sidearm may not be all the practice that you should do. At least know where your pistol hits at extended ranges. Learn to use the prone position with a pistol and practice shooting at 50 yards if you have the facility. A prone target is also a difficult target to hit, even with a rifle. Most indoor ranges are 25 yards, at least practice with a few shots at that distance occasionally.

Williams’ wrapping Coler’s nearly severed arm in an attempt to stop the bleeding underscores the need for medical training such as I took this past weekend from Dark Angel Medical. The nearest law enforcement support to Williams and Coler was 12 minutes away. Any kind of advanced medical care was much further than that. Even if the Agents hadn’t been executed, Agent Coler most likely would have died from a wound generating that much blood loss. Conversely, if the shooters had broken off the attack, had Williams been able to get an effective tourniquet on Coler, he might have lived.

Agent Williams was also wounded. You need to know how to stop your own blood loss. The bad news is you might need to do it one handed, which kind of sucks the first time you try it. Being bloody makes it even harder. It’s another skill you don’t want to have learn On The Job.

The further we are away from a medical facility, the greater our need for the ability to perform self-aid. We need not only the equipment but the knowledge of how to use it. Military personnel on duty will usually have organic medical support; law enforcement and Private Citizens, probably not. The support you are likely to have is in your head and in the med kit you have with you.

Personal medical kit

Personal medical kit

Don’t expect people who have fired many magazines of ammunition at you to cut you the slightest bit of slack. If they come for you, they’re coming to finish you off, not to stop your bleeding. If nothing else, play possum and set up an ambush of your own. If all you have is a handgun, wait until they get in range and take someone with you.

That means you have to know what your personal effective range with your weapon is. If you’ve been wounded, assume it’s half or less of what you can usually do on a good day. The good news is that the coup de grâce is usually delivered at close range, so you still might get an opportunity. You’ll probably only have one chance though, so make it good and don’t muck it up.

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5 responses

  1. Richard Koefod | Reply

    Claude, thanks for this one. I wish more civilians thought about the need for basic life saving first aid and took some steps to get trained in it. This is valuable not just for those who may stumble upon an shooting victim but also for much more common medical emergencies, such as an automobile accident or a heaart attck victim one may come upon. Looks like the Dark Angel folks are filling a necessary void.

    Perhaps you and your readers might be interested in Chinook Medical which you can find at this site. http://www.chinookmed.com/ I have used these guys for years and they have what I believe is one of the best selections of medical equipment one can get. While places like Dark Angel provide nice kits, and what appears to be excellent training, Chinook Medical not only provides complete kits or first aid units which are far in excess of anything one can pick up at your local drug store of REI, they excell in providing all the necessary supplies to make up any kind of kit you want or need. While there are manufactures of component parts that one can also go to, Chinook has them all in one place and at good prices. They’re a candy store for medics. I have put together a kit for my range bag, my car, my EDC carry pack and my home. Each is slightly different, but they all contain quality stuff from Chinook for the HABCs of first aid.

    As you also noted, it is important to know how to use this stuff, so I would suggest anyone who wants to get a kit or put one together, also get an extra compression type bandage for practice (Israeli, H Compression and Olaes Modular are each effective but a bit different from one another and need a bit of practice to use efficiently in an emergency). The SOF Tactical Tourniquet and the SWAT are both excellent, and can be practiced with, but each also has a bit of a differtent technique. The Bolin and Halo chest seals are also excellent with not much of a learning curve involved-just hope you don’t ever have to use them. The same is true with the hemostatics they offer.

  2. Never had to use it, but training in the reverse escape maneuver is invaluable – slide down in the seat, lockup the wheels with the brakes, put it in reverse and floor it, lift off the brake, don’t worry that you’re still moving forward. Drive straight backward 60 yards through the traffic cones, then do a kick turn to get pointed in the right direction, shift to D and floor it again. Damn rough on the car, but bullets are rougher on you. Start signal is a paint ball hitting the windshield.

    Very quickly you learn to be extremely wary of bends in the road, curving driveways and dirt or wet pavement. Short sightlines are deadly.

  3. At the South Dakota Law Enforcement Training academy our state Peace Officers Association will give the ‘Coler-Williams’ award to the trainee with the highest academic standing. Their memory lives on here.

    We are also in the process of issuing, at no cost, a Downed Officer Kit ( http://www.tacmedsolutions.com/product/downed-operator-kit_standard-kit/ ) to every full time and reserve officer in the state. We also provide training resources and are providing an extra kit to each firearms instructor.

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