Shoot like an Air Marshal

Posted | By:  

With all this talk of missing airliners in the news, we here at Firearms Talk thought it may be worthwhile to take a look at our country's own Federal Air Marshal Service from who they are to what they do to what they carry and how they use it.

Shoot like an Air Marshal - Editor - inside-look-into-federal-air-marshal-training-2100.jpg

What are the marshals?

The US Federal Aviation Administration began its "Sky Marshal" program during the Kennedy administration in 1962, which were a lonely group of just 18 FAA Inspectors who were plainclothes and armed with small frame .38 caliber revolvers. These men, trained by the Border Patrol, were the first undercover agents salted away aboard civilian aircraft. Posing as ordinary passengers as their cover, they divided their time between watching for hijackers and reading the paper. These old Sky Marshals made a brief appearance in the 1983 film, Twilight Zone: the movie where a young John Lithgow grabs the sleeping agent's S&W Model 60 snub.

A 3-minute review of the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS). It is a canned government video, but somewhat interesting.

By 1985, with international terrorism replacing DB Cooper as the major cause of heartburn to airlines, the Sky Marshals were expanded to a whopping 50-ish agents and they were given more training and better arms.

Shoot like a marshal

According to sources, the Federal Air Marshal Tactical Pistol Course (TPC), is shot entirely from the 7-yard line (21-feet). This is unlike most police courses of fire that specify that the course be split into close quarters (1.5-3 yards) midrange (5-7 yards) and long range (10-25 yard) sections, everything on the Air Marshal course is mid-range.

However, accuracy and speed are the key, with several strings being limited to as little as 1.35 seconds for the course to get off an aimed shot.

Going through the Federal Air Marshal Tactical Pistol Course (TPC) with Lenny Magill. As you can see, the draw is everything.

What do they carry?

The agency, being a product of the 1960s, they started off with .38 revolvers. Since they were trained by the Border Patrol and that agency at the time used a combination of S&W, and Colt guns, its probable that that's what the first Sky Marshals carried.

A popular legend (much of the Air Marshal program is shrouded in secrecy) is that in the 1970s and 80s they carried Charter Arms Bulldog .44 Specials with Glaser Safety Slugs. These little double-action semi-snub nosed revolver could deliver a huge bullet at up-close and personal ranges while the GSS would not over penetrate-- always something to think of on a plane.

Shoot like an Air Marshal - Editor - 800px-charter-arms-bulldog-2-2104.jpg
The Bulldog was compact (6.7-inches overall with a 2.2-inch barrel) and light (22 ounces). It was also handicapped by its 5-round cylinder. Still, its huge fat bullet had to be comforting.

Shoot like an Air Marshal - Editor - glaser-safety-slug-2103.png
A Glaser Safety Slug, developed in the 1970s, was a frangible bullet made up of small shot, devastating at close range but almost impossible to over penetrate.

After 9/11, the agency, like most of the new Department of Homeland Security (FPS, Secret Service, etc.) went with the SIG Sauer P229R with a DAK trigger in .357SIG using Speer Gold Dot ammo as standard. A chopped down version of the classic P226 pistol, the 12-shot P229R was slightly shorter-- but still hefty at nearly 40-ounces loaded, not to mention pretty thick.

Shoot like an Air Marshal - Editor - sig229rdak-vi-2098.jpg

In 2009, the agency planned a switched from the P229 to the SIG P250 in .357 SIG caliber. However this was delayed for one reason or another to at this point it is still believed that the group is armed with 229s.

With some in the Department of Homeland Security switching to variants of the Glock 22 and 23, you may see the FAMs move to that platform someday. Watch this space for more info if so.


FAM's train to shoot well from a seated position using cover and concealment as best as possible and to work with the attributes of the plane itself. Remember the range rule of "know your target and what is beyond it"? Well marshals have to take this very seriously. While the concept of a few bullet holes causing a disastrous depressurization of the plane's cabin are largely Hollywood/urban legend, care is still taken to train marshals that only the minimal amount of force is to be used to end a threat and control the situation. Sensitive hydraulic, oxygen, and avionics systems are given priority in a shoot/don't shoot situation.

Shoot like an Air Marshal - Editor - air-marshal-2099.jpg

Of course, Air Marshalls are most likely also armed with or have access to less lethal weapons such as Tasers and impact tools, should an intermediate threat emerge.

Shoot like an Air Marshal - Editor - air-marshal-training-2096.jpg

Post 9/11 expansion

Prior to the terrible events that occurred on Sept 11th where four jetliners were hijacked by radical Islamic terrorists with ties to Al Qaeda, the US Federal Air Marshal Service had fewer than 50 authorized officers (with just 33 spots filled-- one by Top Shot legend Craig Sawyer), all of which had extensive law enforcement backgrounds before coming to the service.

These officers had to take a 14-week training class and score near perfect on an advanced course of fire. They were also dual-rated as FAA Inspectors, and, due to their Top Secret SCI clearance, could perform intelligence operations if needed.

After the events of those days, the FAMS expanded to numbers as high as 5000 according to some sources, and training was cut to as low as five weeks, with the FAA inspector and intelligence collection missions deleted.

Then over time, this force was tweaked and is now believed to be closer to 4000 and training expanded. Current training is the initial FAMS 35-day basic training program, conducted at Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, NM and the advanced 43-day training program conducted at the FAMS Training Center in Atlantic City, NJ. During this training the candidate will fire an estimated 5800 rounds of ammo (ever wonder where all those Homeland Security bullets go?)

Shoot like an Air Marshal - Editor - eeis-01-img0021-2101.jpg
(Much of the 5000+ rounds fired in initial training is done on steel plate drills to help form a basis for accurate point shooting)

Still, with more than 30,000 flights per day in the United States, the odds that an air marshal is aboard are slim.

With a budget pushing a billion dollars (with a B), many think the program is unwarranted.

"This money is a total waste," Rep. John J. Duncan (R-Tennessee) told the House of Representatives in 2009. "$860 million for people to sit on airplanes and simply fly back-and-forth, back-and-forth. What a cushy, easy job."

Shoot like an Air Marshal - Editor - siafc-2102.jpg
(The office of an air marshal)

The first shooting with an air marshal occurred in 2005 when a disturbed man threatened a plane with a bomb. Today the agency has to qualify quarterly and still has the highest score needed to pass its marksmanship tests if any federal agency.

In March 2014, it was reported that the number of marshals would be reduced to 1200 then to as few as 500 within the next ten years.

It seems they may have proved too effective for their own good.

Shoot like an Air Marshal - Editor - us-federal-air-marshal-badge-plaque-l-4-2097.jpg

Posted in
  Email   Print
March 25, 2014  •  09:57 AM
All we need is Liam to get it done
March 25, 2014  •  06:31 PM
It seems like after 9/11 all planes would have a guard on them. If a guard had been on the planes on 9/11 one of the worst disasters in the history of our country would have broken down into "put that box cutter up, son, before you hurt yourself."
March 25, 2014  •  09:38 PM
Which leads to the question, Why weren't they?
April 4, 2014  •  11:56 AM
Just require the airlines themselves to train and arm the steward/stewardess to handle the situations. They are already on all flights and move about the plane continuously. They also have an interest in protecting not only the passengers but also the crew members that many have come to look upon as family. They could be looked at as an extension of Homeland Security.