The 1986 Miami Dade FBI Shooting: An Analysis

Thirty-five years ago, six (some would say seven or eight) FBI agents cornered two armed robbery suspects in their car in Miami, Florida. After a furious four-minute shootout in which 145 total rounds were fired, the two bad guys were killed, but so were two agents, while the others were all wounded.

Miami Dade shootout. 145 shots fired in 4-5 minutes.
145 shots were fired in 4 to 5 minutes.

This incident is fairly familiar to folks in the firearms and law enforcement communities, if for no other reason than the development of the .40 S&W cartridge by the FBI in the wake of the apparent failures of the 9mm Luger round in the firefight. There are lots of things people know, or think they know, about the Miami shootout. It is, after all, one of the most infamous incidents in FBI history.

The firearms used in the 1986 Miami Dade Shootout.
The firearms used in the 1986 Miami Dade Shootout.
Miami shootout memorial
Memorial to special agents Jerry Dove and Benjamin Grogan. Killed in the line of duty in the Miami Dade shootout.

But how deep does our knowledge go? Miami Dade has been meticulously documented, but most people probably haven’t been exposed to the real details that explain why things went the way they did. Fortunately, firearms expert Paul Harrell has been exposed to it in ways the vast majority of us have not. He underwent training based on the incident and later taught that same course. He has been through the evidence and had time to reflect on it and reach some conclusions, which he shares with us in the video.

I’m a subscriber to Paul’s channel and have a deep respect for the knowledge he brings to the table. I had seen this particular video before, so when it was assigned to me, I immediately moved it to the top of my priority list. I think it’s that important for those of us in the community, whether we are law enforcement, military, or just a yahoo like me who carries for protection. I’m kind of echoing Paul’s notion that there are a few law enforcement shootings that are “required reading for anyone who takes firearms training seriously.” “Miami Dade,” he says, “is at the top of that list.”

Paul Harrell
Paul Harrell. (Photo staken from original video)

Paul notes that law enforcement firearms selection and training doesn’t deviate much, but usually, every ten to twenty years will see a highly publicized incident, usually where the police get the short end, that drastically changes the direction. One of those changes, as I mentioned earlier, was the move to the .40 S&W cartridge. Paul barely mentions this but, as we know now, that change was a solution looking for a problem, though it was not necessarily evident at the time.

This is an example of the wrong lessons being taken from such an incident, which Paul explains by backtracking to the 1970 Newhall shooting in Valencia, California. That one saw four California Highway Patrolmen killed by two suspects who got away before being captured later. It was the deadliest day in California law enforcement history. Paul’s discussion of the lessons learned from that shooting, and the training they inspired, are very interesting and pertinent to the Miami Dade incident sixteen years later.

miami shootout crime scene
The Miami shootout crime scene.
Paul Harrel recreating Miami shootout.
Paul Harrell recreates the situations and shots of two FBI Agents

Miami Dade is contrasted with Newhall and the FBI killing of John Dillinger in terms of the importance of documentation and the lessons to be taken from it. I’m not going to go into all those details because Paul does it so much better, along with a few well-taken demonstrations.

He also addresses the many “what ifs” that inevitably spring up when people who talk about such things discuss the potentialities of violent encounters since Miami Dade featured several of those. Agents were wounded and had to shoot one-handed; a couple of agents performed more than one mag change. At least one switched to a secondary weapon. One lost his weapon entirely. These are all addressed. Paul recreates several of the situations faced and shots taken by the agents.

Paul Harrell recreates Miami shootout.
Paul Harrell recreates the situation and shots of the FBI agent who fired the shotgun from the position in the photo on the right.

Harrell tells us that the supposed lessons of Miami Dade have always frustrated him: people tend to focus on minutiae that really means nothing in the long term; the larger, more important lessons receive little attention in most folks’ minds; people wrongly try to use the incident as an example to prove a point; other offer opinions based on their ignorance of the incident. Paul reduces the FBI’s performance in the shootout to two major failures, which I will not reveal because I believe Paul’s buildup is necessary for the lessons to be realized.

I will say, however, that this is no mere example of armchair quarterbacking. Paul has the information and the experience to make the judgments he does. Even so, he warns against the dangers of hindsight and notes that it’s “easy to critique in leisure what other people had to do in haste.” I urge you to watch the video in its entirety. I think you will find it, and Paul’s other content, well worth your time.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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