Book Review – Newhall Shooting (Mike Wood)

Over the past year I’ve been developing a new course for KR Training, Historical Handgun, that teaches the history & evolution of defensive handgun skills.  Part of that effort has been seeking out and reading old books on shooting, purchasing copies signed by the authors when possible.

Newhall Shooting – A Tactical Analysis – Mike Wood

The Newhall shooting is a famous incident in the annals of firearms training, best known for the widely repeated, but incorrect legend that the fallen officers were found with spent brass in their pockets.

Mike Wood’s father was an officer with the California Highway Patrol, and his book was written with significant input and contributions from current and retired CHP officers.

He wrote a recent article on the incident for Police One, and Claude Werner also wrote about the incident recently on his blog, if you want brief introductions to the history of this incident.

The first section of the book is a very detailed narrative and reconstruction of the gunfight, including crime scene photographs, and drawings.  Section 2 of the book relates to my Historical Handgun program, as it discusses the state of CHP training in 1970. Section 3 is an analysis of the gunfight, and Section 4 assesses how the Newhall gunfight affected firearms training in the years after it occurred, with Appendix A of particular interest to me, as it provides a history of CHP firearms, equipment and training.

Section 1 – The Gunfight

The book includes a lot more details, but here’s the shortest possible description of the incident, for those unfamiliar with the incident: Two criminals, Jack Twining and Bobby Davis, were driving around Southern California with a carload of guns, planning to steal explosives and rob an armored car.  They threaten another motorist with a gun. The motorist calls 911, and two CHP officers (Gore and Frago) respond.  During the initial contact, Frago is shot by Twining as he stands by the passenger door of the criminal’s vehicle.  Officer Gore is killed by Davis, all within the first minute of the stop.

Two more officers, Pence and Alleyn, arrive on scene and are immediately fired at as they call for more units on the radio. An extended gunfight occurs, with Pence and Alleyn both dying, with minor wounds to Twining and Davis. During the fight, an unarmed citizen/former Marine, Gary Dean Kness, attempts to assist, using a shotgun and a revolver from fallen officers, to engage the criminals, hitting Davis before retreating.

This video includes interview footage with Gary Kness, the citizen that used dropped CHP guns to fire back at the attackers.


Other officers arrive.

Twining retreats into a nearby building and eventually commits suicide rather than surrender to CHP; Davis flees on foot and is captured.

Section 2 – CHP Training 1970

This section details the behind the scenes situation at the CHP academy, as competing agendas between CHP and FBI programs fought for their part of the available training time provided to cadets. A 36-hour CHP tactics course on felony car stops was 30 hours of classroom and 6 hours of field exercises. CHP photos included in the book show some of the tactics that were taught.

Firearms training in 1970 was one handed bullseye shooting at distance, and one handed hip shooting at distances 7 yards and closer.  Single action (thumb cocking) was advocated for shots past 7 yards.  As the author notes:

Courses of fire began with the gun in hand, not in the holster. Officers mostly fired at match-style bull’s-eye targets in training, and they loaded from trays or cans of ammunition that were frequently located on a waist-level table in front of the shooter. They were expected to police their brass during the course of fire and neatly collect it for disposal later. The whole affair was a rather orchestrated and orderly process—a test of marksmanship perhaps, but bearing no resemblance to the chaotic conditions encountered in a real gunfight.

They did use a “Drawmeter”, a device developed in the 1930’s to time quick draws, to measure draw speed.   During the 1960s, drills were expanded to include some shooting at night with a flashlight, some two handed shooting techniques.  Non dominant hand shooting and gun manipulation, and shooting on the move were not taught. Shotgun training included both hip and shouldered firing.

According to the book, three of the four officers killed scored well in training, and Officer Gore was top shooter in his academy class.

This video was produced by CHP after the incident for use in police training.

Section 3 – Gunfight Analysis

Author Wood uses Ayoob’s priorities of survival as a framework to analyze the gunfight, starting with Mental Awareness and Preparedness, Proper Use of Tactics, Skill with Safety Equipment, and Optimum Choice of Safety Rescue Equipment.

Under Mental Awareness and Preparedness & Proper Use of Tactics, Wood postulates that Officer Gore was using tactics appropriate for a high risk stop, where Officer Frago appeared to be treating the incident as a low risk stop.   In both cases, proximity of the officers to the suspects was a key element in their deaths.  The officers arriving later in the incident already knew it was a very high risk situation and adjusted their actions accordingly.  For Pence and Alleyn, it appears that marksmanship was a key factor, as they fired many rounds but failed to get effective hits. The most effective hit on either criminal was fired by the citizen who stopped to assist.  Wood’s analysis also addresses the myth regarding “brass in pockets”, explaining that what actually occurred is that Officer Pence was trying to reload his revolver pulling loose rounds from a dump pouch, while wounded and crouched behind cover. He dumped his spent brass on the ground and did not put the cases in his pocket.  Certainly higher capacity firearms that were easier to reload or backup guns (Optimum choice of equipment) would have provided some advantage to the officers. The criminals had multiple loaded guns in the vehicle, and simply discarded empty guns, grabbing others, to stay in the fight.

Wood’s analysis is far more detailed than I can recount in this review.

Section 4 – Where Are We Now

After the incident, CHP changed tactics for felony stops, required officers to wait for backup before doing a felony stop, treated reports of brandishing more seriously, and increased training in tactics.  Firearms training changed, to eliminate policing brass during a course of fire and add instruction in weak hand firing, reloading, night shooting, malfunction drills and movement, both for pistol and shotgun.

Duty ammunition, not target ammunition, was used for training after Newhall. CHP began carrying speedloaders, replacing dump pouches.  Methods for how shotguns were carried in cars were changed. Car radios were updated.

The Newhall incident was a turning point in the evolution of firearms training, a key step in the major transition away from the status quo established in the 1930s and 1940s, leading to more realistic and dynamic training conducted today.

Appendix A – History

The Appendix is a great summary of one agency’s evolution from the 1920s to the present day – a subset of the material I’ll be covering in my Historical Handgun course and book. It uses a similar format to mine, breaking down history in blocks of time, discussing the guns, gear and skills used in each era.


Anyone teaching firearms, at any level, and anyone that carries a firearm for self-defense should read this book.  The level of detail it includes about the Newhall incident is significant, the perspective it provides on the history of firearms training is essential.   It’s an extremely well researched, well written book heavy with footnotes and references.