Lessons from Newhall Shooting Applied to Armed Citizens Today

We can learn much from Air Force Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Mike Wood’s application of aviation’s analytical approach to studying the 1970 deaths of four highway patrol officers in Newhall, CA. Over the decades, much has been written about the incident, but Wood found those reports fragmentary. In striving to fill in gaps in his own understanding, he realized the value of a full analysis made from the vantage of a firearms instructor educated in modern survival tactics, 40 years later.

The resultant book, Newhall Shooting–A Tactical Analysis, was the topic of our book review in last month’s journal. In that article’s preparation, I realized that the depth of information gathered there greatly exceeded the scope of a book review so I asked Wood to analyze and apply the lessons from Newhall to armed citizens. Wood is a Network member, and he kindly agreed, so let’s switch now to a Q and A format to share his observations in his own words.

eJournal: Why were you drawn to study a shooting that occurred over 40 years ago?

Wood: I grew up as the son of a California Highway Patrolman. In a law enforcement or military family, when Mom and Dad talk about work, the stories that they tell are quite different than what you’d get from a stockbroker parent. When my Dad talked about his work experiences, my brother and I paid close attention since we planned on following in his footsteps. We grew up on police ranges, and spent our youth surrounded by officers from all kinds of agencies, where we heard even more “shop talk.” When family travels took us to the area where the Newhall shooting occurred Dad would mention it, and we took mental notes because even then we could tell it was important.

Fast forward 30+ years. While compiling a list of my Dad’s Highway Patrol stories that I wanted to record for posterity, I thought about Newhall.

It lit a fire. I frequently saw references to Newhall in all the different magazines, books and journals I avidly followed through the years as someone who is interested in training for self defense. In them, you’d hear snippets like the “brass in the pocket” story, but we never got a really good explanation of what happened in that fight.

As time went by some mythology started creeping in. We’d hear things such as how the officers trained with .38 Special wad cutter ammunition but they carried magnum ammunition on duty, so they missed their targets because they weren’t accustomed to the recoil of the magnum ammunition. It didn’t pass the smell test: as a kid I’d shot my dad’s duty revolver with duty ammunition and I could handle it as a skinny teenager so these grown men should have been able to handle it. I started thinking, perhaps there is more that we need to look at.

eJournal: That turned out to be a big task, because as your book points out, the Newhall deaths resulted from a complex situation compressed into a few short minutes.

Wood: A gunfight is a big, swirling mass of confusion. Trying to sort out and make sense of it and put it into chronological order was a daunting task. While researching the book, I was lucky to have access to all the original investigation files the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department maintained on the shooting, including a whole series of witness statements and crime scene photographs.

Poring through the pile of documents and photos and trying to make coherent, logical sense of what happened was really a very difficult task, which was made more difficult by the passage of 40+ years. I was fortunate that I was able to meet some of the officers that were there in the closing moments of the battle and I was able to talk with Gary Kness, the citizen hero that jumped in to try to help during the middle of the shooting.