The “found brass in pockets story” is a popular old saw offered as a warning against developing bad habits or training scars. The story goes that some police officer was found dead with spent brass in his pockets. Being of the era when revolvers were common, the doomed-but-nameless officer unintentionally stuffed his brass into pockets while reloading during a protracted, long-ago fight, thus slowing him down and sealing his fate. Details are rarely offered, but the boogeyman to avoid is unintentionally developing a bad habit and to only do things exactly as told or you’ll suffer the same fate! Boo!

Interestingly, most ranges would likely have buckets or similar to police spent brass, so empties would be tossed into the provided receptacle. Military ranges routinely run brass and ammo checks to make sure no troop manages to escape with a deadly piece of spent brass in their pocket to terrorize the local civilian population with. But never mind such specifics… Bad habits! Training scars! Don’t be like that cop (whose name, department, location, date, and details we don’t know…) or you’ll wind up dead! Dead from bad habits and training scars!

Problem is, the incident this old saw is based on didn’t happen that way at all. In April 1970, four California Highway Patrol Officers were killed in a tragedy that has since become known as “The Newhall Incident.” Officer James Pence of the CHP was one of them and even though forensic evidence never formally claimed it, an overzealous CHP trainer embellished a story using Pence and this incident as “proof.” Even though this story was officially corrected, the tale circulated so often it is still being cited as an example decades later:

The real disturbing thing about this is how often such repeated nonsense is taken as truth without question.

Even though Pence and Newhall are wrongly used as the basis for this tale, it turns out there was a reported incident where a police officer was later found with brass in his pockets. Bill Jordan was a famed lawman, shooter, and author of No Second Place Winner. Download a free copy of this classic text:

Go to page 105.

A question often asked of themselves by young officers is, “How will I comport myself in the face of fire? Will I stand up or will I break?” On the surface this would appear to be a question which can be answered only if it becomes an actuality. As a matter of fact the answer can be given with very little chance of error. Almost invariably a man, provided he does not have too much time to think, will automatically do what he has been trained to do. Again provided that his training has been thorough and intensive.

An example in support of this statement comes to my mind: A few years back a Border Patrol team became involved in a discussion with some contrabandistas in which they were considerably embarrassed by one of the smugglers holed up in some brush about 200 yards away. His presence unduly complicated the proceedings in that he was armed with a .30-30 rifle with which he was enthusiastically underscoring points in the argument made by the main group of his compatriots. The Border Patrolmen were armed only with .38 Special revolvers which put them at somewhat of a disadvantage under the circumstances. However, two of the three men applied themselves to the task of routing the nearby enemy while the senior officer, Sam McKone, took up the question of the rifleman in the brush.

They tell of a western epitaph which reads, “Here lies Tom Jones. Committed suicide by betting his pistol against a rifle at 200 yards.” This could be a normal result of such a contest, but Sam McKone is not one of the Jones boys. Among his other marksmanship awards is a gold medal declaring him to be a Distinguished Pistol Shot. Additionally, being shot at was not a matter to distress Sam unduly, since it was not exactly a novel occurrence in his life.

To make a long story short, by applying a little Kentucky windage and an educated trigger squeeze, Sam scored three hits which made the rifle shooter lose all interest in the fate of his companions and start thinking solely of his own welfare, here and hereafter.

What has all this to do with the statement that a man will do unconsciously as he was trained, provided the training was thorough and extensive? Well, after the fight someone noted that McKone’s pocket was bulging and politely inquired as to what might be spoiling the drape of his trousers. Puzzled, Sam thrust in an exploring hand. The pocket was full of fired cases. During the fight, without realizing he was doing so, McKone, an old reloader, had saved every empty!

A ha! The boogeyman lives after all! Not so fast…

First, let’s look at the most important part: Border Agent Sam McKone was forced to fight with a .38 Special revolver against a rifle-armed attacker at 200 yards and managed to land hits and win.

Let me say it again so it (hopefully) sinks in: Border Agent Sam McKone used a .38 Special revolver to land hits and defeat a rifle-armed attacker at 200 yards and won. It would seem that earning a Distinguished Pistol Shot badge worked for McKone, even though nobody seems interested in that part of the story.

Let’s let Bill Jordan explain why:

It has been previously mentioned that nervous tension makes it difficult to squeeze a trigger smoothly. This is further complicated in a gunfight by a natural disinclination to pull the trigger at all when your weapon is pointed at a human. Even though their own life was at stake, most officers report having this trouble in their first fight. To aid in overcoming this reluctance it is helpful if you can will yourself to think of your opponent as a mere target and not as a human being.

The only dependable way to learn to shoot a handgun is to start with deliberate, aimed, single action fire at a bull’s-eye target until the fundamentals of trigger squeeze and sight alignment are thoroughly mastered. Only then should the shooter concern himself with fast double action shooting.

Any competitive pistol shooter will tell you that the most difficult action under the stress of competition is to exert a smooth, even pull on the trigger. This is a result of nervous tension, caused mostly by a desire to make a good showing before the public. Consider, if you will, how this pressure is intensified under combat conditions. The desire to appear well is replaced by a much stronger desire just to continue to appear! You are struck with the realization that your opposition is a man who is trying to kill you and that in the next instant the world may have to find someone else to revolve about. His bullet may end life for you! Nothing in your prior experience, except gunfighting, can prepare you for this shocking thought. At this point the steadiness of the target range is liable to desert you and you may tend to discard all the fundamentals in a desperate attempt to get your shot in first. Here is where training takes over or you break up.

Bill Jordan was a competitive and exhibition shooter. He includes notes on skilled competitive shooters like Charles Askins.

Pocketed brass was a training oversight, not a training scar. Bullseye doesn’t assess gun handling, such as reloading at speed. Speedloaders existed in McKone and Jordan’s time but they were not in common use and they weren’t normally issued to law enforcement. That fight may have been the first time McKone reloaded quickly under stress. McKone simply did not have any training in reloading quickly to take over, so he just did it in the only manner he had ever done having nothing better to fall back on. McKone did not have any training to take over when he needed to efficiently reload his revolver. At least he could let his training take over in his ability to align sights and press the trigger smoothly as developed under competitive stress (just ask that dude with the rifle at 200 yards.)

Law enforcement continued to use the wheelgun into the 1980s but in Jordan’s time issued revolvers would be loaded via single cartridge belt loops or dump pouches if reloads were carried at all. If it seems odd for such an oversight to be common for so long, consider that even though Bill Jordan mentions Sam McKone’s pocketed brass, he does not propose a solution for reloading quickly in No Second Place Winner. Jordan points out the problem but offers nothing to solve it. PPC competition (held by the NRA and WA1500) has been popular among law enforcement for decades and had as much influence in popularizing effective speedloader use as any police training policy. If Jordan had a preferred approach, he never bothered to explain it. Not so difficult to understand why such an oversight might exist.

This problem continued for years after Jordan’s and McKone’s time. Scott Reitz explains here:

More about addressing bad habits: