Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

If you are looking for a job in law enforcement, you are faced with many options. You can start as a police officer and work your way up to become a detective or a member of the K-9 unit.

become an atf special agent

When you start browsing the job openings, however, you will come across positions in different federal agencies as – FBI, ATF, etc. Becoming a Special Agent in one of these agencies is very desirable and the job comes with many responsibilities and benefits.

If you are interested in working for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), below you can find all the necessary information that you need for this job – how to apply, what to expect from your duties and what are the salary and benefits.

About ATF

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) was established as its own agency in 1972. Now it is a separate component within the Department of Justice as of January 17, 2003. ATF is a law enforcement organization that has several responsibilities and its main tasks are to protect the community from criminal organizations and crimes that involve the use of firearms, explosives, and arson. It also regulates the trade with firearms and tobacco products and their illegal usage and storage. ATF issues regulations that govern the lawful trade with firearms and explosives.

As per their official site, the major functions of ATF are to:

  • Reduce the risk to public safety caused by illegal firearms trafficking.
  • Reduce the risk to public safety caused by criminal possession and use of firearms.
  • Reduce the risk to public safety caused by criminal organizations and gangs.
  • Improve public safety by increasing compliance with Federal laws and regulations by firearms industry members.
  • Reduce the risk to public safety caused by bombs and explosives.
  • Reduce the risk to public safety caused by criminal use of fire.
  • Improve public safety by increasing compliance with Federal laws and regulations by explosives industry members.
  • Reduce the loss of tax revenues caused by contraband alcohol and tobacco trafficking.

The number of people working for the ATF has almost doubled since it was established. Back in 1972, there were 3,829 employees, 1,622 of whom were special agents. The agency had to operate on a budget of less than $74 million. Now, ATF employees 5,113 people and a total of 2,623 special agents. It also has 828 industry operations investigators. The budget for 2017 fiscal year was $1.258 billion.

ATF’s main purpose is to protect and guarantee public safety and to that end, the agency also cooperates with law enforcement divisions worldwide and works closely with industry partners. Find out about the top rated 1811 Special Agent Test Prep Courses.

The organizational chart of ATF is headed by a Director along with Chief of Staff and Chief Counsel. Below the Director is the Deputy Director (Chief Operating Officer). Then, there are 8 offices:

  • Office of Field Operations
  • Office of Human Resources and Professional Development
  • Office of Management
  • Office of Enforcement Programs and Services
  • Office of Professional Responsibility and Security Operations
  • Office of Public and Governmental Affairs
  • Office of Science and Technology
  • Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information

The headquarters of the ATF is in Washington, DC and the agency has offices throughout the United States and its territories.

Requirements for becoming an ATF special agent

The profession of the Special Agent at ATF is hard and rewarding at the same time. The ideal candidate should be mentally and physically fit in order to be able to perform all the specific duties and tasks that come with the job. There is a specific selection process for the prospective agents that features several steps.

As a starter, the candidate needs to be a U.S. citizen, 21-years of age as a minimum but not older than 36 at the time of the employment. There are certain exceptions to the upper age threshold though for a preference eligible veteran or a person who presently serves or has served in a Federal civilian law enforcement retirement-covered position. In such cases, the years or months of prior Federal service in a primary law enforcement position are subtracted from the applicants actual age and the result should be an age of less than 37.

The applicant also needs to possess a valid driver’s license. Male candidates need to prove that they have registered with the Selective Service System or are exempt from that obligation. Otherwise, they will not be eligible to apply for federal employment.

In addition to these primary requirements, the candidates need to pass several tests and exams before being approved to become Special Agents at the ATF. They include:

  • Filling in a specific ATF special agent applicant questionnaire
  • Taking the ATF special agent exam
  • Taking the ATF special agent applicant assessment test
  • Taking the ATF Pre-employment Physical Task Test
  • Sitting a field panel interview
  • Passing a medical examination and meet all the medical requirements such as being able to perform job-related physical duties and having a weight in proportion to height.
  • Taking a drug test and being in compliance with the ATF policy for special agent applicants
  • Taking a polygraph test
  • Going through a background investigation and being cleared for top-secret security level

All these elements are part of the ATF hiring procedure. The successful candidate needs to pass through all of the stages in order to be considered for employment in the agency.

It is important to be well prepared for each of the separate tests. To help prepare, use the 1811 Special Agent Test Prep Course.

Information about the different ATF entrance tests

There are a few tests that each applicant needs to go through in order to become a Special Agent at ATF. More or less they resemble the tests of other law enforcement agencies so if you have applied for a police officer, for example, it will be much easier for you to cope with the tasks. So here is what to expect:

  • The ATF special agent exam

This is a written test that is divided into three parts: Part A, Verbal Reasoning; Part B, Quantitative Reasoning; and Part C, Investigative Reasoning. All sections consist of multiple-choice questions where only one of the answers is correct.

For the Verbal Reasoning part, you will be given a paragraph that contains all the necessary information to answer the questions below. Note, that you need to use only the information provided in the text as it is. Do not rely on any other previous knowledge that you have. Do not question the validity of the statement even if you believe that it might be incorrect. Simply choose the correct answer based on the details given in the paragraph.

For the Quantitative Reasoning part, you need to solve problems that are given both in verbal and numeric form. Note that the use of calculators on the day of the exam is not allowed, so when you are practicing for the test, it is best not to use calculators as well. This part of the test also includes True/False questions that need to be answered. You are given information and based on the information provided, you need to determine if a given statement is true or false.

For the Investigative Reasoning, you will be given a paragraph and several statements related to it. Then you will be asked a few questions that cover both the text and the statements, you then have to determine the correct one.

Sgt. Godoy has prepared a popular and well rated online test preparation program to help applicants with the written exam. PoliceExam 911 covers many of the sections utilized during the ATF exam.

  • Pre-Employment Physical Task Test (PTT)

As the job of the ATF Special Agent is very dynamic and can be quite dangerous, there are specific requirements for the physical fitness of the candidates. They need to demonstrate that they are in good health and able to perform tasks that will be needed when having to defend themselves or arrest a suspect. Proficient use of firearms is also a must.

Once the applicants pass the written ATF special agent exam, they need to go through the Pre-Employment Physical Task Test. It includes the following components in this order:

  • Sit-ups (the maximum number performed in 1 minute without stopping).
  • Push-ups (the maximum number performed in 1 minute without stopping).
  • One and one-half mile run (the minimum completion time for a 1.5 mile run).

There are specific requirements that each candidate needs to meet in accordance with their age and gender, which ATF has compiled in the table below.

Pre-employment Physical Task Test Scoring Chart

  Age 21–29   Age 30–39   Age 40  
  Male Female Male Female Male Female
Minimum score for the 1.5 mile run 12 minutes 18 seconds (12:18) 14 minutes 55 seconds (14:55) 12 minutes 51 seconds (12:51) 15 minutes 26 seconds (15:26) 13 minutes 53 seconds (13:53) 16 minutes 27 seconds (16:27)
Minimum push-ups performed in 1 minute 33 16 27 14 21 11
Minimum sit-ups performed in 1 minute 40 35 36 27 31 22

These are the two quite specific tests that ATF candidates need to take.

Main duties and responsibilities

ATF Special Agents have certain specific responsibilities which most broadly include investigating criminal violations of the Federal laws that are related to firearms, explosives, arson, alcohol and tobacco products. In order to successfully protect public safety ATF agents conduct surveillance, collect evidence, execute search warrants, perform arrests, interrogate perpetrators and interview victims and witnesses. They need to write detailed reports of the cases they have investigated and also testify in court when necessary. ATF Special Agents are responsible to testify for the Federal Government in court or before grand juries.

If you work at the ATF as a Special Agent, you should be prepared to work irregular hours and travel extensively. ATF may deploy its agents throughout its offices in the USA and use them for overseas assignments as well. While the typical working hours are between 8:30 am and 5:00 pm, Special Agents may be requested to work overtime, on weekends or holidays.

Salary and Benefits

Special Agents employed by the ATF have additional compensations and benefits on top of their salary. A newly hired agent will start at GS grade 5 to GS grade 9 depending on their qualification. The grade for which an applicant qualifies is determined by the Office of Personnel Management. In financial terms, this means a starting salary between $34,865 to $57,093 as per the data for the 2016 fiscal year, published by ATF. The full performance level for this position is GS grade 13, which means payment of $73,846 to $96,004.

The above-given salary does not include the locality pay for which ATF Special Agents qualify. It is a percentage on top of the salary depending on the location and varies between 14% and 35%.

ATF Special Agents receive 25% law enforcement availability pay as a result of the specific type of their work and the necessity to work additional hours.

ATF also provides a Foreign Language Award Program, which gives cash awards to agents who use one or more foreign languages while performing their duties. The award depends on the frequency of usage of the language and the level of proficiency each agent has.

The other benefits available for ATF Special Agents include annual and sick leave, paid holidays, low-cost health and life insurance, tax-deferred Thrift Savings Plan and a health improvement program. Special Agents also use the benefits of the Federal Employee Retirement System, which means that they can retire at the age of 50 with 20 years of service.

The ATF provides employment to more than 2,500 special agents in their offices throughout the states. Becoming one of these Agents is a job that is appealing to many people who want to be part of the law enforcement system. If you feel that you have what it takes to be part of the ATF, go ahead and apply for the open positions.

Learn more about the 1811 Special Agent Test Prep Course