What Does an ATF Special Agent Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

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Special agents for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) enforce federal laws relating to the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, guns, and explosives and conduct investigations into violations of those laws. They also conduct fire and arson investigations.

The ATF is part of the U.S. Department of Justice. It previously has been part of the departments of the Treasury and Agriculture.

ATF Special Agent Duties & Responsibilities

The job of an ATF special agent requires the ability to do the following tasks:

  • Conduct surveillance
  • Interview suspects and witnesses
  • Obtain and execute search warrants
  • Search for and analyze physical evidence
  • Make arrests
  • Prepare case reports
  • Testify for the federal government in court or before grand juries

ATF agents may be called upon to assist other law enforcement agencies and departments at the federal, state, and local levels.

ATF Special Agent Salary

An ATF special agent's base salary depends on the grade in which they are placed on hiring (5, 7, or 9) and the step (1–10) at which they are positioned within the grade. In 2019, the base salary ranged from a low of $36,196 for an agent at grade 5, step 1 to a high of $59,291 for an agent at grade 9, step 10.

Special agents also get paid an additional percentage of their base salary, from the teens to above 30 percent, depending on their job location within the U.S. or its territories and an extra 25 percent for law enforcement availability pay (LEAP). They may also get paid a cash award if they are fluent in one or more languages other than English and regularly use those languages on the job.

Education, Training, & Certification

Candidates for a position as an ATF special agent must have a minimum of a bachelor's degree or three years of prior work experience in criminal investigation/law enforcement or an equivalent combination of some college education and criminal investigative/law enforcement experience.

Agents must undergo an extensive hiring process, consisting of a physical fitness test, the ATF Special Agent Examination, the ATF Special Agent Applicant Assessment Test, medical and polygraph exams, a drug test, a background investigation, and a panel interview. Applicants must be a U.S. citizen between the ages of 21 and 37 at the time of appointment and must have registered with the Selective Service System if they are a male born after Dec. 31, 1959. They must also have a driver's license and be legally permitted to carry a firearm and ammunition.

Once hired, ATF agents undergo a 12-week Criminal Investigators Training Program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. Upon completion of that training, agents then move on to a 15-week Special Agent Basic Training program at the ATF National Academy, which is also located in Glynco.

ATF Special Agent Skills & Competencies

An ATF special agent should have the following skills and qualities:

  • Physical and mental toughness: The job is physically and mentally demanding.
  • Wiling to take personal risk: The job can be dangerous, and agents may be harmed or killed in the line of duty.
  • Willing to relocate: Agents may be reassigned to any ATF office in the U.S. or its territories or be sent on an overseas assignment.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not make predictions of job growth for ATF special agents. The BLS expects the number of law enforcement jobs as a whole to grow 1 percent from 2016 to 2026, slower than the 7 percent average for all occupations.

Work Environment

ATF special agents are based either in the main headquarters in Washington or in one of many local offices throughout the country or overseas. They may spend considerable time traveling depending on their assignments.

Work Schedule

The ATF's regular business hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m Monday through Friday. However, a special agent's weekly work schedule will vary according to their assignments.

How to Get the Job


The ATF accepts applications only in response to a specific job opening announcement. For information on ATF recruiting, visit the bureau's website or contact a local ATF office.


The ATF website gives sample questions and answers for the Special Agent Exam in each of its three parts: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and investigative reasoning.


The physical fitness test consists of sit-ups, push-ups, and a 1.5-mile run. There are different levels of performance required depending on the applicant's age and gender.

Comparing Similar Jobs

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