What Does an ATF Special Agent Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image shows a man wearing a vest that reads "ATF Police." Text reads: "A day in the life of an atf special agent: enforcers federal laws relating to the sale of alcohol, tobacco guns, and explosives; conducts surveillance; obtains and executes search warrants; interviews suspects and witnesses; makes arrests"

Image by Chelsea Damraksa © The Balance 2019

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 was previously 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.

ATF agents are required to testify for the federal government in court or before federal grand juries regarding cases they've worked on. Additionally, they may be called upon to assist other law enforcement agencies and departments at the federal, state, and local levels, as needed.

ATF Special Agent Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide statistics on the median, top 10%, and bottom 10% salaries for ATF special agents. Protective service occupations as a whole had a median annual salary of $40,640 as of May 2018, a little higher than the median annual salary for all occupations of $38,640.

A special agent's base salary depends on the grade in which they are placed when hired (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%, depending on their job location within the U.S. or its territories and an extra 25% 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 or law enforcement, or an equivalent combination of some college education and criminal investigation or law enforcement experience.

  • Hiring Process: Agents must complete an extensive process before they're invited to join the bureau. It consists 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. An applicant must be a U.S. citizen between the ages of 21 and 37 at the time of appointment and must register 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.
  • Special Training: ATF agents undergo the 12-week Criminal Investigators Training Program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. Upon completion of that training, agents then move 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.
  • Willing to take personal risks: 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 BLS does not make predictions of job growth for ATF special agents. The BLS expects the number of protective service jobs as a whole to grow 5% from 2016 to 2026, about as fast as the 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 provides 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

People interested in becoming ATF special agents might also consider the following jobs. The figures provided are median annual salaries:

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018