Choosing a Handgun for Law Enforcement Service

The majority of agencies today have a general issue firearm for all personnel. If the agency chooses several handguns, they are generally just smaller variants of the primary issued gun. This is simply a matter of administrative convenience, and is a mistake for the sake of simplicity. In this case, the stated simplicity is actually complacency and laziness.  It means less work for some, and is a disservice to the officer, and the community. Let the hate mail begin…….

Not every person is the same. We all have different hand sizes, coordination, skill levels, and abilities. Picking a gun that works for most, does not mean it will work for all. When you force everyone to work with the lowest common denominator, you get mediocrity. A well known agency learned a lesson about this a few decades ago, by forcing everyone to use the same gun. Several agents were fired because they could not qualify. That agency learned a very costly lesson about a one size fits all, general issue sidearm. Then, institutional memory being what it is, they promptly forgot about it a short time after the civil suit was settled. 

When you force everyone to be the same, problems occur. Some of those are: decreased performance under duress, difficulty qualifying, resentment, low morale, reluctance to defend themselves-other officers-citizens, and hesitation. We all know that when an officer is indecisive in a stressful situation, they hesitate, then hesitation leads to panic and the “I have to do Something, NOW” syndrome. That panic, results in less perceived time to act, and then very bad, life altering decisions are often the result. 

We need to quit forcing officers into a pre-packaged solution of a standard issue sidearm; and give them reasonable, legally justifiable options. Just because it makes it easier on the firearms training staff, the quartermaster unit, or for a bid; does not make it right. There is less liability in allowing an officer to choose a high-quality firearm from a list, than there is in issuing the same gun to everyone. 

What criteria should this list consist of:

Reliability – Without reliability, none of the rest will matter. If the gun is clean, properly lubricated, and in serviceable condition; it must be able to complete the entire mandated course of fire, or expend every round of ammunition the officer routinely carries on their person (whichever is greater), without a malfunction. This includes shooter induced malfunctions, as if the officer inadvertently causes a malfunction, that means the gun is not properly sized for their hands, or they are not competent enough with it. Further, the ammunition used for this testing, should be the exact duty round that the officer will carry, and not range/practice ammo. 

Sights They Can See – Whether iron/fixed sights, or Pistol Mounted Optics; if an officer cannot quickly index their firearm on target under stress, the gun is useless. The sights should be metal and fixed for ruggedness, and the ability to manipulate the gun with one hand. Plastic sights, of any kind, are completely unacceptable for any type of firearm used for duty purposes. If it is a PMO, it should be robust enough to do the same, not break if dropped, and have a battery life of a minimum of six months prior to replacement. 

A Trigger They Can Manage – This means a smooth, consistent trigger that is manageable, and does not require so much force that the gun moves off the target when the officer manipulates it on purpose. You can not make a trigger heavy enough to prevent a negligent discharge, and still have it operable with one finger. If a trigger is so heavy it causes the gun to significantly move while the trigger stroke is being made, then the chances of a miss are increased exponentially. Heavy triggers are a false sense of security for people who do not understand the mechanics of deadly force encounters that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving. They are a false sense of security, for those who simply do not understand the problem. The solution is proper and continual training in safe usage of a firearm under duress, a thorough understanding of Col. Jeff Cooper’s Safety Rules, and a manageable trigger. 

The trigger must be smooth and consistent. A single action trigger is optimized between 4-5.5 lbs. A Double action trigger may have the trigger cocking weight of between 6-10 lbs. Anything more than that becomes unmanageable for any serious use, and quite frankly, much more dangerous for all involved.   

Current Manufacture – One that is currently made with a reliable supply of spare parts, security holsters, and readily available magazines. 

Known Quality – One that is from a major manufacturer, that does not have a wide spread, commonly known issue with malfunctions or parts breakages. 

Durability – One that is capable of being in service for a minimum of five years minimum, or 10,000 rounds of ammunition (whichever comes first) without a parts breakage. This is a minimum recommendation. 

Rust Resistant – Due to the unknown variables of weather that an officer will have to deploy in, it is important that the firearm be resistant to rust with minimal upkeep. An officer should not have to worry their gun will rust if it is not wiped down at the end of every single shift. This is not to say they should not be made to maintain their weapons or neglect them. Only that having to wipe a gun down daily, is a relic of the past with current finishes available. 

A commonly used, commonly available, proven caliber – 9mm, 40 S&W, and 45 Auto are the most reasonable. Each offers their own advantages and disadvantages. There is no magic caliber or bullet. The caliber must be controllable for the individual officer, without excessive recoil. 

Capacity – This is a lot less important than most would have you to believe. When we focus on the fact that we are talking about a sidearm for a Peace Officer, in the United States, if they are actually using judicious, legal, and reasonable force; then you do not need half a box of ammo in your gun. This is an emotional decision for most, not necessarily reasonable. This is not to say that more rounds in the gun is a bad thing, but they are not an absolute necessity. A minimum number of rounds in a duty gun, carried by a line officer, is eight (8). Learn to make high value hits, under stress, and in a reasonable amount of time, and a high capacity magazine becomes a lot less relevant to the mission of a Peace Officer. 

Multiple opponents? Let’s look at this practically. A lone line officer, against how many? How many aggressive opponents offering deadly force can one person handle, in close quarters, surrounded, and hell bent on murder of that peace officer? The most I know of one man being able to handle under this circumstance is five (5). That was achieved with eight (8) rounds of 45 Auto, resulting in four (4) dead on scene, and one (1) out of the fight and sent to the hospital. Twenty (20) rounds of 9mm, or even nine (9) rounds of 45 Auto, would have made no difference in the outcome of that fight. Have there been cases of active, combatant felons absorbing many more rounds, and not stopping? Yes. What is the common trend of active killers taking multiple rounds, and not stopping? They were not shot in the cranial ocular vault, plain and simple. When rounds, of any caliber, are being delivered to the torso and are not effective, the solution is the shot through the tear duct; not more to the chest….. Take emotion and fear out of it, and apply proper fundamentals of shooting to the proper areas of the anatomy. The answer is more training in legal and moral application of deadly force, decision making under stress, and solid fundamentals of shooting. In other words, train more, and quit betting your life on lots of rounds and magic bullets. 

Other Considerations for a Personally Owned Sidearm Policy: 

Having taken the above into consideration, some more things that have been proven to work for progressive agencies are: 

The officer purchases their own weapon form an approved list. 

The weapon is inspected for proper working condition by a certified armorer, once per year, and documentation is filed in the armory files. 

The officer purchases their own security holster, that is on an approved list. 

The officer purchases their own practice and duty ammo, that is on an approved list. 

If the gun is damaged on duty, the officer is responsible for any repairs or replacement. 

The officer must qualify at a higher percentage than mandated by the state, by at least 5%. 

By taking these steps, it prevents officers wanting to carry a different gun for the sake of being perceived as special, and actually allows officers that need a specific gun to benefit from this policy. 

Multiple Issued Sidearms, or Giving Officers a Choice

If the agency absolutely refuses to allow officers to purchase and use personally owned firearms, even though it is a moral and proven, positive decision; then there is also another option. 

Over the years, several prestigious agencies, have offered their officers a choice of multiple firearms. For example, NYPD has given their officers the choice of Smith and Wesson, Beretta, Ruger, and SIG. The Georgia State Patrol offered a choice of a Smith and Wesson 5906 or 4506. LAPD offered the choice of the Beretta 92, Smith and Wesson 4506, or the Smith and Wesson K38. These are just a few agencies, that at one time or another, have given their officers a choice in a very serious piece of life saving equipment. 

Issuing a smaller copy of the primary issue pistol is not a solution. These generally have a shorter slide and shorter magazine. The reach from the back of the gun where the web of the hand rests to the trigger is generally the same length. It is a perception that the “smaller” gun will fit a smaller hand, not reality. 

Fortunately, some manufacturers have realized that one size does not fit all, and that different length back straps only are nothing but a gimmick. Smith and Wesson, FN, SIG, HK, and a few others offer interchangeable back and/or side panels that actually change the circumference AND trigger reach. Ambidextrous slide releases, and the ability to swap the magazine release (or ambidextrous options) accommodate a wider range of officers. 

Final, Hard to Swallow Truth Pills:

Everyone in the agency having magazine interchangeability is not necessary. Name five (5) documented cases in the last 100 years where officers having the ability to exchange magazines has made a critical and definitive difference in a gunfight. To save the reader’s valuable time, there are not that many examples. Further, if an officer is so negligent that they expend 2-3 magazines worth of ammunition, and are not hitting the target, giving them more ammo is negligent and reckless. If an officer chose not to carry spare magazines, they did not care enough about themselves or their fellow officers prior to the fight (they don’t believe it could really happen here, or to them), showing they do not have the proper mindset prior to the fight; so what makes you think they will magically start making good decisions in the middle of a gunfight? 

Manual Safeties – Properly placed, ergonomic, and quickly manipulated safeties (such as those on the Smith and Wesson M&P, SIG P320, HK P30/HK45, and 1911 variants) offer very distinct advantages. If an officer wants a thumb safety, that should be encouraged and supported; as long as they train with it. It is a distinct advantage in a gun grab; and when used in the correct sequence, it offers extra precautions when re-holstering after a critical incident. 

In conclusion, agencies need to make practical, rational, reasoned, and informed decisions on deadly weapons. A sidearm is a very important and personal thing to a Peace Officer. Law Enforcement, as an institution, knew this for years; and somehow forgot. It is time to remember the lessons that were won at such great cost, so that we are not doomed to repeat them………

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