Selecting a Modern Duty Pistol, Part 1
Previous generations of police officers had limited choices when
it came to selecting their duty sidearm.
Old timers simply chose between a Smith & Wesson or Colt revolver
chambered in 38 Special. Officers may
have opted for the 357 Magnum, or possible a 41 Magnum or 44 Special, but they
were considered to be firearms savvy. Hardcore
police firearms enthusiasts may have opted for a Colt 45 ACP pistol or even a
high capacity 9mm like the Browning Hi-Power, but they were viewed as true gun
Today, police officers and departments that issue duty guns
have an abundance of choices compared to the “one size fits all” mentality from
yesteryear when selecting a modern duty pistol.
While revolvers may still have their place, especially for backup or
off-duty carry, they don’t see much duty use with today’s new cops. The contemporary semi-auto pistol is now commonplace
while the revolver has faded and become a rarity.
Wise decisions need to be based on the careful consideration
of numerous features encompassed by the modern duty pistol. Concern for caliber, finish, size, weight, trigger
action, and other options need to be made objectively as possible. The various action designs of semi-auto
pistols have expanded over the last two decades and their distinctions require
an informed assessment before a final verdict can be issued.
Until the late-1980s, the realistic pistol caliber choice
was simply between the 9mm Parabellum (Luger) or the 45 Auto (ACP). Which of
these two were better for law enforcement was the subject of heated debates
that were never resolved. High capacity magazines held fifteen or more rounds
of 9mm while 45 ACP magazines held only seven or eight cartridges. The 9mm had
more energy and less recoil; the 45 ACP had more momentum and made a larger
In the minds of most, the 9mm versus 45 ACP debate was
settled with the 1990 introduction of the 40 S&W cartridge. Since then the
40 S&W has overtaken the police market – the vast majority of today’s American
law enforcement officers carry the .40-caliber bullet. The 357 SIG was later
introduced for those hardcore handgunners that demanded 357 Magnum ballistics.
The good news is that many of today’s handguns are offered
in your choice of calibers. The same
make and model pistol is often chambered in 9mm, 357 SIG, 40 S&W and 45 ACP
calibers. Entire books have been written
on caliber comparisons. So, suffice it to say that police officers should
choose the most powerful load (more energy) that they can handle (less recoil). Hitting well with a lower power bullet is
better than missing with a higher power bullet.
Most pistols are available in several general sizes. As an example, Glock 9mm sidearms are offered
in compact (G26), medium (G19), and full (G17) sized frames with the further
option of a full sized frame equipped with an extra long slide/barrel (G34). Another illustration is the Colt Model 1911 45
ACP pistol (and its zillions of copies) which come in Officers (compact),
Commander (medium), and Government (full) sized frames.
A short sight radius (distance from front to rear sight) is
not as accurate or easy to hit with as one with a longer sight radius. Therefore,
compact pistols are poor choices for duty carry. Medium sized pistols don’t poke down into
your squad car’s seat – and upward on your duty belt – as much as full sized
pistols with longer slides and barrels.
However, the longer the slide/barrel (thus the sights are farther apart),
the easier it is to shoot the pistol accurately.
The size of a pistol typically translates directly to its
magazine capacity. Obviously, larger
guns are able to carry more ammunition.
Extra magazines carried vertically on your duty belt will take up less
vertical space for a medium sized Glock (with a shorter magazine length) than
for a full sized Glock. Depending on
body size and structure, this could be an individual officer’s deciding
factor. Medium and full size pistols feel
different in an officer’s hand, even though all dimensions except the length of
grip are the same.
Do not assume that a large gun will fit a large hand. Many smaller grips feel great in my big
hands. Try to handle several sizes of
the weapon you are considering before you make your purchase. Polymer frame pistols have been able to cut
down on grip circumference bulk compared to metal frame guns with screwed on
Many modern duty pistols offer the option of interchangeable
backstraps to fit individual officers. Changing
the back strap changes the overall grip length – the distance from the back
strap to the trigger. This is critical to both trigger pull and recoil control.
One size does not fit all and departments that purchase a particular pistol for
their entire force would be well suited to select a model that allows some
level of grip customization.
Some pistols come with up to three backstraps in small,
medium, and large configurations that do not require any tools to
interchange. Others may need a paperclip
or punch to secure a different sized or angled backstrap that changes the way a
pistol points in an officer’s hands.
We have plenty of weight on our duty belts already, so a
pistol’s weight is certainly a deciding factor when choosing a duty gun. Most polymer pistols are naturally
lightweight. Some steel framed pistols
are also available with lightweight aluminum alloy frames to cut down their
carry heft. Smaller frame officers may
have trouble carrying full size steel pistols, but larger frame officers may
not even notice the difference.
We can’t alter the laws of physics: lighter guns kick more
than heavier guns. However, a proper grip and stance can help overcome this
slight disadvantage. Heavier steel frame
pistols do have the advantage of helping to tame felt recoil in hotter
The classic blued-steel firearm finishes of yesteryear
required wipe downs with an oily rag to prevent corrosion. This procedure was especially true for cops
working a beat where moisture, precipitation, or salt was common in the
air. Parkerizing (a dull grey protective
finish) and nickel plating are more resistant to rust than blue finishes, but
they are prone to wear and flaking from seatbelts, holsters, and other
Most of today’s pistols are made of stainless steel or
aluminum alloy and have polymer frames or receivers. The stainless and aluminum
are often coated in some type of dark, non-reflective coating that offers
extreme resistance to abrasive elements.
These modern protective finishes are also exceptionally resistant to
peeling or flaking. Polymer frames are
inherently almost indestructible.
Police duty guns are subjected to rain and snow, moisture
created by repeated exposure to outside heat and squad car air conditioning,
and the occasional spilled coffee or diet soda.
We need a tough, protective finish on our guns so they don’t rust in our
holsters or lockers.
Rails, Sights, and Lasers
Virtually every duty pistol on the market today is equipped
with a Picatinny tactical rail. Mounting
tactical lights is a great idea for low light shooting encounters. Just be sure that the rail will fit the light
you desire and that you’re able to activate the light quickly. Most tactical lights are turned on and off by
trigger finger manipulation or your offhand thumb. Some lights offer a pressure pad activated by
grip pressure. Personal preference means
you need to test them out.
Illuminated night sights (usually tritium vial dots) present
you with a sight picture in low light conditions. Fiber optic sights provide dots that can be
easily picked up in bright sunshine.
Some companies offer a combination of both for all kinds of lighting
If you purchase a pistol with standard sights, be sure that
the sights your really want are available to fit your gun. You will also want to ascertain if special
tools are needed to remove old sights and install the new ones. Some pistols require the use of expensive
custom sight pushing tools (or payment to a trainer armorer who has one)
instead of a common hammer and punch set.
Lasers incorporated into replacement grips or replacement
recoil spring guides may be something to consider as well. These extras should be researched in advance
to make sure they don’t interfere with carry in duty holsters.
Next month: trigger mechanisms, safeties…and how to decide.
Steve Tracy is a 26-year police
veteran with 24 years of experience as a firearms instructor. He is also an
instructor for tactical rifles, use of force, less-than-lethal force and
scenario-based training. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Published in Tactical Response, Nov/Dec 2013
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