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 nuts.


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 hole.


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 grip panels.


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 calibers.



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 abrasions.


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 situations. 


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

Published in Tactical Response, Nov/Dec 2013

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