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Selecting a duty-issue handgun.

Handgun developments, administration changes, evolution of equipment needs, and input from weapons staff members represent reasons why law enforcement agencies sometimes issue new firearm models to their officers. When making this decision, departments must consider all of the choices available to them to find a particular weapon that best fits the needs of the organization and its personnel. Agencies seeking to procure a new duty handgun for their officers will find a number of suitable models on the market. (1) Various features and options present advantages and disadvantages for law enforcement. Additionally, some agencies may decide that one particular handgun alone cannot meet their needs. Instead, they may consider a system of similar models from a particular manufacturer.


Decisions concerning firearms hold importance for any law enforcement agency. When departments make choices based on a consideration of their needs and the physical requirements and expertise of their officers, they will select the best weapons for their personnel.


When considering handgun models, departments must decide which features will prove most useful. Options exist pertaining to action, caliber, materials and finish, size and associated magazine capacity, safeties, sights and light mounts, and ease of care and maintenance.



Each handgun represents one of three categories--single action, double action, or double action only. Single-action firearms feature a hammer that requires manual cocking for the initial firing and a trigger press that demands only a few pounds of pressure. After the first shot, the unassisted cycling of the slide, through recoil, automatically recocks the weapon.


Because the shooter only fires with the hammer cocked, the gun always functions in single-action mode. The light trigger press may contribute to an unintentional discharge, requiring the user to operate a manual safety when carrying the weapon with the hammer cocked. For this reason, agencies generally issue these firearms to specially trained officers, such as emergency response, special weapons and tactics (SWAT), or hostage rescue team members.

With double-action handguns, pressing the trigger during the initial shot both cocks and fires the weapon in one motion. Because the gun automatically recocks the hammer before each subsequent trigger press, shots fired thereafter are single action. Handguns that fire in double-action mode have remained popular with law enforcement agencies for many years because officers can transport them with the hammer down, yet ready for action. Many departments consider the often heavy and long trigger press safe for carry due to the added effort needed to fire the first shot.

Double-action-only handguns function in double-action mode for every shot, rather than just the initial one. As a result, the trigger press always remains the same. These firearms increasingly have become popular with law enforcement agencies. As departments switched from revolvers over the years, double-action-only handguns allowed for a largely seamless transition to semiautomatics because the double-action-only trigger system functions much like a traditional double-action revolver. As these weapons only require mastery of one trigger press, rather than two, officers can learn to use them more easily than other types. Additionally, the fact that few, if any, external safety or decocking levers exist makes them even easier to master.

The weight of the trigger press on double-action-only handguns varies by model. Some manufacturers offer different trigger options, allowing for either a heavier or lighter press to suit the requirements of a particular agency. Although some departments may favor a heavier trigger press for liability reasons, this may increase the time it takes for a shooter to fire the weapon, leading to decreased accuracy if the officer rushes the shot under stress.

Regardless of the trigger system selected, departments must ensure that officers receive training to keep their fingers off of the trigger until ready to fire the weapon. Appropriate, frequent, and documented instruction minimizes the risk of and associated liability from unintentional discharges.


The four main handgun calibers used by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies today include 9 millimeter (2) and .40, .357, and .45 automatic. Although each differs in terms of cartridge size and ballistic capability, all can meet the needs of departments--if firearms training emphasizes shot placement rather than the size or power level of one caliber versus another.

Handguns in 9 millimeter initially became popular with departments because of the high magazine capacities that many of the weapons offer--generally anywhere from 12 to 17 rounds--which allow officers to carry more ammunition than they could while using 6-shot revolvers. Also, of all the aforementioned calibers, the 9-millimeter cartridge generally has the mildest perceived recoil.

For many years, American shooters have admired the .45 automatic as a powerful cartridge with applications in military service, law enforcement, self-defense, and competition. A major debate exists among officers, and the shooting community in general, about which cartridge holds superiority--the 9 millimeter, due to less perceived recoil and higher-capacity firearms chambered for the round, or the .45 automatic, with a larger, more powerful round but with heavier recoil. In the past, the .45 automatic generally was chambered in larger-frame handguns with lower cartridge capacities, though some models now offer a smaller-size frame or use a relatively high-capacity magazine.

The .40-automatic cartridge provides ballistic performance closer to the .45 automatic, while being chambered in handguns with 9-millimeter-size frames and offering magazine capacities higher than many .45-automatic handguns. This cartridge also has greater perceived recoil than the 9 millimeter but still remains manageable for many shooters. The .40 automatic has become a popular cartridge for law enforcement by offering some of the benefits of both the 9 millimeter and the .45 automatic.

Finally, the .357 automatic offers a cartridge with ballistic performance close to the .357 magnum for use in handguns with a larger magazine capacity. Basically, the .357 automatic represents a .40-automatic case redesigned in a bottleneck shape for fitting with a bullet similar in diameter to a 9 millimeter. Because this cartridge features a rim with the same diameter as that of the .40 automatic, users can chamber it in many .40-automatic handguns by simply changing the barrel.

Materials and Finish

A variety of materials comprise today's handguns. Some models feature a form of steel--either carbon or stainless--for both the frame and slide, while others have steel for the slide and either aluminum or polymer for the frame. Depending on the environment and carry method, duty firearms often become exposed to harsh conditions, such as water from rain, snow, perspiration, and other sources; dirt and sand; or numerous other hazards that can deteriorate handguns and affect proper function. For daily carry by either uniformed or plain-clothed officers, the materials and finish for weapons should be durable and easy to clean.

Stainless steel can offer more rust resistance than carbon steel (depending on the finish applied). Although stainless steel handguns often have a brighter, more reflective appearance than those with dark finishes, some models have a matte finish to reduce glare. Others even have a blackened stainless finish, offering the rust-resistant properties of stainless steel with the tactical superiority of a black, nonreflective finish. Generally, users find stainless steel handguns simpler to clean and maintain.

Blue finishes generally prove the least durable and rust resistant, although the dark color offers tactical advantages for law enforcement use. Proprietary durable black finishes form a protective coat over the metal, including hard and rust-resistant varieties, while also remaining nonreflective and relatively simple to maintain.

Handguns framed in steel tend to weigh more, which can impact ease of carry on a daily basis. Aluminum frames offer one solution. As another popular remedy, manufacturers offer handguns with frames made from polymer with imbedded parts, such as slide rails or other frame components, made out of metal. Handguns with polymer frames offer durability and ease of maintenance and often absorb some recoil from firing.

Size and Magazine Capacity

Law enforcement agencies can choose between full-size, compact, and subcompact handguns. Each has its own uses. The largeness of the weapon correlates with the magazine capacity. Some models feature single-stack magazines, which generally allow for a slimmer grip. Others have double-stack magazines that have a higher cartridge capacity but generally feature a thicker grip width as a result.

Full-size handguns, in either high- or standard-capacity models, can be useful for carry by uniformed and plain-clothed personnel with medium to large body sizes. Compact models tend to make better concealed-carry weapons because of their generally smaller size and light weight. Further, they may prove appropriate for general issue if a department desires only one firearm because officers more readily can carry compact weapons for off- and on-duty use. While normally not the best choice for general issue, subcompact handguns serve well for special applications (e.g., use by undercover officers) or as backup and off-duty weapons. Many of these models are the easiest to conceal in a variety of deep-cover holsters (e.g., ankle and ballistic vest). Often, quality compact and subcompact handguns on the market come with either single-or higher-capacity double-stack magazines, which give departments more latitude if they find grip width, as well as overall weapon size, an issue.

Safety Options

As much as possible, departments must seek to minimize unintentional discharges by their officers. Coupled with effective and repeated preventative training, handgun safety devices effectively help accomplish this goal. Manual hammer block, trigger safety, and decocking levers; internal firing pin, drop, and magazine disconnect safeties; and integral locking devices represent available options.

Manual safety devices, operated by the shooter, generally block the hammer from contacting the firing pin, disable the trigger mechanism, or perform both of these duties. Departments should ensure that officers easily can access the safety levers. Generally, single-action handguns come with manual devices that disable the trigger mechanism so that users can carry the weapon with the hammer cocked and ready to fire but locked so that it cannot be activated until the release of the safety--also known as "cocked and locked." Model 1911 .45-automatic handgun variations also have a grip safety that makes the weapon inoperable until the officer holds and manually presses the lever. Double-action handguns tend to have either manual safety levers; decocking levers, which, when activated, safely lower the hammer of a cocked handgun, eliminating the potentially dangerous practice of manually lowering it by pressing the trigger; or a lever that combines both functions. Double-action-only handguns often have few, if any, manual safety devices because they only are cocked during firing. This benefit may appeal to some departments because no external levers exist that can snag on the clothing of officers who carry the handgun concealed.


Internal devices, such as firing pin and drop safeties, also represent useful features to look for in duty firearms; many handguns have them, regardless of the action type. Firing pin and drop safeties do not allow the firing pin to move forward until the user deliberately presses the trigger, thus preventing an unintentional discharge if the carrier drops the weapon.

Some handguns feature magazine disconnect safeties, which disable the action of the weapon with the magazine removed; opposing beliefs exist as to their usefulness in law enforcement. Many people consider it best to have the ability to fire the weapon with the magazine removed and a round in the chamber, particularly if an officer must exchange a partially loaded magazine for a fully loaded one during a lull in a gunfight, while still maintaining an operational firearm. Others support their belief in the use of magazine safeties with incidents where deactivating a handgun by dropping the magazine during a struggle for the weapon with a suspect may have saved the officer's life. (3)

A recent development with some handgun models is the addition of an integral locking device, which uses a type of key to actively lock the action of the handgun and render it inoperable. This proves especially useful if unauthorized users, such as young children, gain access to the weapon. This option is an alternative to aftermarket trigger or cable locks, also designed to lock a weapon's action to prevent unauthorized use. Departments should consider selecting some type of locking mechanism--an integral part of the weapon or an external device--for issue to their personnel to help officers maintain control over their handgun at all times.

Sights and Light Mounts

Handgun sights vary by model. Some weapons have a rear sight featuring a white outline and a front sight that is either plain black or marked with a white dot. Other handguns have three white dots (two on each rear post and one on the front). Many manufacturers and some aftermarket companies offer glow-in-the-dark night sights to aid in low-light shooting. Generally similar to three-dot systems, these consist of sealed, small glass capsules, containing the radioactive isotope tritium as the source for the glow, fixed into each of the three posts. (4) Usually, the capsules have white rubber seals around them; this allows for daytime use as a standard three-dot sight. Because a large number of law enforcement shootings occur in low-light conditions, night sights have become popular. They are particularly useful to officers at dusk when enough light exists for them to see the threat yet not enough for them to properly aim. (5)

Many handgun models also feature accessory rails on the frame, which allow mounting of factory or aftermarket flashlight, laser, or combination attachments. These components can be switched on intermittently or for a period of time and allow officers to maintain both hands on the weapon, rather than, for example, having to hold a separate flashlight with the support hand.

Care and Maintenance

Departments should select a general issue handgun that all personnel, regardless of background, can care for properly. Because the weapon serves as a tool for officers to employ to save their own lives or others, it must receive appropriate maintenance to function correctly. With this in mind, agencies should seek a firearm that personnel of all skill and interest levels will find easy to field strip, clean, and maintain. Departments should consider handguns that contain the least number of component parts as possible for personnel to disassemble and clean and that require minimal lubrication for proper functioning. Also, the less parts a handgun has, the fewer components there will be for department armorers to keep on hand and replace in the event of wear.

Some handgun models require the user to press the trigger to disassemble the weapon, while others require that the slide be locked to the rear before a lever can be activated and the handgun disassembled. This represents an important consideration due to the danger of unintentional discharge if an officer has not properly checked the weapon's condition before pressing the trigger. Recurring training and reinforcement of proper gun handling techniques, especially checking for an empty weapon and pointing the muzzle in a safe direction before pressing the trigger, will mitigate this problem. Therefore, departments should not remove a certain handgun model from consideration because of this issue.


Just as one size of footwear will not fit the feet of every employee, the same firearm may not suit the variety of hand sizes within an agency. Several years ago, a particular police department decided to change a relatively open handgun policy and issue all officers a large-frame, double-column-magazine 9-millimeter handgun. The agency's union representatives sought input from the firearms training staff because it became obvious that this firearm, due to its larger size, would not be appropriate for members of that department with smaller hands.

Administrators without knowledge of firearms may not have recognized the problems shooters would experience while operating a handgun too large for them. Range staff in most agencies can recall incidents where officers operating a weapon that did not properly fit their hands had difficulty manipulating a pistol's controls, problems shooting a handgun accurately, or a lack of confidence in their ability.

Wisely, the administration viewed the detailed information about these potential problems and allowed input from firearms personnel. Then, they selected a weapon system that offered a basic design from a particular manufacturer with a variety of grip and magazine sizes and calibers, allowing options for the officers in the department.

This example illustrates how agencies can attempt to reasonably accommodate the differences among its personnel. For other departments, these issues may not be as prevalent and a single handgun model may be appropriate. In making this decision, agencies must consider the advantages and disadvantages of both options.


Single Model

If a department has a smaller number of officers--and all are reasonably compatible with a certain firearm for duty issue--it may find the selection of one specific model advantageous. For example, the agency would only have to train officers on one handgun, thus making the process easier. Also, departments that maintain, repair, and keep an inventory of parts for a particular model instead of several, perhaps incompatible ones, benefit from lower costs.

But, problems may occur if the agency hires a new officer who cannot demonstrate a suitable level of proficiency with the chosen handgun for physical reasons (e.g., small hand size). The selection of one firearm might not allow for a reasonable accommodation for such personnel. Also, the weapon may prove inappropriate for carry by employees in specialized assignments, such as detectives or undercover officers.

Handgun System

Issuing handguns from a system of firearms made by a manufacturer allows a department flexibility in meeting weapons training requirements and the needs of physically different personnel. For example, a heavy full-size, high-capacity handgun with a wider grip may not serve a smaller officer well; such an individual may have difficulty properly operating the weapon due to the inability either to maintain a proper grip or to reach and activate the control or safety levers. Likewise, a compact handgun may present difficulty for larger personnel. Other issues that departments must consider in regard to officer use include recoil from larger-caliber cartridges and the need for weapon concealment when necessary. Many manufacturers offer the same type of handgun in full-size, compact, and subcompact models with variations chambered in the popular law enforcement cartridges. Therefore, when officers have difficulty, for instance, managing the recoil of a .40 or .357 automatic, a department could issue them a 9 millimeter in a similar or same-size handgun that they may feel more comfortable with; hopefully, better marksmanship skills would result.

Weapons staff members frequently teach new officers who have no prior firearms experience. Instructors help students feel confident enough to use a firearm effectively and to conquer the timid feelings that may result from a lack of experience with recoil, muzzle blast, and gunshot noise. If officers do not overcome such concerns, they may not develop the interest, enthusiasm, and commitment toward continuous development of marksmanship abilities after their initial training and throughout their law enforcement careers. These skills will help them maintain a confidence level that will benefit them in a deadly force encounter. To this end, departments must recognize that a weapon's caliber and size represent potential obstacles that may keep personnel from continuing to practice on their own.

The cost of a firearm system poses a disadvantage--a department has to purchase parts for more than one model and ensure its armorers can repair and maintain them as well. But, agencies could inquire about weapon systems from manufacturers that offer different models with interchangeable component parts. As another drawback, the agency would have to buy inventories of different caliber ammunition, furthering the financial burden. Also, training may become more difficult because of the differences between the weapons; therefore, departments may wish to consider choosing a system of handguns that have the same general operating levers and functions, despite the different sizes and calibers.


From time-to-time, law enforcement agencies face decisions concerning firearms, such as which model to use and whether to issue a single handgun or a weapon system. When going through this process, departments should strongly consider input from their firearms staff, a readily available and economical source of current information. Weapons instructors not only have on-the-job knowledge but frequently use handguns as a hobby in their off-duty time and read publications about the latest updates in firearms technology.

Every department realizes the importance held by decisions concerning firearms. When an agency bases its choice on the needs of the organization, as well as its personnel, officers will carry weapons that help them do their jobs effectively and, also, to protect themselves.


(1) Semiautomatic handguns enjoy the most popularity in law enforcement today because they hold more ammunition and easily are reloaded. Therefore, the author exclusively focuses on them and uses the term "handgun" to refer only to semiautomatics.

(2) Also known as 9-millimeter luger or 9-millimeter parabellum.

(3) Chuck Karwan, The Gun Digest Book of Combat Handgunnery, 3d ed. (Northbrook, IL: DBI Books, Inc., 1992), 95.

(4) Ibid., 183.

(5) Gabriel Suarez, The Tactical Advantage: A Definitive Study of Personal Small-Arms Tactics (Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1998), 97.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Federal Bureau of Investigation
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Article Details
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Author:Buehler, Jon H.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Previous Article:The Bulletin Notes.
Next Article:Problem-Oriented Policing: From Innovation to Mainstream.

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