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How to Spot a Concealed Firearm

Knowing who is carrying and why may be the most vital information that you ever uncover.

November 01, 2007  |  by Nick Jacobellis - Also by this author


Recently, Officer Nick Erfle of the Phoenix Police Department was killed in the line of duty. Erfle, a 33-year-old family man, was shot by an illegal alien when he stopped the man for jaywalking.

The murder of Officer Erfle clearly demonstrates that stopping someone for even the most minimal offense can put a cop in serious danger. In this particular case, once a police record check confirmed that the man was wanted, he reacted by drawing a concealed handgun and shooting Officer Erfle in the face. The cop killer/illegal alien then made his escape by carjacking a vehicle but was later shot and killed by a Phoenix officer.

Unfortunately, Officer Erfle will not be the last law enforcement officer who will fall victim to a bad guy carrying a concealed firearm. The reason is simple; unless you have cause to search, you really can't tell who is packing and who isn't.

Hard to Tell

Outside of the obvious suspicious bulge, or an actual gun butt protruding from someone's clothing, it is virtually impossible to know if an individual is carrying a concealed firearm. One way to deal with this ongoing problem is to assume that every subject or individual that you meet or encounter is armed until you prove otherwise.

That means that the best way to survive an encounter with an illegally armed individual is to exert complete control over everyone you stop, everyone you confront for any reason, and everyone you meet until you can confirm that they are not a threat to you. You must also adopt the mindset that human beings are clever enough to try anything that works when it comes to concealing firearms, other weapons, and contraband on their persons or in their vehicles.

Don't believe me? Consider this: How many years have you been carrying a legally concealed handgun? How many times have you been stopped by fellow officers because someone spotted your gun and notified the authorities that you were armed? You may look like a cop and that may put people at ease when they see your gun or you may have to look like a stereotypical violator because of your assignment. Either way, I would bet that most of you have never been confronted by a fellow officer because you were carrying.

In all my years of legally carrying concealed firearms—even when I worked undercover looking like a drug dealer with a beard, a long pony tail, and a $10,000 gold Presidential Rolex watch—I was never stopped by another law enforcement officer for anything other than speeding.

During the last UC operation that I worked, I purchased two fully automatic AK-47 assault rifles and 4,000 rounds of ammunition in a strip mall parking lot in broad daylight. Unbeknownst to me at the time, our backup team had lost sight of me and my female partner during the transaction. This meant that we were on our own while we made the buy then drove from a border town to a nearby major U.S. city.

The point of this story is as follows: Even though I looked like a pirate, I drove for more than an hour with AK-47s and Chinese ammunition in the trunk of a fire engine red Mustang and never saw one cop, including the agents who were supposed to be protecting us.

Write this in bold block letters somewhere across your mind: You cannot assume that someone is unarmed. Even bad guys who don't put in any effort or thought into concealing their guns are rarely taken down just because they are carrying illegally. Those who do put some time and effort into concealing their guns are almost never busted just for carrying illegally.

Taking Control

Your job is to ensure that you always remain in a position to exert complete control at all times. In order to accomplish this you must inform all subjects involved in any stop or enforcement action that they must not move, they must keep their hands where you can see them, and they must not place their hands inside their clothing or inside any compartments for any reason unless you instruct them to do so.

It also makes sense to ask everyone you stop or challenge to tell you if they are armed with any firearms or weapons. Naturally, you should use a tone of voice befitting the circumstances at hand whenever you inform citizens of the rules of engagement and you ask if they are armed.

Above all, listen to your instincts and be prepared to react when you perceive danger. Remember, outside of getting ambushed, cops get killed and get injured when they lose control.

Legally Armed

Law-abiding Americans have a right to own firearms. Some even have a right to carry concealed firearms. That can lead to potentially disastrous confrontations with police officers when a gun owner does something that makes you think he or she is a threat.

Consider this example from my career. While looking for smugglers on Key Biscayne one night, I identified myself and asked a male passenger in a car that was stopped near a boat ramp if there were any firearms in their vehicle. Instead of saying, "Yes, officer," and telling me where his pistol was located, the passenger said absolutely nothing as he leaned forward very quickly, enough to startle me, and opened the glove compartment of the car.

All hell broke lose. I raised my service pistol with my right hand and yelled something like, "U.S. Customs! Don't move…! Don't move!" Adding to the chaos, my partner yelled commands at the woman behind the steering wheel who was, of course, screaming at her boyfriend. Seconds passed like hours, as I prepared to shoot.

Fortunately, the young male passenger froze just as he started to reach inside the glove compartment. I reached in and recovered a Walther PP from the glove compartment, and disassembled it on the hood of the car. Once we cleared the couple of any wrongdoing, my partner and I left the area after learning a very important lesson.

Not everybody who owns a gun is a dirtbag. Some law abiding people simply don't realize that their actions can appear threatening to the police. In other words, they don't connect the dots. If I do A, the police officer will do B.

Inventive Concealment Methods

Yes, good people have concealed guns. But make no mistake about it, so do bad people, and they are very talented at hiding their weapons.

Over the years, illegally armed individuals have used a variety of methods to transport and conceal firearms. Criminals have hidden guns in their crotches, in special pockets in their baggy jeans, in concealed compartments inside their pants, in their waistband, and the same way that you do in ankle holsters, shoulder holsters, belt holsters, and fanny packs. They have also had less suspicious looking members of their entourage carry a gun for them.

One of the most interesting methods of concealed carry that I have ever heard about was explained to me by a New York City officer who arrested a man with a special concealment rig.

This guy used a wire hanger to suspend a compact pistol inside the crotch of his baggy pants. According to the NYPD officer, the wire hanger was shaped like the letter "S." One end was stuck inside the barrel of the pistol, which was suspended inside the bad guy's baggy pants. The other end of the S-shaped wire hangar was hung over the waistband.

This particular 20-year veteran of the NYPD also says that, in his city, perps now like to keep their handguns concealed in their vehicles right up until the time they need to use them. This is done because stepped up enforcement has made it difficult for illegally armed individuals to walk the streets or go from one club to another without being approached by police officers and "tossed" or searched for weapons.

Tricked Out Cars

Vehicles must be included in this conversation because cars, vans, pickup trucks, and SUVs are routinely used to transport contraband and concealed firearms. As many of you already know, many criminals also have their vehicles modified to create easily accessible but hard to detect hiding places for their weapons.

One such modification is to remove the airbag on the steering wheel or in the dashboard to create a false compartment that can be used to conceal a handgun.

Other locations inside the cabin area are also used to hide guns and contraband in motor vehicles. Some armed violators even have switches installed in their cars that can be used to release the locking mechanism on a secret compartment. For example, the NYPD officer that I talked to once found a .25 caliber pistol inside a secret compartment that was located in the center console of an SUV.

Spotting the Gun

OK, we've discussed how hard it really is to detect a concealed weapon just from visual clues. We've also discussed that your best defense is to control the situation and never assume that someone is unarmed. And we've discussed where bad guys like to hide their weapons. Now, let's talk about a visual method for spotting a concealed gun.

My favorite method of detection involves a variation of the technique that was drilled into my head by my flight instructor when I learned how to fly a plane. He told me to quickly scan the gauges and scan the sky outside the cockpit. You can use a modified version of this technique to protect yourself while you determine whether or not a suspicious person is illegally carrying firearms.

Constantly evaluate all eye contact, actions, mannerisms, and tones of voice. And monitor the way the subjects communicate and interact with each other, while you constantly scan the hands of the person or persons you are interviewing or challenging.

Remember, quickly scan a subject's eyes and hands then scan the area around you, especially if you are working alone or with a partner who is inexperienced. Repeat this process until you complete the stop or field interview.

A quick note: Be careful when using this technique at night with a flashlight. Don't shine your flashlight on anything that will reflect the beam back in your face and damage your night vision. If anything, you should use your flashlight to damage a subject's/suspect's night vision.

Naturally, if a subject defies your instructions and moves or attempts to retrieve a weapon from a pocket or under his or her clothing you must take the appropriate action to protect yourself and other law abiding citizens. If you are forced to pull the trigger to stop a threat from continuing to be a threat, your actions will be judged by how you adhere to the law and department policy.

Yes, you can detect a concealed weapon with just a visual scan. But it's more likely that you will spot signs that a person has a weapon in his or her eyes or body language.

A veteran Tucson officer who was interviewed for this article stressed the importance of evaluating eye contact whenever you approach anyone who may be armed.

According to this now retired police officer, illegally armed individuals tend to give themselves away by trying to appear casual as they adjust their clothing to make sure their weapon is not protruding against their clothes.

Evaluating body language can also be an extremely effective tool to use when you examine a potential suspect from a distance before you move in to conduct a field interview or stop.

Just remember that you can't assume that even a jaywalker is unarmed. So as you approach a subject, suspect, or violator you must be prepared to go tactical at a moment's notice.

Special thanks to Doug Mackinlay, CEO of Diamondback Police Supply (www.diamondbackpolice.net), for allowing the author to use his facility and members of his sales staff in the photographs for this article.

Nick Jacobellis is a medically retired U.S. Customs agent and former police officer who was physically disabled in the line of duty while working undercover. He is a frequent contributor to POLICE.

Tags: Investigations, Concealed Weapons, How-To Guides


Comments (40)

Displaying 1 - 40 of 40

tferro @ 11/6/2007 12:28 AM

i always use this saying
"the biggest room in the WORLD is the room for IMPROVEMENT"
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS INSIGHT
TAKE CARE ALL

[email protected] @ 11/9/2007 9:12 PM

You owe it to your Family and anyone who cares about you to be prudent at all times and to never, ever let your guard down even when everything seems to be under control. If it feels weird then it probably is, so grab that bad guy and search him, secure him and keep an eye on him; he screws around, make him pay for his mistake because you're going home tonight!!

ACarena3321 @ 11/11/2007 11:06 PM

NEVER BE ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL AND I'M NOT TALKING ABOUT THE STEERING WHEEL OF YOUR VEHICLE. I'M TALKING ABOUT THE WHEEL OF LIFE. DEATH IS ONLY A BREATH AWAY AND YOU DON'T KNOW WHEN ITS COMING SO STAY ALERT AT ALL TIMES AND ALL PLACES. THE ONLY TRUE SAFE PLACE IS WHEN WE GET TO HEAVEN EITHER BY OLD AGE OR THE LORD'S COMING. BE CAREFUL OUT THERE !!!!

ryan stevens @ 11/17/2011 9:06 PM

i legally carry a handgun and have a handgun permit.I was always told if a policman pulls you over you should immediately say I am licsened to carry a handgun and I am carrying keeping my hands in plain sight of the officer or when I present my drivers licsense also hand them your permit at the same time and let them know you have a firearm in your possesion is this good advise?

Crustyrusty @ 6/5/2013 6:54 AM

Back in my day, we assumed that everyone was potentially armed.

Phelps @ 6/5/2013 9:07 AM

How do you reconcile your personal desire to "exert complete control over everyone you stop, everyone you confront for any reason, and everyone you meet" with the Peelian principles, particularly that the amount of cooperation you receive from the general public diminishes proportionately with your use of force?

If you are treating everyone you meet like you think they are trying to kill you, you are going to lose a lot of potential allies. Treating the general public like your enemies will MAKE them your enemies (and in a lot of places, like LA, in fact has.)

Frank @ 6/5/2013 11:30 AM

Well said Phelps. Nothing creates enemies faster than cops with a hard on for power and domination.

luagha @ 6/5/2013 1:23 PM

You might want to post a link to the famous firearm suicide that happened in a police station in custody. The arresting officer was distracted and didn't search the perp and the booking officer thought the arresting officer had done a search. When left alone for a moment, the perp takes a giant .45 out of his pants and kills himself. (Fortunately for the officers, who could have been taken by a deadly surprise.)

Randy @ 6/5/2013 1:34 PM

I get a kick out of how dangerous the police tell us their jobs are.
They are not even in the top ten for 2013.
If they feel the need to be afraid, then they need another job.
http://pattyinglishms.hubpages.com/hub/Most_Dangerous_Jobs
(Mine is number three, and I still enjoy my job.)

Grippy @ 6/5/2013 5:05 PM

"Law-abiding Americans have a right to own firearms. Some even have a right to carry concealed firearms." The second sentence causes some confusion. If law-abiding Americans have a right to own firearms, don't they also have a right to carry concealed? Or would that be considered a privilege?

Dane @ 6/5/2013 6:32 PM

"Law-abiding Americans have a right to own firearms. Some even have a right to carry concealed firearms." Self-defense is a right, not a privilege. And as a right, it belongs to each and every human being, regardless of what someone writes on a piece of paper and calls "the law." Any police officer who places another man in a cage for exercising this right (carrying a firearm for defensive purposes) is not a good cop at all.

Bill @ 6/5/2013 6:46 PM

I read the article and came away from it saying to myself you have a Hero complex. You're job is to serve and protect. What I'm reading is an aggressive posture with you and a Public servant with a chip on his shoulder.

We have this thing in this Country called "rights" maybe you should consider schooling yourself in them or are you just another low information Cop Bot who takes his job way to serious? You are the threat in the situation you allude to..respect given is respect received, we're not all low life dope heads some of us actually contribute to society IE: You're paycheck..

Assuming every situation requires an aggressive posture makes me think you are trigger happy as well, maybe even dangerous to the public at hand.

This Country has had enough with Punks with Badges.

AJ @ 6/5/2013 8:03 PM

If we were to end this insane drug war, far fewer people would feel like their back was against a wall when contacted by a police officer. What we don't need is more gung-ho, us vs. them, comply or die law enforcement.
Cops aren't supposed to be enforcers, they should be peace officers.

PJ @ 6/5/2013 8:26 PM

"That means that the best way to survive an encounter with an illegally armed individual is to exert complete control over everyone you stop, everyone you confront for any reason, and everyone you meet until you can confirm that they are not a threat to you."

Exactly the sort of behavior that makes so many cops all the more deserving of being shot. Some people, not all of them "dirtbags", object to being treated like this. It's not a matter of unwarranted trust, but of basic human decency and respect.

Just keep going down this path, but don't be surprised when you find where it takes you.

Randy @ 6/5/2013 10:30 PM

Thats o.k., guys. I know the truth makes you a little upset.
I am not a troll, nor spammer, just a citizen who likes the "facts, and just the facts, ma'am".
Best Regards,
Randy

Steve @ 6/5/2013 11:22 PM

Interesting article. I am not a LEO, I am retired military. I am more likely to aid a LEO, and the same goes for my wife. I note many references to here to "going home at the end of the day." I second that for all. I would add that there are more and more of us that live in condition yellow. If stopped, we will also be evaluating your actions and reactions. The more professional and courteous and respectful of our rights that you are, the more you put me at ease. At the end of the day, me and mine will also be going home. Stay safe!

Firehand @ 6/6/2013 11:46 AM

"If anything, you should use your flashlight to damage a subject's/suspect's night vision."
When you're just Joe Citizen who's been stopped for some reason, do you have any idea how annoying it is to keep getting that !(#(&* flashlight shined into your eyes?

Doug Book @ 6/6/2013 2:43 PM

What police must understand is that many, many gun owners do NOT trust either the integrity or intentions of the police. Ask if someone has a gun in their car and the first thing that comes to mind is that the cop wants to confiscate the weapon. Police have brought this mistrust upon themselves by confiscating firearms from legal owners/carriers simply because the cop does not want non-police (non-onlies) to have a weapon.

anonymous @ 6/7/2013 5:40 PM

Nick, your stories appear to make you seem like you are cool, but you really are a douchebag.

AM @ 6/8/2013 8:45 AM

When did "Serve and Protect" become, "screw you guys, I'm going home at the end of my shift"? I want a professional police force, not an aggressive police force. If you say that those two things are the same, you are part of the problem. Right now you are more likely to be shot by the police by mistake than by a terrorist intentionally. I'd like to see that statistic change.

bk @ 6/8/2013 11:34 AM

I remember when the po-po were more concerned for citizens than for themselves. Our country is on a dangerous path that always leads to a police state.

SinEater @ 6/11/2013 8:46 AM

I fully support professional police officers in performing their duties. I understand this is a dangerous job and you have to be careful when dealing with people you don't know.
But....courtesy and respect can go a long way to keeping a situation calm. The person you are dealing with is most likely a normal citizen. Bulldogging them and making threatening moves with a maglight will pretty definitely not improve the situation. I fully believe that there are situations that ended in violence that didn't have to go that route. I also believe that if you have not given a suspect a reason to act nervous by being belligerent or overly aggressive with them then you will most likely have a better ability to judge whether or not they are actually acting with criminal intent.
The bottom line is that as a police officer you are working for the people you are interacting with. You are not in the military and you are not part of an occupying force attempting to pacify the population.

Patrick @ 7/20/2013 12:38 PM

Professional behavior on the part of the police does not include shining lights in eyes. this is just an example of why the police are the enemy of citizens. As we found out in Chicago, the rule in Chicago and its suburbs are the police are corrupt, steal from citizens, lie on the stand, torture suspects and not to be trusted. My response to police is due to this distrust. Since the police have the guns, I am polite. But I always record all police, wherever I see them or interact with them. As the police assume citizens are bad, I must assume police are bad.

concerned citizen @ 7/20/2013 12:50 PM

What happened to the police's duty to the constitution, protecting our rights, and serving the people? The people, legally armed, are not your enemy. Treating everyone as a violent and irrational criminal is why some of us (like myself who used to never question the police) are becoming so worried about the militarization of the police.

You should not be thinking "shoot first so I can get home" all the time.

sheila @ 7/20/2013 1:18 PM

The last time I was stopped, I made sure to park in a place in full view of the highway and in a parking lot so there was no traffic to endanger us. I kept my hands in plain sight at all times and told the officer what I had to do to retrieve my proof of insurance. I am very aware of the risks a officer faces in a routine stop and I don't want him to feel threatened unnecessarily.

Since the criminals don't carry a concealed carry permit, why should we? Keep it out of sight and don't tell the cops about it but also don't threaten them with it.
I do carry a weapon but not a gun.

Sterling @ 7/20/2013 1:39 PM

"That means that the best way to survive an encounter with an illegally armed individual is to exert complete control over everyone you stop, everyone you confront for any reason, and everyone you meet until you can confirm that they are not a threat to you. You must also adopt the mindset that human beings are clever enough to try anything that works when it comes to concealing firearms, other weapons, and contraband on their persons or in their vehicles."

Unbelievable attitude. When did your personal safety become more important than the rights of citizens?

Johnny @ 7/20/2013 2:08 PM

A story about recklessly pointing a gun at someone committing no crime. Well, that convinces me to trust men in costumes.

boz @ 7/20/2013 2:37 PM

LEOs like officer Nick apparently refuse to grasp the concept that respect begets respect. You want cooperation from law-abiding citizens? Treat us with respect, and we will return the consideration. Treat us like the enemy, and you will have made an enemy of us. If you are so paranoid of "not going home at night" that you deliberately bully and trample the Constitutional rights of every citizen you encounter, you're in the wrong line of work. You wanna play Rambo, join the military. You want to make a positive difference in your community, you gotta dump the us vs. them "I'm-Mr.-Baddass" attitude.

Montanafreedom @ 7/20/2013 3:06 PM

I know officer safety is the most important thing in your lives, but since you have started treating everyone you meet as a criminal, you know longer have the respect of honest Americans. I have never been in trouble with law enforcement, but stopped twice at DUI checkpoint. I was treated like a suspect instead of a US citizen. Your training needs to change to both protect officers and treat citizens with respect. You can say times have changed, but statistics don't agree with you. To many citizens are killed each year that do not need to be.

Brian @ 7/20/2013 6:05 PM

Considering that lots of innocent people have been hurt, maimed, and killed by government officers with firearms, I sometimes think that I'd rather take my chances with the bad guys.

Your job, officers, is not make everyone safe. Your job, officers, is to enforce the law. And the 2nd Amendment is the law.

If you hurt, maim, or kill an innocent citizen because you couldn't properly handle that citizen's possession of a firearm, then you have become the criminals we pay you to stop.

Honestly, after reading all the stories and watching all the videos of police overreaction to innocent citizens having firearms, I'd rather not call police and deal with the problem myself to be honest.

Sorry. But, it's your own fault.

james deans dick @ 7/20/2013 8:29 PM

you cops are making yourselves enemies of the people. good luck with that...

US Citizen @ 7/20/2013 9:09 PM

You admit to searching a vehicle without probable cause or consent, confiscating a legal weapon, damaging it for no reason, and leaving it on a citizen's car?
I feel safer knowing that you are retired.
To the LEO's reading this advice, do you think it is wise to take safety advice from a person who was physically disabled while working undercover? That seems about as bright as taking gun safety advice from someone who shot themselves in the foot.

John @ 7/20/2013 9:35 PM

In Oregon the most likely one to kill a citizen is an officer on duty.

Shawn @ 7/21/2013 12:08 AM

While I completely respect officer safety I cant begin to tell you how dangerous this article is. The mindset of assuming every single person is the bad guy is what causes the shooting of innocent people which has been dramatically on the rise. You it is fine to realize that the possibility exists but that is different than the assumption that ever person you encounter is armed. It is 100% counter to the concept of innocent until proven guilty. there is a dramtic difference between vigilance and outright paranoia. As well I take issue with the concept of having to exert complete control over people at all times. this is not the job of law enforcement. The purpose of LEOs is to respond to illegal acts, not to assume everyone is committing them and then exert complete control accordingly. This mindset must be curtailed lest the honorable guardians become the evil we claim to stand guard against.

Dog1956 @ 7/21/2013 12:12 PM

To hell with the bill of rights!
After reading this article it should come as no surprise why citizens distrust our 'civil' authorities.

tact_medic @ 7/30/2013 12:02 PM

After reading this article i realized that LEO are being taught they are above the law. Please dont think this article reflects the ideals of ALL law enforcement because we are not all this way. The comments in this section make me feel a little better realizing the citizens know the behavior spoke of above is not behavior that is ok by any means.

cms1172 @ 11/26/2013 1:39 PM

Reading this, and knowing the training that they are receiving, this is scary stuff. That officers are being trained to believe that the general public are the enemy. What makes them wonder why the public is becoming the enemy and what makes the public think that the police are the peacekeepers that they should be?
Also keep in mind that not all officers think this way. Just like not all motorcyclist are crazy nut riders. And all political players are evil. Well maybe they are. You get the point.

cms1172 @ 11/26/2013 1:53 PM

Gotta add. I Truly believe that if they close the border properly. That the first paragraph concerning the fallen officer would not have happened. Illegal people don't worry about the law. Went are law abiding citizens constantly harassed by officers?
Because law abiding citizens are easy targets and can be tracked. Money can easily be legally extorted from legal citizens. "Sorry officer I didn't realize I had exceeded the speed limit." "Sorry officer I didn't count three seconds from that car in front of me." I truly believe that our police forces have become government extortionist, enforcers. Syphoning money off of hard working people to fund local government. Please I want to believe that our country is the greatest on earth. I joined the military at a young age and it really sickens me to see what it has sunk to.

son of a son @ 4/17/2014 1:12 PM

Both my father and grandfather were career officers, my father, also a US Marine Corps vet, taught me how to handle, and use a handgun responsibly. I have always owned , and now have the right to carry in Wis, and it only seems responsible to me that I would, in a situation with an LEO, inform he or she of that, and follow their instructions. I would however expect a respectful response. I do not carry while doing anything that would undermine my judgement. The weapon however, could still be in my possession, cased , unloaded,and in the trunk, which is legal, and I would afford the officer that info as well. (from the passenger seat while my sober wife was driving, with our hands in view.) Most concealed carry permit holders will never make the job of a LEO difficult. That's why we are called law abiding. we got a permit. Hell, you'll all find out what it's like when you retire!Soon you won't recognize the guys on the
street and you will be a civilian carrying as well!

Jared @ 11/25/2014 11:04 AM

When common sense is not used.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqepHZ9Hi2E

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