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Freeway Shootout: Backup Gun to the Rescue

A little ‘extra’ up your sleeve and a ‘never give up’ attitude can make all the difference

November 01, 2001  |  by Mark Hanten


Officer Steve Staton of the San Diego Police Department stopped a vehicle for speeding on I-805 near the Murray Ridge ramp. After running the suspect for warrants, Steve found the suspect did, indeed, have a warrant for driving with a suspended license. He told the suspect to get out of the vehicle because he had a warrant that needed to be cleared up. So far, so good.

When the suspect got out, he immediately produced a gun pointed directly at Steve. Steve was too far away to grab the suspect so he leapt over the guardrail for cover. He planned on making his stand there. As he was going over the guardrail he heard shots ring out. He felt three impacts to the back panel of his vest and heard other shots.

As his feet touched the ground, Steve drew his gun, turning, only to see the suspect diving onto him. The fight was on, with the suspect trying to take Steve's duty 9mm from him. Steve knew his gun, a Smith & Wesson, would not fire without the magazine in it so he tried to hit the release. The suspect's grip on the gun kept him from accomplishing this.

Steve fired the gun in an effort to dislodge the suspect's grip or jam the auto pistol. His efforts proved futile. The gun was pointed into the air and occasionally at Steve's face. As the fight wore on Steve managed to get on top of the suspect's back. At that point he retrieved his 9mm backup gun from inside his bullet proof vest pocket.

Steve let his grip slip on the suspect and fired into the pitch-black night where he expected the suspect to be. The muzzle flash dazzled him but gave Steve a point of reference, locating the suspect. He fired seven more times.

Without any light, Steve climbed back up the embankment where his cover unit met him moments later. They found the suspect dead.

Some Lessons Here

Steve is a proven survivor, having only recently survived yet another deadly force encounter a short time prior to this incident. We can learn from someone who has "been there," as it were. The importance of wearing the back panel of your vest becomes obvious in a situation like this. Chances are Steve would have been wounded or killed had he not had his on.

The decision of whether or not to carry a backup gun, while a personal one in most cases, is just as obviously important in this and many other situations. Let's explore both topics. However, this is not meant to be a comprehensive article about makes and models of backup guns and holsters. That's another story.

Back Panel Blues

As to the issue of the back panel, it's very simple. Simply wear it!

Check out the photos of Steve's back and imagine yourself being shot like that without a vest. Then imagine your wife or husband explaining to your kids why you got too hot and uncomfortable to wear a back panel and that, yes, you really did love them, but you didn't think very many officers got shot in the back. Or better yet, let's not have that conversation.


This is typical of the back-face deformation injury that can occur after a vest stops gunfire. Officer Steve Staton was able to return fire, killing the suspect, even after having received hits on his vest. Steve recovered fully from these minor injuries.

According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, 47 officers were killed by gunshots to the "rear upper torso" between 1990 and 1999. That's an average of over five officers per year, which seems like an awful lot to me.

Backup Gun Guidelines

The issue of whether or not to carry a backup gun is not quite so simple. I think careful consideration should be given as to whether it's right for you. If it is, then there are the concerns of which gun, where you are going to carry it and which holster you are going to use.

In Steve's incident, it is very likely his backup gun saved his life. Hearing about the incident was enough to motivate me to go to the range and requalify with my Walther PPK .380. I carried it for years in an ankle holster, but I haven't for about the last year. Frankly, I was tired of pulling my pants leg over it every time I got out of the car.

Now, of course, that seems like a stupid reason to stop carrying a tool that could save my life. I'm carrying it again. In fact, it got me to really thinking on whether there wasn't a tool that might work even better for me.

I subsequently bought one of the Smith & Wesson Model 342PD titanium revolvers to try as a backup. It's important to look at some of the characteristics that make up a good backup gun in order to decide which one might be right for you.

My own department, like many others, has restrictions on which guns we can carry. Obviously this has to be a factor in your decision-making. A lot of people feel that "If I have to use this thing, I don't give a damn if it's approved or not. I'm carrying it to save my life!"

Certainly your life is more important than your career or any heat you might take after a shooting, but I recommend trying to find one approved by your department. Using a gun not authorized may cause you to incur some civil liability that your department will not help you with. At the minimum, it will complicate the investigation and cause you more stress at a time when you don't need any more stress in your life.

Wheel Guns or Auto Pistols?

Semi-auto vs. revolver is always a question people ponder when deciding on which gun. Indeed, some conversations can almost turn to blows when the subject comes up!

Some of the newer models of super-compact semi-autos such as Glocks are great weapons and they come in a variety of calibers. This means you are not limited to the .380-series that many older gun designs are restricted to.

I've found that some of the smaller semi-autos are a little finicky and prone to jams or other problems. I found that to be the case with my particular Walther. I sometimes would inadvertently activate the safety switching from strong hand to off hand.


The Smith & Wesson 342PD Titanium revolver is typical of the new breed of lightweight, small-frame revolvers ideal as backup guns. The .38 special caliber offers a significant upgrade over the .380 automatics.

With lots of training many of these issues can be overcome. Be realistic though; how much do you really see yourself training with your backup over the course of the year?

One of the reasons I decided to try the S&W was the ease of operation and simplicity. No exposed hammer, safety, decocker, slide latch or magazine release to cause problems. And, no slide to get hung up while firing in a close-quarters-all-out-fight.

Caliber Confusion

Another issue is caliber selection. As I mentioned, some guns can be had in several caliber choices including 9mm, .38 Special, .40, .45 and others. Most times, the use of a backup means you are up close and personal and you may very well be talking about contact shots.

Personally, I like as much power as I can get without sacrificing compactness and light weight. This brings me to another reason I'm trying out the S&W. It weighs 10.8 oz., yet packs a major wallop, firing +P+ rounds. It's a significant step up in ballistics from the .380.

Location, Location, Location

But where to carry it? Steve carried his inside his vest and that works for many. He initially couldn't retrieve it when they were fighting over his primary gun because the suspect was on top of him. Since he had trained himself, however, Steve was able to retrieve it and eventually use it to kill the suspect.


The “Back Up Gun” pocket uses Velcro to secure a small pouch to the front of soft body armor. This kind of technology keeps a backup gun safely hidden, yet easily accessible.

There are several holsters that can be attached to the vest and worn under your shirt. I know some officers who carry their backup guns in the trauma plate pocket of their vest. Again, this could be a difficult place to retrieve it from, but practice helps. There are also some commercially available pouches that use Velcro to secure to the front of the vest. They have a tab that allows for quick access. This seems to be a big improvement over just putting it into the pocket.

Ankle carry is popular, and I do something a little different there. I carry mine on my right ankle using a left-handed holster. My reasoning is if I'm trying to secure my primary gun in its holster, or fighting for control of it, I will want to keep my right hand on the gun as I retrieve my backup with my left hand.

I haven't had to try it, except in practice, but that's my plan. The key to this in my mind is having a good ankle holster. I have carried my Walther in the Galco Ankle Glove, which has always kept the gun secure even through foot pursuits and physical confrontations. The holster is also comfortable and doesn't allow the gun to move on my ankle at all. This holster is comfortable and secure and is fitted for a particular gun. The strap that attaches it to the ankle is a four-inch wide band of neoprene with a very large Velcro closure.


A “tear” tab allows even a fumble-fingered attempt at drawing to succeed. Once the flap is open, the gun is well-presented for a draw. There are other variations possible, such as holsters on vest straps, undershirts with built-in holsters and inside the waistband carry methods that can be explored, too.

This happens to be the one I've chosen, but there are many designs from most of the major makes, and many custom shops make ankle rigs. Look to names like Renegade, Bianchi, Safariland, Don Hume, Strong, Rosen, G&G, Michaels of Oregon and a host of others for options.

It's Mostly Attitude

Of course, there are many other lessons to be learned from Steve's encounter. The importance of training, having a winning attitude, and doing whatever it takes to win are just a few.

When I spoke to Steve about telling his story in order to highlight some training points, he was excited to help. He also wanted to pass along another vital training point: Throughout this contact he ignored several "bad feelings" he had about the stop, even before things went downhill. Steve had even called off his cover unit at one point when it seemed everything was okay, despite having nagging feelings.

I'll tack my two cents worth on that issue, too. Trust your instincts and when the hair on the back of your neck stands up, go with it. If it means waiting a few minutes for another unit, that's okay. It's a great thing to have the opportunity to learn important lessons like these without having to experience them ourselves.

Mark Hanten is a sergeant on the San Diego PD and an experienced SWAT
officer and trainer. He has a particular interest in officer safety issues. POLICE welcomes his first contribution.

Tags: Backup Guns, San Diego PD, Duty Pistols, Smith & Wesson

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Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

anthony kirk @ 11/4/2012 1:41 AM

I have carried the Beretta Tomcat as my backup for 14 years..This is a proven dependable as jams are virtually non issue if using correct ammo and keeping it clean...I use the Federal Hydra Shok round in my Tomcat and love the pop up barrel for loading tube w/o racking gun. Its a 7 shot+1 in tube auto..robust safety and hair trigger when started in "HOT" mode. My wear my ankle holster on inside of left ankle as its easier when your on the ground to grab and shoot.

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