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The Scientific Method

For the Tacoma Police Department, selecting a new duty weapon was a matter of ergonomics, precision testing, and thinking outside the box.

August 01, 2002  |  by Dave Workman

As instructor Dennis Quilio watches, Steve O’Keefe squeezes off a shot from his new duty pistol, a Kimber Pro Carry II Model 1911.

There are 400 sworn officers in the Tacoma (Wash.) Police Department. Not all of them are the same size. They don't all have big hands. They don't all have long fingers. And they are not all comfortable holding the same sidearm.

These conclusions recently led the rangemaster of the Tacoma PD to initiate a search for new service weapons to replace the department's aging pistols. That in and of itself is nothing new. Departments occasionally adopt new weapons for their officers.

What's remarkable about the Tacoma decision is that the department's executives gave their firearms experts a free hand to identify the best weapons for the force. Now the process used by the Tacoma PD is serving as a model for other police agencies seeking to change their sidearms or any other issue equipment, gear, or apparel.

Tacoma PD rangemaster Sgt. Mark Jenkins was tasked with finding a pistol to replace the department's standard double-action semi-automatic sidearm. These guns had been in service since the early 1990s, but some Tacoma officers, especially those with smaller hands, said they did not fit well in their palms. In addition, the department's firearm trainers said the long, heavy trigger pulls on the weapons were affecting the officers' aim.

Functional Dimensions

Jenkins' first move was to start collecting pistols for the tests. "I fired off a bunch of letters and eventually we had 37 different guns," Jenkins says. "We did an evaluation that went on for almost a year."

Using a training model of a Glock, Tacoma Police Department rangemaster Sgt. Mark Jenkins explains the “functional dimensions” of a pistol, key factors in his agency’s handgun selection process.

Jenkins and his colleagues went about the process very scientifically. "The first thing we did was determine what constitutes a functional dimension," he says.

A what?

"Functional dimensions," Jenkins explains, "are the dimensions of a particular handgun that you have to be able to get around to make the handgun work."

The functional dimensions include the measurements from the trigger to the backstrap and the width of the grip where a hand fits around it and the trigger finger lays across the grip. Jenkins and his fellow instructors created a chart of measurements and calculations, representing the size of each individual pistol. "We measured every one of the test guns and put that together in the graph," he says. "You can look at that and you can determine if a pistol is too big to hold on to."

Before the many weeks of the process were over, Jenkins and his colleagues had made a very detailed study of the way human anatomy interacts with handguns. "We learned more about hands than we care to know," he says with a grin.

Once the initial study was complete, Jenkins brought in 18 officers-male and female-with different physical characteristics ranging from tall to short, heavy to thin, a "sampling" that represented everybody in the department. He then started putting guns in their hands.

The results were surprising. For example, Jenkins and his colleagues learned that hand size wasn't necessarily the reason why some officers were uncomfortable with certain weapons. "We found that the size of the hand has perhaps less to do with the fit of a pistol in the hand than how thick your hand is," he says.

Jenkins discovered that large officers often have thick hands that do not wrap around a thick pistol very well. "Thick hands have lots of fat that offsets the grip of a pistol," Jenkins explains. "We had one guy who played football in college, an enormous guy, big and strong. He's got so much muscle and meat in his hands that pistols fit him more poorly than a very small, thin woman who had a very long, thin hand, because there was not that much meat in the palm of her hand."

The Museum Piece

Searching for a weapon that would fit the grips of both small-handed officers and big officers with huge meathooks, Jenkins' attention was drawn to the Model 1911 platform, a pistol design that has not been officially adopted by a U.S. metropolitan police department in 50 years.

"My introduction to the 1911 came a couple of years ago," Jenkins says. "I had a hunting rifle that I was not using, and a friend of mine had a 1911 that he wasn't using. He needed a hunting rifle. So we traded. I left that pistol in my gun safe for a couple of months. Then one day I decided to get it out to see what it was like. I picked it up and held it, and fired it. And I realized that it fit in my hand better than any other autoloader I'd picked up and fired.

"But I still thought of it as a museum piece. As time went on, I began looking at 1911s and concluded that not only did they fit well, they seemed to be very reliable. They are easy to work on, and I didn't see any down side to them," he adds.

Sight alignment drill, with officer Jim Pincham holding pistol as Sgt. Barry Paris (back to camera) squeezes the trigger.

With the revelation that the 1911 might be the solution to Tacoma's problems, Jenkins brought in some other instructors who did not have experience with 1911s and sent them out to shoot a course of fire, including reactive steel targets. "They came back and said, 'Yeah, this is no problem,'" Jenkins says. "And that's why we looked at 1911s, and it's why I encouraged the department to let me look at everything that was out there on the market and not limit us to double-action-only autos, or traditional double-actions, or any particular make, model, or type of handgun."

Distal Joints

Tacoma's administration gave Jenkins its official nod, so he included the single-action 1911 semi-auto in his evaluations. Testing, however, was far from finished. And more functional dimensions had to be considered.

Particularly critical was finger placement on the trigger. "In a perfect world, you want the distal joint of your trigger finger to be in contact with the trigger," Jenkins says. "If it is a short, light trigger, you can get by with having your distal joint on the near side, and if it is a long, heavy trigger then you're going to need to have your finger on the far side."

Instructor Ron Tennyson goes through a field stripping exercise with officer Don Nelson.

When Jenkins first entered law enforcement, the standard issue sidearm was a revolver, and he found that with his distal joint on the far side of the trigger, it allowed for more trigger control. "If you can't control the trigger," he explains, "you can't shoot accurately."

For the purposes of their evaluation, Tacoma's test team placed their distal joints directly on the trigger first, and then wrapped their hands around the grip frame of each pistol.

Jenkins was also looking at other elements that indicate that a pistol fits a shooter's hand. "You want the barrel of the gun to be directly in line with the bone structure of your arm, all the way to the shoulder," Jenkins says. He demonstrated this aspect of fitting a gun to a hand by holding a training facsimile of a Glock pistol. By just eyeballing it, you could tell that the Glock didn't fit Jenkins' hand.

But eyeballing wasn't good enough for the actual tests, so Jenkins and his team were much more precise in their calculations. "We bought a tool from a machine shop that measures angles, and we measured the degrees of off-set from the arm to the barrel (when the pistols were held)," he says. All of the officers involved in the testing process were measured for the degrees of off-set when they picked up each of the 37 test guns.

Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Paul yost @ 11/19/2011 9:08 PM

Great story but I'm trying to get in touch with mark Jenkins in this article. I'm a friend from years ago. Please get him my info Paul Yost of Louisiana 3187151112 or give him my email address [email protected]

Dane Bear @ 5/15/2016 9:37 PM

I second the choice you guys made about the 1911. I have carried one for years (Springfield Mil-Spec) and have run thousands upon thousands of rounds through it. It was designed over 100 years ago for the same exact purpose that we carry them for today... Reliable, powerful backup. Out of the thousands of shots I have taken through it, only two rounds did not function. Bad primers. Every single "Plastic pistol" I have shot has either jammed, failed to strip a round from the magazine, or has been highly inaccurate. The old boys back then knew what they were doing, and after two world wars of proof, The 1911 is still as relivant today as it was back then. P.S. most firearms that were used by the Military went under a 20,000 round endurance test!! And yes, the 1911 passed.

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