We're breaking tradition with this Arsenal column. This column is normally devoted to testing the latest whiz-bang piece of hardware, but this one is different. Lest we all get too caught up in a case of the "gotta-have-its," we elected to take a quick look at the need for change, and how it must be balanced with an agency's budget, real-world threats, and ability to train its officers.
We embrace new technology and the need for equipment upgrades and, indeed, get just as excited about "cool new stuff" as anyone. But we also feel it's our responsibility to take a fair and balanced stand when it comes to some realities of this "need for speed" that can often overcome even the best-intentioned trainer, field officer, and even-dare we say it-chief.
Case In Point
The dust had hardly settled on the North Hollywood bank robbery when officers and departments across the country started crying out for "more stopping power" in their duty guns. And while the concept was sound, since then the implementation has often been erratic, unsound, and ill conceived. Many agencies (perhaps even yours) moved to calibers, guns, and even tactics that exhibited a severe case of overreaction, poor planning, and lack of a sound, real-world knowledge base. Some of this has been perpetrated by the fact all cops are experts-just ask one-and many times we are hard pressed to reach out for "outside" advice when dealing with "our" problems.
This happens with every major "event," be it a rash of officer fatalities, officer-involved shootings leaving dead suspects, or a perceived body armor "failure." There is usually a frantic, helter-skelter rush down a path looking for "fixes" that are most usually not fixes at all, but wastes of money, time, and training efforts.
With the constant barrage of media hype regarding police-involved shootings; movie madness where even petty crooks have machine guns, hand grenades, and worse; and hype in the mainstream "gunzine" press, cops are inundated with "what's new" solutions to mostly rare or even non-existent problems. But when your agency is confronted with a new "problem," before reaching out for a technology fix, take a breath and examine your existing equipment and training. More than likely, there's little if anything wrong with what you are currently doing.
Post North Hollywood, there was a wholesale switch by some agencies to .40 and .45 caliber handguns for duty carry. While that isn't necessarily a bad thing, it was spurred by incorrect assumptions. Field officers somehow felt the larger calibers would have made a difference in the outcome of the North Hollywood event. In actuality, the suspects' armor would have stopped any .40 or .45 caliber handgun round a cop might have fired. Indeed, most pistol-caliber carbines would have been just as ineffective, though they would have afforded the good guys a more accurate platform that would have given officers a better chance at head shots.
What the officers in North Hollywood needed were rifles. Simple, reliable, and in an effective caliber, a half-dozen Winchester Model 94 lever guns in 30-30 Winchester caliber would have solved the North Hollywood problem handily. Yet, I'm just as often met with blank stares when I make the recommendation.
Change should be prompted by real need, not by hype about a new caliber, pistol, rifle, or other piece of hardware. Indeed, as Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch is fond of saying, "The side with the simplest guns and uniforms usually wins." Overly complex weapons systems, holsters, ammo, and tactics often result in more opportunities for failure.
Over the past 20 years, the .38 Special revolver round was first trumped by the adoption of autopistols, most often in 9mm. Then as the .40 S&W, the .357 SIG auto cartridge, and the .45 GAP (Glock Auto Pistol) cartridge were developed, law enforcement was overwhelmed with new options for duty handgun calibers.[PAGEBREAK]
The same is true of the guns themselves. It seems every few months the major makers are offering new "black-plastic wunder-guns" aimed at the law enforcement market. Each promises to solve all your problems and definitely makes whatever you're carrying now obsolete. Just ask the salesman who is calling on your agency.
Think about it for a moment: You probably felt perfectly fine with your current duty arsenal, heard the hype, or that "war story" about an ammo "failure," and suddenly you can't rest until you "upgrade" to the new ".30 Magnum Hang-Fire L/E Anti-Terror" gun. Take a breath, and examine it calmly.
For Change's Sake
If we didn't embrace positive change, we'd still be carrying S&W Model 10 .38 Special revolvers. Actually, the funny thing is I never felt "undergunned" when I carried one. And bad guys had much the same arsenal available to them then as they do now.
Change for the positive-and change that actually makes sense and a real difference-should be applauded. But especially in this day of critically short police department budgets, is a move from, for instance, your existing 9mm duty guns to a .40, .45, or other caliber really necessary?
After 24 years as a cop and about 30 total years "in the business" either selling equipment, buying it for my agency, using it in the field, manufacturing it, writing about it, or consulting with a cross-section of major makers on how to sell products, I can tell you with no hesitation that often change is not needed.
Hard words. But ask any senior trainer on your agency what they've seen and I promise they'll tell you the same thing. Major technology breakthroughs aside, what happens most often is a change from one vendor or maker to another, with little or-most often-no real gain in either performance, value, or reliability. Making such a change, however, often appeases a perceived need, which makes everyone feel better, but doesn't necessarily do a better job in the field.
With the advent of the Mobile Data Terminal in the cars of my old agency, field police work took a leap forward. No longer was it necessary to wait in endless lines on the radio to get your turn to "run" suspects, identify possibly stolen property, check a criminal history, and more. That was a great breakthrough. But as the years passed, we created a generation of young cops who, often, could not do street-level police work if the computer system went down.
I stopped to cover a young officer once who was about to let a car thief go. The officer told me he was pretty sure the suspect was an auto thief, but didn't think the car he was driving was stolen and couldn't verify it since the system was "down." I was stunned. "You're not going to let him go, are you?" I asked. "Well, ah, yeah, I was," he replied. What followed was a minor lesson in basic interview techniques, how to find an alternate VIN number, and listening to that "sixth" sense we all develop. The car was indeed stolen; the suspect was arrested; and it was all done without the MDT.
Which is a roundabout way to gently remind us all that most usually, sound tactics backed up with reliable hardware can get the job done.
With today's high-performance ammo, any caliber is capable of meeting most threats. For instance, there was a rush of word-of-mouth gossip about sub-sonic 9mm 147-grain "failures" in the field a few years ago. When the real data was examined, this load didn't seem to account for more problems in the field than any other load or caliber.
When you hear such rumors about ammo, guns, or related equipment, check for true "failures" of the design, load, or equipment at your own agency. If you hear of problems elsewhere, ask for documentation and talk to the people involved. Pretend you're conducting a police investigation. Could you "charge" your own agency's equipment with a "crime" by the end of the investigation? If not, then reevaluate the need for change. In actuality, did the investigation begin due to rumor rather than a real problem? You may save your agency tens of thousands of dollars-or more.
Gun magazine hysteria about load "failures," advertising that sounds too good to be true, locker room stories without reliable backing (often with editorial comment from unqualified bystanders), and media distortion all often pave the way to equipment changes that are not needed. Use your investigative skills and your sixth sense to get to the truth. Then, and only then, make a change.
Roy Huntington is the editor of American Handgunner and a long-time member of the Police Advisory Board.