Evaluating a Pistol for Duty Use

Many factors go into determining what handgun is best for your agency.

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One of the most important, complex, and costly aspects of any law enforcement agency is its firearms program. Let's face it, guns are deeply woven into the fabric of American law enforcement and are as synonymous with police work as the star or shield. Sometimes they are the only thing that ensures we get home safely at the end of a shift.

That being the case the process for deciding which firearms are going to hit the streets with us every shift shouldn't be taken lightly. There are dozens of different varieties of guns out there, many claiming to be "military spec" or "law enforcement grade" yet very few actually rise to the level of durability and reliability that would warrant them a place in a cop's holster. In order to separate the professionals from the posers there are a few key considerations that must be examined. Let's break them down one by one.

Before you can start picking equipment for the job you have to truly define what that job is. Are you buying for yourself or for an agency of 2,000 officers?

If your agency allows individual firearm selection you may be more apt to go with something that fits your taste over something that would make the most sense for the masses. If you're the guy tasked with outfitting all of your troops with the best tool for the job the factors are a bit different. I'll focus on the latter as most of my experience managing firearms programs is structured around the "standard issue" agency model.

My agency sorted through a variety of pistols and calibers until the mid-1990s when we made the switch to what some people at the time called that "goofy plastic gun"—the Glock. At the time the old-timers thought we were nuts and the gun itself was just a gimmick. Let's be honest, it wasn't pretty and it certainly didn't exude the timeless craftsmanship found on a SIG P220, a 1911, or even a Beretta Model 92, all commonly used as duty weapons at the time. However, the Glock did shoot very well and it ran reliably. Just as important for a "one size fits all" pistol was that it was easy to manipulate and maintain, sized appropriately for the majority of shooters, and was very affordable. Sexy? No. Suitable for an agency-wide duty weapon? Absolutely.

Weighing the Costs

Now let's talk budget. The harsh reality is that no matter how critical this equipment is to our job everything comes down to the almighty dollar and sometimes that means sacrificing a few bells and whistles in favor of practical functionality. The initial cost of the pistol is peanuts compared to the accessories and ammunition required to keep it in service. Holsters, duty gear, sights, extra magazines, replacement parts, and of course ammo will consume much more of your budget than the gun itself. That being the case make sure you consider these factors into the cost of the weapon long term. For instance, a $400 Glock or Smith & Wesson duty pistol comes ready to shoot right out of the box with standard iron sights. Want night sights? Tack on another $100 per gun. Do you intend on issuing pistol lights? If so plan on another $150 or more. Throw in a couple hundred for duty gear and you've more than doubled the cost of that duty weapon before the officer has fired a single round through it.

Now that you've got that new gun in service, how long will it last before it requires maintenance or new parts? Contrary to popular cop beliefs, guns don't last forever. Well, maybe the ornate shotgun Grandpa gave you when he passed, but not the workhorse that rides in your duty belt every night. These things are tools and over time they will need a little TLC to keep them going. The more expensive and complex the gun, likely the more expensive the maintenance and parts.

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Commonality of pistols across multiple agencies means more armorers' training and support. Think of it in car terms. Is a Ferrari an amazing automobile? Absolutely. Do you want to pay for the oil changes? Probably not. That Chevy pickup runs like a champ and won't put you in the poor house. Keep your approach to duty weapons in the same wheelhouse.

Now let's talk about ammo selection. There are just as many varieties of ammo as there are firearms and for the most part all these available calibers and configurations have merit. That doesn't mean all of them have a place in law enforcement. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement agencies around the world carry one of three calibers: .45 ACP, 9mm Luger, or .40 S&W. Why? Because they have proven themselves on the streets and on the battlefield, are readily available, and are affordable.

As I said above, feeding your new pistol will cost you much more over the long run than the initial cost. So like it or not, you have to take that into account. Now this is the point in the article where you are thinking to yourself, "Well, caliber X is the obvious choice. Those other calibers are junk." I won't even begin to wade into that quagmire of an argument except to say that there is a give and take with all of them. 9mm guns generally have higher capacity and velocity, 45 ACP hold fewer rounds that move at lower velocity but are the heaviest bullets so every trigger press throws more metal down range. You'll need to decide which factors are the most important to you and your agency.

Outfitting the Gun

I touched on accessories above but I'll dig a little deeper into that topic now. There are a few things I would consider a must for any duty pistol and a few that I think are a luxury. On the must list are two critical items: a pistol light and a set of quality night sights.

When I started my career, my agency had just begun to issue lights on all duty pistols. I was the envy of my academy class and even the victim of some good-natured hazing because of my "fancy gun" setup. It is funny how times change though because now when I teach new officers I rarely see a pistol without a light, regardless of which agency they work for.

It just makes sense. We spend a lot of time in the dark, either at night or clearing our way through a dark building. If we're going to use our guns it is a no-brainer that we would want a way to better identify our targets, and lights do just that. The old-fashioned method of using a handheld light in conjunction with a pistol is clunky, not overly effective, and makes it much more difficult to shoot accurately.

The other critical accessory for your pistol is a quality set of night sights. Most pistols ship with a cheap set of plastic sights. They're functional but certainly not ideal and generally worthless in the dark. If you're wondering why any gunmaker would do this, the answer is simple: Those cheapo sights keep the cost of the pistol low and they know most everyone is going to change them out to something they prefer anyway. There is no point in the manufacturer slapping on a nice set of iron sights just to have them cast aside for something more suitable to the shooter's taste. Plan on tacking on $100 or so for a good set of illuminated sights as it is money well spent.

Now for the luxury item that has been gaining popularity recently, optics. I see the pistol optic much in the same way we all viewed the pistol light 15 years ago. Sure it is a nice thing to have, but is it really necessary or are we just trying to build fancy high-speed guns? I would argue the former.

(Photo: Getty Images)(Photo: Getty Images)

Many moons ago we thought the same thing about rifles. The Aimpoint and Trijicon ACOG were relatively new and most old timers just didn't trust the technology. Nor did they find it necessary. We had been shooting iron sights forever and found no reason why we needed anything better. However, once we started down the optic path and saw how valuable and reliable that equipment was it was only a matter of time before almost every law enforcement rifle was equipped with an optic. These days it is uncommon to see one without it.

My agency recently put together an optic-equipped pistol program for our SWAT officers to test the effectiveness and reliability of optics on duty guns. Right now there are only a handful of optic-equipped pistols deployed on the team, mine being one of them, but so far the results have been an overwhelming success, much the same as we saw with rifle optics long ago. If I have anything to say about it optics will be as common as weapon lights relatively soon.

Duty Gear

I bring this up because of the considerable expense associated with them. If your agency (or you, if you're buying your own duty weapon) truly wants to equip your officers with the best gear possible, pistol optics should be strongly considered but you'll have to budget accordingly. An optic-equipped pistol will essentially double your initial cost. Multiply that by the number of officers in an agency and that will get expensive quickly.

So how about duty gear? You need to bring that new pistol with you to work, so you'll need a holster. And you'll need a magazine pouch.

As with any piece of gear there are a multitude of holster options out there and you generally get what you pay for. First of all you need to find a holster that is designed specifically for the pistol configuration you're carrying. In recent years I've seen a handful of "versatile" holsters made to accommodate multiple pistols or multiple pistol configurations. Weapon retention is key and the more specific the holster, generally the higher degree of retention you'll get out of it. Manufacturers like Safariland and Bianchi (same company, actually) are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to duty gear. I'm not saying there aren't others out there but you'll want to vet each option for quality, reliability, availability, and price.

Finally, the big question of customization. I have yet to meet an officer who hasn't had the desire to modify their gun in some way to make it more to their liking. The fundamental problem with this is as soon as you modify any gun it no longer functions as the manufacturer has designed it to. Even things as simple as grip enhancements or additions can alter the way the gun feels and shoots.

Remember those rubber grip covers everyone thought were so great years ago? Most of those wore out over time, turned into a slippery sleeve, and actually created the same problem we were trying to mitigate.

The second most common request is for aftermarket triggers. Although some of these work well and are reliable, most are designed for competition and not duty use. They may feel great and make for a more precise trigger pull, but they're generally less robust than the factory version. If your fancy trigger fails during a shooting match it isn't a big deal. The same problem on the street may cost you your life.

The design and functionality of modern pistols are the best they've ever been and I'd strongly advise you to shy away from making any changes. Remember, good shooters are made through good training; you can't buy your way to a great qualification score.

In my time as a firearms instructor and officer, I have seen equipment come and go, evolve for the better and worse, and progress significantly. My best advice to anyone in this profession is to pay attention to the industry, take a hard look at everything before you decide its worth, and don't be afraid to change with the times. At the end of the day, it is our job as officers and certainly as instructors and program managers to be equipped with the equipment that will ensure we and the communities we serve stay safe.

A.J. George is a sergeant with the Scottsdale (AZ) Police Department assigned to the Technical Operations Unit, Special Investigations Section. He has more than a decade of law enforcement experience in patrol, field training, and traffic enforcement.

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