What to Look for in a Backup Gun

Because of the tough economic times most agencies issue only a duty sidearm, and the officer wishing to carry a backup can purchase one from a department-approved list. Let's take a look at some of the characteristics you should look for in a BUG.

While I waited for Ruger to ship me the LCR 357 Compact Revolvers for this evaluation, I got in touch with some of my law enforcement colleagues to find out what their agencies were issuing or authorizing for backup handguns.

One of the first things I learned is because of the tough economic times most agencies issue only a duty sidearm, and the officer wishing to carry a backup can purchase one from a department-approved list. I was not surprised to find that a lot of officers have opted for a snubby revolver. It is in my opinion the ideal choice for this role.

I am a huge fan of the snubby and in the interest of full disclosure will own up to authoring a book on the little revolver, "The Snubby Revolver," available from Paladin Press.

Another excellent backup option for a backup gun (BUG) is a small, thin, flat .380 or 9mm semi-auto pistol. Also a compact version of the issue service pistol, most often a mini-Glock in .40 caliber, is the preferred backup gun of many officers. This is a very practical choice because it uses the same ammunition and magazines as the officer's primary weapon.

Let's take a look at some of the characteristics you should look for in a BUG.

  • Reliability (mechanical and tactical) - Mechanical reliability means that as a lifesaving tool it must be designed to function under adverse conditions that you may never have thought of, much less trained for. Tactical reliability means that the BUG can be counted on to rapidly fire all of the rounds you need to resolve your situation (as in the old snubby revolver credo, "Five for sure").
  • Simplicity - It's often been said that if you need a handgun, you generally need it pretty badly. That goes double if you need a backup gun. You should avoid a BUG that's overly complicated. Features you may want to avoid include slide-mounted safeties, SA/DA triggers, and hammer drop levers.
  • Concealability - Mainly you don't want the bad guy to know you have a second handgun until it is too late for him to do anything about it.
  • Accessibility - This requirement has to strike a balance with concealability and that can be tough to do. As an example, consider a uniformed officer in a hot climate, he or she simply doesn't have a lot of places to conceal a BUG. But for a BUG to be of any use to the officer he must be able to access it (with one hand) as quickly and seamlessly as he transitions from his long gun to his handgun. And he must be able to do this while standing, sitting, running, or rolling around on the ground with a bad guy.
  • Stopping Power - In selecting duty loads for any caliber you carry, I suggest that your choice of ammunition should be guided by two sets of factual information. One is how the round performed in the FBI ammunition testing protocols and the other is current after-action reports regarding how those rounds have performed on the street in officer-involved shootings. (Note: The results for some duty rounds that have been tested using the FBI protocol can be found at ATK's law enforcement Web site.)
  • Ambidextrous - You must be able to use your backup gun with either hand. Conventional wisdom suggests that the BUG should be carried on the side opposite the service pistol so it can be accessed with the non-dominant or support hand. A friend of mine told me that his agency practices a weapon retention drill in which the bad guy jumps the officer from behind and attempts to disarm him. With his dominant hand the officer pushes down on the assailant's hand to keep the handgun in the holster while at the same time the officer draws his BUG, turns into the bad guy, and begins firing. Make sure that you can use your BUG with either hand.
  • Lightweight - The ideal weight for the BUG will be determined by the individual officer as that which he will faithfully carry every day that he goes to work. A number of officers I talked with are comfortable with the mini-Glock .40 in an ankle holster or in some type of holster they can attach to their vests. I learned a long time ago that a 16-ounce revolver in a front pocket was about perfect for me.
  • Capable of Contact Shots - A backup gun must provide fight-stopping capabilities at extreme close quarters. And this means contact shots. I have studied more than 20 incidents in which the contact shot was used and in only one case did it fail to perform. In this case it was applied against bone, which blunted the effect of the shot. In the section on contact wounds in his excellent book, "Gunshot Wounds," Dr. Di Maio, formerly the chief medical examiner for San Antonio, writes: "The gas produced by combustion of the propellant can produce internal injuries as severe as or more severe than injuries produced by the missile." Said another way, the contact shot helps you maximize the effectiveness of the BUG, allowing you to quickly stop the lethal actions of your attacker.
  • Should be Rustproof - The BUG is usually carried close to the body under an outer garment or in a pocket and is subject to perspiration and humidity, which can be hard even on stainless guns.

Related Article:

Sturm, Ruger & Co. KLCR 357 Compact Revolver

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