Just Good Insurance

It's better to carry a back-up weapon and not need it, than to not have one at all


The carrying of back-up weapons by patrol personnel has been the subject of much debate. What should you carry? Revolver or semi-auto? How should it be carried? Should you even carry one? Advances in the metallurgy and synthetic materials with which weapons and holsters are made have provided an inexhaustible number of possibilities. The purpose of this article is to discuss the pros and cons of different types of weapons and carry techniques. The intent is not to preach one weapon or carry type over another but to provide food for thought so that officers can make informed decisions on their own.

Should you carry a back-up gun?
If your department policy allows it, officers should carry a back-up weapon. There are numerous stories about officers whose lives have been saved by their back-up gun. Unfortunately, there are probably more stories of officers who have been seriously wounded or killed because they did not carry an additional weapon. Clearly it's better to have a back-up weapon and not need it, than to need it and not have it at all.

Probably the most common reason for carrying a back-up weapon is to aid the retention of the officer's primary weapon. For instance, if a suspect attempts to take the officer's duty gun, having a back-up provides a means of lethal force for the officer to defend himself. Should the suspect succeed in taking the officer's primary weapon, he will not be left empty handed.

There are many other contingencies to be considered when deciding whether or not to carry a back-up weapon. What if the duty gun malfunctions, is damaged or for some other reason cannot be used? What if an officer wants a weapon handy in a clandestine mode, allowing suspects to think he's unprepared because they can see the officer's primary weapon in its holster?

Picking the back-up
Once the decision has been made to pack some back-up heat, an officer should put serious thought into deciding what he will carry and how he will carry it. The top two requirements for the back-up weapon and carry system should be:

  1. The officer must be able to operate the weapon one-handed with either his primary or support-side hand.
  2. The officer must be able to present (draw) the weapon one-handed with either his primary or support-side hand.

Revolver or automatic?
The next consideration involves choosing between a revolver or an automatic weapon.

Revolvers have the advantage of being more reliable than automatics. Unless a part breaks, they will operate. This is important if an officer's maintenance program is lacking or if the officer is wounded, must operate the weapon with his support-side hand, or fire one-handed from an awkward position. This can cause "Limp-Wristing" that, with an automatic, will create a Type 2 (Stove-Pipe) malfunction. This will not happen with a revolver, however.

Many manufacturers now produce small-frame revolvers from alloys that make them extremely lightweight. This is an obvious advantage when an officer will carry the firearm 40 hours a week along with all his other duty gear. It does no good to purchase a gun that is so heavy, bulky or otherwise cumbersome that an officer stops carrying it. A back-up weapon in the squad car trunk is of no use to anyone.

There are a few disadvantages to the revolver, however. One is its limited ammunition capacity of five or six rounds. Revolvers also can be slow to reload and will most likely be of a different caliber than the officer's duty gun. Additionally, revolvers require a different skill set to reload and operate than an automatic, so an officer must be trained to use both weapons.

Many small-frame revolvers also have inadequate sighting systems. This may not be a big deal when the ranges at which the gun may be fired are considered. There are after-market sights that can be added, and some manufacturers now produce these weapons with fiber-optic inserts in the front sight. A good example is the Smith & Wesson "Hi-Viz" sight available on some J-frame revolvers. These sights can greatly increase the effectiveness of the revolver's sighting system and provide better accuracy at longer ranges. However, the high profile of such sights could cause a problem in presenting the weapon as they may snag on clothing.

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