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:
- The officer must be able to operate the weapon one-handed with either his primary or support-side hand.
- 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.
While most revolvers suited as back-up weapons have similar features, there are a few options to be considered. A five-shot revolver can have a smaller frame and thinner cylinder than a six-shot making it more concealable. There also are exposed hammer, shrouded hammer and "hammerless" or internal hammer revolvers. An exposed hammer can snag on clothing and other items when deployed. These weapons also can snag and fail to fire if fired from inside a jacket pocket or near clothing. The advantage is they can be manually cocked and fired single action for a precision shot.
A shrouded hammer prevents these potential problems but still allows the officer to manually cock the weapon and fire in single-action mode if desired.
Hammerless revolvers are quicker to present as there is nothing to snag on clothing or other items. They also have a lower profile than a shrouded hammer revolver. The only restriction with a hammerless revolver is that it cannot be manually cocked to fire single action.
As for the use of automatics, they also have positive and negative points to consider. On the positive side, they are available in miniaturized versions of most full-size autos. This allows officers to have a back-up weapon that closely resembles their duty weapon. In many cases, these firearms also will be of the same caliber and take the same magazines as a duty weapon. For example, Glock has a full line of duty weapons with matching baby Glocks that fill this role.
One drawback to an automatic is the same feature that makes a revolver preferable. The possibility of "Limp-Wristing" will cause an automatic to malfunction. Additionally, autos are more susceptible to dirt, mud and other factors that can contribute to a malfunction. Therefore, these guns require better maintenance to ensure they operate when needed.
The back-up automatic should have the same or less features as the officer's primary weapon. For example, if the duty weapon has a manual safety, it will not be a big deal if the back-up gun does not. However, if the primary weapon does not have a safety, then the back-up gun absolutely should not have one. If it does, it is likely the user will forget to take the weapon off "safe" because he is trained to operate his primary weapon. This could result in disaster. The functioning issue is important from a practical standpoint. It has been proven in stressful situations an officer will fall back on his training.
Keep in mind the back-up weapon may be called upon to perform the same functions as the duty gun. Therefore, it needs to be of a caliber large enough to provide the necessary ballistic performance. Anything less than a .38 special rated for +P likely will not be enough gun to do the job. While .25 autos, derringers and the like may be good "hide-out" or "Onion Field"* insurance guns, they are not suitable as back-up weapons. However, there are experts who disagree with this. Several semi-autos chambered in .38 auto are popular as back-ups. These weapons are very concealable and have adequate magazine capacity, but still lack in ballistic capability.
Any police supply catalog will have a large selection of holsters for back-up carry. Officers should consider this carefully as their method of carry will dictate how accessible the weapon is when needed. It also will help determine what type and size weapon will work as well with any accessories that may be added.
Vest-mounted holsters. In most cases these holsters allow access to the weapon with either the primary or support-side hand. A vest-mounted holster can be either a holster that rides under the officer's arm secured by the side straps of his vest, or a "BUG-pouch" (BUG is an acronym for back-up gun) mounted on the front of the ballistic vest. These provide a good balance of retention and accessibility. They do add weight and bulk to the front of the vest, however. Whether or not this matters depends on the weapon the officer chooses to carry. Additionally, if an officer is in an all-out fight for his life, with his primary weapon unusable, it may be hard to deploy a gun from inside his shirt.
Inside-the-pocket holsters. These holsters are another popular choice. If used, they are best placed in the front or rear pants pocket on the officer's support side. This allows the officer to access his weapon while grappling and reach it with either his primary or support-side hand. During the winter months, back-up weapons can be carried inside a jacket pocket. This allows the officer to have a gun in hand without anyone knowing it. The biggest drawback to carrying in a pants pocket is it can be uncomfortable when seated. Officers also may need to alter their pants to extend the pocket and make it deeper.
Shoulder holsters. This type of carry is another option, at least during the winter months. They can be worn under a jacket, keeping the weapon out of sight. With this type of carry, the cons far outweigh any pros, however. Unless an officer trains with a shoulder rig, he may forget the back-up is even there. An officer also may risk shooting himself in the arm while drawing from a shoulder holster. Many shoulder rigs carry the weapon mounted horizontally, which adds the risk of the weapon falling out if the snap comes undone.
A horizontal carry also means officers are in constant violation of Fire Arms Safety Rule No. 2: "Never allow the muzzle to cover anything you are not willing to destroy." With this carry, the muzzle is sweeping everyone in the environment from the time the officer puts it on until the time he takes it off.
Using a vertical-mount shoulder holster can eliminate this problem, though they tend to hang lower and could be in the way of equipment carried on the duty belt. Both horizontal- and vertical-carry shoulder rigs have horrible retention properties, and the butt-forward carry offers adversaries an excellent grip on the weapon.
Ankle holsters. These are a popular way to carry a back-up weapon. A main negative to this type of carry is that it does not allow access to the weapon while grappling with a suspect. It can in fact make the weapon more accessible to an adversary. Another drawback is that an ankle holster may not provide sufficient retention. Presentation of the weapon can be difficult if the officer's pant leg snags on the gun or holster. Having pants altered by splitting the inside seam and replacing it with VELCRO part way up the leg will help with the weapon's presentation. Ankle holsters also may be uncomfortable if not fitted properly.
Most ankle holsters also are designed with a thumb-break retention that goes behind the hammer. A shrouded or hammerless revolver will not be held securely with this carry if that is the case.
On the positive side, an ankle rig allows very easy access when seated in a vehicle. Drawing from the ankle rig while seated allows an officer to have lethal force ready if someone walks up to the squad car. Drawing a duty weapon may be difficult in this scenario because of the seatbelt or seat hindering draw, and may cause undo alarm to the person approaching the car. Even with the inherent drawbacks, an ankle holster is better than not carrying a back-up at all.
Carry methods can have an impact on the type of maintenance the back-up weapon requires. A weapon carried in a pocket or mounted on a vest will be exposed to sweat and lint. One carried in an ankle holster will be exposed to dirt, mud, brush and whatever else the working environment has to offer. These factors can have a greater impact on an automatic than a revolver.
The information in this article is designed to aid back-up weapon selection by providing the reader with the proper level of confidence. Remember, whatever officers choose to carry, the weapons should be made by a reputable manufacturer. Officers also must train with this weapon and the carry method they select before taking it out on patrol.
It's critical to make an educated decision, get a back-up weapon and carry it in a practical manner. After all, the life riding on this decision may likely be your own.
* "The Onion Field" is a novel by Joseph Wambaugh published in 1973. It is based on the true story of the 1963 kidnapping of two officers from the Los Angeles (California) Police Department, one of whom was murdered. This case had a great impact on the tactical considerations of car stops. It also is largely responsible for the popularity of back-up weapons today. It is available for purchase at Amazon.com.
John Marrs has been a deputy sheriff for San Luis Obispo County, California, since 1988. In this capacity, he has served as firearms instructor and SWAT sniper team leader. He also serves as range master. He developed course curriculum and served as instructor for the following POST-certified courses: Patrol Rifle Familiarization and Qualification, Firearms Instructor Course, Police Sniper Basic Course, Patrol Rifle Update Course, Mounted Patrol Basic Course, Mobile Field Force Training, and Handgun and Shotgun PSP update. He also serves as firearms instructor for the Allan Hancock C.C. Basic Academy. Marrs may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.