Firearms Maintenance Thoughts

Nov. 13, 2006
Proper maintenance of firearms is a partnership between the officer and the agency.

About a month ago, I attended the Glock Armorer Course to renew my certification. That reminded me of several gun maintenance issues I've run across in the past few years, so I thought I'd mention them while they are still fresh in my mind. The level of interest in guns and their maintenance varies greatly in the law enforcement community. Some people are "gunnies," but most are just carrying a pistol around because they might need it someday. Some consistently demonstrate the ability to maintain and operate their guns safely and accurately, and some just "get by." Certainly, individual interest in firearms plays a role in this, but the leaders of the agencies involved have a responsibility as well. I'd like to look at this from both sides of the equation.

From the agency standpoint, there are certain responsibilities that are important. Whatever firearms are selected, issued or authorized (and that's a big responsibility in itself), the troops must be properly trained in how to maintain the guns in proper working order. Then, the agency must perform regular maintenance and inspection of those guns. I mention both of these because I know of cases where officers have not been given any training about how to routinely care for their firearms. I also know of agencies that have no established maintenance and inspection program. While it is up to the individual to take care of day to day cleaning and maintenance, the agency must make sure this is done. But even at roll call briefings, I seldom hear of supervisors really checking the condition of the guns that are headed for the street. I have seen officers on the street with dust built up on their sidearms. My guess is that they leave the gun in the holster and just put the belt on and take it off. Depending on how often they have to train or qualify, the build-up can reveal a lot about their attitude toward the tool at hand.

One problem is, of course, that the gun is seldom needed (thankfully) and it is only used a few times a year, at best. Some agencies conduct training/qualifications once a year, some twice and year, and some quarterly. In any case, a lot of junk can build up on a duty gun in a very short time, if it is not cleaned regularly. The big problem, as I've said before, is that when you need your gun, you NEED your gun. And it must be in 100% working order. Agencies can stay on top of this with regular field checks of their officers and with a regular scheduled maintenance program. Glock, for example, recommends an annual inspection by a certified armorer. During the inspection, the operation of the entire gun, including the safeties, can be evaluated and repairs or replacements accomplished. By Glock's latest count, they figure they have over 70% of the law enforcement market. Part of the reason is that they make a reliable, uncomplicated and safe pistol that can take a lot of wear and tear. Maybe these features are part of the reason some agencies don't have a maintenance program or any armorers on staff. But just because they are hard to break, doesn't mean they don't break. The good news is, they are easy to fix (even I can do it!). I have seen failures of about a half dozen different Glock parts during classes and range sessions. The fact that they happened in a controlled environment where no one's life was in jeopardy was a good thing. But if you don't regularly "run the gun," you may only find the problem when you are trying to protect your life or someone else's.

Now, I'm only using Glock as an example here. Any mechanical device can, and will, break. Some guns are just easier to fix than others. All manufacturers of quality police firearms have established armorer courses and recommended maintenance/inspection schedules. An agency ignores them at their peril. If an agency firearm fails to function properly when it is really needed, any subsequent investigation is going to look at the maintenance records for that particular arm. If none are available, the agency has placed itself in a very difficult position. Agencies that put a lot of effort into the selection of a particular weapon and then don't keep up with the maintenance of it, can find themselves with civil liability issues that will stress the budget far more than the cost of having certified armorers support an effective maintenance program. And the agencies owe it to the people who rely on the guns to make sure they are ready when the need arises.

On the other hand, individual officers must do their part. Know the recommended cleaning and inspection procedures--and follow them! It is, after all, your life. Know what to look for when doing an operational and safety check. And be sure to report any problems or ask any questions. But keeping the gun clean and safe isn't the only thing. Don't do your own gunsmithing. Play with your own guns, if you must, but don't tinker with the department hardware. The guns need to remain "in spec," both to ensure reliability and prevent liability issues. Some people think they can improve on the years of design and testing that manufacturers have put into their products. If the gun really is a problem for you, then let your department work that out. That's their responsibility. But home gunsmithing can come back and bite everyone in the behind, even if it is done with the best of intentions. A good armorer should be able to recommend solutions. And if not, then maybe a different gun is in order. I still run across folks who will tamper with a perfectly good gun rather than change to another type or brand that would fit the bill, without the risk of reliability or liability issues. It just isn't worth it. In fact, many of the malfunctions I see on the range are the result of someone trying to "improve" something on their gun, but not understanding how the whole thing works as a complete machine. They are, after all, machines. The parts are designed to work together, and altering one part can often have unintended effects on other parts. I recommend that folks spend their energy learning how their guns work and how to keep them working. This can be accomplished in less than an hour. It is time well spent. Problems with feeding, extraction/ejection, slide cycling and misfires can all come from not knowing how the gun is supposed to operate. Don't forget: reliability is still the number one attribute of a personal protection firearm.

Maintaining department firearms is a partnership between the officer and the agency. Police weapons are, after all, safety/rescue equipment. They will perform safely and reliably if everyone works together to keep them ready for duty. If you are into the mechanical aspects of the gun, maybe your department is looking for armorer candidates. If you are the department decision-maker, check with the manufacturer of your weapons to make sure you have established a recommended program for inspecting and maintaining your firearms. The investment in such a program is well worth the time, money and peace of mind--for everyone.

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