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A firearms guide for police recruits and rookie cops

Your duty weapon and backup weapons should be as familiar in your hands as your favorite coffee cup


Your duty weapon and backup weapons should be as familiar in your hands as your favorite coffee cup.

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I have served on many hiring panels and one candidate response I’ll always remember. When asked “Why do you want to be a police officer,” the candidate’s answer was, “Well, I’ve always liked guns.”

The thinking that all police officers are “gun nuts” was not unusual in decades past. But what if you’ve never fired a gun? It might not be as big of a disadvantage as you fear. I’ve heard more than one firearms instructor quote the adage that it’s easier to teach a new shooter than it is to reverse bad habits of an experienced shooter. Being a good learner and respecting your equipment is sufficient.

Even as a country boy whose dinner depended on the occasional hunting foray in the woods behind my house, I was never an exuberant firearms aficionado. Our house had the typical rural collection of functional long guns and pistols, and I had my own along the way. I had the opportunity to handle a variety of arms in the military and, for most of the past four decades, I’ve had a handgun on my hip. But when my law enforcement colleagues are talking about comparing guns and ammo and optics and add-ons I am quickly overwhelmed.

So, how much do cops need to know about firearms? Read on to find out.

Know your own weapon

Your duty weapon and backup weapons should be as familiar in your hands as your favorite coffee cup – from every contour and every angle, from any holster, in any temperature, in uniform and in plain clothes. Know it in your left and in your right hand. Know it when you are on your belly and when you are on your back. Know it blindfolded. Know it after you have jogged and done pushups. Know it when it is raining or snowing.

During stress, your sense of touch and time can be distorted. You will likely do that which you’ve done the most frequently, which means that your hand will go to the place your duty holster is even when in plain clothes with an ankle holster. If you own or shoot a variety of guns, mentally rehearse and reorient to the weapon and gear you have on to give your brain a heads up.

Know what ammunition you use on duty and whether it is compatible with your fellow officers’ firearms and those of nearby jurisdictions. Since most of your practice shooting may not be with the same kinds of rounds you use on duty, pay attention to the feel of your duty ammo as you shoot with it. Be aware of its potential to penetrate something besides paper targets.

If your vehicle has long guns, know how to unlock and deploy them under stress. Know what they are loaded with and the distance and penetration capacity of those rounds. Understanding range and penetration can inform an officer as to what kind of cover is needed when confronted with a long gun. Know if the safety is on or off by touch. This will take deliberate practice because long guns are used and fired less often than other police firearms. Know what to do with them if you have to go hands-on with a suspect.

And, of course, know how to clean and lubricate your weapon.

Know about modifications

Many officers are tempted to have their weapons “tuned up.” Adjusting the trigger resistance, and adding sight configurations and lighting can significantly alter how the weapon is handled, holstered and used. While flashlights have added a great deal to duty weapons, their lights are supplemental and used to identify and acquire a target, not as a substitute for a flashlight. Lights and laser sites add to the number of fine motor skills needed to operate your firearm and deserve practice.

Know how to render weapons safe

The television cop’s plan of tucking any recovered handgun into their waist or pocket is not the soundest approach when encountering weapons during a search. Packing a recovered weapon for forensic examination is another class and can be accomplished at leisure, but securing a weapon to get it immediately out of reach of a suspect must be done quickly and safely. Even what appears to be a familiar weapon can have alterations and dysfunction that can surprise a handler.

A great way to learn the variety of ways that firearms are configured for safeties, cartridge extraction and disassembly is to explore gun shows where you can be exposed to a variety of arms. Always assume the weapon you recover is loaded, lethal and has an unstable trigger.

Know improvised weapons

An internet image search for “improvised handguns” yields a frightening variety of lethal weapons that may not be immediately recognized. Small hidden guns in belt buckles, cell phones and cigarette packs present a threat that could be overlooked. Documenting the existence of these kinds of weapons (check with your local prison for examples) can help justify your searches.

Keep in mind that projectiles don’t have to be factory-made bullets to do harm. A painful distraction from a projectile can disorient an officer long enough to put them at greater risk of attack, especially a strike to the face and, in particular, to the eyes. This means that altered toy guns or paintball guns pose a threat of injury.

Audio sensations

Hearing protection on the range is critical, but so is recognizing the sounds of gunfire in the real world. When interviewing witnesses or hearing a 911 call, the comparison to fireworks, explosions, or a car backfiring (a rare occurrence in modern vehicles but still on the minds of witnesses) is common. Having some sense of what a fully automatic firearm sounds like or what a “silencer” on a firearm sounds like can have value.

Police officers as well as civilians may fail to take cover when they are not certain that a gun is being fired because of preconceptions of what that sounds like. Movies are a terrible recreation of gun sounds and the effects of bullet impacts. Live demonstrations, where available, are best, but there are also many live crime scene recordings and video demonstrations that could be helpful.

Train, train, train

Nothing that you train for will be exactly what an officer faces in a real shooting incident, but the more you know about your weapon, the fewer doubts and decisions will pass through your mind in a lethal encounter.

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Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.