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5 keys for plainclothes and off-duty carry

Unfortunately, the closest thing to off-duty carry training many officers get is qualifying with their off-duty piece once or twice per year

Recently, my agency hosted a Plainclothes/Off Duty Combatives Workshop conducted by the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors. Over the course of two days, the attendees were able to take in training on a variety of timely issues, including equipment selection, tactics, drawing and firing from concealment, wound ballistics, low light threat management and a legal update.

Considering the likelihood of a plainclothes/off duty encounter, I’ve often been baffled by the lack of training in this critical area. Clearly, a significant percentage of law enforcement officers work plainclothes details. Regardless of assignment, law enforcement officers spend far more time off duty than working. Unfortunately, the closest thing to training many officers get is qualifying with their off-duty piece once or twice per year.

By and large, the attendees of this seminar were highly committed firearms instructors who took their responsibilities seriously. Participants included representatives from federal, state, and local agencies and their collective skill level was a cut above. This group sported a collection of serious guns that they regularly carried on their own the time.

I would categorize most of the information exchanged at the seminar as mainstream, and you may have heard much of it before. Nonetheless, much of it is worth repeating.

#1. Carry a Gun
There is a pretty fair percentage of LEOs who can’t be bothered carrying a gun off duty. Excuses like “I don’t want to get involved” or, “it’s too hard to hide” simply don’t cut it. Even more bewildering are the guys and gals that carry a gun only when they are going someplace perceived as “dangerous.” Really? If I could accurately predict the future, I would have taken a different career path and told fortunes in Las Vegas.

The fact remains that danger comes to visit when you least expect it — this is as true in a small town, in rural America, or in suburbia, as it is in the big city. In fact, the likelihood of a small town cop crossing paths with some dirt bag he has locked up is probably greater than that of his urban counterparts.

Early in my career, I made a decision to carry a gun all the time, effectively eliminating all the guesswork. Initially, I carried a small frame revolver on my own time. Later on, when my outfit switched to an auto pistol, I discreetly carried my service pistol three seasons of the year and utilized a snub during hot summer weather or as a backup.

Small frame snub revolvers are still a viable choice for those who take the time to get proficient with them. I suspect that most officers today will probably be more comfortable with “square gun” technology similar to what they carry on duty. If your duty pistol proves too large, consider a compact or subcompact version of the same. The manual of arms, placement of vital controls and grip angle will be identical to the gun you are most familiar with.

#2. Carry a Real Gun
One block of instruction at the workshop was devoted to ammunition performance from smaller defensive handguns commonly utilized for concealed carry. Participants were encouraged to fire their chosen ammunition from their handgun into 10 percent ordnance gelatin covered with four layers of denim. Ordnance gelatin is a tissue simulant that replicates the density of human muscle tissue. Four layers of denim is roughly equivalent to heavy clothing that might be worn by an assailant.

I’ll spare you all the gory details, but a number of trends became abundantly clear. Terminal performance of the 9mm, .40 S&W, .357 SIG and .45 ACP when using a quality jacketed hollow point, was uniformly good. Even when fired from the shorter barrels of compact and subcompact pistols, these bullets expanded and penetrated to ideal levels.

The preferred hideout of old, the .38 Special snub, posted mixed results while the .380 ACP was a dismal performer. In the .380 ACP, only CorBon’s all copper DPX load expanded reliably when fired from a small pocket pistol.

The moral of the story? Carry a real gun! Small, flat autoloaders chambered for service cartridges are a good bet. If you favor the snub, Speer’s 135 grain +P Gold Dot JHP or the CorBon 110 grain DPX load are the way to go.

#3. Holsters Matter
I make a distinction between a plainclothes holster that might be worn with a pair of jeans and a windbreaker with Police stenciled across the back and a true concealment rig. A good concealment holster must be able to retain the gun during high levels of physical activity, allow for a fast draw and one hand return, be fairly durable and effectively hide the gun. The holster must be positioned on the belt, so that as soon as hand hits it to begin the draw stroke, a proper shooting grip high on the backstrap is instantly acquired.

Up until a few years ago, my concealed carry needs were best served with an inside-the-waistband (IWB) holster. Under a light covering garment, this allowed me to discreetly carry a pretty fair size gun. Three decades of wearing a gun on my strong side hip, have taken a toll and this is no longer an option for me. Instead, I utilize either a neutral or forward rake holster worn just forward of the hip. Sure, it takes a little more creativity to hide the gun, but it remains a fair tradeoff for carrying a formidable pistol.

Many professionals favor a concealment holster with a FBI forward rake and this style remains extremely popular for soft clothes carry. Concealment qualities can be very good, but I find FBI rake holsters awkward to draw from. In order to get a firm and final shooting grip on the draw stroke, I have to break my wrist and bring the elbow out further away from the torso. For me anyway, this isn’t very efficient. If you prefer this style of holster, by all means have at it. It just isn’t my cup of tea.

Shoulder holsters may be appropriate for certain applications — however, I don’t see them as a best choice for general concealed carry. Much the same can be said of ankle holsters. Ankle rigs are great for a backup, but accessibility is a problem for general wear.

Avoid holsters that prevent you from getting a full firing grip as your hand hits the gun, or that interferes with vital controls of the weapon itself. One of the attendees had his 1911 in a holster with a retaining strap that covered the grip safety. This made for a less than optimum draw stroke. In short order, this officer came to a similar conclusion and is saving his nickels for a new rig. If your first attempt at finding the right holster doesn’t work out, try something else.

#4. Carry a Light
If you carry a gun, you need to carry a light. More often than not, your light will be used for a utility purpose, but it can literally be a lifesaver in an emergency. The new ultra-bright, LED tactical lights are an ideal companion for concealed carry. I’m pretty high on SureFire’s E1B Backup, which puts out 110 lumens of intense white light off a single CR123A 3-volt lithium battery.

Invest a little time in practicing with a small flashlight and your concealed carry pistol. Remember, that if you are involved in a deadly force situation while in plainclothes, you will be held to the same level of accountability as a uniformed officer. In many cases, the light may alleviate the need to go to a higher level of force. Lights sort out the good guys from the bad buys and help us make an informed decision. Get yourself a small light and learn how to use it along with your handgun.

#5. Stay Switched On
In the grand scheme of things, equipment will always take a back seat to the other priorities, especially mindset. Be aware and be willing. We can never afford to lapse into Condition White while in the public eye, especially when armed. Remain keenly aware of what is going on around you. Should someone with an agenda make you before you spot them, there may be some very dire consequences. Don’t be paranoid, but be prepared. You must be prepared to do what ever it takes, including the utilization of deadly force, to maintain your safety.

The advertisement campaign of a popular bank asks, “What’s in your wallet?”

I ask the same about your holster. Hopefully, you have selected a formidable handgun/ammunition combination that can quickly shut down a determined adversary. Good equipment, combined with a winner’s mindset, sound tactics and skill, will give you that edge needed in order to prevail.

Captain Mike Boyle served 27 years with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement. Mike was responsible for all aspects of pre-service and in-service training and also supervised the internal affairs section of his agency. Mike has also been an assistant police academy director and continues to participate in both recruit and instructor level training. He is a certified instructor in multiple uses of force disciplines including handgun, shotgun, rifle, SMG, impact weapons and unarmed self-defense.

Contact Mike Boyle