Backup gun strategies for the police professional

BUGs continue to save police officers’ lives in the 21st century

Editor's Note: We welcome to our roster of writers Mike Boyle, who served 27 years with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife Bureau of Law Enforcement. Many longtime PoliceOne readers will recall that some of Mike's writing from Police Marksman magazine has already appeared on the site, such as this timeless piece on developing an off-duty plan.

The use of backup guns by law enforcement personnel remains a controversial area. Despite numerous instances where law enforcement officers used a backup gun (BUG) to turn the tables in a seemingly hopeless situation, many departments still prohibit their use. Even some of our peers, now equipped with high capacity pistols, feel that the concept of the backup gun is no longer valid.

Today’s patrol officer carries more gear than ever before. In addition to the essentials — a sidearm, spare ammo, and cuffs — law enforcement professionals are likely to be hauling around a variety of less lethal weapons, portable radio, cell phone, and flashlight. Soft body armor adds to an already heavy load. Has the backup gun become a superfluous piece of equipment that no longer fills a legitimate need? After careful consideration, I am of the feeling that backup guns continue to fill a vital niche.

Arguments against the use of a BUG simply don’t hold water. Opponents often state that a backup gun could be used as a “drop gun” to help an officer cover a questionable shooting. Since responsible agencies record the serial numbers of their officer’s BUGs, inspect them, and provide training in their use, this is a highly unlikely scenario. In fact, at least two state police agencies issue small autopistols to their troopers to be used as backup guns. The “drop gun” argument simply doesn’t cut it.

Other dissenting voices have opined that high capacity pistols, retention holsters, and more effective less lethal weapons have eliminated the need for a backup gun. I would submit that all those tools go a long way in enhancing officer safety, but fill a very different role than the BUG. When you are in a fight for your life and your primary handgun is no longer available, no less lethal weapon is going to do the trick.

Old School vs. New School
A generation ago, just about all law enforcement agencies fielded revolvers and my outfit was no different. I was fortunate to work for an agency that took officer safety seriously and provided officers with a 4 inch service revolver and a more compact snub for backup and off duty use. Since our duties took us far off the beaten path, a large percentage of the troops routinely carried their snubs as a backup. We all pretty much felt that if we got ourselves in a jam, the “New York reload” of producing the backup gun would be far more efficient than trying to top off our primary with speedloaders or loose rounds.

When pistols replaced revolvers as the sidearm of choice, attitudes relative to BUGs began to shift. Many officers suddenly felt that lugging a second gun around was no longer worth the effort. After all, they reasoned “If I run my piece low or dry, I can reload my pistol in the blink of an eye.” Maybe so, but my belief is that such thinking misses the point.

Clearly, one can reload an auto pistol in just about the same time it would take to draw a hidden backup. But officers have been known to deplete all their ammunition in high volume firefights. What if your primary handgun suffers a catastrophic malfunction that cannot be remedied with an immediate action drill? In my mind, the biggest reason for carrying a BUG is to thwart a disarm or disarm attempt by one or more determined individuals.

During my basic academy training many years ago, Joseph Wambaugh’s classic, The Onion Field was mandatory reading. In The Onion Field, Wambaugh outlines the tragic story of Los Angeles plainclothes officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger. During a motor vehicle stop, two petty criminals succeeded in disarming Campbell and Hettinger and they were subsequently taken to an area some distance away outside of Bakerfield. Campbell is then murdered and Hettinger escapes.

This book had quite an impact and its many lessons gave us trainees much to ponder. One of our biggest questions was, what if one or both of the officers had a backup?

There is nothing to suggest that either officer was thoroughly searched. The drive from Los Angeles to Bakersfield took a few hours and there may have been an opportunity to regain the upper hand. We will never know for sure, but this event alone caused many officers to invest in “Onion Field” insurance and take up a BUG.

In a more recent incident, a police officer was attacked and clubbed with a baseball bat by a 17-year-old student. After taking a blow to the head and knocked to the ground, the officer attempted to draw his service pistol but inadvertently ejected his magazine. He then drew a small semi-automatic from an ankle holster and fired at the subject, ending the attack.

His actions were strongly supported by his chief, who stated, “This officer was fortunate he was able to defend himself. This officer had a secondary weapon that very likely could have saved his life.”

Clearly, backup guns continue to save police officers’ lives in the 21st century.

BUG Gear
Throughout my career, I routinely carried a backup gun — even after the switch to the high-capacity auto. I was more than willing to put up with the minor inconvenience of carrying the BUG because I felt it left me with options.

The availability of guns suitable as a discreet backup is better than ever. I cut my teeth on a revolver and continued to carry a small frame snub until retirement. My lightweight snub revolver rode either in the pocket or on the ankle, depending on time of the year or clothing worn. Officers who have always carried an auto pistol might be more comfortable with that type of technology for their BUG as well.

Officers who prefer the revolver can select from any number of different models and manufacturers that sport features we could have only dreamed about a few short years ago. Modern revolvers are extremely size and weight efficient and offer “five for sure” dependability. Unlike autos, they can be reliably cycled even when held in a less than optimum grip or pressed up against the body of an aggressor.

Small autopistols are also much improved. One no longer has to settle for an underpowered pistol that fires a sub-caliber cartridge. Small .380 ACP caliber pistols ideally suited for backup are currently available. Better yet, there are just slightly larger lightweight pistols chambered for legitimate service calibers such as 9mm or .40 S&W.

There is no perfect place to park a backup gun on your person and every carry mode has its own upside and downside. Early in my career, I utilized a shoulder rig to carry my backup snub. In an emergency, I could draw my backup with either hand (good news), but it was very hard to defend when going hands-on with a subject (bad news). Obviously, this trick only worked in the cooler months when the backup was hidden by a jacket. Ankle carry was another option, but accessibility rendered it a sometimes-only solution at best.

I finally settled on pocket carry as my best option. My Airweight snub rode pretty much undetected in my support side hip pocket and was easily accessible. Some of my associates carried their BUG in the rear pocket and never missed a beat. Other viable carry options include vest holsters and bellybands.

Make It Real
Having the right gear is a big step in the right direction. Getting proficient with the BUG will, however, require a bit of work.

Certainly, you must be acquainted with the marksmanship potential and handing quirks of any handgun you carry. In my outfit, we were required to qualify with our BUGs at our quarterly training sessions. But merely attaining a passing score on a mandatory course of fire is not sufficient. In order for our training to be valid, it must match the pattern of the anticipated encounter.

With that in mind, let’s consider the following. When the BUG is deployed in the operational environment, more than likely you will not be able to snap into your preferred stance and fire with both hands on the gun. Distance between you and your assailant will be very close. Should your aggressor have a contact weapon (or attempting to disarm you), you may in fact be grappling with them. Even if the assailant is more than a few yards away, your inoperable primary handgun may be occupying your dominant hand. The immediacy of the situation may not allow time to holster.

The fastest response with the BUG may well be support hand only, draw, and fire. By trial and quite a bit of error, I concluded that my fastest way into action was from the support side hip pocket. My strong side hip pocket was obstructed by the duty holster, making it a less than optimum choice. Support side carry also gave me an advantage if I were forced to defend my holstered primary handgun with the dominant hand.

At close range, I didn’t feel at all handicapped with drawing and firing support hand only. I felt the slight degradation in accuracy potential was more than a fair tradeoff for a faster response. If you prefer to use the dominant hand, I don’t have a quarrel with that, but you need to recognize your response may be delayed as you transfer your primary pistol to the support hand or reholster.

To make training even more realistic, I begin by setting up a feedway stoppage (double feed) in my primary pistol. While this type of stoppage is indeed “fixable”, in reality it will take far too much time if you are not behind cover or your assailant is in close proximity. On signal, I take a lateral step, draw and fire a burst of shots from my BUG into a target a few yards away. My primary remains in the dominant hand, tucked in close to the body and pointed down and away.

I also like to mix some open hand techniques into drawing and firing the BUG. Palm and elbow strikes, knee thrusts, and kicks can be directed on a training bag held by a partner. On signal, the officer disengages, draws the BUG and fires at a target set a few yards away. Ground fighting is yet another area where we can work at some BUG techniques.

Training scenarios are only limited by our imagination. I have tried to outline a few drills that have worked out for me, but you may even have some better ideas. Multiple assailants, low light, and simulated injuries may be some other contingencies we could work into our BUG training.

Our collective history illustrates numerous incidents where a BUG has saved the life of a law enforcement officer. Personally, I cannot fathom the logic of misguided administrators that prohibit BUGs and leave their officers without a viable option should their primary gun go down. Hopefully, the facts will convince them to change their view.

If you haven’t already taken up a BUG, give this idea some thought. Contemporary options won’t weigh you down and will provide you with another ring of safety to ensure you will go home.

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