Trending Topics

Backup guns: A cop’s insurance policy

Why you should never go on duty without a lifesaving BUG on your person

Bertomen 3.jpg

Aside from simple mechanical failure or damage due to enemy fire, there are a ton of additional ways your duty gun could become unusable in a fight.

Robert Marvulli

As a firearms instructor who’s always looking to improve his game, I enjoy comparing notes with other instructors about what they’re seeing on the range. So when one of my friends – who is also the lead firearms instructor for his agency – gave me a call recently, I was excited to hear about the monthly shoot he had just run for his officers.

Our conversation covered lots of ground, but in short order, I realized that one of the topics deserved some extra attention here at Police1, because it’s an important officer safety issue that doesn’t get enough emphasis.

That topic is backup guns for law enforcement officers.

A critical element of police officer safety

In my friend’s program, after the mandated qualifications are completed, there’s a training session that focuses on skills development. The training topic changes each month, and this time the emphasis was on backup guns (or “BUGs,” as many shooters call them).

It disappointed me to hear my friend report that a sizable number of the officers showed up without a backup gun, and had to borrow one from him to complete the training. These officers police a city that’s part of a large urban metroplex with high levels of criminal activity, and while the agency encourages officers to carry a BUG, quite a few of them don’t.

There was a time in law enforcement when it wasn’t all that common for officers to carry BUGs, but those days are far behind us … or at least they should be. We now have a long track record of backup gun saves in law enforcement, and unfortunately, we also have too many examples of officers who desperately needed a backup gun, but didn’t have one available.

I’ve written before about my belief that law enforcement is experiencing a repeat of the conditions of the 1960s and 1970s, and how we need to pay attention to the lessons of that era. One of those lessons was the vital importance of having a backup gun on duty. There’s simply no excuse in this day and age (outside of a foolish, prohibitive agency policy, which should be changed immediately) to be on duty without a backup gun on your person. It’s a critical element of officer safety that cannot be ignored, so if you’re not carrying a BUG, you need to fix that now.

When Murphy shows up at a gunfight

Most of the officers on my friend’s agency who choose not to carry BUGs cite inconvenience as the principal reason. I hear this sometimes from the officers I know and work with too, and I often wonder if they’ve considered how inconvenient it might be if their duty weapon stopped working in a fight?

Guns are machines, and machines have a nasty habit of quitting on you when you when it’s most inconvenient. The air conditioner always breaks during the hottest week of the year, the garbage disposal always breaks on Thanksgiving, and the car always gets a flat when you’re wearing your suit.

Your gun isn’t much different. Springs and pins break, magazines choke, and ammunition fails to feed, fire and eject. Latent defects pop up unexpectedly, and guns get hit and damaged by enemy fire. Murphy is a real pain, and he likes to show up at gunfights.

Aside from simple mechanical failure or damage due to enemy fire, consider these additional ways your duty gun could become unusable in a fight:

  1. It could run out of ammo;
  2. You could drop it;
  3. You could lose it in a crash or a fight;
  4. It could be taken from you;
  5. Your body position could prevent you from drawing it (on your side in a fight, seated in a car);
  6. Your injuries could prevent you from getting to it, or getting it out of your holster;
  7. Your opponent could be holding your arm to block your access to it;
  8. Your security holster could trap it due to malfunction, contamination, or damage;

In all of these situations, a BUG that could be accessed with your non-dominant hand could keep you in the fight, and save the day. Consider it an insurance policy against your primary weapon going down.

Critical backup gun considerations

It was distressing, but not surprising, to hear my friend report that several of the backup guns that were brought to training failed to properly function for the officers.

In some cases, the firearms had not been properly maintained and malfunctioned because they had not been properly cleaned or lubricated by their owners. Every firearms instructor I’ve ever known has a story about the guns they “fixed” – often to their student’s amazement – with a drop or two of oil placed in the right spots. Same with the horror stories of guns filled with carbon, rust, sludge, pocket lint, cookie crumbs and asteroid dust that were rescued with a few passes of a toothbrush or a clean patch. The compact nature of backup guns, and the places in which they’re carried, make them even more susceptible to these hazards. These smaller guns have tight tolerances and are less forgiving of neglect, so they need to be properly maintained to ensure reliability. Don’t make me give you the lecture about maintaining your life-saving, rescue equipment, OK?

My friend noted that the choice of carry mode and the location of carry created problems for some of his officers. In a now-familiar pattern, he saw cases where a semi-auto pistol’s magazine release button was inadvertently activated when the gun was carried in a left side pocket. When it got bumped, the magazine partially dislodged, turning the gun into a single shot. Interestingly, it also happened to an officer who carried in a right side pocket as well, even though the magazine release was against the leg. My friend tells me he’s made a good business of modifying magazine buttons for officers to make them lower profile, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon.

The little guns are extremely vulnerable to shooter-induced malfunctions, and plenty of those were evident during my friend’s training. A combination of big hands and a little gun can easily lead to body parts interfering with the operation of the slide, or controls being inadvertently operated during recoil. The delicate balance between slide velocity and magazine responsiveness in an auto pistol becomes even more dicey in the small guns, so they require a strong shooting platform for maximum reliability – something that can be hard for the shooter to provide with the reduced contact area provided by the short and thin grips common to this class of gun, which may allow only one or two fingers to wrap around the grip.

The little BUGs are more sensitive to ammunition selection, as well. The tight tolerances and delicate balance between slide velocity and magazine response place strong demands on ammunition, exacerbating small differences in pressures, bullet weights and bullet ogives. You can’t be haphazard in your selection of BUG ammunition, and need to test it thoroughly to ensure it will run reliably in your gun.

No excuses

My friend’s experience reaffirmed what I knew from the training I’ve attended and conducted. There was honestly nothing new to see here, just a confirmation of known issues.

As a firearms instructor, it frustrates me that we’re still dealing with these problems, so I want each of you to help me out. Take stock of your personal equipment and training, and make sure you’re squared away. If you don’t have a reliable BUG to carry on duty, then get one immediately and start carrying it in a manner that protects it and gives you support side access. Test and maintain your BUG to ensure it will work when you need it to, and train regularly with it to ensure that your technique is good enough to keep it running and make fight-stopping hits. Your BUG behaves differently than your duty gun, so give it the special attention it requires in training.

It’s not getting any safer out there, so make sure your ballistic lifeboat is in good order before you step out the door for your next shift.

I’ll keep bugging you until you do.

Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the US Army Airborne School, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. He’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division-certified firearms instructor, senior editor at, and has been a featured guest on the Excellence In Training Academy and American Warrior Society podcasts, as well as several radio and television programs. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn from the men and women of law enforcement.