PoliceOne Roundtable: Expert insights on duty firearms

Part One: Setting the table ...with some of the basics

Recently, I connected with three of my top firearms writers — Dick Fairburn, Lindsey Bertomen, and Ken Hardesty — to get their thoughts on a handful of issues related to the firearms marketplace for the debut of our Featured Product Supplement series. I specifically wanted to investigate the current state of department-issued sidearm pistols. 

What follows is the first in a two-part series generated by those three conversations.  Here we’ll get into that first overview question, as well as thoughts on the key things agencies need to consider when buying sidearm pistols for their police officers. Finally, here in part one, we’ll touch on the common mistakes police armorers and procurement officers make with regard to the selection of duty firearms for their officers. 

Check back in coming weeks for part two, and as always, add your own thoughts in the comments area below. 

What’s your take on the current state of the firearms market — good and bad — as it relates to department-issued sidearm pistols?

Dick Fairburn:
The current availability of duty-grade sidearms is nothing short of amazing.  There are more calibers, trigger systems and physical sizes available than ever before. 

The exception I see to the previous statement is a full-size, polymer-framed weapon that is small enough for our smallest officers – generally meaning a single-stack magazine.  In my experience, any officer unable to handle a weapon with a double-stack magazine is also very likely to wash out of an academy for other (non-firearm) issues, but there are some exceptional officers out there with very small hands.

Ken Hardesty:
The current state of the firearms market for law enforcement is excellent in that manufacturers are constantly trying to one up each other for local government contracts.  This allows a broad range of choices for officers to choose from, should their agency allow individual purchase and carry, as well as for procurement personnel for those agencies that issue standardized weapons to all personnel.

Lindsey Bertomen:
Guns today are simply better in quality and engineering. Mechanically, companies have embraced platform interchangeability, platform stability and operational familiarity among similar products.

Platform stability has long been an issue with firearms manufacturers. It is generally a practice to introduce new models to produce new sales. Now major manufacturers are tending towards variants, whose manual of arms is similar to the original platform. The best example of this is the similarity amongst models of all Glock handguns. Those trained in using a Glock can almost switch to any other model and be able to use it at once. Glock isn’t alone here. SIG SAUER-equipped departments enjoy the same benefits.

What are the key things agencies need to consider when buying sidearm pistols for their police officers?

Dick Fairburn:
Well, in my opinion, the number one criteria is a weapon’s suitability to the officer — hand size, for example, like I’ve already mentioned. So, a weapon that can be adapted to different frame sizes scores highly in my book.

The number two criteria has to be caliber. The top nationwide is the .40 S&W, but we are seeing a small trend of scaling back to a 9mm for decreased recoil and increased round count. I’m a big bullet guy, but the performance of the newest high-tech bullets is mighty good, even in 9mm loads. If a given weapon system allows an officer to scale back to a 9mm, making the difference between success and failure in training, we’re going to have a tough time arguing against the smaller caliber when they sue for discriminatory treatment.

Criteria number three is brand. Some "gun guys" get so brand-loyal they refuse to consider anything but "Brand A." There are several well-tested, perfectly suitable brands on the market.  Having all officers carry the same brand to simplify armorer training makes some sense, but not all lawyers would agree.

Ken Hardesty:
When purchasing firearms, many factors come into play.  At the top of the list should be ease of use and trainability.  If the firearm is difficult to operate or requires continual practice — something most officers don't allow for — personnel will be intimidated to use the firearm, and not likely to respond well under extreme stress. Another factor is the time allotted by the agency for initial and continual training. In my opinion, quarterly or bi-annual qualifications do not equal proper training. This becomes exponentially important for agencies such as mine that allow officers to carry a variety of firearms on duty. 

Lindsey Bertomen:
When agencies consider buying firearms further officers, they have to remember that they are purchasing a system, not a component of the system.

A system purchase means that decisions should not be isolated. That is, selection should include the ammo and holster policy. It is incumbent on the selection committee to test the gun with the holster and even make sure that someone makes a compatible holster for the product. If the agency has specific ammunition needs — such as ammunition effective for dispatching animals — it needs to be part of the decision-making process. This is also important for cold/hot weather climates.

What are the common mistakes police armorers and procurement officers make with regard to the selection of duty firearms for their officers? What advice would you offer to help them avoid such mistakes? 

Dick Fairburn:
Being too hung up on a particular brand and or caliber. 

Lindsey Bertomen:
Alright, the handgun is high-speed, but no one makes a triple threat holster for it. Worse, the magazine pouches for the handgun look good, but magazines have a tendency to fly out of them in a foot pursuit. No one else makes a magazine pouch for this model.

The next thing, I think, is getting hung up on taking a ‘one-size-fits-most’ type of approach, then discovering that an entirely new protocol or purchase needs to be made for a single officer in the department. Get the gun on the range. Try to get everyone to shoot it. Take notes. But keep in mind as you do this that you must also account for your officers on specialized duties. If the bike patrol officers can’t use the gun because the holster/handgun combination causes something to bind while pedaling, the purchase was useless.

Finally, review the parts and maintenance information before making the purchasing decision. Some manufacturers void warranties for simple things like sight replacement or require a handgun to be returned to the factory in order to accomplish simple armorer tasks. This should be known ahead of time.

Looking Ahead to Part Two
Next time, we’ll cover a few additional topics.  We’ll attack current trends in the broader, consumer firearms market — increasing prevalence of integrated laser sights, for example — and how those trends seem to be reflected in police duty pistols. Finally, we’ll look at how officers are training with their duty weapons — what performance trends we’re seeing, and what we need to do increase the numbers of police officers winning their gunfights.  

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