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Shoulder weapons and the small-stature officer

This ain’t your daddy’s wheel gun!

Proper fit is an important quality in most every aspect of modern living. Imagine going about your daily routine with a pair of ill-fitting shoes or driving an automobile with the seat not properly adjusted. Fit not only affects comfort, but performance as well. This is especially true of firearms utilized by law enforcement officers. Clearly, one size does not fit all.

By and large, high capacity autopistols have become the law enforcement sidearm of choice. The original crop of hi-cap pistols typically sported grip frames that proved difficult for shooters with smaller hands to effectively manage. This has now been mitigated to a certain degree as most of the major handgun manufacturers now offer pistols that can be adapted to a wide range of hand sizes. The remedy is there for the taking, but some agencies have been reluctant to step up and take advantage of the improved technology.

Similar issues exist for shoulder weapons, but because these weapons are utilized far less often than handguns, little attention has been given to proper fit. Like it or not, the shotgun is often the only shoulder weapon available to many patrol officers. Since shotguns generate a significant dose of rearward thrust, poor fit compromises both comfort and performance. The concept of the patrol rifle has caught on in many areas, and in many respects, resolves many of the issues relating to fit.

Proper fit with a handgun is achieved by centering the thumb crotch in the center of the backstrap and the distal pad of the finger on the trigger. On many high capacity pistols, this can be problematic for shooters with small hands. Narrower grip frames, interchangeable backstraps, and short triggers all go a long way in accommodating shooters with less than a medium size male hand.

The shoulder weapon fix is actually much simpler and hand size is seldom an issue. Instead, the obstacle that needs to be overcome is arm length. In most cases, success is easily achieved by reducing the length of the buttstock.

Since most of the issues relative to improper fit involve shotguns, let’s consider that remedy first. Most off-the-rack police shotguns feature a buttstock with a 13-1/2 to 14 inch length of pull. Length of pull refers to distance from the trigger to the center of the butt. Now, I’m a pretty fair size guy and require a shirt with a 34 or 35 inch sleeve. However, when I take my preferred shooting stance with most factory shotguns, fit is right on the ragged edge of efficiency. Soft body armor and a heavy winter jacket push me right over the edge. I have found that by taking an inch off the buttstock, I’m right back at the top of my game.

Improper shotgun fit can also cause serious career-ending injuries. When a shotgun stock is of correct length, it can be pulled back tight into the shoulder pocket for a proper mount. The support arm is extended outward with the elbow pointed to the ground and the support hand is placed on the center of the forend. Proper technique and fit minimizes the effects of recoil and the shotgun can be accurately fired with an acceptable degree of comfort.

With too long a stock, our success equation comes unraveled as soon as the trigger is pressed. The buttstock is often positioned at the junction of the shoulder and arm, rather than the shoulder pocket. Cheek weld is too far to the rear, making it difficult to see the sights properly. The extended support arm barely reaches the forend, compromising recoil control. To accommodate that too-long stock, users often bend rearward from the waist, creating a less than optimum shooting platform. From this contorted stance, recoil control is non-existent, pellets go everywhere but the target, and felt recoil is absolutely brutal.

For small stature shooters, a dramatic improvement can be realized by either cutting back the factory stock or retrofitting an aftermarket stock. Shotguns in my agency were individually issued and several officers opted to have “youth stocks” fitted with a reduced length of pull. Another solution might be the M4 style adjustable stocks. Both Mesa Tactical and the BlackHawk Products Group market M4 style stocks with integral recoil reducers. No matter what sort of buttstock you utilize, a quality recoil pad should be part of the package.

For patrol operations, I’m not especially keen on pistol grip only stocks, extended pistol grip stocks, or folding stocks. Pistol grip shotguns are great for door breaching, but very difficult to manage in other roles. Folding stocks tend to be very uncomfortable when shooting and as a member of the 12 percent left-hand minority, it’s difficult to access the safety on shotguns with extended pistol grips. This is especially true with small stature shooters and smaller hands.

It has been my observation that shortening the buttstock goes a long way in enhancing the performance of small stature shooters. Fundamentals, which are the key to success with any weapon system, can now be easily executed. Performance and comfort are both improved. I’m also a proponent of keeping training round counts reasonable and using reduced recoil buckshot and slug loads. Shooters of every body type will also benefit by the use of steel targets in shotgun training as they tend to keep the mental focus downrange rather than on the negative aspects of recoil.

As indicated earlier, the patrol rifle is beginning to encroach into the niche formerly dominated by the shotgun. The hands-down favorite remains the popular AR-15 pattern carbine chambered for the light kicking 5.56 x 45mm cartridge. Unlike the shotgun, recoil will not be an issue for officers of my size.

Most AR pattern rifles in police service are equipped with an M4 style telescopic stock. With a little bit of experimentation, the end user can select the proper adjustment for optimum fit. Small stature users may find the A2 style stocks a bit too long; however, an M4 style stock or “entry” style fixed stock can be easily retrofitted. As with the shotgun, a buttstock of correct length can pay dividends with performance.

There is a trend of late to mount all sorts of accessories on both shotguns and rifles. Other than a sling and light, many are of questionable value for patrol. Many of these add-ons are a nice touch for military or special ops, but merely add superfluous weight to a patrol weapon. This may be even more of an issue for small stature officers.

As with handguns, there is no “one size fits all” shoulder weapon. Law enforcement officers come in all shapes and sizes and a reasonable accommodation must be made to provide them suitable equipment. The end result will be better performance, enhanced comfort, and a greater margin of safety for the officer and the public we are sworn to protect.

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