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6 considerations for selecting a new duty weapon

It’s critical to have a thorough process in place for evaluating and selecting a new duty firearm

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The CHP created a two-day transition training program to highlight the differences between the old and new guns.

Photo/Mike Wood

There are few police acquisitions that receive as much scrutiny as the purchase of new duty firearms. Even though other equipment can have a powerful influence on officer and public safety – such as patrol vehicles, protective gear and communications equipment – it seems that the selection and purchase of new firearms always lead to heightened interest from officers, agency heads and civic leaders. As such, it’s critical to ensure agencies have a good process for evaluating and selecting a new duty firearm.

When the California Highway Patrol (CHP) selected a new duty firearm, I was afforded an opportunity to learn about the CHP’s testing and evaluation process, as well as observe a class of officers go through the department’s transition training program.

The CHP’s experience in bringing the new firearm onboard highlights some important lessons for agencies preparing to evaluate, purchase and issue new duty weapons.

1. Evaluate the current equipment.

The CHP requires all officers to carry a department-issued firearm on duty. Before they replaced thousands of handguns, they took a hard look at the currently issued handgun to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

The CHP team evaluated shooting and other incident reports, and collected feedback from officers in the field, regional trainers, academy instructors and department gunsmiths. This review enabled the team to create a list of the things they liked and didn’t like about the current weapon, which allowed them to do a better job of drafting the specifications for the new firearm.

For example, the CHP liked the equipment rail and .40 S&W chambering of the current pistol but did not like the weight of the all-steel gun. Some negative experiences with the existing magazine disconnect safety encouraged them to abandon the feature on the next gun, but a desire for improved low light capability encouraged them to add a requirement for night sights.

When all the pros, cons, needs and wants were tallied, the CHP had the information necessary to write a detailed specification for a polymer-framed, .40 caliber duty pistol. Doing the homework up front gave them a better result in the end when the contract was awarded.

2. Insist on an established track record.

It was important to the CHP to ensure that candidate pistols had a suitable track record in police service. They had seen other agencies become unofficial “beta testers” after adopting new and unproven designs, and didn’t want to repeat the mistake, so they established a requirement that any candidate pistol must meet the following criteria:

  • The firearm must have been in commercial production for more than one year;
  • The firearm must currently be in use by an agency with 500 or more sworn officers.

These criteria helped the CHP ensure the design was already “debugged” and the manufacturer had demonstrated the ability to meet the production, delivery and support requirements of a large agency contract.

3. Write a good contract, conduct a transparent evaluation.

The CHP worked closely with contracting professionals in the state’s Department of General Services (DGS) to ensure a quality solicitation was drafted for the new pistol. The solicitation clearly established the specifications for the new pistol, described the test protocol it would have to pass, and detailed how the selection process and bid award would be conducted.

The DGS used the pistol specifications and test protocol established by the CHP Academy Weapons Training Unit to draft the contract and solicit bids from industry. When the bids were received, they were ranked according to price, and the manufacturer with the lowest bid was asked to submit six commercial samples of the pistol for testing.

The CHP Academy Weapons Training Unit knew it was important to give these samples a thorough review, to ensure they would meet the specifications they’d established. The unit assembled a team of experienced shooters to evaluate the firearms, in accordance with the strict testing regimen outlined in the bid specs.

The pistols were first fired to measure accuracy with the issued duty ammunition (currently, Federal 180 grain HST). Then they were subjected to a carefully scripted, 6,000-round pass-fail reliability test. DGS representatives were present to monitor the testing. If a pistol design failed the objective measures of the test, DGS would disqualify it from consideration, and would ask the next lowest bidder to submit six samples of their pistol for a new round of testing.

By working closely with DGS contracting professionals, the CHP was able to conduct a transparent evaluation of the candidate pistol that eliminated any possible concerns about favoritism. The pistol that was awarded the contract met the CHP’s needs, and there were no protests from industry to delay the acquisition of the new equipment.

[RELATED: Why the LAPD chose the FN 509 MRD-LE as its new duty weapon]

4. Insist on reliability.

Since a duty pistol is used in life-threatening emergencies, it’s important to choose a design that offers a high level of reliability. To that end, the CHP constructed a reliability test protocol that a candidate pistol was required to pass to be awarded the contract.

In the CHP test, two samples of a given firearm (one with a weapon-mounted light, and one without) would each be required to shoot 6,000 rounds of ammunition – 2,000 rounds of duty ammunition, followed by 2,000 rounds of frangible training ammunition, followed by 2,000 rounds of duty ammunition. The 6,000-round benchmark represented the minimum service life expectation for a duty pistol. The test protocol specified lubrication, maintenance and inspection intervals, and the results were carefully tracked and recorded

If a given pistol experienced a stoppage or a breakage, the test was halted, and the sample was evaluated to determine if the interruption was attributable to the gun. If the stoppage was of a certain type, it would be noted, and the pistol would be allowed to continue the test. However, if the stoppage met the criteria outlined in the bid specs for a “catastrophic failure,” the sample was withdrawn from testing. A second sample would replace the first and go through the 6,000-round test protocol from the start. If that sample experienced a catastrophic failure, then the manufacturer was given one more chance to complete the protocol with a third sample. If the third sample failed, the design would be disqualified by DGS and ineligible to win the award.

The design that was finally awarded the contract did an excellent job in testing. It completed the reliability test with only three stoppages in 12,000 rounds, and none of them were attributable to the gun (one stoppage was shooter-induced, and two stoppages were caused by faulty ammunition). It was unnecessary to put the second or third samples into the rotation. This kind of demonstrated performance encouraged confidence among the officers who were issued the new pistol.

5. Don’t forget the extras.

It’s natural to focus on the firearm itself, but it’s important to remember that it’s part of a system, and there are other pieces of the puzzle that merit attention. For example, the CHP has its own gunsmith operation to maintain the fleet of issued pistols, but it was important to include a manufacturer-support package as part of the contract, to ensure a ready supply of spare parts, technical information and warranty service.

The CHP contract specified that each pistol would be delivered with five duty magazines, to ensure that each officer would have the required duty load (one in the gun, two in a pouch) and an extra pair of magazines. Since magazines wear out with normal use and exposure to the abuses of the patrol environment, it was an excellent idea for the CHP to build some ready spares into the contract. Incidentally, the CHP encourages its officers to carry the extra magazines on their belt or in a “go bag” at the officer’s discretion, which is a great idea – particularly for officers who may be working remote areas without backup nearby.

Speaking of magazines, the contract also required the manufacturer to supply a large quantity of training magazines, to save wear and tear on the duty magazines issued to each officer. The training magazines are specially marked to separate them from duty magazines and include some variants with modified followers to allow officers to practice emergency and tactical reloads with an unloaded magazine, for safety.

The CHP was also wise to consider holsters and magazine pouches as part of its evaluation. There are several new pistol designs that are worthy considerations for police service, but the industry has not committed to supporting them yet with suitable duty holsters and pouches. Early on, the CHP made sure to include industry support as an evaluation item for each candidate firearm.

6. Build a good training plan.

The old CHP pistol was a traditional double-action with a slide-mounted decocker and a magazine safety. In contrast, the design that won the award is a striker-fired gun with no manual safety lever or magazine disconnect. The two guns have very different handling characteristics and manuals of arms, so it was important to the CHP to ensure that officers were properly trained on the new gun.

The CHP knew that other large agencies had experienced significant increases in negligent discharges after abbreviated transition training programs and was determined to avoid the same mistake. As such, they created a two-day transition training program to highlight the differences between the old and new guns and provide ample opportunity for the students to get hands-on training with the new equipment.

In the transition training, CHP officers receive two hours of classroom instruction on the following:

  • Firearms safety;
  • Overview of the test and evaluation process;
  • Pistol nomenclature and features;
  • Basic operation of the pistol – loading, unloading, firing;
  • Trigger manipulation techniques;
  • Disassembly, maintenance and assembly;
  • Emergency and tactical reload techniques;
  • Malfunction clearing techniques;
  • Department policies pertinent to the new firearm and support equipment.

Once the classroom portion is complete, the officers spend six hours on the range on day one, followed by another eight hours on the range on day two, where they can learn the new pistol under the supervision of a cadre of watchful instructors. The instructors ensure each officer builds safe, efficient and tactically sound habits with the new gun and issued holster, starting them with normal, two-handed operations, and eventually getting them to the point where they are performing one-handed draws, firing, reloads and malfunction clearances with both primary and support-side hands. Officers are challenged with a variety of drills and are required to pass the department’s qualification test with the new pistol before they are authorized to carry the weapon on duty.

In the training I observed, the students looked like they had established a solid foundation with the new pistol. They will certainly build increased skill and confidence with the pistol in future training, but the concentrated transition training gave them a good start and helped to overwrite old habits with new ones that will set them up for success with the new pistol.

Hard work pays off

A lot of effort was involved in this test and evaluation process, and even more in developing a sound training plan for the officers who received the new equipment. The hard work paid off for the CHP however, and they now have a pistol that will do a better job of meeting their needs. The officers are enthusiastic about the new firearm and are performing well with it in training.

Agencies who are considering a replacement for their duty firearms can learn a lot from the CHP experience. It takes a lot of work to do things right, but the result will be worth the effort.

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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.