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Issue handguns: One size doesn’t fit all

There is no reason that officers with shorter arms or smaller hands cannot perform to high levels

In the not so distant past, selecting a duty weapon which was suitable for the entire department was an easy task. Auto loading pistols had yet to make a splash and two manufacturers of revolvers dominated the market. Within those lines, choices were far more limited than today and most officers were well served with a medium size frame revolver. Police officers tended to be fair size individuals as height and weight requirements pretty much disqualified small stature males and almost all females from a law enforcement career.

By the 1970s, that all began to change and today’s law enforcement professionals come in all shapes and sizes, both male and female. Needless to say, the logistics of equipping the troops with the proper equipment has grown far more challenging. In addition to the obvious, such as uniforms, other vital equipment such as body armor, holsters, and the selection of firearms also needs to be re-evaluated.

While most of us would agree that the shift by law enforcement from the traditional revolver to auto pistol was a good thing, this too, has complicated the picture. By and large, the most popular auto pistols are the high capacity models with wide grip frames. The 9mm cartridge has now been eclipsed in popularity by the upstart .40 caliber, which generates slightly more recoil and muzzle flip. Unlike the revolvers of old, retrofitting a set of aftermarket grips will not address user concerns relative to fit or comfort.

Many departments subscribe to a “one gun concept” — all patrol personnel are issued the same pistol. Plainclothes officers might be issued either a compact or subcompact version of the pistol selected for patrol. For users with a less than medium size hand, this is not an optimum choice and in fact, may be a dangerous practice.

I was involved in recruit-level firearms training for the better part of my career and continue to serve as a police academy instructor. It is hardly a profound observation on my part, but the recruits that seem to have the most difficulty with their basic firearms training are those with equipment that is ill-suited to their hand size or body type. Quite simply, it is difficult — if not impossible — to be at your best if your firearm doesn’t fit properly.

A few months back, I participated in the firearms training of a recruit class comprised of about 25 students. As is often the case, several of the recruits required remedial training in order to meet the minimum standard. In just about every instance, their less than stellar performance could be attributed to improper handgun fit. In the end, they were all able to “qualify.” I’m convinced, however, that as long as they are saddled with an improperly fit handgun, they will never be able to perform to their full potential.

If the Shoe Fits
Proper placement of the dominant hand on the pistol requires the shooter to place the thumb crotch (the web between the thumb and the index finger) on the center of the backstrap and the distal pad of the index finger on the center of the trigger. This allows the shooter to depress the trigger straight to the rear while channeling recoil to the soft tissue of the thumb crotch. Male users with medium to large size hands can easily achieve an optimum grip with most popular service pistols.

Users with smaller hands will find it difficult to obtain a proper grip. This is especially true of high capacity pistols with double stack magazines and wide grip frames. This situation is further compounded by adding a double action trigger with a long, heavy stroke to the mix.

In attempting to adapt to an oversize grip, users with smaller hands are left with two choices, neither of which solve the problem. To achieve proper finger placement on the trigger, small hand users will often shift their grip, placing the base of the thumb, rather than the thumb crotch, on the center of the backstrap. In very short order, this becomes very uncomfortable and is hardly conducive to accuracy.

More often than not, users with small hands will properly line up the thumb crotch with the backstrap, but now don’t have enough reach for optimum placement of the finger on the trigger. Instead of the distal pad, the shooter now brings the trigger to the rear with the tip of the finger. This less than optimum finger placement causes a lateral dispersion of shots and total misses once range extends beyond room distance.

While this difficulty is most often noted in female shooters, I have noted it in males as well. In my last class, a male recruit was issued a high capacity .45 caliber pistol which proved too large for his hand. In my estimation, he would be far better served with the same manufacturer’s 9mm or .40 S&W pistol with a smaller grip frame.

The Fix
The size of a particular shooter’s hand is a constant in our equation for success. We might be able to increase hand strength, but there is not a lot we can do with palm size or finger length. We can, however, change the grip frame size, trigger reach, caliber, and relationship between the shooting hand and the axis of the bore. In some instances, satisfactory results can be realized by merely modifying the standard issue gun. Other cases may require an alternate firearm in order to have success.

Law enforcement is now dominated by high capacity pistols with wide-grip frames. Until recently, many of the major manufacturers were offering pistols with single column magazines and trimmer grips. With rare exception, they have just about vanished from the scene. The good news is that many of the contemporary polymer frame pistols are now being manufactured with interchangeable backstraps. By swapping off the larger backstrap for one with a flatter profile, these pistols can be optimized for shooters with smaller hands.

Pistols with interchangeable backstraps are available from Beretta, FNH-USA, Heckler & Koch, Ruger, and Smith & Wesson. This year, industry leader Glock introduced their Gen 4 pistols sporting a slightly reduced grip frame with interchangeable inserts. SIG-Sauer has taken this concept one step further with their totally modular P250 family which offers a complete grip frame option for shooters with smaller hands.

A slightly more radical approach for polymer frame pistols is a permanent grip reduction. I’ve had very good luck with modified pistols from Robar and Bowie Tactical and their work comes highly recommended. Dimensions are greatly reduced and the actual gripping surface is much improved.

Agencies that use SIG-Sauer’s excellent line of classic DA pistols may want to consider that firm’s short trigger option. SIG’s short trigger option allows one to get optimum placement on both the trigger and backstrap. In addition to their lines of high capacity pistols, SIG-Sauer also turns out the P220 in .45 ACP, the last of a vanishing breed of single stack DA pistols.

One overlooked option for users with small hands is the timeless 1911 pistol. I recognize that many agencies will never warm up to the idea of a single action pistol for duty use, but it is in fact, a solution for shooters with small hands. On more than one occasion, I had a female shooter having a difficult time with her “wide body” service pistol, try a 1911 in 9mm. Each time, the improvement was dramatic.

Bigger Isn’t Always Better
Compared to the magnum revolvers of old, the popular cartridges used by law enforcement officers are very well mannered. Over the last 20 years, the .40 S&W has quickly become the law enforcement cartridge of choice. The classic .45 ACP has made a strong comeback and the 9mm Parabellum also enjoys a strong following. I wouldn’t categorize either the .40 S&W or .45 ACP as punishing, but I’m a pretty fair size guy who enjoys shooting a pistol. A small stature, non-enthusiast is likely to have a very different perspective.

Some smaller frame shooters may be better off with a pistol chambered for the 9mm Parabellum than a .40 S&W or .45 ACP. That slight increase in bump when shooting the big bores may be imperceptible to larger individuals or shooting enthusiasts, but an accuracy deterrent to smaller officers. I would agree that bigger or faster probably has greater stopping potential, but all that is lost if the shooter cannot put hits on the threat.

Other than some minor logistic hurdles, I really don’t see an issue authorizing different cartridges for the service weapon. The Louisiana State Police give their troopers the option of either a 9mm or .40 S&W Glock pistol and this arrangement has worked very well for them. Today’s better 9mm loads are far superior to those of a generation ago. If going to the mild-mannered 9mm helps an officer shoot to a higher standard, I’m all for it.

The Right Stuff
With the right equipment, there is no reason that officers with shorter arms or smaller hands cannot perform to high levels. With many smaller stature officers, upper body and grip strength may be an issue. Improvement in these areas can be realized in fairly short time with a bit of work and commitment.

Optimum fit is far more important than caliber or capacity. Handicapping individuals with firearms that are too large for efficient operation presents any number of liabilities, including diminished performance capabilities and safety concerns.

In the grand scheme of things, equipment remains a vital priority in our formula for success, but equipment alone will not do the trick. Officers — regardless of size or gender — still have to work hard to become truly proficient. In combination with a proper mindset, sound tactics, and skill, gear that fits ensures we can be at the top of our game.

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