Why firearms standardization puts police officers at risk
Any agency that tries to adopt a one-size-fits-all firearms approach will soon discover they have a number of police officers for whom the gear just doesn't work
I recently spoke with a police officer from an agency transitioning from a liberal weapons policy that allowed a high degree of individual officer choice to a standard issue policy, in which all officers would be required to carry the same department-issued firearm on duty. This agency polices some particularly violent areas and has a higher than average number of officer-involved shootings each year. As a result, the officers in this agency share a greater interest in firearms and firearms training than what we may see elsewhere.
The officer in question is a dedicated "1911 man," and he's in good company. Many of the officers in this department carry 1911s as they feel the dimensions, ergonomics, power and "shootability" of the design are a good match for their needs. Few of them are excited about switching to the mandated polymer pistol, which is not only chambered for a smaller cartridge, but comes with an entirely different manual of arms and very different handling qualities.
Unfortunately this is a familiar battle in law enforcement. The paramilitary nature of the profession lends to an emphasis on standardization in equipment, uniforms and training. At times this creates significant problems for police officers, particularly in regard to firearms.
In the early days, some agencies required left-handed officers to carry their sidearms on their right side to ensure uniformity. In the not-too-distant past, agencies prohibited the carry of extra ammunition on the Sam Browne for the sake of appearance, including at least one state police agency in the era of semiauto pistols.
Even today, many agencies prohibit the carriage of more than two magazines on the Sam Browne in order to promote uniformity, leaving officers who want to carry more ammo stuck with less efficient workarounds.
Pros and cons of standardization
There are advantages to standardization. Uniformity of appearance is an essential part of maintaining an organization's professional image, and it aids in promoting discipline and esprit de corps. It helps the public identify the police and it makes sense from a logistical and training standpoint to issue the same gear to everybody.
However, there are downsides. The most significant is that standardized equipment choices prevent officers from selecting the gear that works best for them. The era of gender, height and weight standards that helped make a one-size-fits-all policy more viable is over, and there's a wide range of sizes, shapes and strength in uniform these days. Such diversity means that at least some of the population face difficulty making standard-issue gear work for them.
New wave and wondernines
This conflict was quite noticeable in the mid-to-late 1980s when two trends in law enforcement clashed with each other: the rapid increase in the number of female officers and the wholesale transition away from revolvers toward semiautomatic pistols.
The most popular of the auto-loading designs adopted by police in that era incorporated double column magazines that resulted in fat grips, and heavy double-action triggers with a long reach between the backstrap and the trigger face. This combination of characteristics made it difficult for officers with small hands, short fingers and more limited grip strength (including, but not limited to, many female officers) to fire the weapons accurately, or sometimes at all.
During the 1988 U.S. military XM10 pistol trials, the U.S. Army discovered that 7 of 12 female soldiers in a test group could not fire the candidate pistols in the double-action mode due to the combination of trigger reach and weight of pull.
In a 1992 study conducted by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, 50 percent of the female test subjects could not reach the trigger on 4 of the 17 test weapons, and the lower 25th percentile (in terms of hand dimensions and strength) of the test group couldn't reach the trigger on 9 of the 17 test weapons.
The data confirmed what law enforcement firearms trainers had already been witnessing firsthand – the new guns simply didn't fit many officers' hands.
While trigger reach and trigger pull weight could be an issue for some officers armed with revolvers, the fit could be more readily corrected with a variety of easily replaceable grip designs. Additionally, the art of smoothing the actions on these guns to obtain a better quality, and often lighter, trigger without sacrificing reliability had been perfected.
The new semiauto pistols of the era typically had heavier and less refined double-action triggers, and no capability to accept smaller grips to reduce the girth and trigger reach of the pistol. As such, any agency that mandated one of these pistols for duty was bound to have some officers who struggled with the equipment, and lower shooting scores often told the story.
Although semiauto pistol design has improved by leaps and bounds, and many now incorporate a limited degree of grip customization, the double column magazines favored by law enforcement can still make for a fat grip, and the trigger reach on many popular designs remains rather long.
Even if we set aside concerns about grip size and trigger reach, other equipment issues can create problems.
The location and size of controls (external safeties, magazine releases and slide locks) on the selected pistol may not work for some officers. A specific holster design may be awkward to use or painful to carry based on body shape or previous injuries. Recoil on a particular caliber may be too hard for an officer to control and make hits accurately and fast.
Any agency that tries to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach will soon discover they have a number of officers for whom the gear just doesn't work.
The need to adapt training
A similar issue exists with standardization in training. When the auto-pistol revolution hit in the 1980s, agencies scrambled to develop training standards to teach the new designs. Anyone who has conducted curriculum development understands the amount of work it takes to get a lesson plan designed, vetted and approved, and we all know our training sections are almost always short on time, money and personnel.
As such, there was a natural pull to find the "one true way" of shooting the new pistols and then force everybody to use it, rather than developing a system with flexible options to accommodate student needs.
The result was that some officers discovered they not only had to shoot a pistol that didn't fit their hand well, but they also had to do it using techniques that didn't work well for them. For example, the popular Weaver firing stance was introduced to many officers alongside the auto-pistol in the 1980s, and while it works well for many people, the isometric nature of the stance makes it highly susceptible to variations in upper body strength. Many smaller-statured officers found the stance broke down under recoil for them, and their ability to control the guns suffered in comparison to other techniques. Despite this, some agencies continued to insist on its use under the guise of standardization.
Trends like this continue in training today. At my own agency, for example, the curriculum calls for all shooters to be taught a thumbs-forward firing grip. Shooters who deviate from that script during training receive lots of "attention" from staff. The thumbs-forward grip has many advantages, but it causes a high number of premature slide locks and shooter-induced malfunctions for our officers, because the thumbs readily hit the oversized slide lock lever on the agency-mandated duty pistol during recoil.
I've been able to solve this persistent problem for many police officers by teaching them an alternative thumbs-down firing grip that keeps their digits away from the controls, and which also seems to increase the strength of the firing grip for many of our smaller-statured shooters. They sometimes catch a little flack from agency instructors who stubbornly cling to the approved script, but they're shooting better and their guns are now running reliably. In police work, that's called a "clue."
Why choice matters
There's a historical and understandable pressure on police agencies to simplify things like logistics and training, but the bane of standardization is that we're all different, and to obtain the best results, we often need to use different tools and techniques.
In regard to firearms, having a liberal policy that gives officers latitude to select a firearm that meets their needs – perhaps from an approved list of varied options – is the best way to strike a balance between agency and individual concerns. It places a greater burden on training assets to do this, but the result is a higher level of individual officer comfort and proficiency with their lifesaving equipment.
The additional monetary costs of a policy like this are easily dwarfed by improvements in officer and public safety, but there could be less obvious financial benefits as well. Consider the case where an officer whose lack of comfort or proficiency with the mandatory gun results in a negligent discharge or an intentional, but errant, shot that hits an innocent bystander. The resulting settlement could be so costly that the city or agency would have been able to outfit every officer with a gold-plated, diamond-encrusted firearm for the same amount.
A carefully crafted but liberal firearms policy is a good thing for the officer, the agency and the public. More agencies would be wise to consider it.