No Simple Matter: How Police Choose Pistols



Law enforcement agencies make few decisions that impact the safety of their officers and the public more than the choice of duty firearms. But how are those decision made? At a small police department, the chief or the range officer may try out several handguns over a weekend and decide on one. Other departments allow their officers to choose, usually from a list of approved sidearms.

You can read how the Stafford County sherriff's office in Virgina choose Combat Armory as their supplier for a firearm accessory here.

The larger the police department, says Ian O’Donnell, sales manager for Smith & Wesson’s Law Enforcement and Defense Group, the better the odds the handgun selection process will be more structured.

For example, many of the big departments he’s worked with have a 10-criterion evaluation scale: ergonomics; access to controls (slide lock lever, etc.); user friendliness; trigger reach; trigger pull; recoil controllability; function/performance; accuracy; versatility (grip, ambidextrous capability, etc.); and ease of disassembly/assembly.

“They try to get a large diverse array of people from around the department of various physical statures, ranks and years of experience to do the actual evaluations,” O’Donnell explains. “Then they take the top two or three pistols and put lots and lots of rounds through the guns. Then they’ll beat the pistol up, throw it on the ground, dunk it in water, do no cleaning, things like that, to try to simulate real-world situations, while also seeing what the pistol can do.”

Several years ago, for example, the law enforcement section of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division decided to replace its wardens’ handguns. There were no real problems with its Beretta 96Gs, but many were more than 10 years old.

“We started asking everyone what they wanted in a new pistol and asked other state law enforcement agencies what they were carrying,” said Sgt. Matt Weathers, a 15-year game warden and one of the agency’s firearms trainers.

Weathers’ coworkers were fine with the .40 S&W chambering of the Beretta, but they wanted a lighter handgun and one that didn’t turn into an ice cube in cold weather and freeze their hips since they often worked outdoors in cold weather. That led to a focus on .40-caliber semi-automatics with polymer frames, which in addition to being lighter don’t transfer cold as efficiently as metal.

They selected five models and took them to the range for bench and offhand accuracy testing, which in the end wasn’t much help because they couldn’t find any real differences in the guns.

The next most important criterion was the ability of a handgun to function in the field, in all sorts of weather. A warden’s handgun can get wet and very dirty. Guns can get accidentally dropped—into the bottom of boats, in the woods, in a swamp, wherever a warden might have to respond to a call.

“It’s common to have three or four of our wardens riding ATVs in a line over dusty trails, all day long,” Weathers adds. “By the time they get done, their pistols are just orange from the dust we have here. It gets into everything.”

Once they’d broken in the handguns, firing at least 500 rounds through them, Weathers and his fellow firearms trainers subjected the handguns to the “dirt test.”

“With the slide closed and loaded, we dropped it on the ground, covered it up with dirt, packed it down, then pulled it out of the dirt, shook it off and used it. Did it work?”

For a number of the finalist handguns, the answer was no. They were fine when clean but couldn’t function following the dirt test. The exception was the Glock 35. No matter how much dirt, mud, water, and grime they subjected the pistol to, Weathers says the Glock 35 worked like a charm, and that’s why, today, the 200 officers all carry Glock 35s.

Costs and budgets can be a big factor in deciding on new firearms, too. A few years back, the Vermont State Police determined it was either going to have to perform some pretty costly maintenance on its handguns or buy new ones. When officials made it known they were looking, Smith & Wesson made them an offer: a one-for-one trade of their handguns for new M&P 40s. S&W also threw in new holsters, laser engraving the agency’s badge logo on the slide and training all the agency’s firearms instructors as armorers.

“That was all huge for us,” says Sgt. John Young, firearms tactics and training coordinator for the Vermont State Police. “No one else would even come close to that deal—and we asked around—so we took a very hard look at the M&Ps right off the bat.”

The M&Ps passed accuracy and torture tests with flying colors, including the “snow test,” important in wintry Vermont: firing an M&P until it was very hot, then dropping it onto the ground and covering it with a thick layer of snow, packing it down, and then digging out the pistol, racking back the slide and seeing if it would operate normally.

“We tried to get them to malfunction, and we could not get them to do it,” says Young.

The M&Ps also came with replaceable palm swells to fit a wide variety of hand sizes—an important consideration in an outfit with nearly 400 officers ranging in size from petite women to pro football-size guys.

Costs asserted themselves in another way, too. The state police’s previous handguns were chambered in .40 S&W. Early in the selection process, consideration was given to switching to a .45 ACP handgun.

“To me, the .45 actually shoots a little better, not so much of a snappy recoil as the .40,” Young says. “But then you get into the costs and logistics switching to a new round.”

Young’s agency already had more than 80,000 rounds of .40 caliber handgun on hand. Plus, .45 ACP costs about 20 percent more than .40 S&W.

Given the dollars saved, and the performance of the M&Ps, adopting the S&Ws made the most sense for the state police.

“Our qualifications scores are up with the M&Ps, we gained nine additional carry rounds, and a year into it and we’ve had no maintenance issues,” says Young. “We saved taxpayers a ton of money, too.”