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OVer time, handguns have become smaller, stronger, more accurate, and hence more deadly. Handgun manufacturers have made drastic improvements over the past decades in the name of police and personal protection. Handgun cartridges have become larger in caliber and more powerful, adding to the already substantial killing power of modern handguns. However, the same handguns that police and responsible citizens are utilizing all over the world are also becoming the weapons of choice for criminals.

Handguns represent one of three categories - single action, double action, or double action only. Single-action firearms feature a hammer that requires manual cocking for the initial firing and a trigger press that demands only a few pounds of pressure. After the first shot, the unassisted cycling of the slide, through recoil, automatically recocks the weapon.

Because the shooter only fires with the hammer cocked, the gun always functions in single-action mode. The light trigger press may contribute to an unintentional discharge, requiring the user to operate a manual safety when carrying the weapon with the hammer cocked. For this reason, agencies generally issue these firearms to specially trained officers, such as emergency response, special weapons and tactics (SWAT), or hostage rescue team members.

With double-action handguns, pressing the trigger during the initial shot both cocks and fires the weapon in one motion. Because the gun automatically recocks the hammer before each subsequent trigger press, shots fired thereafter are single action. Handguns that fire in double-action mode have remained popular with law enforcement agencies for many years because officers can transport them with the hammer down, yet ready for action. Many departments consider the often heavy and long trigger press safe for carry due to the added effort needed to fire the first shot.

Double-action-only handguns function in double-action mode for every shot, rather than just the initial one. As a result, the trigger press always remains the same. These firearms increasingly have become popular with law enforcement agencies. As departments switched from revolvers over the years, double-action-only handguns allowed for a largely seamless transition to semiautomatics because the double-action-only trigger system functions much like a traditional double-action revolver. As these weapons only require mastery of one trigger press, rather than two, officers can learn to use them more easily than other types. Additionally, the fact that few, if any, external safety or decocking levers exist makes them even easier to master.

The weight of the trigger press on double-action-only handguns varies by model. Some manufacturers offer different trigger options, allowing for either a heavier or lighter press to suit the requirements of a particular agency. Although some departments may favor a heavier trigger press for liability reasons, this may increase the time it takes for a shooter to fire the weapon, leading to decreased accuracy if the officer rushes the shot under stress.

Regardless of the trigger system selected, departments must ensure that officers receive training to keep their fingers off of the trigger until ready to fire the weapon. Appropriate, frequent, and documented instruction minimizes the risk of and associated liability from unintentional discharges.


The four main handgun calibers used by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies today include 9 millimeter2 and .40, .357, and .45 automatic. Although each differs in terms of cartridge size and ballistic capability, all can meet the needs of depart-ments-if firearms training emphasizes shot placement rather than the size or power level of one caliber versus another. Handguns in 9 millimeter initially became popular with departments because of the high magazine capacities that many of the weapons offer- generally anywhere from 12 to 17 rounds-which allow officers to carry more ammunition than they could while using 6shot revolvers. Also, of all the aforementioned calibers, the 9-millimeter cartridge generally has the mildest perceived recoil.

For many years, American shooters have admired the .45 automatic as a powerful cartridge with applications in military service, law enforcement, self-defense, and competition. A major debate exists among officers, and the shooting community in general, about which cartridge holds superiority-the 9 millimeter, due to less perceived recoil and higher-capacity firearms chambered for the round, or the .45 automatic, with a larger, more powerful round but with heavier recoil. In the past, the .45 automatic generally was chambered in larger-frame handguns with lower cartridge capacities, though some models now offer a smaller-size frame or use a relatively high-capacity magazine.

The .40-automatic cartridge provides ballistic performance closer to the .45 automatic, while being chambered in handguns with 9-millimeter-size frames and offering magazine capacities higher than many .45-automatic handguns. This cartridge also has greater perceived recoil than the 9 millimeter but still remains manageable for many shooters. The .40 automatic has become a popular cartridge for law enforcement by offering some of the benefits of both the 9 millimeter and the .45 automatic.

Finally, the .357 automatic offers a cartridge with ballistic performance close to the .357 magnum for use in handguns with a larger magazine capacity. Basically, the .357 automatic represents a .40-automatic case redesigned in a bottleneck shape for fitting with a bullet similar in diameter to a 9 millimeter. Because this cartridge features a rim with the same diameter as that of the .40 automatic, users can chamber it in many .40 automatic handguns by simply changing the barrel.

Materials and Finish

A variety of materials comprise today's handguns. Some models feature a form of steel-either carbon or stainless-for both the frame and slide, while others have steel for the slide and either aluminum or polymer for the frame. Depending on the environment and carry method, duty firearms often become exposed to harsh conditions, such as water from rain, snow, perspiration, and other sources; dirt and sand; or numerous other hazards that can deteriorate handguns and affect proper function. For daily carry by either uniformed or plain-clothed officers, the materials and finish for weapons should be durable and easy to clean.

Stainless steel can offer more rust resistance than carbon steel (depending on the finish applied). Although stainless steel handguns often have a brighter, more reflective appearance than those with dark finishes, some models have a matte finish to reduce glare. Others even have a blackened stainless finish, offering the rust-resistant properties of stainless steel with the tactical superiority of a black, nonreflective finish. Generally, users find stainless steel handguns simpler to clean and maintain.

Blue finishes generally prove the least durable and rust resistant, although the dark color offers tactical advantages for law enforcement use. Proprietary durable black finishes form a protective coat over the metal, including hard and rust-resistant varieties, while also remaining nonreflective and relatively simple to maintain.

Handguns framed in steel tend to weigh more, which can impact ease of carry on a daily basis. Aluminum frames offer one solution. As another popular remedy, manufacturers offer handguns with frames made from polymer with imbedded parts, such as slide rails or other frame components, made out of metal. Handguns with polymer frames offer durability and ease of maintenance and often absorb some recoil from firing.

Size and Magazine Capacity

Users can choose between full-size, compact, and subcompact handguns. Each has its own uses. The largeness of the weapon correlates with the magazine capacity. Some models feature single-stack magazines, which generally allow for a slimmer grip. Others have double-stack magazines that have a higher cartridge capacity but generally feature a thicker grip width as a result. Full-size handguns, in either high- or standard-capacity models, can be useful for carry by personnel with medium to large body sizes. Compact models tend to make better concealed-carry weapons because of their generally smaller size and light weight. Further, they may prove appropriate for general issue if a police department desires only one firearm because officers more readily can carry compact weapons for off- and on-duty use.

While normally not the best choice for general issue, subcompact handguns serve well for special applications (e.g., use by undercover officers) or as backup and off-duty weapons. Many of these models are the easiest to conceal in a variety of deep-cover holsters (e.g., ankle and ballistic vest). Often, quality compact and subcompact handguns on the market come with either single-or higher-capacity double-stack magazines, which give departments more latitude if they find grip width, as well as overall weapon size, an issue.

Safety Options

As much as possible, users seek to minimize unintentional discharges. Coupled with effective and repeated preventative training, handgun safety devices effectively help accomplish this goal. Manual hammer block, trigger safety, and de-cocking levers; internal firing pin, drop, and magazine disconnect safeties; and integral locking devices represent available options.

Manual safety devices, operated by the shooter, generally block the hammer from contacting the firing pin, disable the trigger mechanism, or perform both of these duties. Generally, single-action handguns come with manual devices that disable the trigger mechanism so that users can carry the weapon with the hammer cocked and ready to fire but locked so that it cannot be activated until the release of the safety-also known as "cocked and locked."

Model 1911 .45-automatic handgun variations also have a grip safety that makes the weapon inoperable until the officer holds and manually presses the lever. Double-action handguns tend to have either manual safety levers; decocking levers, which, when activated, safely lower the hammer of a cocked handgun, eliminating the potentially dangerous practice of manually lowering it by pressing the trigger; or a lever that combines both functions.

Double-action-only handguns often have few, if any, manual safety devices because they only are cocked during firing. This benefit may appeal to some police departments because no external levers exist that can snag on the clothing of officers who carry the handgun concealed.

Internal devices, such as firing pin and drop safeties, also represent useful features to look for in duty firearms; many handguns have them, regardless of the action type. Firing pin and drop safeties do not allow the firing pin to move forward until the user deliberately presses the trigger, thus preventing an unintentional discharge if the carrier drops the weapon. Some handguns feature magazine disconnect safeties, which disable the action of the weapon with the magazine removed; opposing beliefs exist as to their usefulness in law enforcement.

Many people consider it best to have the ability to fire the weapon with the magazine removed and a round in the chamber, particularly if an officer must exchange a partially loaded magazine for a fully loaded one during a lull in a gunfight, while still maintaining an operational firearm. Others support their belief in the use of magazine safeties with incidents where deactivating a handgun by dropping the magazine during a struggle for the weapon with a suspect may have saved the officer's life.

A recent development with some handgun models is the addition of an integral locking device, which uses a type of key to actively lock the action of the handgun and render it inoperable. This proves especially useful if unauthorized users, such as young children, gain access to the weapon. This option is an alternative to aftermarket trigger or cable locks, also designed to lock a weapon's action to prevent unauthorized use. Departments should consider selecting some type of locking mechanism- an integral part of the weapon or an external device-for issue to their personnel to help officers maintain control over their handgun at all times.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:43:29 ZULU