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March 14, 2008
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Richard Fairburn Law Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

Examining the value of departmental weapons testing and evaluation

It surprises me to find that some agencies are still conducting large-scale test and evaluation programs to select new firearms. Having been involved in this process for one major department and critically reviewing the results of several others, I feel there is little benefit to the process. For one thing, most large-scale test programs are rather transparent as to the program managers’ effort to make sure their personal favorites will win.

Perhaps the most important reason for not testing is the fact that among the major brands, there simply are no bad duty pistols on the market. Each brand and model has its own features that will appeal more to one officer than another. At the severe risk of leaving out a favorite of some easily offended gun guru, if you choose a Beretta, Colt, Glock, Heckler & Koch, Kimber, Sig-Sauer, Smith & Wesson or Springfield Armory model, you will have a pistol that has been fully tested by someone and found to be suitable for police use. Notable brands I left out include Ruger, Taurus and Walther, not because they are bad pistols, but because they have never captured any significant segment of the U.S. police duty-pistol market. Let’s face it, NONE of these pistols is perfect. Brand X suffered some high-profile malfunctions during gunfights (most likely a negative interaction between the agency’s training style and the pistol’s controls), Brand Y had a problem with frames cracking several years ago (not seen now for several years), and Brand Z has suffered rare, but documented, catastrophic barrel failures in the chamber area (again, not seen now for several years). No mechanical device can ever be made perfect. And we can never rule out the “fool” factor - nothing can be made foolproof so long as some people keep breeding better fools. Whether it is pistols, rifles or shotguns, simplify your life. Pick a known, proven brand that meets your realistic needs, and bid those specifications to get the best possible price.

The key phrase in the last sentence above is “realistic needs.” Determining your needs is where your efforts should be focused. An example: A large state patrol organization wants new pistols. Its current ones are worn out (including dead night sights) and it wants something that requires less maintenance. First, the agency needs to determine its needs by an accurate and impartial assessment of officer-involved shootings for a period of time (say, 10 years if that covers several shootings, more if the number of incidents is low).

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I read one such assessment that reported an astronomically high hit rate for the agency’s incidents, but on further analysis, the numbers included the shooting of tires, dogs and so on. Limit the analysis to the sidearm’s intended use — shooting at persons who pose a deadly threat. When I did that, the agency’s hit rate fell to the lowest I have ever encountered (which ultimately was found to be a function of training rather than the sidearm chosen — a software problem, as it were, rather than a hardware problem).

Back to our mythical state patrol agency. Let’s say its officers currently carry 9mm sidearms and their street shootings show that a significant percentage involve suspects who have (or could have) used their vehicles as cover. That’s an important finding. If you love your 9mm, so be it, but larger-caliber bullets do a much better job of penetrating auto glass and sheet metal while retaining the ability to create a serious wound on the other side. A very convincing argument can be made for changing to a .40 or .45-caliber auto pistol. We’ll take this one a bit further: Until the last couple of years, .45-caliber semi-auto pistols either had large grip frames or were of the single-action (a la Model 1911) designs. Because some folks still get the nervous shakes upon seeing a cocked-and-locked 1911, and because the agency’s smaller officers had trouble gripping the high-capacity .45s, they settled on a .40-caliber pistol. The choice was a logical compromise that provided a better weapon for dealing with the situations they could sensibly face, while keeping the pistol small enough for everyone to handle effectively. With smaller grip frames now being offered on double- or safe-action .45-caliber pistols, the logic might change.

There are only two major brands of pump shotguns still readily available and two, or perhaps three, viable police semi-auto shotguns. The pump question is simple, M or R. Since your agency probably already has shotguns on hand, buy more of what you already have (unless it is the Ithaca, as it is essentially “out of print”). Few agencies have adopted semi-auto shotguns on a widespread basis, so choose one that has a good reputation with agencies you trust.

Ahh, rifles. I’ve been dealing with the police-rifle issue longer than all but a couple other old fogeys. The AR15 design has taken the market, hands down. But, unless you’ve been living in a cave, you realize that EVERYBODY is now making an AR15 clone. Freddie the Gun Guy down the street can buy some basic armorer’s tools and generic parts and be in the AR15 business. Some of the smaller builders’ products are fantastically well made, but make sure they build a battle-worthy rifle. The AR design has now been morphed into hyper-accurate versions for snipers, varmint hunters and wannabes. These rifles may contain parts (or assembly techniques) that can hamper reliability. We don’t need a tack-driving 1/4 Minute-of-Angle AR15, we need a super-reliable 3 MOA rifle. More accuracy is always desirable - but not at the cost of reliability. Since many minor chamber variations now exist for these weapons, specify that the chamber accepts .223 or 5.56mm ammunition interchangeably. Stick with brands in widespread use with other agencies or the military and let the low-bid chips fall where they may. Like with pistols, none of the ARs are perfect, and a bad one can slip through now and then, but all the major makers turn out a good product and most are very good at rectifying problems.

A couple of agencies have been lobbied to choose a pump-action rifle, usually in the same .223-caliber/5.56mm, to maintain training similarity with their shotguns (always the Remington pump rifle, to my knowledge). OK, if that’s an important consideration to your agency (probably a political consideration) go for it. We will rarely need the slightly faster handling characteristics of a semi-auto in a police encounter. Better to have a pump .223 than no rifle at all.

Some agencies have opted for pistol caliber carbines, having some sort of heartburn with the .223/5.56 round. If you’ve bought the bunk that a .223/5.56 round will overpenetrate in an urban environment, it won’t. The AR15's round generally suffers from too little penetration rather than too much. When this issue cropped up in the final stages of approval for rifles in one agency, I staged a simple demonstration for the “brass,” where they saw with their own eyes that a .40-caliber hollow point will out penetrate a .223 soft or hollow point EVERY TIME. Truth be known, some of the agencies that picked a pistol caliber carbine just gave in to pressure from uneducated politicians. Nobody likes to argue with politicians more than me, but some people prefer to get pay raises and good assignments occasionally. OK, if the cartridge is an important consideration to your agency — go for it. Having a carbine that performs like a very easy-to-shoot 75-yard pistol is better than just a pistol alone.

Testing ammunition has also almost reached the point of being a waste of time. If you stick with a major brand that uses bullets designed to meet the FBI’s comprehensive test protocol, you’ll be sending your officers out well armed. Some idiosyncrasies have been noted where Pistol Q doesn’t feed well with Ammo X, but these are VERY few and far between. Run a few hundred rounds through your pistols and make sure they work reliably. In those locales where agencies can buy ammunition cheaply on a “state bid” program, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll be carrying the “state bid” load, which may change from year to year. Any ammo company big enough to win a state bid produces reliable ammo that has been fully tested to the FBI protocols.

In the age of the World Wide Web, bad police products are quickly identified and communicated to all. We will always be subject to our own personal preferences, but the weaponry and ammunition available to us today would have been a dream come true when I started back in the 1970s. (And, there is no truth to the rumor that I started out carrying a muzzleloader.) If all else fails, take a peek at what your neighbor is packin’. If that one brand of pistol truly does have 70 percent of the market, there’s probably a good reason — the arguments of its competitors notwithstanding.

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

Contact Richard Fairburn



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