Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Favored Back-Up Guns I have Known

Though retired from law enforcement for a decade now, I suspect that the BUG (back-up gun) remains popular in those agencies allowing them. Unlike some that did not and do not allow this measure of officer safety, mine did and still does, requiring qualifications for this extra bit of "life insurance".

This S&W Model 042 rode with me on many "routine" police calls and was my usual BUG for my duty Hi Power. It also served as an "off duty" gun and is sometimes carried now.

During my years "on the street", the duty gun was almost always accompanied by the hidden back-up gun. Contrary to what the opposition might say, the BUG is not a "throw-down" gun to be placed in the dead hand of a shot-too-fast-and-without-legal-justification "victim". It is simply what the name implies, back-up and in some cases, perhaps an alternate primary duty arm for a very short time-frame or when extreme discretion is desired.While the back-up's intended primary role is to be a quick substitute if the duty sidearm goes down or is taken or lost by the officer in a fight, it can be used to discreetly cover potentially dangerous suspects without causing a scene. An example might be that a law enforcement agencies is on the lookout for "a blue Chevrolet pickup (no other description) occupied by two white males with long blond hair and having at least one handgun" because it is the getaway vehicle for two rape suspects. One might be surprised how many such vehicles and people there actually are if you are looking specifically for them! Though the felony vehicle stop can certainly be used if the agency is willing to fend off the inevitable complaints and has enough manpower to do them, one might be surprised at how many times potentially dangerous suspects have been met by uniformed officers having their duty sidearms holstered...but a (usually the off-hand) paw on a handgun, especially if in a cooler season or climate.The scenario above is true and is one in which I approached a suspect vehicle alone (because there was no back-up available) and with my left hand wrapped around the butt of an S&W Model 36 Chief's Special being toted in the left pocket of my police "tuffy jacket". It was winter and cold and the two blond-headed potential suspects were never aware that they'd initially had a revolver pointed at their heads when I made initial contact. They were not the rapists and the interview ended on a friendly note with no complaints filed.These days, my usual orbits are vanilla as can be and relatively tame. At the same time, I do carry (legally) concealed simply because I choose to be responsible for my own safety, knowing that the police cannot be expected to be every place at once and that there are vicious souls present who have not the slightest compunction in killing or maiming others to get what they want when they want it. Unlike when "in harness", I frequently carry but one concealed sidearm, but now and again I will carry a BUG. Just as the discreetly pocketed S&W snub allowed me to approach two potentially dangerous suspects without anyone being the wiser, pocket carry today allows me to nonchalantly walk across dark parking lots when necessary with my hand already on my snub revolver. This cuts potential response time way down but does not look the least offensive and shouldn't disturb the delicate sensibilities of today's "gentler & kinder" people.

Is it better or necessary that the BUG for both the officer and legally-armed citizen share exactly the same characteristics? Should they be the same caliber or even the same make and model handgun? This article will cover these questions and present my opinion on them. Opinions, including mine are not always equivalent to facts. That said, my opinion is based on year's of actual use, observation and experimentation. None of this is "written in stone" and certainly not just because I "say so." I believe that one almost always has to offer some latitude simply because no two people are ever exactly alike. That deemed insignificant by one might be major to another regardless of what is actually "real", i.e.: a person's personal perceptions can be their reality. For example, let's say that a lawful carrier wants to tote a BUG but absolutely does not trust 9mm as an adequate defense caliber, regardless of load. It is not real likely that he will voluntarily choose a 9mm, much less a 380 ACP or 32 as a BUG unless he can absolutely not find what he considers a viable substitute in a larger caliber. Do we think this guy would be happier with a Bersa Thunder 380 or a Colt Defender 45? You get the idea; what's "right" for one is not necessarily "right" for another. On the other hand, the person who is content with more compact 380 might tend to have it with him more often than the thicker Defender .45 ACP.

What is the main purpose of the BUG? My view is "to be there," but what does that suggest? To me, it means that this genre of handgun needs to be relatively easy to conceal year round. This almost always means a compact or mid-size gun. I find those with short butts and rust-resistant finishes to offer advantages over handguns not having these characteristics. I also prefer BUG's that are relatively lightweight. In the smaller-sized handguns frequently considered for self-protection, I generally prefer the double-action revolver...but not absolutely.

I prefer "dark" guns myself but the extra measure of corrosion-resistance provided by the stainless steel on this Model 642 won me over to its practical utility in often sweaty pocket carry.

What characteristics should the BUG have? Besides being compact, lightweight, relatively easy to conceal and perhaps corrosion-resistant, it must be reliable. If the BUG is being used, things are already in a terrible shape and the gun's not functioning might just be the user's ticket to eternity, or the ER, a colostomy bag or wheelchair, none of which sound particularly inviting at the present time. Those handguns meeting your requirements in size and action must be reliable as is mechanically possible.I believe that the BUG should possess at least "adequate power", but we all understand that there are many divergent opinions on what is "adequate". I have frequently said, "Power is placement". I still believe that. Thus, to me, "adequate power" also infers a handgun that I can shoot well. It doesn't matter if the handgun meets my own size/weight/caliber requirements if I cannot shoot it competently. Does this mean that "adequate power" and the BUG that the user can shoot well always coincide with each other and if not, which is more important? Try as I may, I cannot find any better answer than "Shoot the biggest caliber you can handle." Though one might substitute "potent" for "biggest" (often one-in-the-same in my opinion), I believe that this applies as much for BUG's as for the primary handgun.Sometimes overlooked in BUG discussions is that the "shootability" of one potential BUG might be noticeably better than for another, the reason being size and weight. Most realize that the same caliber fired from a lighter, smaller handgun is going to generate more felt recoil than from a larger, heavier one. Thus, the larger might very well be more easy to get the hits with but harder to conceal. The primary concern for potential buyers/users in this area of concern might be whether or not the larger gun is that much harder to conceal or if the smaller one is that much harder to shoot well. The respective answers would determine which was "right" for the individual shooter and the right one might not be the same for both! I personally suggest going with the one I shot best if it could be easily enough concealed as a BUG over one that was a peach to hide but difficult to shoot with accurately, particularly at speed. Instead of "A hit with a .22 is better than a miss with a .45", we might hear, "A center hit with a 380 Bersa is better than 1 peripheral hit and 1 miss with a (insert your choice of tiny 380 pistol)."

Minimum Acceptable Power? Any handgun has sufficient power to kill anyone shot with it...over time. The idea of "stopping power" is that our caliber have as close to instantaneous stopping potential as is possible while fully realizing that the desired "one-shot stop" is illusive and just may not be in the cards most of the time. Multiple, solid hits are more likely to be required if "stopping" a determined adversary only willing to stop because he physically has to rather than because he decides to. He is the zombie-like villain that concerns many concerned with self-defense and deadly force.For me, the lower somewhat comfortable limit is .38 Special +P with the absolute minimum being .380 ACP or 9x18mm Makarov. "Anecdotal" reports given to me over the years combined with results personally observed in shootings with these calibers have lead me to this decision. While I find more traditional size .380 easier to shoot than the Airweight .38 snub, my own situation required me to practice with the latter until I could shoot it as accurately as the former. For me, the extra "power" was worth the tariff in time and practice.These calibers often generate very similar amounts of kinetic energy, a physical term frequently associated with moving objects but one out of favor with many who seriously analyze "stopping power", it seems. Whether or not this measureable quantity is relevant to the discussion frequently generates much heated debate.

My decision was based on the following:

1. Observed reliability of a wide number of compact revolvers vs. compact automatics coupled with that firearm's longevity if used regularly.

2. Actual "street histories" of certain calibers and loads as related from folks who were there whenever possible combined with the findings of serious researchers.

3. How hard the potential BUG is to maintain or get spare parts for.

4. How many shots can be fired before the gun is empty and a reload is necessary.

5. Both how comfortable the gun is to actually carry hidden along with how comforting it is.

It is my understanding that Mr. Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch fame opines firearms should be comforting rather than comfortable. What he says makes sense and I guess one could say that minimal caliber choices are related to this "comforting" aspect as well as the gun's size and I'll add, how competently we shoot the gun well.In the early 1970's, I moved from the bobbed spur S&W Model 36 (all-steel J-frame "Chief Special") to the aluminum alloy version designated as the Model 37. The little revolver's aluminum frame was shiny black anodized with other components being blue steel. Stocks were the smallish checkered wooden service stocks. Like many other Model 37's toted by officers back then, the hammer spurs were either bobbed at home or by a gunsmith. These were carried in pockets, via ankle holsters or just stuck in the waist band if a jacket or coat was worn, sometimes with a rubber band or two wrapped around the grip to help prevent the gun from sliding free and down the inside of the pant leg. The plethora of pocket holsters and especially IWB holsters just weren't nearly so common then. I have little doubt that the J-frames like the Model 38 and Centennial would have been very popular but I simply didn't see them as much back then. One saw Model 36's and 37's. When the Model 60 came along, dealers could hardly keep them in stock and I did my part, too, in this regard. I bought several and while they're certainly very good J-frame revolvers, I eventually came back to the Airweight versions and always in the dark version. I would venture away from the Airweight J-frame as a BUG for a number of years but eventually came back and have been extremely satisfied with them over the long run. Loaded with Remington 158-gr. LHP +P, Corbon 110-gr. DPX +P or Speer 135-gr. Gold Dot +P, I believe that they still offer good protection in practiced and willing hands.

Like others, I tried the .380 ACP for a few years. After all, Skeeter Skelton liked them and felt-recoil was nicer out of the all-steel Walther PP-series than the Airweight snubs loaded with maximum-effort 158-gr. loads. The little automatics held more shots and were flatter, too. (While the "mid-size" autoloader as is typified by the Walthers, Beretta Model 85's, et al are not large, they are now considerably bigger than some arms in the same calibers like the Keltec, Ruger LCP, etc. Does this affect their "shootability"? For me the answer is yes, not to mention that their shorter barrels reduce bullet muzzle speed. Others may disagree and this is fine, but I suggest that if you go the super compact route, that you actually be able to shoot the gun well and know that it is utterly reliable.)

The problem was that the little autos were not always as reliable as their full-size counterparts, at least not in my experience. I owned a number of the Walther PP's, PPK's and PPK/s pistols when they were still made in and imported from their European maker. Most were trustworthy with ball and some were with JHP's as well...but not all. When the dust settled, I wound up carrying a blue steel Walther PP .380 ACP loaded with hot handloaded Sierra JHP's for a number of years way back when. Felt-recoil was quite manageable but "slide bite" was consistently a pain in the paw for me.

I also tried the all-steel Star Model 43 Firestar 9mm when they hit the scene and found it too heavy for a pocket gun. Cocked-and-locked, it rode primarily in an ankle holster with part of its weight being supported by the top of my duty boot hitting about midway up the front grip strap.My gun was reliable but I saw some that simply couldn't make 50 shots without some sort of stoppage. Most seemed capable of pretty nice groups. One of the tuckable IWB holsters so common now, would have been a real joy back then. This little single-action's needing to be carried in Condition One (Cocked-and-Locked) didn't bother me, but other officers just didn't trust it in an ankle holster where the thing was probably pointing at the small bones in the ankle.

Kahr's K9, like the Firestar, proved a little heavy for pocket carry and a bit large as well. Still, it could be carried in an ankle holster or in something rigged up that attached to the side of the body armor that more and more of us were wearing. I didn't mind its DAO action and despite its being a little larger than the Star, came to favor it. It proved reliable (once I'd fired about 100 shots through it) and possessed more than enough mechanical accuracy for defensive scenarios.

Then came the Glock 26, and while it was both accurate, reliable and more corrosion-resistant than other BUG's I'd tried over the years, its width was just enough to make pocket carry difficult and not quite as concealed as I wanted. Though it worked just fine, I just never could warm up to that gun. To some, these words represent sacrilege as the little G26 is very well regarded by many serious shooters. As a belt gun, it is easy to carry and conceal and I have used mine in that manner; the pistol's short butt makes it extremely hard to spot as it just doesn't seem to "print" if in a holster that turns the butt inward toward the body.

Eventually, 25 years passed and when I accepted my retirement plaque on my last night of service, an S&W Model 042 loaded with Remington 158-gr. LHP +P's was in a pocket holster backing up my 9mm Hi Power which rode Cocked-and-Locked in my strong-side duty holster.

Retiring from policing did not mean that I retired from carrying. As this is written, an S&W Model 642 loaded with Remington 158-gr. LHP +P is on my person via a Galco pocket holster. Though I tried to resist, eventually the easier maintainance of the stainless Airweight won out over looks. I much prefer "dark guns" but must admit being pretty well sold on the stainless ones for next-to-the-body-concealed-carry-in-hotter-than-hell climates like Texas in the summer! (My 042's bbl and cylinder would begin trying to rust in just a few hours in sweaty pockets. The stainless versions darned sure do resist this noticeably better in my observation and experience.) These days when carrying more than my BUG (which is now usually my primary weapon), it is likely to be a 3 1/16" Ruger SP101. The reason is simple. The heavier Ruger is carried concealed as a belt gun and the Model 642 continues to ride in the pocket holster. The very same speedloaders work fine in either revolver, but must be loaded with .38 Special to do so. Sometimes, my "real" gun is an autoloader but more and more I find myself carrying one or two revolvers; I am honestly not sure why.

Now and again I have tried to be happy with mid-size .380 ACP's such as the Beretta Model 85, Bersa Thunder or SIG-Sauer P230/232 or the Glock 26 and other compact 9x19mm pistols, but I keep coming back to the S&W J-frame, specifically the Model 642. Some will prefer the 442, 637 or 638 and I don't find enough difference between them in actual long-term carrying (other than corrosion-resistance) to matter, much less get into heated discussions over! Speaking for myself (and more than a few others on this topic, I think), the Model 642 remains my top choice for the general BUG as well as for a primary concealed carry piece around the house or neighborhood. There are many styles of holsters crafted for them by various makers and in all price ranges. Usually, these guns run w/o problems but if one doesn't, S&W's customer service remains very good according to what I hear; I've never used them!

But what about the lock? This always comes up and I can only report what I have personally seen. I will not use revolvers so equipped for anything serious and right now will not own one. I am sure that the odds are against me seeing it happen again or having it happen in a fight are small indeed but after seeing two S&W revolvers with the locks "self-engage" while firing, hopelessly locking them up, I do not trust them. One was a very lightweight 357 magnum snub (don't remember the model number) and the other was a Model 642 using standard pressure .38 Special ammunition. From what I have read, when sort of thing happens it is usually with the lightest-weight-for-magnum-caliber models but it evidently can happen with the very common aluminum-frame 38's, too. What I've actually seen is statistically meaningless as "two" is an extremely miniscule number compared to the total number of lock-equipped revolvers being used. That said, my personal preference is not to use the S&W revolver having "the lock". I am lucky enough to own several sans this device. If you prefer to do the same, keep an eye out for clean, pre-owned (but not abused) S&W's made before the lock was used or buy some of the limited runs of new S&W's not having the lock. Long ago, I learned not to use the word "never". That said, it is highly unlikely that I will ever carry any handgun having a lock for self-protection. None of my other sideguns have them; I intend to keep things as they are in this area of concern. To other shooters, it is not an "area of concern" and they couldn't care less.

Though I just cannot remain all that confident with the .380 ACP cartridge I am especially fond of some of the pistols chambered for it. In face-to-face deadly force confrontations, it might prove adequate with well-placed shots but I'll just continue practicing more with the harder-recoiling Airweight .38 Special. To me, it is worth the effort. I cannot say that the .380 or 9x18mm Makarov are automatically doomed to failure because they are generally considered less powerful. Here is why: Most private citizens having to employ deadly force are facing their attacker(s) face-to-face. It is therefore possible that a bit less penetration is acceptable.

The same is not necessarily true for law enforcement officers. It may very well be that intermediate barriers such as laminated vehicle windshields have to be punched before the officer's bullet(s) can do their work. Officers providing back-up to an incident's primary officer frequently (roughly 30% of the time in the 10-year old literature I seem to remember) would have to take initial shots from the aggressor's sides if shooting becomes necessary. This means that an arm might also have to be penetrated before the bullet can pass into the torso. Thus, either of these situations suggests that more powerful expanding bullets are more likely needed than for the face-to-face private citizen encounter. Where the officer's situation might call for 12 to 14" penetration for success, the citizen's might be nicely handled at 10". 158-gr. LHP +P from the 2" snub will usually penetrate in the 12" range in ballistic gelatin and it has a decent track record "on the street". Go below .38 Special and one is almost certainly required to use FMJ or non-expanding bullets to achieve/exceed the minimal 12" deemed necessary by many today. In the case of the .380, 9mm Makarov or .32 ACP, no expanding bullets reliably "pass" this FBI protocol for duty handgun requirements. If non-expanding ammunition is used, the penetration is present but these calibers don't have so inenviable a "stopping history" when FMJ is used.

Even if not physically incapacitated, a felon just shot by a private citizen might choose to abandon the encounter and flee. He might believe that his would-be victim won't pursue while the felon vs. law enforcement officer can rest assured that his will.

For these reasons, I think that the private citizen might be adequately served by something less than .38 Special +P (though I don't enthusiastically recommend it) while the law enforcement officer should not go below this caliber and load's level of performance.

In the end, choices will be made that include compromises. Some of us will have more leeway than others. This decision, if even allowed for some will be made by departmental policy or only specific handgun makes/models will be allowed.

My suggestions are:

1. At least a quality snub revolver in no less than .38 Special +P but no bigger unless you know that you can truly handle it

2. Lightweight but not ultra-light such that only jacketed ammunition can be used unless being able to use non-jacketed ammunition is not an issue

3. Corrosion-resistant and having a readily available supply of spare parts

4. A handgun that is exceedingly reliable and long-lasting for frequent practice sessions

5. A handgun that the potential owner finds "comfortable" enough to actually not avoid routine practice sessions

6. A handgun that the owner actually trusts and will actually carry as much as possible

Good luck and best.