Is a .22, .25, or .32 pistol ever a better choice than a .38, 9mm, .40, or .45? The answer may not be so simple. Although I personally carry a 1911 on- and off-duty, I think most would agree that the small-caliber pistol, carried on the individual, is better than the larger caliber pistol left at home or in the car.
First, I should state that I believe in the adage, “It’s better to have something and not need it than to need something and not have it.”As a sworn law enforcement officer, I firmly believe that we have a moral duty to intervene in certain (violent) criminal activity, whether we’re officially on duty or not. After all, our job isn’t a typical 9-to-5 one. Being a police officer is an honorable profession in which we have sworn to protect others. To do this, we must be in the most advantageous position possible, and we must be equipped to do so—that means carrying a firearm both on and off duty. Officers should also consider carrying handcuffs and at least one less-lethal item (OC spray, ASP, etc).
Over the past decades, much has been written regarding caliber selection and revolver vs. semi-auto. Strong arguments can be made regarding “fewer but bigger bullets” or “smaller but more bullets.” Like many items of equipment, personal preference will ultimately be the deciding factor. But, suffice it to say, any gun is better than no gun.
Consistency is important for proper weapon presentation. The less conscious thought necessary in a dynamic, violent encounter, the more fluid and efficient the mechanical actions will be. By this I mean that accessing and drawing one’s firearm should be as efficient a process as possible. This can be enhanced by proper equipment selection (e.g., weapon, holster, even clothing), placement or location on body, and practice.
The obstacles presented by uniformed open carry differ from those of concealed carry: primarily a clothing barrier and, depending on its location, additional body movement to access it. These obstacles must be overcome so the officer can draw and present the weapon. Because of these factors, a quality holster must securely retain the weapon, enclose the trigger guard of the gun and be easily concealed, and the user must be able to draw from it with both the right and left hands.
Let’s assume that the officer has selected a small/medium frame weapon to carry in a concealed manner for off duty. The next decision is where and how to carry the weapon. A proper holster is essential to weapon retention and preventing an accidental discharge. I once worked with a salty detective who was infamous for carrying his department-issued .40 cal. sidearm in the small of back “crack holster”—as in, no holster. For safety and retention, this should not be allowed, regardless of whether the officer is working an undercover assignment or carrying an off-duty or backup weapon.
Least desirable, in my opinion, is the fanny pack. It screams, “I’m a cop and I have a gun in here.” However, the reality is that some officers choose to carry their weapons in this manner. For those officers who select this manner of concealed carry, my advice is to select a fanny pack that holds the weapon securely but appears to be something other than an off-duty gun holster—not black and possibly with a prominent name-brand logo unconnected to police products. The one advantage of a fanny-pack holster is that it generally allows the user to carry spare ammo, a small can of OC (i.e., pepper spray) and handcuffs.
Another popular, if less desirable, manner of concealment is an ankle holster. The downside to this style holster is the movement required to access it and the fact that it’s generally conducive to smaller frame weapons. (Although a friend of mine carried a Glock 23 as a backup gun in an ankle holster as a K-9 handler.) An ankle holster can be a good choice when formal attire is worn and a jacket or untucked shirt isn’t appropriate. It’s also an effective way of carrying a secondary handgun to supplement the primary sidearm.
In the 1980s (the Miami Vice era), the shoulder holster was popular. Although its popularity has declined, it’s still preferred by some. The one environment in which a shoulder holster has an advantage is during prolonged surveillances in a vehicle. Accessing firearms concealed in the waist region while seated in a car can be challenging. Even accessing a holstered sidearm from a Sam Browne while in full uniform seated in a car can be challenging. This is why, just as in all manner of officer-safety related actions, practice must occur on a regular basis. A shoulder holster offers an advantage of easy access from almost any position, whether standing, kneeling or seated. Most shoulder holsters also provide room for extra ammunition. Depending on weather conditions, a shoulder holster may or may not be concealed beneath outerwear.
In the waist-band (IWB) holsters remain popular. However, the holster should have either a rigid clip or a belt to secure it. Absent one of these devices, the holster will be held in place merely by the body pushing it against the waistline of the clothing. I’ve known officers who’ve had their holstered weapon slide down the inside of their pants and out the bottom of their pants cuff, landing on the floor. That can prove embarrassing while standing in line at a bank. It can also result in a potentially serious outcome, 9-1-1 call or an accidental discharge.
Small-of-back holsters were all the rage when they were first introduced, and they’re still favored by some today. They’re carried on the belt, in the centerline of the waist, in a horizontal position. I’ve found this style holster uncomfortable and difficult to access when seated. It is also nearly impossible (and too time consuming) to draw with the support hand in the event the dominant hand is disabled.
My preference is strong-side carry in either a belt or paddle holster. This is the most natural position to draw from under stress. Because it’s also the location where all uniformed sidearms are carried, muscle memory allows the officer to most easily retrieve the sidearm.
Several major manufacturers make a plethora of varieties. I highly recommend the Safariland ALS system or any of the quality designs offered by Blackhawk (e.g., the Serpa). Regardless of the manufacturer, the holster should have some type of positive retention system. A simple open-top, drop-in holster is inadequate for the rigors of a physical confrontation or even the simple acts of routine body movements. Whether via a thumb snap, trigger guard catch or friction retention screw, the holster must keep the weapon secure until the user intentionally draws the weapon.
Last, I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphatically state that any officers who carry a concealed firearm should always wear their badges and IDs. Ideally, the badge should be worn in close proximity to the holstered gun, allowing anyone who sees the gun to also see the badge—unless, of course, the officer is working in a true undercover capacity. Identification will always be an issue for a plainclothes officer involved in a lethal confrontation.
For officers’ civil liability protection, as well as to aid in their physical safety (preventing “blue on blue” confrontations due to a responding uniformed officer not recognizing that the armed person is a police officer), plainclothes personnel should have a plan for how they’ll identify themselves in the event they need to draw their concealed weapons. Additionally, no officers should ever carry their badges or IDs unless they’re armed. One of my department’s background investigators tragically witnessed the violent execution of her fiancé during an armed robbery that went bad when the suspect found the victim’s badge in his wallet.