Back-Up Guns, Pt. 1

March 21, 2017

I’m frequently contacted by agencies, both here and abroad, to either evaluate or assist in the drafting of force policy statements. Recently, I was asked to provide some background on the issue of back-up (or secondary) weapons.

This agency had for the most part done all their homework. They drafted the appropriate policy statements and covered the important issues, such as training, holsters, qualification, and periodic inspection. The Ivory Tower, however, now wanted documentation that back-up (or second) weapons were in fact needed. In other words, the brass wanted documented histories of actual saves from back up weapons, not just anecdotal, non-verified incidents.

So, with that as background, let’s first reinforce some of those preliminary issues: policy, training, inspection, and registration. [Note: For the remainder of the article, I will use back-up and secondary weapons interchangeably.]


Any policy statement has to cover the fact that personally owned back-up weapons are authorized. This policy statement needs to cover any and all liability issues that may arise from a shooting where a back up gun is used. During my consult with these agencies, I always suggest that this policy actually include a list of approved back-up guns by make, model, functionality (DA versus SA), and caliber. Equally important is that this list be reviewed frequently and updated as more and more mini-semi autos become available.

Make & Model

Second, based on the type of duty gun carried by the agency, the back-up piece should, in my opinion, be of the same make and caliber as the duty gun and magazine compatible. Or, put another way: The officers’ extra mags for his or her duty gun should also work in the back-up. Likewise, the policy statement needs to specify that only duty ammo be allowed.


Third—document, document, document!

Frequency of training and qualification with this second weapon should be no different than that which is standard for the primary (or duty) gun. For example, if your agency trains (and/or qualifies) four times annually with duty pistols, personnel need to do the same with that back-up weapon, albeit a modified course adjusted for distance.

In my opinion, this modified course needs to include a string of fire with the duty gun mags inserted. The reason? The longer hi-cap mags stick out an inch or two when those mags are inserted, and these longer mags will feel a little different in the smaller back-up gun. Likewise, the officers should be required to draw from wherever the back-up is carried, be it an ankle holster, BUG pocket or IWB device.


Numero quattro: The make, model, and serial number of the officers’ back-up (even though it may be a personally owned firearm) must be recorded in both the Range Office and the officers’ personnel file, just like every other piece of equipment he or she is issued. And officers must understand if a new back-up gun is purchased, the files need to be update immediately and the weapon must not carried until they are, and the training and qualification courses conducted.


Fifth, the policy language should also state that this back-up weapon is subject to supervisory inspection. Yeah, yeah, I know: “But LT, its personal property!”

Hey, the privilege of being allowed to carry a personally owned weapon comes with a few compromises. Agency oversight is essential, in my opinion.

Department-Issue Back-Ups

Lastly—and this is probably reserved for larger agencies that buy their duty pistols in bulk and issues them to their officers rather than allowing them to purchase their own—it may not be a bad idea to issue each officer his or her own back-up gun along with their service weapon. Put another way, each probie gets two guns when they come on the job, a duty weapon and a second gun, identical in every aspect except for size.

One real advantage is that this back up becomes their off-duty weapon. This saves officers money, because now they don’t need to shell out bucks for that off-duty piece. Of course, for those cops who want to carry large, they’re welcomed to carry their duty guns 24/7/365.


In Part Two we’ll talk about documented, verifiable back up saves and give readers over a half dozen cases where back-up guns saved cops’ lives. There are a ton more unsourced examples out there, but from my experience with agency brass, unsourced claims and anecdotes won’t mean a thing unless they can be verified by either the agency itself or documented press reports.

I hope it helps the cause.

[Publisher’s Note: An abbreviated version of Part One authored by Lt. Grossi appeared in a 2008 Newsletter under the heading “Back Up Guns: Asset or Liability.”]

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  1. bob h

    I agree with five of the author’s six recommendations but have to disagree with #2. A backup or secondary firearm is a weapon of last resort. How many officers whose duty/primary firearm is a Glock 9mm or .40 S&W are carrying a five or six shot revolver as a backup?
    As to the apparent impetus for the article- some agency administrator deciding there had to be a proven documented need for a secondary firearm- my question for that administrator would be, “On what basis do you allow your officers to carry a firearm at all? What evidence do you have that your officers- not officers in other jurisdictions but YOUR officers- need a firearm?”

  2. w.calame

    I agree with bob h. A backup is your last resort. Our department policy clarified the caliber range of off duty weapons. It did not name specific manufacturers, but stated that the weapon must be approved by a department firearms instructor and must not be modified (other than grips). The officer was required to qualify with the weapon and the make and serial number was documented as part of the qualification. It could then be carried off duty or as backup.

    Many years ago, a local trooper was involved in an altercation with a motorist on a traffic stop. The man bolted from his car and charged the trooper. He knocked the trooper to the ground and managed to get his sidearm. As the trooper retreated to his cruiser he was shot by the assailant. He retrieved his personal revolver from the cruiser and returned fire, killing the man. That case went to trial because state troopers were not authorized to have a backup weapon. He was cleared criminally, but received a suspension.

    I feel that #2 is short sighted. Our department issued Sig P220s until a few years ago. The current sidearm is the M&P in .45 cal. If they required backups to accept the magazine of the duty weapon, the officers would be SOL, unless they carried another full size pistol as backup, which is not realistic. In my opinion, such a policy would put officers at risk. In many cases, they would not have compact option of the department weapon. In other cases, they would choose not to purchase the compact version for various reasons. That means life is going to suck if your duty weapon fails or is taken from you.


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