Law Enforcement Backup Weapons

A knife and knife belt.

Mike Boyle

Should an officer find himself in a worst-case scenario and the primary weapon is not available, a hidden backup could indeed save the day.

A backup weapon might be best described as an ancillary weapon used for a secondary or auxiliary purpose. Attitudes toward backup weapons by law enforcement agencies and individual officers span the entire spectrum. Despite the obvious advantage, the concept of backup weapons for police is far from universal.

I’m familiar with departments which provide officers with a BackUp Gun (BUG) and mandate that it be carried while on duty to supplement the service weapon. On the other hand, there are outfits which prohibit the carrying of anything other than the service handgun. This often stems from a misplaced concern that officers might use the backup as a “drop gun” to cover a questionable shooting. Of course, that argument goes right out the window when the officer registers the serial number with the department.

Many departments authorize the use of backup weapons and leave it up to the individual officer. However, many cops don’t carry a backup because they consider it to be inconvenient. Granted, 21st century warriors carry more gear on their belt than Batman; however, with a little bit of effort, you can find a way to carry a backup weapon in complete comfort.

Prepared or Paranoid?

In recent years, attacks on law enforcement officers have been creeping up. Make no mistake about it: These are dangerous times and the stakes are higher than ever. The fact that you work in a quiet, suburban or rural area really doesn’t make you any safer than the cops who work in the big city. No matter where you work or what your job title is, danger can visit at any moment and, ultimately, you are responsible for your personal safety.

Once you get that “it will never happen to me” attitude out of your head, consider the following reasons to carry a backup weapon:

  • Your primary weapon is out of ammunition or otherwise disabled;
  • A subject has removed or has attempted to remove your primary weapon from the holster;
  • While struggling with a subject, you are not able to draw your primary weapon from the holster; and
  • An injury or compromised position prevents you from drawing your primary weapon from the holster.

Do these things really happen? I’m aware of multiple instances where law enforcement officers did, in fact, resort to a backup weapon to save their bacon. Should your ship go up on the rocks and you find yourself without your primary weapon, a backup is the only viable option and provides you with a fighting chance.

Back when the Earth was flat and I attended the police academy, Joseph Wambaugh’s classic, The Onion Field, was on our mandatory reading list. The Onion Field tells the story of two Los Angeles plainclothes officers, Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger, who are disarmed and kidnapped by a pair of career criminals. Ultimately, they are driven to a remote area near Bakersfield, where Campbell is executed. Hettinger escapes, but lives with the demons the rest of his life. There was a great deal of speculation on how this might have played out if one, or both, officers had a hidden backup.

BUG Choices

When shopping for a BUG, the Goldilocks principle comes into play. A handgun which is too big or heavy will prove to be a burden and will not be utilized. Those little downsized, flyweight handguns are indeed handy, but are difficult to shoot to a high standard and are often chambered for less effective cartridges. Fortunately, there is an abundance of small, yet reasonably powerful, handguns from reputable manufacturers which are perfect in a backup role.

For years, my “go-to” backup of choice was a Smith & Wesson® J-frame revolver in .38 Special. It remains a solid choice for officers who are comfortable with a snub revolver. Smith & Wesson crafts small-frame revolvers from steel, aluminum and scandium alloy. My current BUG is a Model 638 BODYGUARD® Airweight® which is built on an aluminum frame. I find it to be light enough for pocket carry, yet it doesn’t beat you up in practice sessions as long as you stick to a reasonable round count. Unlike old school .38 Special ammo, modern loads are especially formidable and Speer® Gold Dot® 135-grain +P JHP is one offering which boasts a very good track record.

Another favorite small-frame revolver is the Ruger® LCR® which is rendered from a unique combination of steel, aluminum and polymer. The LCR boasts a very nice trigger action and a decent set of sights. It can also be had in chamberings such as .357 Magnum and 9mm, but the .38 Special remains the best bet.

A few years ago, I would not have considered a small autopistol as a backup, but that has all changed. Manufacturers such as GLOCK®, Kahr, Smith & Wesson, SIG SAUER®, and Walther are turning out some excellent downsized pistols, perfect for backup applications. These pistols are infinitely more reliable than the pocket pistols of old and are both convenient and comfortable to carry.

Should you go with a small pistol for backup, there are a couple of concerns which should be addressed. Backups are often carried in less hospitable locations on the body, such as in a pocket or on the ankle, where they can be exposed to sand, lint or other detritus. Just make sure you go the extra yard and regularly inspect your pistol and make sure it’s well lubricated. Most of the little mini blasters used as BUGs are striker fired designs with a short, light, trigger action, so be sure to select a quality holster.

The .380ACP is generally considered to be right on that ragged line of efficiency as a personal defense cartridge. There are indeed some very small .380 pistols out there for the taking, but they would not be my first choice. Certainly, a pistol in .380ACP beats a stern word or a stick, but, for a small penalty in size and weight, you can upgrade to the more decisive 9mm.

BUG Carry

Over the years, I’ve carried a backup gun in just about every conceivable type of holster. Like many things in life, there is no perfect solution for every possible application. The clothing you wear, your mission, the type of gun, and even your gender will come into play.

Much of the time, I carried my backup revolver on the ankle. There are, of course, limitations with ankle carry, including quick access and winter weather when there is snow on the ground. However, there are some surprising advantages. Drawing from a seated position can be very efficient.

Some years ago, I attended a program taught by Joe Maffei, a world-class personal defense instructor. One of the highlights was how to draw from an ankle holster should you find yourself on the ground in a compromised position. Even small stature individuals were able to turn the tables on larger, stronger opponents and use the deadly force option, if justified.

Another option is pocket carry. To make this work, the gun is placed in a pocket holster and the entire unit is inserted in the hip or rear pocket. Over time, classic police-style trousers gave way to BDUs for everyday wear and I was able to park my BUG in my support side hip pocket. I had to make sure the pocket was not obstructed by an accessory pouch on the duty belt and, while draw times were not especially fast, I could get my BUG into action in a reasonable amount of time. There were no such obstacles carrying a BUG in the support side pocket when dressed in plainclothes.

An excellent option is to carry your backup weapon concealed under the uniform shirt. I’ve tried vest holsters which are affixed to straps of the soft body armor, but there is an even better way. A few years ago, I became acquainted with the BUG Pocket, a carry option conceived by retired LAPD Sergeant Randy Garcia. The BUG Pocket is a vest holster which is affixed to the carrier of the officer’s soft body armor carrier. A very big advantage of this system is the fact that the weapon is now on the officer’s centerline and it can be efficiently drawn with either hand.

Despite my initial misgivings, the BUG Pocket is very low profile and comfortable. The fastest possible access can be achieved by sewing buttons to the outside of the uniform shirt and adding VELCRO® to secure the front of the garment. One simply performs a “Superman” draw to access the gun. I’ve also enjoyed similar success with a uniform shirt which had a zipper instead of a button closure. If you dismissed carrying a backup weapon in the past, the BUG Pocket could be the solution to your concerns.

Sharp and Pointy Things

I daresay most cops carry some sort of knife when on duty. Knives are used to perform all sorts of utility tasks, but I’m sure most officers have at least considered its use in a worst-case emergency situation.

Defensive knives fall into one of two categories – folders or fixed blades. Folders are discreet and less likely to send up red flags with the command staff and the public. On the downside, folders are slower into action and have moving parts which can break. Fixed blades are faster into the fight and have no moving parts which can break, but are tougher to hide from view. The use of knives by law enforcement personnel can be a hard sell and, while the American public accepts the fact that we have holstered, very visible guns, cutting instruments in plain view are likely to raise eyebrows. My agency recently authorized the carrying of fixed blade knives, provided they are concealed from view.

If you go the folder route, make sure you select something you open very quickly. A few personal favorites include the P’Kal and Karahawk, both from Spyderco®. These designs are as different as night and day, but both incorporate the Emerson Opener feature which locks the blade open as it’s drawn from the pocket.

A few months back, I picked up an innovative knife called the NCO LowVz from ColonelBlades. The NCO is a rugged fixed blade with an integral finger hole for security which might best be categorized as a knife for gun people. Use of the NCO is extremely intuitive and, if you can throw a punch, you can make it work. It would make an excellent close quarters backup weapon.

For those skeptical about the effectiveness of a knife as a backup weapon, there are a few events in the recent past where officers used such a tool to turn the tables. In one instance, an officer was attacked from behind while in a public restroom. On another occasion, an assailant was holding an officer’s head under water while attempting to drown him. Both officers were able to draw a knife and terminate the threat.

Additional BUG Considerations

Strapping on a BUG is a big first step, but we have to consider how it might be used in the unforgiving real world. So, team, some practice is in order. By all means, go out and shoot that thing and be sure to include both strong hand and support hand only firing into the mix. Shooting smaller guns to a high standard requires more effort than a service-size pistol, but reasonably good results can be realized at typical combat distance.

Next, consider the “what-ifs.” Is your primary gun down, but not really out? If so, reloading or clearing a simple stoppage is faster than drawing the BUG. But, if your primary is really out of the fight, the only logical choice is take the fight back to the bad guy with the BUG. But, are we drawing the backup with the strong hand or support hand? What do I do with my nonfunctioning primary handgun? These are just a few things you need to come to terms with.

Consider getting an inert facsimile of both your duty gun and your BUG. Ring’s Manufacturing makes dimensionally correct trainers for just about all popular handguns which allow you to train in complete safety. I find Ring’s “BLUEGUNS®” to be a great training aid when bridging that gap between hands-on and handguns.

I’ve long been a subscriber to Murphy’s Law and, on the job, I carried a spare key for the car, a spare light, spare ammunition, as well as a spare gun. Things tend to break when you need them the most. Should your primary handgun go belly-up or be otherwise unavailable, a backup gives you a chance. It’s not being paranoid; it’s being totally prepared.

Captain Mike Boyle served with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement, and has been an active firearms instructor for more than 30 years. He has been an assistant police academy director and remains active as an academy rangemaster and instructor. Mike has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) since 1996. He is the architect and coordinator of IALEFI’s Master Instructor Development Program.