Beating Back Father Time: Firearms Tips for Seasoned Officers

Statue of father time.

Mike Boyle

I have often said that, if I wake up in the morning and only one thing hurts, I’m on my way to a good day.

One of the harsh realities of life is that, as we age, our physical attributes begin to decline. Our vision isn’t quite as sharp as it once was, strength diminishes, reaction time is a tad slower, and we aren’t quite as flexible as in our youth.

Most full police careers run somewhere around 25 years and may be a bit longer or shorter based on any number of factors. Assuming an officer got into this game sometime in their early or mid-twenties, it’s a safe bet that many officers are pushing 50 years old or more as they run out the clock. From my own personal experience, I began to notice a few hiccups in my performance as I approached my 50th birthday.  

While I was never a world-class runner, I did put in my miles at a moderate pace and kept that up for years. At some point, my hip began to bother me and it was clear I needed to do something different. Switching off to a bicycle effectively solved that problem and allowed me to get in some good aerobic exercise.

Around the same time, I noted that the front sight on my pistol had grown fuzzy which caused me to miss. This created a great deal of embarrassment for me when doing shooting demonstrations and I had to endure the snickering and chuckles of the officers I was training. Fortunately, a set of prescription shooting glasses proved to be the fix and I was back on course.

Although wellness and performance for senior officers is multidimensional, this conversation will focus on some things you can do to maintain your shooting proficiency. Even though I have retired from active service for several years, I continue to work as a trainer and don’t want to look silly in front of a group of officers 30 years my junior. I may not have all of the answers, but a few of these tricks have been able to keep me in the game.

See Better

One of the first speed bumps we encounter has to do with our ability to see in low light which goes unnoticed in most individuals. The simple fact is that our night vision begins to decline somewhere around age 20. In your mid-forties, you will need four times as much light to see the same things in low light as you did in your prime. Fortunately, the fix is pretty simple. The new generation of handheld and weapon-mounted lights pretty much levels the playing field. Quite simply, if you carry a gun, you need to have a light source instantly available.

By the time most of us hit middle age, some sort of corrective lenses are part of our daily routine. When I reached that milestone, I accepted the fact that I needed glasses to read, but it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I also needed glasses to define that front sight. Once I came to terms with that, I was back on an even keel.

In my particular situation, I have used both prescription and over-the-counter lenses with equally good results; however, your needs may be very different. The over-the-counter variety types are simply magnifiers and are relatively inexpensive. They certainly are suitable for range work, but, for duty use, your situation may indeed require prescription lenses.

Faster Pickup

Tritium night sights are pretty much standard on police pistols these days and, while I have no issue with the concept, the execution on many of these designs is flawed. Quite frankly, any sighting system used on a service pistol needs to grab your attention as soon as the gun is brought to eye level. That simply isn’t happening with the popular three-dot system found on many pistols and it is especially problematic for senior officers. Factor in life-threatening stress and less than optimum light conditions and you have a recipe for disaster.

A few years back, my outfit retrofitted all of our service pistols with Trijicon® HD sights which have proven very popular. The Trijicon HD uses the popular three-dot system; however, the front sight is highlighted in photoluminscent paint to make it highly visible in all light conditions. The rear sight features a U-shaped notch and is angled and serrated to make acquiring the front sight easier.

Other viable solutions are available from AMERIGLO® and XS Sights. My favorite in the AMERIGLO line is the CAP (Combative Action Pistol) sight which is also quick to pick up in challenging light conditions. XS Sights built a solid reputation with their line of 24/7 Big Dot sights and also markets a number of other options which I feel are superior to the traditional three-dot system.

Laser sights never caught on in a big way with the law enforcement community and that is our loss. Granted, they provide a limited solution as they are not visible in bright light, but they have a great deal to offer in reduced light. I have been running a Streamlight® TLR-8® for the last three years which combines an intense white illuminator with a green laser. The TLR-8 is very compact and gives me far greater capabilities with my GLOCK® 19.

Red Dots to the Rescue

Over the last several years, Miniature Red Dot Sights (MRDS) have evolved from the exotic category to mainstream. Just about every manufacturer of police handguns is now turning out variants where a red dot optic can be easily mounted with little fuss and, as a result, many departments have moved in this direction. High quality units from Aimpoint®, HOLOSUN®, Leupold, Trijicon, and others have proved entirely reliable and durable enough for the hard knocks of law enforcement and, like it or not, red dots are the wave of the future.

Like many old-school types, I was somewhat resistant to the concept of red dot sights. Throughout my early experiences, I felt that hitting at extended distance was both faster and easier, but my performance suffered at close range. At typical combat distance, I felt I was going in slow motion. Considering that most police action shootings occurred inside of conversational distance, I was less than impressed.

A few years ago, I had an epiphany of sorts and began to look at red dots in a new light. In order to remain relevant, I went to an MRDS instructor class and gained a whole new perspective. It took me a while to get comfortable with this new technology and I did have to unlearn some old habits, but, after working with it a bit, even this old yokel has been able to perform.

So what might be in this for seasoned officers? Unlike traditional iron sights, MRDS require but a single plane focus. You simply look at the target, place the dot where you want the bullet to go and press the trigger. Iron sights require a multiple plane focus with the eyes shifting to the front sight, to the rear sight and back to the front. Granted, this happens very quickly, but can come unraveled when one is subjected to extreme stress. This is especially true if you have old, tired eyes.

 At the present time, MRDS options include open or closed emitters, different size dots and a choice between a red or green aiming point. My agency is currently evaluating new pistols for possible adaptation in the near future and, rest assured, it will include a removable plate for mounting an optic. A few officers have outfitted an MRDS on personally owned pistols and the feedback I have gotten has been very positive.

Over the last few months, I have been running a Frankenstein GEN 3 GLOCK 17 with a HOLOSUN SCS and couldn’t be more pleased. This gun was cobbled together with a mismatched slide, frame and barrel and was sent off to Bowie Tactical Concepts to have the slide milled and the optic fitted. The optic sits low enough in the slide so that the factory height sights can be used.     

I’m not suggesting that red dots are the solution for everyone, but they remain a consideration, especially for users who might have a tough time defining traditional iron sights. Make no mistake about it, the better units cost about as much as a good pistol and, if you cut your teeth on iron sights, you will also have to put in some serious practice time to get comfortable with them. If your vision isn’t what it used to be, a red dot optic may be the answer.

Grip Strength Is the Key

The importance of maintaining a high level of grip strength cannot be overstated. Not only is a strong grip important for shooting, it’s important in other vital areas, too, including weapon retention, defensive tactics and various lifesaving skills such as dragging an injured person out of harm’s way.

A while back, I noticed that I was getting more than a few errant shots on my target printing right of my point of aim (I shoot left-handed). I quickly diagnosed the problem as a weak support hand grip. If I slowed down my game, I could move those shots back to the center of the target, but I had to make a conscious decision to do so.    

The good news is that you can make some pretty rapid improvements in grip strength in relatively short order. Strength builders such as a hand grip trainer, finger bands, swinging a kettle bell, and even squeezing a tennis ball can all pay dividends. Hand injuries are hardly unusual among cops and, more than once, I used a hand grip trainer to get back up to speed.

So, team, if your grip isn’t what it used to be, it’s time to get busy. For years, my grip trainer hung from the steering column of my government ride where I could access it in idle moments. With just a little effort, you can be back at the top of your game.

Bigger May Not Be Better

Like many shooters of my generation, we were programmed to believe that the big bore cartridges were far superior to the .38 Special or 9mm. If your handgun wasn’t chambered for a cartridge which began with a “four,” you were at a serious deficit. In the early 1990s, the FBI came to the same conclusion and their extensive study of handgun ammunition effectiveness strongly favored the big bores. Almost overnight, there was a mass transition away from the medium bores to cartridges such as .40 S&W and .45 ACP.

However, we began to see a reversal of this trend which, oddly enough, was promoted by the FBI. The Bureau acknowledged that the big bores do indeed have a greater wounding potential; however, greater felt recoil and muzzle flip make them more difficult to control for many shooters. In the end, the FBI concluded that better shooter performance outweighed the benefits of a slight bump in wounding potential and, once again, the 9mm is king of the hill.

Suffice it to say, handgun ammunition designed for the police market is far superior to what was available a generation ago. Today, my primary carry pistols are chambered for 9mm while my big bores are now safe queens.

Thirty years ago, I thought nothing of running a couple hundred rounds through a Colt® LW Commander or S&W Combat Magnum®. Right now, that would be more than I could bear. But, with the light kicking 9mm, I experience no such problems. In smaller guns carried off duty or for plainclothes assignments, a micro-size 9mm which fires from a locked breech is actually more comfortable to shoot than an old-school .380 ACP with a blowback action or a snub revolver.

 Sometimes, less is more. If you have some latitude in the handgun you carry, a cartridge which offers good stopping potential, yet is easy to control, just might be the way to go.

Final Thoughts

With a little forethought and planning, there is no reason that the skills we worked so hard to refine have to slip into the abyss. There is no getting around the fact that the law enforcement profession can be physically demanding at times, but, if we put our mind to it, we can run right through that tape at the finish line. As we move into the sunset of our careers, we might have to push a little harder, but you will still be able to run with the big dogs.

Captain Mike Boyle served with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement, and has been involved in firearms and use-of-force training for over 40 years. He has been a police academy director and rangemaster and remains active as an instructor providing basic, in-service and instructor level training. He is a member of ILEETA and NALEFIA. His book, Everything You Need to Know About Police Firearms Training, was recently published by Blue360 Media.