What is the Best Pistol for Police Officers?

by Matt on March 30, 2009

If you are new to police work and your department is not going to issue you a handgun, then you have a very important choice to make. Which gun are you going to buy to carry on-duty? For someone with limited knowledge about tactical handguns, you may feel overwhelmed. Hopefully, this article will clear up the confusion and make the decision more manageable.

The first thing you need to do is read your  department’s policy regarding on-duty weapons.  The gun you pick needs to meet their requirements or you will not be allowed to carry it.

 Stick to the name brands because quality is a must. If you find yourself involved in a gun battle, you need a reliable handgun that functions in harsh environments. During the course of your career, you are going to get wet and muddy. Your gun is going to be exposed to dirt and possibly sand. You may find yourself in freezing temperatures. Your gun is going to be banged around, even while in the holster. Some guns handle these conditions better than others, so rule out any model that has not been proven over time to withstand this kind of abuse. In plain language, you should look for a well established model from a major manufacturer.

Money should not be a major factor, but you are going to be limited by your pocketbook. If you are just starting the academy, find out when you actually need to have a gun. If you have a little time, start putting money aside to allow you purchase a quality gun. You are going to be excited about becoming a cop and you will probably want a gun right away, but if waiting a little while will allow you to get a better gun, then put off the purchase as long as possible. You will be happier in the end.

Double action versus single action. The hammer on a pistol must be pulled back, this is one action. The hammer must then be released to fall forward to fire the round, this is the second action.

  • Some handguns are single action only, like the Colt 1911 models. These guns are carried “cocked and locked”. This means that the hammer is already pulled back and the trigger simply releases the hammer when pulled.
  • Other guns, like the Beretta M9, are carried with the hammer forward, which means that when you pull the trigger for the first shot the hammer must be pulled back before being released. After the first shot, the hammer is already back so you are just releasing it forward with each subsequent shot. This creates two distinct trigger pulls on the gun. The first shot has a much heavier trigger pull, and follow-up shots have a lighter trigger pull. This can create some problems for a new shooter under stress.
  • Some guns, like the Glock, have an internal hammer system. This allows for a consistent trigger pull on every shot. Just pull the trigger and the gun fires. I am a big advocate of this type of pistol for law enforcement.

Active safeties versus passive safeties. An active safety requires you to physically disable it before the gun will fire. Passive safeties are disengaged by simply pulling the trigger. This is more a personal preference that you need to decide upon. I prefer the passive safety system. Keep your finger off the trigger and the gun is safe. Place your finger on the trigger and the gun is ready to be fired.

Mounting rails for a pistol light. The gun you choose should have mounting rails for a tactical flashlight. I would not buy a gun without this option.  Tactical gunlights are in wide use by police officers around the country.  An upcoming article will address this topic in more detail.

High capacity magazines. I would not carry a duty gun that carries fewer than 12 rounds in the magazine.  One of the great advantages offered by semi-automatic handguns is the increased carrying capacity.  Most manufacturers have increased the capacity of .45 pistols to at least 12 rounds, so this would be the minimum I would be comfortable with.  Most officers carry a loaded weapon and 2 spare magazines.  The more rounds you have, the longer you can stay in the fight.

Caliber. There has been much debate on pistol caliber. This can lead to heated arguments between officers, who can be fiercely loyal to a certain caliber. There are benefits to each caliber and you need to decide what is more important to you. The most common calibers for law enforcement are 9mm, .40 and .45. The truth is that the most effective round is the one that hits the target. I recommend picking the caliber that allows you the most accuracy.

  • 9mm allows you to carry more rounds and the felt recoil is lighter, allowing more accurate follow-up shots in rapid succession.
  • .40 has a higher velocity than .45 and some argue it has more stopping power than a .45 because of this. The .40 has more felt recoil than the 9mm or .45. The rounds are larger than 9mm, so the magazine capacity is slightly less than the 9mm.
  • .45 is known for good stopping power and usually has less felt recoil than a .40. The larger rounds reduce the carrying capacity of the magazines. .45’s are now offered with larger capacities than the past, but the grip may be too large to be comfortable for officers with small hands.

Magazine compatibility with back-up weapons. The ideal situation is one where your duty weapon and your back-up weapon operate with the same magazines and ammo. This allows you to stay in the fight longer if you have to switch to your back-up gun, by letting you use your spare duty magazines in your back-up.

These are the primary factors that I would consider when selecting a firearm to carry on-duty. This is strictly based on my opinion after over 15 years of police work and being a state licensed firearms instructor for many years. The selection of a duty gun is a very personal decision and brand loyalty can be fierce amongst officers. I hope that I have not offended anyone’s brand of choice. Based on all of the criteria above, the firearm that I carry is a Glock 22 (.40).

I would strongly caution against buying a cheaper gun to use during the academy with the plan to upgrade later.  You are going to spend a large amount of time putting rounds through your gun during firearms training in the academy.  With all of that time behind the trigger, you are going to become very comfortable with the weapon.  If you later change to a different pistol with different functions or different positioning of the releases, safeties, etc. you could suffer from operator error under stress.

In case you are completely new to the world of firearms, here are some companies that I would recommend: 
Beretta USA
Browning Firearms
Colt Firearms
Glock Firearms
Heckler & Koch
Ruger
Sig Sauer 
Smith & Wesson

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Recommended Police Use of Force Articles: June 2009
June 1, 2009 at 8:38 am

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JumpOut March 31, 2009 at 9:01 am

If you’d be so kind as to allow my two cents:

I switched departments a while back. I went from carrying a .40 to carrying a 9mm. I found that I was far less accurate (okay, abysmal) with the 9 mm. I went back to my original department and I am back to shooting expert scores on the POST course. The only thing I can figure is that the greater felt recoil of the .40 forced me to concentrate more on what I was doing, and kept me from getting overanxious with the trigger. I guess the moral of the story is, less recoil doesn’t always give greater accuracy. Then again, the moral could be, don’t switch calibers mid-stream.

thebronze March 31, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Glock FTW!

Jason April 1, 2009 at 9:54 am

I recently switched from a Department issued 9mm to a Springfield XD 40cal, 5″ tactical. I absolutely LOVE this gun. It was “dead” accurate right out of the box. I am a member of a tactical team and we have done numerous “round” tests on all kinds of mediums. The 40cal, overall, performed better than any other round. Just my two cents.

Jens August 24, 2009 at 5:18 pm

Back in 1998 we switched from a Walther 32 cal to a 9mm H&K USP Compact. That was a fine switch, and since we have no other choice I’m just happy about it.

Rick June 25, 2010 at 10:51 pm

I like all the mentioned calibers for one reason or another. But having said that I really like the 9mm 115 +P+ because of its ballistics and kinetic energy all the while giving you somewhat moderate recoil as well as high capacity, more so than the other calibers. After all shot placement is the most important and the extra round help keep ya in the fight. Where I work in NY, you can easily come up against more that one thug with a gun at one time. Just an opinion. Besides, it costs less to shoot the 9 that the others.

Vanarsdall October 2, 2010 at 9:43 pm

I love the 1911 but a lot of departments that I’ve talked to don’t like it because the cock lock feature is said to appear to “agressive” so double action is the only option for their officers. I like the .40 but use a 9mm Rugar.

Eric November 18, 2010 at 11:14 am

Just a question, if I may. When you spoke about double and single action, you mentioned that cocking the hammer was the first action, and releasing the hammer was the second action. It has always been my understanding that single action meant that you had to physically cock the gun before pulling the trigger, and double action meant that you could either physically cock it then pull the trigger -or- simply pull the trigger which cocks then fires the gun.

Beatriz February 28, 2011 at 8:06 am

Thanks for the article. I’d like to ask, what does “cocked and locked” mean exactly? I understood it meant a semi-automatic with a round chambered, cocked, but with an external safety on. Yet you did not mention the safety.

Jeremy April 26, 2011 at 7:52 pm

This goes out to Beatriz, a 1911 weather made by Colt or by Taurus for example all are very similar if not identical in the mechanics behind each manufacturer. However, the safety systems on the 1911 are different than lets say a Glock. The 1911 has a manual safety on the left hand side of the slide, and has another safety which is called a Dove Tail safety which is on the back strap of the pistol when your hands naturally grasp it, the safety is naturally disenganged followed by a sweep with your finger to take the manual saftey off “cocked and locked” means the hammer is in battery position (Cocked) while the firearm can not be shot until the other 2 saftys are disengaged. making this fire arm safe to carry “Cocked and Locked”. Hope I helped.

Spiros May 25, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Sphinx AT-2000P

John June 8, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Matt, thank you for the info, very informative. My son is getting ready to ship out again, ( 1st time it was Army ) this time it’s academy, the young guys we’re talking about carrying pistols off-duty, their under the impression they can carry anywhere off duty, New Jersey has very tough laws.

thanks, matt for you’re help.

Garrett June 11, 2011 at 8:39 pm

If i were you I would either use the .40 caliber of really any brand, or the Smith & Wesson PK.380. really though I would choose the .380 because its range is amazing and there is nothing to worry about it missing any target. It is one of the most underlooked guns in America.THANKS!!!!!!

suck my glock September 20, 2011 at 11:46 pm

buy a glock. if you dont own a glock you are retarded

David September 26, 2011 at 9:04 pm

I never found anything more important that the overall smooth operation and action of the pistol that I preferred. Every Sig I ever fired was smoother than any Glock I ever fired and Every Glock I fired was smoother than any automatic pistol I ever fired.

Sig Sauer … The smoothest. I have not fired an HK as of yet.

deodato saipa January 22, 2012 at 3:45 am

I believe that the best handgun for LEOs must have the biggest caliber which they can handle its recoil and can even fire one hand in rapid fire. If shot placement is what matters then go for caliber 22s since it has a very lesser recoil; and what is the logic then in producing 9mm/.40 and .45 if caliber is secondary to shot placement. Accordingly, many handgun fights happened at a very close range, say 3-6 meters and yet o many occasions there are more misses than hits. The reality is shot placement is easier said than done in actual gun fights. In many occasions fights become protracted when the shootings distance goes beyond close quarter. In this regard both opponents can reload at will when they have covers. If you have a 8 rounder 1911 and you have a gun fight in close quarter the fight is over perhaps before you use all your load. Either you or your opponent is dead.Your extra ammo is no more needed.

Mike January 23, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Like this information says, you and your gun will be exposed to elements; this is true. Therefore, I use a Ruger P95 because it is a very durable firearm and that is why it is nick-named “The Tank”. Moreover, it does not cost very much so I do not feel horrible when it gets dirty. Any one of those firearm companies that the author recommends is good. But keep in mind, the more you spend, the more you feel horrible when your 1200 dollar gun has crap all over it, which is why I dont use my favorite Colt. Nonetheless, regular cleanings of your firearm is important to its overall function regardless of the brand.

Ed Medlin February 27, 2012 at 10:07 am

At various times during my sixteen years in law enforcement, I carried revolvers in .38, .357, and .44 spl., as well as pistols in 9mm and .45, both single action and double action. When I became a chief, I authorized officers to carry personally owned (but inspected and approved) revolvers (double action) or pistols (single action, double action, or hybrid) handguns in .38, 9mm, or .45. My own preference was/is for a 1911 style .45 (single action pistol), but I can’t argue with those who argue that a Glock is the best choice for a standard issue weapon, and even some of the few police departments that once issued 1911s have since switched to Glocks (often because of customer service issues).

I agree that quick and accurate hits are more important than caliber and load, but disagree with the comments extolling high velocity/energy, lightweight 9mm rounds. velocity/energy vs diameter/momentum used to be the subject of a great deal of argument, with the Law Enforcement
Assistance Administration of the Department of Justice on one side, and Dr. Martin Fackler of the Army Wound Ballistics Lab on the other. That argument is pretty much over, and even elements of the D.O.J. now admitt the LEAA got it wrong, and concede that .40 or .45 are better choices than 9mm.

Perceived recoil is affected by the velocity and mass of the bullet that is fired, but the weight of the firearm and its design also are critical factors. For example, a very lightweight 9mm may “kick” more than a full-size steel .45. The vertical distance between the barrel axis and where the hand grips can make a difference (the less the distance, the less muzzle flip…and the more that the recoil seems like a rearward push). Grip size makes a difference- and grip that must accomodate a staggered stack of .45 rounds may be too big for shooter with small hands to properly hold; that can adversely affect comfort, consistency, and speed (inconsistant grip may affect pointability/sight-alignment).

I disagree with the assertion that a double digit magazine capacity should be a high priority. Sure, it there is no trade off, go for it. However, let me share two stories.

In the 1970′s, the Fresno County Sheriffs Department transitioned from .38 revolvers to Smith and Wesson Model 59 9mms. Several years later, the training unit compared the deputy-involved shootings after the transition to the those before the transition. They determined that the average number of shots fired by a deputy in a shootout had almost doubled, but that the average number of hits had remained constant. On average, an opponent had been hit twice before ceasing to offer resistance, and vast majority of incidents were over in less than 3 seconds. The training unit did not find a single incident in which a deputy who fired more than 6 rounds (the number in a revolver) lacked time and/or cover that would have allowed him/her to reload.

In the 1980′s, the department transitioned to Smith and Wesson 945s (.45 double actio pistolrs) and, more importantly, intensified firearms training. Subsequently, average number of shots fired per incident dropped to an all-time low, and most opponents were stopped by a single hit to the torso. At the time of the last review that was shared with me, magazine capacity remained a non-issue.

Here’s the other story. When I was the chief of a relatively small (under 40 officers), one of the largest police deparments in the metro Atlanta area asked our firearms instructors to meet with them, to discuss our revolver-to-pistol transition training program- their department was transitioning from .357 revolvers to high capacity double action 9mm pistols.

Our met with them, and began by asking why they were switching from their familar revolvers, firing very effective ammunition, unfamiar pistols firing less effective ammunition. The response was that the department wanted the greater number of rounds offered by the pistols. So, our folks asked if the department had encountered situations in which officers had been killed or injured after emptying their revolvers. The response pretty much said it all: in the history of that department, running out of ammo had never proven to be an issue. Officers shot in the line of duty either had never fired at all, or had managed to get off only a couple of rounds.

Why, then, asked our crew, was the department switching to weapons that were less familiar, less effective, and, all things considered, more difficult to master (difference in trigger pull between first and subsequent shots, manifulation fo the thumb safety, having to remember to lower the hammer before reholstering, etc.), instead of investing in better holster and much more training? The answer was that City of Atlanta was getting high capacity 9mm, and so their department wanted them, too.

At the range, both that department and Atlanta PD were allowing at least 3 seconds for officers to draw and fire two shots into a large target, at a range of 7 yards. By way of comparison, our department allowed officers a precisely times 1.6 seconds to draw and fire two rounds into a much smaller target. We allowed only 2 seconds to engage 2 targets at that range. Most of our officers carried weapons holding 8 or fewer rounds, but were trained to make speedy reloads. Which officers were better prepared to prevail in an armed encounter?

Texaspitbull March 13, 2012 at 1:36 am

Ive got a ton of guns, .22 – 45 at least one of each, I own hi point glock hk ruger colt anyway. for me the glock 19 is my fav. with the cz 75b knocking on the door. I also love my rugers. p89 p90 p94

Gang Hunter June 14, 2012 at 4:33 pm

There is only one weapon that I would ever consider using as a law enforcement officer. When the stress is up because your life is on the line, simple is the only way you are going to win the fight. For that reason alone I prefer Glocks (caliber is really not important as they all kill). There are no safeties, and the design fits the hand perfectly for point shooting at close range. I’ve carried one for over 14 years now and I honestly can’t remember ever having one lock up on me. The choice is yours. I have shot all of the common handguns used by LE agencies (Glock, Sig, Beretta, Colt, Springfield, etc). None of them function as well or are as reliable as Glock.

Matt June 17, 2012 at 2:00 am

Five-seveN … end of discussion.

HandgunGURU February 11, 2013 at 12:27 am

No above has mentioned it yet so i thought i would, the CZ-P01!! an amazing sidearm for anyone and perfect for duty. NATO certified and unbelievably reliable and accurate! and its not polymer.

amber February 17, 2013 at 10:38 am

I’m going to an academy, I will soon have to get a pistol, I have been told to get 9mm glock…but I was just looking for the others of others before I ran out and got that one. I wish to stay with a 9mm but does anyone have a brand that they would recommend?

JAFO March 24, 2013 at 11:22 am

The best handgun for police work is the Glock 22 .40 cal.It has endured more testing than any other,current,Law Enforcement handgun on the market today.

The LAPD has switched to the Glock 22 for this reason.They’ve replaced the Beretta 9mm,with the Glock 22.The Beretta 9mm is also a damn fine handgun,and the US Army still uses it as it’s standard combat handgun.So,this says alot about the Glock 22.

They’re the best trained Law Enforcement Agency in the USA,the LAPD.

I love the storys on here from wanna be cops,lol.Take this advice from experence boys.

Bill June 1, 2013 at 5:47 pm

I’ve been in LE for 27 years and I’ve used many different caliber and brand name duty weapons. I qualify with the 9mm, 40 cal. and 45 cal. annually for duty carry with a couple of different agancies. My final life and death choice for duty carry is Glock. In a gunfight under any/all real life conditions, Glocks have never failed me! Because of my heavily muscled build, I prefer normally to carry the 40 cal. while on duty because of the knock down power over a greater range, but I switch to a 45 cal. when transporting prison inmates and need a lot of knock down power in close quarters. Although my 9mm is a little light for me,I use my 9mm for competition shooting in timed events because of ammo cost and recoil control in speed shooting. Why not just one caliber? Would you use a 22 cal. to hunt elk? Or would you use a 12 guage shotgun to shoot a house fly? Trouble comes in all shapes and sizes and you should carefully consider your weapon choice based upon your duty need, physical strength, ability to shoot accurately and your agency requirements. If your an average size woman, you can’t go wrong with a 9mm/hallow-point combination. If your an average to larger size man, you can’t go wrong with a 40 or 45 caliber/hallow-point combination. If your a larger size man, you can’t go wrong with a 45/hallow-point combination. The point is to find the right weapon for YOU! and then practice – practice – practice! As a part of your training under fire, compete regularly in law enforcement matches so your use to shooting under gunfight/adrenalin situations. Simply being able to qualify annually at the range courts disaster in a real life gunfight. How many reports have been filed where a range qualified officer emptied a mag or two at a suspect in a gunfight and failed to hit with one shot? I’ve witnessed “expert marksman” at the range fall apart in a real life gunfight causing the other officers to fear for their safety/lives. The duty weapon of choice is like buying a car. Test drive several calibers and models before you settle on one. You’ll know which one you want when you shoot it! And if you are an active duty officer; STAY SAFE OUT THERE!

aldo June 3, 2013 at 2:23 pm

I have a beretta 92fs parabellum. the problem of us is Italian police that the bullet has too much penetrating power.
for us Italian policemen pull the gun means to have problems in the future with the judiciary, the less you use it and we are more relaxed.
How gun and excellent, accurate and shoots qulsiasi situation, but is a bit heavy

Garrick July 25, 2013 at 1:04 am

I’d pick up the Beretta, but go with whatever you’re most comfortable with.

Ray October 4, 2013 at 4:08 pm

The interesting part about this is actually how poorly trained cops really are. You can do all the shooting you want on a range to gauge the accuracy of any weapon, but not one of those training programs the police ever do is based on actual reality. The only way to train properly, is to train like the Special Forces do. Cops who are accurate at the range will shoot an innocent bystander when it comes time for an actual shootout and bullets are flying at you and this has happened many times in America. Cops are trained to shoot down their sights, this is wrong. The proper way to shoot is wherever your eyes are is what you hit. When someone is shooting at you, you don’t have the time or presents of mind to calmly aim down your sights. Plus, they should be trained on multiple weapons. This notion of I’m only accurate with my side arm is ridiculous. You should be proficient with every weapon your department carries and even ones they don’t.

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