“Hey Sarge, show the rookie how many backup guns you carry.”
It was late at night, and I was standing in a dark gas station parking lot talking with one of my field-training officers. He had a new recruit, fresh from the police academy, whom he was training. I pulled up one pant leg to reveal a Glock 27, then opened my uniform shirt to show the Smith & Wesson Model 642 riding on my vest.
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“Why do you carry two backup guns?” the recruit asked.
“Because I might need them.”
While I strongly believe that tactics, awareness and good communication skills can prevent many fights, I also know that sometimes the fight is coming no matter what you do. In those cases, I don’t want to die because I didn’t have the tools to get the job done. When your primary duty pistol goes down, a second gun may be the only thing that will get you home. On numerous occasions, law enforcement officers have rescued themselves from bad situations only with the help of a second, or even third, gun.
Deadly-force encounters have shown us that the only predictable thing about a violent incident is their chaotic nature. Sometimes a firearm will be dropped, taken away or rendered completely inoperable for one reason or another. In these cases, accessing a secondary firearm is the most realistic way to stay in the fight. Just as your duty pistol backs up your shotgun or rifle, so should a second pistol back up your duty handgun. Considerations including size, caliber, cost and department policy will all guide your selection of a backup gun.
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I’ve assembled this list in an effort to guide you toward some of the quality pistols suitable for backup duty. All of the guns in this article are pistols that I have either carried or would carry as my own backup gun. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other handguns that are good choices for the role, but these are a few of my top choices that I know I can rely on when a call goes sideways.
Scroll through the gallery of backup pistols above. For more information, keep reading below.
Beretta started with a clean slate when it designed the Nano. Sleek, thin and compact, the Nano offers seven rounds of 9mm in a snag-free platform. Utilizing a serialized subchassis, an officer can swap the polymer frame easily if needed. Beretta designed the gun with a reversible magazine release to accommodate left-handed shooters. While the three-dot sights are quite large for a subcompact pistol, Beretta also offers the gun with an integral Crimson Trace laser. (beretta.com)
A compact version of the company’s popular full-sized pistol, the FNS-9 Compact is a striker-fired gun using a polymer frame that is adjustable for hand fit. The gun is fully ambidextrous and can be had with or without an external thumb safety. While compact enough to be carried on a vest, this gun may be too large for many people to carry on the ankle. However, it is a solid pistol and deserving of consideration if it will fit your size requirements. FNH USA also offers .40-caliber versions. (fnhusa.com; 703-288-3500)
Glock 27 Gen4
For any officer carrying a Glock 22 duty pistol, the Glock 27 is perhaps the ultimate backup gun. In addition to operating exactly the same as the duty gun, the G27 can use the larger gun’s magazines. I carried one for years and found it easy to both carry and shoot. The Gen4 model adds the ability to adjust the grip size, improves the grip texture and increases the size of the magazine release. (glock.com; 770-432-1202)
The Glock 43 is a Slimline, subcompact pistol that carries much more easily than the existing G26 without losing the shootability of the thicker pistol. It can ride backup more discreetly than other Glock pistols while still giving an officer seven rounds of 9mm with which to take action. My Glock 43 pistol has proven to be utterly reliable with all types of ammunition, and is more than accurate enough to engage threats at 25 yards and beyond. (glock.com; 770-432-1202)
Even out of a short barrel, the 9mm is a potent round. With the very compact Kahr CM9, a law enforcement officer can have seven rounds of lifesaving firepower easily concealed in a pocket, on an ankle or attached to a bullet-resistant vest. Kahr designed these “Value Series” pistols to operate at the same high level as the company’s other guns, but at a price that a rookie street cop can afford. (kahr.com; 508-795-3919)
Ruger LC9s Pro
Offering a superb balance of performance and price, the LC9s Pro is a compact, striker-fired 9mm pistol. Ruger equips this handgun with very usable three-dot sights and deletes both the magazine disconnect and external thumb safety from the Pro model. This provides a police officer with a gun that can be brought into action quickly without any worries of it being accidentally rendered inoperable. Chambered in 9mm, the pistol uses a single-stack magazine to keep the gun width to just 0.9 inches. (ruger.com)
Possibly the best self-defense revolver introduced in the 21st century, the Ruger LCR is an incredibly smooth-shooting compact wheelgun that is both affordable and reliable. The friction-reducing cam system gives the officer a very clean, consistent trigger pull, while the blended-material body combines with the Hogue grip to reduce felt recoil when compared to traditional designs. Ruger offers these revolvers in a range of calibers, though I believe the best balance for a backup gun is found in the original .38 Special +P model. (ruger.com)
Sig Sauer P290RS
Sig Sauer is frequently associated with the full-sized fighting handguns of the Navy SEALs and other elite units. However, the P290RS is a polymer-framed, subcompact pistol worthy of the same high regard. The gun has a smooth DAO trigger and combat-ready night sights to help ensure superb accuracy. Although small, this pistol fills the hand nicely and is reassuringly rugged. I’ve found this gun to be 100-percent reliable. (sigsauer.com; 603-610-3000)
Smith & Wesson M&P9 Shield
For a department issuing the full-sized M&P pistol, the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield makes a lot of sense as a backup gun. The Shield has the same look and feel as the larger pistols, giving an officer immediate familiarity with the gun. Small enough to carry on an ankle, the Shield is large enough to easily control during rapid fire. Models are available with and without (shown) a manual thumb safety. (smith-wesson.com; 800-331-0852)
Smith & Wesson Model 642
Perhaps the iconic backup gun, the Smith & Wesson Model 642 is a Centennial revolver that offers the ultimate in reliability under stress. This revolver has a completely concealed hammer, ensuring nothing will catch during a draw from concealment, and it can be reliably fired from a winter coat pocket. The aluminum frame is lightweight yet strong enough to handle even the heaviest of .38 Special +P loads. I carried one of these nearly every day of my law enforcement career. (smith-wesson.com; 800-331-0852)
Springfield Armory XD-S 3.3”
The XD-S line of compact pistols from Springfield Armory offers an excellent solution to any law enforcement officer needing a backup gun. XD-S pistols have proven themselves to be reliable and accurate without breaking the bank. Available in both 9mm and .45 ACP, the guns offer respectable capacity in a small frame. Light recoil, a smooth trigger and a fiber-optic front sight all contribute to the pistol’s ability to put rounds on target quickly. (springfield-armory.com; 800-680-6866)
Thin and flat, the PPS is a single-stack 9mm pistol from Walther that has proven to be a very good performer under virtually all conditions. I’ve tested one of these pistols extensively and found the gun to be very easy shooting for such a small gun. Easily concealed on an ankle or vest, the PPS can be a literal lifesaver with its quick, accurate shooting and bulletproof reliability. (waltherarms.com; 479-242-8500)