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Duty Handgun History and Why It Matters to You

From a consumer standpoint, duty handguns have a trickle-down effect, which is important because the civilian market has paralleled the choices of those in uniform for generations.

Duty Handgun History and Why It Matters to You

Illinois State Police transitioned from a rare 5-inch-barrelled K-frame to the M39 in 1968. Courtesy of Dave Barth, Pekin Gun & Sporting Goods. (Mike Anschuetz photo)

The first truly modern police department was created by Napoleon I in the wake of the French Revolution. In fact, the Paris Prefecture of Police was the first uniformed, professionally organized police department in the world. The London Metropolitan Police Department was organized and led by Sir Robert Peele shortly after, and in 1838 the concept reached Boston and New York City by 1844.

The service-­issue handgun in the United States goes back to the Harpers Ferry Model 1805 (1805-­1816), a flintlock in .54 caliber. The first percussion pistol was the Model 1842 (1842-­1865), and the first service-­issued revolver was the Colt M1847 Walker. The Smith & Wesson Model No. 3 (1871-­1873) was the first single-­action cartridge revolver, and the Colt M1892 (1892-­1909) was the first double-­action revolver. John Browning’s Colt M1911 became the first U.S.-­issued semiautomatic pistol (1911-­1924), which was followed by the M1911A1.

As far as municipal law enforcement is concerned, New York City was the first to standardize a handgun carried by its police officers. Training and equipment was eclectic, and often lacking, but that began to change in 1894 when Theodore Roosevelt was appointed to the New York City Police Commission. He established hiring and performance standards, and in 1896 he ordered Colt’s New Police revolvers to simplify training and ammunition. The New Police was a double-­action six-shot chambered in the .32 New Police cartridge, which was similar to the .32 S&W Long except in bullet profile. These revolvers were also available in .32 Colt. The New Police was replaced in 1907 by the Colt Police Positive, which featured an internal hammer-­block safety. Roosevelt’s order for 4,500 revolvers constituted the largest order by a police department, which pushed other municipalities to standardize, too.

While working in the Special Projects Unit at the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Firearms Section, I found a document from 1938 where then-­Chief David Davidson addressed the Board of Police Commissioners. He recounted how in 1925 the department surveyed its officers and learned that not only did the average officer need training, but also that “… officers were armed with guns of many different calibers and makes, and that in quite a few instances the guns could not be fired and that the ammunition had become corroded and useless.” Subsequently, the LAPD standardized the Colt and Smith & Wesson M1917 large-­frame revolvers in .45 and established a training program in Elysian Park, which would become the Los Angeles Police Academy. The department took delivery of the first 50 revolvers from the federal government.

By the 1930s, the .38 Special cartridge caught on with police agencies, and American gun owners followed suit. The medium-­frame double-­action revolver dominated police and civilian sales until the 1980s. During the 1950s, the gun public enjoyed specialized firearms press, such as Guns & Ammo in 1958, which featured investigative and experienced personalities such Charles Askins, Jeff Cooper and Bill Jordan. Based on their writings, studies on self-­defense and work with manufacturers, authors contributed to the development of more effective firepower. Elmer Keith co-­designed the .357 Magnum in 1934, for example, and the .44 Magnum in 1955. Elmer Keith and Bill Jordan, with Skeeter Skelton of “Shooting Times” consulting, co-­developed the .41 Magnum in 1963. They each took their best shot at supplanting the venerable .38 Special, but it was never seriously challenged until the 1980s.

Theodore Roosevelt served as commissioner from 1895 to 1897 for the New York Police Department. He was the first to standardize sidearms.

Also during the early ’50s, the Illinois State Police (ISP) custom-­ordered Smith & Wesson revolvers for its troopers. Unique to the department, ISP’s K-­frames were not designated by a model number and were equipped with 5-­inch heavy barrels rather than the more popular 4-­ and 6-­inch barrels. It is believed that 470 of the pre-­Model 15 revolvers were made with serial numbers dispersed between K272174 and K307370. They were complete with Baughman sights and diamond target grips. A small production run of 365 revolvers with standard-­weight 5-­inch barrels was also sold to the Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) in 1952.

Following World War II, the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps requested a proposal for a pistol with features found on the Walther P.38. In 1949, Smith & Wesson began development of the Model 39 in 9mm, which didn’t enter the market until 1955. Even for the delay, the Model 39 was the first U.S.-­designed double-­action (DA) semiautomatic pistol marketed in the United States. In 1968, the Illinois State Police became the first agency to adopt the Model 39. These pistols are marked “ILL. S.P.” on the left side of the frame. The Model 39 was the breakthrough design that introduced semiautomatic pistols to U.S. law enforcement. The publicity surrounding the ISP’s adoption is credited with improving commercial sales. This paved the way for the Model 59’s launch in 1971, which initially introduced a 14-­round capacity magazine that was similar to the Browning Hi-­Power’s. The M59’s magazine was eventually increased to 15 rounds, which exceeded the 13-­round expectation of pistols submitted to the U.S. military’s Joint Service Small Arms Program (JSSAP) in 1977. Thus began the era of double-­stack, double-­action autos.

In 1980, Los Angeles suffered 1,011 murders. As a frame of reference, L.A. hasn’t seen more than 300 murders a year in a decade! Cops and citizens felt outgunned. This feeling, in conjunction with the U.S. military’s adoption of the Beretta 92FS as the M9 in 1985, influenced duty pistols. The period saw designs incorporating the first computer-­controlled manufacturing of aluminum alloys and polymer frames, multiple safety systems and standard controls. Even before the U.S. military began issuing the M9, LAPD Commissioner Robert Talcott and Chief Daryl Gates approved the alloy-­frame Beretta 92F/FS 9mm for purchase in 1986. More than 4,600 of the department’s 7,900 sworn officers made the switch in the first 2 years.

Elsewhere, the SIG Sauer P220 and P226 were adopted, and the Glock 17 found immediate acceptance by some law enforcement when it arrived in the U.S. in 1988. The LAPD also switched to Glock pistols by 2003, and so did much of the country. This wasn’t challenged until the introduction of the Smith & Wesson M&P series in 2006 and the U.S. military’s adoption of the SIG Sauer P320 in 2017 as the M17/M18. Still, the Glock remains popular.

The perceived weakness of these pistols, historically, has been the 9mm chambering. Until jacketed hollow point designs evolved with computer-­age engineering into the Federal Hydra-­Shok (1988); Speer Gold Dot (1991); Winchester Black Talon/Ranger (1991); and Hornady Critical Duty (2011); the 9mm was questionable as a fight stopper. The biggest cartridge experiment was the FBI’s move first to 10mm in 1989, in the wake of the tragic 1986 FBI Miami Shootout, and then to .40 S&W in 1990. The truth is that a determined attacker is difficult to stop with any caliber of handgun. Caliber selection was not the only issue, but it made for an easy scapegoat.

An officer with the Los Angeles Police Department poses as he takes aim at a target. The revolver is a Smith & Wesson Model 10 with 6-inch barrel chambered for .38 Special.

Today, the 9mm pistol has come full circle. As our understanding of terminal ballistics and projectile engineering has improved, the difference between caliber effectiveness has become statistically insignificant. To punctuate that sentence, the FBI returned to the 9mm in 2015 and abandoned the .40-­caliber experiment nearly 30 years after it began. And the Illinois State Police? They’ve been bound in a contract for nearly 17 years that prohibits the agency from considering pistols manufactured by a company other than Glock.

From a consumer standpoint, this all is important because the civilian market has paralleled the choices of those in uniform for generations. Bias and politics sometimes influence a police agency’s choice of sidearm and ammunition, but they do have court-defensible protocols and resources to conduct extensive testing and evaluation.


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