Form follows function. Items are designed for a specific purpose. Take the handgun. It was designed to be a defensive weapon. Take its use in the military, for example. During the Civil War and later, it was the hallmark of officers, a weapon used by those who generally didn’t carry a rifle.
In later conflicts such as World War II, Korea and Vietnam, handguns were traditionally carried by support personnel or as a backup weapon for soldiers carrying heavy weapon systems such as machine guns and grenade launchers.
Over time the handgun has been adapted to fit various missions. This was due in large part to improvements in weapons systems.
The M1911A1 carried by U.S. troops from World War I up until the mid-1980s had some severe limitations. With a seven round magazine and fixed sights, the weapon lacked firepower and modularity.
Compare this to a modern handgun with a 15-round magazine, red dot optic, and rails for lights and lasers. You’ve come a long way, baby…The modern handgun opens up a whole new world of options in terms of what kinds of missions it can be used for. No longer limited to being a last-ditch weapon useful only at very close ranges, the modern handgun can take the fight to the enemy.
In certain situations, its compactness makes it superior to a long gun. Now, the mission and the user’s necessities define what role a handgun will play. In modern times, how a handgun is carried, what type of handgun is carried, and its usage
spells out what kind of handgun it is.
Handguns that are carried by military operators, SWAT cops and other tactical types will fall into two categories: defensive handguns and offensive handguns.
DEFENSIVE HANDGUNS ARE generally used for just that, self-defense. As previously mentioned, in the military they are carried by support troops who operate in less-hostile environments, as well as operators of crew-served weapons. They are there for when a primary weapon goes down and the handgun is the only option left.
Defensive handguns can also be backup guns. On the street, as a cop, I carry two handguns. I carry my primary (offensive) weapon and a backup (defensive) one.
My department-issue gun is a Glock 22 .40 caliber. I opted for a small-frame Glock 27 as my backup when I carried the Glock 22. They are the same caliber and a Glock 27 will take Glock 22 magazines.
A few years back I switched to a Glock 21 .45 as my primary handgun. Despite its reputation for kicking like a mule, I find that .45s have more controllable recoil than .40s, allowing for quicker follow-up shots and more accurate shooting overall.
When I made the switch, I opted to carry a .45-caliber Glock 30 compact as my backup. Like the Glock 22/27 combo, the smaller gun (Glock 30) can use the larger gun’s magazines. As an aside, this isn’t a commercial for Glock, it’s just what I’ve carried at work for the past 18 years. You can get similar interoperability from S&W M&P and Springfield XD series.
OFFENSIVE HANDGUNS ARE used for actual tactical operations, such as building-clearing and close-quarters battle (CQB) scenarios. They are used in conjunction with heavier weapons such as assault rifles.
Operators will use handguns when clearing tight spaces such as ships or aircraft where their small size is optimal when compared to long guns. As a SWAT operator, I would often switch between my handgun and long gun during an operation.
For example, I prefer a handgun for clearing stairs. It’s the better weapon system when moving up or down a stairwell, especially in a multilevel building with multiple stairwells.
These types of stairwells often contain tight 180-degree turns where two stairwells meet or overhangs that require an operator to point his weapon almost directly above his head to keep a gun on a potential threat.
Try doing that with a rifle. Handguns also provide for one-handed operation when needed. This is important when you have to open doors or cabinets. On the other hand, when clearing a long hallway or large room, a long gun is obviously preferred.
There’s no denying that most rifle rounds are more lethal than handgun rounds. Also, rifle magazines have a larger capacity (30 rounds or more, compared to 15). And, shoulder mounted weapons are inherently more accurate and are more capable of reaching targets at distance. That’s why you transition to them when appropriate. But in a tight space, the handgun is king.
SO WHAT’S THE physical difference between defensive and offensive handguns? Ideally, an offensive handgun is going to be a large-frame gun like a M1911A1 (a modern one with adjustable sights and rails; not your grandpa’s war hammer), a full size Glock or Sig Sauer 320.
It will be equipped, at a minimum, with a rail mounted light system for night time clearing or working in dark areas. It may have a laser system as well that is compatible with NVGs (night vision goggles).
A threaded barrel is a good option for mounting a suppressor, a useful tool to have when shooting in confined spaces. Additionally, a red dot sight can be mounted for quicker target acquisition. Extended magazines are a good idea, as long as they don’t interfere with other gear. It’s a weapon designed to take the fight to the enemy, often acting in the primary role in certain situations.
A defensive handgun could be a large-frame but, preferably, a mid-or small-frame gun would be better. I say this because a smaller-frame gun weighs less and takes up less room on a belt or tactical vest. This reduction in weight means more gear can be carried.
Belt and tac vest space can be at a premium and fills up quickly with ammo, medical gear, and other essential stuff. Guns like the Glock 26 9mm and the Springfield XD compact are good examples of small-frame defensive handguns. Add-ons like lights and holographic sights aren’t necessary.
A small-frame gun can be secreted behind a rifle magazine pouch on a tac vest or in a vest mounted holster.
Conversely, an offensive handgun is generally going to be carried in a drop-leg rig or a belt-mounted tactical holster. Some operators prefer vest mounted holsters.
When carrying an offensive handgun, you are generally going to want to carry more ammunition for it.
Since it will be used in engaging bad guys (also known as gun fighting), it needs a lot of ammo. An operator needs to make accommodations for this, ensuring that he has the space on his belt and vest for it. This may potentially mean that some long gun ammo may have to be left at home to make room for handgun mags.
The mission dictates what the proper rifle-to-handgun ammo ratio will be. Simply put, more enclosed space-clearing equals the need for more handgun ammo.
Generally, with a defensive handgun you are going to carry just enough ammo to protect yourself, especially if your long gun goes down. How much ammo depends on the situation but, bear in mind, everywhere you carry handgun ammo could potentially be a place where rifle ammo or other essential gear can be carried.
It doesn’t weigh a lot but it takes up space. In an environment where pistol applications are limited, such as the open deserts of Afghanistan away from built-up areas, is it worth carrying two handgun magazines in the same amount of space where a rifle magazine could be carried?
Would you sacrifice carrying a strobe light or extra radio batteries, two items that can definitely be lifesavers? Conversely, the SWAT officer working in a major city would have to carry a different ammunition load out, possibly a 50/50 mix of rifle and handgun ammunition.
AS WITH ANYTHING related to carrying firearms, it’s important to train with what you plan to deploy with.
I mentioned that in SWAT I like to transition from handgun to rifle quite often. This needs to be practiced.
Many issues come into play when you go from rifle to handgun and back.
Do you have a good sling that will work well during the transition? Is your sling going to get caught on gear on your vest such as ammo pouches? Is your handgun easily accessible?
In the Army they utilize the “Crawl, walk, run” method of teaching a new skill.
In firearms training a similar approach should be followed.
Multiple iterations of dry practice with unloaded weapons. This must be done until muscle memory is developed. If at all possible, it’s good to practice the same skills with an air soft weapon.
This will allow for not just transitioning and deploying weapons systems, but engaging threats as well. There’s a lot of biomechanics involved in bringing one lethal weapon system down and then rapidly bringing another one up.
Accuracy can be affected too when conducting quick follow-up shots with the handgun once it has been brought to bear. It’s important to train through these issues.
Finally, once the manipulation skills have been mastered, it’s time to go to the range and do it live. Practice transitioning from all different positions: standing, kneeling, prone and so on.
A chest-mounted holster works great when standing but can be next to impossible to use when laying on your stomach. It doesn’t matter if the handgun is used for offensive or defensive operations, it’s important to practice transition drills.
If your rifle ceases to function (no more ammo, malfunction), you need to be able to transition to your defensive handgun.
So, whatever you do or wherever you go, make sure you have the right handgun for the mission. Editor’s note: Author Nick Perna is a sergeant with the Redwood City Police Department in northern California. He has spent much of his career as a gang and narcotics investigator. He is a member of a multi-jurisdictional SWAT Team since 2001 and is currently a team leader. He previously served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army and is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has a master’s degree from the University of San Francisco.
Story and Photos by Nick Perna