By Bob Walsh
(This item originally ran in April 2008 on the now-defunct PacoVilla blog. The audience was primarily peace officers who worked for the CA. Dept. of Corrections. Correctional officers, at least in California, were in an odd position. They are peace officers but their authority is limited to the course of their employment. Very few work armed. However the penal code [due to the hard work of CCPOA, the union representing Correctional Officers] specifically permits them to carry firearms off duty. CDC is only now switching over from revolvers to semi-autos. This wasn’t really a big deal as hand guns are not a primary weapon at the institutional level. The change, to the Glock .40 cal, was actually made due to ammunition costs. At any rate as you read this you should keep this perspective in mind as some of this has been overtaken by time and events.)
I am a gun person. I am a well-trained, knowledgeable and experienced gun person. This is me sharing my thoughts (and they are mine, so if you don’t like them blame me and no one else) within the realm of handguns, personal defense, firearms training and suchlike. These thoughts are based largely on 24 years as a peace officer, about half of that as an armorer, range master and firearms instructor. I have spent about half my life regularly carrying a gun and a large chunk of time teaching others to shoot. I am also a competition pistol shooter, shooting in IDPA on a regular basis.
For starters, there is almost nothing so useless and even dangerous as a firearm, especially a handgun, in the possession of an inexperienced, untrained individual. If you are not willing to get training from someone who knows what they are doing, and are not willing to spend a little time and a little money in the process, you are much better off without one.
Fortunately, most of the people I have dealt with during my working life got at least marginal training in the use of a handgun from the agency I worked for, the California Dept. of Corrections. Our agency is unusual when compared to most law enforcement agencies in that a handgun is not our primary weapon, at least not at the institution level. We dealt mostly with rifles, shotguns and gas guns. Unless things have changed radically since I retired in 2005 department handgun training consisted mostly of how to handle a weapon safely and discharge it downrange without being a hazard to yourself or others. There was some modest level of basic marksmanship taught, but it could not seriously be considered training in the combat use of a handgun. That being said it was still a good place to start for a newbie.
When someone asked me about what sort of weapon to carry for off-duty use I almost always recommended a small or medium frame .38 special revolver. Part of this was, at the time, CDC still used revolvers and the person asking would have some training from the department.
Much of the reason for my favoring the revolver is simplicity. Operational simplicity. Back in the prehistoric days when the LAPD was first looking seriously at changing to semi-autos they did an interesting test. They got a number of academy cadets who had zero handgun experience. They were put in a shooting lane with a safety officer to make sure they didn’t do anything grossly stupid with a B-27 target at 3 yards, a revolver, and six rounds of ammunition. They were told simply “load the gun, shoot the target.” Every one of them managed to complete that task reasonably quickly. When the same thing was done with a semi-auto some of them could not even load it. LAPD concluded from that experience that it would be simpler and more efficient to continue to use the revolver as far as training costs, in time and money, went.
There are fewer things to do wrong with a revolver. You can only get the cartridges in it one way. I have seen people load rounds backwards in a magazine, and shove a magazine backwards into a weapon so hard that it had to be pounded out of the gun. If the revolver does not go bang, the failure drill is to pull the trigger again. Like I said, operationally simple. In addition at the end of the revolver era many agencies were going to double-action only weapons. They could NOT be thumb cocked, greatly reducing the possibility (and liability exposure) related to unintentional discharge. (Yes, I know, there are perfectly good reasons to use a semi-auto and we will get to those down the road.)
In addition it is fairly simple to get a revolver to fit your hand well. A semi-auto sometimes not, especially if you have smallish hands or short fingers and decide to carry a double-column pistol. Small or medium size revolvers are reasonably easy to conceal and tend to carry well. Ammunition is fairly easy and fairly cheap to get (though not as easy or cheap as it used to be) for .38 special, and can be had in anything from powder-puff target loads to very serious anti-personnel rounds. The FBI and other agencies did not abandon the .38 Special due to inadequacy of the round. They are a reasonable choice for a newbie for many good reasons.