Police Firearms: What and Why – A Law Enforcement Perspective

LA cop badge and gun (courtesy xdesktopwallpapers.com)

Seargant Patrick Hayes writes:

TTAG’s Armed Intelligentsia is familiar with firearms in general, police firearms in specific and the discrepancies between police and [legal] non-police firearms. As this site gets plenty of Google hits from less well-informed readers, RF asked me to provide a quick and basic overview of police firearms for new visitors – and for existing readers who want to share a little link love with their less firearms familiar friends. Let’s start with this: law enforcement officers (LEOs) carry or have quick-access to three types of firearms . . .

NYPD officer (courtesy wikipedia.org)

1. A semi-automatic handgun a.k.a., “duty gun”

Police use a handgun or duty gun when a sudden attack occurs or the officer doesn’t have time to arm him or herself with a long gun. Handguns have limited range.

In some jurisdictions – mostly rural – police officers are free to choose their own handgun. Large police forces issue guns to their officers. In both cases, police carry handguns from mainstream manufacturers such as GLOCK, SIG SAUER, Smith & Wesson, FNH USA, etc.

Department-issued handguns are usually striker-fired weapons chambered in 9mm, .40 or .45 caliber. They’re no different from the guns manufacturers sell to retail consumers. That said, in some state, (e.g., Massachusetts and California), non-LEOs can only purchase handguns on a government-approved list – a restriction that doesn’t apply to police officers.

Police departments spec-up their firearms to suit department preferences. The NYPD carry GLOCK handguns with an eleven pound “New York trigger” to reduce the possibility of negligent discharges (with negative effects on accuracy.) Some departments equip officers’ guns with night sights and lights, also available to non-LEOs.

Police departments are not subject to the ammunition magazine capacity limits imposed on consumers in many states (e.g., New York, Massachusetts). In these jurisdictions, police handguns can hold more rounds, and reload more rounds, than [legal] non-police handguns. In some states (e.g., New Jersey), non-LEOs are prohibited from possessing any type of hollow-point ammunition, routinely carried by the police.


– Backup handgun

Many police officers carry a second gun: a smaller, more easily-concealed semi-automatic handgun or revolver. Many police departments issue reduced-sized versions of the officer’s duty gun with ammo and magazine interchangeability, to facilitate an emergency reload of either gun.

Remington 870 short-barreled shotgun (courtesy reminstonle.com)

2. A pump-action or semi-automatic shotgun

A shotgun fires multiple lead projectiles in a single shot.The shotgun is a highly effective close-quarters weapon that can also accurately shoot slugs (large bullets) out to longer distances. Officers use shotguns to make entry into a building (shotguns can be used to destroy simple locks) and/or clear areas where armed individuals are likely.

A significant number of police officers have in-car access to a five-round Remington 870, Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun or similar. Some police agencies deploy more expensive semi-automatic shotguns, also available to non-LEO consumers.

Police shotguns are usually civilian-standard models, equipped with a 18″ barrel. Some departments opt for shotguns with a shorter barrel (e.g., the Model 870P) for improved maneuverability in confined space. Due to unconstitutional concerns about concealment, the general public may only purchase a shotgun with a barrel shorter than 18″ with permission from – and payment to – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

3. Centerfire semi-automatic rifle

A rifle allows the officer to effectively engage targets quickly, accurately and at greater range than a handgun or shotgun. Police use (or should use) a rifle whenever they’re looking at the possibility of a gunfight. AR-style rifles are appropriate for responding to burglaries, active crime scenes (including active shooters) and high risk warrant service.

A great many police departments are replacing shotguns with AR platform rifles, usually chambered in .223. (Some deploy both, offering officers a choice of either firearm depending on the job at hand.) In the main, police-issued rifles are semi-customized versions of off-the-shelf models, also available to non-LEOs.

Some states (e.g. New York and California) ban non-LEO purchase of any AR-style or “assault rifle.” Some states (e.g. Colorado) limit the ammunition magazine capacity of a non-LEO AR-style rifle.

Police have access to shorter-barreled AR rifle variants (under 16″) that require permission, paperwork, a tax payment and delay for non-police purchasers. Police also have access to fully-automatic AR-style rifles (a.k.a., machine guns) manufactured after 1986. Non-LEOs are banned from their possession.

SIG SAUER MPX (courtesy policemag.com)

Police may also carry shorter-barreled fully-automatic rifles, denied to non-LEOs, such as as the SIG SAUER MPX above. Most “beat cops” do not have immediate access to fully-automatic rifles. Police departments usually reserve machine guns for SWAT teams and other specialized units.


Today’s police aren’t out-gunned by bad guys; most criminals use handguns. Their firearms are no better than the handguns used by police. The small percentage of criminals who use rifles or shotguns face police armed with rifles and/or shotguns. (In some cases, police marksmen may be called in to use longer-range single shot rifles.)

The key difference between police and non-LEOs isn’t weaponry. It’s teamwork and training.

At least it should be. American citizens should have access to any firearm or ammunition type available to the police: shorter-barreled firearms, hollow-point ammunition, an unlimited choice of ammunition magazine capacity and fully-automatic rifles. And police should have regular, effective firearms training, so they can safely and efficiently use the tools of the job to protect and serve the communities that employ them.


  1. avatar B Bradley says:

    California has the leo civilian divide on almost all mentioned above asides from the hollow-point rounds (unless in San Fran). The worse one us non-privledged Californians have is to only purchase “safe handguns” approved by our State employed overseers while police can buy any handgun they want. Of course all NFA items are unattainable for citizens of the once Golden State.

    1. avatar PerplexedPistolero says:

      Keep hoping the Pena case overturns that damnable roster soon. Or it gets tossed out as an unreasonable restriction on interstate commerce. And then the magazine restrictions get binned as well. One of my SSE pistols came with the 15 rounders from the manufacturer initially, would’ve been nice to hang on to those-and not just because there are witness holes for every round.

      Can anyone clarify why from a legal standpoint, California is allowed to suborn the possession of NFA items for non-LEOs?

      1. avatar forrest says:

        “Can anyone clarify why from a legal standpoint, California is allowed to suborn the possession of NFA items for non-LEOs?”


      2. avatar Mark N. says:

        The “answer”, such as it is it, is that California has determined that fully automatic weapons, silencers, short barreled rifles and .50 BMG rifles are simply too “dangerous,” and therefore banning them is in the interest of public safety. As an interesting aside, the Attorney General Jerry issued an opinion that it was unlawful for retired LEOs to continue to possess automatic rifles procured when they were still active service. (Some officers would purchase them with personal funds for “duty use” with a letter of approval from their chief, and had been allowed to keep them after retirement.)

    2. avatar Bob101 says:

      I have always thrown logic at this argument. For example, if it is unsafe for We The People to have these firearms, why is the use by police not considered excessive force?

      1. avatar DickDanger says:

        Because in a liberal’s perceived universe, cops are morally infallible supermen who are unmatched in skill…except when they kill a some hood and the media gets a hold of it, then all bets are off.

      2. avatar Mark N. says:

        The stated reason for the roster exemption for officers is that they are better trained than civilians, and therefore do not need the extra safety devices that the roster requires for “civilians” (LCI, mag disconnect, external safety). The first roster requirement was drop safety, and most guns built now are drop safe. The other requirements (other than the microstamping law) were to prevent accidents with the excuse “I didn’t know the gun was loaded.” The microstamping law has nothing to do with safety–it is supposed to be a method for assisting police in solving (some) crimes.

      3. avatar KC in NorCal says:

        FX Hummel sings “only cops should have guns”
        Seemed fitting

      4. avatar Scott Franco says:

        Because in liberal eyes, people are dumb sheep that need to be led and protected from things that they could use to hurt themselves or others. Their ideal is complete removal of guns from all civilians. Given that they would then pass rules about only professionals needing nailguns, saws and other home depot items. Self driving cars give liberals the chills because it means nobody will be trusted with cars again, and needless to say nobody should have an airplane except airliners. Your medical decisions will be made for you, since you can’t do that safely either.

        Big daddy gonna take care of you, baby.

    3. avatar Brooklyn in da house says:

      Another silly thing to add to that, LEO can buy any handgun then sell it to anyone they want even if its not on the list.

  2. avatar John Doe says:

    Well written, Patrick! I have a buddy who’s an officer for the Chicago PD. He carries a Glock 22, with a 23 as a backup. Very good guns, but recoil on the 23 is kinda snappy for those not familiar with it. I wonder if there’ll ever be a time where beat cops can carry compact rifles… Even SBRs (cough SMGs cough) like the MPX. Just grap a 3-Point sling and you’re good to go.

    1. avatar Jim R says:

      Things keep going the way they are and I guarantee cops will be walking the beat with full-auto SMGs.

      The question is, is that what you want?

      1. avatar Joelstr says:

        I think they should be allowed access to them. I would like one (or three) as well. The average joe shouldn’t have his 2nd restricted any more or less than the average police officer.

      2. avatar John Doe says:

        Well, full auto might be a LITTLE much. But still, civilians can open carry rifles. Why not LEOs?

        1. avatar Chris Mallory says:

          Because they work for us and only have the powers that we the citizens grant them. It is well past time to start disarming cops, requiring them to ask citizens for help if they require someone with a firearm. Government employees not guarding our borders from invasion should not be armed.

  3. avatar Morgan Gatorsee says:

    Excellent article all the way around.

  4. avatar PerplexedPistolero says:

    Thank you Sergeant. I appreciate your knowledge and perspective as someone that stands for law and order, but also for the Constitutional rights of all. Hope you can pass your perceptions of what an LEO should be to your subordinates and those who come after you.

  5. avatar Mark says:

    Do departments require LE to carry backup guns? Do they require the locations of the backup?

    1. avatar Patrick Hayes says:

      Some departments require backups and those usually issue them and dictate their use. Most other departments allow them by policy. Any officer who carries a backup is required to qualify with it on the same course used for his/her primary firearm.

      1. avatar Mark says:

        Thanks Patrick. I was just curious. My neighbor is a LEO and he carries an LCP for his BUG. I’m guessing it’s his personal gun but I could be wrong.

      2. avatar Tile floor says:

        Our secondary qual is a bit different than our regular one, it features no more than five shots at a time (to accommodate the snub nose revolver folk) and focuses more on closer shooting and one handed shooting. It was designed to be closer to situations where a back up gun might more commonly be used

    2. avatar Accur81 says:

      Not all departments require officers to carry backup guns. Some departments have a short list of mid sized or full sized 9mm – .45 guns from which to choose. They can just choose what they like best. Other have only one duty pistol. One. That’s the gun you get, so make it work. That’s what my department does with handguns. It’s as stupid as the overly heavy NY trigger, but upper level police managers are not particularly intelligent or gun savvy.

      The article is spot on considering that it is a generalization of what LEOs carry across the nation. Of course proto-communist (Democrat controlled) cities and states such as NY, NYC, NJ, CA, MD, Chicago, LA, etc. have arbitrary and unnecessary restrictions on civilian gun ownership. They include reduced capacity mags, micro stamping, idiotic safe handgun lists, denial of carry permits, bullet buttons, assault weapon bans, etc.

    3. avatar S.CROCK says:

      Some government agencies actually prohibit carrying a back up gun.

  6. avatar Swarf says:

    I commend you both for not calling non-LEO’s “civilians” and for not making a “shoulder thing that goes up” joke even though the opportunity was so clear.

    1. avatar Nicks87 says:

      Non-LEOs are civilians. If you dont like it maybe you can get every english dictionary ever written to change it lol.

      1. avatar Swarf says:

        So are LEOs.

        We’ve been over this, and I guarantee that 90% of the regular posters on this forum understood my point.

      2. avatar Spaceman Brown says:

        Non-LEOs are CITIZENS, friend. “Civilian” is a term used exclusively to marginalize everyone without a shiny badge or a government paycheck.

        1. avatar Hannibal says:

          implying that leos are not citizens…?

  7. avatar SD3 says:

    “…police have access to…rifle variants… that require permission, paperwork, a tax payment and delay for non-police purchasers…”

    All animals are equal. It’s just that some animals are more-equal than others.

    1. avatar Hasdrubal says:

      Did you miss this part of the post?

      “Due to unconstitutional concerns about concealment, the general public may only purchase a shotgun with a barrel shorter than 18″ with permission from – and payment to – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.”

      I don’t think he agrees with the NFA any more than you or I do.

      1. avatar SD3 says:

        Where did I suggest he agrees with it? LEOs are magically endowed with extra-special ‘rights’ to self-preservation, denied their fellow law-abiding citizens.

        It’s not right.

        1. avatar Hasdrubal says:

          Sorry if I misunderstood you, but when you quote someone, especially a police officer, and then follow the quote with a reference to Orwell that has been used on this site and others to disparage special treatment of police, I think it’s a fair and warranted assumption to make that you are speaking out against the person you’re quoting.

          If I was wrong on that, then I stand corrected and don’t think we have anything else to disagree on at the moment.

      2. avatar int19h says:

        It’s worth noting that some states have additional regulations or outright bans on SBR and/or SBS that go beyond federal regulation. E.g. there’s no way to own a SBS in Washington State, even with an NFA stamp.

  8. avatar Mark Lloyd says:

    There are many LEOs that would differ with the authors conclusions on a few points, which I need not delve into as we can well imagine what they are. However, I will with one point and that is many MANY LEOs officers would rather no citizen be armed. That issue sticks in my side like a hot fireplace poker and there is simply no denying it.

    1. avatar AllAmerican says:

      I think this also depends on where you live, like most major metropolitans, yes they indeed do think that. But the more rural and smaller town PDs are probably on our side.

      1. avatar JR_in_NC says:

        Yeah, I wish we had numbers on it. No doubt is very regional.

        Mark, there’s hope. Give this a listen, and particularly listen to the point the Sheriff makes about what the proper role of a cop is in his opinion.


        1. avatar Mark Lloyd says:

          You are correct. I just didn’t want to dive into the obvious. When national nanny Bloomberg called Colorado “Rural and Roadless” it crystallized an endemic problem in that the majority of the population is in metro areas. Be it, San Francisco, Seattle, NY, you will find less tolerance as opposed to us folks in the rural roadless hick towns. Naturally I’m talking generalities, but it’s my belief that therein lies a problem.
          I live in Eastern Washington State and the Sheriff here, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is an adamant 2A Supporter.

          They gun grabbers want to point out the voters spoke loudly when they approved back ground check with I 594
          I’m here to tell you that’s total bull shit. It failed in the majority of Washington State Counties. King county which has the biggest population, it passed. My point being, yes location is everything.

          Here is a link to the Washington state Gov election results per county concerning I594
          Look at the map at how many counties voted against it. So when the Antis want to chant about I594, it took billionaire dollars from Bloombag, and Microsoft money bags Bill Gates to saturate the airwaves with the confusing 18 pages of nonsense that I594 was. Take a look at it.


        2. avatar CarlosT says:

          I’m a Seattle resident (pretty much life-long) and it makes me uncomfortable how much Seattle bosses the rest of the state. It really drives home for me the wisdom of having a bicameral representative system, with one chamber not based on population.

    2. avatar Accur81 says:

      Most cops are varying levels of pro gun. There are certainly exceptions to that rule. Heck, I’m taking 300 rounds of CCI .22 LR to our Christmas party to donate as a raffle prize. Some even take some risks overlooking unnecessary gun laws out on the road.

    3. avatar Hasdrubal says:

      I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong, though I wish you were. We’re not all like that, though.

      Last night I took a report for a court order violation. I won’t go into the details of the case, because it’s still active, but the relevant part is this- despite recognizing the victim’s new boyfriend as someone I arrested on a warrant (old one, for a driving offense) just two weeks before, I asked them if either of them was comfortable with the idea of firearms for defense.

      The guy told me that after the court hearing for his warrant, he had filled out the application for a WA carry permit. I shook his hand, told him I was glad to meet him under better circumstances than the last time, and spent a minute or two talking to both of them about gun selection.

    4. avatar Zach Sanders says:

      As a 25 year “cop” I completely disagree. The vast majority of cops prefer an armed citizenry for many obvious reasons. I don’t want to list all the cliched reasons why, but the bad guys are already armed, why shouldn’t citizens be armed as well. It probably would reduce crime over time.

  9. avatar Capybara says:

    “Of course all NFA items are unattainable for citizens of the once Golden State.” B. Bradley, untrue.

    I personally own an AOW, which is an NFA gun and I live in California. I also have a few friends who legally own suppressors and SBRs. Of course they are FFL07s. but they are merely citizens, they don’t work for the government, they are just willing to jump through all of the hoops to become a manufacturer.

    Also, anyone in California with a Firearms Trust can legally own NFA items like SBRs and SBS, as long as said guns are C&Rs and comply with the Assault Weapons penal code. They make it tough here, but not impossible to legally own NFA guns. Normal citizens cannot own modern SBS and SBRs though. Suppresors, machine guns, DDs and modern SBS/SBRs are limited to FFL07s and Dangerous Weapons Permit holders who are almost exclusively prop masters and armorers for Hollywood.

    1. avatar B Bradley says:

      You just listed exemptions. I’m talking about the day that anyone without a cert or trust or some kind of ffl designation can go and get a can for their rifle…they can not. Until that happens I believe I’m still correct.

  10. avatar Ralph says:

    Nice job, Sgt. Hayes. Direct and to the point.

  11. avatar Dave Lewis says:

    Good article, but there are lots of exceptions to the general comments the author has made. Many small and mid size agencies, particularly in the west and south, don’t have an “issue” firearm. Officers and deputies are expected to provide their own handguns from list of approved weapons. The lists include the most common duty type pistols including Glocks, M&Ps, and Springfield XDs, but you’ll see lots of older Smiths, Berettas, Sigs and 1911s. I’ve even seen some old fossils carrying Smith or Colt wheel guns. (watch out for those old timers – they know how to shoot!)

    Most agencies in my part of the world encourage a back up handgun. I see lots of small polymer frame .380s since they conceal very well, but many folks like snubby revolvers. Snubbies are perceived as reliable and somewhat more powerful than .380s. Some old timers who like big holes still carry a Charter Arms .44 special Bulldog. There used to be an official prejudice against backups in some agencies, because there was a public perception that the back up would be used as a throw down gun.

    Shotguns are the usual suspects – Remington 870s and Mossie 500s. If the shotguns are privately owned as they are in many jurisdictions, most officers will not go through the hassles of dealing with the ATF for a shorter barrel weapon.

    I see lots of semi-auto ARs and very few full auto versions – again because most are privately owned weapons and the paperwork and hassles are intimidating even for LEOs. I’ve also seen a few real odd ball rifles, including some old agency owned M-1 carbines (not a bad choice with the right ammunition), privately owned and authorized AKs, Springfield M1As, and Mini 14s and 30s (department and private ownership). Oklahoma even runs a lever action patrol rifle course once or twice a year. If I could find the time I’d like to do that course with my Rossi 92 .38/.357.

    So there are lots of choices and lots of scenarios out there. New York City PD can issue everybody a Glock and send them out on the streets. I buy my own tools for the job and carry what suits me best.

    Be safe

    1. avatar Swarf says:

      Oklahoma even runs a lever action patrol rifle course once or twice a year

      That sounds fun.

      1. avatar Dave Lewis says:

        I always thought that those old time Texas Rangers were pretty well armed with their Model 95 Winchesters in .30 Government (.30-40 Krag). Add a good Smith revolver or 1911 to the mix, tuck a 1903 Colt .380 down the boot, and go to war.

        1. avatar Swarf says:

          Yeah, I’ve got a pre-shitty Marlin 1894c .38/.357 and it’s probably my favorite.

    2. Ping me on that lever fun course. I’m there!

  12. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    “Due to unconstitutional concerns about concealment, the general public may only purchase a shotgun with a barrel shorter than 18″ with permission from – and payment to – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.” (emphasis mine)

    Kudos for a proper description!

  13. avatar Hannibal says:

    Another article that can devolve into an “us vs. them” flame-match.

    Yeah, cops carry semi-autos and often have shotguns and rifles. How underinformed does someone have to be to not know that?

    1. avatar BobS says:

      This is a primer for the gun-curious. They might not know how both LE and non-LE weapons are such similar off-the-shelf commercially available items, at least in the free states.

  14. avatar DerryM says:

    Nicely written, Sgt. Hayes! Good primer for the less informed. Thanks!

  15. avatar Wood says:

    Good article, my only point to the author would be that the term “single shot rifle” means something very specific, and a scoped, heavy barreled police bolt action ain’t it. To a bunch of us it means Sharps, trapdoor Springfields, Remington rolling blocks, Winchester 1885 high walls and low walls, Borchardts, Martini-Henry, Farquharson, Ballards, etc.

    Long live back powder!

    1. avatar mountocean says:

      adding to that, tossing in the popular phrase, “AR-style or ‘assault rifle'” without any explanation put a frown on my face. I understand that this article is brief and basic to benefit our non-balistic brethren, but bad jargon will only lead to confusion.

    2. avatar Marcus (Aurelius) Payne says:

      Funny thing. I wad on one of those gun sales sites, pondering a break action single shot .22, and even though I had “single shot” selected, there err almost nothing but bolt acton rifles displayed. I had the exact same thought.

  16. avatar Mark N. says:

    Correction to OP: AR style rifles are legal in California, with only three special requirements: 1) may not be fully automatic unless registered with the State prior to 1/1/2000, 2)may not have more than a 10 round mag (unless the mags were purchased prior to 1/1/2000, and 3) must be equipped with a “Bullet Button” or other locking device that prevents the removal of the magazine without a tool. However, some counties have deemed legally owned “large capacity” mags to be a nuisance and subject to confiscation.

    While San Francisco does have a special ordinance purportedly banning hollow points, the Chief of Police has deemed that ordinance to apply solely to Black Talons. But you cannot buy hollow points in the City–at the last remaining guns store in town.

  17. avatar Kevin says:

    I would probably change the phrase in the article “single shot rifle” to read “bolt action rifle”, as most of the longer distance swat shooters are going to be using Remington/Savage/Winchester bolt action rifles in that capacity. (Ok, also FN, Tikka, CZ, and others, but you get my drift..)

  18. avatar Jim Pearson says:

    If a law enforcement (California) wife purchased a law enforcement only pistol and her retired law enforcement (California) carried the EFO pistol concealed with a CCW from his old department, would that violate any California law?

  19. avatar David Loew says:

    Hollow points are allowed to be in your possesion in New Jersey, for home defense. If you carry, hollow points are not allowed by non-LEOs.

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