SIGHTING IN ON: Carry a Big One
By Warren Wilson
The advantages of a full-size pistol off-duty
My wife, teenage daughter and I were finalizing plans last summer for our family motor home vacation to a national wildlife park up north. I was particularly excited because prior to the trip, I’d convinced my wife that I needed a 4-inch Smith & Wesson model 629 chambered in .44 Magnum. Just in case we ever wanted to go hiking in bear country. She seemed incredulous, but she rubberstamped the purchase. I purchased a superb custom holster from Ryan Grizzle (www.rgrizzleleather.com) and a few boxes of Corbon 225-grain DPX ammo. Of course, I really wanted nothing to do with shooting a bear and making national news, so I studied up on bear behavior, bear defense, and bear avoidance. It was all about the bears for me until I learned that bison were responsible for more attacks than the bears I was so concerned with. According to all the information I could find, the answer to being safe around wild animals is just to leave them alone. It doesn’t take an expert to know that, does it?
During our vacation, we were in the national park driving to one of the more popular hiking trails in one of the most beautiful areas of the country. We laughed at the foolish tourists approaching the bison on foot to take photographs. If only they’d done their research, they’d know that bison are dangerous. We parked and began our three-mile trek. Every so often, we came across temporary signs that stated, “Bear frequenting area. There is no guarantee of your safety while hiking or camping in bear country.” It didn’t matter to us, because we were prepared. Our situational awareness was maxed out. We were making plenty of noise, had chemical defense spray and most importantly, “Maggie,” if a situation really went south. A bear would pose no problem to this vacationing family.
The Unexpected Assailant
Unfortunately, one of the park’s other residents would be a problem. After we were literally (but not figuratively) out of the woods at a tourist rest stop along the trail, I had my head down in a map as we walked across a busy paved road. My wife stopped and whispered for me to get the camera as a large bull elk exited the tree line and stepped out in front of a rental RV motor home driving slowly on the roadway. The driver had to stop in the roadway to avoid the animal. As I dug for the camera, my wife’s tone became disturbingly elevated, “He’s coming after us!”
My dismissive, “Oh, please” quickly became a correspondingly high-pitched, “Oh [something else],” when I looked up. At this point, I realized that a wild elk could be quite dangerous, even though the species wasn’t exactly on my radar. What I didn’t realize is that bull elk are 20 feet tall, have glowing red eyes, breathe fire from their flaring nostrils, and are armed with chandeliers of razor-sharp Bowie knives for antlers. OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but it sure seemed like it at the time.
I saw the charging elk and the fleeing women trying to make it to the rear of the RV. The familiar clopping sound of horse hooves on a leisurely ride will forever be replaced in my mind by 900 pounds of angry beast running on the asphalt. I caught up with my wife and daughter and joined the quasi-comedic circuit around the motor home. [Insert Benny Hell chase scene music here]. The magnitude of the giant elk’s rack forced it to swing wide as it pursued us around the RV. Our tighter circle allowed us to stay safely ahead of him. The family inside the RV asked if we were all right each time we passed the driver’s side window. Meanwhile, we were screaming in unison, “OPEN THE DOOR!” But they didn’t.
I knew I needed to draw a line in the sand. One of us could eventually fall and become defenseless. There was nowhere to head for cover. Pedestrians and vehicles were everywhere, but a single safe shooting lane did exist. The next time we got there, I turned and began to draw the 41 ounces of comforting steel nicknamed “Maggie.” I remember thinking that I’d done all that research to avoid being national news only to have it happen anyway. Well, at least there would be witnesses on my behalf that my family was at serious risk of being gored.
I had begun to clear leather and take my stance when, just as quickly as the beast had focused his energies on us, he chose another target and charged after a large crowd. We used that moment to flee back into the thick woods to the safety of the hiking trail we had just considered so treacherous. The animal turned back around and followed us for a while but was unable to navigate the confines of the trail very well. He quickly gave up, seemingly content that he’d won the encounter. There may be some lessons in irony there somewhere.
Carry a Big One
My usual off-duty carry gun is a Smith and Wesson M&P40c. The compact pistol complements my duty/SWAT pistol, which is a full-size M&P 40. The M&Pc is a great little pistol, but not ideally suited to tromping about in the territory of large, potentially dangerous animals. In fact, it’s really not well suited for duty use in a mid-sized municipality in a flyover state such as mine. The elk incident got me thinking. Why carry a smaller gun as a primary off-duty weapon that I don’t consider adequate for on-duty carry? The answer is convenience, plain and simple. Many police officers carry compacts off-duty because they are easier to carry than their full-size brethren. Sure, they’re often the same caliber and have the same general feel, or at least that’s what I’d always told myself. Still, a gunfight is a gunfight and downgrading to a smaller gun compromises velocity, sight radius and capacity.
More velocity from a full-size duty pistol generally means more terminal effectiveness and the bullet performing as its manufacturer intended. The longer sight radius on a full-size pistol usually equals better hits and faster follow-up shots. A few years ago, an off-duty law enforcement officer was forced to take a shot in a mall from half a football field’s length on a running target. He ended a would-be murderer’s rampage with one round from his duty pistol. I don’t know if I’d want to try that with a 3-inch barreled compact semi-auto.
Capacity was once considered overrated by some. With the increasing frequency of multiple assailant crimes, flash mobs, and the steady increase in rounds fired per armed encounter, a pistol’s capacity would seem to be more relevant these days. In another shopping mall incident, an off-duty officer engaged an active shooter until on-duty officers arrived. According to an interview, his 1911-style pistol contained only six rounds. He fired just three for fear he would run out of ammo before the threat was neutralized. The hero officer made a point to state that he’d wished he’d had more ammunition; at least in the form of an extra magazine.
A large handgun can be successfully concealed and will be a welcomed asset, if it is ever needed. I carried that 629 for four days around town and in the park without issue. Do you need to carry an N-frame 4-inch barrel revolver off duty for most situations? Probably not. However, it is entirely practicable and advisable to carry an officer’s full-size duty pistol when off-duty in plainclothes. One must simply commit to it.
Gear and Garments
The primary component in comfortable carry is in the leather (or Kydex or nylon, as the case may be). A quality holster and belt can make the difference between a duty-size gun on an officer’s person or back at home in the safe. It’s been said before but it is well worth repeating, why spend several hundred dollars on a defensive handgun only to hang it from a $10 belt and a $20 holster? For about $100 to $150, the off-duty crimefighter can have an excellent quality piece of leather that will last through decades of hard use from Galco, Bianchi, Don Hume or many other production companies. Of course, custom gear usually includes a long wait for delivery as one-man shops are labor intensive. Custom leather may cost a bit more, but it can also be personalized in many ways.
Proper cover garments are also critical to off-duty concealed carry. In the Oklahoma area, 95- to 100-degree summers can last five months no matter what that incompetent Pennsylvanian rodent purports on the second of February. A slightly oversized T-shirt can effectively conceal most pistols, especially when using an inside-the-waistband (IWB) holster. On less tropical days, an unbuttoned over shirt will even secret an N frame revolver with ease.
Genesis of Carry
Back in the 20th century, I carried a Beretta 96 both on-duty and off. A Bianchi pistol pocket and oversized T-shirt combo made lugging that beast a snap for a 20-something small-town cop. Somewhere along the way, I succumbed to the heat and my expanding mid-section and started carrying compact guns, usually two at a time. Then, on the extremely rare occasion, I’d carry only a J frame Smith & Wesson five-shot .38 special.
Often we end up where we began. Since that family trip to the national park, it’s been a full-size pistol with an extra magazine that accompanies my excursions out of the house off-duty. It’s a little more work, but I think it’s worth it. Firearms trainer Clint Smith said, “Carrying a gun isn’t supposed to be comfortable, it is supposed to be a comfort.” With a quality holster and garments made to conceal a full-size handgun, carrying a big one isn’t as difficult as one may think. PM
Warren Wilson is a Lieutenant with a municipal police department in Oklahoma. He is a SWAT team member/leader and has been in law enforcement for over 17 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.