The backup gun is a second handgun, normally carried concealed, used as a supplement to a primary handgun that may be carried openly or concealed, depending on the circumstances. It has a long history among lawfully armed men and women. Originally a law enforcement practice, the carrying of backup has spread to ordinary American men and women who are licensed to carry loaded handguns concealed in public.
One only has to cruise the “gun boards” on the Internet to notice how many private citizens who carry are either considering the wear of a second weapon routinely, or are already committed to the practice. It has been said that in America, private citizens model their sporting rifle purchases based on what the military is using, and their defensive handgun purchases on what their police are using.
The rise of the bolt-action rifle in popularity among hunters and target shooters followed the adoption of the Krag-Jorgensen in the late 19th century and the Springfield in the early 20th…semiautomatic hunting rifles such as the Remington Model 742 and Winchester Model 100 became popular among a generation of Americans who returned from fighting WWII and the Korean conflict with semiautomatic Garands…and today, the single most popular model represented in new rifle sales seems to be the AR-15, the semiautomatic version of the M-16 that has been our nation’s primary military rifle since the Vietnam conflict..
Similarly, the dominance of the revolver among private citizens followed the adoption by the Texas Rangers of the Walker Colt before the middle of the 19th century. For most of the 20th century, the double-action revolver in 38 Special, followed in popularity by the same type of gun in 357 Magnum, was virtually the standard law enforcement weapon and the most popular home defense/concealed carry firearm among “civilians.”
As the police went to semiautomatics, so did the law-abiding public. At this writing, the high tech auto pistol typified by the Glock is the most common type of police duty handgun, and likewise one of the biggest sellers in the commercial handgun market.
This being the case, it is not surprising that the law officers’ taste for a second handgun carried on the person, has been acquired by the armed citizens of the same population.
The Rationale of Backup
There are several good reasons to carry a second handgun for defensive purposes. None are the exclusive province of law enforcement. Let’s examine them in detail.
The primary gun may be taken away. In Kentucky, an armed criminal caught a uniformed policeman off guard and took away his Smith & Wesson 10mm service pistol. The lawman was able to access his concealed Walther PPK 380, a backup gun issued to him by his department, and empty it into his attacker. The criminal died; the officer lived.
The primary gun may be unusable because it is the object of a struggle. In Ohio not long ago, a police officer found himself in a desperate battle for survival as his opponent struggled to take away his department issue Glock 22 pistol.
Fortunately, the department had had the foresight to issue every officer a Glock 27, a subcompact version of the duty pistol, as backup. In the last instant before the suspect gained control of his service weapon, the officer was able to draw his backup G27 and fire a shot into his would-be murderer’s head, killing the assailant and saving his own life.
The primary gun may be empty. Drawing a second, loaded weapon is often faster than reloading the first when it runs dry. In Michigan, a woman and her husband were working in the store they owned and operated together when they were hit by multiple armed robbers.
The felons shot and wounded the husband early in the encounter. The wife drew a double-action revolver and shot back. Her gun ran dry, and she grabbed a second revolver with which she continued to return fire. That sustained fire allowed her to win the gunfight, saving her life and that of her husband, who survived his wounds. Their attackers were not so lucky.
The primary gun may malfunction. In the South recently, a police officer died with a jammed pistol in his hand. Witnesses said he was struggling with his choked semiautomatic when his opponent, a criminal armed with two double action revolvers, shot him to death. The officer’s pistol, a popular brand famous for its reliability, had jammed part way through its 15-round magazine. The quick drawing and firing of a second weapon might have saved the officer’s life.
The primary gun may be struck by an opponent’s bullet and rendered inoperable. This scenario is not so far-fetched as it may sound. Law enforcement training in this country was profoundly affected by a 1986 gun battle on the edge of Miami where two FBI agents were killed and five more wounded by two heavily armed criminals who were ultimately killed at the scene.
Two of the seven agents who returned fire resorted to their backup handguns during that firefight, and the agent who put the final, fatal bullets into the criminals did so with his Smith & Wesson revolver after his Remington shotgun ran out of ammo. (Bad guys also resort to backup guns. One of the two cop-killers in that encounter fired rounds from a stolen Mini-14 Ruger rifle, his own Dan Wesson 357 Magnum revolver, and his partner in crime’s S&W 357 before he was finally killed.)
In that encounter, one agent’s Smith & Wesson 9mm auto pistol was struck by a 223 bullet and rendered inoperable. That particular agent did not carry a backup gun, and was helpless to defend himself when the suspect with the Mini-14 walked up on him and shot him to death. Twenty years later, in April of 2006, the same phenomenon was observed in a Seattle gunfight. A city cop’s Glock 22 service pistol put a 40-caliber bullet into the cylinder face of a criminal’s Colt
Officer’s Model Match 38 Special, rendering it inoperable. In that instance, the criminal fortunately did not have a second gun, and was neutralized by police fire.
The primary gun may not be as readily accessible as the backup. In New York some years ago, an off duty cop in winter was carrying his primary handgun under two coats, and his backup Colt Detective Special snub-nose 38 in his overcoat pocket.
Set upon by two armed robbers, he knew he would not be able to dig under his clothing and draw his duty weapon before being shot by the drawn gun held to his head. On the pretext of reaching for a wallet in his overcoat pocket, he got his hand on his backup Colt, then slapped the gunman’s pistol aside with his free hand as he drew and fired. His bullet went through the gunman’s brain, killing him instantly; the accomplice fled, and was later taken into custody. The officer was uninjured, saved by his backup handgun.
In the Carolinas, a man with a hidden weapon approached a parked police car and opened fire at the officer through the driver’s window, wounding him. Seat-belted in place, the officer was unable to reach the service handgun locked in a security holster at his hip, but was able to access the Colt Agent backup gun strapped to his ankle. He drew from the ankle holster and returned fire, neutralizing his assailant.
He survived his wound and returned to full duty, saved by his backup gun.
The primary gun can arm only one good person at a time. With a backup gun, the user can arm a second competent “good guy or gal” who did not bring their own firearm to the emergency. In California, a police officer facing a complex problem involving armed suspects was offered assistance by a private citizen he knew to be trustworthy with firearms, but who was not licensed to be armed. He “deputized” the citizen, arming the man with the Smith & Wesson Chiefs Special snub-nose 38 the officer carried in an ankle holster. The situation came to a satisfactory conclusion.
In New York, two detectives had a reporter along in their unmarked car when they had occasion to go after a particularly dangerous armed robber they had been seeking. Knowing the reporter to be an ex-cop, one detective handed him his backup gun, a Colt Detective Special. When they made the confrontation, the suspect was facing three drawn guns. His own choice of weapons was a sawed-off double barrel shotgun. Few criminals are too stupid to realize that they can’t possibly neutralize three armed good guys with a two-shot weapon without being shot himself. This one chose to surrender without violence or bloodshed, and served a long term in prison.
We’ve just seen no fewer than seven very good reasons why a person who has a need to carry a gun might see a need to carry two of them. Any one of those situations could face an armed citizen or a police officer on any given day.
This article is an excerpt from Massad Ayoob's Gun Digest Book of Concealed Carry. Click here to get your copy.
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I started carrying a backup while working as a Texas Personal Protection Officer. Carry a second weapon then became a habit when carrying on my concealed carry license. Unfortunately, the state of Texas does not allow its uniformed commissioned security officers to carry a second concealed backup weapon. I think that is a needed change to the law here. Either they should be allowed to do so under the level three security officer license, or our legislature should pass legislation allowing uniformed security officers to carry a second concealed weapon if they also have a CCL.
This is pretty much a common sense recommendation. Guns are mechanical devices susceptible to malfunction, loss to an assailant or a host of other misfortunes, including the cited example of “running dry” (less of a problem with a semi-automatic, but it could happen if you don’t have enough spare magazines or they are not readily accessible). Rather than fussing with a malfunctioning or empty primary firearm (assuming you cannot clear the problem immediately or execute a rapid reload), it may be easier to simply draw your BUG and address the threat. As a civilian, I usually carry a Kahr PM9 in 9mm as a back-up to a Model 1911 primary in .45 ACP. Some folks I know carry Glocks in identical calibers so they can share at least the full-size magazines.