Gun Digest

Concealed Carry: Should You Carry a Backup Gun? Part 2

At GunDigest, we independently review products. However, we may earn a commission when you purchase through links on our site. Learn More

SIG P226R 16-shot 9mm, above, backed up by 5-shot 38 Special S&W Model 442, below.
SIG P226R 16-shot 9mm, above, backed up by 5-shot 38 Special S&W Model 442, below.

“Gentlemen, Choose Your Weapons”

There are several different approaches to the selection of backup guns. Predictable danger, wardrobe, training and familiarity already ingrained, and other situational factors will determine what might be the best approach on any given occasion.

On “heavy days” – i.e., high-risk situations – a pair of full-size fighting handguns makes sense. There is lots of historical precedent for this. On the Western Frontier, gun-wise lawmen from Wild Bill Hickok to Wyatt Earp carried a brace of sixguns. That is, a matched pair. Hickok wore twin Navy Colt .36 caliber cap-n’-ball revolvers, and allegedly “freshened” them daily by firing each charge in each chamber every morning in a short practice session, and then reloading with fresh powder, ball, and caps. Earp wore a pair of Colt Single Action Army revolvers, caliber 45 Colt.

Similar practices were seen in more modern times. On the night he and his team took down John Dillinger, FBI Agent Melvin Purvis was said to have been carrying a pair of Smith & Wesson Military & Police 38 Specials. That significantly outgunned the Colt Pocket Model 380 Dillinger was carrying, though it is believed that a 45 ACP bullet from the Colt Government Model of another agent was what actually killed FBI’s “Most Wanted” fugitive that night in Chicago.

Decades later the most famous member of the NYPD Stakeout Squad, Jim Cirillo, went to work each day with essentially the same gear carried by Purvis, though by then that particular Smith & Wesson was known as the Model 10. Each of Jim’s was a four-inch, with a heavy barrel on the strong-side hip and a tapered barrel version worn cross-draw as backup. Jim actually had one more backup gun on each occasion, a Colt Cobra 38 with a hammer shroud and two-inch barrel, carried in a pocket, and usually had a 14-inch barrel Ithaca 12-gauge shotgun handy to start things off.

Because most days aren’t heavy days, a much more common paradigm has long been the full-size, serious-caliber “combat handgun” as primary weapon, with a smaller and sometimes less powerful handgun for backup. Generations of cops have used tiny 25 autos for backup. While they are better than nothing, these guns are infamous for their poor stopping power, and being very tiny, they also tend to be difficult to manipulate under stress. Long before that, it was popular for lawmen to carry a six-shooter as primary, and a two-shot derringer as secondary. The derringer, fortunately, has pretty much passed from the scene.

Today, tiny 32 autos like the Seecamp, the North American Arms Guardian, and the irresistibly slim and light Kel-Tec P32 have found their way into backup position on the bodies of many police officers and armed citizens alike. In common with their predecessors, they are better than nothing, but they are also feeble in terms of the power they can put out. It is significant that when police departments issue backup guns, they normally look for something more powerful.

Matched pair of baby Glocks in Glock sport/combat holsters. A gun worn each side, mirror image, saves pocket space and puts one available readily to either hand. Balance on hips is perfect and natural. Author thinks of it as carrying a spare magazine with another pistol wrapped around it.

The New York City Police Department, for example, has long encouraged backup guns, but they allow only two calibers: 38 Special in a revolver, and 9mm Parabellum in a semiautomatic. This is the result of long institutional experience encompassing a great many gunfights, and it embodies common sense.

As this is written, there are at least five state police agencies that issue backup handguns to all their troopers. Two of them consider commonality important issuing Glock pistols in two sizes and the same caliber. One agency issues the standard size Glock 37 and “baby” size Glock 39, both in 45 GAP. The other issues the 5.3-inch barrel Glock 35 and the 3.6-inch barrel Glock 27, both in 40 S&W.  If the primary weapon is lost, snatched away, or damaged, the trooper still has a spare pistol and two spare magazines to fight with, because the smaller Glock will take the larger Glock’s magazines in the same caliber. Similarly, the G26 subcompact will accept the magazines of the compact G19 or full size G17 in caliber 9×19, and the subcompact 357-caliber G33 will work with the same-caliber magazines of the compact G32 or the full size G31.

The other two state police agencies in question take a different route. One has issued the Beretta 380 for the backup role, while equipping its uniformed personnel with full size Beretta 9mm and 40 pistols over the years. With a recent switch to the Glock for duty, that department may soon be trading its 380s for baby Glocks in a more potent caliber. Another agency has issued snub-nose S&W revolvers for decades as backup, the current gun being the Model 640-1 in 357 and loaded with 38 Special +P+, complementing a SIG P226 duty weapon in 40 S&W. Within the last couple of years, a fifth state police department has bought S&W 38 Special Airweights for all troopers, in addition to their standard issue 357 SIG pistols.

Each person in the private sector must make his or her own decision. Certainly, the ability to interchange spare ammunition between the backup gun and the primary is a real “plus.” For many decades, cops carried their spare 38 Special ammo loose in pouches or loops, and were encouraged to get a smaller 38 Special for backup for just this reason. Indeed, they were taught that if they carried a Colt as primary they should carry a Colt as backup, and ditto with Smith & Wesson, because the cylinders would rotate in the same direction and open the same way.

In the 1970s, revolvers still held sway in police work, but speed loaders became accepted duty gear. It was discovered that the speed loader sized to fit a K-frame Smith & Wesson service revolver would fit perfectly in a six-shot D-frame Colt backup gun. The hot set-up became a four-inch or six-inch Smith 38 or 357 in the uniform holster, and a two-inch Colt as backup gun, with the speed loaders filled with hot 38 Special ammo that could be fired from either revolver.

Today, with autoloaders so hugely popular, commonality is still a factor, but not always. Certainly, Glock interchangeability makes huge sense. Someone carrying a double-stack S&W 9mm of conventional size can carry a Kel-Tec P11 for backup, secure in the knowledge that the 14.5 ounce 9mm Kel-Tec will accept the magazines of a Smith & Wesson 5906 or 6906 in the same caliber. If the full-size or Commander-size 1911 is chosen for primary, a subcompact such as the Colt Defender can work with full-length magazines in the same caliber in an emergency, but those longer mags can over-travel and lock up the gun when slammed into a full-size 1911 that’s at slide-lock.

Many backup gun users have decided to do without ammo interchangeability in the name of convenience, concealment, or faster tactical access. Some just don’t happen to have a primary gun that’s magazine-compatible with a smaller one for interchangeability. For instance, this writer’s department issues the Ruger P345 as a duty pistol, and this 45 auto does not have a subcompact version available. Accordingly, each officer is issued a Ruger SP101 357 Magnum snub-nose revolver for backup, and most carry a Bianchi Speed Strip with spare 357 rounds somewhere on their person while at work.

“Civilians” and police officers alike have found that while autos might be a better choice as primary weapons, revolvers may be preferable as backup because of faster access out of pockets due to their rounded grip-frames, or better resistance to dust and grit when carried in ankle holsters. Another advantage of the small revolver for backup comes in one of the applications mentioned earlier in this article, the use of the backup to arm another competent good guy or gal. You may not have time to explain to that person how your auto works or why they need to keep their weak side thumb out from behind the slide when you hand them your backup auto. However, anyone competent to wield a gun in a crisis situation will be competent to handle a double action only revolver when there is no time to explain the “manual of arms.”

Georgia State Patrol issues each trooper a mated pair of Glocks in 45 GAP. Left, the service-size G37; right, the subcompact G39.

Where to Carry the Backup

Mirror image on the belt is how Hickok and Earp each carried their backup six-guns, with one accessible to each hand. However, neither man worried much about concealment of two full-size revolvers, and both made it a point to practice intensively firing with each hand. That is essential in this type of carry.

Strong side plus cross draw is quite popular. This is how Cirillo carried sidearms on the NYPD Stakeout Squad. The second gun in a cross-draw makes it readily accessible to the dominant hand, and also positions it where the weak hand can reach it in an emergency.

A shoulder holster is a form of cross-draw. Many cops (and armed citizens) over the years have packed their “second” in a shoulder rig. (In years past, it is believed, Earp’s friend and contemporary Dr. John “Doc” Holiday wore one Colt single action on his hip and another in a primitive shoulder holster of the period. John Wesley Hardin, perhaps the deadliest gunman of the Old Frontier, fashioned a leather vest that held a pair of revolvers in semi-shoulder holster position.)

A holster strapped to a concealed ballistic vest under the weak arm is a variation of the shoulder holster draw. It is extremely popular with uniformed police, but of course, only works if one happens to be wearing body armor. LAPD SWAT operators are issued two Kimber 1911 45 autos apiece. One is worn on a tactical thigh holster on the strong side, the other, attached to the heavy body armor in the chest area for a semi-shoulder holster type of access. This carry has also proven popular with some of our armed forces personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan at this writing.

Tiny NAA mini-revolvers, 22 Magnum above and 22 Short below, are seen by author as more novelties than combat handguns because they are slow and difficult to operate due to their size, and much lacking in power. That said, Ayoob can point to several good people whose lives were saved by them, proving that little low-powered guns are better than no guns at all.

Ankle holsters are long-time traditional favorites for backup. They are out of the way of the often already crowded gun belt. While slow to reach from a standing position, the ankle rig is ideal for a person seated behind a counter or seated behind the wheel of a car. When you are down on your back, your legs are no longer supporting your body weight and you can quickly flex your knee and snap your ankle up toward your reaching hand. The ankle holster is also fairly accessible to either hand, an important consideration in backup gun placement because there is always a likelihood of your gun hand or arm being injured and disabled in the course of a fight.

Bear in mind that ankle rigs take some time to get used to. They also require full-cut pants cuffs. Police uniform pants work well with ankle holsters, as do straight-cut suit pants and cargo pants. Sports slacks and jeans will require “boot cut cuffs” if they’re going to give you access to an ankle holster. This type of rig works best with smaller handguns; a compact Glock or equivalent is about the largest that most people can effectively carry in an ankle holster.

Pocket carry is extremely popular for backup guns. Tactically, it allows you to put your hand in your pocket in a “hinky” situation and already have the gun discreetly in hand if lethal danger suddenly threatens. Many backup gun users place the pocket gun on their weak side, leaving the strong hand free to carry out its trained reflex to the primary handgun. Whenever carrying in a pocket, be sure to use a pocket holster! This will: always hold the gun in the same position for faster access; break up the gun’s outline and prevent you from being “made” as someone who is armed; speed the draw under any conditions; and prevent sharp edges on the gun (such as the front sight on a J-frame snub-nose revolver) from wearing holes in your clothing.

Off-body placement is an often ignored but sometimes practical location for backup guns. This was how the lady in the mom-and-pop store mentioned earlier accessed both the revolvers she used to gun down the armed robbers who opened fire on her and her husband. Lance Thomas, the famous Los Angeles Rolex repairman who survived multiple gunfights with armed robbers and killed several opponents, kept a loaded handgun discreetly concealed about every three feet along his side of the counter and workbench in his small shop. He was always able to grab a gun – or another gun, when he shot the first one empty – in time to win every single one of his gunfights.

A spare handgun secreted in the map pocket of the driver’s door of your car may be easier and more discreet to reach to than the primary gun in your hip scabbard or shoulder holster, when you have to draw on a carjacker or a kidnapper who is already in the car with you. While not always recommended by experts, discreet off-body placement of concealed handguns has doubtless saved the lives of multiple good people in certain situations.

The Bottom Line

Now you know why street-wise gun expert Phil Engeldrum once wrote, “If you need to carry a gun, you probably need to carry two of them.”

The choices are yours. What to carry, where to carry, and whether to carry it at all.

If you do choose to go the backup gun route, remember the following.

The backup gun should be simple to operate under extreme stress. That’s the only time you’ll be reaching for it. That simplicity will also serve well if you must hand your backup to another person, with no time to explain how to use it.

The backup gun is literally a last resort, and therefore should be powerful enough to stop a fight. This is why most experts shy away from small-caliber handguns as backup weapons.
Because the backup gun is likely to be a last resort in a life-or-death situation, it must be absolutely reliable.

If you carry backup, you need to train with it. Practice getting it out and into action. Practice shooting it, particularly with the “weak” hand if you carry it on the non-dominant side. If you don’t groove in the movements and techniques now, they won’t be there when everything goes auto-pilot in a life-threatening crisis.

Backup handguns have saved the lives of a great many cops, and would have saved more had they been present. They can do the same for law-abiding citizens who legally carry concealed handguns to protect themselves and those within the mantle of their protection.

This article is an excerpt from Massad Ayoob’s Gun Digest Book of Concealed Carry. Click here to get your copy.

Recommended gun books for those who carry concealed handguns:

The Gun Digest Book of Concealed Carry

The Gun Digest Book of Combat Handgunnery

Effective Handgun Defense, A Comprehensive Guide to Concealed Carry

Find more resources at



Exit mobile version