Book Review: The Search for an Effective Police Handgun (Bristow, 1973)

During the recent Historical Handgun class Tom Givens and I co-taught, Tom mentioned a book I hadn’t heard of: “The Search for An Effective Police Handgun”, by Allen Bristow, published in 1973. This book came out prior to his more complete Modern Police Firearms book (previously reviewed on this blog). It’s basically a collection of articles and material from other sources that Bristow compiled together, all related to the topic of handgun and caliber selection. As a result, it’s interesting, particularly as a snapshot of what firearm experts were thinking in the early 70’s.

Who was Allen Bristow? Among other things, he was a Professor of Police Science at a California college, Director of the Police Marksmanship Instructors’ Institute, and a consultant to President Nixon’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration and Justice. From the introduction, in his own words:

This book is both a defensive and parsimonious act on my part. Requests for information arrived in my office at a constantly increasing rate….I decided to collect the research reports, test evaluations, and magazine articles that directly related to the problem and to publish them…I hope the police adminstrator who must make a decision regarding his department’s armament will find herein the information he needs. I regret that I was unable to secure permission to include some materials but am satisfied that all viewpoints are well represented.

Section 1: The Problem

This section begins by explaining that during the 1930’s, the .38 special cartridge became the standard for most US law enforcement officers. This was done to standardize for purposes of economy in ammunition reloading. .38 Special was considered to be the most accurate cartridge., popular with police handgun competitors.

The root problem with .38 special, as Bristow notes, was generally considered to be ineffective. Bristow cites a 1959 study, performed by students at Los Angeles State College, that analyzed 110 cases involving more than 150 officers. The study found that it was common for both officers and criminals shot with .38 special rounds to be capable of continuing the gunfight or retreating. In the book, he provides multiple case studies detailing the failures of .38 special solid bullets (158 grain round nose, typically) to be effective fight stoppers.

Section 2: Early Warning

This section compiles technical and medical studies published by Colonel Louis La Garde in the early 1900’s, Major J.S. Hatcher in the mid 1930’s, and the US Army Surgeon General at the end of World War 2. Each of these reports presents evidence that the ‘accepted police cartridge’ should be re-evaluated in terms of effectiveness. (Many of these studies also included data showing the virtues of the .45 ACP cartridge, and their recommendations were frequently cited by .45 ACP advocates in the 1960’s and later years.) Summaries and articles written by the original researchers are included in this section. Longer works by LaGarde – his “Gunshot Injuries” book and Hatcher (Hatcher’s Notebook) are excellent reads and highly recommended to those interested in the technical and medical aspects of ballistics. The links here go to free downloads of scans of these books. There are also used print copies and republished print editions available online.

Section 3: The Solutions

Bristow shares data from a “Law and Order” magazine survey of 352 police chiefs who provided data in sixteen different categories related to equipment and training. The date of the survey is not provided, but from the way this section is written, my assumption is it was late 1960’s or early 1970’s, near the time of book publication. The data was broken down into five brackets based on size of community served. .38 special 4″ revolvers were by far the most popular, with 80% or more (depending on bracket) carrying that gun. .357 magnum accounted for most of the remaining 20%, with .45 Colt, .45 ACP or other calibers lumped together into one “miscellaneous” category.

The last part of this section includes data from 174 nation-states, surveyed by author James Cramer in his book “Uniforms of the World’s Police” Bristow notes that the semiautomatic pistol is preferred by a more than 2 to 1 ratio, with the popularity of the revolver is highest in the US, Central and South America, and the United Kingdom. European and Asian countries favored semiauto pistols.

Like any good researcher, Bristow devotes part of his book (the end of section 3), defining a potential research project to provide more data about police firearm effectiveness. He even includes the budgeting numbers, perhaps hoping that one or more of the big city police chiefs or gov’t personnel that might read the book would have interest in funding that work.

Section 4: Making the .38 special more effective

This section opens with a 1969 Law and Order article from Jim Cirillo, who would become famous for his 17 on-duty gunfights. The paragraph below is from Cirillo’s article, and the video from an interview.

Lee Jurras developed the Super Vel, higher velocity expanding bullet load for the .38 special, and Bristow includes material written by Jurras, as well as discussion from others about the virtues of this new load. At the time, use of jacketed hollow point ammunition was an unusual and sometimes controversial idea, or as Bristow notes “It was felt that issuing more high-powered weapons would be attacked by certain organized members of the community as an attempt to use repressive and dangerous force against them.”

Bristow shares the full report of a study done by a “major California city police department” (most likely Los Angeles PD given Bristow’s location) evaluating these 5 loads and calibers for police use

  • .45 auto with 230 gr, 800 ft/sec cartridge
  • 9mm auto with 124 gr, 1100 ft/sec cartridge
  • .38 revolver with 158 gr, 800 ft/sec cartridge
  • .38 revolver with 158 gr 1000 ft/sec cartridge
  • .38 revolver with 110 gr 1370 ft/sec cartridge (“half jacketed”)

The testing included evaluation of “hydrostatic shocking power” by shooting the loads into gallon plastic containers, a box of 12 pine boards, gelatin, and a vehicle door. The 110 gr Super Vel cartridge was selected as a result of the testing. Following the selection of the Super Vel, Remington developed two loads, a 125 gr and 158 gr, using the term “jacketed hollow point” to describe them. While not specifically noted as such in Bristow’s book, this was a significant moment in firearms history, as the use of JHP rounds began to become standard issue for law enforcement.

Bristow includes a full article from Major George Nonte on the risk of hot loads (the Super Vel load) blowing up lightweight guns like the S&W Airweight. Nonte used an S&W M38 Airweight Bodyguard and a Colt Agent in his thousand round torture test of those guns with hotter .38 special loads from multiple vendors. Both guns survived the testing with no significant or unusual wear.

Bristow also includes a full 1970 article from The Nation (“Vietnamization on Main Street” by Robert Wells) describing the new ammunition as “dum-dum” bullets, warning that the rounds have “violent expansion…giving the bullet an explosive effect on the victim”. The author does share multiple stories of traditional .38 special rounds passing through criminals and hitting innocent bystanders, and police officer deaths resulting from the failure of multiple hits with .38 special rounds to stop a criminal attacker. However, by the end of the article, the Nation’s author concludes:

With the advent of the dum-dum it may well be time for us to leave our chiefs of police the technical decisions which they have been trained to make, and to begin finding ways of relieving them of responsibility for decisions that ought to be the business of officials who are accountable to public opinion.

Wells continues to write about his opposition to jacketed hollow point bullets in this article on the “Socialist Viewpoint” from 2016.

Section 5: A Change in Revolvers

Section 5 opens with an essay from Elmer Keith on the virtues of the .41 magnum caliber, an opposing viewpoint article from Bob Wallack of Gun Digest from 1965, and a lot of technical data about the .41 as it compared to .38 special and .357 magnum. Bristow includes a report on a 1965 firearms study done by the Amarillo, Texas, police department and their decision to switch to carrying the .41 magnum revolver. Another study report from the Los Angeles Police Department, also from 1965, considering the .41 magnum is also included in this section. A Chicago PD report from 1966 on the same topic, also concluding that the .41 was an excellent choice for duty use, covers much of the same material, with similar tests to the other reports. A 1969 report from the Nevada Highway Patrol, discussing their 1965 switch to the .41 magnum, and 1969 decision to switch back to .357 magnum, includes reasons for the switch: mainly related to lack of ammunition and lack of ability to reload for that caliber. The .41 was described as “virtually unmanageable in rapid, double action firing due to extreme recoil”.

A longer, more detailed test of the .41 magnum was conducted by an officer with the West Covina, CA police department. The tests included velocity tests with a chronograph, explosive effects in soap and clay, sheet metal penetration (straight on and at angle), plywood penetration, and benchrest accuracy. That officer’s analysis concluded the .357 magnum, not the .41 magnum, was a better choice for law enforcement use.

Section 6: A Change to the Semiautomatic Pistol

The final section delves into the pros and cons of the semiautomatic pistol, as an alternative to the revolver. It opens with a letter from San Diego County Sheriff J.C. O’Connor and his range master, Elden Carl, (one of the Southwest Pistol League’s Combat Masters) advocating against the use of the 1911 .45 ACP semiauto pistol for law enforcement use, citing “safety” as the primary concern. George Nonte contributes an 1971 Guns and Ammo article pointing out all the ways in which a revolver can malfunction or fail. Another article from W.G. Wheelright covers the 1966 change of the El Monte, CA police department from the .38 special revolver to the 1911 .45 ACP semiauto pistol – another important inflection point in firearms history. This article references Jeff Cooper, Ray Chapman and others that were influential in changing attitudes about semiauto pistols during the 1960’s.

The Torrance, CA police department also transitioned to the 1911 pistol in 1968, and a lengthy article related to that change is included, along with an article from Mason Williams from Law and Order magazine. Bristow adds his own opinion to this section, defining a training program for those learning the semiauto pistol. The program emphasizes technique halfway between the Jelly Bryce hip shooting approach and true aimed fire as being advocated by Jeff Cooper and others. (At this time in history, many 1911’s still had the WW2 era tiny sights that were virtually useless, which may have influenced the decision not to try to see them at defensive shooting speeds.)

The rest of the training program includes slide lock reloads, firing pairs of shots, and shots fired at distances as far as 20 yards. Compared to the PPC, FBI and bullseye courses used by most departments, this program is considerably more realistic and relevant, even if it discourages sighted fire. (My suspicion is that many shooters of this era, particularly those that performed well, used the sights more than their instructors wanted them to.)

Another subsection of this chapter goes into the usual laundry list of modifications one should and should not make to the 1911 pistol. Bristow does recommend higher visibility combat sights (even as he recommends not using them in his training course…) The section includes with reprint of an article about the military’s use of semiauto pistols, published in 1955.

The Illinois State Police switched to the S&W Model 39 DA/SA semiauto in 9mm, and shared their report on the factors behind that decision with Bristow, which he shares in the book. The most interesting aspect of it, to me, was the data included on relative officer performance on their Marksmanship Qualification course with a .38 revolver (full size), a .38 snub revolver, and a Model 39 9mm.

Note the substantial performance drop (from 78% average to 43% average score) when officers switched to their backup guns. The .38 snub has its fans and advocates in the modern era, but here is yet another example of regular shooters (who are not gun hobbyists who put in far more effort to develop skill than the typical shooter), suffering significant performance loss when using the lightweight frame 2″ barrel .38 snub. Even with the low recoiling .38 target loads, and shooters familiar with double action revolver shooting, the size and weight difference between the large and small revolver has a substantial effect on proficiency.

Section 7: Conclusions

Like every TV special about Bigfoot or UFOs, this book concludes with more questions than answers, and weak recommendations that we need to “keep studying the problem” and hope that better information comes along. At that time, that really was the right answer, as the innovations in load development and handgun design since 1973, as well as testing protocols, training and evaluation have all improved considerably. The book is still an interesting read, since it compiles so many studies and sources that would otherwise be lost or forgotten, had they not been collected and archived by Professor Bristow.

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