SIGHTING IN ON: Will It Work When You Need It?

Test your equipment by itself and with its additional accouterments.

By Warren Wilson

For a full month in 1998, I was in fear when I left the house. There had been three attempts in just a month and I wasn’t about to take any unnecessary chances. I was a police chief and a heavily armed man in my prime, but it didn’t seem to matter. I’d researched my assailants and, as it turned out, blue jays were the most likely suspects. However, sparrows can be just as bad and finches are also pretty shady, if you ask me.
I’m not talking about poorly named criminal street gangs, I’m speaking of actual birds. Yes, I’d been bird-bombed three times in a single month. There’s no way to know how many sorties had been launched with me as the intended target, but my flying nemeses had pulled off a hat trick of the messiest kind, right in the midst of my beloved baseball season. Their motive is a mystery to this day. No less than three T-shirts and one treasured ball cap met their end during this prolonged siege. One of the shirts had a firearm logo on it, so the attacks may have been politically motivated. Ever the optimist, I tried putting a good spin on being the newspaper at the bottom of the world’s largest aviary. Anything can be a learning experience with the right attitude.
There’s a widely held belief in law enforcement that “Murphy” (of Murphy’s Law) was a cop. Anything that can go wrong with police equipment will go wrong and at the worst possible time. How many of us have had a car or a flashlight die on us at an inopportune time? If it hasn’t happened to you yet, be thankful for your recent hire date. It will. Some duty pistols won’t work reliably with frame-mounted lights and/or with certain specific ammunition, no matter its quality. Yet an identical make and model of pistol with an identical setup may buzz along like a sewing machine. I’ve seen the cylinder of quality revolvers lock up inexplicably and then function flawlessly for the remainder of their service life.
Even some semi-automatic shotguns can be finicky with certain ammunition. One must be especially careful when combining accessories like side-mounted shell carriers and low-recoil ammunition. Adding gear can cause trouble without any further outside forces. There is an excellent auto shotgun that can be reduced to single shot when an accessory is mounted to the barrel. Its design requires barrel movement during recoil for proper function. (Don’t mount anything to the barrel of any gun, by the way.)
I’ve seen the recoil spring of well-revered, high-quality auto pistol fail after only a few thousand rounds. I’ve had an expensive drop-leg AR-15 magazine carrier end up flopping around on my ankle during the approach of a high-risk search warrant service. It worked fine during multiple rigorous SWAT practices, but it just failed in real life, as equipment so often can.
Thankfully, none of these situations had consequences any more serious than embarrassment and frustration. On the positive side, these equipment failures reinforce what has become a personal mantra: Stuff goes wrong and sometimes birds drop one on your head. Maintain and test your emergency equipment.

Firearms Maintenance
We all know the story of the ROAD officer (Retired On Active Duty) who went to the range for mandatory qualification with a revolver so gunked up with apathy and spilled soda that the cylinder would not revolve after being wrenched from its sticky 30-year-old bucket holster (complete with the obligatory green rusty snap). Sadly, most cops only practice with their duty pistol and long guns during annual qualifications. It’s never been more difficult for cops to be well-practiced shooters considering the rising cost of ammunition, shrinking training budgets, and law enforcement’s ever-increasing diversity of responsibilities. However, that in no way diminishes our responsibility to ensure that our “emergency equipment” (as it’s called by nationally respected defensive tactics and firearms instructor Vince O’Neill) is serviceable. Cop guns should be cleaned after each time they are fired and that shouldn’t be just once a year, even though it’s not the most riveting activity. I can sympathize as I find cleaning guns after a range session about as exciting as watching ant racing on television, but it cannot be neglected. There’s just too much to lose.

The fasteners on even high-grade rifle slings can work themselves loose after sustained usage. I can’t claim great needlecraft skills, but that doesn’t stop me from adding a few hand stitches here and there after final adjustments. It’s cheap insurance and guarantees my two-point sling doesn’t turn into a “one-point” tripping hazard during an approach during a warrant service or barricaded subject. Officer Murphy says that anything that has a screw, clip, or clasp will come off after time and rigorous use.
Picatinny rails on defensive guns are more common these days than neckties in a courthouse. Cops put sights, back-up sights, lights, lasers and all sorts of doodads on their gun rails. Remember to look at each item as a potential problem. Check them during your regular inspections to ensure they are secure. Again, test them rigorously with your selected duty ammunition before putting them into service.

I pay special attention to all ammunition I buy these days. Perhaps, in the push to get ammo out to consumers during the sustained shortage, quality control suffered. At times I’ve seen reversed primers, rimless cartridges that truly did not have a rim, and bullets pushed back into the case about twice as far as they should have been. Even after initial examination, you should include ammunition in your regular inspections. Ammunition that has been left in magazines too long, especially in humid environments, can quickly oxidize without an officer’s knowledge. Think about that patrol vehicle’s air conditioner causing condensation on your duty belt’s items every time you re-enter your squad on a hot day (or vice versa during the winter). It’s best to empty your magazines occasionally and inspect them with a flashlight to ensure they are all clean and serviceable. It’s also good practice to rotate duty ammo at regular intervals. How often this might be necessary depends on the officer’s work environment. Once a year might be sufficient for less humid climates, but not for those who work in seaside or lakeside towns. Personally, I fall back on the official time change twice a year as a reminder to inspect my equipment.

Electronics have been a point of particular interest for law enforcement over recent years. Lasers started out as somewhat of a novelty, but have begun to really take a serious place in defensive firearm usage. No one can doubt the viability of red dot or holographic sights in the role of law-enforcement patrol rifles and possibly pistols of the future. Their primary weakness is the life of their batteries. Obviously, some are better than others in this regard. Some only offer a few hours of operation while others may provide years of constant service without a battery change. I know of at least one team that replaces their batteries after any lengthy operation or practice day, utilizing an abundance of caution. No matter what the battery life of your electronic gear, change the batteries at regular intervals. Granted, lithium model 123 cells are expensive, but buying in bulk helps hold the price down and you can go in on a big box of batteries to share with co-workers. Keep those old, retired, but still viable 123s for reuse in utility lights or other items that are not entrusted to personal security. Of course with electronics, there are a lot of things that break or just cease to function. Some lasers, lights and electronic sights will provide years of service while others may last only until the next time they are truly needed.

Beta Testing
How many of us actually test our equipment and train with it exactly as we carry it in the field? Some equipment doesn’t work well with other equipment. It’s important to practice with our gear set up exactly as it will be fielded. Pistol lights should be left in place. If you’re worried about the lens becoming dirty, cover it with electrical tape, but don’t forget to remove it after the range session!
I have one pistol in the safe that doesn’t function well with a certain combination of ammunition and a rail-mounted light. None of these wares in question are anything but top-shelf, until they are used together in concert. The trio will choke between the third and fifth round of the magazine almost every time. The pistol runs fine with the ammunition. It runs fine with the light. But the combination of the three just will not work. I could have been satisfied that the combination had been properly vetted, but since it was to be a defensive battery, and I’m the cynical type, I tested them together. Thankfully, I found out the easy way on the square range and not when it may have been important at some inopportune time down the road.
The same can be said for back up iron sights (BUIS) on patrol rifles. I try to train about as much with my BUIS as I do with optics. It’s much less disconcerting to have a battery failure during a call or even qualification if you are well-practiced with your irons. It’s also important to repeatedly begin a string of fire with your optics, de-activate the optic, and then get your BUISes into action during training.

Two is One
No gizmo should be fully trusted to perform when called to duty. Lasers and red dots don’t replace iron sights. Weapon-mounted lights don’t replace handheld lights, and so on. Back-up items like those should always be at the ready in case Ofc. Murphy responds to the call without being dispatched. If you use the phrase, “Two is one. One is none” to any of my former teammates, you’ll probably get a chuckle. I concede that the term has become a little trite and many disparage those of us who use it. Still, everyone knows what it means and we all need the reminder from time to time. I preached it constantly and was known as being one of the guys who had whatever gear was needed to a comedic degree; be it a small pair of binoculars, extra batteries, or even spare boot laces.
Throughout my career, it seemed like if I ever forgot my multi-tool or second light, that’s when they were needed. I learned from those omissions. Hopefully, somebody out there can learn from my quasi-comedic misfortunes. Maintain and test your equipment before hitting the street and always…I mean always…look up before leaving the house. PM

Warren Wilson is a Lieutenant with the Enid Police Department in Oklahoma. He is a former SWAT team member/leader and has been in law enforcement for 17 years.


  1. A few small stitches near the fastening points of a rifle sling will keep it from coming loose at an inopportune time.
  2. The author recommends not only having, but training with backup iron sights in conjunction with electronic red dot sights.
  3. Maintaining shooting skills sometimes requires practicing on your own time and your own dime.
  4. It’s good practice to carry a handheld flashlight even if you have a rail-mounted light on your pistol; both tactically and in the case of a battery failure.
  5. A street cop never knows when he/she will be stranded on a low-light call for several hours.

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