From smart phones to drones, technology has made life easier in many ways. The same is true for many law enforcement agencies in Kentucky, as advancements in bullet technology have many departments moving toward or considering a switch to 9 mm handguns.
Kentucky State Police Deputy Commissioner Alex Payne said in the past several years, manufacturers have made the 9 mm handgun more attractive to law enforcement.
“These new 9 mm bullets started coming out, and they are the most amazing thing I’ve seen, from a 9 mm standpoint, since I started in 1983,” Payne said. “It’s the coolest thing that I’ve seen as far as ammo that’s come along.”
Although maligned in the past due to its inability to reliably deliver incapacitating force, recent developments in bullet-technology design have moved the 9 mm back to the forefront of a law enforcement weapon and bullet of choice.
Studies by the FBI have shown the new 9 mm packs quite a punch and scores better on protocols or tests, Payne said.
“To give you an example, using the FBI protocols, we took our current .40 caliber round and it passed roughly 33 percent of those FBI protocols,” Payne said. “That’s a 180-grain, .40-caliber round out of a Glock 35. The new 9 mm bullets passed 100 percent of those FBI protocols with flying colors.”
In order to pass the protocols, a bullet must achieve 13 to 15 inches of penetration depth using the FBI ballistics gelatin with varying obstacles to overcome.
The FBI tests include shooting into bare gelatin (15 inches of penetration), gelatin covered with heavy clothing (15 inches), a target with a steel shield (14 inches), wallboard (13.5 inches), plywood (15 inches) and automobile glass (14 inches).
“What you’re looking for is the 13 to 15 inches of penetration because handguns are all about penetration,” Payne said. “They’re not rifles, and the big difference between them is speed. You have to think of the handgun as an elongated drill bit. The longer or deeper I can get that drill bit in there, the better off I’m going to feel about that particular bullet.”
The .40-caliber bullet fell short, Payne said, adding that while it got through the different barriers, only 33 percent of the time did the projectile penetrate the desired 13 to 15 inches.
The biggest change in the 9 mm round is that the hollow point is plugged with a rubber, Teflon-type substance.
“They refer to them as barrier-blind ammunition, so whatever you put them through, you’re still going to get that 13 to 15 inches (penetration),” Payne said. “That is critical to (police officers).”
Lexington Police Department Training Section Commander Roger J. Holland Jr. said his agency made its move to a higher-caliber handgun in the early 2000s, but kept the 9 mm in the fold for the benefit of officers who struggled with shooting a .40-caliber.
“We didn’t necessarily move away, but made it optional if someone wanted to go to the .40 back then,” Holland said. “We were transitioning all the recruits to a .40, but now we’re moving back the other way.”
Holland said Lexington went to the higher-caliber weapon based on an early 2000s FBI study that indicated the 9 mm wasn’t as effective as law enforcement agencies would have liked. But in recent years, the FBI has done an about-face on the 9 mm based on the improved bullet technology.
“Even during that period, if we had a recruit who struggled to manage a .40-cal, we would put them in a 9 mm because they were able to manage that weapon better,” Holland said.
The recent switch back to the 9 mm has resulted in higher marksmanship scores, Holland added.
Many agencies follow the FBI’s lead in matters involving firearms, Payne said.
The FBI has a top-notch research department, which is a huge benefit to local agencies, he said.
“Everything is based on bullet technology these days,” Payne said. “One of the leaders in researching what the ammo manufacturers have done is the FBI. So, anything new that comes out, they will add it to their vast database, and they do this by setting up a series of tests known as the FBI protocols. The rounds are subjected to all the things that a duty round possibly could be subjected to during the course of an officer’s career. Of course, they have the resources, manpower and technology to do these things. They’ll actually use gelatin blocks that they manufacture. The standards for the gelatin have been established for years.”
KSP used a Glock 35 as its primary service weapon and the Glock 27 as its backup or ankle weapon, Payne said. But many factors, including a pronounced recoil and improved 9 mm bullets, prompted the agency to move to 9 mm weapons.
“The .40 was a good weapon; it served us well,” Payne said. “It was heavy, but it worked. That’s the first thing you’ve got to have in a police weapon; it’s got to go boom. It’s not as unforgiving as the 10-caliber by a longshot, but there’s a lot of muzzle flip with the Glock 35. It’s just not as easily controlled as the 9 mm.”
Department of Criminal Justice Training Special Operations Branch Manager Jim Simpson said with the improvements, the 9 mm is now on par with higher-caliber rounds.
“It’s comparable to larger-caliber ammunition,” Simpson said. “That’s why a lot of departments are going to it; it’s cheaper than the .40 caliber.”
The 9 mm offers a much less pronounced recoil, which allows officers to shoot more accurately.
“You’re not having to come back on target so much like you do with the large caliber,” Simpson said.
DOCJT Firearms Section Supervisor Joe Wallace said less recoil can improve a shooter’s accuracy greatly.
“A smaller caliber you can keep on your target,” Wallace said. “A lot of that might be that the shooter feels timid because of the recoil, but your recovery time between shots is going to suffer with a larger-caliber weapon.”
That means officers can fire faster, more accurate follow-up shots.
“We’re talking milliseconds,” Wallace said. “But still, if it means stopping that threat, it’s an advantage for the officer. It may be a slight advantage, but it’s still an advantage.”
Additionally, there is significantly less wear and tear on a 9 mm handgun versus higher-caliber weapons, Simpson said.
“Anytime you use a large caliber, it’s harder on the weapon system,” he said. “When you go to a smaller caliber like the 9 mm, there’s fewer things that can happen with that weapon system.”
There also is a cost-savings in regard to training ammunition, Payne said.
“That’s another plus we found out about,” he said. “Duty ammo is kind of a wash — it’s about the same (cost) — but your practice ammo is cheaper. That will save the agency some money.”
Payne added that what makes a perfect police sidearm is the flawless marriage between bullet and gun, and that is the most important thing for officers.
“At the end of the day, we want to put our people in the best possible position to win these confrontations and go home,” Payne said. “If I didn’t believe in this stuff, we wouldn’t have it, period.”