The Service Target Handgun

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By Massad Ayoob

American cops today carry mostly striker-fired duty pistols or hammer-fired SIG or HK double actions, and unless they’ve been customized they always seem to come with fixed sights. Back in the day, though, a lot of the best police marksmen carried target-grade service revolvers.

The LAPD cherished its reputation for professionalism and gave its officers bonus pay for shooting high scores on their monthly qualifications. In my youth, they all carried target grade .38 Specials with 6″ barrels and adjustable sights, mostly Smith & Wesson K-38’s with a sprinkling of Colt Officer’s Model revolvers. When they went to 4″ guns, it was S&W Combat Masterpieces, first the blue one becoming known as the Model 15, and later the stainless Model 67, until the adoption of the fixed sight Beretta 92’s in the late 1980’s and the segue into Glock’s in the 21st Century.

The first .357 Magnum revolver, the heavy frame Smith & Wesson introduced in 1935, always came with adjustable sights, as did the economy version, the Highway Patrolman, and the sleeker K-Frame Combat Magnum, both introduced in the mid-1950’s. Those same years saw the introduction of Colt’s deluxe Python, in .357 and of course with adjustable sights. Lucky cops (every Colorado state trooper back then, and some of the troopers on Georgia State Patrol and Florida Highway Patrol) were issued them, too. S&W didn’t even make a fixed-sight .357 Magnum until the introduction of their Model 13 in 1974.

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Adjustable sights and match accuracy were hallmarks of the most prestigious
police .357’s: S&W 27, left, and Colt Python, right.

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Some things don’t change much. Top, Colt National Match .45 with BoMars; below,
Springfield Range Officer .45, spanning 40+ years of carry by one officer.

Sights = Accuracy

The reason was accuracy. The adjustable sights could be dialed in precisely for perfect point of aim/point of impact. This was particularly important to cops who might be competing in PPC matches with their service revolvers, since Magnum loads were unlikely to print to the same POA/POI coordinates as the 148-grain .38 Special Match wadcutters favored for competition.

Adjustable sights were also more visible, particularly on pre-WWII S&W’s. When the hammer fell on a standard fixed-sight early Military & Police, the hammer spur blotted out the rear sight, creating an almost stroboscopic effect on the person aiming and firing rapidly. The adjustable sights sat higher, and the shooter could not only maintain a better visual, but could usually pick up the sights faster. Fixed sights have gotten a lot better since then! Adjustable sights were usually found on 6″ guns: while both S&W and Colt would make 4″ adjustable sight M&P Target Models and Officer’s Models respectively on special order, I don’t believe either was ever catalogued in that length.

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Early M&P Target 4″, top, morphed into the S&W Combat
Masterpiece, below, in mid-20th Century.

Autos

the Colt Government .45 was the first autoloader widely carried by US cops, though it never approached the popularity of the revolver back in the day. Shortly before WWII, Colt made it with optional adjustable sights as the National Match. Departments like El Monte, CA adopted the Colt .45 circa the 1960’s, and when I visited them in the ’70’s to do a story on that, I noticed the adjustable sighted Gold Cups were prized as duty weapons, not just for their prestige factor but because the adjustable sights’ greater visibility made the guns perform a bit better for those who carried them.

Smith & Wesson later sold several of their optional adjustable sighted second- and third-generation service pistols to police departments, but never as many as the fixed sight models. The fixed sight gradually became standard, bringing us to the present, where an adjustable-sighted police duty pistol is a rara avis, indeed. The reason can be stated in a single word: Durability.

Durability was always cited as the primary rationale of fixed sights on a duty weapon. In truth, I saw the leaf of more than one S&W adjustable rear sight bent when the officer carrying it in a Border Patrol style holster smacked it against the steering wheel every time he exited the patrol car. This didn’t seem to be a problem with the swivel clamshells and later high-riding Bianchi breakfronts that were LAPD trademarks.

Still, no one ever made a more heavy duty service revolver than the Ruger GP100, and most of the ones I saw in police holsters had adjustable sights. Another concern was non-gun-savvy cops could put a screwdriver to the sights the wrong way and totally mess up their point of aim/point of impact.

Still, heavy duty adjustable sights like the old BoMar and their recent clones stand up pretty well, along with modern custom adjustables such as those from Dawson and Novak. The Springfield Range Officer .45 I shot at my last department qualification is remarkably similar to the BoMar-sighted Colt National Match I carried in uniform in the early 1970’s. Sometimes, what worked in the past works just as well in the present.

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