The history of law enforcement weapons

While today’s police officers carry technologically advanced, specialized firearms, a look at the history of law enforcement weapons shows that those of early police officers were primitive in comparison.

Up until the end of the 1800s, there were no department issue side arms when it came to law enforcement weapons. Police officers carried whatever weapons they happened to possess. All kinds of guns, from muskets to revolvers to shotguns were used by sheriffs, marshals and constables in the U.S. Each officer was usually responsible for providing their own guns and shooting skills, as there was no budget for weaponry in the early police forces. 

The first city police department to standardize law enforcement weapons was New York City in 1896. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the city’s police commissioner at the time, recognized that by standardizing police weaponry, he could also standardize ammunition and training for officers and more effectively prepare them for duty. He purchased 4,500 Colt Police Revolvers, also known as the .32 Colt.

Other police departments began to follow suit, standardizing law enforcement weapons in the early 1900s.  They each chose the weapon they deemed most efficient for the job.  Departments in the north tended to use the .38 Special, while in the southern states they preferred larger caliber revolvers like the Colt Single Action Army, the Smith & Wesson Triple Lock and the Colt New Service revolver.

In the 1930’s, the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum became a favorite among the law enforcement weapons used in the U.S. Semi-automatic pistols began to be adopted by police departments in the 1960s, when the Smith & Wesson Model 39 9mm pistol became the standard weapon of the Illinois State Police Department. The high capacity, semi-automatic guns gave officers much more firepower than the standard revolver and were much favored, particularly by urban police departments. 

Today’s preferred law enforcement weapons are semi-automatic firearms made by Glock, Smith & Wesson, SIG Sauer, and Beretta. Some law enforcement officers carry shotguns and semiautomatic rifles in their vehicles, particularly in high crime urban areas where they need the maximum amount of firepower.

Law enforcement weapons of the non-lethal variety include the baton, mace, pepper spray and electroshock guns (also known as tasers, or stun-guns).

SWAT units carry specialized law enforcement weapons such as sniper rifles, submachine guns, automatic rifles, semiautomatic combat shotguns, tear gas, smoke grenades and flash grenades.

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