Since 1985, at various times I have been issued, qualified with, or authorized to carry the Beretta 92F/M9, classic Sig P226/228 & P220, S&W 3rd gen pistols, Glock 9 mm's, S&W M&P's, various 1911’s, as well as several S&W revolvers including J, K, L , and N-frames. I also have a fair degree of experience with Browning Hi-Powers, Glock 22/23 & 21, various HK pistols. I have been certified as an armorer on several of these systems. All of these handguns had both good and bad characteristics. I have been lucky to have gotten to travel around the country and world quite a bit and gotten to see what other units and agencies are using and assess how their weapon systems are functioning. There are many pistols which will give adequate service for routine law enforcement or military duty use. The number of pistols which are reliable, durable, and ergonomic enough for very demanding law enforcement tactical and harsh military special operations use is much smaller.
Unless your department picks your caliber for you, pick the platform you shoot best, then decide on caliber from there. Basically all the standard service calibers work when using good quality ammunition; the platform picked tends to dictate the caliber. Currently the best duty pistols going right out of the box are probably the Glocks, S&W M&P's, as well as HK.
I really like having a manual safety on a pistol that is used for uniformed LE use; I have twice seen officers' lives potentially saved when another person gained control of an officer's pistol, but the engaged manual safety prevented the weapon from firing--I don't like to think about the outcome if the pistols involved had been a Glock, Sig, XD, revolver, etc...
In the last decade or so, ammo engineers have produced a superb generation of 9 mm projectiles that offer penetration in the ideal range and that are capable of good performance after common intermediate barriers. As many agencies are discovering, modern robust expanding, barrier blind 9 mm ammunition is performing on par with larger caliber handgun loads, but offers substantial fiscal and training benefits. In test after test, most officers demonstrate a higher qualification score when shooting 9 mm compared to other common service calibers. Smaller statured officers and those with small hands tend to shoot better with 9 mm. Service pistols tend to be more durable in 9 mm than those in 357 Sig and .40 S&W. In a time of fiscal austerity, 9 mm ammunition is certainly less expensive. For most LE duties, there are a lot of advantages in carrying a 9 mm: easy to shoot-- especially one handed, relatively inexpensive to practice with, lots of bullets immediately on tap. When I injured my strong hand a few years ago and lost its use for several months, I found out how much more effective I was using a G19 weak handed compared to a .45 Auto 1911. I suspect in the near future many LE agencies will shift back to 9 mm given the benefits noted above.
While I am not a big fan of the 357 Sig, if I was issued one and had lots of free ammunition available, I would have no issues about carrying one on a daily basis.
.40 S&W is a widely used caliber and in many respects offers a compromise between 9 mm and .45 Auto. The .40 S&W was developed at a time when 9 mm JHP loads demonstrated insufficient penetration and poor intermediate barrier capability. .40 S&W offers nearly the same large magazine capacity as 9 mm coupled with the larger mass of the .45 Auto. Unfortunately, .40 S&W is a relatively high pressure cartridge, has a sharp recoil that can be hard for many officers to control, and pistols in this caliber have a decreased service life compared to similar 9 mm handguns. In addition, .40 S&W ammunition is more expensive than 9 mm. A very experienced senior SOF NCO who has battled many of our Nation's foes and who has the distinction of having used 9mm, .40, and .45 Auto pistols in combat during various phases of his career wrote the following superb analysis discussing pistol calibers recently:
Nonetheless, if I was in a department that issued .40 or was doing a lot of LE work around vehicles, I'd be strongly tempted to carry a M&P40. Lots of 180 gr JHP's that do well against intermediate barriers is a good thing.
The nice aspects of .45 Auto are that it makes large holes, can be very accurate, and offers good penetration of some intermediate barriers. Unfortunately, magazine capacity is less than ideal, .45 Auto is more expensive to practice with, and in general is harder to shoot well compared with 9 mm. .45 ACP makes the most sense in states with idiotic 10 rd magazine restrictions, in departments that give you lots of free .45 Auto ammo, or in situations where modern expanding ammunition is restricted due to asinine, illogical regulations.
Rather than using larger caliber duty pistols, most CONUS urban LE agencies would be better served by issuing a quality 9 mm handgun (Glock 17/19, S&W M&P9, or HK VP9/P30) along with good ammunition, and then spending the majority of their efforts on mandating effective, high quality, ongoing firearms training—a good minimum would be 100 rounds per week of dedicated, objective, monitored and scored training shots.
As I've said before:
9 mm Glocks are probably the most proven pistols available, particularly the pre-2011 3rd gen models. Stay away from Glocks in .40 S&W.
The S&W M&P may just be the best LE service pistol produced to date. I was involved in a M&P40 trial at a large agency where four M&P40's fired 7000 rounds each in 1 week without any significant issues. Up to this point, we have not seen any major problems with M&P40/45's--they just keep steadily improving. Some older M&P9's exhibit accuracy issues at ranges beyond 15 yds; M&P9's made after July 2012 seem to shoot as accurately as a typical 3rd gen 9 mm Glock. The Apex duty kits can offer a substantial improvement for those who object to the OEM M&P trigger feel.
The HK45 and HK P30 are good reliable service pistols with great accuracy and the the new VP9 looks very promising.
The FN FNS9 is another potential viable service pistol choice, however there is not a significant amount of long term data on its use by multiple agencies; same with the Walther PPQ.
Unless you are issued one, Beretta is not an optimal current choice, particularly in calibers other than 9 mm. Having said that, while a bit large, a Beretta M9A1 with a G-decocker and dovetailed sights can be a very viable and reliable pistol for someone who wants to run one.
The older German made Sig 9 mm’s are generally superb, however from about 2005 to 2012 Sig saw a precipitous decline in QC, durability, and reliability, so proceed with caution.
XD's are a no go for serious use--the inability to retract the slide without engaging the grip safety makes one-hand injured operation very difficult with the XD--this is a deal breaker for me. In addition, in some government tests, XD's (particularly the .40's) have broken a lot of parts compared to other pistols being tested...I'll take a 9 mm Glock or M&P any day of the week over an XD.
For many years, U.S. military Tier One units used custom .45 Auto M1911 pistols. However, beginning in the mid--‐2000’s the most celebrated U.S. military counterterrorism unit switched from 1911’s to modern striker fired pistols. Likewise many LE agencies whose tactical teams carried 1911’s have moved away from the pistol in recent years. While a properly customized 5" steel-frame single-stack 1911 in .45 Auto is a superb, unparalleled choice for the dedicated user willing to spend a significant amount of money to get it properly initially set-up and considerable time to maintain it, 1911’s are no longer an optimal pistol design for organizations to choose, given the high initial costs and increased maintenance associated with the platform compared to other more modern designs that function just as well. Keep in mind that agencies issuing 1911’s will need to ensure access to high level, very experienced pistol-smiths (not just basic armorers) trained in servicing combat weapons; such folks require extensive hands on training, demand high prices, and are hard to find. Also remember that 1911 pistols in calibers other than .45 Auto and barrels shorter than 5" induce increasingly greater problems. I will not use any 1911 with a Schwartz firing pin safety (like on the Kimber II pistols) as I have seen high numbers of them fail; the Colt Series 80 firing pin safety is the only one I might trust for urban LE use, but they have also been known to fail in harsh environments (particularly surf zone and high dust) so I generally prefer a standard USG style 1911 pistol w/o firing pin safety. I would not choose to carry most stock or even semi-custom 1911's on duty without making sure they were set-up properly with reliable function, durable parts, and ergonomic execution. I firmly believe that if you want a 1911 for serious use, the minimum level of quality for a duty/carry weapon is the SA Pro model (either PC9111 or PC9111LR if you want a light rail); if you’re not willing to invest that much into the weapon system, don't get a 1911... I write this after being around quite a few 1911's over the past two decades of military and LE duty, including GI, commercial Colt, SA (Milspec, Loaded, MC Oper, Professional models), Wilson, Kimber, Nighthawk, Les Baer, and Para Ord, as well as custom pistols by folks like Bill Laughridge, Wayne Novak/Joe Bonar, Ed Brown, John Jardine, Hilton Yam, Larry Vickers, and Chuck Rogers. I'd strongly recommend anyone contemplating a 1911 for serious use read all of the material on 1911's here: http://www.10-8performance.com/pages/Articles.html. For agencies and individuals that want a .45 Auto pistol, but don't want to invest the funds and effort necessary in acquiring and maintaining high quality 1911’s, they would be better served with a modern pistol like the S&W M&P45, HK45, or 4th gen G21. After being issued, qualified on, or carrying 1911's for 25 years, in 2011 I retired the 1911's and transitioned to the M&P45 w/ambi safety and Apex duty kit.
From an agency armorer perspective, the easiest and most cost effective service pistols to maintain are Glocks then M&P's, distantly followed by 3rd gen S&W, classic Sig, HK, and Beretta. If you don't have superb gunsmiths (not just factory trained armorers) on staff or readily available, it is hard to keep 1911's up and running.
After having gone through the juvenile collector stage of idiotically wasting money by purchasing one or two of every type of service pistol ever produced, I finally grew-up and realized it is far better to strive to master one quality pistol type, then be perpetually mediocre with many. I strongly recommend purchasing two or three identical pistols once you have decided upon the model that you plan to use, carry, and train with. I dedicate one pistol for carry after thoroughly vetting function with 1000 or so rounds through it. Another identical pistol is solely used for training--it is shot till it breaks with minimal cleaning or babying during its service life. If I am able to afford a third pistol, it serves as a back-up to the other two and usually sits in an easily accessible safe as a readily available personal defense weapon mounting an x300u light.
If you have the option, carefully assess what your service pistol and handgun caliber needs are, based on potential engagement scenarios, objective measurements of skill including scores and times, and ancillary factors. In closely looking at where I am at today, it is clear that I currently shoot 9 mm better than .45 Auto; as a result, I phased out my .45 Auto usage and am concentrating on 9 mm. Likewise, I currently shoot an RDS better than iron sights; as a result, all my pistols are now equipped with an RDS.
Whatever you choose, make sure you fire at least 500 and preferably 1000 failure free shots through your pistol prior to carrying it. If your pistol cannot fire at least 1000 consecutive shots without a malfunction, something is wrong and it is not suitable for duty/self-defense use.