Pistol OCD: the Pennsylvania State Police

If you want to see inability to decide on a pistol, or maybe it’s just general inability to pour piss out of a boot, you really can’t beat the Pennsylvania State police. They’ve been through three official sidearms in four years, and it’s their own fault. This Pistol OCD has tripped the PSP through pistols so rapidly that they’re not always able to issue all the new ones before changing to the new new one.

This is only possible in a jurisdiction where a somnolent Legislature exercises flaccid oversight over runaway spending. It’s fair to say that the majority of chiefs of police in America would be grateful and thankful for the chance to recapitalize their force’s handguns once every couple decades. Some jurisdictions make (or “let” if you prefer) their cops buy their own guns from an approved list.

The Pennsylvania State Police buys ‘em and issues ‘em — and then does it all over again. It may be that having the academy located in Hershey, PA, the inescapable aroma of chocolate has inhibited their faculties for impulse control.

Pistol No. 1: The Glock 37

During the wave of the 90s, which sent police forces from their 1980s 9mms to larger calibers, the PSP converted to the .40, which they used initially in Berettas (96D, which is DAO mode with no mechanical safety, then Brigadier), then the Glock 22. They had the usual problems with .40 (declining qual scores and poor performance by smaller troopers due to the .40′s sharp recoil), but they didn’t have quality problems with their Berettas (like the 96D whose PSP patch is shown below) or Glocks. They had wear problems on the usual wear items but the armorers stayed on top of them.

After 10-15 years’ .40 experience, they were interested in the .45 ACP, and they considered but did not adopt this caliber at first.  Instead, in 2007, some genius decided that they really needed more oomph than the mere .45 Auto gave a bullet. The fact that the .45 ACP round has been indiscriminately writing the numbers after the dash on the grave markers of various shooting victims for a century plus didn’t seem to matter. Various Mexicans, Prussians, Haitians, Nicaraguans, Nazis, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Grenadans, Cubans, Panamanians, and God alone knows how many varieties of civilian miscreants are not around to testify as to the adequacy of the .45 ACP, because they’re dead, Jim.

It’s not clear whether it was the highly theoretical idea that the .45 needed improvement, or perhaps it was fanboy drooling over Glock catalogs, sent them to the .45 Glock Auto Pistol, or .45 GAP, round. While .45 GAP is usually loaded to slightly higher pressures than .45 ACP, it actually has less performance potential because it has a shorter case, smaller primer pocket and thicker web, and less case volume. (The shorter case –  is so that it can be accommodated in a G17/G19 sized grip. The thicker web was a good call, given the weak case-head support in big-bore, The smaller primer pocket serves both to strengthen the case head and all .45 GAP loads, factory and manual, are designed to be ignited with small pistol primers and may be unsafe in .45 ACP with large pistol primers. Ammo, load data, and all components except bullets are not interchangeable between ACP and GAP, and you can’t make safe GAP cases by trimming ACP).

The decision to go with .45 GAP somewhat simplified the pistol buying for them, as only Glock and Springfield make pistols in .45 GAP (maybe Detonics also?), and at the time of the contract it was Glock, period. Therefore, the PSP bought large numbers of Glock 37s. Four thousand eight hundred of them, to be specific. (That covers around 4,720 troopers, plus operational floats to cover for pistols in maintenance or evidence).  So they bought 37s. NTTAWWT, right?

Well, it turns out that there is something wrong with that. Specifically, the ammunition is quite hard to come by. There are few sources, little competition among sources that would be acceptable a risk-averse public agency, and it’s expensive, compared to other pistol rounds. (How expensive? At LuckyGunner.com, .45 GAP ranges from 55¢ to $1.28 a round, while .45 ACP is offered in 31 options for less than the least expensive .45 GAP. True, the cheapest of those are reloads or Wolf steelcase crap no agency would touch with a barge pole, but even name brands like Speer Lawman duty ammo sell for far less in the more common caliber – the GAP is 15¢ or more per round more expensive than .45 ACP for like brands). When ammo is expensive, cops don’t train. When cops don’t train, cops can hit the broadside of a barn. From inside the barn.

When cops miss the bad guy they’re shooting at, or worse,  hit the citizen they’re not shooting at, the worst of all possible things, from the viewpoint of a police manager, ensues: bad publicity. Every police white shirt knows that this is to be avoided at all costs.

The very first Glock 37s were bought in 2007, but they were still buying, stocking, and issuing new Glock 37s in 2013. They had made every effort to make it work, but the ammo supply problem was insuperable, and sooner or later one of Pennsylvania’s dozing legislators was going to wake up and ask why they were paying $1.50 a round for practice ammo. So they decided that the new Glock 37s had to go. They were offered as part of the payment for new guns, with the proviso that a State Trooper could buy a gun (not necessarily his or her old one) back from the vendor within sixty days.

As part of this Invitation for Bid, PSP desires to trade in 4800 Glock Model 37 firearms, each with three clips and are equipped with Glock Night Sights front and rear. The firearms included in the trade-in are 0 to 6 years old and are in NRA good to very good condition.

For sixty (60) days following receipt of the used firearms by the Contractor; PSP Personnel shall have the opportunity to purchase, from that Contractor, a used PSP service firearm. Purchase shall be at trade-in price plus any fees imposed by law or by the Contractor for the proper transfer of the firearm to PSP Personnel. The awarded Contractor shall ensure that the sale of the firearm to the PSP Personnel complies with all applicable State and Federal laws. Following the sixty (60) day time frame, the awarded Contractor may sell or otherwise dispose of the firearms as provided by law

That, in fact, is why you can go online and find several retailers who will happily ship a PSP-crested Glock 37 to your local FFL.


Pistol No. 2: the Glock 21 Gen 4

PSP was looking, then, for an easy way out of their .45 GAP dilemma, and the obvious solution of changing to .45 ACP suggested itself, for all the reasons that GAP was problematical. (It may also be the case that the original fanboy behind the G37 purchase had moved on to other duties).

The G21 was an easy decision for a number of reasons. Its manual of arms is identical to the ill-starred G37, minimizing retraining. About the only user-accessible thing that was new on the G4 was the convertible-size backstrap, and that was likely to be received with hosannas by troopers with smaller or larger than average mitts.

There was a rush to execute the contract. The State Police knew they had the funding to do this in 2013, and they couldn’t guarantee they’d have the funding in out years. They could justify the change on both the ammo savings grounds and on the nifty new features (interchangeable backstraps, etc.) of the next-gen Glocks.

So an RFP went out 22 March 2013, and a contract was let for:


…an initial order of 4800 Glock 21 Gen 4 firearms, with a contracted option to replenish as needed.

This is a no substitute bid for the firearms and listed accessories; the only firearm that will be accepted for this bid is the Glock 21 Gen 4. The items listed under Training Equipment and Accessories are required.

The specifics included the sort of training equipment you’d expect, and training for field armorers and a handful of expert armorers.

As the 21s came in, the 37s went out.

At first, the troopers seemed happy enough with their G21s. Until some of them began running up a high round count. Glock at first denied the guns had problems (we all remember the painful introduction of the G4, right?) and then began addressing specific problems. The union began to rumble, as their officers complained about guns they did not have confidence in.

But as late as 8 April 2013, PSP was still modifying the original G21 contract, in the apparent expectation that the problematic Glock would remain the agency’s service pistol.

Pistol No. 3: the SIG 227R

The problems with the Glock 21 drove the PSP leadership mad. They were frustrating for Glock, too, and Glock executives were bitterly disappointed when PSP changed direction again; from the Glock point of view, the trigger bar and magazine replacements had resolved PSP’s problems. But the real problem was that by this point Glock had lost the confidence of leaders. Once again, personnel turbulence played a role as some of the Glock’s most strident defenders had retired or moved on to positions wherein they couldn’t give their preferred pistol top cover in the bureaucratic battle.

Pistols are one thing that police leaders (like police officers) get emotional about. Everybody is trained to use a pistol, and everybody thinks he or she is above average with it (an arithmetic impossibility). And these emotions get tied up in what everyone pretends is a fight about what works better. The cold fact is most pistols work pretty well, and their differences in specification are tiny compared to their similarities. Another cold fact is that every mass producer of firearms produces occasional individual lemons, and from time to time entire shifts or runs of lemons.

The PSP decided to stay with the .45, but make a radical change: to the SIG P227R. One widely publicized factor in this decision was a series of tests conducted by PSP, in which P227Rs provided by SIG really shone compared to their competitors. Another factor, which has received far less publicity but may have had a greater impact, is the experience that other agencies have had with SIG lately. While some of the Feds are distinctly unhappy, the Indiana State Police are carrying 227Rs and appear to be quite satisfied. An important factor in this satisfaction is that the SIGs haven’t been perfect — but when they haven’t, SIG’s service has been very satisfying to ISP. When Glock grudgingly admitted problems with the 21s, Pennsylvania armorers got a box of trigger bars, and PSP logistical guys got boxes of improved magazines. When SIG determined some parts in some ISP guns were out of spec, SIG sent their armorers not to ISP HQ, but to every individual site, to inspect, R&R the parts, and test the guns with the Indiana armorers.

That was the level of customer service that PSP had felt they were missing from their Glock suppliers.

Unlike the G37 -> G21 transition, the Glock -> SIG transition is a big one.

There is a class in the Academy right now that has the first 150 SIGs. We’ll see how they do, but the rest of the SIGs are rolling out across the force gradually. PSP thought it best this time, given the teething problems of the G21 G4, that they’d start with an academy class, because recruits at the academy shoot a lot more than working line troopers who may only fire for qualification.

Are they going to be happy with the SIG? In the days ahead, we’re going to talk about some famous agencies that have SIGs and are anything but happy. One of them has a warehouse full (literally, not Joe Biden “literally”) of broken SIGs, and there are HQ power struggles over what to  use next (including a MOAR SIGS faction). But that’s another story.

Note that the 4800 pistol requirement in these contracts is an initial contract. Also included is replenishment of 500 guns at a rate of 100 or so a year, spare parts, and training for the PSP’s 70 (!) armorers (one armorer per ~70 cops? They must be hard on their handguns).

So that’s the latest, from a department that’s been through a half-dozen different service pistols in the last 10 or so years. If we were SIG, we would celebrate the sale with an ad buy, but we wouldn’t buy a whole year’s worth of ads.

At least the PSP allows its obsolete guns to be sold in the market. Since every PSP gun is engraved or etched with the force’s crest, they are popular with collectors, helping the vendor recoup the credit he gave for the trade-ins. PSP trade-ins also tend to be well-kept for cop guns, even apart from the Glock 37s scarcely having been shot due to the ammo problem, so they’re an attractive alternative to a new gun for a bargain hunter.

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