December 16, 2004
In New York, Old-School Officers Swear By the Vanishing .38
oughly 19 out of 20 officers in the
This story is not about them. It's about the 1 in 20, and the old, heavy piece parked on that officer's hip like a jalopy at the top of the driveway. Wow, people say - look at that thing. Does it work?
An older model of sidearm was grandfathered in with officers who are, in some cases, grandfathers. It is thick, but elegant in its way, its grip curling lazily out of the holster, the grooves in the hammer like those around aging eyes.
It goes by many names - thirty-eight, six-shooter, pea-shooter, wheel gun - but the .38-caliber revolver is a dying breed on the belts of
Today, a few more than 2,000 service weapons are revolvers, down from more than 30,000 in 1993. Never again, the police said, will new revolvers be issued, and so the number shrinks with every retirement. Many officers own two guns, and some officers continue to carry revolvers off-duty, but again, that choice is no longer available to new recruits.
More than anything else, it is carrying a gun - the daily familiarity of it, the expectation that it must be used on a second's notice - that most sets apart the police from the policed.
And yet, choosing the gun was unceremonial, rushed and uninformed: pick up a revolver off a table, see how it feels, try the next one, then a third, then pick your favorite. Then, during training, the recruits learned to respect this piece of equipment that can take a human life. Now it feels strange to leave the house without it. They have come a long way together, these 2,000 officers and their revolvers. Uniforms have come and gone, and the belly under the belt has grown, but the gun hanging there is not to be messed with.
"Eventually, they'll all be gone," said Inspector Steven J. Silks, commanding officer of the firearms and tactics section of the Police Academy. "It's like people who like to have a stick shift. You take it away from them, they feel like they can never drive in the snow again."
In the early years of the Police Department, officers carried any weapon they chose, until Theodore Roosevelt, as president of the Board of Police Commissioners, ordered the 4-inch, .32-caliber Colt revolver to be the standard sidearm. Training with the guns began on Dec. 30, 1895.
Ninety-eight years later, in 1993, after much debate among the department and the unions and legislators in Albany, the department switched from revolvers to semiautomatics, primarily to meet the advanced weaponry carried by criminals and dispel the perception that the officers were outgunned.
The newer guns were easier to reload and held 15 rounds in the magazine and one on the chamber, almost three times as many as the revolver. Officers with revolvers were allowed to keep them if they chose, while rookies received the new guns.
So, the model of an officer's gun dates him or her like rings on a tree. The outer bands are the semiautomatic, 9-millimeter pistols. The next ring is much thinner, the brief period of the so-called spurless revolver, a gun with an internal hammer that for safety cannot be cocked. Finally, in the center, there is the classic revolver, such as the Smith & Wesson Model 10 or the Ruger Police Service Six, more commonly seen on "T. J. Hooker" reruns or film noir than on the streets of New York.
The grips still echo the earliest revolvers, designed in the 19th century to feel like the handle of a plow in a man's hand. Lt. Eugene Whyte, 45, with 22 years on the job, remembers arriving at a meeting for the Republican National Convention this summer, and men in suits quickly calling him aside, agog at his snub-nosed sidearm. "I had Secret Service guys asking me if they could see it," he said. "It was as if I was carrying a flintlock pistol."
It is not only fellow law officers who notice. Officer Andrew Cruz, 41, was posted in Times Square recently when a tourist did a double take at his revolver. "He said, 'Old school,' " the officer recalled. They get that a lot: "You're a real cop," or, "You must have seen a lot," or, "You must be getting ready to retire."
"They say, 'What are you, an old-timer?' " said Officer Mark Steinhauer, 41, who joined the department in 1991. "My answer to them is, 'It worked for John Wayne.' "
The guys with revolvers, they say, are the same guys who married their high school girlfriends. Dependable. No surprises.
"It's put me through 20 years, and I'm still alive," said Officer Gregg Melita, 41, who not only carries a Ruger Police Service revolver, but the old "dump pouches," two leather carriers that hold loose cartridges. "This is when guns were guns, and cops were cops," he said. "The new guys don't even know what dump pouches are. They go, 'Hey, what's that hold?' " He chuckled. "'Bullets, kid.'"
The design of a 9-millimeter magazine, with a spring pushing cartridges in single file into the chamber, makes it susceptible to malfunction, to jamming. With a revolver, there is always another round ready to fire, no matter whether the one before it did.
"These aren't Ferraris," Inspector Silks said. "These are Chevrolets."
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly ordered the switch to 9-millimeter pistols 11 years ago, and learned to shoot one himself. But it is his revolver, a Colt Detective Special, that he carries today, under the slight break in his trouser leg at the left ankle.
"It's easier to carry, for me, anyway, the revolver. I've carried it for a long time," he said. "I actually won it in the Police Academy, many years ago," graduating first in his class. It is inscribed: "Bloomingdale Trophy won by Probationary Patrolman Raymond W. Kelly. May 15, 1967."
As for the decline of the revolver, he said, "I don't think it means very much, tactically. I don't see that much difference in shooting a semiautomatic handgun or a revolver. The difference, people will tell you, is dependability. You take a revolver that's been in a drawer for 100 years, take it out, pull the trigger, and it's going to go off. Automatics have the potential, probably more so than revolvers, for jamming. At least, that's what people think."
Officers with revolvers say that yes, they feel more comfortable with a gun that is virtually malfunction-proof, and that six shots at a time, along with their extra six-shot speed-loaders, ought to be enough. "After 18 rounds, if I can't hit him, I'm in big trouble," said Officer Sean Murtha, 40, who carries two speed-loaders. (And he would be a statistical aberration. To date in 2004, the average number of rounds fired by a single officer in a police shooting is 2.8, down from 4.6 in 2000 and 5.0 in 1995.)
But there is something else about the gun. It makes a statement.
"It has to do with identity," said Officer Cruz, from the 88th Precinct in Fort Greene in Brooklyn. "You see someone with a .38, you know they've got some time on them."
Officer Melita, with his dump pouch, joined in 1986 and patrolled in Harlem for 18 years. He believes his gun shows younger officers that he was at work when times were different in New York. "That's how you can tell who's been on the job awhile," he said. "Back when it was, you know, wild."
Officers must appear twice a year at the firing range in Rodman's Neck in the Bronx. Detective Tomasa Rodriguez, with the Midtown South precinct, remembered the announcement for everyone with revolvers to step aside to a separate range. "It was embarrassing. All the young kids were looking at us like, 'Oh my God, these people, they're emotionally disturbed, they still have a .38,'" she said. "Before you know it, you're out of there. There's, like, two or three people. I told my partner, 'I was embarrassed at the range.' But I don't care. I like my weapon, I know how to use it."
The department had 2,367 revolvers in service in 2003. At last count this fall, that number had dropped to 2,019. Wait, make that 2,018 - Marty Paolino, 42, retired from the 88th Precinct a few weeks ago. ("I never wanted to go for the special training," he said on his last day of work. "They don't pay you enough.") Next year, with the expected retirements of officers who joined in 1985, a relatively large class of recruits, hundreds of revolvers will disappear from service.
It is too soon for eulogies, but not much. For an epitaph on the revolver's tombstone, consider two statements from two officers, six little words for why they kept their six-shooters.
"I hate change."
"It looks cool."