National News

For Final Few Officers, the Era of the Revolver Is at an End

Posted May 31, 2018 8:15 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Plenty of things have changed about the New York Police Department since Lt. James Darcy joined in 1987. Until now, the service weapon swinging at his hip, a .38-caliber Ruger Service-Six, has not been one of them.

The gun, a blued steel revolver with diamond-shaped etching on its curved wooden handle, became popular after it was introduced in the 1970s, but it will soon go the way of the wooden nightstick. Darcy, 54, who patrols public housing in Queens, is one of about 50 officers who are required to retire their service revolvers by the end of August as the Police Department parts ways with the handguns that defined policing for a century and that bestow gravitas on the officers who still carry them.

“It feels sad,” he said Wednesday at the police shooting range in Rodman’s Neck in the Bronx, where he was training on a new Sig Sauer sidearm. “I really love my gun. I really never thought I would leave the job without it by my side.”

Surrounded by the rapid pop of semi-automatic pistols fired by other officers, Darcy squatted on the firing line as he drew his revolver, a relic that harked back to a time before gun violence in America reached epidemic levels and spurred the Police Department and most other law enforcement agencies to switch to semi-automatic weapons.

By late morning, Darcy was standing on another firing line with 25 officers who also carried the six-shot revolver during some the city’s most violent years. But now they were all holding the 9 mm semi-automatic pistols that have been the department standard since 1993, when they were adopted to help combat the perception that officers on the street were outgunned by criminals.

By then, the police were confiscating more semi-automatic guns from crime scenes and several police officers across the country had been killed in gunbattles while reloading their revolvers. One was Scott Gadell, a rookie who was killed chasing a suspect on foot in June 1986 in Queens.

Although police shootings have declined over the years and most officers never fire their weapons in the line of duty, officials said it was still necessary to complete the transition to semi-automatic weapons in a policing era where terrorism and active shooters are omnipresent threats.

“After this class, the days of seeing a police officer out there carrying a swivel holster or a .38 holster with a .38 in there are basically nonexistent,” Inspector Richard G. DiBlasio, the commanding officer of the Firearms and Tactics Section, said. “It’s tradition and some people don’t want to let go of it, but tactics is always number one.”

Revolvers became the standard firearm for city police officers in 1895, and they remained the dominant weapon in policing for much of the 20th century. More than 2,000 city police officers still held on to the revolvers over a decade after Sig Sauer and Glock pistols became standard. Their numbers dwindled with each wave of retirements, to 160 by the time the Police Department announced in November that it was phasing out revolvers completely and permanently.

But the change has been met with resistance from officers reluctant to set aside the revolvers that they regard as old friends for unfamiliar pistols that have twice the capacity but are susceptible to jamming. Officer Mary Lawrence, a crime prevention officer in the 103rd precinct in Queens, said that was never a concern with the Smith & Wesson revolver that she has used over her 26 years with the department.

“I’m proud of this uniform that I’m wearing and I’m proud of my gun that I carry because it’s been reliable to me,” she said. “I didn’t think that I needed extra firepower at all.”

The move is one of a sea of changes in the Police Department. Sgt. Thomas O. McLaughlin, who works in the Bronx Homicide Squad, marveled at how inventions like computers and smartphones replaced pay phones and typewriters in what seemed to him like “the flash of an eye.”

“All this in the past 25 years is amazing,” he said. “It’s sad, too, in a way because we’re leaving behind a lot of history of the department.” Their reluctance aside, the officers concede that events like the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, offered signs that it was time to move on.

But Officer Timothy Broadus, who joined the force in 1990 and works in the 84th Precinct, said he knew it was time to make the switch when someone asked about his revolver: “'Do you got to put powder in that thing to make it work?'”

He does not.