The What & the Why – Backup Gun or Not? A Bug Might Just Save Your Life

“What are you afraid of?” is a sarcastic question that cops ask sometimes when they encounter a non-sworn civilian – cops are sworn, but they’re still civilians – who carries more than one gun. They apparently think that carrying more than one gun is unnecessary and paranoid. The peace officer that asks that question usually does not carry a backup gun (BUG).

Backup guns can be any gun, but usually, people choose a handgun that can be carried discreetly. It might be anything from a full-size gun to a small one. Even revolvers are often used. (Doug Larson photo)

Many in law enforcement, even though they carry a gun daily in case they need it, view guns as just another piece of equipment and haven’t really thought through what might happen if they really need it. If they had, they would realize that guns, even very high quality, expensive, reliable guns, sometimes fail in the middle of a fight. If that happens, having a spare is something that they are really, really going to need.

Although law enforcement officers may have a greater likelihood of needing a gun to defend themselves, a non-sworn civilian occupies the same territory that cops operate in and encounter the same people that cops do. And sometimes those same people prey on the non-sworn civilian, threatening life or serious bodily injury. While needing a gun may be less frequent for the common citizen, it still happens regularly and a primary gun just might not be all that is needed to save that person’s life.

There has to be a way to carry a backup handgun. It might be an ankle holster, a pocket holster, or a belt holster. There are others also. (Doug Larson photo)

If you carry a gun for self-defense, like more and more people in the US do, you have taken one step towards taking care of yourself instead of relying solely on others to do so. But a gun is a mechanical device and mechanical devices sometimes break or don’t work. There is no time in the middle of a fight for your life to get a gun repaired, so having a spare can be an excellent idea.

Besides having a spare to rely on in case the primary gun stops running can also be useful if the primary gun runs out of ammo. While that may be unlikely given the number of shots typically fired in a gunfight, especially if the primary gun has a large capacity magazine, the gunfight you may be in might not be typical and it is possible that you will need to reload. Even if you carry spare magazines for your primary gun, reloading takes time. And time is very scarce when someone is trying to kill you. It just might be faster to draw a BUG than trying to reload the primary gun.

If you carry a reload for your backup gun, you need some way to carry that reload. It might be a pocket holster for magazines. (Doug Larson photo)

Jim Cirillo was a New York City policeman who was a member of the Stakeout Squad which was a legendary unit tasked with stopping armed robberies. Members of that unit frequently had to shoot felons in the act of robbing a business. Because of the frequency of gunfights, members of the Stakeout Squad gave a lot of thought to guns and how to use them. Cirillo decided that drawing a BUG was much faster than reloading a primary gun. It was such a good idea in his mind and he used it so often, that Paul Kirchner (Tales of the Stakeout Squad, page 172) created the term “New York reload” to describe drawing a BUG when the primary gun ran out of ammo.

Gun parts break, even when the gun gets the best of maintenance. So do cars and other mechanical devices. And semi-automatic guns sometimes malfunction when ammunition does not feed properly. Sure, there are techniques that can be used to clear malfunctions quickly, but maybe the malfunction is one that cannot be cleared without time and tools. In that case, a BUG can save a life.

Backup guns can be just about anything, but a very popular choice is a short-barreled revolver. It’s older technology, but many people choose it. (Doug Larson photo)

Many people believe that revolvers always work. After all, the cartridge is contained in the chamber of a cylinder and a spent cartridge case does not have to be removed and then a fresh cartridge put in the chamber before each round is fired, unlike ammunition running through a semi-automatic. But revolvers don’t always work without fail. And if a revolver stops working, something often causes it that cannot be corrected without time. And often correcting a revolver stoppage requires the use of a tool of some kind. If you carry a revolver and it stops working in the middle of a fight, you are really going to wish you had a BUG.

Gunfights and other fights for your life are very high-stress situations. That causes people to fumble things. It can and does happen. What if you drop your gun when you draw it? And if you do, you might just accidentally kick it across the room or somewhere you cannot get to it quickly. A BUG looks pretty good in that case.

The late Walt Rauch was a well respected gun writer who was also a former Secret Service agent who protected presidents. He was also a detective and was in a number of scrapes. He said that during his career, a few times he had to arm a trusted companion with his BUG in order to win a fight or control a threat. And a non-sworn civilian could need to do the same thing.

A variety of cartridges are used for backup guns. While some may not be your choice, someone out there has chosen it. They can range from a .22 rimfire up to and beyond a .45 ACP in power. (Doug Larson photo)

Some cops carry BUGs, whether in uniform or plain clothes. They have thought about what might happen, and take precautions so that they are as well prepared as they can be to handle a bad situation. And some non-sworn civilians also carry a BUG because they know that they might need it very badly sometime. Even warfighters, especially those who have the job of kicking in doors and searching for the enemy, often carry a BUG.

You have probably seen photos of a soldier carrying an array of equipment. Often that equipment will include a long gun, like an M4, along with a handgun carried openly. Sometimes that handgun is in a chest holster and sometimes it is in a belt holster. What you may not realize is that the soldier probably practices drawing that handgun and shooting it after simulating a failure of the long gun. That’s because they know that all guns sometimes fail and even if the long gun merely runs out of ammunition, it is often faster to go to the handgun than reload the long gun. And that handgun is a BUG, even if it is not concealed and is a full-size service gun.

Argue all you want about which is the right gun for a backup, but whatever you choose, someone else has already chosen it. And they can be small guns or big guns. (Doug Larson photo)

There is an argument made by some against carrying a BUG because they say that a prosecutor could use that fact to try to convict a person who was forced to shoot someone in self-defense. They say that having a BUG might tip the scales of justice against the person who otherwise justifiably shot someone. While having a BUG could be used as justification for arguing by a prosecutor or someone else that the shooter was not a victim and was instead someone who was looking for an excuse to shoot someone, others say that doing so in court would not be successful.

Timothy Forshey is an attorney (tforsheylaw.com) practicing law in the Phoenix, Arizona area. He is well versed in defending people who legally use a firearm in self-defense. He says that although carrying a BUG may give a prosecutor another angle to use to try to convict someone who had to shoot in self-defense, carrying a BUG does not mean an automatic conviction. In fact, Forshey believes carrying a BUG is defensible in court and says that not being prepared for the unexpected is pretty stupid. Carrying a BUG is nothing more than being prepared for the unexpected, much like having a car with an airbag is a feature of the car that is there for the unexpected.

While Forshey cautions to avoid any situations where a gun would be needed, that is not always possible because the need for a gun can be completely unexpected and can happen anywhere at any time. In that case, a BUG could save your life, and a pretty strong case can be made in favor of carrying a BUG. He says that in the real world, most self-defense cases are resolved legally based on the necessity and reasonableness of the person’s acts and not the gear involved.

Practically any type of gun can be carried as a BUG. It can be a revolver or a semi-automatic and can be small or full size. And it can be of just about any caliber and be chambered in just about any cartridge. Some people carry small guns chambered in .22 Long Rifle. Others carry guns in .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9mm Luger, or even larger. It’s a personal choice and while a larger, more powerful cartridge may be a better choice when it comes to stopping power, some people reason that if a BUG needs to be deployed, it is a last ditch effort and anything is better than nothing.

Revolvers are often chosen as a backup gun, and some people carry extra cartridges for reloads. It’s a good idea though to use some kind of device to hold the cartridges instead of having them loose in a pocket. Some people choose a speed loader and some choose a speed strip. (Doug Larson photo)

All kinds of reasons can be used to select or justify the type of gun or cartridge to be carried. Some people argue that the BUG should be chambered in the same cartridge as the primary gun. Some say it should take the same type of magazine. Others don’t care. Some people want a reload for the BUG. Some don’t think it matters since it’s a last resort for survival and if it takes more than a few rounds to do the job, there wouldn’t be time to reload anyway.

Of course, people have reasons for not carrying a BUG. Reasons can be extra weight and the inconvenience of carrying. BUGs can be uncomfortable, or just something else to maintain. And the deeper the concealment, generally the harder and more time consuming they are to draw. So some people reach the conclusion of, why bother? Some people believe they will never need it. And they may be right. Or they might be wrong. But they make the decision and live, or die, with it.

In the end, it’s your life. You have to decide first if you want to carry a BUG. Then, if you do, you have to decide what kind of gun and what cartridge. Don’t forget you have to figure out where and how you are going to carry it. All of these things involve many different issues, so don’t make the decision lightly. Get the information you need, both pros and cons, and make your decision. And get some training. Some good schools, like Gunsite Academy, offer classes in using BUGs.

You must decide for yourself, but get good information that is true and use it to make your decision. There is an awful lot of bad information out there about all subjects related to guns, so find good training and learn the truth. Then think the decision through.

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About the author: Doug Larson is a former Contributing and Field Editor for Guns & Ammo magazine, Doug Larson’s articles have appeared in many top firearm publications. He has completed hundreds of hours of firearm and self-defense training provided by some of the finest world class gun fighting instructors and schools. He has experience with handguns, rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, machine guns and other crew served weapons. He reports on the tactics, techniques and procedures developed by real life gunfighters and taught at the best martial arts schools. This information is passed on to the reader to stimulate thought and a desire to get the best training possible.

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Irish-7 October 30, 2020, 12:51 am

    I prefer a revolver for a back-up gun, primarily one that shoots both .45 LC and .410 GA.

  • Ethan October 28, 2020, 4:26 pm

    My dad’s friend had a 25 auto hidden in his hat when he was captured by the viet cong, shot the guard with it and b-lined it the more back to base, got shot several times in the legs by ak fire though. Bug gun saved his life

  • Brock Auten October 26, 2020, 4:44 pm

    Good information. My question after reading the article why wouldn’t you have a bUG? Thanks

  • Don October 26, 2020, 3:02 pm

    I carried a back up gun while a police officer. Always in the left front pocket. Most of the time it was a S&W centennial, but has recently morphed into a Glock 43. As the weather changes the m43 is essentially my primary carry piece in the summer months. It becomes a BUG as I add a holster gun. Packing guns is a nuisance, but well worth it. I’ve stopped three felony assaults thanks to having a pocket pistol.

  • Stan October 26, 2020, 12:29 pm

    My truck has 4 expensive tires on it. I still carry a spare tire.

    • Willie-O October 30, 2020, 12:55 am

      PERFECT comparison. Always carried a back-up when I was a cop. Still do. Always will. PD was alot more restrictive about what we could/couldn’t carry. These days it’s usually a Beretta 950. Yes, it’s the often ridiculed .25acp, but it holds (9) rounds and it IS a back-up after all.

  • BUURGA October 26, 2020, 6:42 am

    Rumor has it, that prosecutors LOVE to prosecute someone carrying a backup gun…………something to think about.

    • srsquidizen October 26, 2020, 8:23 am

      Having a backup does not make you guilty of anything. But in a case that does get prosecuted (especially if, how shall we say, politically motivated) then DA might claim that a non-LEO carrying a backup was “looking for a fight”. Especially if you were carrying 2 double-stack semi-autos with 4 extra mags. Since the typical shots-fired incident of civilian self-defense involves 3 rounds total, you’d best have an unusually dangerous job to explain that.

      • Don October 26, 2020, 3:05 pm

        A Portland area videographer was convicted for pulling a gun on a crowd. The judge made a big deal out of the fact that the citizen was packing spare magazines. Judges and prosecutors can really make life miserable for people being practical.

  • Will Drider October 26, 2020, 1:50 am

    “Cirillo” of whom you speak, used .38Spl revolvers. To draw a second revolver might be faster than a revolver reload with speed loaders but it would never be faster than a mag change in a semi-auto pistol of the same 60’s time frame like a 1911. At least one of his partners carried a 1911! Don’t we Tactical or Combat reload in a semi-autos? Since revolvers are incredibly reliable a failure/stoppage is unlikely (even if you had a Squib, your gonna pull the trigger again) so reasoning defaults to ammo consumed in protracted engagements. Long before the “NY Reload” phrase came about, people carried a “brace” of single shot blackpowder pistols, a pair of single action revolvers because of slow reloading and it continued through thru extra fitted cyclinders and bored cyclinders for metalic cartridges. When the probability of high risk is present: two have always been better than one. NY Reload and BUG are just newer terms for a centuries old practice.

    Putting the BUG into the fight has issues itself: milliseconds mean life or death. The Primary handgun must be dropped and the firing hand must draw and fire the BUG. Other transition steps add time and risk.

    The “NY Reload” is more likely bringing a second handgun to bear and dual weilding. Knowing what’s a stake, do we draw with the less accurate support hand as the primary runs low? Do we shoot with the support hand with less probability of a hit or transition to the Strong side? People talk pros/cons but not the “transition” to the BUG. The whole reason for BUG is to introduce it into the fight as/when needed. Maybe just throw the primary gun at the BG like in the movies. Lol. To carry a BUG or not is answered in a simple phrase: “Dress for success”.

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