Arming the police

A short history of British Police focusing on truncheon and armour - Arms in Action
An excerpt from the programme "Arms in Action" on the Military History channel and refers to the development of the police from the time of Robert Peel and their use of the truncheon and body
Victorian Truncheon
Antiques Roadshow
Victorian Handcuffs
Red Coats
CCO Creative Commons Public Domain
Colt Navy percussion revolvers are bought for the Met officers at Woolwich dockyard and the Royal Woolwich Arsenal.
All obsolete pistols in the Met that had been acquired either as a direct purchase or inherited from groups as they were brought under the Met commissioners are collected in. Percussion revolvers (probably Beaumont-Adams) are temporarily issued in their place.1
1882, Webley 'Bulldog' Revolvers are purchased by the Met for officers engaged in the protection of Government Ministers.
Webley & Scott .32 calibre M.P. model self-loading pistols are adopted by the Met, Nottinghamshire County Constabulary and the Borough of Leicester.10
1930s, West Yorkshire County Constabulary employ what appear to be Enfield No. 2 Mk 1 revolvers.
1956, Webley .380 calibre Mark IV revolvers replace Webley & Scott .32 calibre M.P. model self- loading pistols for other than protection duties in the Met.
1960, 9mm Short (9x17), model PP, self-loading pistols are purchased by the Met to replace Beretta pistols for officers on protection posts.
Police marksmen could be sent onto the streets of London with miniature cameras attached to their guns and body armour to record incidents. 2011
Sunday Times
Heckler & Koch MP5. MP5
Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet (1788-1850; Prime Minister)

The British police are famed across the world for being ‘unarmed’ – but this is a misnomer. Although police officers are not equipped with firearms as a matter of course, they are routinely issued with other weapons and have access to a wide range of guns and other lethal and non-lethal equipment.

Police are locally organised

The police in the UK are organised locally into a number of largely county-based forces, each of which has its own detailed arrangements. However, all police officers are equipped with batons and handcuffs.

The nearest a mainland British police force ever came to being routinely armed was in 1884 in London, following the murder of two officers. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner of the day gave officers permission to carry revolvers on night patrols. This persisted until 1936 when guns were required to be kept in a locked cupboard at police stations.

Peter Waddington  Independent


Police have carried the ‘truncheon’ since their modern formation under legislation introduced in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel. This short wooden club remained in service, relatively unchanged until the 1990s, when police weaponry began to change dramatically.

To be hidden away, lest it should appear offensive

When Robert Peel started the ‘New Police’ in 1829, the idea faced profound and widespread hostility. Peel and his colleagues realised that the police could not defeat the mass of the population by force. Policing by consent was the only option, even if that consent was grudgingly offered by the lower social classes. That was why he consciously decided that the ‘bobbies’, unlike the Bow Street Runners and other ad-hoc groups of constables, should be unarmed. Even the truncheon was to be hidden away, lest it should appear offensive.

Minimum Force

The doctrine of ‘minimum force’ came to mean that there was a ceiling on the weapons to which the police had access – and a low ceiling at that. When a serious threat presented itself, the military was called in.

Independent     Thursday 28 July 2016

Police in Britain fired their guns just seven times in the last year 

Peter Waddington, professor of social policy at the University of Wolverhampton.

“A great deal of what we take as normal about policing was set out in the early 19th Century,”

The Military are feared

In the Metropolitan Police there was a very strong fear of the military – the masses feared the new force would be oppressive.

” A force that did not routinely carry firearms – and wore blue rather than red, which was associated with the infantry – was part of this effort to distinguish the early “Peelers” from the Army”, Waddington says.

Greater Manchester Chief Constable Sir Peter Fahy

“We are passionate that the British style of policing is routinely unarmed policing. Sadly we know from the experience in America and other countries that having armed officers certainly does not mean, sadly, that police officers do not end up getting shot.”

“But one thing is clear. When asked, police officers say overwhelmingly that they wish to remain unarmed”.

Mervyn A Mitton

Pistols and other firearms

Police have always had access to firearms since the time of Sir John Fielding’s Horse Patrol in the mid-1700s where the captains were armed with a carbine and two pistols. Ranging from the muskets and pistols of the early days, firearms have progressed to the present vast selection of rifles, revolvers, shotguns, tear gas guns and even machine guns.

Arming the police

© 2016 PFOA – Police Firearms Officers Association

Police use of firearms in the United Kingdom has been a slow, controversial and developing process as senior officers wanted their forces to still have the “British Bobby” or Dixon of Dock Green effect on the community. During the Second World War firearms were only carried on protection duties such as 10 Downing Street and the Royal Family, but police were given many firearms in case of invasion. Although they were never taken on general patrol, due to the lack of equipment when issued with a firearm it was usually without a holster to accommodate the weapon, as all available equipment was in huge demand because of the war. Training for the Webley & Scott Revolvers usually consisted of firing six shots and to pass, it was required that three shots had to be on target although loading of the actual weapon was not taught. Even more so in the after war years when ex service men were in the police as their previous knowledge was thought to suffice. In 1948, after The Second World War, concerns were aired by the Home Office of the police force’s role in another war or nuclear attack. To combat this it was decided that some of the forces would be loaned Sten Guns by the Ministry of Defence and a number of Lee Enfield No4 Mk 2s. These, along with revolvers and ammunition, were kept in secret depots around the United Kingdom so every force had the weapons close and could get access to them when and if the time come.

Armed night patrols

Historically, officers on night patrols in some London divisions were frequently armed with Webley revolvers. These were introduced following the murder of two officers in 1884, although individual officers were able to choose whether to carry the weapons. After the Battle of Stepney in 1911, Webley semi-automatics were issued to officers. Armed police were rare by the turn of the century, and were retired formally in July 1936. From that point on, firearms could only be issued by a Sergeant with good reason, and only then to officers who had been trained in their usage.

Routine arming

The issue of routine arming was raised after the 1952 Derek Bentley case where a Constable was shot dead and a Sergeant severely wounded, and again after the 1966 Massacre of Braybrook Street, in which three London officers were killed. As a result, around 17% of officers in London became authorised to carry firearms. After the deaths of a number of members of the public in the 1980s fired upon by police, control was considerably tightened, many officers had their firearm authorisation revoked, and training for the remainder was greatly improved. As of 2005, around seven per cent of officers in London are trained in the use of firearms. Firearms are also only issued to an officer under strict guidelines.

Armed Response Vehicles (ARVs)

In order to allow armed officers to respond rapidly to an incident, most forces have patrolling Armed Response Vehicles (ARVs). ARVs were modelled on the Instant Response Cars introduced by the West Yorkshire Police in 1976, and were first introduced in London in 1991, with 132 armed deployments being made that year.

Metropolitan Police

The Metropolitan Police back in 1884, after the murders of two constables, were given permission from the Commissioner of the day to carry revolvers during uniformed night time patrols. These were called ‘Comforters’ and each Officer would make up their own mind if they wished to carry them. This was the nearest we have ever been to a fully armed service and that was over a hundred years ago. This remained the case until 1936 when the revolvers were taken off the constables and kept locked in a cupboard back at the station.

Dixon of Dock Green

If they had ‘good reason’ for having a revolver they would have to get permission from their Station Sergeant. We then entered the ‘so called’ golden era of Policing with the character ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ after the 1950 film ‘The Blue Lamp’. People often refer to this as the good old days of the British Police service. This image never actually existed, but can you remember what happened to PC George Dixon? No, he didn’t retire happily. He uttered the words, “Now don’t be silly son, give me the gun”. Then he was shot dead.



The Metropolitan Police Act authorises the formation of a ‘New Police’ for London. Section 5 of the Act requires that: ‘The said [Sir Charles Rowan and (later Sir) Richard Mayne] may from time to time, subject to the approbation of one of His Majesty’s Principle Secretaries of State, frame such orders and regulations as they shall deem expedient … [including] the description of arms, accoutrements and other necessaries to be furnished to them.’

The first record of pistols being acquired by the Met, a memo to John Wray, the Receiver of the Met, says that: ‘The following articles are required for the service of the Police Force. 100 Staffs – 1000 Rattles – 50 pair of Pistols – same quantity of handcuffs as furnished before to each Division’.


The Agricultural Riots (a.k.a. The Swing Riots).

Farm labourer’s face unemployment due to the introduction of farming machinery. A party of men, armed with weapons including pistols, march towards Salisbury. The Riot Act is read and militia break up the crowd but all night long fires burn around Devizes as the mobs march from farm to farm wrecking machinery  and setting fires. The Hindon Troop of the Yeomanry Cavalry is called to disperse the rioters and they come across a mob of between 300 and 500 men destroying machinery and some outbuildings. They charge with sabres and pistols drawn. Twenty-nine rioters are arrested, one man is killed and many others injured. Elsewhere militia and cavalry are also used to restore order. Nineteen rioters are eventually executed, 644 imprisoned and over 700 transported to Australia.

1831 – Carrying of Arms

The earliest order relating to police firearms in the Met. A memo initialled by (later Sir) Richard Mayne directs that: ‘The Superintendents are to take particular care that the Constables do not carry Pistols about them, nor in fact Arms of any kind without the express permission of the Commissioners thereto’.

1836 – Protection of Royal Palaces

Members of the Bow Street Police Horse Patrol are placed under the control of Rowan and Mayne and allowed to keep their firearms. The Patrol officially takes over responsibility for the protection of all the royal palaces from the now defunct Bow Street Foot Patrol

A town-based police force is created in Nottingham. It has pistols and blunderbusses available inscribed ‘Nottingham Police’, some of which are fitted with a spring bayonet secured by a catch.

1839 – Thames River Police

The Thames River Police and all remaining officers working at Bow Street and the other public offices are brought under the control of Rowan and Mayne and the Met inherits all their firearms. The Met as a whole takes over responsibility for the protection of ‘all Royal Palaces and ten miles thereof’ anywhere in the country.

1842 – Threat of dismissal

The Chief Constable of Gloucestershire County Constabulary (formed December 1839), Anthony Lefroy, directs that: ‘The Superintendents will inform the Sergeants and Constables of their districts that on no account or under any pretence whatever will they be allowed to carry pistols or other firearms with them when on duty and the first man reported for so doing will be instantly dismissed’.

1852 – Supply each Mounted man with a means of carrying ammunition

In the Met, the Inspecting Superintendent, Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Labalmondiere, writes to the Home Office asking for authority to incur the cost of supplying each mounted man with a means of carrying ammunition.

1867 – Training in cutlasses

Police in the Met are given training in the use of cutlasses at Wellington Barracks.

A force of 50 Warwickshire Constabulary constables is sent to assist in Birmingham during disturbances. The officers are ‘issued with revolvers and cutlasses’ during ‘the present disturbed state of the County’.

Firearms and cutlasses are made more easily available in Lancashire. They are not immediately issued but uniform belts are adapted to carry them.

Warrington Borough Police, which consists of a chief constable, two sergeants and twenty-three constables, is ‘issued on government orders with enough revolvers and ammunition to arm each member of [the] force for their personal protection if the need to do so ever arose’.

The Head Constable of Birkenhead Borough Police reports that he has received from Chester Castle thirty pistols, pouches and holsters, together with ammunition, for police purposes.

The first Met police firearms training takes place after an attempt is made to free two Fenians by blowing up the wall of Clerkenwell prison in London.


The Chief Constable of Caernarvonshire is told by his watch committee to apply for six revolvers and 250 rounds of ammunition from the Board of Ordnance.


Twenty revolvers, pouches, belts, holsters and 408 rounds of ammunition are lent to Lancashire Constabulary by the War Office. They are distributed to three main police stations. Revolvers are lent by the War Office to Yorkshire West Riding.


First full Met regulations on police firearms use are drawn up and officers on night duty are allowed to carry a firearm at their own request.

There is agitation in the Highlands and Islands in what will become known as the Crofter’s War over high rents, the rights of access to land given over to hunting parks and the lack of security of tenure. The War Office lends fifty revolvers to the Chief Constable of Inverness-shire.


Police on night duty in Essex Constabulary are allowed to carry a firearm at their own request.
The Times reports that a number of Essex Constabulary officers have undergone a course of revolver practice at Romford Butts.


The first record of shots fired by a Met officer. Police Constable 161 ‘P’ Henry Owen fires six shots over the roof of a dwelling house in order to rouse the occupants because it is on fire.


All officers joining the Met in future are to be given instruction in how to load and unload the force-issue handgun.


The Chief Constable of Coventry Constabulary acquires a Webley & Scott .22 calibre ‘Target Model’ pistol. First instructions are issued on when Met officers in the Dockyards and any other place where police are protecting property can use their firearms. This includes a ‘Halt. Who goes there?’ challenge. Rules and Regulations are approved by the Watch Committee for the guidance of officers who may be called upon to use firearms in the Borough of Leicester.


The Home Secretary is asked: ‘whether, in view of the ever-increasing risks to the police force of this country, he will again consider the advisability of arming that body with something more efficient than truncheons’. He replies: ‘In the Metropolitan Police any constable engaged on dangerous duty is supplied with a revolver if he desires, subject to proper precautions as to his training in handling it and instructions as to when it may be used. Other police authorities have discretion to supply their men with firearms under like conditions.’

First definite fatal shooting by police since the since the formation of ‘New Police’ forces occurs in Manchester. Sean Morgan is killed during a police raid on a club.


Trials are conducted with an armoured armed response vehicle (with built-in gun ports) imported from the US. Force unknown.

War Preparations.

The Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, is asked: ‘by whose authority chief constables are instructing their constables in many areas in rifle and revolver firing; and what is the object of such instruction?’ He replies: ‘There has been no departure from the settled policy that for ordinary police duties the police shall not carry firearms; but for certain special war duties, such as the guarding of specially vulnerable points against sabotage, it has always been recognised that the police so engaged might need to carry arms.’


War Preparations. The Secretary of State for Scotland, John Colville, is asked: ‘whether the Glasgow Police receive revolver practice as a part of their regular training; and, if so, was this practice instituted before or after September, 1939?’ He replies: ‘No, Sir. There has been no departure from the settled policy that for ordinary police duties the police shall not carry firearms; but for certain special duties, such as the guarding of specially vulnerable points against sabotage, it has always been recognised that the police so engaged might need to carry arms.’


The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, is asked: ‘whether he has ensured that there is a sufficient supply of firearms easily accessible so that all police and special police can, in emergency, be adequately armed?’ He replies: ‘It is not intended to arm all members of the police forces, but steps have been taken to supply the police with adequate numbers of firearms for their own protection and to enable them to carry out any police duties for which arms may be required.’


Weapons issued for the wartime arming of the police are withdrawn although a great many forces retain  for operational use weapons handed in by the public for official purposes and which cannot be returned their original owners.


The Home Secretary, James Ede, is asked whether: ‘in view of the growth of crimes of violence, as indicated by official figures, he will take steps to ascertain whether or not the police wish to be armed as a matter of routine.’ He replies: ‘Firearms are available for use by police officers in special circumstances when engaged on specially dangerous duty. I am convinced that the police themselves would be the first to appreciate how undesirable it would be to arm them as a matter of course.’

A special meeting of the Central Conference of Chief Constables decides that in the event of another war, police forces should hold firearms for up to twenty-five percent of their strength to enable police officers to be employed on the protection of vulnerable points and other tasks.

Firearm allocations per force in the event of another war are worked out with Chief Constables and Chief Regional

The Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice, is asked: ‘what representations he has received for the arming of the police with firearms.’ He replies: ‘Apart from letters suggesting that if the death penalty is abolished the police may have to be armed I have received no representations on this subject.’


The Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice, is asked: ‘what representations he has received for the arming of the police with firearms.’ He replies: ‘Apart from letters suggesting that if the death penalty is abolished the police may have to be armed I have received no representations on this subject.’


The Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, is asked: ‘In what circumstances he is now authorising the arming of the police, uniformed and in plain clothes; and what consideration he has given to a general extension of the present authority.’ He replies: ‘Arms are available for issue to police officers who are on protection duty or need to carry them for self-defence when engaged on specially dangerous duty, and who have been trained to handle them. I do not contemplate any substantial change in these arrangements, but I am considering, in consultation with the organisations representing the various ranks in the police service, a number of detailed improvements, for example, in firearm training.’


After the shootings in Glasgow as above the Secretary of State for Scotland, William Ross, is asked: ‘On which occasions police are issued with arms [and] whether he is satisfied with the arrangements for equipping them with arms when they are needed’. He replies ‘It is for chief constables to determine on which occasions firearms should be provided to policemen and to make the appropriate arrangements for their issue. In accordance with the assurance I gave to the Scottish Police Federation on 8th January, I am arranging to discuss with chief constables the arrangements for issuing arms when they are needed.’


As a result of attacks on the airports in Vienna and Rome the army is again deployed at Heathrow. Members of the Met specialist firearms teams carrying 9mm Heckler & Koch MP5 SMGs are deployed in place of the army and these are eventually replaced by Heathrow officers carrying 9mm MP5 single-shot carbines. Similar measures are adopted at Manchester International airport.

A report by Gatwick Division of Sussex Police recommends that ‘pump action shotguns should be considered [instead of ‘machine-guns’ in a terminal building] because of the limited penetrating power’.


In the House of Commons Barry Sheerman MP asks the Home Secretary: ‘… how many police authorities currently have armed response units?’ The Minister of State at the Home Office, David MacLean, replies: ‘The following information is available centrally. On 31 December 1993, 33 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales operated armed response vehicles’.


In the House of Commons Tony Banks MP suggests that: ‘We should now contemplate the routine arming of all police officers. Officers are not necessarily in favour of that approach, but it works on the continent. It would not be an original or unusual idea. People argue that we have always had an unarmed police force, but that was because they were dealing with a different sort of criminal and a different society. Criminals and society have changed, and when that happens, we should contemplate changing too.’


British Transport Police (BTP) start armed patrols. As BTP officers are not considered ‘crown servants’ within the meaning of the Firearms Act 1968 the force is granted authority under Section 5 of the Act to acquire prohibited weapons and each armed officer has a firearms certificate issued under Section 1.

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