Armed policing

Weapons and equipment

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Equipment selected should be appropriate for the purpose for which it is issued.

Operational requirements have been prepared by ACPO in respect of equipment, firearms and less lethal weapons. Equipment issued should have been evaluated against these operational requirements.


Officers and police staff should, as far as is practical and appropriate to their roles, be provided with information on the nature of the equipment and its function (including its capabilities), limitations and risk factors associated with its use.

Article 2 of the UN Basic Principles places an obligation on governments and law enforcement agencies to develop ‘non-lethal’ incapacitating weapons for use in appropriate situations, with a view to increasingly restraining the application of means capable of causing death or injury to persons.

For the same purpose, it should also be possible for law enforcement officials to be equipped with self-defence equipment in order to decrease the need to use weapons of any kind.

Self-defence equipment
This includes:

  • shields
  • helmets
  • bulletproof vests
  • bulletproof means of transportation.

Terms such as ‘bullet resistant’, ‘ballistically protected’ and ‘body armour’ are used in favour of terms like bulletproof to recognise that the degree of protection offered depends on the type of weapon and ammunition used and the nature of the attack.

Weapon selection

Forces must be able to show an audit trail for the procurement of any firearms or less lethal weapons they purchase.

The 2003 Code of Practice on firearms and less lethal weapons states that chief officers of police, in consultation with their police authorities, are responsible for the acquisition of weapons requiring special authorisation for use in their force areas, on the basis of the threat and risk assessment processes.

ACPO in conjunction with the Centre for Applied Science and Technology (CAST) have provided guidance on a weapon evaluation procedure to support forces in selecting appropriate firearms.

Operational requirement

Chief officers are responsible for establishing the operational requirement for their police areas in order to determine a policy for providing weapons requiring special authorisation, and the equipment, training and accreditation of users. For this purpose, chief officers should assess the known and reasonably foreseeable threats and risks in their police areas which may be relevant to the use of weapons requiring special authorisation.

In selecting weapons forces should evaluate them against an operational requirement, which includes the:

  • purpose for which the weapon is being acquired
  • environment in which it is likely to be deployed
  • ballistics of the ammunition.

Due regard should also be given to the training implications, including the availability of suitable firing ranges for the calibres involved, and the advice given by ACPO on hearing protection.

Types of weapon

Weapon types used by the police service include:

  • handguns, including self-loading pistols and revolvers
  • carbines and rifles
  • precision rifles fitted with telescopic sights
  • conducted energy devices (Taser), X26 and X2
  • 37 mm attenuating energy projectile (AEP) launchers, L104A1/2 with L18A1/2 optic sight (there are other launchers for use with signal flares and specialist munitions)
  • shotguns (pump-action or self-loading) with appropriate sighting system and bored true cylinder to enable specialist munitions to be used (eg, CS and breaching rounds).

The majority of weapons used in the police service are in 9 mm, 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm calibres. Some forces maintain weapons in different calibres for both general and specialist use.


CAST has published advice in respect of police ammunition.

Only ammunition subject to strict factory quality control should be issued for operational purposes. All ammunition purchased should be accompanied by a proof house pressure certificate giving details of its mean service pressure. This must be consistent with that of the weapon used; any difficulties should be referred to CAST. Batch pressure tests should be carried out periodically where forces reload their own training ammunition.

Suitable provision should be made to facilitate the safe carriage of issued ammunition. This may include the use of magazines, magazine pouches and similar devices for other ammunition types.

All operationally carried ammunition should be regularly examined; rounds which show any sign of wear or damage should be disposed of in accordance with ACPO/CAST advice.

Ammunition configuration

Details in respect of ammunition configuration are contained within CAST publications. Bullet configuration is designed to address issues associated with the penetrative qualities of the ammunition as well as minimising the potential of ricochet and over penetration.

Where forces choose a calibre or bullet configuration that has not been assessed by CAST to ACPO operational requirement, the ammunition must comply with international conventions and any policy issued by ACPO. In addition, forces must be satisfied that the ammunition functions correctly in the weapon issued and that the ballistic performance of the ammunition meets operational requirements.

Most forces hold a range of 12 gauge and 37mm munitions for dealing with specialist situations, which include:

  • 37 mm attenuating energy projectiles
  • 12 gauge breaching rounds and CS(m) barricade penetrating rounds.

Forces that have identified a need to be able to deal with large animals should hold weapons and ammunition calibres appropriate to the task.

Training munitions

When munitions are used in training and are designed to either produce a noise or fire a projectile which only has a training application (for example, blanks, or marker rounds), care must be taken that CAST guidelines (where applicable) and all other appropriate safety precautions are followed.

All munitions are hazardous and must be used in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidance, or advice provided by CAST where applicable.

Safety precautions

Minimum engagement distances and safety precautions should be observed when using blank ammunition. Stringent precautions need to be followed to ensure that conventional ammunition does not become mixed with training munitions, such as blank or marker rounds. Similar provisions must apply to drill rounds used in weapon handling classes, which must be stored and used away from any round capable of being discharged, including blank rounds.

Acquisition of less lethal weapons

In accordance with the Home Office (2003) Code of Practice on the Police Use of Firearms and Less Lethal Weapons, the Police Service should maintain the capability to centrally assess, evaluate and, where appropriate, adopt effective less lethal weapon systems where they might reduce reliance on conventional firearms or ammunition, without compromising the safety of police officers or others who might be affected. This is coordinated on behalf of the Police Service by ACPO.

The Code of Practice requires that where ACPO regard new weapon systems as suitable for further evaluation and testing they should consult the Secretary of State. Research and evaluation of less lethal weapons and their introduction into operational police use is coordinated by a steering group chaired by the Home Office.

The processes for evaluating, assessing and adopting new Less Lethal Weapon systems and arranging for any related training to accredited standards must be completed before such weapons are issued operationally.

Evaluation and assessment processes for less lethal weapons include, where appropriate, a needs analysis, determination of operational requirement, technical evaluation, medical assessment and operational performance trials, and will take into account relevant strategic, ethical, operational and societal issues.


Chief officers must ensure that there are secure armoury facilities for storing firearms and munitions held for operational and training purposes. This should include centrally-held stocks and those carried in armed response vehicles.

The term munitions includes ammunition, pyrotechnics and explosive-based material. The storage method and conditions must comply with recommended security, storage and health and safety standards. Advice on relevant standards can be obtained from CAST.

Weapons and ammunition should be physically separated within the armoury.

Storing weapons
The method of retaining weapons within the armoury should include purpose-built racking or a storage system suitable for storing both weapons and magazines.

The system adopted should:

  • prevent weapons from falling or being damaged
  • facilitate ready accounting for weapons.

Weapons organisation in an armoury should segregate operational and training weapons, and weapons stored for other reasons. 

Storing ammunition

The term ammunition includes all operational, training and blank ammunition of all types. The storage arrangements and procedures used in the armouty should be designed to prevent blank, drill purpose and all forms of inert munitions becoming mixed with other ammunition.

Procedures should be established for accepting or returning munitions to stock.

Ammunition stocks should be arranged separately according to calibre and type, to facilitate accountancy procedures.

Storage of explosive articles and substances

Guidance on storing explosive articles and substances for use by police units is set out in the following CAST guidance notes:

  • HOSDB Guidance Note 9A/08: Storage of Explosives (UN Hazard Division 1.1) in Police Facilities. 29 February 2008 (Edition 1)
  • HOSDB Guidance Note 9B/08: Storage of Explosives (UN Hazard Division 1.2 and 1.3) in Police Facilities. 29 February 2008 (Edition 1)
  • HOSDB Guidance Note 9C/08: Storage of Ammunition (UN Hazard Division 1.4) in Police Facilities. 29 February 2008 (Edition 2)
  • HOSDB Guidance Note 9D/08: Storage of Explosives in Police Facilities (Compatibility and Mixing Rules). 19 February 2008 (Edition 1).

Titles available to authorised members of the police service on request, see CAST

Administration and record keeping

The system of accounting for weapons and ammunition (including Taser) must provide an audit trail for the movement of weapons, and of the issue and use of ammunition. An inventory must be kept of all weapons and equipment held in the armoury, including serial numbers. Where weapons are allocated easily-read reference numbers, these should be cross-referenced to the original serial number.

An audit trail should be maintained in respect of each weapon. This must include a record of all withdrawals from the armoury for training or operational purposes. All weapons inspections and repairs must be recorded. Any design faults or recurring problems with either weapons or ammunition must be reported to CAST using the Weapons Failure Form.

Where it is necessary to store training and operational ammunition in the same armoury, they should be accounted for separately. Ammunition records should be capable of being cross-referenced with range records showing details of range expenditure.

Weapons maintenance

An effective maintenance programme must be in place to ensure that weapons and ammunition used by police officers are in a serviceable condition. This is normally the responsibility of a force armourer or weapons maintainer in line with the National Police Firearms Training Curriculum (NPFTC). Chief officers should ensure that such staff have the appropriate qualifications and skills, and take into account any recommendations concerning re-qualification.

Destruction of surplus firearms

As one of the control measures designed to ensure that firearms do not pass into illegal use, it is ACPO policy that all firearms owned by the police service should be destroyed when they are deemed to be surplus to the requirements of the police service. This includes Taser cartridges, given Taser’s status as a section 5 prohibited weapon and section 1 ammunition.

An exception to this policy relates to situations where surplus firearms are being sold, or otherwise disposed of, to other forces, and firearms which are kept for instructional purposes, or as a historical record.

Once a decision has been made that certain firearms are surplus, they should be destroyed in the same manner as illegal firearms that come into the possession of the police service. Before disposing of a firearm, chief officers should ensure that there are no criminal, civil or judicial proceedings which a weapon may be required for.


A clear audit trail for the use, maintenance and service of all tactical equipment should be identified in the risk assessment process adopted by each force.


Holsters used by the police service should be suitable for the task and the environment in which the weapon is being used.

The holster should:

  • provide protection for the weapon
  • provide security for the weapon
  • enable the wearer to easily access the weapon.

Optical sights and observation equipment

Sighting systems and accessories which aid observation, identification and shooting in a range of lighting conditions should be available to officers who may be required to use a weapon in lowlight conditions.

Accessories fitted to weapons can alter the balance and functioning of the weapon system. These should be fitted only after thorough evaluation of the complete system in the configuration intended to be used operationally.

Forcible entry equipment

The main categories of entry and door breaching equipment include:

  • kinetic devices
  • hydraulic equipment
  • cutting equipment
  • shotgun breaching rounds
  • explosive breaching rounds.

There are specific hazards association with each of these options. Officers responsible for their use must be fully trained in the options and risk assessments need to be undertaken in respect of the use of these specific methods.

Officers being deployed when these methods are being used must be briefed on the potential consequences and effects. Commanders authorising the use of forcible entry equipment (also referred to as method of entry (MOE) equipment) need to be fully aware of the implications associated with its use.


Respirators need to be matched to the specific threat they are intended to protect against. AFOs who are issued with respirators must be trained in the correct use of the equipment.

The current respirator is designed to protect against CS, but it should not be presumed that it will protect against other threats. In particular, it will not offer protection in oxygen deficient atmospheres such as burning buildings.

A number of officers are also equipped to undertake duties to deal with CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) environments, and they have been issued with equipment relevant to these tasks.

Vehicle stopping and immobilisation devices

There are several types of vehicle stopping devices designed to slow a vehicle and bring it to a halt in a controlled manner.

In appropriate situations shotgun breaching rounds can be used to rapidly deflate the tyres of a vehicle which has been brought under control, in a way which minimises risk. Officers should, however, take account of the fact that subjects may believe they are under fire, resulting in an escalation of the situation. This should be balanced against the situational benefits of preventing a subject from driving off.

Conventional ammunition should not be used to deflate tyres as it is unlikely to be effective and can ricochet, thereby presenting unacceptable risks. See also guidance on subjects in moving vehicles.

Body armour and ballistic protection

A quality framework process in respect of body armour standards has been developed by CAST, ACPO, police staff associations and forces. These are set out in a series of CAST publications on body armour.

Body armour and ballistic protection available to the police service includes protection against:

  • knife and spike attack
  • blunt trauma
  • ballistic injuries.
Risk assessment

Forces must regularly review the threats, via the Strategic Firearms Threat and Risk Assessment, to which officers are being exposed. This includes changing trends in respect of the types of incidents and operations to which officers are being deployed.

It is, therefore, important that officers’ personal protective equipment (PPE) is matched to the risks they are likely to face and that risk assessments are role specific. Forces should consider whether they require a hybrid body armour that provides both ballistic and sharp edged weapon protection.

Chief officers should factor into their risk assessment not only the weaponry likely to be used by subjects that officers may have to confront, but also the ballistic threat posed by the weapon that officers are being deployed with. The issues associated with body armour are particularly relevant to chief officers.

CAST publications

CAST standards for ballistic body armour give a choice of different levels of protection, including protection against handgun, shotgun and rifle calibres.

The specific protection levels are set out in HOSDB (2007) Body Armour Standards for UK Police Part 2: Ballistic Resistance.

Each of the ballistic protection levels set out in the HOSDB publications can be combined with stab protection levels to offer dual stab and ballistic protection, see: HOSDB (2007) Body Armour Standards for UK Police, Part 3: Knife and Spike Resistance 39-07-C. 

CAST recommends that body armour is checked at regular intervals to ensure that it is in a serviceable condition; forces should introduce a system whereby reminders are provided for staff in accordance with CAST recommendations.

Where body armour has been subjected to a stab, ballistic or blunt trauma attack, CAST advice in respect of replacing the armour should be followed.

Advice on the correct wearing of body armour and related equipment is contained in HOSDB (2006) Carriage of Police Equipment 10-06.

Other ballistic resistant equipment which may be provided includes portable blankets, shields or screens and ballistic helmets. The standard issue helmet for situations involving public disorder does not offer any ballistic protection, see HOSDB (2004) Portable Ballistic Protection Standards for Police 34-04.

All titles are available from CAST on request by an authorised member of the police service.

PPE regulations

Body armour falls within the definition of PPE for the purposes of the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 and, therefore, carries legislative responsibilities for which chief officers are required to take cognisance.


All clothing issued to AFOs should be appropriate for their role and provide suitable protection from the weather and any other risk-assessed hazards.

In situations where threat and risk assessment justifies visually protecting the identity of AFOs, balaclavas or face-overs can provide a degree of protection.

Uniformed AFOs

Uniform headwear with clearly visible police markings, or ballistic helmets can assist in visually identifying AFOs as police officers.

Ski caps or berets should normally be of a dark blue, black or dark green colour, commensurate with the uniform worn by the police.

Forces should determine the operational attire to be worn by uniformed AFOs when undertaking uniformed duties. This should normally include ballistic body armour and take account of threat and risk assessment in respect of threats to which officers might foreseeably be exposed.

Non-uniformed AFOs

When non-uniformed officers are carrying firearms, consideration should be given to how they would be identified as police officers should they have to draw a firearm or become overtly armed.

The system used will depend on the nature of the duties that they are performing, and may include the availability of a dark blue, dark green or black ski cap, with police markings. Wearing a high-visibility vest, shirt or jacket with police markings may also prove beneficial.

Where these methods of identification are not available, officers should consider the producing warrant cards and verbally identifying themselves as armed police officers.

Agreed markers

Sometimes it is beneficial to use discreet, agreed markers which assist other officers in identifying AFOs.

It is, therefore, important that a suitable system of identification is defined, and that all officers involved are fully briefed and aware of it.

Ballistic protection

Advice on ballistic protection for non-uniformed officers can be obtained from CAST.

Where the nature of the duties performed makes wearing ballistic protection impractical, a threat and risk assessment should be completed and the rationale for not deploying officers with ballistic protection recorded.

Non-uniformed unarmed officers

Where non-uniformed, unarmed officers are working alongside armed officers, consideration should be given to how they could be identified in the event of them having an overt role.

Wearing a high visibility cap, vest, shirt or jacket with police markings may prove beneficial. Where these systems of identification are not available, officers should consider producing warrant cards and verbally identifying themselves as police officers.

It is vital that a suitable system of identification is defined, and that all officers involved are fully briefed and aware of it.

Ballistic protection is equally important to armed and unarmed officers in situations where firearms may be discharged, and consideration should be given to appropriate ballistic protection.

Specialist munitions

Specialists munitions include pyrotechnic distraction devices and CS munitions.

Specialist munitions have the potential to cause injury and damage even when used correctly. Instructions on safe handling and detonation procedures must be carefully adhered to.

Forces should have authorisation protocols for the issue, deployment and use of specialist munitions.


The term pyrotechnics includes all substances, munitions, devices or other articles which, on their own or in combination with other equipment, are capable of producing an explosive or burning effect, whether designed to be ignited manually or electrically.

Pyrotechnics which produce a large range of visual, sound and smoke effects are commercially available. Various types of percussion (stun) grenades and barricade breaching munitions are also available, all of which can provide officers with a tactical advantage when operating in buildings or other physical structures.

Safe use

Trained personnel should be responsible for all handling, setting up and firing of pyrotechnics. No other person should handle any pyrotechnic, wiring or initiation device except under the direct instruction of the designated responsible person.

Pyrotechnics should be used only in accordance with current safety instructions.

Percussion grenades

Use of percussion grenades may create a risk of fire, blast and fragmentation. The noise created by these devices is in excess of the safe level under health and safety legislation, and care should be taken during operational use. ACPO in conjunction with CAST, has provided guidance on hearing protection while using percussion grenades in both operational and training environments.

The use of percussion grenades must be subject of statutory risk assessment. In training suitable control measures must be adopted, which should include suitable hand, foot, hearing, eye, exposed skin and face protection.

Operationally, the type of and use of PPE should be decided after a risk assessment has been carried out. This may include a dynamic risk assessment.

Only certain types of percussion grenades are suitable for use in operational situations. Forces should only use devices that have been recommended by CAST.

Chemical munitions (smoke)

Pyrotechnic generated smoke can cause disorientation and suffocation.

Smoke producing devices should not be used in confined spaces unless specifically intended for use in such environments. Even then, where possible, staff should not be exposed to concentrations of smoke unless wearing suitable respirators.

Chemical munitions (other than incapacitant sprays) authorised for use by the police service in the UK are subject to approval as set out in the 2003 Code on Practice on firearms and less lethal weapons.

CS munitions

CS-based munitions are the only approved chemical munitions for use in support of firearms operations.

CS is not a gas but a white crystalline solid. It can be delivered directly as a micronised powder or as a pyrotechnic mixture, where the particles of CS are carried in the smoke. It can also be dissolved in a suitable solvent which, when deployed, evaporates leaving a fine dispersion of CS particles.


Used in appropriate quantities and in enclosed spaces, CS can reduce a person’s offensive capability and the extent of their coordinated action. The effects can include pain and discomfort in the eyes, which causes excessive watering, involuntary spasm of the eyelids leading to blinking or closure of the eyes and sneezing, coughing, retching and a stinging or burning sensation on exposed skin.


Tactical training in the use of CS will emphasise the precautions to be taken in relation to self-contamination, appropriate restraint techniques and aftercare of subjects.

There are a number of products sold on the open market claiming to be antidotes or neutralising agents. There are, however, no antidotes for CS and these products should not be used on people. In some cases their use can be harmful.

CS/PAVA aerosols

There may be occasions during incidents when authorised firearms officers (AFOs) carrying CS or PAVA (pelargonic acid vanillylamide) aerosols consider that the use of such equipment is appropriate. CS or PAVA aerosols should be used only in accordance with guidelines contained in the ACPO Personal Safety Manual (available via NCALT, which is a RESTRICTED online tool with access limited to registered users).


AFOs should be aware that contamination by their own or a colleague’s CS or PAVA aerosol may seriously affect their ability to use a firearm effectively.

Page last accessed 05 July 2020