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Handgunning: Regarding Reloads

Regarding reloads, be realistic and don't overcomplicate it.

Handgunning: Regarding Reloads

Photos by Alfredo Rico

The act of changing magazines in a pistol seems to be an easy enough concept. The gun runs out of ammunition and the shooter puts more in. Let’s try and avoid complicating the matter.

For the armed citizen, statistics suggest that you’ll never even have to reload. (Gunfights tend to end quickly, precluding the need for a reload.) Still, good training demands that we be prepared.

Most readers have not been in a gunfight, but I have. In my experience, I can tell you that you’re not going to count rounds. Chances are that you’ll only have a vague idea of how many shots you fired. Certainly, there’s always an exception to the rule, but allow me to fall on my sword.


In my first gunfight, I ran a Mossberg 590 completely dry. As it turns out, this experience matches up with several of my friends who have been involved in similar altercations. However, if you have to reload, you best learn to do it right. Here are a few tips on reloading in a fight.


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Usually, the magazine needs to be changed when the slide locks to the rear.

Slide-Lock Reload

The first reload that I teach — and the one that I focus on the most in my training — is the slide-­lock reload. Slide lock occurs when the pistol is completely out of ammunition and the slide is locked to the rear, usually by the slide-­lock lever on a pistol. Sometimes this occurs unintentionally with a thumb that rides under the lever and pushes the slide lock lever up while shooting. It can also happen when the rebound spring on a slide lock lever is weak and allows the lever to bounce up and intercept the slide during recoil. In any case, the shooter sometimes feels a hard or static trigger pull (i.e., limited or no movement). That person will then glance quickly at the pistol to verify its condition and check to see that it’s not simply out of battery or stopped due to a malfunction.

If the pistol has exhausted its supply of ammunition and created a slide-­lock, the shooter will then drop the empty magazine by pressing the mag release with the firing hand while simultaneously acquiring a full magazine and inserting it into the pistol’s magazine well.

Once the new magazine is secure, the slide is manipulated by one of several methods to be sent forward to reload the chamber and ready the pistol to fire. While this is happening, the shooter should determine if the threat needs to be re-­engaged, make an assessment for other potential threats or disengage from the fight and bid a hasty, safe retreat.

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With a speed reload, the slide is forward. A round may still be in the chamber.

If you are proficient at performing a slide-­lock reload, then you should be able to perform a slide-­forward, also known as a “speed reload” or “in-­battery reload.” The difference is that the shooter doesn’t feel the slide lock to the rear and often learns about the empty condition of the magazine when feeling and hearing the click of a pulled trigger rather than the report of a gunshot.


When I teach the reloads, I instruct students to grasp the slide in an overhand grip behind the ejection port and forcibly rip the slide rearward until it stops, then release. Releasing it rather than easing the slide forward allows the slide to return to battery under the power of its recoil spring’s compressed energy.

I teach this method because I have to assume that most students will not practice as much as I’d like them to. This method offers a shooter a good baseline skillset.

For many who train to a higher level of proficiency with a handgun, shooters often depress the slide-­lock lever (calling it a “slide release”) and allow the slide to go forward. This is usually a faster method that can save a few tenths of a second during a reload. However, pressing the slide lock to send the slide forward can cause premature wear to the slide-­lock lever with certain firearm types such as the Model 1911.


Reloading quickly and smoothly simply takes practice. I don’t buy into the so-­called “gross motor skill” argument as dogma. If it were true, no one would be able to either press the trigger, press the magazine-­release button or deactivate a safety when under duress. That being said, pressing the slide lock during the stress of a fight requires more practice.

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A tactical reload involves an exchange of magazines held by the support hand.

Tactical Reload

Let me preface by saying that I love and respect Jeff Cooper’s Modern Technique. I consider myself a student of the art. I won’t disrespect the man that codified the fundamentals and mindset to stir controversy, discussion and our thinking. However, in my opinion, the tactical reload is a waste of training time — at least in terms of how it is currently taught in classes throughout the country.

For those unfamiliar with the tactical reload, it is executed during a lull in the gunfight when the shooter wishes to top off a pistol while retaining the partially expended magazine. The shooter acquires a new magazine, releases the old magazine into the same hand as the new magazine is held, inserts the new magazine into the pistol with the heel of the hand and then retains the old magazine by placing it in a pocket or pouch.

This entire premise of the tactical reload is flawed. There is no such thing as a so-­called “lull” in a gunfight. If you are in a gunfight, you need to get your gun running as soon as possible so that you can stop the deadly threat. The two or three rounds left in a magazine are not going to be what wins that altercation for you. Decisive and aggressive action is what will win the day. If you’re behind cover or the fight is over, then remove the old magazine, secure it and load the pistol with a new magazine. The idea of juggling magazines in one hand is ridiculous. It’s a waste of valuable training time. If you suspect that there might still be an active threat, then get your gun ready to run so that you can re-­engage.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. In an active shooter or multiple active shooter event, magazines should be secured before moving from one hot area to the next. Likewise, in combat, magazines can be hard to come by, but ammo is often plentiful. The circumstances will dictate if magazines need to be secured as the fight presses on. These events, however, are far outside the realm of the average armed citizen or police engagements.

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A retention reload may be used to secure a partially loaded magazine for future use.

Retention Reload

Here’s another point of view that runs counter to many firearm trainers in the industry. Most instructors forbid the placing of partial magazines in a magazine pouch. This, too, is ridiculous.

In the far chance that you expend all of your ammunition and you’re still actively engaged in a gunfight, you will reach for your magazine pouch first (if you’re wearing one). You won’t be digging into a random pocket. Instead, put the partial magazine back in your pouch so that it will be there when you need it. You don’t want a magazine floating around in your pocket with a wallet, keys, coins, etc.

Let me offer another piece of advice: I know many cops and armed citizens who keep a box of ammunition in their go-bag in the off chance that they need to top off their retained magazines. This is foolishness. Keep a couple of spare loaded magazines in that bag instead.

Training time is a precious commodity and should not be squandered on low-­probability manipulations. Be realistic about the threats that you might face and build your training plan accordingly.

Critical incidents tend to warp the perception of the participants. If we can build up a baseline of skill in training, we can address the worst-­case scenario.

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