February 09, 2022
Despite what the media would have people believe, defensive shootings involving armed citizens — both sworn and non-sworn — do happen, but they remain statistically rare. Most police officers and concealed carry practitioners will never shoot their pistols in a life-or-death event. More likely, when a situation requires an armed defender to draw a pistol, there is a good chance that the bad guy will reconsider their actions rather than engage in a gunfight. That’s a win for the good guys and it illustrates the importance of being armed. Still, it’s not a shooting.
Depending on the source, the typical gunfight consists of two to four rounds fired in less than three or four seconds. It’s tough to imagine the need for a reload given those parameters. And, despite anecdotal tales, documented events involving an actual reload and re-engagement are difficult to find. I was my department’s firearms subject-matter expert for years, and I can only recall one event. That’s a very small percentage of what are already statistically rare occurrences.
Despite being unlikely, defensive shootings do happen, which is why we train, practice and strive to get better with our firearms. Training time is precious, and ammo is even more so these days. I’m sure that what I say next is going to ruffle a few feathers. Unless you’re practicing for competition, you’re probably spending too much time training to reload. Your training time would be much better spent developing accuracy and speed, which would negate the need for a reload in anything except the most outlandish “marauding gang” scenario.
The advent of micro-compact 9mm pistols that are slim, offer superb control and carry a large number of rounds makes the concept of a defensive reload even more far-fetched. This is not to say that you shouldn’t spend time training for reloads, but the type of reload matters, as does the amount of time you spend practicing it.
This reload, as it is commonly understood, is obsolete. In practice, the shooter would acquire the fresh magazine with the thumb and middle finger of the support hand, bring it up to the pistol, eject the partially loaded magazine between the ring and small finger of the same hand, insert the fresh magazine into the pistol, and then secure the expended magazine containing an unknown number of rounds somewhere on the body — you know, just in case.
Originally developed when pistoleros carried one single-stack seven-round magazine in a M1911, plus one reload on the belt, it made sense. With only 15 to 17 rounds total, you don’t want to throw ammunition away. The awkward gun-jitsu of placing a magazine between specific fingers is much easier to accomplish with a thin, single-stack magazine. There was also an assumption that a pause or lull may arise during the fight, or perhaps the shooter could find some cover that would allow for topping off the gun while retaining the partial magazine. With the historical aspect of the tactical reload covered, let’s look at the practical facts.
First, modern service pistols generally use double-stack magazines that provide more ammunition in one magazine than a single-stack magazine provided in two, or sometimes three, full magazines. Even micro-sized concealed carry pistols such as the SIG Sauer P365, Springfield Armory Hellcat and Taurus GX4 provide the shooter with 11 to 16 rounds in the pistol, and 12 to 15 more on the belt or in the support-side pocket. Not only is a shooter unlikely to run out of ammunition, but the thickness of those magazines makes the act of holding two magazines in the same hand difficult for many. I’m not arguing to train less, I’m just suggesting that we train smarter. In the 40 or so years that my department has taught this technique, shooters only used this reload to top their pistol off after the engagement was over. Looking at it critically, the entire premise of the tactical reload is flawed. Being in a gunfights is like being pregnant: You either are, or you aren’t. There is no pause or lull to facilitate these kinds of square-range theatrics. In maneuver warfare or within a trained team, there might be a time and place to retain magazines. In these cases, a reload with retention is a better option than a tactical reload.
A reload with retention is simple. The shooter removes the old magazine, places it in a pocket, then changes mags like normal. The people that cling to the tactical reload and dislike the retention reload always point out that there is a longer period of time when the gun only has one round in it. While this is true, the benefit is that there is no period of time in which the shooter is juggling two magazines with their support hand in front of their face. While in Iraq, I often retained my magazines during combat. It wasn’t to reload with them; it was because they were the only magazines that I had and I wasn’t likely to get more of them. We would reload the magazines from ammo cans after the fight. This is a radically different set of circumstances when compared to a self-defense or on-duty shooting.
Even from a training perspective, the tactical reload is inefficient. It takes up more training time than any other reload in the basic firearms curricula, yet it is never used. Why are we spending our precious training time teaching a technique that doesn’t get used? (Or at least, is used so infrequently that finding actual data is impossible.)
Reloading the pistol is important because when you need more bullets in a gunfight, you’re going to need them quickly. By eliminating something that is never used, we can spend more time on training for what’s realistic: In-battery and out-of-battery reloads. Sometimes called “emergency” reloads or “speed reloads,” these are more likely to be needed and share many of the same mechanics, which make them efficient to teach and practice.
The magazine exchange part of the reload is where most struggle, but it can be practiced dry, away from the range. Be deliberate about the live-fire range time you spend on reloads. Your training should reflect the skills most likely to be needed in the unlikely event of a gunfight. A fast, smooth draw with a fast, accurate shot pair should be the priority. Afterward, you can work on other skills such as clearing malfunctions and one-handed shooting. There are a lot of skills to be practiced, but not all should be prioritized. Time and resources are limited, use them wisely.
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