Monday, March 14, 2016

The Speed vs. Emergency Reload: When, why, how

Reloading a semi-automatic pistol is not complex unless you have to do it fast. Speed comes into play in three circumstances; the timer, competition and combat with the last being most critical. I once heard a famous instructor say “competition offers the same level of stress as a gunfight”, but the only thing I can think is he has never had someone try to kill him.  The stress of having bullets whizz past is like no other and if you have had this experience, you know what I am talking about.
Serious shooters know how difficult a rapid reload can be. The hands don’t work normally, the fingers fumble and magazines don’t align with the grip quite as smoothly as they do slowly, its complex! Now add someone trying to take your life while you are moving, yelling, lacking motor skill and you will understand why reloading need be as simple as possible. Sure, reloading can look really cool, but not simple which is critical when under duress.  “Combat stress” is a bitch and any technique added to your skill sets should take this into account.

What is Combat Stress? The physical/psychological phenomenon occurring when our brain perceives danger and prepares the body for action, AKA fight or flight. Simply, sensory nerves pass danger perception to the hypothalamus which in turn transmits a signal to the pituitary gland. This gland releases a chemical messenger into the bloodstream while the hypothalamus transmits a nerve signal down the spinal cord. Both will arrive at the adrenal gland resulting in the release of epinephrine into the blood stream. Cortisol is also released resulting in increased blood pressure and sugar levels suppression of the immune system. Also known as adrenaline, epinephrine is an efficient messenger that gets the heart beating faster so the body is ready for hard physical activity. Simultaneously, the brain stem releases norepinephrine that travels throughout the body all of which create an increase in circulation and energy to certainly body systems and a downshift of less important ones into a maintenance mode where they function but not at the unstressed level.

This is why people involved in combat lose digital dexterity where the fingers do not function as well as they did prior to combat. Many misunderstand this diminished dexterity, thinking their fingers will turn into stumps but this is not the case. The fingers will perform but will be less likely to perform tasks that have not been practiced to a level of “unconscious competence”, where they can be performed without thought. What many call “muscle memory” is really “familiar task transference”, a term that came from the manufacturing boom of the 1950’s and 60’s where most of the products our country produced were built by people on assembly lines, performing one task after another all day long. When practiced to this level, most any skill can be performed, even under extreme stress, when the chemical reaction of the body might be working against them.

While interesting, you might wonder what this has to do with the combat reload. Reloading a pistol quickly is a complex motor skill, requiring both fine and gross muscle movements to work together and it is the fine motor skills that diminish when someone is trying to kill you. Add to this your gun running out of ammo at what might be the last moments of your life and I think you can see why practicing the reload until it can be performed without conscious thought is important. Good news! Reloading in a pistol fight seldom happens if you look at the history of pistol fighting, but if it does it IS a critical event.

What I am going to say now will light up the Internet gun forums…don’t shoot your gun dry!  Currently it is common in combative shooting courses to practice nothing but slide locked reloads …the emergency reload… as the argument is “You might as well shoot the gun dry in training as that is what you are going to do in a fight” and while this is certainly possible, is it wise to train to make it inevitable? Take a moment to think about it…slide lock is a really bad time to reload, especially if your opponent sees it! Exchanging magazines quickly is difficult enough but now add the time/effort to release the slide. 
Let’s also think about training only for a slide lock reload…what happens if during the fight the slide does not lock open? Maybe your shooting hand thumb was resting on the slide lock lever? You might be pressing the trigger on an empty gun as your only load stimulus failed resulting in deadly lag time. Consider an empty gun the same as a broken gun, both requiring physical manipulation, so let’s load when we can to not when we have to.  By merely changing magazines we make the task less complicated and faster to fully loaded. I know what you are thinking…why would you drop perfectly good ammo on the ground? You might need it.  This is tradition talking, but does it really stack up tactically?
Give this critical thought…are you willing to risk your life for a few rounds (UNKOWN how many) of ammunition? Before you blurt out “YES!” let me put this in perspective. You have engaged in a fire fight and expended an unknown number of rounds. Your attacker is moving, maybe trying to flank you and you have no idea what is coming next…would this be a good time to reload quickly or try to save ammo by performing a physically complex “tactical reload”. By performing a speed reload I now know I have 16 rounds in my Glock 19. How many rounds did I eject to the ground? I really don’t know since I did not count as I fired them, do I risk my life for these rounds considering I have NO idea how much time I have to reload? Could I retrieve this magazine? Simply, never give up a known for an unknown!  Is it possible I could need the few rounds I ejected? Maybe, but at the moment I reloaded I felt it was of greater importance to have a full gun with a KNOWN number of rounds! Of course, you are allowed to bet your life on whatever tactic/technique you want.
Any time you add something to sometime you will increase the time it takes to accomplish the skill. Sure, you can practice to reduce the overall time, but it will still take longer. Dropping the slide on a semi-auto will add time to simply drop the slide and this process is certainly controversial in the shooting community. Some advocate a “power stroke” where the shooter comes up and over the slide, grasping it over hand, and then pulling back vigorously actually hitting yourself in the shoulder, insuring “complete slide retraction” according to its advocates. It seems a bit excessive considering the slide only has to move a quarter inch or so to be released and full recoil spring compression occurs shortly thereafter. In addition, the shooting and support hand end up VERY far apart adding time to re-grip the pistol. At the other end of the argument are the competition based shooters who advocate using the shooting hand thumb to drop the slide, which is certainly the fastest usually adding only 2/10ths of a second to the reload process. The downside is the thumb is being tasked with multiple functions in a very short period of time (hitting both the magazine release and the slide lever) and if the timing is off just slightly, the shooter could end up with an empty gun. Why, you ask? I have seen shooters drop the slide before the magazine is fully inserted on numerous occasions, which results in a dead trigger followed by a tap –rack which slows the shooting time even further. In a competition this is no big deal, in a gunfight it’s deadly.
In my classes I show both of these skills along with their advantages and disadvantages but then offer several possible solutions. If using the slide lever, consider using the support hand thumb to push down. This adds a few 1/10ths but ensures the magazine is seated first. If an overhand grip is preferred, how about releasing the support hand, turning the slide into the hand, pull back like pulling on a rope just enough to release it and then re-grip the pistol? It’s much faster, just as sure and simplifies the process. Of course, you could dispense with this whole ordeal and just reload before you run the gun dry. Just saying…

What I hope to accomplish here is to make you give this process critical thought and choose carefully. DO NOT SUCCUM TO TRADITION! While I am a fan of competitive shooting, I will be the first to tell you what works in competition might not be best when your life is on the line…there is a difference between the disciplines. Give the techniques we discussed here a try, evaluate them and decide what is best for you in your real world of work. Thanks for checking in…


  1. Well said, Mr. Spaulding. I've been guilty of racing the timer in the past.

  2. Great insight! Shooting my first action pistol course recently I struggled with ejecting a magazine with unused rounds but found that a slide lock reload never happened at a convenient time and caused more stress than a relaod while moving. Multiply that by 1000 in a life threatening situation and it makes perfect sense to reload when I can rather than when I have to.

  3. Great insight! Shooting my first action pistol course recently I struggled with ejecting a magazine with unused rounds but found that a slide lock reload never happened at a convenient time and caused more stress than a relaod while moving. Multiply that by 1000 in a life threatening situation and it makes perfect sense to reload when I can rather than when I have to.

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