Tuesday, January 3, 2017

“Load when you want to, not when you have to!”…Probably not…

The above statement has made a lot of sense to me over the years. I first heard it while taking the Heckler & Koch MP-5 Instructor Course in the late 1990’s.  Those who have used the weapon system know it does not lock open on the last round. The non-reciprocating cocking handle is located above the hand guard and protrudes from a tube at approximately a 45° angle. It is not connected to the bolt carrier and therefore cannot be used as a forward assist to fully seat the bolt group or lock open. The lever is locked back by pulling it fully to the rear and rotating it slightly clockwise where it can be hooked into an indent in the cocking lever tube. The FBI requested a “bolt open” feature on their 10mm version the MP-10. Thus, when the MP-5 ran dry, not only did you have to “push through” the hesitation caused by no round fired, you then had to eject the spent magazine, insert a new one and work the bolt handle to chamber a new round.  If you had the presence of mind to merely swap magazines before you drained the 30 round box magazine, life was a whole lot easier!

I have long felt the same concept should be applied to semi-automatic pistols.  The idea of shooting your pistol empty while a bad guy is shooting at you is almost mind numbing! Think about bullets impacting around you when suddenly the slide locks open and you have a dead trigger.  There is that moment it takes to recognize what has transpired followed by grabbing a new magazine, ejecting the spent one, inserting the new one, dropping the slide and reacquiring both the threat through the sights. If you “suffered” the misfortune of not having your slide lock open on the last round maybe you went through a “tap-rack” manipulation before you discovered your gun was empty? Never happened to you, you say? Murphy has this weird sense of humor…

A lot if time has passed here…combine it with someone trying to kill you while you were possibly on the move and it makes one start to think about “load when you want to, not when you have to” as being a good idea!

One problem…it doesn’t happen! I have tried VERY hard to keep the traditional speed load alive. First, it is like the “training wheels” for the slide lock or emergency reload, a way to teach the magazine exchange alone. Second, if you have the presence of mind to swap out magazines before the gun runs dry, life is so much easier! It has and can be done. My friend and Special Forces veteran Bob Keller told me recently he never runs his M-4 or Glock dry and used this methodology in hundreds of direct action missions during the GWOT. “ If I had a chance I reloaded…I may have only fired ten rounds but I kept my gun topped off at every opportunity.” The difference, of course, is Bob had a load out that included a high number of magazines (I don’t know how many, but he did tell me he sometimes did not carry a pistol so he could add more M-4 mags) so running low on ammo while following this methodology was slim.  He did tell me if he could retrieve the partially spent magazine he did.

When fighting with a semi-automatic pistol the argument against topping off like Bob describes is the VAST majority of folks (I’m sure there are some hard core, John Wick types out there who have magazines all around their belt) do not carry a sizable number of pistol magazines daily. Hell, some carry NO SPARE AT ALL, which makes this article a mute point for you.  Conversely, the argument can be made that pistol fights, historically, do not require a high number of rounds to “solve”. Most are over quickly with few rounds fired. Yes, yes, I know…do you want to bet your life on this? Well, many do as they choose to carry a low capacity handgun with no or just one reload. How many rounds does it take to win a gunfight? Yeah…I don’t know either…

Ok, at this point you might be thinking loading when you want to and not when you have to sounds like a good idea, provided you carry a spare magazine, that is.  This is where the problem lies…most do not have the presence of mind to do it!  Yes, there are a few gunslingers out there that do (before you post below how awesome YOU are I acknowledge this!) but they are the minority.  The fact of the matter is, students of combative pistolcraft shoot their pistols dry, period! I have been fighting it for decades now and I have decided to give up. As Dirty Harry once said…”a man has got to know his limitations” and I have reached it. While I still think it is a sound tactic to “load when you want to” (and I will still personally use it) I have given up on trying to introduce the classic speed load to my students.  Starting this year (2017) I will only address the slide lock/emergency reload in my courses.

Please do not take this as sour grapes as it is not. It is merely recognizing the tide and accepting it. I realize the time spent trying to introduce the speed load is time wasted that I could be using for other skill introduction and development.  Students pay good money for my courses and I owe them as much as I can offer. Why waste time on something students just will not do? Forget high stress, students continually shoot their pistols dry even during low stress drills such as “draw and shoot” ,“shoot from ready” or other simple exercises.  Students from my classes will tell you I continually walk the firing line offering the admonition, “there is no requirement to run your gun dry” or “ it is perfectly acceptable to top off your gun as you see fit’” but students just do not do it no matter how often I remind them.

What really surprises me is the number of folks who step up to the firing line to complete a known round count drill (for example, “draw and fire tree rounds in three seconds”) and do not have enough rounds in their gun to complete it!  Of course they always say, “I meant to do that…I wanted to push myself through an emergency reload under stress” (the look on their face when their gun runs dry unexpectedly tells another story!) which sounds one hell of a lot better than saying “I was not sharp enough to keep track of how many rounds were in my gun” and we all know one of the hallmarks of a true armed professional is always knowing the status of you gear.

While I do not think this is the best move, I think it is the correct one.  Hell, many students question why you would want to load before the gun is empty!  “These are perfectly good rounds, why waste them?”  The only thing I can think is they do not really understand the confusion and delay of action they will suffer when their gun runs dry in a REAL fight … “It only takes an additional half second to drop the slide…big deal!”  How many rounds can you fire in a half second, especially if the gun is already being fired? Also keep in mind the delay of action you will suffer when you expect a round to fire and it does not…something that does not happen when you expect the run to run dry, like in a range drill.  Additionally, will you notice the slide locked open or will you automatically “tap-rack” in a fight? So many questions…

Training, like any things in combative pistolcraft, is the answer but I can’t help but think we are making a mistake when it comes to when to reload. That said, from here on, its emergency reloads only in my classes but we will work hard to execute them well!

Thanks for checking in…


  1. Sound advice, the majority of cops I worked with that carried off duty did not carry a spare mag. A few ,but not many. So I get your point. At least one reload for me, be it Chief's Special 38 , Springfield XDS, Glock 19 or flintlock pistol. Can't imagine my Roscoe going click in a life or death incident and not being able to stuff some bullets in there to save my life.

  2. Great article and sound advice for sure. What do you think about the F.A.S.T. Protocol? Fight, access, scan, top off. Would this solve "most" issues of people starting a drill with a low rounds or empty gun?

    1. I was referring more to what happens during the fight, not after. That said, this protocol sounds good to me...

  3. Good article.

    I wonder what your thoughts are on carrying a spare mag? I do carry one, but in my mind I am carrying it for those strange occasions that might occur where a reload is necessary (i.e. an evolving gunfight.)

    For most civilian gunfights, due to the natural time and distance limitations that occur, I would think a different tactic is necessary even if the need for a reload is there.

  4. Hello, thanks for the article!

    May I have a suggestion( a general one that I gave everywhere I see it): a dark font on a bright background goes actually much easier on the eyes. For avid readers, it's a real pain to read long text with bright font on dark background :)

  5. I feel for you. Lots of good questions there. Do you train to the lowest common denominator or do you train to what should be done even if no one seems to be listening? It's a tough decision to make and I certainly understand the desire of a professional instructor to best equip his students to go out better than they came in, weaknesses and all.

    Teach the emergency reload, but, for your own sake, don't stop at least giving lip service to topping the gun off if you feel that is the better technique, even if it's only once and in a lecture portion. You might get that one student who is bothering to pay attention to the man he is paying to teach him how to fight, and wouldn't that be novel!

  6. I trained in Bakersfield, CA at SAS; my first classes met Sunday mornings beginning at 8:00am. If any of us went to slide lock during drills we had to bring breakfast for the whole class next week.

    I brought a lot of biscuits to class in those days, and at the point I was sick of feeding the whole class my procedures sharply changed; Tactical reload during a pause, always check total rounds available before a drill.

    Amazing how that solved so much. Thanks for a great piece.

  7. Dave, I have been in LE for 12 years and 4 years as a Cavalry Scout in the Army. Two very different mindsets for reloads. I try to practice both types of reloads. I've been to your classes before and completely understand with what you're saying. The combat reload is hard to learn, when most are going to have to reload when they're out. Keep doing what you're doing and sharing your experience.

  8. I think the best perspective on this comes from those of ups who used to carry wheel guns with the badge. "Topping off" was the thing, you had just 6 and you fired 3, so you better top off while there was a lull so if needed you have a full cylinder. Now, with the 15-17 round double stacks, they just don't think of running dry in the middle of a fight. I fully agree that reloading when you can, not when you must is the mindset of the professional.