I have this recurring dream (or should I say “nightmare”) in which I am forced to use my firearm in self-defense against an attacker (or sometimes multiple attackers or the zombie apocalypse), but my gun doesn’t go “bang.” It just clicks. This terrifying thought seems to have made me even more cautious about knowing the status of my firearm at all times. One method you can use to be sure there is a round in the chamber is to check the chamber.

I have been using a chamber check (or press check) during competitive shooting matches for a while, but several years ago I was instructed — and expected — to do so at the 250 Pistol Class at Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Arizona. Some people argue that a chamber check should be a staple for semi-automatic pistols. Others say it is a pointless waste of time and may increase the risk of the gun malfunctioning. While there is certainly some debate over whether or not a chamber check should be used (outside the world of competition, mostly), I think we all agree that knowing the condition of your firearm is important.

A chamber check is performed by pulling the slide back just enough to see (and even feel) that there is a round in the chamber. (Remember to keep your fingers away from the muzzle and off the trigger.) It takes a little practice so that you do not pull the slide so far back that you eject a round or possibly cause a malfunction, stoppage or failure to go into battery. Move that slide back just far enough (roughly ¼ of an inch) so you can verify that little bit of brass winking back at you. Depending on what gun you have, how strong you are or how comfortable you are with certain movements, you can perform a chamber check by using your fingers and thumb to pull the slide back at the front of the barrel, or you can grasp the gun more like you would typically rack the slide. (I have personally witnessed about five or six different variations of how this is done, so I suggest practicing a few methods. Dry-fire with snap-caps to help you determine what works best for you.)

In addition to confirming you have a round in the chamber (and then making sure the slide is fully forward and back in battery), you can also remove the magazine and make sure it is filled to capacity. Ensure the magazine is fully seated when you put it back in the firearm.

Take it or leave it; a press check is an option even if you have a loaded-chamber indicator. Those mechanisms can fail, and seeing with your own eyes (or feeling with a finger) is more trustworthy than trusting your life to any mechanical device. Of course, you can always do a status check by racking the slide and chambering a new round that you know is seated correctly. Just consider what your purpose is, and always put safety first.