Hot & Cold: Loading and Unloading a Pistol

WE’VE PREVIOUSLY DISCUSSED the imperatives of safe gun handling as well as how to properly draw from and recover to the holster. Although there are a variety of ways to accomplish these tasks, it always comes down to muzzle management and trigger-finger discipline; there just isn’t any way around it. At this point in the training process, good habits are being instilled and internalized, and the introduction of ammunition can be added to the equation.

Loading for the beginning shooter may involve inserting a specified number of cartridges into the magazine to match the target exercise, followed by inserting the magazine, when instructed, into the magazine well until it is properly seated. This is followed by releasing the slide forward to chamber a round, readying the gun to fire. Prior to shooting or returning the pistol to the holster, depending on the type and model of the pistol, additional manipulations may have to be administered, such as de-cocking or applying a mechanical safety.

 

Loading for the beginning shooter may involve inserting a specified number of cartridges into the magazine to match the target exercise, followed by inserting the magazine, when instructed, into the magazine well until it is properly seated.

 

In the elementary stages of firing a pistol, unloading may be as simple as removing the magazine, leaving the action open and visually looking through the ejection port at the chamber, breech face and magazine well to verify the gun is clear of ammunition or spent cartridges. This should be followed by physically checking the same area with a finger as secondary insurance that the visual check was valid. After we’re satisfied that our students are capable of and comfortable with these handling techniques of loading and unloading their pistols, we can move on to more practical and relevant techniques for competition and personal defense.

For our purposes here, we should teach our students to load magazines to full capacity. On the command of “load,” each student will insert a magazine into the magazine well, tugging on the base plate to ensure it is locked into place. Next, he or she will chamber a round by releasing the slide forward and then top off the magazine to maximize the carrying capacity of the pistol. This is to be followed by safely re-holstering or, if no holster is present, assuming a ready or firing position as instructed.

From this point forward, “unloading” will consist of removing all ammunition from the gun, verifying it “cold” visually and physically, dry-firing into the backstop and holstering in a previously practiced method. The dry-fire may be new to many reading this, but it confirms that the gun is unloaded one more time and gives the shooter a final good sight picture and trigger press to remember before leaving the range.

Initial Load

Students should start with what is most often referred to as an “initial” or “administrative” load. This load procedure is done in a safe, secure environment, where attention to detail trumps the speed with which it can be done; at this point in the training, emphasis is on developing good habits. The specifics of loading and topping off can vary according to range conditions, the time allotted and each student’s level of proficiency and progress.

The administrative load can be as simple as starting with a holstered pistol that’s been verified clear and empty, inserting a loaded magazine into the magazine well, ensuring it is locked in place, drawing the gun, pointing it in a safe direction, cycling the slide to chamber a round, de-cocking or applying the safety and returning the gun to the holster.

“Topping off” involves removing the magazine from the holstered pistol and adding an additional round to replace the one in the chamber, then reseating the magazine and tugging on the baseplate to ensure it is properly locked in place. This method involves a minimum of handling and eliminates the need for a press check (if that isn’t an essential teaching point within a specified curriculum).

 

“Topping off” involves removing the magazine from the holstered pistol and adding an additional round to replace the one in the chamber, then reseating the magazine and tugging on the baseplate to ensure it is properly locked in place.

 

Another way to accomplish the goal at hand is as follows: With the pistol de-cocked or the safety applied, the partially depleted magazine should be removed and stored in a pocket. A second magazine from the magazine pouch should then replace it. Ensuring the magazine is locked in place, the pistol can then be safely re-holstered. After this, it is recommended that the partially depleted magazine be immediately loaded to full capacity and returned to the magazine pouch since this should be an indicator as to whether a round was actually chambered during the exercise.

A major benefit to using this method is that it reinforces other types of reloads that may be used in the future when time stressors and differing tactics are incorporated into keeping the gun loaded and operational at all times.

Emergency Reload

An “emergency reload,” sometimes referred to as a “slide-lock reload,” is when the slide locks open after the ammunition supply is completely depleted. When this happens, the idea is to get the pistol back up and operational as quickly as possible. Apart from the obvious, there are two key points to realizing the slide is locked open (other than pulling the trigger with nothing happening): The shooter should be able to feel the gun cycle differently on that last shot, and he or she should notice that the sights look different when the slide is locked back than they do when the slide is forward.

When the slide locks back, keep the gun and head up on the same plane for maximum visual input near and far. Simultaneously, reach for a spare magazine with the support hand and release the depleted magazine with the shooting hand. Move the fresh magazine in the most direct manner to the magazine well, seating it with the heel of the hand in a smooth, fluid manner. Send the slide forward using the slide release or the slingshot method and prepare to continue shooting if necessary.

The emergency reload is the mostused method of keeping the gun running and should be practiced regularly. Take into consideration that magazine and equipment orientation impact the speed and smoothness in performing this type of reload.

Reload with Retention

The “reload with retention,” also called the “tactical magazine save” by some trainers, is when the ammunition supply in the gun is getting low and time and conditions allow the gun to be topped off with a fresh magazine, saving the partially depleted magazine for future use. There are generally two techniques employed to perform this type of reload.

The simplest is to release the partial magazine to the support hand while keeping the gun in an operational position, storing the magazine in a convenient location on the way to drawing a fresh magazine and seating it in the pistol. If hand size and manual dexterity will accommodate, the fresh magazine can be drawn first, making the exchange at the gun by catching the depleted magazine between available fingers and then seating the fresh magazine. The partially depleted magazine should then be stored prior to resuming a two-handed grip.

Speed Reload

The “speed reload” is primarily used in competitive events, though it certainly may have application in other areas on occasion. This type of reload is used to sustain ammunition capacity in a situation where the loss of the magazine and remaining ammunition is not considered consequential. It involves separating the support hand from the gun to retrieve a fresh magazine while releasing the partially depleted magazine to fall free with the strong thumb. The fresh magazine is inserted and seated with no other action required, as there’s still a chambered round in the gun.

Practice

Reloads and “topping off” the pistol are essential aspects of learning to operate a sidearm under a variety of conditions. They should both be practiced regularly and diligently for students’ intended applications, because as with everything else in firearms training, nothing of consequence is achieved without putting in the time on the line.

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