Should You Carry With One in the Chamber?

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Baseball might be more interesting if the fielders left their gloves in the dugout until a ball was hurtling in their direction. Why carry around that extra weight and tie up a perfectly good hand that could be used for opening new tins of chewing tobacco or sticks of gum? Hey, if a fly ball or screaming grounder comes their way, they can trot over to the dugout and “glove up” to make the catch, right?

That may sound ridiculous, but it’s a good analogy for carrying a self-defense firearm that isn’t prepared to fire. On the surface, some arguments to support carrying a pistol without “one in the pipe” sound compelling:

“My pistol doesn’t have a manual safety, and I feel more comfortable carrying with an empty chamber.”

“If I need to use my pistol, I can just quickly rack the slide and I’m ready to go.”

“I don’t have to worry about dropping my pistol and it accidentally going off!”

And last, but not least, is the most dangerous objection of all:

“If I’m going somewhere more dangerous, I can rack the slide and chamber a round before I go.”

A black Springfield Armory XD-S striker-fired pistol and a black SIG Sauer P229 semi-automatic handgun propped up on a background of weathered timbers on an outside deck.

The SIG Sauer P229 Legion (back) and Springfield Armory XD-S (front) do not have traditional “manual” safeties, yet both are designed to be carried safely in a ready-to-fire condition. The double-action first press of the SIG and trigger leaf and internal safeties of the XD-S protect against drops and other types of unintended discharges.

You Probably Won’t Have Time

These talking points sound great if your self-defense scenario looks something like this: “Hey, I see a bad guy over there. He doesn’t see me, but I suspect I might have to shoot him in a minute. I should draw my gun and prepare it to fire.”

Here’s the problem that places a big fat fly in this mental ointment: You don’t get to decide when you’ll need to use your firearm.

This is important, so let’s repeat it: You don’t get to decide when you’ll need to use your firearm.

You don’t get to plan for a convenient time to defend yourself. Nor will you decide when or how the fight for your life starts. Your first indication you’re in a self-defense encounter might be a smack in the head, a shot whizzing by your ear or perhaps the guy behind you in line at McGreasyBurgers shouting, “Everyone on the floor or I’ll shoot!”

A black Springfield Armory XD-S concealed carry pistol lying on its side on top of a ragged denim backdrop. The gun features safeties in the grip and trigger to help avoid negligent discharges.

Compact pistols like this Springfield Armory XD-S might be even more difficult to cycle during the heat of a violent self-defense encounter. It’s designed to be carried with a round chambered already.

You will be responding to someone else’s actions. By definition, you’ll already be behind the eight ball. The bottom line is that you may not have the time or opportunity to prepare yourself or your equipment for the required immediate response. Is it possible you might see trouble coming early enough to prepare? Yes. Are you willing to bet your life on that possibility?

There are four factors you need to think about — hard — before deciding to carry your pistol with an empty chamber.

1. Time

Racking a slide only takes tenths of a second with practice. That doesn’t sound like much — until you add up how many tenths of seconds you are already behind the curve. Your brain takes a quarter of a second or more to see and process a threat. With practice, you might draw a concealed firearm and get an aimed shot off in 1.5 to two seconds. You’re already several seconds behind the timeline of your attacker because he or she planned his or her actions in advance and started the festivities. Do you want to add time to your minimum response when your life is on the line?

2. Motor Skills

When the human body moves from a normal state of everyday relaxation to the “I’m about to die!” state, things like coordination go downhill fast. Racking a slide isn’t a fine motor skill like needle-pointing the Mona Lisa. But in a moment of adrenaline-dump stress, performing the action rapidly and flawlessly will not be easy.

A black SIG Sauer P229 with the action open, showing a nickel and copper round being fed from the magazine into the chamber.

If you carry with a magazine inserted, but no round chambered, you must perform a complete slide rack before your self-defense pistol can be used for that purpose. You may not have the time or ability to do that.

3. The Number of Hands You Have

Unless you resort to some method that requires even more manual dexterity, racking a slide requires two hands. What makes you think you’ll have two hands available during phase one of an armed encounter? Your support hand may be occupied fighting off your attacker, holding or moving a child, opening or closing a door, calling for help — or a million other possible activities. Assuming you’ll have both hands available to operate your pistol is kind of like assuming that nothing bad can happen if you avoid rough areas. Again, you don’t get to make these decisions; they are forced upon you.

4. Modern Pistol Safety Features

Modern carry pistols are almost always designed to be carried with a round in the chamber. Check with your manufacturer to be sure, but it’s a rare defensive pistol that’s not designed with drop safeties and other internal and external features to prevent negligent discharges. Even the ubiquitous Glock that has no visible safety devices is chock full of internal design features to prevent firing until you deliberately press the trigger. Millions of police officers across the country rely on this type of engineering daily.

Carrying your pistol without a round in the chamber may sound comforting, but be sure to think long and hard about how that strategy might play out in a violent self-defense encounter. There are too many tragic cases of armed citizens who have been killed or wounded by their attacker because they could not mount an armed defensive strategy quickly enough. If you’re so inclined to search, you’ll find stories of victims desperately trying to load their gun while being attacked and sometimes killed. There are good reasons every police officer in the country carries his or her firearm loaded and ready to go.