Reloading the Semi-auto Pistol

In the February 2011 issue of Concealed Carry Magazine, I discussed teaching the different ways to reload the revolving pistol.

In this issue, we will take a look at how to teach reloading the semi-automatic pistol.

CCW, reloading

1. Bring the gun to chin level, twist it slightly so the right hand thumb reaches the magazine release and depress the magazine release button to drop the magazine.

Before we get to the lesson, though, understand that teaching the correct reload should be done fairly early in the education of the shooter (but not so soon that the student worries about reloading instead of accurate shooting). But, once the fundamentals of shooting accurately are achieved by the shooter, it is time that he learns how to make a proper speed reload.

Most instructors teach what is known as a “slide lock reload,” which occurs when the slide locks back due to the follower in the empty magazine pushing against the slide lock lever (also known as the slide release lever). Most semi-auto pistols have this feature, although a very few do not. In addition, given the fact that most semi-autos will lock back when the pistol is empty, but some will not, it seems logical to teach a reload which will work with either type of pistol. Also, some pistols are afflicted with the problem that occasionally the slide does not lock back when empty, even if it has a fully functioning slide lock. This typically occurs when the shooter has relaxed his or her grip on the pistol, resulting in the slide not fully retracting after firing. And lastly, ammunition may be lightly loaded, resulting in erratic slide lock function. Consequently, the first way to teach reloading the semi-auto pistol will work whether or not the slide is locked back or fully forward. It is known as the “overhand” method.

CCW, hand gun, reloading

2. Grab the new magazine and insert it into the gun.

To accomplish this, first drop the empty magazine with your shooting-hand thumb by pressing the magazine release button while at the same time accessing the fresh, fully loaded magazine. Traditional wisdom says keep the pistol in front of the body at about chin level, twisting the pistol slightly so the new magazine is easier to put into the pistol. It is also traditional that the magazine be grabbed from the spare magazine pouch so the index finger is next to the tip of the bullet. After inserting the magazine firmly into the pistol, rotate the weak hand up and over the top of the slide and rack the slide rearward sharply, which releases the slide lock and allows the slide to strip the top round from the magazine and load it into the chamber. I tell students when first learning this maneuver, to rack the slide so hard that their hand comes back and touches the shoulder. This method to reload the semi-auto pistol works equally well, whether or not the slide is locked back or has for some reason gone forward on an empty chamber. Several instructors I know also use this same method even if loading a full magazine in a pistol running “low” on ammunition, preferring to sacrifice that chambered round occasionally in exchange for making sure the slide has been racked correctly. I cannot argue with this logic.

CCW, hand gun, reloading

3. Release the slide by: Top to Bottom A. overhand method. B. slingshot method. C. using the left thumb, known as the “competition method.”

The second method is known as the “slingshot method” and resembles a person drawing the slide back by pinching the slide with the weak-hand thumb and index finger, and pulling the slide back quickly and releasing it as one would shoot a slingshot. The slingshot method should be taught along with the overhand method because it works better with very small guns as well as with guns which have decocking levers on the slide. The overhand method will reliably actuate the lever, rendering the gun inert, while the slingshot method pulls them up and likely keeps them from being actuated. And, as already mentioned, this method works much better for small guns.

The third method is what is called the “competition method” and was developed from the practical shooting sport. After the magazine is inserted into the magazine well, instead of racking the slide via either the overhand method or the slingshot method, the left thumb simply hits the slide release lever and actuates the slide release. This method is by far the quickest method. It should also be taught, and the student made to understand that if the student finds this method reliable with their gun and ammunition, then they might want to adopt it as their primary method. Drawbacks to this method include the possibility of the slide failing to go fully into battery because the recoil spring is not fully compressed, and also that on some guns it is difficult to find that slide release. Some guns don’t even have an external slide release, and if that is the case, one of the other methods will have to work for you.

So far, we have talked about teaching the emergency reload to right-handed shooters. What about left handers? Well, some semis have reversible magazine releases, and if so, then either the overhand or slingshot method will work fine while depressing the magazine release button with the left thumb. But, if you are using one of the majority of semis which do not have reversible or ambidextrous magazine release levers, then usually the shooter will do fine if they use the index (“trigger”) finger to press the magazine release, and then use the overhand or slingshot method to release the slide. Some shooters find that using the middle finger works better for them, and if that is so, then I allow it.

The above describes the classic reload from slide lock, which is taught at most shooting schools in the country. There are a couple of alternative methods which also deserve scrutiny, and depending on the circumstances you might want to share them with your student. The first involves using the left thumb to depress the magazine release. Small handed people may find it nearly impossible to rotate the gun in the strong hand far enough to easily depress the magazine release with their right thumb. Instead, adding in a separate step of depressing the magazine release and dropping the empty magazine with the left thumb seems to work better for them. The main drawback in this method is that it adds a separate step and takes about half a second longer than a traditional reload. Not optimum, but acceptable; but if the alternative is not accomplishing the reload efficiently anyway, we suggest this method.

The second alternative method is one which I first saw demonstrated by shooting Guru Tom Campbell in a video tape of an IPSC match filmed back in the 1980s. In this video, Campbell brought the gun down to his waist, dropping the empty magazine in the process, and then as soon as he pulled the magazine from the magazine pouch, he reloaded it into the semi-auto pistol and dropped the slide on his way back up to the target. I mention this because several years ago, a young lady came to class with a torn rotator cuff on her left shoulder and she literally could not bring the left arm to shoulder level. She wanted to do the course, so she shot the whole course one handed, and I dusted off this memory of Campbell and told her to reload the pistol at waist level. It worked very well for her and reloading the gun this way she kept up with the boys.

CCW, hand gun, reloading

Loading the gun at waist level is surprisingly fast, but has the burden of taking the eyes off the target if something goes wrong. Not recommended, but nonetheless useful if for some reason you cannot raise your left arm up to chin level! PHOTOS BY BOB JACKSON

When I first explain and demonstrate the reload, I start with an empty gun with slide locked back on an empty magazine. I have the students lock out on target and on the whistle, drop the magazine and reload with a magazine which has only one round in it, firing that round after the reload. This immediately sets us up to do it again, and we can keep doing it until the first student runs out of magazines, at which time we then holster, pick up the magazines, reload them with one round apiece and start over. Once the student gets this gross motor skill down, we then switch to the next drill, where we start with a gun loaded with one round and have the students shoot one shot, reload with a magazine holding two rounds and fire another shot. We are then set up for the next drill, and keep doing this until the first student is out of two-round magazines, and then set up the magazines again. The above takes about a half an hour out of a two-day class and is usually taught right before lunch on the first day. After this lesson we make the student responsible for reloading the pistol whenever they run empty, reloading automatically. We want to condition them to immediately recognize and reload their empty gun. More than one student has been publicly chided (in a nice way, of course) for not immediately reloading the gun, but they normally don’t make this same mistake twice.

Properly reloading the semi-automatic pistol isn’t the most important skill at arms to master for defensive handgunning, unless you expect to get involved in a long, protracted gunfight with multiple adversaries. But, as mentioned before in these pages, we don’t train for the statistically average gunfight, but instead for the worst case scenario.