Mastering the magazine

     What is the loudest sound in a gunfight?

     The click of an empty chamber.

     Keeping bullets in the chamber is important to stay in the fight. Officers should practice changing magazines efficiently.

     The pistol magazine is not simply a vessel with which to hold bullets. Magazines are an essential component of the firearm. The quality of the magazine will dictate the reliability of the gun. In fact, it is better to have a mediocre gun with high-quality magazines than a high-quality gun with poorly made magazines.

     The first places to look when a gun malfunctions are operator and magazine, in that order. If those aren't the problem, look at the gun.

     Some companies, such as Glock and Sigarms, wisely built reputations on magazines whose reliability has been challenging to duplicate.

     Officers should keep separate sets of magazines for duty and practice. The practice ones are allowed to drop freely on the ground when training. Any magazine that does not pass a visual inspection for duty goes in the practice pile.

     Shooters should take all of their magazines for a spin regularly, especially duty ones. This will ensure they are routinely inspected, cleaned and loaded with bullets that haven't been rechambered a hundred times before called upon when circumstances are grave. An agency that is liberal about burning duty ammunition beyond required training sends a morale-boosting message to their officers.

     There are three types of reloads: speed, tactical and administrative. Of these three types, the most useful for the patrol officer is the speed reload, which minimizes the down time of the gun. Regardless of the reloading used, every shooter should adhere to the rules of shooting and reloading from cover.

Getting the grip
     There is a right way to grasp a magazine and dozens of wrong ways. If the officer wears the magazines on the support hand side between the hip and the buckle (recommended), the magazines should be seated so that bullets face the buckle. When the magazines are grasped by the support hand, the magazine body can be pinched between the thumb and three fingers. The pointer finger touches the tip of the first bullet in the magazine. This position, whether used with single stack or doublestack magazines, aids the shooter when fine motor skills have diminished.

     Some prefer magazines to ride horizontally on the belt. Depending on the design of the pouch, this is more comfortable in a seated position. Officers will have to experiment a little here. Often, the quickest change is accomplished when the pouch sits on the strong side, forward of the hip and holster, bullets pointing down with the heel of the magazine closest to the belt buckle.

     Open top magazine holders that use a friction tension device are the fastest; flap-type holders are more protective. If the officer wears pouches that enclose the magazine in any way, he should practice on the range with the flaps secured over the magazines.

     Officers should not be made to "feel" for the magazines on the belt. They always should be in the same position facing the same way.

     Officers should limit their practice to skills that can be done under serious stress when fine movement, touch and blood flow to the limbs is reduced. Grasping a magazine by the bottom and steering it into the magazine well can be trained. However, this training is useless precisely when needed. Firearms trainers teach their students that anyone, even under severe stress, can take their pointer finger and put it into a hole in the bottom of the fist, which is exactly why the tip of the finger touches the tip of the bullet.

     Although it is aesthetically satisfying to have an extended slide release on the gun, one should grip the slide to release it. Sweeping the slide release with the thumb is a less reliable action than yanking the slide backwards and letting it go. If there are bullets in the magazine, the slide release won't make much difference. If the magazine is empty, swap it -- then release.

Speed reload
     Knowing how to rapidly refill the pistol is an essential officer survival skill. The speed reload consists of dropping the magazine in the pistol and replacing it with one from the belt. The reload is executed when the gun is either empty or the need for more bullets outweighs the few bullets that may still be in the seated magazine. Under the confusion of battle, the officer may not have a solid idea how many bullets are in the gun. Executing a speed reload will remedy this condition.

     The sequence for a speed reload is: (1) grip fresh magazine, (2) drop old magazine, (3) seat new magazine, and (4) continue engagement. This entire sequence can be accomplished with the business end of the gun pointed toward the threat.

     To speed reload, bring the gun closer to the body by slightly bending the shooting-hand elbow. The gun should still be oriented toward the unsafe zone, and the officer's attention should be on the threat or most likely avenue of approach. A slight canting of the gun, where the slide stays completely horizontal and the bottom of the grip points toward the naval, is normal. Disengage the support hand, allowing it to feel for the fresh magazine. The shooter should still be able to sight and shoot, maintaining all concentration on the threat. The magazine is withdrawn from its holder by pinching it between the thumb and fingers. Once the shooter has gripped the magazine, he may press the release, dropping the old one, watching it in peripheral vision. If it does not fall free, the shooter can run any part of the hand against the floorplate to help it along.

     When practicing, the shooter has arrived at the correct cadence when the shooter is "up" before the expended magazine hits the ground.

     Insert the magazine into the well by guiding with the pointer finger. Use the flat side of the back of the magazine (where the base of bullets are) against the flat back of the magazine well to guide it home. Force the palm upward, packing the magazine in firmly. Maintaining contact with the gun, roll the hand to the front of the gun and reacquire the grip. A full extension of the gun hand ends the reloading sequence. If the slide is locked to the rear it should be released by grasping it and letting it slam forward.

     The speed reload must be done in the proper sequence. Shooters should never press the magazine release button until a fresh magazine is in hand. If there aren't any magazines on the belt, dropping one that potentially has a round or two in it is a bad idea. It is better to shoot the gun in hand until slide lock and then go for the backup. Extra points to any officer whose backup gun uses the same magazines and bullets.

Tactical reload
     A tactical reload is used when the officer knows he does not have a full magazine on the gun and must "top it off." It differs from the speed reload because it retains the magazine ejected. Sometimes called "reloading with retention," the simplest version incorporates releasing the magazine in the hand, pocketing it and ramming another home. This should only be used when there is a safe break between engagements.

     The second method requires trapping a spent magazine from the gun between two fingers while holding a full one between two other fingers. The inserted end of the magazines poke through the loosely formed fist and are banged home with the palm.

     The rule for using a tactical reload: If the officer at any time wonders if it is a good time to use a tactical reload, use a speed reload.

     Begin the tactical reload by preloading the full magazine between the middle and ring finger. The floorplate should be on the palm as if the shooter were using a syringe. The gun goes in the same position as the speed reload. Spread the pointer and ring finger open under the grip so they can receive the one in the gun. Press the magazine release, catch the spent one and shift so the full one is in the well. Ram it home. Retain the spent magazine.

     The tactical reload is done correctly when, at any time the process is interrupted, slamming the palm upward puts the gun in firing mode.

Administrative reload
     The administrative reload also is used to ensure there is a full magazine in the well, although it is a more subtle form. It is executed while the gun is still in the holster. Press the release, strip the one in the well and retain it. Insert the new one.

     The administrative reload is a "press check" that checks the magazine, not the chamber. It can be used in the locker room without raising an eyebrow. It also is appropriate before shooting stages when practicing on the range.

     Officers should practice magazine changes as often as they practice shooting. This can be accomplished anywhere, even while watching one's favorite television show. Use a product that positively blocks the chamber, like the Rovatec Bullite. This product delivers a visible laser pulse when it is hit by a firing pin. The laser fits into the chamber like a bullet. There is a tube that screws from the end of the barrel, making it impossible to chamber anything else.

     Range instructors should deliberately include drills that require magazine changes. Officers should be required to shoot scenarios with multiple engagements that exceed the capacity of a single magazine. Instructors should not require a magazine change at a particular point. Instead, officers should be told to keep their gun ready for duty throughout the training. Any officer who completes a scenario, scans and reholsters deserves the verbal abuse of his fellow officers when he shoots his gun dry after two rounds in the next scenario.

     Holstering an empty or partially filled gun is a serious tactical error. If peer pressure makes this painful, it may at least prevent a real-life tragedy.

     Mastering the magazine may seem like a minor shooting skill, but essential for winning the fight.

Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches Administration of Justice at Hartnell College in Salinas, California. He may be reached at