It is difficult to overestimate the importance of repetition in training. Ever since the Newhall, CA shootout in 1969, when officers were found with empty revolver cartridge casings in their pockets and live shotgun rounds were ejected onto the ground, trainers have been emphasizing that what you do in training is probably what you will do under real threat conditions. However, in an effort to make your actions under stress as repeatable and useful as possible, we occasionally try to make them as simple as possible--the "KISS" principle. In the process, some things we teach become so inflexible that they lose touch with the fact that life isn't simple, and you're not stupid. People mean well when they try to make your training as uncomplicated as possible, but a dogmatic approach to the use of firearms to save your life can leave you short on options when you may need them the most. Lately, for example, I've been hearing a lot of discussion about the "proper" way to manipulate the slide on a semi-automatic pistol. This is just one specific operation, but it sure seems to generate a lot of, shall we say, enthusiastic debate. Since this illustrates my point so nicely, let's see where it leads us.
There are basically two schools of thought on the matter. One is that the proper way to manipulate the slide to load or reload the gun is to grasp the slide with your support hand, pull it to the rear and release it. The other is to push down on the slide release lever, assuming of course that the slide is locked to the rear in the first place. Where I get tangled up in these arguments is when someone insists that their way is the ONLY proper way. There are excellent reasons for each technique, but when I see only one method being taught, I get concerned for your welfare. The truth is, you better know how to do both. Let's look at the options and see how they are applied.
Pull back the slide
First up, pulling on the slide. There are a couple of ways to do this. One is to grasp the slide with the support hand, palm down over the top of the slide. This is a fairly natural movement of the arm and allows for the slide to be securely grasped by the fingers on one side and the palm of the hand on the other. Just tug the slide to the rear and you're done. This works whether the slide is locked back or not, is very positive and is a "gross motor skill" movement. The down side? Well, if you are using a gun with a stiff recoil spring (and maybe even having to push against a hammer mainspring) that must be overcome, the tendency is to turn the gun so the forearms are aligned and the arms can push reciprocally against each other. The muzzle of the gun then ends up pointing at your own elbow, or someone next to you. If you forgot to keep your finger off the trigger, the possibility of serious injury is considerable. You must always be aware of the orientation of the gun when you are using this method.
You must also be aware of the placement of your hand on the top of the slide. Never put your hand near the muzzle OR the ejection port of the pistol. The muzzle part should be obvious, so let's talk about the ejection port. If you are in the habit of using this method and you need to clear a jam, your hand can block the port and keep an offending cartridge from falling out of the gun. Worse yet, you can cause a loose cartridge to fall back onto the feed ramp and be pushed into the chamber backwards. If this happens, it can only be cleared by sticking something down the barrel from the muzzle end. This is not easily done during a gunfight. And, even worse yet, if you are trying to clear a live round out of the chamber and the primer hits the ejector, your hand will take the hit when the grenade-like detonation of the cartridge occurs. Take a look at your gun and see how little room there really is on the top of the slide for your hand to encircle it without getting too close to the muzzle or the ejection port. If this is the only technique you know, it will not translate well from simply loading the firearm to clearing jams.
The second option for the slide tugging methods is the "slingshot." This is where the slide is grasped from the rear with the thumb on one side and the fingers (led by the index finger) are on the other side. You pull back on the slide and release it as if you were shooting a slingshot, and you're in business. This solves the problem of getting your support hand too close to the muzzle or the ejection port and, to me at least, seems like a much more sensible approach. It also keeps things open when trying to clear jams AND you aren't going to accidentally point the gun at yourself or anyone next to you. However, if you happen to have weak hands or wrists, you may have trouble gripping the slide hard enough to pull it to the rear. If your hands are slippery, you may not be able to maintain a solid hold. And if you are trying to clear the chamber, the cartridges may not fall free. However, this method is greatly enhanced if you simply rotate the gun on its bore axis, so that the ejection port is facing down and to the side. For a right hander, this would mean rotating the top of the slide from the 12 o'clock to the 8 o'clock position, or 12 to 4 for a leftie. Now the arms align in a strong position behind the gun, anything in the feed ramp area can fall free and you have more strength in pulling the slide to the rear. In fact, you can put your entire body behind the movement, much like throwing a punch with your gun hand while pulling to the rear with your support hand. This has helped many shooters with hand or arm strength problems, and gives them a safe alternative to the hand-over-top method.
The slide release method
The alternative to the slide tugging techniques is to simply push down on the slide release. This only works, of course, when loading or reloading from slide lock. The minus column on this one includes such things as the design of the slide release itself and its location. SIG Sauer slide releases are near the rear of the slide, while most others are more centrally located, above the trigger guard. Glock doesn't even call theirs a slide release, because they only advocate pulling the slide to the rear. They call the part that locks the slide back a "slide stop lever." It works just like a slide release. Both Glock and the SIG pistols have fairly low-profile slide stop/release levers, and the Glocks are an especially good candidate for an extended slide stop replacement. I have changed them on all of mine. On the plus side? Well, for one, if you ARE starting from slide lock, it is absolutely the fastest way to get a round chambered and get back on target. Either of the slide tugging methods require your support hand to move through a reciprocating arc of almost three feet before it is back on the gun as the support hand. Check out how the best competitive shooters do this. But, some say, "that's a fine motor skill that will not hold up during body alarm reaction." Well, okay, hold your hands as if you are grasping a gun, with your thumbs pointing up. Now close them down into your fists. The closing motion of our opposable thumbs is, in fact, one of our most instinctive motor skills. The thumbs just push down on the lever on the way past. But the single most compelling reason for being able to release the slide in this fashion? It works one-handed. If you only train with the slide tugging methods, what you are going to do when your support hand isn't available? You have two choices. Use the slide release, or find something to push against with the rear sight or ejection port of the slide. (You need to know how to do that too, as well as reloading one-handed, but I'm running out of room here.)
Life is rarely simple and, as Clint Smith often says, a gunfight will be what it is. We need to be prepared to be successful in whatever circumstances are presented. Certainly people have a preferred method of doing any task. But to teach or practice one method to the exclusion of all others is to limit your options at a time when options may make the difference. As I said at the beginning, it isn't simple, and you're not stupid. Make sure you spend some of your training time on each of your options. Then, they'll be there when the computer between your ears starts searching for a program to handle the mess you are facing. You never want the answer to be: "File not found."