How Much Ammo Is Enough?

Aug. 29, 2023
Whether on duty or off duty, you make the decision every day on how much ammunition you need to carry. What's the right amount depending on the situation?

Keeping in mind that the selection of a defensive handgun is personal, it only makes sense that the selection of ammunition to feed it and how much of that ammunition to carry is equally personal. And as we discuss how much ammo is “enough,” it’s important to realize that it changes depending on circumstance, outlook and potential perceived threat.

In the early 1980s when most law enforcement officers were still carrying revolvers, it was common for off-duty guns to be 5- or 6-shot snubnose revolvers. It was just as common for off-duty officers (or plain clothes officers or Chiefs and command staff) to carry a single speed loader or speed strip for reload. What that meant, all total, is that the off-duty officer usually had somewhere between 10 and 18 rounds of ammo for whatever might be encountered.

In today’s world, even a small semi-auto chambered in 9mm carries a minimum of six rounds, and more often than not, it’s got 10+ in the magazine. Carrying that small 9mm and even just one backup magazine means 20 rounds of ammo available.

That’s all off-duty discussion… but what about on duty? The typical on-duty load out is a full handgun and two spare magazines. With most duty weapons holding 17 rounds per magazine, a fully stoked handgun has 18 rounds and there’s 34 more on the belt. Some officers feel like two spare magazines aren’t enough, so they carry a third or even fourth magazine, on their vest, in a cargo pocket, somewhere.

When they’re seen and all the magazines recognized, some officers, especially the older ones, tend to snicker or laugh. After all, what could possibly happen that an officer would need so much ammo? What they forget is that at some point in their past, for whatever reason, on some random assignment, they felt the need to have a few more rounds as well, so they loaded a few more magazines, or they put a couple extra speedloaders in their pockets. So they get judgmental, completely forgetting that small nagging feeling we sometimes all get that says, “Maybe today… something might go sideways. Prepare a bit more; carry a little extra.”

When you ask yourself, “What’s enough?” you have to consider the totality of circumstances you expect during the day or assignment. In every officer’s jurisdiction there are good spots and bad spots, the high crime areas and lower crime areas. While it may not be logical because the chances of something going sideways are always there, there is a human tendency to prepare less when the threat is perceived as less – and vice versa.

As a general rule, those long-experienced officers and trainers who share their outlook will say that you should always carry a fully stoked handgun and at least one backup magazine. That’s an odd thought when you considering you might have 15+ rounds just in your loaded handgun. That’s the same as a standard 1911 .45ACP with eight in the gun and a spare 7-round magazine. So, why carry a spare magazine if you already have 15+ in the gun?

Because you just never know. Many an emergency responder has lived by two rules that have served them well:

Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.

Two is one, one is none.

What are the lessons? Redundancy and preparedness. The two things we can never get away from is our feeling of responsibility and our sense of duty. Those drive us to make sure we always have what we feel is necessary to deal with emergency threats that might arise.

To that end, “how much is enough?” is best answered with, “Whatever you think is enough… plus one.” So when you’re leaving your house and thinking that what you have in your handgun is enough, grab the spare magazine. When you’re going on duty with two spare magazines on your belt, find a place to tuck away that third magazine, either on your person or easily accessible within reach from your driver’s seat. Yes, folks might snicker or giggle, but the fact that they’ll likely do it behind your back indicates they’re not sure of their own outlook. If they snicker to your face, embrace the opportunity to explain why.

About the Author

Lt. Frank Borelli (ret), Editorial Director | Editorial Director

Lt. Frank Borelli is the Editorial Director for the Officer Media Group. Frank brings 20+ years of writing and editing experience in addition to 40 years of law enforcement operations, administration and training experience to the team.

Frank has had numerous books published which are available on,, and other major retail outlets.

If you have any comments or questions, you can contact him via email at [email protected].

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