Reloading a pistol is simple — take out the empty magazine and stick in a fully loaded one. But this process seems so trivial on the surface that many shooters overlook the fact that there is a technique involved in performing a pistol reload quickly and smoothly. As I’ll discuss below, armed citizens very rarely reload (or even have the need to reload) in actual violent encounters. However, in the few instances I’ve seen of mid-fight reloads from surveillance camera footage, it often takes the person 10-15 seconds or more to get the empty gun ready again, and typically involves lots of fumbling. In the middle of a violent attack, 10 seconds is an eternity.

I will not argue that you should devote a large portion of your limited training time to perfecting your reloading technique, but it’s an easy skill to learn at a basic level, and a vitally important skill to have if you actually need it. Take a few minutes to watch the video or read the transcript that follows for a quick tutorial on some basic semi-auto reloading techniques.


The need to reload a pistol rarely comes up in actual defensive shootings, especially if you’re not in law enforcement. It’s not a skill I would suggest you prioritize or spend a ton of dedicated practice time on unless you’re interested in competition. But, just like I said with the shotgun reload a few weeks ago, since you have to reload the gun when you’re at the range anyway, you might as well learn and practice a technique that can be used in a defensive context. You don’t necessarily need a lightning fast reload, but you should be able to do it smoothly and consistently without fumbling. So let’s take a look at some techniques.

Emergency Reload

If the gun has been fired until it’s empty and the slide is locked back, we need to do an emergency reload.

 
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The first step is to drop your elbow down and bring the gun inward toward your chin. At the same time, rotate it as if you were going to look through the trigger guard. But you don’t actually want it up at eye-level. The gun should be just below eye level so you can keep your head up and maintain awareness of what’s going on around you.

While you’re doing that, move the thumb of your shooting hand to the magazine release and press it to drop the mag. If you can’t reach it with that thumb, use your support hand thumb. If you’re left handed and you don’t have an ambidextrous mag release, you can use the middle finger or trigger finger of your left hand to drop the mag. Once that magazine is empty, it’s useless. It is dead to you now, so let it drop to the ground. On the off chance the magazine does not drop free for some reason, use your support hand to rip it out and drop it. With most modern pistols, it should drop just fine.

While that’s going on with your shooting hand, use your support hand to grab a fresh magazine. It will probably be in a pouch on your belt. It should be upside down with the bullets facing forward. You might have it stowed in the front of your belt at the 11 o’clock position, or it may be more to the side, or behind your hip. Wherever you keep it, orient the mag with the bullets pointing toward your belt buckle so you can grab the mag with your index finger along the front. You want the tip of your finger almost touching the top round in the mag. This is going to help you guide the magazine in. Bring the magazine toward the gun and look at the the open mag well as you guide the magazine in. Once the mag is partially inserted, use the palm of your hand to firmly seat it in place.

Keep the support hand moving up to the slide. Use an overhand grip to grab the rear of the slide, push the gun forward with the firing hand and let go with the support hand to chamber a round. Now you just have to reacquire a two-hand grip and keep shooting, or if there is no more threat, go to a low ready and reassess the situation.

Alternative: Using the Slide Release

There are a lot of different variations to those steps, but most techniques for the emergency reload will follow that basic pattern. I do want to address one alternative for chambering a round once you’ve got that magazine in there. Instead of going overhand to rack the slide, you can also use your thumb to hit the slide release, also called the slide lock or slide stop on some pistols. You can shave a few tenths of a second off your reload time by doing it this way, but there are a few disadvantages.

 
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First, the slide release is not in the same spot on every pistol and sometimes the lever can be very small or hard to activate. So, for example, if I were to train a lot with this Beretta, which has a slide release that’s really big and easy to use, but then my everyday carry gun was a Smith & Wesson Shield, which has a very small and stiff slide release, the muscle memory I’ve developed here is not necessarily going to carry over. I might have a hard time doing that reload under stress with the smaller gun. Another issue is that when you use the slide release, you also run the risk of closing the slide before the magazine is completely seated. That means you won’t actually have a round in the chamber, but you probably won’t know that until you try to fire. So using the overhand rack method is a little slower, but it’s more reliable and it’ll work with any pistol out there.

Now, having said that, I think people get way too worked up over which method is better. I actually use the slide release most of the time because that’s just how I learned to perform a reload years ago, and even when I’ve tried to train myself to rack the slide instead, the second I run a drill on the timer or induce even the slightest bit of stress, I automatically revert back to hitting the slide release. So I’ve just decided to embrace it because it works well for me, but it’s not what I would recommend for everybody.

Auto-Forward

What you really don’t want to do is ram the magazine in so hard that you trip the slide release without even touching it. Sometimes that’s called auto-forward. This happens occasionally with some pistols, often polymer framed guns and 1911s, and it is not a feature, it’s a defect. It very frequently results in a closed slide with an empty chamber, and even when it doesn’t, it’s not a reliable enough technique to count on it working every time, because the gun is not designed to be reloaded that way. If you’re really going for maximum speed, using the slide release is not any slower.

 
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Proactive Reload

Instead of an emergency reload, you may also need to perform a speed reload, or I prefer the term proactive reload. This one is used when you’ve fired a few rounds and the gun is not empty but now there is no longer any immediate threat. The bad guy is down or he’s run away, but there’s always a chance for something else to happen. Maybe that guy who ran off is about to come running back with one of his buddies. It’s not likely, but it’s possible, and if you have a spare magazine, it would be a good idea to top off that gun. So just like the emergency reload, you bring the gun in toward your chin, but instead of dropping the mag right away, wait until you have the fresh magazine right up next to the gun, and then make the switch so that there’s a minimum amount of time with no mag in the gun.

The odds of needing to reload are small, but it’s not difficult to learn how to do properly just in case you are one of the unlucky few who has to use that skill for real.


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  • Greyson

    I don’t understand the advice of rotating the pistol sideways during an emergency reload. It does seem like something that would happen naturally, but I don’t see it conferring an advantage that would make it a desirable/necessary deliberate action. What is the advantage/purpose of the rotation?

    • It makes it much easier to see the magazine well and insert the magazine and also allows you to keep the gun up high so you don’t have to look down at your navel to see what you’re doing.

  • Vosh Sahaal

    Bad tactifool. Slingshot is stronger and prevents blowing off a finger. And yes that is common.

  • TRUBRIT

    IMHO I believe it is wrong to bring the pistol in and down and look at it while reloading. When I speed reload my eye stays on the target/threat and the pistol stays up and pointed in that direction. The gun stays still after the mag has relaeased so the only thing moving is your hand bringing the spare mag to it. I shoot a 1911 and hit the mag release as I am reaching for the spare mag. Using the trusted method of your forefinger along the front of the magazine, this will find the magwell. You have to practice speed reloads so it becomes natural and you are not looking at the gun or the magazine. You are allowing body mechanics and muscle memory to take over and are not allowing your eyes to process and possibly screw up the action. Another consequence of looking at your gun and not the threat is that the threat may move in any direction. By the time your eyes are back up, your target is no longer where it was.
    Three things to improve your mag change…Dry Practice….Dry Practice…..Dry Practice..

    • Stew Pidasso

      TRUBRIT, the chances of needing the reload are rare in most self-defense situations. Also, I don’t believe most people will “dry practice” reloads, no matter how good that idea is. Keeping the gun at or just below eye level allows the persons peripheral vision to pick up an assailants movements while reloading. Although you have a valid point, it won’t apply to most people… they will not put the time in to make reloading “second nature.” If you are going to look at your pistol while reloading, IMHO, eye level is the place to have it.

      • kyew

        Those are almost exactly my thoughts on the subject. Using your peripheral vision to perform a reload is shoddy and prone to mistakes. You don’t need precision to ascertain that a target is moving in any direction, but you do need it to ensure a swift and flawless reload.

    • kyew

      The thing with the method shown here (and I have to admit, it wasn’t really done justice by this video) is that your eyes aren’t looking down; they’re looking at the pistol and mag well, and seeing beyond that to the target “downrange”. You’re focused on the reload, but seeing the target in the distance. You don’t need to see details in the distance – you already know they’re a threat, and any movement toward you can be seen easily. Use your focus to perform the reload flawlessly.

    • I don’t think the issue of where your eyes are focused is nearly as important as it is made out to be. The few instances of reloads I’ve seen and read about in actual violent encounters, the problem is that the reload itself gets botched and takes forever. Losing awareness of what’s going on downrange ends up being a bi-product of a 15 second reload disaster. Really though, most of the time a reload is necessary at all, it’s from missing the target. I would rather invest my practice hours in getting quick, accurate hits out of the holster than work on the perfect reload technique, even if it means looking down at the gun for a second and a half.

      • TRUBRIT

        LG, I agree statistics say that reloads are unlikely, but I would hate to become an exception. I believe practicing speed reloads is a part of good weapon handling, and then hope you never have need of it. El Presedente is always fun, 10 m and 10 secs. Try at 7m and 7 secs. Gets the heart racing.
        On a side note I read an article that one Duty Cop now goes out on Patrol with well over 100 rds on him every time. This is due to him being in an extended gun fight with a perp who would not go down. He expended everything he had on him at that time. The guy was doped up and after action showed he had potentially stopping hits but he did not go down.
        Each to his own but I try and practice all techniques and at differect ranges, even though Statistics show gunfights are usually within 5 yards.

        • TRUBRIT

          Correction, the Perp in the story had no alcohol or drugs in his system. Anyone still think it is a waste of time practicing reloading?

          • TRUBRIT

            I had posted a link to the story but I guess you cannot post links on here. He normally carried 47 rounds and was going through his 3 Rd mag when the Perp finally went down. Now he carries 145 9mm rounds every time he goes on patrol.

          • Comments with links require approval before they go live. Your link should be showing up now. I’m very familiar with the story and have even referenced it in past articles. It is a good example of the fact that when you do need that reload, you *really* need it. That said, as others have pointed out elsewhere, the real key takeaway in that story should not be the number of rounds the officer is now carrying. The pivotal moment in the whole encounter is toward the end when he says “Then I told myself, ‘Hey, I need to slow down and aim better.’” He had been firing at the suspect’s “center mass” but that wasn’t working. He continued doing it anyway, and it wasn’t until he changed tactics and tried a carefully aimed headshot that he was able to end the fight. Accuracy was a much bigger problem for him than reload speed.
            Most of us have very limited time and resources to dedicate to firearms training and practice. I don’t think working on your reload is a waste of time at all, but I believe the average armed citizen would be best served by prioritizing the skills that are most likely to be needed. Getting effective hits on target with the first shots should be at the top of the list, and should probably occupy the majority of that time. Reloading is on the list too, but should be toward the bottom, with an emphasis on simple reloading techniques that are easy to remember and easy to execute without conscious thought.

          • TRUBRIT

            Agreed. Thanks LG

  • kyew

    From the second video – emergency reload – it seems having an easily accessible placement of your spare mags deserves a mention. The guy seemed to be groping like he was unsure where they were.

    • Move jacket aside, lift cover garment, grab mag. Nope, no groping required.

      • kyew

        Maybe it was just seeing it in slow motion, but it does appear the guy (is that you?) is having a problem finding a mag.

        As for your rebuttal that groping isn’t required, I see no evidence of any claim that it is required.

        • Yes, that’s me. No trouble finding the mag. Viewing at 40% speed does tend to exaggerate small movements.

  • 9mm

    I carry my spare mag @ the 9:00 position with the bullets facing rearward. It seems to eliminate rotating the wrist to pick up the magazine and then rotating the wrist back again to insert it.

  • Rick McC.

    I’ve been using the described “auto forward” reload when shooting any of my M&P9’s or 9c for going on 10 years now without a hitch during several training classes, and countless IDPA matches and practices.

    I personally consider the ability to do that a “feature,” and not a “defect.”

    • Depending on what generation of the mags you’re using and how many rounds are loaded in them, auto-forward on the M&P may not work reliably, or may not work at all. The slide stop on the M&P 2.0 has been redesigned to prevent auto-forward completely.

      • Rick McC.

        I know; that’s why I have no interest in purchasing a “2.0.”

        The one’s I have that “auto load” are:
        M&P9 made in 07/2007
        M&P9 made in 07/2013
        M&P9 made in 12/2013
        All will auto load with either full 17 round mags, or those loaded with 10 or 11 rounds (IDPA capacities).

        To each their own, I suppose.

        My wife also could reliably auto load hers (the 07/2007 one) as soon as I showed her, and used it continually during her 1500 round count weekend training course. So; it definitely “ain’t rocket science.”

        Edit: The mags used range from four made back in ’07, to about a dozen more made in 2013 and 2014.

        • I’m glad it works for you. I have seen multiple M&Ps that will auto-forward but frequently failed to chamber a round.

          • Dalton

            I had a Glock 17 that would auto-forward on occasion. This was after many years of hard use however. I traded it in after it became more common. Don’t trust it to work every time. I know S&W advises against uses the auto-forward to chamber a round.

  • mandobug

    Good article, lots to think about. What is your gun in the videos?

    • Beretta PX4 Compact

      • Joe Littleton

        The Auto-Forward is an M&P 9

  • Niko Kapopoulos

    What mag pouch were you using in the video?