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.


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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