Springfield 1911 and spare magazine

Summary Video: Should You Carry A Spare Magazine?

Normally on Make Up Your Mind Monday, I try to play the neutral third party and do my best to fairly present both sides of an issue that causes some controversy in the shooting community. Today is a little different.

In researching the topic of carrying a spare magazine, almost every resource was either an explanation of how to carry a spare mag or an attempt to convince you of all the reasons why you are a walking dead man if you don’t. There are a few dissenting voices, but usually as an incidental part of a discussion on a different topic. So this post is mostly in defense of the idea that maybe carrying a spare magazine isn’t always necessary.

Why Carry a Spare Magazine?

I’m not trying to make a case that carrying a reload with your concealed carry pistol is a bad idea. There are some compelling reasons that support the practice. First, if you have to use your carry gun in self-defense, there is always a chance that you’ll need more ammo than what’s in your pistol. There are documented cases where this has happened, so it’s not just the stuff of tactical fan-boy fantasy camp. Whether it’s a five shot J-frame revolver or a Glock 17 with a 17-round magazine, you can run out of ammo before the fight is over, leaving you in a very vulnerable position. The mere possibility of this happening is reason enough for many people to carry extra rounds. How tragic would it be to carry a gun with you every day and train diligently every weekend, only to meet your end because you were jumped by multiple attackers and didn’t have enough ammo to fend them all off? Some might even think you’re an idiot if that possibility wasn’t enough to convince you to strap on a spare mag with your carry gun.

The other big reason for carrying a spare is the problem of malfunctions. All semi-autos malfunction eventually, and in many cases, the only way to clear the malfunction is with a spare magazine. Without this recourse available, the jammed gun becomes worthless. At the shooting range, it’s an irritating inconvenience. “On the street”, it could be deadly. For me, this reason is far less convincing than the first, but I’ll come back to that in a future post later this week.

The Downside of Carrying a Spare Magazine

Many proponents of carrying spare ammo make their case as if there are no disadvantages. It could save your life, so why not do it? The same reason I don’t wear a racing helmet in my car when I commute to work. It’s an enormous inconvenience, and one I have a hard time justifying, even though there is a slight chance that my choice could be lethal.

Spare mags are just as difficult to conceal as an entire pistol, and in many cases, even more uncomfortable. Revolver speed loaders are even bulkier, except maybe speed strips, which take an eternity to use. On top of that, the selection of magazine carriers is not nearly as broad and diverse as gun holsters. There are only a handful of styles available, and not all of them make the magazine particularly accessible for someone who might be in a hurry because they’re, you know, being shot at.

This inconvenience factor will vary from one person to the next, based on body type, style of dress, size of the magazine, tolerance for having sharp bits of metal poking one’s rib cage all day, and the amount of time and money one is willing to spend on various “experiments” until the ideal setup is discovered. If carrying a spare mag is “no big deal” to you, then by all means go for it. But understand that you are in the minority, and most of us will struggle with effective concealment, comfort, or both.

Risk Assessment

So what it comes down to is whether that inconvenience is worth the cost of your life. At least that’s what some people would have you believe. In reality, it’s a simple risk assessment problem in which you have to weigh the inconvenience of carrying a spare magazine against the probability that you will actually need to use it.

We all make similar risk assessments whether we realize it or not. Your perception of the probability that you’ll need your gun for self-defense helps you determine what kind of gun to carry, capacity, caliber, holster placement, and how much money you spent on the whole thing. Some of you probably even think that you always err on the side of safety and personal protection, but I know that’s not true because, along with your race helmet, you would be wearing soft body armor under your suit for your commute to the office. Everyone has a limit where safety is eventually trumped by convenience, comfort, money, time, or social acceptability, it’s just a matter of determining where that limit lies.

The Problem of Data

Part of the reason each of our personal risk assessments vary so widely (besides being highly irrational creatures driven by personal bias and emotion) is because we don’t have a very clear idea of our actual risk exposure. Especially not in terms we can quantify. The “data” available for civilian defensive gun uses is not so much real scientific data but a collection of stories gathered from a potpourri of sources, each with their own spin and selection biases at play. In the shooting and self-defense world, we’re most likely to share stories about the good guy gun owner taking out another scumbag criminal. The instances when the gun owner’s efforts just weren’t enough to save his life don’t make for good storytelling in the shooting community, so they are most often ignored (if they even make the news to begin with). The stories we have access to are great for creating proof that guns do save lives almost every day. But taken alone, those stories are a poor tool for the kind of research that should drive our tactics and risk assessment.

On the other hand, we hear plenty of anecdotes from the law enforcement world involving criminals who just love punishment and refuse to die, soaking up one round after another in a protracted gun battle that involves multiple emptied magazines on both sides. These stories are sometimes used as cautionary tales as reinforcement for various techniques and practices in the self-defense and LEO community. But the risks faced by law enforcement are not the same as the reality of the average concealed carry permit holder. A criminal may decide to fight a law officer where he would flee from an armed citizen. The stakes are higher when the criminal faces the threat of capture, and that sometimes brings out the kind of desperate fight-to-the-death attitude that you see in the men in the stories linked above.

It’s not that armed citizens never find themselves up against determined attackers, only that it’s rare. I am not a cop, and when cherry-picked anecdotes from law enforcement are used as evidence for why the average CCW permit holder needs to carry a reload, I don’t find them to be very convincing.

The Un-Scientific Method

Unfortunately, it looks like the best we can do is for each of us to develop our own methodology for determining our true exposure to risk. So for what it’s worth, when it comes to carrying a spare magazine, here is the quick and dirty version of the completely unscientific rationale that I have come up with for myself:

  1. Most people who carry a concealed weapon will never need to use it in self-defense. The number who will is almost certainly far less than 1%
  2. Of that small minority that are forced to use their gun, most will never have to fire it before the attacker flees.
  3. Out of the conflicts that require shots to be fired, most attackers will either be stopped or will flee after the first few shots (including misses).
  4. An extremely small minority of reported civilian defensive gun uses involve a high round count or a magazine change.
  5. I live in a low-crime area, don’t go to high-crime areas, don’t do drugs, rarely drink, don’t pick fights, don’t hang out with people who are prone to getting into trouble, and haven’t pissed off the mob. I also have small children at home which means I rarely have the opportunity to even leave the house after dark. That eliminates nearly all of the major factors that most often raise one’s exposure to risk of violent attack.

Considering all of the above, many people would ask why I even feel the need to carry a gun to begin with. I’ll save the answer to that for another day, but suffice it to say, I don’t usually find it necessary to carry a spare magazine. I have magazine carriers and I practice reloading with them, but rarely carry them because it’s a pain and I don’t think the risk merits it.

Your personal risk assessment criteria will probably not be the same as mine, but like mine, it will contain biases and approximations based on the sketchy anecdotal evidence that you’ve been exposed to. Whatever you decide, own the decision and know why you’re making it.

Reloading for Malfunction Clearance

For those of you just skimming over the sub-headings, I mentioned earlier that I will cover the issue of carrying a spare magazine to clear malfunctions in a post later this week. But I promise, for those of you who are pro-spare magazine, it will be 74% less rage-inducing, guaranteed!


Leave a Comment Below