Every skill has a number of foundational tasks that you have to be able to perform and reloads are one of those foundational skills in shooting…up to a point.
We’re certainly inundated with images of people performing them; most shooting courses cover them, and they’re a part of any qualification course of fire, including for practical pistol/practical shooting sports…
…but it’s also the case that most people who have a gun for any reason are never going to be in any situation where life depends on performing one.
This isn’t a message to say, “reloads are dumb; just practice the draw.” The point is to think about what you’re practicing, why you’re practicing it, and what actual good it does you in reaching your goals as a shooter.
Self-Defense Shootings Almost Never Involve A Reload…But Do Sometimes
If you look at what the experts in civilian self-defense shootings say about it, one thing they all agree on is that armed citizens just do not get in gunfights that involve a tactical or emergency reload. They just don’t.
John Correia of Active Self Protection has stated repeatedly that he has never seen one in any of the videos he’s watched of a shooting involving an armed citizen.
Claude Werner – the “Tactical Professor” – compiled several years’ worth of incidents using “The Armed Citizen” column in NRA publications and found only three incidents involving a reload. One of them was an instance where a zookeeper/animal trainer had to empty several cylinders of a .32 revolver into a lion that was attempting to escape.
Going through Massad Ayoob’s work (including “The Ayoob Files,” archived on several websites) yielded two examples.
First is the Harry Beckwith incident, where a gun store owner sprayed a gang of robbers with two magazines of a 9mm SMG as suppressive fire, as well as two magazines from an AR-15. Aimed semi-auto fire – shocker – scored the only hits in the incident.
Second was at least two of the gunfights of Lance Thomas, a Los Angeles jeweler who triumphed in multiple gunfights, at least two of which required dropping an empty gun and grabbing one of the many staged pistols around his shop. (One such incident emptied three revolvers into his attackers.) Toward the end of his career, Thomas was never more than three feet from a handgun.
However, it’s also worth noting that while reloads are rare, Massad Ayoob has also found a number of incidents where a gun with a carrying capacity of 10 rounds or less was shot dry. Revolvers and GI 1911s in .45 ACP are commonly emptied…but standard capacity pistols (meaning those with the ordinary capacity of 15+1) with 10-round magazines were too.
The point? Reloads do occur in shooting incidents involving armed citizens but only in very rare circumstances indeed…but they become more likely to be needed if carrying/using a lower-capacity weapon.
Fundamentals And Your Goals
Any skill involves a certain number of fundamental aspects that you have to get good at. It doesn’t matter what it is: shooting, playing an instrument, driving, whatever. There’s going to be a number of different skills you have to gain competency with, but at a certain point, you need to evaluate how much those fundamentals apply to what you want to do.
If you want to learn to play AC/DC songs or Top 40 country on guitar, you probably don’t need to know that much about music theory. A concert pianist should know what the Locrian mode is, but it doesn’t really matter when He Stopped Loving Her Today.
Emergency and tactical reloads are absolutely fundamental skills in practical shooting. The question is how relevant they are for you.
Consider Your Context And Train Accordingly
From what a person can gather about the probability of needing to reload if you ever need to use a gun to defend yourself, it’s not likely. Still, it does become more likely if you carry a smaller capacity weapon or work in a higher-risk profession.
Therefore, reloads are – realistically – probably not the highest training priority for the average person, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a skill you shouldn’t have some competence with.
However, it’s also worth pointing out that that conclusion is highly contextual. That’s if the only use for a gun that you have is keeping one in the home or carrying it for defensive purposes.
What about practical shooting competitions? Reloads will all but surely be involved on any stage in USPSA/IPSC, IDPA, NRA Action, and so on, so you absolutely need to practice them.
A police officer has a much higher probability of needing to reload during an OIS. Soldiers will all but assuredly have to reload in a gunfight.
So, how important is practicing reloads? It really depends on you. Again, the point here isn’t to really dive into the topic of reload drills, but more to stress the idea of realistically assessing your context and building your practice and training around skills that will derive the greatest benefit.