Pistol RELOADS: Methods, Considerations, and Magazine Tips

Pistol RELOADS: Methods, Considerations, and Magazine Tips

Pistol RELOADS: Methods, Considerations, and Magazine Tips

Congratulations “Fumble Fingers” you just dropped your magazine on the ground and bet your life on the way you reloaded your gun in an encounter with a bad guy or gal. Or, now the mag you let hit the dirt is all gritty and dirty and not functional. Or, you thought you had 10 rounds left in your mag, but there were only 8 in that partially-spent mag. Or, you used one of your non-reliable mags instead of your #1 top-quality feeding mag. Hope you did not take undue risks on a haphazard reloading method, did not execute the reload improperly, or failed to plan ahead. Certainly, it is important to reload your handgun using the best method for getting your gun recharged with fresh rounds in your gun and do it quickly. I have met some in class that have never thought about the need to plan for reloading their gun at all nor what the best method is to do it in different situations. For simplicity, I want to focus here on only semi-automatic pistol reloads. I want to present the 4 major pistol reloads, 7 mag tips, and other ideas to help.

Some strongly prefer one reload method over others and some will definitely not do any reload that involves manipulating two mags in one hand at the same time. The type of gun you are using, the capacity of the particular mag, your motor skills and dexterity, training, and the situational factors affect your choice of reload method, the steps used, and how efficiently and safely you can accomplish it. Everybody seems to have an opinion on which is the best method, the exact steps to follow, and how to properly do the reload. Some say that there are really only 2 practical methods to even consider and other methods are not helpful. Some say avoid the Tactical Reload at all costs. Some solely train for the Tactical Reload. For example, should your spent mag be released to the ground or not? Should any mag with rounds left in it be dropped to the ground? Should you take training time away from other necessary training topics to focus on learning a complex reload with two mags in one hand that takes considerable time to master and can easily be performed incorrectly? Should you put your partially-spent mag in your mag pouch or pocket? Certainly from the start, know the capacity of your Carry mags for your specific gun, know their reliability, and know if there is a round in the chamber or not. By keeping track of the number of shots you fire, you can know approximately how many rounds you have left. But, in the “heat of the battle” this may be very difficult for you, so plan ahead, identify and label your mags, know their capacities, define ahead what is your standard for a “fairly full” mag and generally the opportune time to change it (very difficult to do specifically, given many situations), and practice as much as possible a standard method for a quick reload from muscle memory. Hopefully, you will not have to shoot all rounds in your mag and shoot to slide lock in a deadly-force encounter. If I do not have a solid feel on how much time I have left in the action, I always reload quickly. There are considerations for using each method and there are some common tips for a safe, appropriate, and efficient reload. I want to explore 4 types of pistol Reloads, briefly summarize some steps and considerations for each, and offer some suggested magazine tips to help you.

The 4 major gun Reload Methods are:

1. EMERGENCY RELOAD (ER) or Slide-Lock Reload;





Place Index Finger of Support Hand on Front Strap of Mag to Help Guide Mag into Mag Well
Place Index Finger of Support Hand on Front Strap of Mag to Help Guide Mag into Mag Well

EMERGENCY RELOAD (ER) or Slide-Lock Reload

This occurs when the pistol’s slide is locked back, all rounds have been fired from the mag and chamber, and the gun runs out of ammo. There is not a round left in the chamber and the gun and mag are empty. An ER can also be done when there is a malfunction or stoppage emergency. Recognize that most properly operating semi-auto pistol slides will lock back to the rear after the last round is fired and the mag is empty and must be loaded again. So, you press the mag release to release the empty mag, insert the new fully-loaded mag by placing your index finger of your support hand on the front of the mag to guide it, and then release the slide forward. 


This occurs when the mag is NOT empty, the slide is forward and not locked back, and the gun is in battery with a round in the chamber. The partially-spent mag is released from the gun and allowed to fall to the ground and a new fully-loaded mag is placed into the gun. The idea behind the SR is to keep your pistol completely loaded to full capacity and to quickly recharge it during a dangerous encounter, when you have a quick chance in the gunfight or encounter to do so. It is done when you have a temporary calm interval, lull, or lack of activity or movement. Your gun is still in battery or loaded. Remember, this can be done when you have the time to SAFELY and QUICKLY reload, even when the threat or danger level is very imminent. BE CAREFUL with the SR. Some question whether or not you should do a SR dropping the partially-loaded mag to the ground. While the ER and SR are similar, there is a difference between a SR which drops a partially-loaded mag to the ground and an ER which ejects an empty mag. With the SR, during the lull you need to get your gun loaded with as much ammo as you can and back in use very quickly because your life may directly depend on it. You don’t have time to think and worry about the mag left on the ground, with or without any rounds in it.

I wonder if there really is a “lull” in any emergency or gunfight? If you’re in a gunfight, you’re in a gunfight and there are uncertainties. Another consideration is should you risk ejecting any mag that has rounds left in it? Just a few of my law enforcement friends say maybe there is not ever a lull in a deadly-force encounter. But you should be prepared for reloading during a lull, know your specific mag capacities, and the procedure. Think about what is your acceptable standard for a “fairly full” mag in a gunfight? So many uncertainties exist with major repercussions. Your careful call, but for me if my carry mag holds 10, I will usually consider a reload IF I can do it safely during a lull opportunity to a full mag when it reaches half full or 5 rounds left. Hopefully it will not be necessary since I will have already fired 5 rounds and it will be over by then. Remember the 3-3-3 Rule. Most gunfights involve 3 rounds fired, in 3 seconds, at 3 yards or less. Whenever any mag reaches less than 3 rounds left, I will immediately do a mag reload if possible to do so safely. Again, this varies so much by situation, gun model, number of bad guys/gals, standard mag capacity, threat level, etc. In any event, when you do your SR it’s your decision and the partially-spent magazine falls to the ground to save you some time fumbling with it. I believe that IF (and a big IF) time and situation safely permit, stow your partially-used mag in your pocket, rather than letting it hit the ground. But technically with a SR, the idea is for the mag to hit the ground. I know in IDPA matches, you do not want any partially-loaded mag to be on the ground. Good practice, but consider real world, actual situations with life or death implications. Be safe above everything else and it’s your call, according to your situation and the variables.

Here are the similar procedural STEPS in a ER and SR:

1. Press the mag release with your strong-hand thumb to eject the empty (from slide lock) or partially empty mag to the ground; Keep the gun high center chest (high ready position) near your chin to concurrently scan for threats, improve peripheral vision, and see the target quicker.

NOTE: For a SR, the pro is that the gun is still in battery and loaded with a round in the chamber, so you do not have to rack the slide and there is less manipulation. The con is you have ejected a mag with rounds in it to the ground.

2. Just BEFORE (a short, split second) your strong-hand thumb presses the mag release to release the mag to the ground for a SR (practice this) or ER, your support hand should have grabbed and begun pulling out with a solid grasp a new full mag from your mag pouch, pocket, or where stowed.

NOTE: At the same time you bring your support hand to your hip and pouch to get the new mag, index your strong arm’s elbow inward into the bottom of your rib cage while the gun in your strong hand is angled upwards. At the same time, your strong-hand thumb should move to the mag release button. Of course, left-handed shooters have a different procedure.

3. Grip the full mag in its pouch with your support hand with your index finger extended straight alongside the front strap of the mag to guide it and insert it into the mag well without having to look at the mag if proficient to do so (if not, practice); the tip of your support-hand index finger should touch the top round in the mag.

NOTE: Be certain you have a solid grip on the full mag with your support hand and have started to pull it out of its pouch before you release the mag to eject it. The full mag should be on its way out or out of the pouch just BEFORE (split second) you hit the mag release button. Place the back of the mag into the mag well directly to the rear against the backstrap and with rounds in the mag bullet-end facing forward toward the target.

4. Release the slide forward to rack it by quickly pressing the slide release/lock lever (ER) with your support-hand thumb already in a nearby position after it inserts the mag. OR

5. Move your support hand up in position to quickly rack the slide rearward to chamber a round from the new full mag.

Tactical Reload: Small Fingers & Hand Make It Difficult to Hold 2 Mags in 1 Hand & Manipulate Them
Tactical Reload: Small Fingers & Hand Make It Difficult to Hold 2 Mags in 1 Hand & Manipulate Them


When there is a round in the chamber and you have a partially-spent mag during a break or lull in the action, it may be necessary for you to catch your breath, get oriented, and refresh your partially-filled mag with a fully-filled one, to help with action that follows and the possible additional threats that may require more ammo. The goal is to retain and keep on your person someplace (mag pouch, pocket, back of mag holder, etc.) the mag with the few rounds left in it that you are ejecting, while quickly inserting a new fully-loaded magazine, during the break in action. There may be more action that follows and needsß the ammo. It is best to get to cover first if at all possible or have time to plan your tactics while behind cover.

The shooter gets a new mag with his support hand, moves it toward the gun, releases the mag in the gun to the support hand where it is held at the same time the new mag is inserted into the mag well. The shooter has two mags in his support hand at the same time. BE CAREFUL! You are juggling 2 important life-dependent things at the same time in one hand under stress with dexterity and fine motor skills involved. No pressure! The partially-spent mag is stored in the pocket or elsewhere. A major difference between the SR and TR is that instead of grasping the new mag with the index finger on the mag (SR), you put the new mag between your two middle fingers or between your fourth finger and last/pinky finger (personal preference.) While tightly holding the new mag between your middle fingers (or fourth and last), the shooter grasps the mag being released from the gun with his support hand index finger and thumb. Then you have 2 mags in your support hand. Rotate your support hand to insert the new mag. Stow the partially-empty mag. PRACTICE this a lot and in daylight and at nighttime… IF you use this method. Some quality gun training organizations require two magazines to be manipulated in the same hand, e.g. Thunder Ranch and Gunsite.

You do NOT want the ejected mag to hit the ground or be lost because you want to keep it readily available just in case it is needed later for the encounter and you have time then to access it. Hey, more bad guys/gals may show up. SUCCESS through practice! Generally, it is easier to do this with single-stack mags, but can certainly be done with double-stack mags; both require practice for proficiency. Sadly, I have seen the large majority of mostly new, but also experienced shooters, drop one or both mags or fumble with them for a long time, possibly endangering their lives if in a real-life encounter. Some instructors teach ONLY the Tactical Reload and several students and some experienced shooters do not like it and strongly prefer the next method, Reload with Retention. I’ll get to it next, to help you make your decision. Maybe practice and become proficient in all of these methods under the guidance of a qualified instructor. The major pro for the Tactical Reload is that you have 5 extra rounds or so already in the partially-empty mag for later and have a full mag immediately. The major con is the required fine motor skills and dexterity required.

What Good is a Partially-Loaded Mag Lost on the Ground Someplace? 
What Good is a Partially-Loaded Mag Lost on the Ground Someplace?

Here are the procedural STEPS in a TACTICAL RELOAD: 

1. First, grab the new full mag from your pouch or pocket with your support hand by grasping it with your support-hand thumb and index finger and move it toward your gun’s mag well.

NOTE: The remaining three fingers of your support hand come together to form a closed pouch so they can cradle the ejected partially-spent mag to be ejected from the gun.

2. Second, the partially-empty mag is ejected into your support-hand fingers that are together to form the pocket to catch the ejected mag (NOT to the ground) into your support hand; You may choose to put the mag between your two middle fingers OR your fourth finger and last/pinky finger.) Keep the gun high center chest (high ready position) near your chin to concurrently scan for threats and see the target quicker.

NOTE: You will then have at the same time 2 mags in your support hand, using four of your fingers to control both mags. At the same time you move your support hand to your hip and pouch to get the new mag, index your strong arm’s elbow inward into the bottom of your rib cage while the gun in your strong hand is angled upwards.

3. Insert the new mag held by your support hand’s thumb and index finger into the mag well. Use your support hand’s index finger extended straight alongside the front of the new mag to index and guide it and insert it into the mag well without having to look at the mag if proficient to do so (if not, practice); the tip of your support-hand index finger should touch the top round in the mag.

4. The partially-loaded mag removed from the gun should be stored somewhere on your person, like in your pocket or spare pouch for later access.

5. The gun will still be in battery (loaded), so there is no need to rack the slide rearward to chamber a round.


With rounds still in the magazine and one in the chamber, from a tight, close high-ready retention position, you can first release the partially-loaded mag from the mag well into your support hand, stow it securely in your pocket for later use (NOT on ground), and then get a full mag from your pouch to place in your gun for a RR. This is a very basic and efficient reload method and preferred by many because only one hand (support hand) is used and less stress are involved and you can perform it at your own pace. It is efficient if you can do this at a high ready position and by tactile feel without looking at the gun or mag, so you can scan for other possible threats. This RR is intended to be used when the bad guy/gal’s action has stopped. It is similar to the SR, except the mag in the gun is released FIRST before you grasp your spare mag. The slide is already forward since you reloaded with one already in the chamber. The RR is the most-shooter preferred method, though some disagree. I prefer it myself. 

Here are the procedural STEPS in a RELOAD WITH RETENTION:

1. Eject the partially-loaded mag in the gun into your support hand;

2. Stow it in your pocket or appropriate place on your body with the support hand;

3. Grasp the new fully-loaded mag from its mag pouch with your support hand; and

4. Insert the new mag into the gun’s mag well with your support hand.

Mag Reload TIPS: 

1. Label your Mags by Priority (1,2,3,4), so you will know which ones are the reliable ones and your frequency and order of use;

2. Ensure the Mags Always Face the Same Direction in your mag pouch, so you can grab them and insert them correctly and quickly in the gun (I like to face my bullets toward the front in mags);

3. Always Perform a Mag Change near Upper Chest or Chin Level so you can scan for threats easier and not get a cramp in your neck from frequently looking up and down;

4. Rotate & Shoot your Various Mags Often (especially carry ones) to ensure they function well (I try to change my carry mag springs once a year or so);

5. Never Place EMPTY Mags back in the Mag Pouch so you can expect the mag you reach for to be loaded; some say put ONLY fully-loaded mags in the pouch, while others say put the partially-loaded mags in your pocket or in another pouch or at the back position of a double-mag pouch (your call);

6. Divide your mags into 2 categories: Practice Mags and Personal Protection-Carry or Home Defense use, based on their reliability and length of use;

7. Have at least 4 Mags Per Gun, since they are easily damaged, are perishable, and will not last forever (purpose & use influence the number of mags to own.)

Be Safe and Success!

Photos by author.

Note: This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and a certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever. 

© 2016 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.

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"Col Ben" is retired with 30 years service in the U.S. Air Force, with joint services Special Ops duty and training, and is Air Force qualified as "Expert" in small arms. He is a Vietnam-era Veteran. Ben is an experienced NRA-Certified Pistol Instructor, NRA Range Safety Officer, and FL Concealed Carry License Instructor. Ben recently wrote the book "Concealed Carry and Handgun Essentials for Personal Protection" (second printing) with 57 comprehensive Chapters about concealed carry and handgun principles, techniques, and tips for both experienced and new shooters. His reference book is endorsed by several organizations and is available on his website at FloridaHandgunsTraining.com. Contact him at ColBFF@gmail.com.
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Green Hornet

Good info, I’ve used all but generally practice ER & SR
I don’t feel the need to mark my mags but ones that don’t function well go in range bag or trash
Any consideration if you have an auto pistol that does not fire with mag removed? Other than NOT using ER
I don’t care for this type of gun but have been asked about how to deal with it, i.e. buy different gun!!!


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Having been in more than a few situations where the last thing you wanted to do was have your gun go dry, I tend to drop the mag once i have a feel that it’s down to the last couple of rounds. Always carry your mag oriented in the same direction and use the author’s method of laying your finger against the front of the mag to guide it into the well.

If I do run dry both my primary carry guns (Glock 21 and Jericho 9mm) will release the slide as soon as I slam the new mag home into the well. Some of you may think this is a problem, but I don’t. I like it that way. My reloads are fast and I’m back in action very quickly.

As for dropping a mag in the dirt, if you’re in a firefight that’s not really a major concern. The time it would take you to control the mag on drop and slip it into a pouch or even your pocket might make the difference between life and death. Always carry a spare mag. Always. There’s no excuse not to.


I like how in this whole discussion not one person has referred to magazines as “clips”. Modern semi-automatic pistols do not use clips to load ammunition. AFAIK, the only semi-automatic pistol that did use clips was the WWI era Mauser Broom Handle. And I don’t know of anyone out there practicing tactical reloads for that particular pistol.


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Cut it down to three… Admin load/re-load (Square range training), Tactical reload (secure new magazine first, drop partial, insert new as stated in the article, and stow partial), and the “combat” reload, I.E. shoot to slide lock, drop spent mag while getting replacement magazine into weapon as fast as possible. Use of cover, movement, etc. Dictated by situation. Stop making this shit rocket surgery. if you’ve got time to think about which re-load you’re going to do, you’re overthinking things and not paying attention to what’s going on around you. Simple also means muscle memory. KISS.