I think we can all agree that it’s better to load your gun proactively, and not reactively, when you’re using it to defend yourself. Choosing when to reload your gun is preferable to being forced to reload your gun without notice, because it went dry. That guy Murphy will always make sure to spring the surprise on you at the very worst time . . .
That said, I’m reminded that battle plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy, and what we’d like to do is not always possible once the clock is set in motion.
That “Tactical Loading” Thing
I’ve written here before about the classic, “tactical reload” procedure for topping off revolvers, and I have to say I’m not really a fan of it. I recognize that plucking spent cases from a partially depleted cylinder and replacing them with live rounds was a staple in LE and competition circles for many decades, but I never thought the exercise was very realistic or useful. You could certainly pull it off in a low stress environment (training), but I never thought the procedure was stress-resistant enough to rely on it for serious purposes, and always felt it could create more problems than it solved. A neat range trick, maybe, but not very useful for combat.
Honestly, if a revolver shooter encounters that proverbial (near-mythical?) “lull in the fight” that trainers like to wax so eloquently about, and wants to bring his gun up to full capacity, I think there are better ways to do it than to pluck spent cases and replace them with live rounds.1
My favorite technique, as a guy who frequently carries his spare revolver ammo in speedloaders, is to simply unload the gun, then reload the gun–dump everything out, and fill the empty chambers with new ammo. This procedure is about as fast, simple, and reliable as it gets, and it’s probably the method you’ve practiced the most, too. If time permits, you can pick up the live rounds you dumped on the ground after your gun is back up. If your tactical situation has deteriorated while you’ve been working on your gun, forget about the ammo on the ground–finish your fight, and police up the live rounds later.
That same technique works pretty well with a strip loader, too. I’d actually rather dump everything and have to refill five or six empty chambers with a strip loader, than navigate the traditional dance of lifting a few spent cases, plucking them out, and filling the empty chambers with new rounds. The former technique is more resistant to the debilitating effects of stress, and it’s probably just about as fast. It’s certainly faster than trying to recover from screwing up the more complex “tactical loading” procedure, especially if you manage to get a case or round stuck underneath the extractor star while you’re futzing about. Doom on you, if that happens during a fight.
The “reverse tactical reloaD”
For those who just can’t stand the idea of dumping live ammo on the ground, and insist on using a technique where the live ammo is actively retained, RevolverGuy Dean Caputo offers a useful alternative that he jokingly calls the “reverse tactical reload.”
In the “reverse,” you open the cylinder, then raise the muzzle, with your hand cupped underneath the rear of the cylinder. The fired cases will almost always stay in place, because they’ve expanded against the walls of their chambers, but the unfired rounds should quickly spill into your cupped hand. Pocket the live rounds, then work the extractor rod to empty the spent cases from the chambers in the normal fashion. Reload the gun with your fresh loader, and you’re back in the fight.
I think the “reverse” is a better alternative to the traditional method for conducting a tactical load on a revolver, but I still think it’s better suited for low stress, administrative operations than for in extremis situations.
something more useful
If we’re really concerned about keeping the gun loaded while engaged with the enemy, I think it would be more useful to focus on emergency (reactive) reloads than tactical (proactive) reloads.2
It seems to me that we’re much more likely to run our five or six-round gun completely dry, and need to get it back into the fight quickly, than to have that “lull in the fight” where we can top off a partially depleted gun with a tactical reload. The former seems like an unfortunate reality, the latter more like wishful thinking.
If your spare ammunition is carried in speedloaders, then the task is rather straightforward when your gun runs dry–you simply need to reload it. Get the spent cases out, and the fresh ammo in. We’ve discussed a variety of methods to accomplish that here in these pages, to include such techniques as the Universal Revolver Reload and Stressfire Reload.
If your spare ammunition is carried in a strip loader, a 2x2x2 pouch, belt loops, or just loose in a pocket, then you have the option to consider a “partial reload” when your gun runs dry in the middle of a fight.
the argument for the partial reload
We’ve previously talked about partial reloads before, but for those who missed the conversation, a partial reload is just what it sounds like–a reload in which the cylinder isn’t loaded up to full capacity, but instead is loaded with just a few rounds before the cylinder is closed.
The whole premise of the partial reload is that it’s better to get back into the fight quickly with just a few rounds in the gun, than to delay your reentry into the fight, because you wanted to load the cylinder to full capacity, first. It’s an exercise in time and risk management that prioritizes speed over capacity, minimizing your down time over volume of fire.
Friend, and world-class instructor, Wayne Dobbs likes to remind us that we’ll probably run out of time in a gunfight before we run out of ammo, and I think he’s absolutely right. I like the partial reload a lot, as a way to deal with this tactical reality.
The partial reload begins with emptying the cylinder, just as you would in the first step of any emergency (reactive) reload.
Once the cylinder has been emptied, the shooter will load one or two chambers, then close the cylinder in a manner that the loaded chambers will be the first to advance under the hammer when the trigger is pulled. The goal is for the first trigger pull to result in a “Bang,” not a “Click.”
Loading just one or two rounds before closing the cylinder gets the gun back into action faster than if we tried to feed all the chambers before closing up the gun. Let’s face it–if you’re loading from loops, strips, a 2x2x2 pouch, or with loose rounds from a pocket, it’s gonna take a while to fill all those chambers. While you’re doing that, your enemy is free to attack you. Wouldn’t it be advantageous if you could fire a round or two at him sooner, rather than later? You might just be able to put an end to it all, before his bullet finds you.
This drama isn’t just theoretical. We’ve seen it play out before, in gunfights like Newhall, Miami and the Scott Gadell shooting, where lawmen were either killed or injured while trying to reload their empty revolvers.
In Newhall, wounded Officer James Pence had just completed filling his cylinder to full capacity, using his dump pouch, and was about to close up his gun and return to the fight, when his opponent killed him at close range. Had he loaded just one or two rounds, then resumed shooting, Pence may have been able to shoot his opponent as he was flanking his position.
In Miami, Agents Gordon McNeill and John Hanlon were both grievously wounded while trying to get rounds into their empty guns. In McNeill’s case, he got three live rounds into his gun from his pouch, and tried to get back into the fight with this partial load, but couldn’t get the cylinder closed, because it was fouled with blood and bone from his shattered gun hand. Unfortunately, he was shot and paralyzed before he could access a different gun that worked.
Agent Hanlon got two rounds into his gun from his pouch, and it appears he was trying to load the other three chambers before he was shot at close range.3 It’s regrettable that he didn’t get to fire the ones he’d already loaded, before he was hit, himself.
As the cylinder turns
When we’re doing a partial reload, the first thing we need to consider is which direction our cylinder turns when the gun is being fired.
In most Smith & Wessons, the cylinder turns counter-clockwise, when viewed from the rear. The same is true for revolvers from Ruger, Kimber, and Taurus, as well as the AL-series revolvers from Rock Island Armory/Alfa-Proj that we’ve reviewed in these pages.
In Colt revolvers, the cylinder turns clockwise, when viewed from the rear. The same is true for the Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 38 (because keeping things consistent across the brand would have made too much sense) and the Armscor M200-series revolvers.
If you’re ever in doubt, and need a reminder about which way your cylinder turns, you can use the cylinder stop notches on the port side (left side, as viewed from the rear of the gun) of the cylinder to help answer the question. The notches are roughly T-shaped, with the raceway to the notch forming the post of the “T,” and the rectangular notch forming the crossbar of the “T.” Treat the “T” like it’s an arrow, with the bottom of the post pointing in the direction of rotation. On S&Ws, the “T” is upright on the port side of the cylinder, so the cylinder will rotate downwards, or counter-clockwise. On Colts the “T” is inverted on the left side of the cylinder, so the cylinder will rotate upwards, or clockwise.
Finding the right chambers
Since all of these guns have cylinders that swing out to the left, the best chambers to target for your partial reload are the chambers in the region from about 8 O’Clock to 11 O’Clock, because these are the chambers that are easiest to access. The approach to the remaining chambers will be blocked by the frame or grips to some degree, and will be harder to fill, so working on the outboard chambers will be your best option.
A useful technique for guiding your cartridges into these chambers involves the concept of proprioception, or an awareness of body position. To explain, you know where your body parts are in space without having to look at them, and you have the ability to bring these parts together without looking, too. Consider the job of clapping your hands, for example. You don’t need to look at your hands to locate them, and visually track their movement, to bring them together. Even with your eyes closed, you can just move them from wherever they are, and bring them together in a clap, because you have the gift of proprioception.
We can use this same body awareness to help load the gun. How? Well, we can use your natural ability to join the index finger on one hand with the thumb on your other hand. That is, the fingers of your loading hand are going to naturally find the thumb of your support hand, as it holds and indexes the cylinder.
Let’s break it down.
For right-handed shooters, with the gun in your left hand, the cylinder will be held in place with a ring formed by your thumb and fingers (as in the Universal Revolver Reload), or cradled in your palm, with the extractor rod poking through a “V” in your fingers (as in the Stressfire Reload). In each case, the thumb will naturally rest on the outside of the cylinder, around 9 O’Clock to 10 O’Clock, adjacent to the chambers you would like to fill.
If you have a fluted cylinder (like Colts, and most S&Ws and Rugers) it will be natural for the thumb to find one of the flutes and rest in it. If your cylinder has flats (like the Kimber K6s), your thumb will naturally find a flat. These flutes and flats ride in-between chambers, in line with the cylinder walls, so with your thumb on one of them, you know that it’s straddling a pair of chambers in the cylinder.
If you pinch a pair of cartridges between your thumb and fingers (as you would when drawing from a 2x2x2 pouch or loops, or from a pocket of loose cartridges), and hold them inline with your fingers, you can guide them into the chambers by mating your fingertips with the thumb that’s holding the cylinder. With a pair of cartridges being held side-by-side in your primary hand fingertips, if you aim at the support hand thumb, the cartridges will probably split the cylinder wall and line up pretty nicely with the chambers. If you miss, it won’t be by much, and you’ll be able to find the chambers by rolling the cylinder just a touch with your thumb, or jiggling your fingertips, or a combination of both.
The same process works with a strip loader, if you’re using one of those.4 The thumb or finger that rides on the back of the strip loader is placed in the middle of a pair of cartridges, and you simply mate it with the support hand thumb that’s riding on the cylinder flute or flat. If you don’t strike the chambers directly, you’ll be close, and it will only take a little adjustment to find them.
This loading process can be tweaked for a left-handed shooter, too, even though the hold on the gun is different. If you hold the gun in your right hand, with your right hand thumb poking through the cylinder window from right-to-left, you might be able to rest your thumb on the cylinder in that 10 O’Clock region if you have a long thumb, or a small gun. If so, the technique works the same. If your thumb is a little short, and can’t reach to the outside chambers, you can aim the loading hand fingertips at the tip of the thumb, or just outside of it, to find the sweet spot.
If you’re a Lefty and you prefer the Stressfire technique, it’s much the same. A long thumb will still be able to park around 10 O’Clock, and a shorter one will be a little shy of it. Adjust the aim point accordingly, or target one of the support hand fingertips, instead of the thumb.
Okay, so we’ve got two loaded chambers, and it’s time to close the cylinder up. How do we do that, to ensure the first trigger pull results in a “Bang?”
For revolvers that rotate the cylinder counter-clockwise (S&W, Ruger, Kimber, etc.), you’ll want to roll the cylinder clockwise, as it is closed into the gun, to position the loaded chambers to the right of the hammer. The ideal position will place the topmost round in the 1 O’Clock position, so that the very first trigger pull will move it under the hammer, but if you roll the cylinder too far and get one empty chamber in front of it, you’ll just have to click through that chamber to get to the live rounds. At least you won’t have to do it a bunch of times.
When you roll the cylinder, keep it under control with the thumb and fingers of the hand that is closing it. You don’t want to spin it and let it go, because there’s no telling where the loaded chambers will end up, and it may also damage your gun. But if you keep the cylinder under control, you can put the loaded chambers where you want them to be.
For revolvers that rotate the cylinder clockwise (Colt, M&P Bodyguard .38, etc.), you’ll want to roll the cylinder just a hair counter-clockwise, to keep the loaded chambers to the left of the hammer. You’re essentially trying to keep the loaded chambers where they are, in space, before the crane starts closing into the gun. The ideal position will place the topmost round in the 11 O’Clock position, so that it will fire with the first trigger pull.
It may help some folks to think about “closing the gun onto the cylinder,” rather than “closing the cylinder into the gun,” as a way to envision parking the cylinder with the loaded chambers in the right place. If that mental trick works for you, then great, but do whatever you need to do, in order to make sure the loaded chambers are set on the proper side of the gun when the cylinder is closed up.
REPEAT, AS REQUIRED
Hopefully, you’ll be able to terminate the hostilities after this first partial load, but in the event more rounds are needed, you’ll just repeat the whole process again. Load two, shoot two. Load two, shoot two, until you win the fight.
If, by chance, you wind up in that uncommon “lull in the fight,” then take advantage of the time to top off your gun with additional rounds–do that proactive, “tactical” reload to fill the tank.5
Your fight will be a bit of an anomaly if you have the time to do a revolver reload of any sort, midstream, but you must be prepared to do it efficiently if the circumstances demand it. Hopefully some of the things we discussed here will aid you in that quest.
Keep your head up, your eyes moving, your ears listening, and be safe out there.
Train with revolverguy!
Attention RevolverGuys! Mike will be teaching a one-day, Defensive Revolver class in Northern California, at the end of October, under the LMS Defense banner. If you’re interested in attending, please check out the course description here. It would be neat to have some readers in the class!
- We’ve talked about this before, but the history of armed citizen shootings indicates that opportunities to complete an in-fight reload–and particularly an in-fight revolver reload–will likely be rare. I know better than to use the word never, because Murphy lurks around every corner, but we just don’t see many armed citizens reload their guns during gunfights. For that matter, we don’t see a lot of police officers reload their guns during gunfights, either. It certainly happens (perhaps increasingly so, as fire discipline seems to be more frequently ignored by police, these days), but most police gunfights tend to be settled before reloads are required. Not always, but usually. I think the whole “lull in the fight” concept is more useful in the context of extended military battles than it is in personal defense scenarios, which tend to run to completion without significant pauses in the action;
- Of course, it would be nice to skip loading altogether, but we don’t always have immediate access to a second, loaded gun. If you do, then that may be a better alternative to reloading in extremis;
- Three live rounds from Agent Hanlon’s pouch were found loose on the ground at his position, and the pouch was found with one live round left in it. Hanlon was busy loading these loose rounds when he was shot in the hand, sustaining a severe injury that prevented him from continuing. He was shot again, momentarily;
- It also works nicely with a round-body loader, too. Lay an index finger between two adjoining cartridges in the loader, and mate your index finger to the support hand thumb. Voila!
- The same goes for that chaotic time after the shooting stops. If the bad guys are no longer on the field, get your gun up to full capacity as part of your post-shooting checklist, which should also include other important tasks like seeking cover or a better position, communicating with partners, suspects, witnesses and 911, checking yourself for injuries, and so forth.