This article was originally written for policeone.com.
One of the topics that I frequently receive questions about relates to ammunition management under lethal force conditions: should you perform a speed reload or a tactical reload?
To answer this question, let’s start by analyzing the two methods of recharging your handgun. In a speed reload, you eject the magazine on the ground, either partially depleted or empty, and insert a fresh magazine as quickly as possible. Its benefit is speed and relative simplicity.
To perform a tactical reload, you simply save the partially depleted magazine as part of the reloading process. This method requires a bit more dexterity on the part of the operator but is very doable with correct training and stress acclimatization.
Now, let’s take a deeper look at these two methods by examining the history behind them.
The theory behind the tactical reload dates back to the time of double-action revolvers and low-capacity auto pistols. These firearms offered no more than six shots with a revolver and only eight or nine rounds with the auto pistols.
The amount of ammunition carried at that time was typically a full magazine in the gun and two spare magazines or speed loaders. This typically amounted to a total of 18 to 25 rounds–not very many by today’s standards. Savvy officers would also carry a second gun and extra magazines or loaders in their pockets and in their vehicles. For those who used a revolver, extra rounds were also carried on their belt in individual belt loops.
The mindset of that period was that you should conserve your ammunition because you carried relatively few rounds. Since the weapon itself held few rounds, if you fired three or four rounds you needed to start thinking about running dry. With only a small quantity of additional ammunition on your person, it was necessary to conserve all available rounds. For this reason, it was essential to save what rounds were left and not waste them by dumping them out on the ground.
If you were reloading with a revolver, you would break open the cylinder, extract the fired cases, and then reload from your belt loops. With an auto pistol, you would access the spare magazine, do a magazine exchange, and then put the partially depleted magazine in a convenient location where you wouldn’t lose it. If the situation permitted, you would also bring the last magazine forward into the first pouch and put the partially depleted magazine behind it.
In the case that you fired your weapon until it was empty, you would simply dump the cases or magazines on the ground and reload. Those officers who had a second gun would also practice transitioning to it if their first one ran dry.
With the development of double-stack magazines and new handguns, we now have pistols with larger capacities. Typical ammunition loads now run from 13 to 18 in the handgun and two extra magazines for a total of 45 to 55 rounds.
With a dramatic increase in the number of rounds we can easily carry, is the tactical reload concept still valid or should we just use speed reloads?
There are three basic principles of gunfighting that you can use to answer this question for yourself.
Principle #1: No one knows how long a gunfight will last or how many rounds it will take to win.
It might take one bullet or it might take every round you have. If there is no need for speed, the tactical load makes sense–it is better to have more rounds and not need them than need more and not have them.
I have seen students in force-on-force training and have reviewed gunfights where officers and soldiers have run very low or have run out of ammo during a protracted engagement. Conserving what you have would be prudent.
Principle #2: Time is the critical element in determining how you should reload.
If time is working for you, it is prudent to retain the rounds. If time is working against you, a speed reload is the default choice.
Consider the following example of when a tactical reload would make sense. You have just exchanged half a magazine with a bad guy from behind cover and there is a brief lull in the action. While keeping watch from cover, you do a tactical reload, putting the spare magazine in your pocket. Now you are ready to engage again with a full magazine. Did you need to do a tactical reload? Common sense says “why not?”
Now consider a speed load scenario. You are in a high-threat, close-quarter shooting situation with two felons. You go through most of a magazine during the initial engagement and manage to take cover behind a nearby car. Aware that your gun is nearly empty and you may only have a couple of seconds, you drop the depleted magazine on the ground while loading a fresh one into your weapon. Time is critical here and a speed reload is the quickest option.
While you can use either method to perform reloads, just remember why they are used. Speed is the desired element in a speed reload, ammunition retention is the desired element in a tactical reload, and time is the key in deciding which one you should use.
Principle #3: Train for both the worst case scenario and the unexpected situation.
Consider the following scenario: you are in the middle of a gunfight and have expended half a magazine. There is a brief lull so you decide to do a speed load because that is all you train. You dump the magazine on the ground and smoothly load a fresh magazine. You see the bad guy shift position and you move a few feet to a new position of advantage.
Finding an opportunity to engage from your new position, you do so. You suddenly experience a stoppage that you can’t clear immediately so you rip out the magazine and put in a fresh one. Now you are down to your last magazine and your two other magazines are lying on the ground.
While you would like to grab the first magazine that you dropped, you can’t because you moved a few feet over to a new position after loading the second mag. The second magazine is also inaccessible because it bounced out from cover about six feet in front of you. Now you are down to just the rounds in your gun. Wouldn’t it be comforting to have your first magazine with you now, even if it was only half full?