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Ammunition management and officer survival

by Ron Avery
President, Director of Training
The Practical Shooting Academy, Inc.

One of the topics that I frequently receive questions on relates to ammunition management under lethal force conditions. Should one do a speed load or a tactical load?

There are different schools of thought on this subject with various trainers expressing their points of view on the subject. And while I have much respect for the various trainers, ultimately there will be times when experts disagree. This is a subject where you have to look from a broader perspective and examine what you believe in. Ultimately, your beliefs will lead to the correct choice for you.

There is one critical element you have to consider on the choice between the speed load and the tactical load. I will address it later in this discussion.

Let’s first describe the two methods of recharging the weapon.

In the speed load, you eject the magazine on the ground, either partially depleted or empty and insert a fresh magazine as quickly as possible. It’s virtue is speed and relative simplicity.

In the tactical reload, after the reloading process, you save the partially depleted magazine for possible future use. This requires a bit more dexterity on the part of the operator but is eminently doable with correct training and stress acclimatization for most people.

Let’s look at the history behind the two techniques as well as do some critical thinking on the subject.

The theory behind the tactical reload dates back to the time of double action revolvers and low capacity auto pistols. You had no more than six shots with the revolvers of the time and with the auto pistols, 8- 9 rounds was the maximum carried in the gun and magazine combined.

The ammunition load carried then was typically a full magazine in the gun and two spare magazines or speed loaders. Typically, this was 18 to 25 rounds. Not very many by today’s standards.

Savvy officers would carry a second gun and also carry extra magazines or loaders within easy reach in pockets and in the vehicle. With the revolver, some extra rounds were also carried on the belt in individual belt loops.

The thinking of the time was that you wanted to conserve ammunition because you carried relatively few rounds. Since the weapon itself held few rounds, if you fired 3-4 rounds you needed to start thinking about running dry. Because you didn’t carry very many rounds total, it behooved one to conserve what rounds they did have. Hence, ammunition management required one to save what rounds were left and not waste them by dumping them out on the ground.

With the revolver, you would break open the cylinder, extract the fired cases and then reload from the belt loops. With the 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 bring the last magazine forward into the first pouch and put the partially depleted one behind it.

For the speed load, If the weapon was empty, you would simply dump the cases or magazines on the ground and do a speed reload.

Those with a second gun would practice transitioning to it if the first one ran dry.

Now, we have higher capacity firearms. Typical ammunition loads run from 13 to 18 carried in the handgun with two extra magazines for a total of around 45 - 55 rounds.

Lot more rounds, right?

Now contrast this with a soldier carrying a basic ammo load of 210 to 400 rounds, plus sidearm with extra rounds.

Yours doesn’t seem like that many now does it?

Is the tactical reload concept still valid in this day and age of high capacity firearms or should we just teach the speed load?

Here are my thoughts.

Rule #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 and not need then need and not have.

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.

Resupply may be a long time away. Your buddies will generally not give you ammo if you shot yours up.

Rule #2:

Time is the critical element in determining whether you are going to do a speed load or a tactical load.

If time is working for you, it is prudent to retain the rounds. If time is working against you, the speed load is the default choice.

An example of a situation where a tactical reload could be used would be the following.

You have exchanged half a magazine with a bad guy from behind cover. He ducks behind cover and there is a brief lull in the action of more than a couple of seconds. During this lull, while keeping watch from cover, you do a tactical reload, putting the spare magazine in your pocket.

You change to a new position of advantage, moving with the gun fully charged and ready. You have your remaining rounds with you and more or less accessible and not lying on the ground where they can be easily forgotten. Now you are ready to engage again with a fully charged weapon. Did you need to do this? Common sense says “why not!?

Now, speed load situation. You are in a high threat, close quarter shooting situation with two felons. You go through most of a magazine during the initial engagement. One adversary is down but his buddy ducked behind a nearby car and may pop out at a moment’s notice.

You duck behind cover and, being aware that your gun is nearly empty and you have a couple of seconds, smoothly drop the depleted magazine on the ground while loading a fresh one into the weapon. Time is critical here and the speed load would be the way to go.

For those who think they can just dump the magazine on the ground and then retrieve it, here are some considerations.


    When it hits the ground, it will bounce, many times out away from cover where you can’t retrieve it or under a car where you can’t get to it. You may not always be able to dump it close to the ground where you can retrieve it easily.

    At night, it may not be easy to find and you may waste a lot of time trying to locate it. It may distract from the task of dealing with the situation.

    What if you are in snow? Think you can find it easily in 12” of fresh powder? Will it work with a bunch of snow in it? How about puddles or mud? Think that mag will work with nice, fresh mud in it? How about in a field of grass or shrubs? I have seen magazines lost in broad daylight with no stress involved.

    What if you are moving rapidly at the time you do the load? Going to stop and get it? What other problems will this cause for you?

Rule #3

Train for both the worst case and the unexpected situation.

Example: You are in 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, the magazine you dropped on the ground now forgotten.

You then have an opportunity to engage and you do so. You have a stoppage that you can’t clear instantly. You rip out the magazine and put in a fresh one. Now you are down to your last magazine rather quickly and you have two magazines with rounds in them lying on the ground.

Problem is, after you did your first mag change, you moved a few feet over to a new position. From the second position, your magazine that you ripped out bounced out from cover about six feet in front of you. Now you are down to one. Would be comforting to have that first one with you even it if was only half full now wouldn’t it?

Now you didn’t die in this situation. You survived and the bad guy surrendered. Other officers were there to assist in the situation. But, it still isn’t a great feeling to be where you ended up now is it? And that is the point. Peace of mind isn’t always logical, it is about what gives you confidence when the chips are down. For me, happiness is a full magazine with ammo to spare.

There are several ways of doing speed and tactical loads. Just remember that speed is the desired element in the speed load while ammunition retention with reasonable speed is the desired element of the tactical load. Time is the critical element in deciding which one you will execute.

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