Muzzle Direction during a reload

Kathy Jackson recently posted an article about muzzle direction during reloads. It generated a lot of discussion and controversy, which motivated me to go run some tests to analyze the issue a little deeper.

Relative importance of Reload Speed

Reloading is one of those skills that’s been a part of handgun training and handgun qualification drills since at least 1945, when the FBI required officers to do multiple reloads in their test.

The classic “El Presidente” drill includes a reload.

Those drills were created back in the days of 6 shot revolvers and 8 round single stack 1911 pistols.  And even in that era, I’m not sure that reloads were that common during gunfights. Tom Givens’ data on his 66 student-involved shootings show that none of them reloaded during the fight. Some shot to slide lock.  Analysis of police gunfights also shows in-fight reloads, where reload speed could be a factor between success or failure, rarely, if ever, occur. Similarly, John Correia of the Active Self Protection youTube channel has watched over 5000 gunfight videos, and observes:

I have seen precisely 2 reloads in a real gunfight that weren’t on-duty LEO. And neither of those affected the outcome of the fight. I have seen about 7 or 8 where a higher capacity firearm or the presence of a reload might have affected the outcome.

The main driver for obsession with reload speed comes from modern pistol competition, where reloads “on the clock” are an integral part of almost every course of fire, and tenths of seconds matter.

Where Does My Muzzle Point During a Reload?

I chose 3 reload techniques to study.  (1) the one I normally use, which has minimum vertical muzzle movement, which was the technique that worked best for me to hit those Grand Master level reload speeds.  (2) The muzzle up reload technique, taught by some tactical schools, which places the muzzle pointing up at the sky. It puts the mag well right in front of the shooter’s eyes, which aids in ensuring the magazine is seated cleanly.  (3) A muzzle down technique, with the gun held down at stomach level, muzzle down as far as I could tolerate and still reload smoothly and within reasonable time limits.

The video below shows both the reload technique and a view of where the muzzle wanders, as the green laser starts and returns to the center of the NRA B-8.  I did the video standing 7 yards from the target, using the same target I used for the live fire time trials of those 3 techniques.

For my default technique, the muzzle goes high and left, up to the yellow window frame, which would likely keep the gun pointed into the berm. My wall is 8′ high, which is shorter than typical 10-12′ berm height.  In the upward technique, the laser dot was pointed at the ceiling.  In the downward technique, the laser, at its lowest point, was on the floor a few yards in front of me.

Which technique is faster?

I grabbed a shot up target from the pile, stuck an NRA B-8 on it, and put it at 7 yards out on my range.

I ran 10 trials of each reload technique, changing technique each trial, pitched the slowest and fastest runs and kept the best 8 as data.  I started aimed at the target, finger on trigger, as if I had just completed a shot. On the buzzer, I reloaded and fired one round.  A run only counted if the magazine seated smoothly and the shot hit the 6″ bullseye of the B-8.

I expected to be a bit faster using the reload technique that I used most often, but the data really doesn’t show that.  My average time for my preferred technique was 1.75 sec, and the averages for the other two were 1.77.  The spread of values was not that big, and all of them were below 2 seconds.


What is a safe direction?

In my classes, I define a safe direction as “any direction in which you are willing to fire a live round”.  And I discuss the concept of safest available direction, which may change as you or people around you move.

Off the range, options for safe directions may be limited.  Down is generally better than up, because with down you can see where the bullet may impact and you have some control over what it impacts and at what angle.

Down may not always be an option, if you are on the top floor of a building, or there are people close enough to you that you risk shooting someone in the leg or foot – or worse, if someone is lying on the ground or a small child is clinging to your leg for protection.

On the range, the Minimal technique keeps the muzzle in a safe direction if you are close to the backstop and the backstop is relatively tall.  If that technique is done standing 25 yards from the backstop, the muzzle is going to point over the berm at most ranges, and into the ceiling of an indoor range.

Unless the range has a bullet proof roof, there is no way to do the Upward reload technique without pointing the gun in a direction that doesn’t quality as “safe”.  And muzzle down, particularly at indoor ranges, may bring the muzzle completely below the backstop down to a concrete floor, which would be less safe than the top of the backstop.

Final thoughts

Many that commented on Kathy’s article claimed that any technique other that what they were currently doing would make their reload times unacceptably slow.  My own small experiment indicated that modifying my reload technique to change muzzle direction from “up at the sky” to “down at the ground” didn’t really change my reload times.

Many pointed out that a key part of learning to do a reload is getting the finger off the trigger during the load.   The problem is that the basic gun safety rules of muzzle direction and trigger finger placement aren’t “one out of two is good enough”.  In every class, I or one of my assistants have to remind at least one student about finger off trigger during a reload. So do range officers in matches.   A few competitors in national and local matches get disqualified every year for that error.  And under stress, people that have been trained to keep finger off trigger will do what is called “trigger checking” – unconsciously touching the trigger, preparing themselves to fire.

My advice to those training for real world defensive handgun use is to spend some time practicing reloads using all 3 techniques I showed in the video, and practicing some administrative (off the clock) reloads working to minimize muzzle movement. A laser was a great training tool for this, as it revealed a lot more muzzle movement in my default load technique than I expected.  Any reload not occurring while the shooter is in immediate danger can take a extra heart beat to make a decision as to what the safest available direction is, and the muzzle can be averted to that direction do to the load.  This is no different than the skill of averting the muzzle in any other situation – and learning to modify muzzle direction in a rapidly changing situation is a skill anyone that carries a gun should develop.

Those chasing Master and Grand Master level scores at matches need to be diligent about trigger finger placement and timing of getting the finger back on the trigger – both to avoid disqualification and to avoid launching a round over the backstop, which could have life changing consequences in the worst case scenario, particularly at outdoor ranges with houses (or people) within the 1.5 mile drop zone a bullet might land.