If you’re reading this publication, you’re most likely familiar with the “speed reload,” sometimes called the “combat reload” or “emer-gency reload.” Generally performed when the auto’s slide locks back empty or the revolver clicks dry, it simply requires that the useless old stuff in the gun (empty magazine, spent revolver casings) be ejected, and desperately needed new stuff (a fresh, full magazine for the auto, more cartridges for the revolver) be inserted. The gun is then returned to firing battery (slide or cylinder closed) so shooting can immediately resume.

The topic of this piece, the “tactical reload,” is distinctly different. The assumption is that the shooter has fired some shots but still has one or more rounds of live ammunition, which he does not want to throw away. The further assumption— a very important one—is that there is a “lull in the action,” during which the shooter can safely juggle the old ammo out of the gun and into a retrievable place on his person, and get the gun topped off and ready to run with a full load.


From the time of the Colt Paterson revolver of 1836, replacing only what was fired made good handgun sense. That early Colt was a muzzle loading cap-and-ball design, after all, and the shooter couldn’t “throw out the baby with the bathwater” by dumping the contents of an unfired chamber on the ground. When the same maker’s Single Action Army debuted in 1873, to become the most popular cartridge revolver of its time, spent casings had to be punched out one-by-one to make room for each fresh round anyway. Therefore, every reload was pretty much a tactical reload, in terms of gun manipulation, merely taking longer if the shooter had fired more shots.

By the turn of the 20th Century, the semiautomatic pistol was already on the scene, and it was already pretty clear that the removable box magazine of the Borchardt, the Luger, and the Browning designs were going to be more popular and more practical than stripper-clip loaded pistols such as the Mauser C96. It had to have become apparent early on that a partially depleted handgun of this type could be very quickly topped off by simply swapping a full magazine for a partially empty one. I have not, however, been able to find any evidence of any particular skill set that developed around this particular procedure during that period.

Certainly, the concept of the tactical reload was evident to pistol designers of the early 20th century. Even then, we Yanks wanted speed in our sustained fire. Note that John Moses Browning went from the butt-heel magazine release as seen on his 1903 Colt Pocket Model to the Luger-like push button magazine ejecting mechanism of his legendary 1911 pistol and his later Browning P35. During the same period, however, two design teams across the ocean took a different direction.

Beretta, in its classic Model of 1934, chose not to follow the Luger and 1911 model and instead put the “old-fashioned” butt catch on their pistol. The Germans, who had used the Luger from 1908 through WWI, went in the same direction when Walther rejected the magazine release of their own country’s own iconic Luger and reverted to the butt-heel release on the then-super-modern P38 pistol before World War II.

It has been theorized that the reason for this was the potential for a tactical reload. The Germans had already de-termined that their next war would be one of aggression, with their troops ranging far from home and, with their already-planned blitzkrieg strategy, perhaps even advancing well ahead of their own supply lines. In theory, fresh ammunition would always be available to the spear-head combat units, but spare magazines would be low on the list of importance and hard to find at the front. A soldier
who finished the fight with one maga-zine left in the pistol, having left a trail of ejected empty magazines stomped into the mud of the battleground behind him, would be in the position of having “won the battle but lost the war,” with no magazines to refill for the next fight.

However, the butt-release required the soldier to remove the spare magazine physically with his non-dominant hand. The theory was that with it now in hand, it would be much more likely that the soldier would stow that empty or partially empty magazine on his person, where he would have it later to refill and move on to the next battle. This theory has continued in Teutonic small arms design. We see it to this day in Heckler & Koch’s MP5 submachine gun and their G3 battle rifle. We saw it in the early iterations of the Austrian Glock pistol, its magazines intentionally designed not to fall com-pletely out despite having the push button mag release. Soviet small arms, which followed WWII era German designs in many ways, certainly did so with the magazine release mechanisms of the AK47 assault rifle and the Makarov pistol.

While the principle of the “tac-load” is clearly evident in German handgun design in the first half of the 20th Century, specific techniques for executing the magazine exchange don’t seem to have been documented during that period. If you have some documentation that I don’t, please let me know, in care of Harris Publications. The first actual documentation I can find tracks to third quarter 20th Century. The most popular “tac-load” taught today appears in the 1960 classic written by the late Col.

Jeff Cooper, Cooper on Handguns

The printed words don’t mention Cooper as source of the technique in his book, but they are illustrated with a picture of what appear to be Cooper’s hands, and what is most certainly the very distinctive custom Colt Government Model that was Cooper’s favorite pistol during that time period. When Chuck Taylor was operations manager at Cooper’s shooting school, Gunsite, he was already a gun writer and in both capacities did much to quantify and popularize the concept of the tactical reload. Taylor continued that in his later endeavors when he was lead instructor at Front Sight, and head of his own school, the American Small Arms Academy.

The technique Col. Cooper demon-strated more than half a century ago would be a good place to start the discussion of the mechanics of tactical reloads.

Autopistol Tac Load

The technique Jeff Cooper demon-strated in his famous book is the one still taught at Gunsite, and also at Thunder Ranch under the famed Clint Smith, another of Cooper’s right hand men who earned fame in his own right. It goes like this, in its classic sequence.

Remove finger from triggerguard. There’s going to be a lot of fumble-prone manipulation; you can expect to be under great stress if you need this technique for real; and what you’ve habituated yourself to do in training and practice is probably what you will do when you’re riding the edge of an actual near-death experience.

Let the support hand grasp the fresh magazine and bring it to the gun as it would for a speed reload. You want the tip of the index finger under the bullet nose of the topmost cartridge.

As your reloading hand comes up to the gun, shift your index finger to the outside of the magazine as shown in accompanying photos. This will put the fresh magazine between the index finger and the middle finger. This leaves the space between index finger and thumb—the web of the hand area, which we humans use as pincers—free to grasp the depleted magazine as soon as it comes out of the pistol. The palm of the reloading hand is still under the floorplate of the fresh magazine, and will be there to catch
the depleted one, too.

Now, press the magazine release button. The magazine in the gun should fall into the reloading hand, which is positioned under the gun butt. As soon as the floorplate of the partly spent magazine hits the palm, thumb and forefinger grasp it and pull it the rest of the way out.

The reloading hand now rotates to insert the fresh magazine and slap it in firmly. At this point, the reloading hand can take a support hand position and scan the area, though this was apparently not a part of the original technique.

Finally, with the pistol now fully reloaded, the shooter puts the depleted magazine away. It generally goes in pocket or waistband, on the theory that this way, it won’t be mistaken for a full magazine later when the practitioner makes a habituated reach to the magazine pouch when needing another complete reload. In theory, that partly-spent magazine with its few remaining rounds is only being retained in the first place as (a) something to be refilled later, after the fight, or (b) an absolute last-ditch source of ammunition in case the “lull in the action” turns back into a firefight.

Few Suggested Additions

I know it seems presumptuous for anyone to offer suggestions to improve a technique that has stood the test of time for well over 50 years, but in a time frame that long, practitioners and instructors can always come up with little tweaks that can make a protocol work better. With that in mind, I respectfully offer the following for your consideration.

First, at the same time you take your finger out of the triggerguard to begin the tactical reload process, I would suggest that you on-safe your single-action pistol or decock your traditional double-action auto. This is what a SEAL is trained to do with his double-action Sig Sauer P226 in one of those “lulls in the action,” and what I would expect a Gunsite graduate to do with his single-action 1911 under similar circumstances. The tactical reload procedure is a complex psycho-motor skill that is dependent on dexterity, and is therefore fumble-prone. This in turn leads to safety concerns, which logically call out for additional “safety nets” in the procedure.

Second, as soon as the full magazine clicks solidly into place, I would recommend emphatically that you condition yourself to perform a tactical 360-degree scan of your surroundings. The tactical reload sounds like exactly what it is: someone desperately trying to reload their gun. It is the sound of vulnerability, and may trigger a hidden opponent or one playing possum to end that “lull in the action” and immediately launch another deadly attack on your position. You want to be ready. This means that you will have practiced shooting two-handed while still holding that partial magazine in the support hand. It won’t be as efficient as a proper two-handed stance, but it will certainly put you in a better return fire posture than shooting one-handed. Only after the scan would I personally stow the depleted magazine, in a real-world situation.

Third, give careful consideration to where you stow that depleted magazine you’ve saved to keep those last few spare rounds on your person. If things get so desperate that you actually need to put them back in the gun, you want them someplace where you’re accustomed to reaching for spare ammunition. If you condition yourself to put the partial magazine in a pants pocket but never practice getting it back out of that pocket and back into the gun, you’ll be hard put to do so on “autopilot” when you’re actually fighting for your life.

If you only carry one spare magazine, there’s no reason not to return the partial magazine to the single-cell pouch where you normally carry the full spare. Since the full spare is now in the gun, there’s nothing to mix the spare up with, and it’s now positioned exactly where you’ve conditioned yourself to reach for a combat reload if the action heats up again and you find yourself running on auto pilot. If you carry two spare magazines, an option might be to practice speed reloads from the front cell of the double pouch, and tactical loads out of the rear cell. That leaves the rear cell open to receive the depleted magazine. (If doing that, I would insert the partial mag backwards, so that when the hand reached for it reflexively the hand would recognize the unaccus-tomed sharp edge and send the message to the brain, “Whoa! Are we sure we want this last ditch partial magazine?”

Reload With Retention

Popular in IDPA shooting, this technique is distinct from the true tactical reload in that the partial magazine is put away before the full one is inserted into the gun, instead of after the gun has been fully reloaded as in the tac-load. This is because, for safety reasons due to the complicated manual of arms, IDPA says the tac-load must be completed with the partial magazine stowed before the next shot is fired. Stowing the spare mag first is indeed more time-and-motion efficient, IF the goal is to get the magazine stowed the soonest and the next shot fired as soon as possible after that.

However, the reload with retention creates a much longer window between when the last shot was fired and the next shot can be fired if the shooter is attacked during the reloading process. While IDPA considers it unsafe to shoot while holding a magazine, this writer among others consider it more tactically unsafe to extend the window of vulnerability during which the shooter can’t return fire in the event of a secondary attack. Thus, this writer practices the reload with retention only reluctantly, when shooting “for the team” in a match stage where a reload with retention offers a slightly faster time for purely competition purposes.

Revolver Tactical Reload

With the conventional double-action revolver, the first tactical reload tech-nique I learned was to open the cylinder and push the ejector rod slightly back, raising the rounds, and then release the rod. This would—hopefully—leave the spent casings extending upward where fingertips could find them and pluck them out in the dark, allowing loose rounds from belt loops, pouch, or Speed Strips to be inserted in their place. In practice, however, this technique was altogether too dependent on gently applied fine motor skills at a time when we would be predictably clumsy with adrenaline-shaking, vasoconstricted fingers and our strength accelerating out of control. It often led to all the rounds on the ground, except for the ones that might be caught under the ejector star, horribly jamming the revolver.

A better technique for tac-loading the wheel gun is one I first saw demonstrated by famed instructor Dennis Tueller. He would use the FBI technique (open cylinder in left hand, left thumb on the ejector rod) to punch the rod and dump the cylinder’s entire contents into the right palm. The right hand would then stow the live and spent rounds alike in the pocket, hoping that in a desperate moment of need thehand could distinguish full length live cartridges from empty shell casings. Once that stuff was in the pocket, the hand could grab a speedloader and quickly perform a fast combat reload, bringing a fully loaded revolver back into the fight as quickly as possible. This strikes this writer as the most practical approach to the tactical reload of the revolver.

Additional Considerations

There are many combat veterans who feel there is no such thing as that proverbial “lull in the action,” and recommend that every reload be a speed reload. They point to the well-publicized case on the Internet of a US soldier in the war on terror. Facing multiple opponents, he cut one down with several rounds from his M4 rifle. Not sure how many rounds he had left, he attempted to perform a reload with retention. As he was stowing his partial magazine, he was attacked by a second enemy fighter. Unable to effectively return fire during that vulnerable window with only the one round left in his rifle, the American was shot by the enemy. One of the AK bullets paralyzed the American permanently. In retrospect, he feels that if he had done a speed reload and attempted to retrieve the partial magazines later when he was sure the fight was over, he might have been able to neutralize the second deadly enemy before being shot and crippled for life. It’s logic that’s hard to gainsay.

That said, there’s no question that the tactical reload makes theoretical sense, and it has proven its worth in actual firefights. Each practitioner must assess his own needs and threat profile, and make his own decisions. Personally, this writer has long since decided that the speed reload is the more important skill, and teaches it early in the first couple of days with a new student, reserving the tactical reload as a “second tier skill-set” not taught until the student’s second week at one of my schools.

There are many ways to perform a tactical reload. You may find some others better suited to your needs than the ones presented here. The techniques shown here have stood the test of time and are presented for your consideration, as potentially “more tools for your tool box.”

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