The author demonstrates the side-by-side magazine reload technique as seen from in front as well as above. Note the use of blue tape to designate training magazines.Photos Courtesy R.K. Miller
A view of the “L-shape” reload, showing the orientation of magazines just prior to the reload.
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Confession: Sometimes as I get ready to go to the range, I suffer from premature exhilaration as I anticipate the drills I’ve planned. I enjoy time on the firing line. This is even more pronounced when I’m going to share the techniques and philosophy that I think work best for a patrol rifle officer.
So let’s go to the range together. I know we won’t be side by side on the firing line, but what I’m suggesting in this article, and the next, is that you try these ideas to see if they work for you.
Are You Ready?
The first step is to get equipment ready and this includes not only the patrol rifle—read: AR-15/M-16 variants—but also the magazines that will be used with it. A close visual inspection of each magazine is a good idea to confirm that they are undamaged.
Another step is the function check. This is accomplished with each magazine in an unloaded condition and consists of two steps. First, check to make sure that the mag fits into the magazine well, locking into position using a “push-pull” movement. (The “push-pull” action means that the mag is pushed in and then pulled to ensure that it has locked into place.) Finish by activating the mag release to verify the magazine will drop free when you need it to do so.
The second portion of the function check is to place the magazine back in the unloaded rifle and pull back on the charging handle. Proper functioning is evident if the bolt locks back in response. If a magazine and rifle fail to pass this entire process, then it’s probably time to get them to a qualified armorer. Make this part of your training regimen—and train your students to do the same.
In our Patrol Rifle Instructor course, one of the first recommendations we make is that students have two sets of magazines. One set is for training use. Take these to the range. Use and abuse them. Finish the training day by inspecting and cleaning them up for the next opportunity. But the second set is in my mind more important. These should be the duty mags intended for the streets. While they should be tested and fired to make sure they work properly, they should also be treated as the officer’s precious property. His or her life span may be directly linked someday to these magazines being ready for action.
I like to load them to full capacity and then download a couple of rounds from each magazine to ensure it will lock into place when needed. An easy way to confirm a magazine’s prepped for the fight is the cuticle test: push down on the top round with the thumb. If it travels down into the magazine and stops at the top of the cuticle, there’s a proper number of rounds. The reason for this test is simple—a magazine with rounds crammed into it until it won’t take any more probably won’t lock into the rifle with the bolt already forward.
A discussion of magazine placement should also be considered for training, much as it is for handgun use. The idea is to consistently carry the rifle’s magazines in the same spot on the duty rig or in some cases such as an attached pouch, on the rifle. The goal is to create through repetitions “muscle memory” that will allow the officer to obtain a fresh magazine with minimal thought during the stress of a lethal force encounter. This means developing a good “draw stroke” for the magazine much as we do with handguns.
There are good pouches out there that will facilitate this. Don’t buy crap equipment—test it to make sure it works for you and your students. Taking it further, using the load process to practice getting the magazine out of the pouch will increase the number of repetitions necessary to reach that muscle memory goal. This is a much needed ability in danger close situations.
Two basic categories of reloading exist for the patrol rifle. One comes from the rifle being fired until empty. This isn’t always preferable but we know it happens just like with duty handguns. Called a “speed reload” or “emergency reload,” it just means that there are no more rounds available in the rifle. That’s a bad thing in a gun fight so this type of magazine exchange training is important. (More about speed reloading in a minute.)
The other category is often referred to as a “tactical reload.” In this case, the shooter makes the decision to replace a partially depleted magazine with a fully loaded one. This is normally best carried out during a lull in the gunfight and preferably from behind cover.
Generally, there are three different magazine manipulation techniques that meet the requirements of a tactical reload. They are the retention, side-by-side and L-shape options.
The first one works well for both right and left handers. (Don’t overlook the needs of students who—unlike us right handers—were born with their arms on backward!) It’s the retention method. When the shooter decides to reload, the magazine release is activated, the existing magazine is removed by hand from the rifle and stored somewhere for future use. (The rifle is kept level and oriented to the threat environment during any of these reloads methods. If the muzzle is allowed to drop, then there’s a tendency for the shooter’s eyes to follow, taking them away from the danger area.) As soon as the old magazine is away, the offhand draws a fresh, fully loaded mag bringing it to the magazine well. It’s inserted using again the “push-pull” hand motion. This works well especially for both left and right handers, as well as for folks with small hands or who are wearing gloves.
Side by Side
If the retention technique doesn’t work for a student, here’s another option. It’s the “side-by-side” magazine exchange. In this process, the shooter first draws a fresh magazine from the pouch and brings it up next to the existing one. The off hand’s index finger is placed between the two mags as a “spacer” for smoother manipulation. (If they are clamped metal to metal, problems develop.)
After activation of the mag release, a simple downward motion clears the current magazine from the rifle. It’s followed by the fresh one being moved slightly over and up into the mag well using the push-pull we’ve mentioned before.
Generally, students next focus on putting away the partially depleted magazine. I think this is a mistake. Instead, they should hold onto the mag while they reacquire their grip on the rifle’s handguard. Think this through with me: You’ve reloaded during a gun fight. The threat is probably still out there. Let’s first assess the environment and then shoot if necessary with that mag in hand rather than getting wrapped up in putting it away, which takes the focus away from the fight.
Give them “L”
But wait, there’s more. A final tactical reload technique for the patrol rifle is the “L-shape” reload. Again, the decision to reload comes first and the rifle again is kept in the shoulder pointed down range. The shooter uses the same draw stroke but now clamps the old and fresh magazines together forming an “L’’ with the mag in the rifle constituting the vertical portion. Hit the release and it’s now a case of old magazine out, rotate and then new magazine into the magazine well repeating the push-pull. Once the shooter knows the mag is locked into place, the hand holding the half-empty one again goes to the handguard for a status check before being put away for future use.
The Need for Speed
Now it’s time to talk about speed reloading. Again, this is a different moment in a shooter’s life. The rifle is empty—it won’t shoot until we feed new life into it with a fresh magazine. It’s a critical moment. An option is to not even reload, but instead transition to a handgun, if available. Especially at short distances, I suggest this process as the immediate response when the rifle’s out of ammo.
At longer distances or under other circumstances, we teach the following to get the rifle running again: First, identify the problem. If we just assume that the rifle is empty when in truth it’s another issue, time is being wasted in this gunfight.
A quick check of the ejection port will normally verify an empty condition as the dust cover will be open and the bolt will be locked back. For a right hander, a trick I like to teach is to then aggressively twist the rifle to the left while depressing the magazine release. This will often kick the empty magazine free of the gun. With that, the offhand immediately draws a fresh magazine and inserts it into the magazine well. Don’t forget the push-pull. Students on the line practicing this drill have more than once forgotten this and are punished moments later when the magazine falls out of the rifle!
Once the magazine is seated, the bolt has to be sent forward to chamber a new round. I like gross motor movements as much as possible in stressful situations, and this is definitely one of those. A preferred right-handed method then is to use the offhand or left palm to slap the bolt catch sending the bolt home.
For left handers, gross motor movements are still an option, so momentarily taking the hand off the pistol grip to quickly hit that bolt catch works well. Especially after carrying out a speed reload, the student should be reassessing the threat environment to determine if there’s a need for further lethal force rather than being taught to just automatically start shooting once the reload is completed.
Get Them Movin’!
Standing in the middle of a gunfight—especially with an empty rifle—is not a good idea. As the reload is taking place, one option is that the shooter should be taught to simultaneously move laterally as a survival tactic. It makes it harder for an adversary to accurately hit a moving target.
It’s time to move on to other articles waiting for your attention in this month’s Law Officer. I’ll be back next time with some additional thoughts on patrol rifle training that I hope will add to your program.