In this modern age of weapon design, there is no such thing as an “accidental discharge.” Law enforcement firearms of the 21st Century are designed so that the only way they will fire is to place a finger on the trigger and depress it. While “involuntary discharges” occur more often than we would like, guns do not just go off “accidentally.” It is essential for the law enforcement professional to know when his or her gun is loaded at all times. The first rule of gun safety—all guns are always loaded—is absolute and cannot be ignored. But at the same time, unknowingly carrying an unloaded gun can be deadly. Firearms safety means more than just handling a gun safely.
Leave Nothing to Chance
Making sure that your semi-automatic pistol is loaded before you hit the street seems like such a basic thing. But all too often it is left to assumption. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what the word “ass-u-me” breaks down to; needless to say, carrying an unloaded gun is hazardous to your health if you find yourself in harm’s way. Safe handling means paying attention not only when you do not intend to fire, but also when you might need to fire. Knowing the condition of your firearm at all times is essential.
Why do people fail to check their guns before they head out into the world? It can be any number of things…indifference, carelessness, distraction, and, yes, assumption. Recently, I was given another reason that left me speechless. I had a police recruit tell me that he didn’t check for a loaded chamber because a civilian instructor told him checking the chamber was dangerous. The instructor said doing so could place his support hand near the muzzle of the gun and that this should never be done. Following this advice, the recruit never knew the condition of his gun because he never checked. He just assumed a round was chambered when he worked the slide.
While putting any body part in front of a gun’s muzzle is dangerous and should never occur, the body part must be in front, or forward, of the muzzle in order to be injured. A proper chamber check never requires this. To me, not knowing that your gun is ready to fire before going in harm’s way is far more dangerous than checking to make sure your gun is loaded.
First of all, it needs to be understood that firearms safety is a function of the brain… not the hands, a holster, or a mechanical device. A firearm should always be handled with safety in mind, never with a cavalier attitude. When handling any firearm, full attention should be given to what you are doing…this is no time to be conversing, eating, or anything else that could distract or hurry the operator.
This is also the case for the chamber check. It should be performed at a time in which full attention can be given to the process. A safe chamber check will only take a few seconds, but it is not something that you should do while thinking about something else.
To me, a proper chamber check is one of the hallmarks of a true armed professional. It shows others that you know how to properly and safely handle firearms, and it instills confidence in those who work with you and are likely to back you up. When these people watch you handle your gun with confidence and care, they will get the message that you know how to handle both it and yourself if armed conflict arises
Pinch and Press
I believe that much of the concern regarding the chamber check comes from misunderstanding how it is performed. The terms “pinch check” and “press check” are oftentimes used interchangeably but, in reality, they are separate techniques.
The pinch check is performed by placing the support hand thumb into the trigger guard while the index finger of the same hand is placed on the front edge of the slide below the muzzle. By pinching the thumb and index finger toward one another, the slide is brought back and the chamber is revealed. The pinch check was taught primarily for the 1911 and FN P-35, better known as the Browning Hi-Power 9mm. The potential danger of the technique is obvious. Fortunately, however, it has fallen into disuse with modern semi-auto pistols, as most current designs incorporate a full length recoil guide rod, which nullifies one’s ability to pinch check as the index finger would be in the way of the guide rod when the slide moves. Performing a pinch check with say, a Glock, is impossible.
A press check is performed by bringing the support hand to the slide from underneath and then using the thumb and fingers to grasp the forward end of the slide and press it back far enough to see into the chamber. Forward cocking serrations are placed on this part of the slide to offer a greater gripping surface. There is no reason to have any part of the hand forward of the muzzle. The only reason something like this would occur is if the shooter was performing the technique improperly, was in a hurry, or was not paying attention. None of which are appropriate when handling any gun. If either technique is performed in low light (not the best idea, but strange things do happen) the trigger finger can be used to reach up and feel in the open chamber to ensure there is a round loaded.
Over the years, I have seen a number of people perform the press check by applying a saddle grip (the curved hand grabs the slide from above and looks like a horse’s saddle) to the forward edge of the slide and pushing back. However, I never do a press check this way. While this technique would appear to be OK when using a long slide gun like a 1911, it is certainly problematic when the slide is shorter, as the edge of the hand will be hanging forward of the muzzle. Any chamber check technique should work safely regardless of the gun it is applied to.
If you do not like either of these techniques, which is certainly acceptable, there are others that are equally effective and easily performed.
The most obvious is to use the magazine as an indicator. Magazines that have been manufactured in recent years have holes drilled into the side or rear of the magazine body. To ensure that your chamber is loaded, load the magazine to its full capacity, insert it into the gun, and work the slide. Remove the magazine and look to see if a round is missing. If so, you know that your gun is loaded. If you have an older magazine that does not have witness holes, physically check to see if the magazine is “down one.” For double stack magazines, like those used in an AR-15, M-16, or M-4, take note of which side the top round is on. Once the action is worked, remove the magazine and make sure that the top round is now on the opposite side. If so, a round is in the chamber. Using the magazine is the easiest way to do a chamber check and it certainly requires your individual attention to do.
Another technique that works very well I call the “C Grip” due to its application. To perform this technique, the support hand forms the shape of the letter C with the thumb being inserted under the grip tang. The index finger is wrapped around the rear sight with the rest of the fingers falling in line. The thumb and index finger are then pinched toward one another opening the chamber far enough to look inside.
The “Rear Pinch Check” is accomplished by turning the gun sideways and placing the thumb under the grip tang. The index finger is then placed on the forward edge of the rear sight and the two pinched together. This technique is easy to do with the popular Glock and Springfield XD pistols. It should be noted that the rear sight must be of a post configuration in order for the finger to grasp it. The technique does not work with ramped style sights.
Pump-action shotguns can be checked by placing two or three fingers between the rear of the pump action grip and the receiver. The action is then slowly brought to the rear. The fingers placed between the forward grip and the received will block the action from being brought totally to the rear, but will reveal a round in the chamber. Semi-auto shotguns can be checked by using the bolt handle and slowly pulling it to the rear until the inside of the chamber is revealed. The same can be done with an AR-15 style rifle or carbine. As always, the finger must stay clear of the trigger.
Easy Does It
It’s a good idea to adopt a chamber check technique that requires you to grasp the slide in a different method than you would to load the gun or clear a malfunction. When loading or clearing a malfunction, you need to work the slide vigorously. However, when performing a chamber check, it’s important to pull the slide back slowly and easily, no more than is needed to see a small portion of the chamber. When using the same grip for both actions, it would be quite easy to intend to perform a chamber check and instead send a live round out onto the ground. Not really something you want to do in front of your fellow officers or agents.
Some type of chamber check technique should be used with any small arm that operates from a closed chamber regardless of weapon style. Firearms safety is important to all armed professionals and involuntary discharges should be avoided at all costs. However, hitting the street without knowing your gun is loaded is far more dangerous than any potential hazard that may be incurred by looking to see if your personal weapon is loaded.
Dave Spaulding recently retired as a lieutenant from the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Dayton, Ohio. He is a member of the Police Advisory Board and the author of “Defensive Living” and “Handgun Combatives,” both available from Looseleaf Law Publications (www.looseleaflaw.com).