Competitive Shooting

How To: Handgun Manipulation and Clearance Techniques

Woman receiving instruction on the proper manipulation of a handgun

If the handgun has a malfunction and doesn’t fire or isn’t loaded when expected, the results could be deadly. Speed drills and speed loads should be practiced until you are familiar with the handgun. If the cartridge fails to fire, or you run empty during a gunfight, rapid replenishment of the ammunition supply is critical.

When you have practiced these drills, and should you be able to remain clear-headed during stress, you will execute the drills seamlessly. If not, you will fumble the procedure by dropping the magazine or missing the slide lock or magazine catch. If you have not practiced, your survival is questionable at best.

Man holding a pistol with a loaded chamber flag inserted to show it is safely unloaded
For safety’s sake, the author uses a loaded-chamber indicator/safety device in executing “case in the ejection port” drills.

Recent Malfunctions

During the past few months, I have experienced more malfunctions proportionately to rounds fired than at any time I am able to remember. It is rare that at least one failure to fire doesn’t occur during a shooting class and more during competition. There are explanations, such as the fact that many makers have been forced to use foreign primers that may be less reliable.

As an example, during World War I, Winchester won a government contract that specified a failure to fire or function rate of one in 100,000. It easily met the contract specifications. Today, with many makers all vying for sales — some using if it goes bang, it will sell — ammunition is probably less reliable overall than ever. Not that the major makers are infallible.

The big three are Federal, Winchester, and Remington. Hornady enjoys a good reputation and won the FBI contract recently. Just the same, I have opened a box of ammunition from the big three and found a primer loaded upside down and another with a bullet loaded upside down in the case. We should be prepared for a failure.

After all, with billions of cartridges manufactured each year, there are going be problems. I load my duty guns with ammunition from companies that have been in the game for more than 100 years – and Hornady, a newcomer at around 70 years. Just the same, I have practiced clearance drills.

Some handling is low stress and high importance. Often called “administrative handling,” loading and unloading the handgun during inspections or storage is an important safety skill. Having the necessary handgun manipulation skills to safely load and unload the pistol is important. There are overlooked skills that may prove vital. As an example, properly loading a self-loading pistol magazine is more involved than you would think. It is important to load three rounds, and then tap the back of the magazine against a table or boot heel to seat the rounds to the rear. Load three more cartridges and tap the magazine again. Continue until the magazine is fully loaded.

Tapping the magazine on a bench to seat the cartridges.
Tapping the magazine on a bench or boot heel seats the cartridges and will help prevent a malfunction.


To load the handgun, first, lock the slide to the rear. Insert the magazine into the magazine well and slap the bottom of the magazine locking it in place. Then, hit the slide lock to drop the slide. This is more positive than inserting a magazine and racking the slide over the magazine.

It is sometimes taught to simply grasp the rear of the slide and release. I find hitting the slide lock to be more positive. After the slide drops, for pistols with a manual safety, place the safety in the “on safe” position.

In the P-series SIG and similar pistols, utilize the decock lever to lower the hammer. A few pistols allow loading with the safety on. It is equally important to understand how to load the individual pistol. Most modern pistols have the Browning-type magazine release, some have a paddle-type magazine release, and others use a heel-type magazine catch. Be familiar with your handgun through constant repetitive drills.

Operating the slide lock on a SIG Sauer P226 MK25 handgun
The author has many years of familiarity with the SIG P-series and finds them easily operated — with plenty of practice.


To safely unload the pistol, remove the magazine and set it aside. Then rack the slide to the rear. As you rack the slide to the rear, the safest technique is to use the slingshot method and pull the slide straight to the rear, allowing the cartridge in the chamber to fall out the bottom of the magazine well.

An alternate often taught is to place the palm of the weak-side hand over the ejection port. As the firing hand stabilizes the handgun frame the weak side hand moves the slide to the rear and captures the chambered cartridge in the hand as it is ejected. The problem with this method is there have been very few incidents in which the cartridge primer struck the ejector and ignited, inuring the shooter’s hand. Be careful, both loading and unloading, and give due diligence to each procedure.

When practicing on the firing range, most of us fire the pistol to slide lock and then execute a speed load. While this is fair training, if we are familiar with administrative handling, speed loads are second nature. The tactical reload, however, is an interesting concept.

Thumbs-forward grip on a SIG Sauer P226 handgun
The thumbs-forward grip keeps the fingers away from controls but also allows quick slide lock manipulation, if needed.

The tactical reload is executed after you have fired a number of cartridges. The pistol has not gone to slide lock. Perhaps, the shooter doesn’t really know how many rounds have been fired. The magazine is replaced with a fully-loaded magazine.

With the tactical load, the shooter retains the partially loaded magazine, as you may need those cartridges later. Tactical reloads may be accomplished with lever-action rifles, and certain shotguns, and is usually referred to as topping off. The bottom line is the fact that it is best to have a pistol fully loaded as soon as possible after shots are fired.

The problem comes to light when you run out of ammunition or do not find cover, you will be in an inferior tactical situation. When practicing these drills, don’t get ahead of yourself and drop the slide before the magazine is seated.

Practice and get the steps down to muscle memory. Grasp the magazine with the fingers alongside the magazine body to guide the magazine into the magazine well. Keep the pistol aimed toward the threat as the weak hand brings the magazine to the pistol and inserts the magazine with a slap. If the slide is to the rear, release the slide to run forward.  

The single malfunction drill that is most important and which will solve 90% of all problems is called TAP-RACK-BANG! In this drill, the magazine base is tapped hard, the slide is racked, and the pistol fired. I find some of the folks carrying uber-reliable pistols such as the SIG P226 or Glock 19 don’t practice this drill.

Pistol with a spent cartridge that failed to eject
This pistol suffered a cartridge case that fired but failed to eject. Racking the slide several times will often free the case.

They point out pistols of the type with 20,000 trouble-free rounds. That is exactly the reason they should practice TAP-RACK-BANG! They are long overdue for a malfunction…

Another malfunction sometimes occurs with a case jammed into the ejection port. The problem is brought about by either underpowered ammunition or a weak wrist hold. The support hand sweeps the case out of the ejection port as the hand grasps the slide, racks the slide, and makes the pistol ready to fire. TAP-RACK-BANG! covers this as well if you are careful to cant the slide to one side, dumping the offending case.

Seldom does a second pull on the trigger crack the primer and cause the desired ignition. A more severe problem is a failure to extract. There are certain off-spec 9mm brass cartridge cases more prone to this type of malfunction.

Arex Rex with a TruGlo weapons light attached
This pistol features a manual-safety magazine lock and decock lever as well as a takedown lever, not to mention the combat light controls. Be intimately familiar with each control.

The only cure is to drop the magazine to clear the feedway while holding the magazine between the fingers, and then racking the slide until the extractor catches and ejects the cartridge. Then, you’ll slap the magazine home. This takes some time to execute. If this doesn’t work, “Feet don’t fail me now!” is a logical response.

The handgun isn’t terribly complicated. There are a few springs, and the magazine is a renewable resource. Ammunition is problematic in some cases. Be certain to practice loading, unloading, and basic failure manipulations. Be familiar with your tools and stay safe!

Do you have a tip or lesson learned about using the controls of a pistol or clearing a handgun malfunction? Share it in the comment section.

  • Woman holding a handgun with the slide locked to the rear
  • Operating the slide lock on a SIG Sauer P226 MK25 handgun
  • Thumbs-forward grip on a SIG Sauer P226 handgun
  • Man holding a pistol with a loaded chamber flag inserted to show it is safely unloaded
  • Slapping th magazine into the magazine well of a Glock pistol
  • Racking the magazine to rear to clear a malfunction in a handgun
  • Walther 9mm pistol with a 147-grain bullet misfeed
  • Gripping the pistol's slide to rack it to the rear and chamber a round
  • manipulating the slide on a 1911 handgun
  • controls on a SIG P220 semi-automatic 9mm pistol
  • Arex Rex with a TruGlo weapons light attached
  • Pistol camber with a cartridge jammed
  • Pistol with a spent cartridge that failed to eject
  • pistol with a stovepiped cartridge
  • Tapping the magazine on a bench to seat the cartridges.
  • Top down view of a loaded handgun magazine
  • Pistol magazine on a bench with three loose cartridges
  • Loading a magazine into a handung
  • Slapping the magazine into a handgun
  • Woman receiving instruction on the proper manipulation of a handgun

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (4)

  1. Mike

    Thanks for reading. The sling shot method you describe is valid.

    However after many years of shooting I find that it is slightly faster to slap the magazine in place and quickly hit the slide lock. It doesnt require two hands. It is faster by the same token in one hand drills to slap the magazine in and end the slide lock than to attempt to snag the sight on the belt.
    Just the same- to each his own and each seems to work well. If you are doing well with your drill re-training may be a chore. Best

  2. There is another issue about using the slide lock to release. Over time, it can wear and then it eventually can cause a malfunction by NOT locking the slide open. —- in an emergency, go ahead and use the latch if you wish. … I do not recommend it however.

  3. As a retired LEO and 30 year firearms instructor, I always stressed that agents should insert a magazine into their magazine pouch with the bullets (projectiles) facing forward so that when they grasp the magazine with their thumb and forefinger it is already in the proper position to insert into the magazine well. There is no need to take your eyes off of the threat to correctly insert the magazine.
    We also stressed that during a tactical reload the removed magazine be retained in the shooters pocket, waistband, etc but not put back in the magazine pouch as only fully loaded mags should be in the magazine pouch.

  4. Under the Loading section you discuss how using the slide lock to charge the pistol after a reload is more “positive”. I don’t understand what you mean by that.

    At Gunsite I have been taught from multiple instructors that after the new mag is inserted the support hand comes over the top of the slide and grasps the slide (with palm of the hand and all fingers to ensure maximum grip) and pulls it back to the end of its travel and then released. This gross motor skill maximizes the power of the recoil spring to provide maximum force for the slide to go forward and fully insert the next round from the magazine. It maybe a little slower than using the slide lock only but ensures the best chance possible to charge the pistol by fulling going into battery. The slide lock method doesn’t get to use that last 1/4” of spring travel that has a lot of power in it.

    Why is the slide lock method more “positive”?

    Thank you,

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