Marty eJournal column pixGun Safety and Reloading

by Marty Hayes, J.D.

Network member Rob from Ohio sent me this email after reading last month’s President’s Message regarding gun safety and unintentional discharges. I found his question thought provoking, and wanted to answer it here.


I just finished reading your journal article on safe gun handling and would like to have your position on reload technique. I have read and seen the reload technique of raising the pistol to eye level with the barrel pointed skyward.

The justification being that you can watch the mag into the well. Using this technique, there is no way of knowing where a negligent discharge will land. The club to which I belong has a “muzzle down” policy and will eject any member who fails to follow this policy.

I personally have been trained in Rob Pincus’ CFS (Combat Focus Shooting) program where reloads are accomplished at the low ready position and rely on practice and muscle memory to get the mag into the pistol. Beyond safety, this allows you to continue scanning while reloading.

Rob, you bring up several valid concerns. To respond, I think a little history lesson is in order. Modern firearms training for the most part started at Gunsite Academy in 1976 and was based upon firearms skills tested at that time in practical shooting competition. The theory was that what worked best in simulated gunfights would likely work best in real gunfights. And that theory has proven to be mostly true over the past 40 years. One of the techniques was the “chin level reload.” To clarify, the concept is that you can both see the magazine well and look over the gun downrange, so to me the “scanning while reloading” concept isn’t that big of an issue when considering the position of the gun. But, of course, where the muzzle is pointed is a concern.

Once upon a time, ranges were primarily outdoors with lots of wide-open, unpopulated space around them. The occasional round going over a safety berm was not a big deal, as the likelihood of it being a problem was remote. But now, with the proliferation of both indoor ranges and urban encroachment upon the outdoor ranges, I believe the “muzzle down reload” has some real merit.

But even a blanket “muzzle down” policy doesn’t address the whole issue. What about reloading a revolver? To eject the spent cartridges, one must point the muzzle skyward, then hit the ejector rod. Of course, the gun is empty, but then again, so is the semi-automatic when the slide is locked back when empty. In theory, a semi-auto reload with the slide locked back is the same thing.

But we also know the shooter becomes conditioned to perform a reload the same way, either with the slide locked back or slide forward. To train to different ways to reload the semi-auto pistol would seem counter-productive. And that doesn’t even consider the “tactical reload” when one swaps a partially loaded magazine for a full one, in the oft discussed “lull in the action” of a deadly force encounter.

So, to get back to your question, my answer is “it depends.” If you train and normally shoot at a range in rural America, you likely do not have a real problem. But if you train and shoot at one of the increasingly popular urban shooting centers, the muzzle down reload policy makes a whole bunch of sense. And frankly, the muzzle down reload isn’t that much (if any) slower than the chin level reload. It is just different, and there is the negative aspect of casting your eyes downward for a second or two if needed during a critical time.

The bottom line is that with most other endeavors, a cost-to-benefit analysis should be undertaken to decide which pathway to take.

Negligent v. Accidental v. Unintentional Discharges

You also brought up in your question the term “negligent discharge” (commonly called an ND). As a legally educated individual, I know the word “negligent” can attach negative legal consequences, either criminal or civil, depending on the circumstances. At one point in our short history of firearms training, the most commonly used term for firing a gun other than purposely was the term “accidental discharge” (AD). But, for whatever reason, perhaps to impart a more serious tone upon the act of firing the gun unintentionally, the term “negligent discharge” came into favor. And even more recently, the term “unintentional discharge” has worked its’ way into the discussion of these actions. And frankly, “unintentional discharge” is a term that I use with more and more frequency.

If a person shoots guns enough, they will invariably experience an episode when they discharge the gun unintentionally: either prematurely as in during a draw stroke when the round strikes the ground in front of them, or perhaps when they are manipulating the gun as in the case of clearing a malfunction. It is my belief, that if all other safety protocols were in place (primarily pointing at a safe backstop or the ground in front of them) that they weren’t negligent. If buffered by overlapping layers of safety procedure, it was likely an “unintentional discharge.” Conversely, if the discharge resulted in severe injury or death to another person, then the term “negligent discharge” may indeed describe that act correctly.

In addition, I have personally experienced “accidental discharges”–once during a shooting match when my pistol suffered a mechanical failure, and twice during training when the same gun (I sense a pattern here) malfunctioned again. The gun has since been repaired!

So, without going into a full legal discussion about negligence (if you want more on this topic, search the Internet for “negligence” and you can spend days reading about it), I recommend a more circumspect usage of the term “negligent discharge,” replacing it with the more innocuous term “unintentional discharge,” at least until you know the complete details of the incident.

In closing, as I mentioned last month, we have asked our Network Affiliated Attorneys to weigh in on the question of whether or not someone should self-report an unintentional firing of a handgun. The responses we received were both varied and educational, so keep reading the next few pages of this journal to get a sense of the legal profession’s thoughts on the matter.

Click here to return to our November 2016 Journal to read more.