How Many Magazines Are Enough?  An Examination of Extra AR-15 Mags

Can you have too many magazines? The most common answer to that question is no. But most people have a finite number of resources that can be devoted to self-defense and firearms. Whether it is more training, more guns, more ammunition, or more magazines, all of these require the resources of time, money, and space. Thus, buying extra magazines needs to be put into the context of what are the best uses of those resources. Although we can always benefit from having more magazines and ammunition, what is a reasonable balance with other demands on your resources? I want to examine this from a few different angles:

  • What is your realistic need for magazines in most ‘common’ situations?
  • What do you want?
  • What is the most extreme need for magazines in ‘uncommon’ situations?
  • What should you look for in extra magazines?
Joel Nadler with rifle
More magazines are often seen as better, but realistically how many do you need? Like many self-defense decisions, this will likely vary from person to person.

How many magazines do you ‘need’?

“You can’t always get what you want, But if you try sometime, you’ll find, You get what you need” – Rolling Stones

The first question to address is how many magazines do you need, versus want, versus desire? I am defining need as just that — how many magazines do you need for the planned application for your firearm? Most guns come with two or three magazines, and for most defensive uses this likely fulfills those needs. Many people do not even carry a spare magazine, or if they do carry extra, it’s just a single one. Added to this is compelling data that the vast majority of defensive uses of a firearm do not require more than the rounds carried in the gun.

If the plan is to also practice and take basic defensive classes with the firearm, again the need is likely addressed with the second magazine generally included with most firearm purchases. This will allow for reloading and malfunction drills. If the plan also includes competition, the need may now be for a few more magazines. However, most competitions utilize no more than three magazines per stage, with time for reloading after each stage. Thus, at the simplest level, it is likely that two to three magazines per firearm will address your needs.

Joel Nadler does paperwork at shooting competition
If competing, you may want to move from the minimum number of magazines needed for a stage to enough magazines that you don’t have to reload throughout the match.

Beyond need is want.

I am defining want, here, as the number of magazines that will allow you to not worry about reloading based on the uses you plan to put the firearm to. Think of want as need plus a buffer.

For example, you may only ‘need’ three magazines to compete in an IDPA stage, but with six stages you might ‘want’ to have 18 magazines. That many mags would allow you to accomplish all your loading before the match. I prefer not having to reload magazines when competing so my competition guns have the number of magazines needed to make it through a full match. For GSSF indoors this is five magazines — the course of fire uses five ranges, each using one loaded magazine. Ten magazines provide the wanted number for GSSF outdoor matches — three different courses of fire needing three, three, and four magazines. Sixteen magazines work well for IDPA — typically two or three magazines per stage, with six stages.

I rarely carry more than two extra magazines for defensive guns, so three magazines satisfy my wants as well as needs. That said, I do have a few more in the preparedness bag in each vehicle. For my home defense guns located in fast-release safes, I have two extra magazines each for my handgun and six for my AR-15 rifle. That adds up to 210 rounds of 5.56 for the rifle, which is likely far above my needs and wants for any situation I am likely to survive. Considering the standard combat load of the U.S. Military is seven 30-round magazines for a total of 210 rounds, it is hard to think of a scenario where I would want more.

The final level is desire.

Like with all things related to firearms, I desire quite a lot. In this case, I define desire as the number of magazines above your needs and wants that is driven by such desires as stockpiling, buying in fear of future bans, or just preparing for apocalyptic eventualities. This is what most people draw from when they say you can never have enough. Another expression I have heard from various people is the only time you can have too much ammo (and to a lesser degree magazines) is when you are swimming or on fire.

I am not saying there may be scenarios where having a large number of pre-loaded magazines may be advantageous, but I am saying that it is highly unlikely. With my own magazine purchases, I have moved into the ‘desire’ range. I tend to buy a few extras for any firearms I buy even if they are destined to remain range toys. I have maximized the magazines needed and wanted for any gun that I use in competitions. Finally, I have built up a backstock of AR-15 magazines and 17-round 9mm Glock magazines. I currently keep seven or more AR-15 magazines for each family member loaded and ready to go. Do I think we will ever need this many magazines loaded? No, but then again, we can never completely know what the future may bring. It may sound a little extreme, but this is just a variation of my penchant for collecting.

rifles and mags on display
Beyond needing the minimum magazines for a particular role, beyond wanting more to make that role easier, is desire. Desire has little to do with likely needs and wants and can be driven by a desire to always be ready or worry that certain magazines may one day be banned.

A final concern when deciding on how many magazines is political/legal. Obviously, some states have round limits in place, and these have so far not been found to be constitutionally invalid. Thus, if you’re living in one of these states, the number of magazines needed to meet your needs, wants, and desires may be greater. Additionally, the possibility of a future ban on ‘higher’ capacity magazines is not 0% no matter where you live. I am relatively confident my home state currently would not ban any magazines. But what will the electorate look like in my state in 10 or 20 years? Your needs and wants may be rightly influenced to greater numbers based on the possibility that at some point you may not be able to buy more magazines of the capacity you desire.

Hexmag, Duramag, and Magpul AR magazines
Evaluate extra magazines on factors such as capacity, reliability and durability, cost, mechanics (loading, unloading, interaction with the firearm), and features.

What To Look for in Extra Magazines

For simplicity, I want to focus on AR-15 magazines. There are a lot of options available and spare magazines can easily be found. Broadly speaking magazines can be evaluated on:

  • Capacity
  • Reliability and durability
  • Cost
  • Mechanics
  • Features

I selected three magazines for comparison: the Duramag Aluminum magazine, the Hexmag Polymer, and the Magpul PMAG. Comparisons are shown in Table I. All three magazines were designed for either 5.56X45 NATO or .223 Remington rounds and all three have the same capacity at 30 rounds, though both polymer magazines could hold 31.

As far as reliability there were no functional or detectable differences. All three locked into different AR-15s reliably, fed rounds consistently, and none of the three examined had any magazine-related malfunctions while firing 180 rounds. The polymer magazines seemed more durable, but the aluminum magazine showed no wear from rough use. The cost varied slightly and all three can be found at varying prices based on sales. The Duramag aluminum magazine was the cheapest and most straightforward while the Magpul had the most features and was the most expensive, though retail prices only varied by $4.00.

Duramag, Hexmag, and Magpul AR-15 magazine comparison chart

Examining the mechanics, there are some differences. All three mags load to capacity with a similar amount of force. The Duramag aluminum magazines are harder to unload and the metal feed lips make this process less pleasant. Both the Duramag and the Magpul magazines easily fell free when empty after the AR-15 magazine release was depressed. The Hexmags sometimes required a soft tug to get them to drop from some of the AR-15s tested.


Each magazine differed in features, too. The Duramag aluminum magazines had the most variety of colors available — 10 compared to Magpul’s two and Hexmag’s four. They are slightly lighter, slightly shorter (by about ½”), and definitely rock the historical/retro look.

By comparison, the two polymer magazines have fewer color options but provide a much better surface area for gripping the magazine. Both the Hexmag and Magpul feature a textured outer surface designed for providing a better grip. Also, the two polymer magazines have a slightly larger floor plate that provides a better grip, especially if you need to rip a magazine out of your firearm.

Finally, the Magpul PMAG has a clear window to allow a quick visual capacity check. A bright orange line shows approximately when you are at 25, 15, and five rounds through the window. If you can just see one round in the window you should have 18 rounds left. For what it’s worth, a visitor on my range that was watching me test these thought it was “pretty cool” that you could see each of the rounds moving up through the translucent window as I fired the from the Magpul magazines.

I have always preferred the Magpul PMAGs. Though a little more expensive, they have proven to be reliable and durable, I like the added feature of the window and I have little need for any colors beyond the black and flat dark earth that they come in. If I was looking to save a few dollars on each magazine, the Hexmags gave every indication of being equally reliable and also come in green and grey. Finally, if I was most worried about cost and weight, wanted non-standard colors (red, green, blue, gold, etc.), or wanted a more retro look the Duramags would offer a solid solution.

Audit Your Resources and Evaluate Your Options

My advice is to audit your own resources. Within those resource limits, first make sure you have the firearms you realistic need for most eventualities. Second, make sure you train and practice your skills, ensuring safe and proficient use of those firearms. Third, build up a supply of ammunition.

Honestly, ammunition is the most likely thing you cannot have too much of. I thought I was well stocked when the ammo shortage hit in 2020. For almost a year I bragged that as long as ammo supplies returned by mid-2021 I had plenty to practice, compete, and shoot. Well, mid-2021 came and went and it wasn’t until almost a year later that ammo availability and price started to normalize again. This drain on the resources meant that we legitimately had to cut back the volume of matches we entered.

As with all decisions in self-defense, when deciding on stockpiling extra magazines, figure out your needs, wants, and desires. Based on those needs, evaluate your options and make the best choice for you.

Joel Nadler is the Training Director at Indy Arms Company in Indianapolis and co-owner of Tactical Training Associates.  He writes for several gun-focused publications and is an avid supporter of the right to self-sufficiency, including self-defense. Formerly a full professor, he has a Ph.D. in Psychology and now works as a senior consultant living on a horse ranch in rural Indiana.  Feel free to follow him on Instagram @TacticalPhD.

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