Why Carry With A Round In The Chamber?

In our discussions around home defense, we’ve all heard that one guy say “If I need my pistol for protection, I can just rack the slide and chamber a round. I’ll have enough time.”

It makes sense, right? It only takes a second or so to rack the slide, and we’ll have time to spare in the face of a deadly attack. Or will we? In a perfect world, sure. But, it ain’t a perfect world and things happen in a flash.

Why am I writing about this topic when it’s already been beaten to death within various internet venues and magazine articles? Because believe it or not, there are a lot of people who have not yet gotten the message. My hope is that this article will help a few more out.

Why Do People Carry With An Empty Chamber

The reason I hear most often is that it’s safer because, without a round in the chamber, there’s no risk of accidental discharge. That’s partly true – it won’t go “boom” when you don’t want it to. The downside, though, is that it won’t go off when you need it to, either.

Nowadays, most modern pistols are manufactured and shipped without a manual safety. Instead, the safety features are passive, in that many are located on the trigger face. There are also internal safeties present that prevent the pistol from discharging if it is dropped. Unless that trigger is intentionally pulled, that handgun — as long as it’s reliable — will not fire. Period.

Further, a good holster will cover the trigger and the guard, which will not allow any objects to intrude and pull that trigger unintentionally until the pistol is drawn and fired by the user.

Also, consider that many of today’s pistols have Double Action Only type triggers. Glock calls their triggers Safe Action. They are striker-fired, and the trigger pull, while not overly heavy, is a very long one. It takes a long, deliberate pull by the shooter to actually fire the weapon, which makes them safe. Most striker-fired pistols operate the same way. As the trigger is pulled, the striker inside is cocked and then reaches a point where it’s released.

Pistols with external hammers that are Double Action/Single Action (DA/SA) feature an even heavier first-round trigger pull that’s similar to a revolver. Subsequent shots are then in a single action.

A single action (SA) pistol such as the 1911 design is typically carried with the hammer cocked and the safety on when a round is chambered – referred to as “Cocked and Locked.” When fired in this mode, the trigger pull is extremely short and normally very light. Typically, these types of pistols are good for more experienced shooters because of that light trigger pull.

Let’s revisit the entire point of carrying a pistol or handgun: It is meant to fire when the trigger is pulled. People say, “I don’t want my gun to fire.” To which I will reply, “Then why are you carrying a gun?”

The Real World

Dynamics Of An Attack

When a person with ill intent decides they are going to attack us, they usually know it before we do. Maybe it’s a robbery or mugging that they’re going to launch against us. Maybe an assault. Perhaps they just plain want to kill us because we somehow upset them. Regardless, they’re the ones formulating the plot. 

The bottom line is that the bad guy made his decision to attack us and we might not even be aware of his presence. Or if we are, we’re not privy yet to his deadly intentions.

Author being attacked with a knife.
We don’t have eyes in the back of our head, which makes us susceptible to attacks from behind. Imagine a threat that’s armed with a knife barreling down on us and we don’t even know it. Better at least have a round chambered, because it’s about to get real! Photo courtesy of SWAT Magazine.

That means we are playing catch-up in the fight of our lives. And that’s not a good position to be in.

How quickly will we figure out that we are under assault? If we’re lucky, we’ll see the bad guy rushing toward us and we might have fractions of a second to mount a defense. Will it be enough time for us to get a round in that chamber?

Consider that the first clue we’re under attack might be a knife plunging into our back. Or perhaps a punch or other impact weapon connecting with our body or head.

Here’s a major factor to consider: Will we even have the presence of mind to remember that we need to rack the slide to chamber a round in the face of impending death? Imagine pulling the trigger and nothing happens, then remembering that we still need to rack that slide. No bueno!

The Tueller Drill

Police Sergeant Dennis Tueller invented the Tueller Drill. The general idea of this drill is that it takes approximately 1.5 seconds for a good guy to draw his or her pistol when a bad guy is 21′ away; the bad guy can cover that 21′ in approximately 1.5 seconds. So if a person with a knife is 21′ away, he can possibly reach us before we draw our handgun and fire it. And that is WITH a round chambered!

Knife attack.
If you actually see the attack coming ahead of time, count yourself very lucky. Photo courtesy of SWAT Magazine.

Consider that this is assuming we know there is an attack coming – we certainly might be unaware of the bad guy’s intentions, which puts us further behind the curve. And then we have to actually put our weapon into operation after we’ve mentally processed the fact that we’re under attack, which takes time. Now add in time for us to rack the slide to chamber a round. Long story short, we’re going to be stabbed.

The author was attacked by criminals using edged weapons twice in his career. Both times, he did not immediately see that the attacker was armed. The first time it was midway through the attack that the weapon was visible, and the second time, it wasn’t until after the attack that the weapon was apparent.


Most people have never faced a deadly assault that necessitates them drawing their weapon to defend their lives. The mental shock of such an event is going to be so far off the scale, I can’t even describe it. It has happened to me a few times, but I was unarmed and did not have the benefit of a weapon of my own. I had to handle it with my bare hands.

Often, people freeze and mentally cannot react because their brains will not process what is happening quickly enough.

Adrenaline instantly floods a person’s system in a deadly force encounter. What happens when adrenaline is going full-tilt?

  • Tachypsychia. The perception that time slows down and everything seems to be playing out in slow motion.
  • Auditory Exclusion. Hearing either shuts down or is drastically hampered. Sounds seem muted and far-off.
  • Tunnel Vision. The mind focuses on the threat and excludes peripheral vision.
  •  Pain Is Deadened. Natural painkillers often dampen pain until after the incident is over (minutes or hours later).
  • Fine Motor Skills Degrade. Blood withdraws from the limbs and into the body’s core. Fine motor skills suffer. Fingers can act like flippers.
  • Increased Strength. The mind forgets the body’s limitations, often unleashing tremendous strength.
  • Memory Loss. Our mind concentrates only on things that relate to survival. As a result, we frequently forget many details of an incident.
  • Racing Thoughts. Dozens or even hundreds of thoughts can race through our heads in fractions of a second.

The Adrenal Stress that we endure can be crippling, literally. Especially if we’ve never had to deal with it before.

Tunnel Vision, of a gunman.
Tunnel Vision, slow motion, mental shock…all things that are experienced under adrenal stress. Imagine you’ve just gotten into your car and you turn your head and see a madman with a gun.

Training can somewhat make up for the effects of adrenaline, but nothing can take the place of experience. And even those of us who are experienced dealing with it can still find it difficult to fight through the adrenal effects of a lethal force situation. Let’s be real – if we’re reaching for our handgun, we’re most likely in a deadly force encounter.

Real World Considerations

Will both hands be free for us to rack the slide to chamber a round? Maybe not. One hand might be trying to fend off the attacker while the “free” hand draws the weapon. In such an instance, if a round is not chambered, we are screwed.

Blocking a knife attack.
When blocking an attack with one hand, we will not be able to rack the slide efficiently with our remaining hand. We’d better have a round chambered! Photo courtesy of Katie Davis.

In the area where I live recently, a woman was robbed at gunpoint. She came out from work and was sitting in her car, preparing for her ride home. As she situated her purse and other personal items on the seat next to her, she looked up and saw the barrel of a gun pointed at her, being held by a robber.

In such an instance, we will not have time to access our pistol and chamber a round. It just won’t work.

Perhaps you’re at the bank or a local business and some cretin barges in and announces that anyone who moves will get shot and this is a robbery. You believe our life might be about to be snuffed out. He turns slightly and is looking away from you. How about it? Do you have time to pull your pistol, rack the slide, aim, and fire? The sound of the slide racking is going to certainly catch his attention. And again, under that intense pressure, will you even remember to rack the slide?

Bad guys often maneuver to get the drop on us. They intentionally do not want to give us a chance to fight back because they might get hurt or arrested. It makes their job more difficult when we are not caught by surprise.

Because of this, we can’t afford to be leaving time on the table by having to rack the slide to chamber a round. Even with a round chambered, our chances of success diminish in many instances because the bad guy planned ahead and we had no idea that we were about to become a victim.

The bad guy chooses the scenario. It sucks, but there’s the whole truth.

If your response is, “Oh, it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll ever be in such a dramatic situation,” then let me ask you this: Why are you carrying a handgun? If you’ll never need it, why carry it?

The truth is that we never know. The most unassuming places can be the scene of a crime.

Take A Look

Don’t believe me. Don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. Go on YouTube and search “Robberies” or “Shootouts” or “Stabbings.” There are dozens of videos of people being robbed or attacked, some of which are broken down by professional defense trainers. Take note of how quickly these scenarios unfold.

Other Considerations

Remember I mentioned that our motor skills go to crap when our mind tells us, “Someone’s trying to kill me!!”? You’re assuming that you’ll be able to draw your pistol smoothly and rack the slide properly. That might be a stretch. What if you mess it up? And if there ever was a time that you’re likely to screw up racking the slide on your pistol, it is the time when someone is trying to hurt you.

A man attacking a cop with a baseball bat.
This guy is trying to attach a police officer with a baseball bat. Attacks usually happen very suddenly, without warning. Photo courtesy of El Cajon Police Department.

Not racking the slide properly can cause a stoppage in your pistol. The slide might not strip a round off the magazine and chamber a round. In which case, you will be truly up the creek because in addition to being way behind the 8-ball, you’ll now have to clear a stoppage. How long might that take? Well, it could take you the rest of your life.

Parting Shots

If you don’t feel comfortable carrying a round chambered in your pistol, identify why you feel unsure about doing so. And then remedy it. If it’s a lack of confidence in your holster, get a better one. If you’re unsure of your gun-handling skills, practice and work on them until you are confident. Use Snap Caps, which are inert practice rounds for safety. But whatever is holding you back, I encourage you to find a solution.

Carrying with an empty chamber is inviting disaster. Pure and simple. There are many instances where you will not have the time nor opportunity to chamber a round at the outset of an attack. It could cost not only your life, but the lives of your loved ones.



Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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