The Renaissance of the Revolver into the collective cerebral cortex of the firearm community continues without signs of slowing down. With more and more people discovering that a defensive revolver is still very relevant in particular contexts it is a good idea to occasionally look at some of the more foundational elements of how to run them. And one of the real foundational aspects is reloading.

Mind the gap

Many who I see creating content concerning the defensive revolver spend time debating what is the ‘best practice’ way to conduct an empty gun reload. Training curriculum, from my early law enforcement career forward to now, has emphasized the empty gun reload as concerns the revolver. While that is a worthwhile learning domain, up to a point, it ignores what may be a more common scenario when it comes to private person or armed professional contexts. In short, I think there is a gap in conventional wisdom as relates to use and carry of the wheel gun.

One of the knocks on carrying revolvers is their limited ammunition capacity. While I understand the apprehension that can associate it is important to recognize that the context of a fighting revolver in the hands of a citizen defender today is not a high round count engagement. This is particularly true for the smallest revolvers, such as Ruger’s LCR or Smith & Wesson’s many J frame models.  The five or six shot revolver is often carried by armed professionals as a backup gun for use in situations that are most extreme or truly covert carry is essential.

Frankly, I think the use cases for that gun in the hands of a citizen defender fall into that same category; it is a “get me out of trouble gun” often at very close quarters. Darryl Bolke, to name one contemporary top tier instructor in particular, has written extensively on that point and his thinking on it is seminal. I encourage the reader to visit Darryl’s work on that rationale and learn more.

What data can tell us

The limited capacity of the revolver may, however, not be as much of an issue as we might think. First it is worthwhile to remember the teachings of the preeminent handgun fighters from the 1800’s forward to now… that delivering accurate fire to the vital areas of the adversary before he can do it to you is the most important factor.  We need to fire as few rounds as the ending the threat merits, since we are accountable for each of them. Pistols are rather notorious for not stopping attackers immediately, so being able to deliver precisely accurate fire  The words of attorney and gun rights advocate Karl Martell ring true:

“Shot placement is king; adequate penetration is queen; everything else is angels dancing on the heads of pins”

A majority of the evidence commonly presented on gunfights comes from law enforcement shootings. It is a wide body of data and is used to create averages that we rely on, perhaps too heavily, in our knowledge base. But, the use cases and contexts of peace officers and those of citizen defenders are vastly different from one another. They are so different that any real comparison is tantamount to comparing apples to oranges.

In the universe of private person defensive gun use there is a growing body of data that concludes that an empty gun reload is so exceedingly rare that it becomes statistically insignificant. The most empirical data is, in my opinion, that collected by Tom Givens of Rangemaster from 70 some odd of his students who have experienced defensive gun use in the real world after having been trained by Mr. Givens. That data shows that private person defensive encounters overwhelmingly happen at close quarters, often within less than a car length’s distance, and the number of shots fired is often small. That the aggregate record of Givens’ students is all wins, no losses and three forfeits (where the defender was not carrying their gun when they needed it) speaks not only to the veracity of the data but to the strength of the Rangemaster training principles.

So, given all that data why do we care about reloading at all? Put simply; stuff happens, and, like a box of chocolates, you just never know what you’re going to find in the unlikely event you get into a gun fight. You might need to fire only one or two shots, or you might have to fire six. If you don’t fire the gun within the defensive transaction, then the point is moot. But if you fire the revolver at least once but less than the entire cylinder full, then what?

Based on the data, I think the more likely scenario for the concealed carrier is that they will need to be topping their gun off. For the revolver that is getting rid of just the empties and getting fresh ammo into those now vacant holes, when (and only when) the opportunity presents itself. A full gun after all, to quote Mr. Givens, is a happy gun.  So, let’s explore some ways to get that done.

First the tools

For the revolver shooter the first, best, place to stage extra ammunition is on the dominant side and ahead of the holster if the holster is carried on the belt or just behind the holster if it is carried inside the waistband. That position helps facilitate the strong hand reload that some form of is most known and most often trained.

Looking back to the times when revolvers were the standard in police work, plain clothes and off duty officers carrying concealed often carried extra ammunition in some manner of pouch on the belt or in a belt carrier with loops. While they can be used to reload quickly with training and recurrent practice, the downside of loops is that they can be a visual tell of the carrier being armed. The looped ammunition is plainly visible if a cover garment is not worn or is compromised.

Flapped pouches, some of which which dump the ammunition into the shooter’s hand when opened, are the next level up from loops. They are low key and less of a visual tell to a casual observer.  Arguably the best take on the pouch concept is the 2x2x2 type, which holds six rounds in pairs and secured with a snapped flap.

Flexible strip loaders carried in a pocket, or in a belt pouch made for them, became a solution beginning in the 1960s.  They are still made today by a number of manufacturers in various forms and can be very useful in application. I recommend the Bianchi Speed Strip, the strips from Tuff Products and the Zeta 6 line of strips. I particularly like the Zeta 6 “Pak” type. Avoid cheap knock off strips often found online as they are generally garbage.

As mentioned earlier, speed loaders and moon clips are the fastest methods to complete an empty gun reload. The downside to the speed loader, in the context we are examining here, is that it is an all or nothing solution. Dump the empty cases and any live ammunition in the gun and refill the cylinder in its entirety.  There are drills where this procedure is taught, and some include kneeling to recover the unexpended ammunition and retain it in a pocket if the opportunity exists to do so. It is a not particularly efficient operation, unless you simply abandon the good ammo you dumped with the empties, but it can work if the situation allows. It’s my opinion that the proper use of a speed loader is strictly for a true empty gun reload.   With that context in mind, let’s explore topping the gun off in more depth.

Doing the work

In a situation where you’ve fired one to three shots and you need only to top the gun off, ammo in a belt carrier or a strip loader becomes the best solution in my opinion.  To get started you first open the cylinder as you would for an empty gun reload, and get the gun into your non-dominant hand. Instead of rotating the muzzle up to the vertical and stroking the ejector rod, keep the muzzle down and use your thumb to partially depress the rod. The cartridges that were fired will stand proud from the cylinder when pressure on the rod is released. They can then be easily plucked out with the dominant hand.  Do not push the rod all the way in as that tends to allow cartridges to drop under the ejector star, which creates an entirely different problem.

Working from a looped carrier typically involves pushing up the cartridges singly or in pairs so that the rim can be grasped and then inserted into the cylinder. Some carriers made for police duty belts were designed to hold the cartridges at an angle with the rims farther away from the body to allow an easier grasp. Looped carriers made from leather can, over time, create corrosion or verdigris on cartridge cases which can cause them not to chamber. That makes it all the important to regularly inspect your carry ammunition.

The looped carrier of choice, for me, has become the Immediate Action Carrier, available from Dark Star Gear. Made of Kydex and sized to fit 1.5 inch nylon belts that are a common accessory for the citizen defender, the carrier holds two rounds of .38 Special or .357 Magnum. No pushing up is required, grasp the rim of one or both cartridges and go.

In practice I find that, as we say in defensive shotgun loading, that “speaking Italian” is the path to success. Grasp the cartridge(s) between the thumb and first three fingers of your dominant hand. Guide the bullets into the empty chamber(s). Once started, release finger pressure and push them in with the thumb. Close the cylinder and you are ready to fight.

Like anything else there are potential downsides. Individual cartridges, even in pairs, are small and can easily be fumbled in the heat of a moment. If you’ve been injured it becomes all the more difficult as was surfaced in the 1986 FBI shootout in Miami when flowing blood from a gunshot wound greatly impeded one agent reloading his empty revolver.  Choosing some manner of looped carrier requires training and ongoing practice that you need to commit to fully to build a reliable, repeatable solution.

Loading strips are bigger, hold the cartridges as a unit, and are much easier to hang on to and manipulate. They are also easy to retain, going into a pocket for instance, if you only use some of the ammunition on the strip. I have become a dedicated user of the Zeta 6 line of strips, particularly their Sym-Strip and Pak styles.

To top off the gun we would follow the same initial steps of getting the gun open and plucking out the empties. Draw the strip from pouch or pocket and insert the fresh ammunition into the empty cylinder holes, singly or in pairs. Close the revolver, pocket the strip if you’ve not fully depleted it, and you are back in the fight.

Tale of the Tape

As mentioned, topping off the gun is a skill set that really needs to be practiced. I work through a number of different evolutions as part of my weekly dry fire routine using dummy ammunition. On the range I have been able to get a fresh pair into the gun from Dark Star’s IAC loop carrier in around five seconds. With a Zeta 6 strip six seconds or a bit under seems to be the norm, but I am fishing the strip out of a pants pocket.

In comparison I can reliably execute an empty gun reload with a speed loader in a concealed pouch on the belt in five seconds or a bit less. Given that the empty gun reload seems to be more of an outlier than a norm, I may carry a speed loader, but I absolutely carry an IAC carrier on my belt and two Zeta 6 Sym-Strips, each with four rounds arranged in pairs. I have one strip in each front pocket of my pants or shorts as the case may be. They are far less bulky and easier to conceal than any speed loader or moon clip.

So what about training?

Dry fire with dummy cartridges is, of course, a great place to start. To get a real feel for the techniques and to evaluate gear choices I heartily recommend it.

For a training routine to get reps in, I look to the Snub Noir EZ-Qualifier. From noted revolver guru Michael de Bethencourt, it is a simple 17 shot course that using all the basic tools and skills for reloading, and walks the shooter through loading starting with single rounds, then pairs and so forth, up to an empty gun reload. The course of fire can be found here, it opens as a PDF.

Summing up

There will always be use cases that call for an empty gun reload, which is where the speed loader or moon clip is king. We certainly should hone our skill on the empty gun reload, but we must not let our training focus on it alone. Common sense, along with a body of data, suggests that we must not be shooting our gun dry as quickly as possible, no matter what kind of gun we have. We need to judiciously fire only the number of shots necessary in the moment to stop an attack. Those shots must be fired with deliberation and accuracy. That approach presupposes the idea that it is less likely we would need to conduct an empty gun reload.

Being able to top the gun off when just a couple of shots have been fired can have an upside.  One advantage I see when only part of the ammunition in the gun has been fired, is that by topping off there is no point in the evolution where there is no live ammunition in the gun. If, for example, a second adversary appears while I am behind cover or concealment topping the gun off, I can simply close the gun and fire the ammunition in it as I need to.

Given the unlikely event of getting into a pitched, high round count fight… which is something the citizen defender should be avoiding anyway, if at all possible, the revolver as a defensive tool in modern contexts becomes a relevant solution for many. With judicious and accurate use, it is every bit as capable of stopping a fight as any other handgun. With proper technique, practiced skill and a solid mindset the citizen defender with a revolver, even a small revolver, can be well armed indeed.

The revolver and its reloading tools.


All photos by the author


Frank Groth is a Snub Noir contributing writer, a former law enforcement officer, and holds multiple certifications as an instructor. He is the owner and principal instructor at SRF Training & Consulting. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.