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Why we should reconsider “Reloading!” in a gunfight

Conditioning our students to reflexively announce that their gun has run dry in the middle of a gunfight might be a dangerous habit to be avoided, at least in certain situations

We’re imitators. I’m not just talking about law enforcement — I’m talking about all humans. Our earliest ancestors took note of what worked, what got results, and/or what appealed to them, and they imitated it. When the first saber-toothed cat got poked with a sharp stick and went down, early man paid attention and copied the action. When the first man-made fire was started, early man paid attention and copied the action. Mankind knew there was “no need to reinvent the wheel” long before the wheel was ever invented.

We’re just as likely as our ancient predecessors to copy the actions, styles, language, and appearance of those who do things in a way that gets results and/or appeals to us. Nobody is immune to it — not even law enforcement officers.

I recently attended a law enforcement firearms instructor course and I heard officers from a number of different agencies calling out “Reloading!” or “I’m down!” as they ran their guns to slide lock. They then dutifully followed up with verbal progress reports that indicated they were back in service with topped-off weapons. Let’s give some thought to those methods of tactical communications.

Sometimes, Life Imitates Art
Cops everywhere were scrambling to find .44 Magnum revolvers after the “Dirty Harry” movies hit theaters, and after “Miami Vice” made a splash on TV, everyone needed a shoulder holster. When “NYPD Blue” became popular, even ‘cow town’ cops started talking about “perps” and “wise guys.”

I think the motion picture “Blackhawk Down” got large numbers of people using that “Reloading!” and “Covering!” style of tactical communication. In the Ridley Scott film, Shughart and Gordon used this communication method as they valiantly battled an armed Somali mob that soon overwhelmed their position.

Although the technique had been used in military circles for some time, it hadn’t been seen by “the masses” until that movie. The fact that the technique was used by elite personnel such as the Delta Force soldiers made it very appealing.

Before long, it was being taught all over the place, including in law enforcement academies and commercial shooting schools (frequently managed by former military personnel, who naturally passed on what they had been taught as soldiers).

Street cops, SWAT team personnel, concealed weapons carriers, and even garden-variety home defenders were all being taught to vocalize their ready and weapons status in the middle of combat.

It all looked and sounded very sexy and tactical.

But was it a good idea?

Small-Unit Tactics vs. Single-Officer Tactics
We need to remember that this technique has its roots in military circles, where there is an underlying assumption that personnel will be fighting as one member of a much larger group. These personnel are trained in small unit tactics from the very beginning, and are taught how to fire and maneuver as part of a group.

They are deployed and utilized as a unit, not as individuals, so it’s presumed that if one member announces they are “reloading” in the middle of a fight, another nearby member will be able to provide temporary assistance (often from a belt-fed weapon or shoulder fired weapon with a large magazine capacity that ensures they won’t be empty, also) until that soldier gets back in the fight.

It’s likely that the military combat environment will look very different from that of the average police officer or citizen defender — who will frequently find themselves operating alone and without immediate assistance.

In this very different environment, a verbal warning that the officer or citizen is “reloading” will not provide any relief or assistance, but may provide valuable information that the adversary can use to his advantage.

Would you agree that conditioning our students to reflexively announce that their gun has run dry in the middle of a gunfight might be a dangerous habit to be avoided, at least in certain situations?

Don’t Create a Conditioned Response
Obviously, there are situations where police officers and citizen defenders will operate with assistance nearby, or as part of an organized team. Patrol officers frequently have backup on scene, SWAT teams operate very much like small military units, and even citizen defenders might have armed partners to work with.

It’s important to be able to communicate effectively with the members of your team — particularly during a fight — and it’s important to be able to draw on the strength of that team by clearly communicating when you need help.

I get that, and I concede that there is a time and place for the verbalization technique.

However, we also need to realize that even if we have assistance nearby, there is no guarantee that anyone on our side is going to hear — or even be able to process — our announcement.

In a fluid, stressful, violent situation involving many people, there is no guarantee that our partners are going to hear the “I’m down!” or “Reloading!” call. This may be due to ambient noise and distractions, or due to Sympathetic Nervous System arousal that introduces all kinds of physiological responses like auditory exclusion (among several others).

Your partner might be within feet of you, but may never hear your call in the din of battle — but your adversary might.

I’m not saying we need to abandon this technique or that it has no utility. I’m only saying that we have to be conscious of the fact that it may not produce the desired effect in a gunfight, and could potentially be harmful to us, depending on the situation.

This is a technique that we need to be very deliberate about employing. It is not something that we want to train as a conditioned response, applicable in all situations.

There are times and places where the disadvantages outweigh the potential advantages, so we need to be selective in how we apply the technique and we need to be careful about building habits that might be dangerous to our health, simply because we have fallen into the age-old trap of imitating something that looks good, without first thinking through all the implications.

After all, this isn’t Hollywood, and there’s no second take.

Mike Wood is the son of a 30-year California Highway Patrolman and the author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis,” the highly-acclaimed study of the 1970 California Highway Patrol gunfight in Newhall, California. Mike is an Honor Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a graduate of the US Army Airborne School, and a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with over 26 years of service. He’s a National Rifle Association (NRA) Law Enforcement Division-certified firearms instructor, senior editor at, and has been a featured guest on the Excellence In Training Academy and American Warrior Society podcasts, as well as several radio and television programs. He’s grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn from the men and women of law enforcement.