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Reloading at the speed of life

Gun handling lessons from the July ambush of Fargo police officers


North Dakota Attorney office via AP

On July 14, 2023, Officer Zach Robinson of the Fargo (North Dakota) Police Department saved countless lives by defending himself, his colleagues and his community from a deadly attack.

Officer Robinson did outstanding lifesaving work under tremendous pressure; he was tactically sound and extremely proficient in gun handling. All too often, video shows officers struggling to be successful with some of the most basic elements of handgun use – maintaining a functional grip, identifying the need to reload, and doing so expeditiously, clearing malfunctions and so on. These skills don’t happen by accident or through luck. Effective training is the key to building shooters who are as skilled as Officer Robinson in handling their firearms whilst working under that kind of pressure.

Closed skills vs. open skills

As a starting point let’s look at some definitions. Skills can fall into two broad categories, closed and open.

Closed skills are the type of things that occur in a controlled manner. Some sporting examples of a closed skill would be hitting baseballs in a batting cage, striking a punchbag in a gym, or a football player running laps of the field. All these examples are physical skills being used in a very controlled manner. Variables are accounted for and there is not much if anything changing in the environment.

Skill is certainly required to complete these tasks, but there is not much in the way of ongoing adaptation required. The policing examples of this would be shooting a static range drill, driving around a closed track, or hitting a dummy with a baton in a gym.

Open skills have a great deal of variability in their application. The environment in which they are undertaken is less controlled and is subject to frequent change. The user of the skill must adapt to their changing circumstances and the skill being used must be functional at a much higher level.

Sporting examples would be a baseball player in a live game, an MMA fighter opposed in an octagon, and a football player pushing through the opposing team’s defense to score. Law enforcement examples would be exchanging gunfire in a fight for your life, driving to a call for assistance from an officer, or striking a subject with a baton while fighting to control them.

There is a time and a place for training in a closed-skill environment, but we mustn’t be fooled into thinking that is the end game. All physical skills trained in law enforcement are for the express purpose of operational use, and that use is typically under pressure. With that in mind, all training needs to be orientated toward that goal at every level.

Foundations of reality in training

The closer training can come to reality, the better served our people will be. The more chances they get to flex their open skill sets the more naturally they will flow. This is why sports teams play practice games – they do not just run isolated drills once or twice a year and then jump into intense competition.

An example of a highly useful training event may be a full-on scenario that includes being dispatched to a call, driving to the scene, completion of the paperwork and assessment of every interaction and decision along the way.

Few people have the time, the funding, or the venues to offer something so in-depth. What we can do is work within the boundaries of our environment. We can still focus every element of our closed skill training toward its intended operational use. Everything we train should be with the end users’ job in mind. If the training “why” is to check boxes or pass tests and there is no loftier goal, we are not going to produce Officer Robinson-level performers. Operational excellence is the result of hundreds of small skills strung together following thousands of quality repetitions.

Reloading at the speed of life

Any isolated skill in gun handling can be broken into elements. For the purpose of this article, the reload will be the topic.

Breaking a skill down like this can be broadly applied to anything you teach on or off the range. Speed is a non-negotiable necessity for reloading. If a gun has been shot empty, things are not going well. The gun needs to be full and functional immediately. Anyone who uses the word “slow” to describe how to reload is wrong. There is never going to be an operational need to reload an empty gun slowly. There must never be a suggestion that slow is the goal. Slow is not a solution. “Slow down” doesn’t qualify as feedback. Each person should be working at their maximum efficiency every time.

A recruit will be hovering somewhere around 4-5 seconds for a handgun reload. A skilled officer will complete the task in less than 2 seconds. Wherever your people are on the speed scale they need to be working to their maximum capability every time. Their speed limit is determined by their ability to succeed at the task; but the time taken to achieve success should be getting shorter week after week, month after month, year after year.

Once the need to reload has been identified there are only three elements to returning the gun to operational readiness:

  1. Empty magazine out
  2. New magazine in
  3. Chamber a round

Each of these steps can be honed to minimal movement and maximum result. There isn’t enough room in this article to explore each nuance of efficiency associated with these elements, but as you watch people reload ask yourself which of the three steps looks the least efficient. What can be done to reduce wasted time and movement on that step? The answers to those questions become your guidance for coaching and improvement. Video is a great tool for analysis and feedback for skills like these.

Top three reloading dos and don’ts

If you want to build fast, efficient reloaders here are my top three dos and don’ts for the training approach:


  1. Don’t allow people to exchange magazines in holstered pistols. Every time they do this, they are losing a rep of a real reload. Changing magazines in holstered pistols is lazy, potentially dangerous (yes people have fired guns doing it), and it has zero operational value. It is a garbage rep of a valueless skill for no return.
  2. Don’t retain empty magazines – let it hit the ground, it has zero value. The most valuable thing for an empty gun in a fight for life is more ammunition. Discard the empty magazine as fast as possible and make way for more ammunition as the priority.
  3. Don’t allow people to run out of ammunition in training. If you design or run drills that allow people to shoot all their ammunition leaving them with an empty gun and nothing to put in it, you’re doing it wrong. No officer should ever be trained to accept an empty gun as normal. There is only one solution to the question of what should I do with an empty gun, and the answer is to reload it – right now! Design training programs that always allow people to have magazines available to reload any time they have an empty gun. Never let them holster after shooting to empty.


  1. Do encourage reloading at the speed of life. If the gun is empty, there is only one speed for the reload and that is maximum speed. All too often in training people will try to assess their work, or feedback starts from coaches while the shooter is still holding an empty gun. Reload as if your life depends on it, every, single, time.
  2. Do design drills to include random reloads. Avoid setting the gun up with a prescribed number of rounds that require a countdown to the reload. That type of training encourages people to shoot the drill and not really pay attention to the gun. When the gun goes empty unexpectedly the shooter will start to associate the appearance and the feeling of a need to reload. The more they experience that circumstance, the more anchored it will become as a stimulus for them, and the quicker they will be able to recognize it and fix their problem.
  3. Do encourage movement to improve position. Notice this doesn’t say always move – if you happen to have substantial cover, a good tactical position and no better option staying still might be the answer. However, if you are out in the open as Officer Robinson was (7:00) and your gun is empty, moving whilst reloading the gun would likely be the beneficial approach. Moving your feet and reloading your gun sounds simple, but like all things it must be practiced. Create opportunities in training for people to move while they reload. Even if it is just a lateral step or two, that is better than nothing at all. If there is space in your training realm to do more substantial movement take advantage of it as often as possible.

How to introduce some elements of stress to any live fire shooting skill

Life-threatening fear and the associated elements of physical arousal are hard, if not impossible to recreate in range training. There are some simple low-cost options you can employ to start to expose your people to elements of stress. They may seem like small changes but if you’ve never tried them, you may be surprised. You will see people who you consider to be capable fall apart and deliver amateur levels of skill when you apply some pressure to their performance. These concepts can be applied to an isolated closed skill like standing still and drawing from a holster. They can also be leveraged in more complex skill development such as full-on competition-style moving and shooting stages that you run in relays for a larger group.

  1. Introduce a timer. Just telling people you are going to time their performance will change their performance. Competing with themselves by setting a baseline time and trying to beat it can be enough.
  2. The next level of stress is to make the timed task(s) group competitions. Competing against peers will drive people to work hard and introduces emotions, and arousal, and quite often there is an outbreak of fun too!
  3. Adding peer observation is another quick and easy way to change people’s emotional state. If your training includes movement and you are running relays, the people awaiting their turn should be watching those who are shooting. The observers can learn a great deal from intentional observation of their peers. This is a valuable use of their time. For those being watched while they work, there is a high likelihood of emotional arousal and some increases in stress. There are few people who want to be watched doing something, and fewer still who want a bunch of cops watching them shoot. The combination of competing and having an audience will create some manageable levels of stress exposure. Once again, watch out for the danger of joy and the risk of fun while learning!

There is no timer in a fight for your life, but there is a substantial penalty for coming second. Operational use of a firearm will always come with an unforgiving time constraint – get used to it in training. Get accustomed to people watching you work – using force is rarely a private event. Start using these stress-inducing concepts in live fire training and watch your people start to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

RELATED: Incident analysis: Bodycam video shows how heroic North Dakota officer stopped ambush

Leon Reha’s police career began more than two decades ago in London. He served as a patrol officer, a trainer and as a member of the elite Metropolitan Police Specialist Firearms Command. Now residing in the U.S., he oversees the firearms training division of a police academy. He is an advanced Force Science analyst, a SIG SAUER academy instructor, and a regular training conference attendee and presenter.