Reliability VS. Round Count

Guns | Handguns |
This Has Long Been An Issue In Handgun Selection. It Remains
So Today And Can Take Many Forms.

By Massad Ayoob

Back when I was a young cop in the early 1970’s, the service revolver was standard issue for most of American law enforcement. When most officers asked their bosses for autoloaders, or even for permission to buy their own for duty use, here was the standard answer: “Those automatics are jam-a-matics! You can’t trust ’em! Forget eight or 14 shots that will maybe go bang, when your revolver gives you six for sure!”

Well, time, nature and the handgun industry all took their natural course. Today we have very reliable semi-automatics, which are all but universal in police uniform holsters.

It was not always thus, however. In 1967, the Illinois State Police (ISP) became the first major US police department to adopt semi-automatic pistols as standard issue. They chose the 9mm Smith & Wesson Model 39. In the following decade, I spent a lot of time at that department, and followed up on the 9mm transition with everyone from the road troopers and their representatives, Fraternal Order of Police Troopers’ Lodge 41, to Bob Cappelli and Sebastian Ulrich, the lead armorers at ISP’s Ordnance Section in Springfield. I learned from Bob and “Bash” that once the guns were in the hands of their then-1,700 troopers, some problems showed up. This led to ISP recommendations to Smith & Wesson, which resulted in the improved Model 39-2 pistol… and also led to a policy of downloading the guns by one round.

The 39 was originally designed with an 8-round magazine, with a ninth cartridge to be carried in the chamber. ISP ran tons of ammo through those guns, and discovered when loaded all the way up, there was potential for misfeed. The policy recommended was to load only seven rounds per magazine, which helped to cure the problem and became 7+1-for-sure beat 8+1 rounds maybe.


It became almost customary to download 13+1 9mm P35’s, like this Novak Browning
(above), by one round. Mas’ ROBAR custom Glock 30S is loaded with 10+1 .45 ACP,
but spares will be either G21 mag with full 13, or G30 (below) downloaded to
nine to guarantee positive insertion with slide forward.


Other Handguns

Another classic handgun, since 1935, has been the Browning Hi Power. The purpose of the P-35 project was to create a 9mm service pistol with lots of bullets, and John Moses Browning and Dieudonne Saive loaded its mag up to max with 13 cartridges, making it a 14-shooter with one up the spout.

It turned out that to be a whole lot more reliable as a 13-shooter. I first shot in England in 1979, and began teaching there in the 1980’s, and in both roles got to interact with members of Britain’s SAS and the elite armed unit of the London Metropolitan Police, both of whom used the Hi Power as did their nation’s military. I was told the rule of thumb was no more than 12 rounds per magazine, and it was rigidly enforced. They had seen pistols jam after the first shot when the mags were loaded with 13.

Sure enough, before long I ran across a case in the US where a cop with a 1911 .45 won a gunfight with a bad guy who opened fire on him with a Browning loaded all the way up. The bad guy got the first shot off, and the cop lit him up and killed him. Turned out the bad guy’s gun had jammed on the full mag after the first shot, quite probably saving the officer’s life. Time went on; Wayne Novak provided me with a modified magazine for a Hi Power that worked 100 percent with 14 in it plus the chambered round…but to this day, I load no more than a dozen in a Hi Power’s magazine. The lesson? Twelve for sure beats 13… maybe.

For most of the epoch of the 1911 .45 auto, it had a 7-round magazine, and 8-rounders came out decades ago. I saw problems with the early ones. Keep ’em empty until match day and then fill ’em full, fine. Leave them loaded all the way up for a year or so, and you’d start to have feeding problems. And, because there was absolutely no flex left in the cartridge stack, if you had to slam one into the gun while the slide was forward, it might not seat. The word went out: seven for sure beat eight, maybe. Today, of course, we have mags like the Wilson ETM (Elite Tactical Magazine), which holds 8 .45 rounds without fatiguing the spring and reloads smoothly with the slide all the way forward. The ETM is my current favorite, because it does give “eight for sure.”


For decades, the “six for sure” argument kept cops with revolvers instead
of autos. These circa 1918 Colts are a 1911 .45 ACP and .38 Army Special

Most masters of the AR-15 platform will tell you they load their 30-round magazines to only 28. This gives enough flex in the magazine spring under the cartridge stack to allow it to seat smoothly when reloaded into a rifle when its bolt is forward. The same occurs with some pistols.

The Glock pistol is most common out there today, and most of them work just fine with the mags loaded all the way up. My favorite Glock is the 30 series, an amazingly accurate compact 11-shot .45 ACP. (In fact, I’m carrying my ROBAR custom 30S as I write this.)

To fit 10 fat .45 rounds into that short mag, meant there was just no stack left, and a full mag has to be just about hammered into the gun. No sweat, I can do that in an “administrative load,” when the pistol is loaded in a condition of calmness. A speed reload with the slide forward? Much harder. So my spare magazine is a compatible 13-round Glock 21 mag, built longer for the full-size Glock .45 ACP, with enough spring flex to seat all the time, every time. But when I carry one of my Glock 30’s in a state where I’m limited to 10-round magazines, my spare 10-round mags are downloaded to nine in case I have to do a reload under pressure with the slide forward. ’Cause “nine for sure” just beats heck out of “10, maybe.”

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