The Cornered Cat

When you pick up a handgun, you should always check by both sight and feel to be sure that it is not loaded. 1  Here’s how to do this, and why it is necessary.

Semi-automatics: Remove the magazine. Then lock the slide open and visually look in the chamber. Poke a finger into the magazine well to be sure it is empty. Then run the tip of your pinky finger into the chamber to be sure that there’s a hole in there rather than a live round. Look again before you close the slide.

Revolvers: Roll the cylinder open and visually count the chamber holes. Then run your finger over the holes and count them again by feel. Visually count the holes again before you close the cylinder.

To a newcomer, using your fingertips as well as your eyeballs to be certain the gun is unloaded may sound a bit obsessive.  But it’s really not obsessive. It is simply a good safety habit.

In the pictures below, I’ve unloaded a revolver for you to look at. You should just glance at this first picture. The gun is unloaded, right?

Visual illustration of how an 'unloaded' revolver can still be loaded. Always, always, always double check by counting the holes.
Use the tip of your finger to
count the holes. Eyeballs can lie!
Position your mouse pointer over the image
to double-check.

For the record, the photos don’t cheat. The gun in the second photo is in the exact same condition as it was in the first photo — loaded! The only difference is that the cylinder was not rolled out all the way in the first photo, which is a really easy mistake to make if you’re just glancing at it for a quick check when you already “know” it’s unloaded.

This is why we check twice with our eyes, and touch the holes. When distracted or under stress, it is surprisingly easy to miss seeing things we really didn’t expect to see anyway. And it is just as easy — or easier — to do the same with a semi-auto, and miss seeing the round in the chamber or the magazine in the butt of the gun.

So use your hands as well as your eyeballs to check, and never take anything for granted.


  1. It is important to note here that “check with your fingers” only applies to handguns. Rifles and shotguns get very much hotter than handguns, and will burn you if you reach into their chambers after firing. Long guns should be checked visually at least three times, opening and closing the action if necessary.