The Cornered Cat
Rabbit Trail: What if it doesn’t lock open?

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir

As I’ve said many times before, one of the challenges I face as a writer is knowing when to stop writing. Sticking with just one big idea per article can be a tough gig. That’s because, as John Muir observed, everything in the universe is hitched to everything else.

If you were a writer given an endless supply of time and reader patience, you would find that there’s always at least one more thing you could add to every single thing you wrote. Always. No matter what the subject, no matter where we start or where we intend to end up, there’s a truly endless list of possible rabbit trails we could explore.

A discussion of how to deal with guns that cannot lock open was one of the rabbit trails I firmly resisted while writing the Bullet Surprise article a few days ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It is. Maybe I’ll write a longer piece on this subject later, but for now, here’s the skinny.

For guns that don’t have a slide lock lever, you have two options you can use when you need to check the gun’s unloaded status to be sure it really is empty:

Option 1

  • Remove full magazine.
  • Rack. Rack. Rack. As you rack, watch for the round from the chamber to come out of the gun. After it does, rack the slide at least twice more. (This is your double-check to be sure you remembered to remove the darn magazine.)
  • Feel the empty hole at the base of the magazine well to be sure there’s really truly no magazine hiding there. Never skip this step, since it’s astonishingly easy to miss seeing the magazine when you don’t expect it to be there, and since that’s where nearly all Bullet Surprises come from.
  • Hold the slide open by hand and (this is key!) really look into the chamber while you hold the slide back.

Note: Because there’s no backup to looking and seeing the chamber, you cannot  trust this technique in poor lighting. 1 This is not a minor problem. 2

Option 2

  • Remove full magazine.
  • Rack. Rack. Rack. As you rack, watch for the round from the chamber to come out of the gun. After it does, rack the slide at least twice more. (This is your double-check to be sure you remembered to remove the darn magazine.)
  • Grab an empty magazine. As you pick it up, use your eyes to look at the bare follower in the top of the magazine, and run your thumb across the feed lips to be sure that this magazine is really, truly not holding any rounds.
  • Insert the empty magazine. Then pull the slide to the rear, allowing the empty magazine to hold the slide open for you.
  • Drop the empty magazine. On guns of the right design for this trick, the slide will stay locked open.
  • Check both magazine well and chamber by sight and feel. Look to be sure the chamber is empty, then poke your pinky finger into it to be sure it’s an empty hole instead of a hidden round. Look to see light down the magazine well, then poke one finger into the well from the bottom to be sure there’s no magazine hiding in it.

Note: This technique is possible on some guns without slide lock levers, but not others. It just depends on whether the gun has an internal slide lock. Some guns use the magazine itself to hold the slide open, while others use the magazine only to engage the slide lock. In the latter type, the slide lock will keep holding the slide open even after you remove the magazine. It’s easy enough to check: on guns that won’t let you use this trick, the slide will fall forward the moment the empty magazine comes out. For those guns, use Option 1.

Ritual and reality

No matter which of the two options you choose, it’s important you build a solidly reliable habit of doing it just that way every time. The exact ritual you use to double check the gun’s status probably doesn’t matter much. 3 What does matter is that for the rest of your entire life, whenever you unload a gun, you’re never ever ever again going to let your brain relax until you have carefully checked to be sure your unloading process worked as you expected it to.

That’s the habit.

And it should be such a deep habit that it leaves you with a deep brain itch if you even think about skipping it.

Human nature being what it is, if you often switch between guns with and without slide lock levers, you will sometimes find yourself tempted to do things the lazy way when you’re unloading the one without the slide lock lever. You’ll be tempted to yank the slide back and just barely glance and go, without slowing down to really look or to carefully check everything. Because face it — both the options above are kind of a hassle and it’s just easier to take on faith that your extractor and ejector both did their jobs than it is to properly check.

Or maybe you’ll generally use the careful method. Just not always. Sometimes you’ll be tempted to glance and go “just this once.” And you’ll do it. It’s easy to forget how habit-forming “just this once” can be.

For that matter, even with a gun that easily locks open, you may run into something similar if you shoot a lot of competitions. It’s especially likely to happen if you sometimes feel impatient with the whole ritualized rigamarole that happens when you’re done shooting, like there’s this excited little voice inside your head saying, “Okay okay enough already, I’m done shooting so let’s go check my SCORE now now now come on let’s go!” And the risk gets even more intense if your club’s ROs often give off a similar hurried vibe, like maybe they’re impatient to get you holstered and scored so they can move to the next customer. Either way, that pressure means you might sometimes be tempted to barely glance-and-go rather than changing mental gears, slowing down, and really looking to be sure the gun is truly unloaded Every. Single. Time. Without. Fail. No exceptions!

Given the nature of human behavior patterns, any casual or sloppy approach to checking the gun’s status may come back to bite you in the foot some busy weeknight at home, when you don’t have anyone else looking over your shoulder to act as your second set of eyes while you unload the gun.

Good gun handling habits have to be just that: habits. It should take a conscious act of the will for you to do anything sloppy or rushed or half-hearted when you’re handling the gun. It should be hard work for you to take on faith that a gun is empty, even if you’ve just dropped the magazine and racked the slide. It should be much easier to check the gun’s status thoroughly, following your habit, than it is to do it any other way.

The only way you ever get to that point — or stay there! — is to deliberately build good habits, and then do the work it takes to keep those habits in place.


  1. Poor lighting isn’t just “in the dark,” though that was the phrase I used when addressing this one on Facebook. It also refers to times when the lighting is generally bright but also full of harsh shadows, or when it’s not safe to change the direction of the muzzle to get a ray of light into the area you need to see.
  2. And there’s another potential rabbit trail!
  3. As long as you do use one. And as long as it’s a true double check, and … there’s another long rabbit trail. But when the math teacher tells students to “check your answers,” the smart kids all work the problem from a different angle than the one they used the first time. They divide to check multiplication, or subtract to check addition. They don’t do the same thing again in the same way, because that’s not a true check.

5 Responses to Rabbit Trail: What if it doesn’t lock open?

  1. Tom Walls says:

    Like the lady says….. Every. Single. Time.
    Because the acceptable error rate is ZERO.

  2. awalker1829 says:

    When unloading a semiautomatic pistol, I tip it back when ejecting the chambered round after removing the mag. It’s become standard habit-if the extractor doesn’t pull the bullet out of the chamber, gravity will.

    When unloading a rifle, the habit is always dump the mag (if loaded), pull the bolt open and look inside the chamber.

    Never rush with firearms. Fools rush where angels fear to tread. If in doubt or you do not remember if you cleared the gun, DO IT AGAIN.

  3. larryarnold says:

    I have one semiauto that doesn’t lock open. If I’m not shooting it, it wears a chamber flag.

    • awalker1829 says:

      I have a junker .25 ACP Bryco that won’t lock open. I don’t shoot it as it’s a piece of junk and doesn’t fit my large hands.

      • larryarnold says:

        Mine is a Jennings .22LR. I got it because I had students with ittybitty guns, and needed to know how to teach them.

Post a Comment