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How To Load & Unload Your Semi-Auto Pistol [With Pictures]

So, you’ve purchased a brand new pistol, and you’re ready to take it to the range to get comfortable and familiar with it.

Sig Sauer P365
It’s a new, shiny set of pistols!

While we always recommend a good class to learn the ins and outs of shooting, sometimes that’s not in the budget, or there’s no immediate room on your calendar.

What are you to do?

Let’s take to the range..or farm depending on where you shoot.

There are still some ways you can practice at the range, learning your gun and familiarizing yourself with its controls.

So, let’s go over those.

But if you want to skip the words and get a clear visual, check out the Brownells Daily Defense video below!

Table of Contents

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Firearms Safety

Before we go further, it’s important to review the firearm safety rules.

  1. Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.
  2. Never point a gun at anything you don’t want to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.
  4. Know your target and what’s behind it.

These are essential to ensure you and other range-goers are safe.

Memorize them, repeat them, and most importantly, follow them ANYTIME you work with guns.

PPTGoodGuy7
Knowing and following the four golden rules of gun safety is of the utmost importance for gun owners.

Define Your Workspace

I thought we were getting out of the cubicle and onto the range??

No, we don’t mean that kind of workspace. When we talk about workspace in regard to shooting, we mean the area in which you’ll be manipulating and using the gun.

Office Space

Most often, that’s going to be right in front of you, about face level.

While working in your workspace, it’s important to remember to ALWAYS keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. If you’re at the range, that means downrange at the target.

When working in your space, you’ll want to keep the gun kept closer to your body with a slight rotation out.

Staccato XC Mag Drop
John’s workspace allows him to monitor the pistol and the target.

Why?

First, it allows you to see both the target and your gun. Rotating the gun in this manner means it stays in your peripheral vision even when you look at your target and vice versa. The two objects are always within sight.

Staccato C2 Mag Reload
Notice the rotation…

Secondly, rotating the pistol ever-so-slightly makes for easier loading. That slight rotation gives you a good line of sight to the magwell, making it simpler to slide a magazine in.

We like simple.

Loading a Mag

Whether you’re sporting a cool new magazine pouch to the range or you prefer just sticking the mags in the ole pockets, you need to make sure you get a good purchase on the mag to load.

OWB Holster Range
When I train, I tend to stick my mags in a mag pouch.

Again, making sure that your gun points safely downrange, you’ll bring the gun into your workspace. Remember, slightly rotate it so you can easily see the gun.

Guide the magazine into the magwell and give her a good tap to make sure you hear the “click” indicating it’s seated correctly.

Taurus GX4 Mag Eject
Guide the mag into the magwell.

Chambering a Round

Our mag is loaded into the gun, but now we need to get a round actually in the chamber.

If the action is open, you have two options. You can either press the slide stop lever on the gun’s frame to send the slide home.

Slide lever on the Walther P1.

Or you can rack the slide…

Racking the Slide

Let’s talk about the basics of racking a slide.

If your action is closed, meaning the slide is forward, and you slip a loaded magazine into the gun, you need to rack the slide to put a round in the chamber.

Staccato XL Slide Manipulations
Racking the slide on the Staccato XL.

To do this with the action closed requires a manual cycling — meaning you have to physically move the slide.

There’s a couple of methods to accomplish this — the slingshot and the overhand.

Slingshotting the slide means grabbing the rear of the slide with two fingers, pulling it back (like a slingshot), and releasing, so it slams forward.

Staccato C2
Slingshot method.

While some people can easily manage this for others, this technique can be a little tough. I do not prefer this method as my fingers are too weak to efficiently accomplish this method.

So, I move to the alternative…the overhand. For the overhand method, hold the gun in your non-dominant hand. Your dominant hand comes over the top of the slide and grabs.

How to rack a slide midline
Good old overhand…

From there, you push the slide back and then let it go, so it slams back into place, chambering the round.

For the overhand method, I also use a push-pull technique to help me better rack the slide. This is especially useful for those with petite hands or those who lack hand strength.

With the gun in my non-dominant hand, I push the gun forward towards the ground while simultaneously pulling the slide back with my dominant hand.

Unload Reload Slide Rack
I drive the gun forward as I pull back on the slide.

This allows me to work with gravity a bit, making slide manipulations much easier.

If your hands happen to be arthritic or on the weaker side, check out the video below for tips on how to rack the slide.

You can also read about racking a slide here!

After you’ve charged the action, you can re-grip your gun, and you’re ready to fire.

Again, during this whole process, the gun is always pointed in a safe direction downrange. At no time is it pointed at the person next to you, the Range Safety Officer, yourself, etc.

Range Safety
Yeah let’s not do this.

Unloading the Gun

So, you’ve emptied your mag and are smiling ear to ear. What can we say…target shooting is fun!

But now, you’ve got to remove your mag. So how do we do that?

CCW Range Practice
You’ve had some fun plinking, now you gotta unload.

Quite simply, actually.

Bring the gun back into your workspace, again keeping it pointed in a safe direction.

Press the magazine release button or paddle, depending on your gun’s controls.

Glock G43X Mag Release
Glock G43X Mag Release

The magazine should drop freely from the gun.

Take your mag and stick it back in your magazine pouch or pocket.

With the still in your non-dominant hand, we need to make sure the firearm is clear, and there is no round in the chamber.

We can do that by racking the slide. Using whichever technique you prefer — overhand or slingshot — rack the slide.

Checking if Gun is Safe at Range
Checking to see if there’s any leftover ammo in there.

If there is a round in the chamber, it’ll come flying out.

From here, use your firearm’s slide stop lever to lock the slide to the rear. (Refer to your gun’s manual if needed for the specifics of your model.)

At this point, look into the chamber and make sure no ammo is present.

Checking for Empty Chamber
Checking for Empty Chamber

What if I’m left-handed?

We know there are some Southpaws among us, and that can make things a little tricky.

While the motions are the same regardless of handedness, what can be difficult is the gun itself.

We recommend looking for pistols with ambidextrous controls.

Masada Ambi Controls
Masada Ambi Controls

This places controls on both sides of the gun, making it easier to operate the buttons and releases.

If you’re already stuck with a right-handed gun, no worries. You can make it work, but things will look a bit different.

For instance, to release the magazine, you can do that with your trigger finger instead of your thumb.

Unload Left Handed
The trigger finger can be used to engage the mag release for lefties.

To lock the slide, use a left-hand over hand method to pull the slide back and pull the slide lock lever up as you do so to lock the slide.

Again, it’s not the end of the world, but ambidextrous guns sure do make life easier for lefties.

If you’re looking for specific recommendations on guns designed with lefties in mind, check out our guide of the 10 Best Guns for Left-Handed Shooters.

Left Side Ejecting AR-15 with Raptor Charging Handle
Ohhh you lefties.

Conclusion

Loading and unloading guns on the range for the first time can seem a bit daunting, but with enough practice, you’ll have it down in no time.

Removing the Magazine
Practice at home too!

And the cool thing is, this skill you can practice at home. With ammo away from the gun and an empty magazine, practice inserting and releasing the magazine and racking the slide.

Trust me; it gets much easier over time.

For some more tips and tricks (and to see this stuff first hand), check out the Brownells Daily Defense video below.

Have any other tips for first-timers? Drop your tips and tricks in the comments below. If you’re completely new to the game and want even more in-depth training and help, check out the Gun Noob course to get spun up. Or you can head over to our Beginner’s Guide to Guns for more help!

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5 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    Mike

    As someone who has seen 2 new shooters manage to load ammo backwards into their magazines the article should have started with loading a magazine not loading the gun. Otherwise good info.

    June 1, 2021 6:12 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      BenV

      I agree. That is why I read this article. I just started learning firearms. I have only taken one private instruction class. I was taught and learned everything in this article but the instructor loaded the magazine. Sure I watched him but that isn't the same as instruction.

      June 1, 2021 7:29 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Brian Edgett

    This should read strong hand? You have non- printed.

    June 1, 2021 6:05 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Jeff

      Same comment. It is reversing dominant and non-dominant hands. This movement just wouldn't feel natural...

      "With the gun in my non-dominant hand, I push the gun forward towards the ground while simultaneously pulling the slide back with my dominant hand."

      June 2, 2021 7:09 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Joe Tomaiko

    You know, at first, I giggled when I saw the article. Then I thought about it. With so many new firearm owners in the last year plus, this is what a lot of them need. They bought the guns, but will they seek out professional instruction to know how to handle them safely? I'd hope, but we all know the truth. It's a great start for the new gun owner to get guidance.

    June 1, 2021 3:45 pm