The Capacity Question – part 1

Last week Caleb posted a little article on the obsolescence of revolvers that mentioned the capacity of the revolver as one of the factors working against it in the modern market. Capacity often comes up in discussions that involve concealed carry but, at least in my experience, it’s usually not really explored in a satisfactory way. So taking a cue from Caleb’s writeup, let’s try and bring the capacity question into focus.

I often encounter the sentiment that the ~ 15 round magazine capacity that’s typical of a double-stack semi-automatic pistol these days is “a lot” of ammunition to have in a firearm. People often have this belief because of their typical shooting experience. If the totality of your shooting experience is firing a shot every couple of seconds at a stationary bullseye on a sunny Sunday afternoon, it can certainly seem like 15 rounds in the magazine plus another in the chamber is “a lot” of ammunition. Gunfights, unfortunately, bear no resemblance to that sunny Sunday range outing.

Video footage shows rather conclusively that when someone believes they are faced with an existential threat, they aren’t firing their weapon at the relaxed pace you often see people using on the range. More than likely they will be pulling the trigger as fast as they can (whether they can hit anything that way reliably or not) in a frantic effort to stop the person who is trying to kill them. With that sort of motivation the 15+1 round capacity of a typical double-stack 9mm handgun is exhausted in just a few short seconds. Somewhere a group of smart people set about to study gunfight footage and during the course of examining as much video of shootouts as they could, determined that the average rate of fire for a person in an exchange was 1 shot every 1/4 of a second. You can go on Youtube and look up footage from dashcams and stop’n’robs to try and work that out for yourself, and more often than not you’ll see the 1/4 second rule in play. In the initial salvo of the gunfight above, the officer’s rate of fire was right around 4 shots per second until the vehicle moved away and he slowed down to get better accuracy as the distance increased. Faced with just one dude who wanted to kill him, the officer fired 14 shots…almost the entire on-board payload of his sidearm.

It didn’t take a zombie apocalypse or a roving gang of thugs to make him shoot almost to slidelock. Just one person who wants to kill you is plenty of motivation to point the weapon in the general direction of the threat and pull the trigger as fast as you can.

One of the benefits of taking training seriously and training oneself to high standards of competence (or even excellence) is that under stress the well-trained person will act in a more disciplined, controlled fashion than the person with less trainig…but this doesn’t necessarily translate into a slower rate of fire. A well trained person who has spent considerable time on the range honing their skill might well pull the trigger even faster than the average person under stress, but will typically have much better control and will deliver hits. There’s an old joke about bullets that have someone’s name on them versus those labeled “To Whom it may concern…” which fits here. The average untrained person is going to point the weapon in the general direction of the threat, will have their focus on the threat, and will pull the trigger as fast as they can to make the bad man stop. They are typically firing more in hope than in expectation.

The trained person, on the other hand, will aim the weapon at specific parts of the bad guy’s anatomy and will be using the sights to intelligently direct fire where it will do some good. Even so, they will be pulling the trigger multiple times because of gunfight conditions and knowledge that any threat worth shooting is worth shooting more than once. I can cite multiple instances of a well trained shooter who delivered mortal wounds to a threat but without the threat visibly reacting to it or going down. With careful training on the range they developed the ability to deliver excellent accuracy at high speed and when faced with a real threat often delivered mortal wounds with the first shots they fired, but continued to fire either because the bad guy didn’t visibly react or was still on his feet. In the real thing it’s not always easy to tell where you hit someone or what effect the bullet you just fired will eventually have. Especially if there are rounds incoming. You’re left with a very binary mental assessment. Until your brain recognizes that the bad guy is on the ground doing nothing more dangerous than bleeding, the urge for self preservation will have you on the trigger. You don’t wait and hope that the bullet you just fired into the center of that guy’s chest will take effect. You keep launching bullets into him until he’s no longer able to kill you. If you’re exceptionally well trained, you may transition from shooting at the triangle of doom between the nipples and the adam’s apple up to shooting at the head of the threat.

…but you’re going to keep shooting.

Knowing that it will probably take more than one shot, and knowing that the well-trained and the average person alike are likely to expend ammunition fast in the real thing, I tend to view capacity as opportunity. Using the 1/4 second per shot average deduced from study of real gunfights as a guide, it’s possible to express capacity as time. With a S&W J frame I have 1.25 seconds of cyclic-rate fire to stop whatever threat I’m facing. With my P30 (15+1 capacity) I have 4 seconds. That means I’m able to keep shooting 3.25 times longer with my P30 than my S&W 442.

Invariably someone will read that and start yelling at the screen about just reloading the revolver. Let me be perfectly clear about this: You aren’t likely to reload a revolver in a gunfight. I say that because reloading a revolver, even with a speed loader, often takes longer than the fight is going to last. Yes, Jerry Miculek can reload a revolver with phenomenal speed from his competition gear:

When I saw that footage originally it was on an old program hosted by Jim Scoutten that included an interview with Mr. Miculek. When asked how he learned to reload a revolver so fast he responded that 2-3 hours a night of practice for 20 years, full moon clips, and chamfered chambers in the revolver’s cylinder pretty much did the trick. Jerry can reload his competition revolver setup faster than most really good shooters can reload a semi-automatic from a competition rig, and that’s an awesome testament to Jerry’s skill.

That’s Jerry’s skill. Not yours or mine. The average dude with a J frame and a speed loader in his pocket isn’t going to come close to replicating the speed in that video. The New York Reload didn’t come into being because people enjoyed the sensation of carrying multiple firearms. People like Jim Cirillo who did their homework on the range figured out that even with a speedloader, in a gunfight getting the revolver back into action was going to take longer than the fight was likely to last. So he and many others made a practice of carrying multiple revolvers.

Of course, there are other factors worth considering related to the capacity question…which we will discuss later.




  1. Interesting topic bringing up some things I’d never thought about. The closest I’ve been (and ever hope to be) in a gunfight was my days back working at and playing paintball games. Not a really fair comparison, EXCEPT some of the responses when shooting and getting shot at, especially at closer ranges. Paintball markers, even way back then, were capable of impressive rates of fire (in most cases only limited by gravity loading the next ball), and I can recall instances of getting charged or flanked resulting in the rapid mashing of the trigger and multiple hits (I just hope that should I ever get into a real encounter my hit rate would be as good!).

    Another thought was a recent article about Sergeant Timothy Gramin (“Why one cop carries 145 rounds of ammo on the job”) which is a really good account of a long (54 shouts) gunfight where this expert (master firearms instructor and a sniper on his department’s Tactical Intervention Unit) couldn’t tell if he was making hits, and eventually had to reign himself in to remind himself to aim. 33 shots by the officer, 21 by the perp…over in 56 seconds and including 2 reloads by the officer. Good read and might really sink some things home on this topic for all those ‘I’d just take one shot to shoot him in the head’ types.

  2. +1 on the excellent post.
    Also, what happened in the aftermath of the video above (the cop, not Jerry)?

    1. The suspect was mortally wounded by the officer. As best I can recall, the vehicle crashed very shortly after the exchange and police approached to find the bad guy slumped over at the wheel.

  3. Very well done. There is a huge difference on the regular range and on the two way range. MORE equals better a bunch of the time! Its easy to SAY, “Just slow down and aim”, but after you’ve aimed and they don’t go down, and you’ve shot your six shots, what’s next?

    Its why I carry a big mag semiauto whenever I can.

  4. That big flash at the end of the video is a transformer explosion on the power pole he hit. DOA.

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