The Capacity Question – Part 2

The capacity question is not defined entirely by the speed with which you can pull the trigger when you believe someone is trying to kill you. There are other concerns, and just as we did last week let’s look at more footage from a real shooting to illuminate the discussion, this week focusing on the idea of managing your on-board supply of ammunition:

The lapel camera is a relatively recent technological innovation that many police officers around the nation are readily adopting as a self defense measure. The footage here gives us the closest thing we’re likely to get to seeing a shooting through the officer’s eyes, and provides us with some invaluable insight into how even a trained person reacts under extreme stress.

First, note how many shots the officer fired. As I stated last week, you do not need a roving gang of bikers or a zombie apocalypse to motivate you into emptying the magazine of a typical double-stack semi-automatic pistol. Just one dude out to kill you is plenty of motivation to work that trigger as fast as you can until you’re reasonably certain that he is unable to continue fighting. The officer in the video fired 16 shots in self defense. The careful viewer might have noted that it took the officer about 4 seconds to fire those 16 shots, falling directly in line with the 1/4 second rule noted in last weeks post. Faced with what he believed was a threat to his life, he drew his weapon (an excruciating 3 seconds after the bad guy pulled his) and fired his sidearm as fast as he could make it work. Note that this tends to be a pattern when you look at footage of actual shootings.

The 16 shots without slide-lock tells us that the officer’s Glock is probably a G17, which most police agencies typically mandate to be carried with a full 17 rounds in the magazine plus another in the chamber. After the officer fires his 16 shot volley (while backing away from the threat) he radios the shooting in and attempts, from a distance, to try and assess the status of the threat he just shot at 16 times. Take a second to ponder the significance of that. We can see from how he interacts with the officers rolling to back him up that he’s not sure what, exactly, the bad guy is up to. Note also that he does not perform a reload. Most likely this is because the officer has absolutely no idea how many shots he’s just fired. It is extremely common under stress to be unable to recall how many rounds you fired in self defense, to the point where many self defense experts who have experience in the legal system advise strongly against ever attempting to make a definite statement about how many shots you fired.

I once trained with an instructor who told the tale of one of his on-duty shootings. Serving a warrant he ended up face to face with a bad man armed with a gun. My instructor was a little bit faster to get his weapon, an MP5, on target than the bad guy and he opened fire first. In the aftermath he said that he told investigators that he thought he had fired 5 or 6 shots, but couldn’t be sure because he was too busy trying not to die to count his shots. In reality he fired 18 shots into the bad guy.

So why does this matter? Let’s return to the situation in the video: The officer has just engaged someone he believes was out to kill him. There’s no backup yet. He’s utterly alone, facing a threat he’s not sure of, and he’s got a maximum of two more shots in his weapon before he runs dry. I hear people talk a lot about how they’ll manage ammunition in a gunfight, but you know what? I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t think the average person is capable of executing a sophisticated ammunition management plan when they believe somebody is out to end them. There’s a significant body of evidence out there to show that the first clue someone is going to have that they’re low on bullets is when the gun stops going bang. This officer’s weapon didn’t stop making loud noises, and with the stress-induced distortion of perception he has no idea how many rounds he’s fired. On top of that, he’s got a lot on his mind.

Note the officer’s breathing after the shooting stops. He’s feeling the full effect of adrenaline. He didn’t move very far or do any physically strenuous activity, and yet he’s breathing like he just busted out a 5th set of squats with a new personal record. Note the officer’s statement after he calls for help…”Son of a bitch!” The average mind will not be in a state of zen in these circumstances. The average mind will be racing with all sorts of questions, emotions, and concerns. “Oh, god! What the hell just happened? How much trouble am I in? Am I going to get sued? Am I hit? Where the hell is backup?”

On top of that, there will be a constant worry about the guy they just tried to stop getting out of the car and trying to finish what he started. The mind with superior training will still be racing, but will be sufficiently innoculated to stress that it is focused on things that increase the chances of survival. Useful actions like seeking cover or checking the status of one’s weapon do not come automatically to the untrained person. Proper training does not eliminate stress, it simply acclimates the trained individual to the presence of stress so they can learn the mental discipline to accomplish useful things while feeling the effect of it. This is why enduring a number of crash simulations is a prerequisite for flying fighter jets or commercial airliners. It’s why advanced emergency medical training sometimes involves slicing a pig’s femoral artery open and requiring the trainee to stop the bleed. It’s why advanced skydiving certifications require simulating a parachute failure.

On the internet I often see people arguing about the “lull” in a fight that’s supposed to allow for a tactical reload. In the video here we’re presented with a pretty sizeable “lull” in hostilities…but here’s the thing about “lulls”: It’s really easy to identify a lull using video footage from the safety of a keyboard. It’s a very different matter when you’re standing a few feet away from someone who just tried to kill you, heart pounding through your chest, mind racing, and breathing like you just tried to backpack a Buick up Everest. Unless you have irrefutable visual proof that the bad guy you just tried to shoot is unable to continue, (like seeing the contents of his cranium on the pavement) you’re going to be pretty darn worried about him resuming hostilities.

With all of this going on, and all of these factors in play, I’m very skeptical that most people are going to be anywhere near as good at managing their ammo supply as they think. Most people toting a firearm for self defense are not as well trained as the officer in the video. It’s absurd to believe that they’ll somehow exhibit the behaviors of the exceptionally experienced and well trained without the actual experience or training that makes those behaviors possible.


  1. Outstanding summary, Tim! I’ve heard a lot of cops at my range talk about this stuff and you’ve echoed what those who have actually been in a gun fight have said. Those of us who haven’t are wise to learn from these videos. Thanks again for tackling this subject.

  2. I actually feel this is also a comment on the maximum capacity laws cropping up in ‘blue’ states. Imagine the above with New Yorks new 7 round limit. A friend of mine is an armed federal agent. Off duty, in New York State he is subject to the 7 round limit though he can carry concealed anywhere in the country

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