Several females and some males have complained over the years to me in my firearms classes that they cannot “rack the slide” on pistols, due to their weak hand strength and grip. Older males and females over the age of 60 have said they cannot use a pistol because of their age and related medical condition, like arthritis or joint tenderness. New shooters have demonstrated on the range that they are too gentle with a pistol and are afraid of slide “bite” to definitively and aggressively rack the slide as they should. Shooters cannot operate a semi-automatic pistol efficiently for loading, unloading, and clearing malfunctions without racking the slide properly and quickly. Racking the slide simply means manipulating and moving the slide back and forth on its guide rails.
There are many ways and considerations for racking the slide. Competitors and plinkers alike have said and demonstrated that they cannot optimally rack the slide to perform reloads. Some have become so discouraged and thought about actually giving up practicing, shooting, or even not using guns anymore. Others have concluded that they have no choice and must use a revolver, rather than a semi-automatic pistol, for concealed carry purposes because they cannot rack the slide. But, revolvers have their own limitations and considerations. Husbands have contacted me asking me about pistol recommendations with easy to rack slides for their wives. So racking the slide is an important topic and we all must know how to perform it effectively.
WRONG: Do NOT Place Support Fingers or Hand Over Ejection Port When Racking Slide
Years ago when my wife began shooting, she experienced the same doubts, experiences, and challenge of racking a slide. She could pull the slide back a little, but not far enough to lock it open at first. Once she learned the proper technique, where to place her hands during racking (NOT over the ejection port), practiced this, and reinforced her positive mindset and quit worrying about slide “bite”, she was able to efficiently rack the slide on almost all pistols. In reality, there are very few healthy women and men (with positive, receptive can-do attitudes) who cannot actually be taught to rack a slide and keep it open. There are even some experienced shooters who have never been taught over there many years of shooting how to properly rack a slide, because they have relied on there muscles to adequately do it and have succeeded. They never had the need to focus on technique because of their power and strength. I want to emphasize that efficiently racking a slide is NOT about muscles and strength, it is about TECHNIQUE and your positive mindset and practice. So, I want to share with you some of the considerations and the technique for easily racking a semi-automatic pistol.
Here are the two most commonly used Steps in Racking a Pistol Slide:
Grip the pistol firmly with your strong firing hand, with your trigger index finger on the frame outside of the trigger guard, while keeping the muzzle pointed down range;
Grasp the slide on its back serrations with your support hand by one of these 2 methods. Try each method and decide for yourself which works best for you.
SLINGSHOT Method: Keep the pistol pointed down range with the barrel ejection port upright as you would fire the gun. Also keep the gun resting slightly above your waist level and in close to your body for better lerage. Being in close to your body does limit this method somewhat because you will feel crowded performing operations in a tight space. Do not extend your arms straight out from your body, because you will not have as much leverage. Use your thumb and index finger of your support hand in a “V” position to grasp or pinch the back of the slide on the serrations and quickly pull it to the rear, like you are shooting a slingshot. Rotate the pistol slightly toward your left (as a right-handed shooter) as you pinch it and be certain to grasp a good length of the slide for better control. At the same time your grasp the slide with your support hand and rotate it, push forward STRONGLY with your strong hand like you are QUICKLY PUNCHING it forward. The role of your support hand is to primarily steady the pistol with just a little movement backward, while the strong hand handles 90% of the work of quickly pushing or punching the gun forward away from your body. This method is very fast and is used by competitive shooters, because you can keep the handgun extended toward the target and, when you rotate the handgun back, your support hand is there, ready to reacquire your two-hand grip. However, from a tactical perspective, it minimizes your ability to defend against a gun grab. Your objective and focus are on PUSHING the gun forward with your strong hand, rather than PULLING the slide backward with your support hand.
OVER-THE-TOP Method: Again, keep the pistol pointed down range with the ejection port up. Rest the gun above your waist and really close to your body, while using your support hand to grasp the rear slide serrations over the top of the slide. The heel of your support hand should rest on the inside, left-side serrations (for a right-handed shooter), while you grasp the outside, right-side serrations with the 4 fingers of your support hand. Your support hand thumb is at the rear of the slide and does not grasp the slide. This method may not be as fast as the Slingshot Method, but it does give you the most powerful grip on the slide because you are using more fingers and the heel of your hand for added strength. It is best done with the pistol close to your body where the pistol is suppose to be when it is not being fired. This technique works quicker for me and seems more flexible and efficient for racking in many different situations. A lot of shooters agree with me, but you practice both and decide for yourself. One caveat I offer from my observations of several students is that those using this technique tend to significantly point the muzzle to their left (for right-handed shooters) or support side, while performing this technique. This is dangerous and can put many in harm’s way when several shooters are present. Again, your objective and focus are on PUSHING the gun forward with your strong hand, rather than PULLING the slide backward with your support hand.
Tips and Considerations in Racking A Pistol Slide:
Once you have racked the slide all the way to the rear, you must let go of the slide with a sharp snap, so that it will travel forward quickly under its own momentum. You do NOT need to gently guide the slide, baby it, and help it go forward with your support hand, especially when reloading. Learn to open your support hand with fingers off the slide when you have pulled the slide back rearward to its furthest point. Allowing your support hand to go forward with the slide is a problem called “Riding the Slide” and can cause malfunctions, jams, and stoppages. The slide needs to move forward quickly under its own recoil spring tension in order to load the gun properly.
A lot of pistols will auto-load or have the slide go forward and chamber a round after you firmly slam a magazine into the magazine well. For example, some of my S&W M&Ps, H&Ks, and Sigs do this. Some say a light or shorter recoil spring and/or a weak/damaged magazine spring affect the pressure exerted on the magazine follower and in turn affect the slide stop function. There is considerable debate whether this is a design feature or just haphazardly occurs. Competitive shooters and some tactical shooters prefer this auto-load feature because it makes for a very fast reload and does not require hitting the slide stop lever. Some claim the auto-load is not a generally-accepted loading technique or a design feature, even though a lot of people use it and like it. They say the slide is designed to stay back after a magazine is inserted and slamming it in can bump the slide stop out of place in the notch, cause the top round in the magazine not to strip off and be fed into the chamber, cause a malfunction, damage, or an accidental discharge to occur. The general, but controversial, conclusion is that auto-load is not a design feature, may cause unnecessary problems, and should be abandoned and reliance should be on manually racking the slide. This is a personal preference matter, with pros and cons to consider, and you should decide this carefully for yourself. You may not want to bet-your-life and rely on the auto-load process routinely occurring in self-defense situations.
Some argue there is good reason for allowing cycling of the slide even after you have loaded a pistol that was just fired and even if it was not shot to slide lock. A big CAUTION: Just because the slide is forward and you believe a live round is in the chamber does not make it so. Recognize that sometimes slide locks do not work after the last round has been fired, so it’s wise to decide on your preferred technique, simplify your slide-operation technique and ALWAYS follow it the same way, every time, whether for reloading, safety checking, clearing malfunctions or stoppages, cleaning, or whatever.
It is not enough to only learn to rack the slide back to chamber rounds or safety check it. You must also get the slide to lock back to insert a new loaded magazine, for cleaning purposes, or to insert a new magazine when the magazine follower automatically locks the slide back (for many, but not all firearms) when the spent magazine becomes empty. The slide lock is also used to lock the slide rearward to clear a Double-Feed stoppage. To lock the slide to the rear you have to push up the slide stop lever with your strong-hand thumb, as you rack the slide backwards with your support hand and before it travels forward when you punch it. A lot of shooters have to shift their strong grip hand around to the left (for a right-handed shooter) so they can lift up the slide stop lever with their strong-hand thumb. This is nothing to be ashamed of. You must shift your grip at the same time you are using your support hand to rack the slide rearward. You have to practice racking with your support hand while shifting your strong-hand grip and pushing up on the Slide Stop Lever with your thumb at the same time. Have your thumb locate and rest on the slide stop lever in preparation for shoving the slide stop up when the slide gets rearward. You want to be prepared to move the stop upward quickly without holding the slide back while you locate the stop. At first this is an ambidextrous challenge, but it can quickly be learned. Shooters should also learn to shift their strong-hand grip to operate the safety. See pictures below. It is important to note that some competitive shooters recommend that you operate the Slide Stop with your support thumb. The key is to pick one technique you prefer, Practice and then Practice some more. Do not get discouraged!
Recognize that the advantages of the Over-The-Top Method can be negatives for left-handers. For them, the ejection port is angled upward and their palm may cover it, likely causing problems for a Tap-Rotate-Rack-Assess-Bang drill for malfunctions and stoppages. For them the Slingshot Method has the advantage of angling the ejection port downward with no need for contortions and keeps all hands and fingers clear of the muzzle.
Recognize that since the slide stop lever is usually small in size, releasing it to chamber a cartridge can be difficult under stress. This process also does not allow the slide to go forward with the full force of the recoil spring behind it. In high stress situations, you might not be able to optimally use your fine-motor skills to depress the slide lock lever with total success. So, again Practice and then Practice some more.
Some argue against the Slingshot Method of racking the slide, especially when dealing with a stoppage. It is very difficult, if almost physically impossible, to rotate the pistol so the ejection port is pointed toward the ground, rather than upward to the sky, when resolving a stoppage. It’s nice that gravity can help with clearing the problem, but there is a big disadvantage because you have to distort your arms in an unusual and uncomfortable position to try to get ahold of the back of the slide to slingshot it at the same time. On the other hand, some shooters claim the Slingshot Method is faster and your support hand is already near and closer to where it needs to be for usual firing. You decide.
Some prefer the Over-The-Top Method of racking the slide because it is more versatile and can be easily used for all situations. I prefer this method and use it for reloading, safety checking, clearing malfunctions and stoppages, tactical training, and competitions. I also use the Slide Stop Release Lever sometimes for certain pistols because to me they seem to be designed to function better and more easily by me with the lever, e.g. Ruger Mark III .22 LR. You must learn to use the Slide Stop. Some claim it can be faster than the other methods, helps in case you have to function with only your strong hand, and may help get your grip back into proper position quickly. Some well-known competitive shooters advocate using the support thumb whenever possible because it is about half a second faster. So, it depends. Practice and then you decide.
Racking the Slide is a very important, mandatory function for operating a semi-automatic pistol, so select your preferred method, know the nuances of the technique, stay with it, and practice it for success.
More gun handling tips are available at http://www.usacarry.com.
Images courtesy Col (Dr) Benjamin Findley