Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Problems With Press Checks

Press Checks are, in my opinion, mostly a waste of time and effort. Yet, many firearms instructors teach them as being very important aspect of shooting that give the shooter an edge in being ready for combat. They do so because, by their reasoning, if you see a shell casing in the chamber, you know your gun is loaded and combat ready. That reasoning is flawed and I will show you why I think it such. Before I continue, I will say it outright, this is a very long piece, about 9 typed pages of size 12 Times New Roman font. Yet, I think it worth the read, so read it at your leisure. I may go on to edit it, to make it shorter, but for now I am including a lot of detailed examples of what I have witnessed going wrong, either directly or indirectly, completely or partially, because of shooters doing Press Checks.

Law enforcement academy students, law enforcement officers on the job, private training school students and folks taught firearms instruction by friends are often taught to do Press Checks. They are taught to do them to assure their weapons are fully loaded and combat ready. Throughout the many years that I was, and am again, a certified firearms instructor, I have witnessed some of the problems associated with Press Checks and also foresaw some other problems arising out of that practice. The potential for disaster, either directly or indirectly, partially or fully, caused by a shooter performing a Press Check, was also there. The problems that I witnessed, and other potential problems I can imagine, have convinced me that Press Checks are little more than a reassuring waste of time and effort, a dangerous one at that.

Think about it. What does a Press Check accomplish? It allows you to peer into the action of your semi-automatic pistol, rifle or shotgun (pump guns too) - mostly done on pistols though - to see if there is a round loaded in the chamber. (I will keep this limited to pistols for the remainder of this post)? How do you accomplish that? You keep the weapon pointed in a relatively safe direction, finger off of the trigger and retract the slide slightly while turning or bringing in close the pistol so you can peer into the chamber. What is there that is required to do this beyond yourself and the pistol? If done in good lighting, well that light is about the only other requirement. In poor of virtually no light, you would need to supply a light source. Do you really want to light up yourself and your pistol in a low light situation? Do you really want to ruin your night vision in a low light situation before you get off at least one shot if it comes to the legally justified need to do so? I think not. So, are Press Checks then only worth doing under good lighting conditions at best? You would think so; yet, I have seen instructors teach shooters to do them with a flashlight held in between the shooter's teeth or under their arms to illuminate the pistol. Count me out on that.

Even in good lighting, is a Press Check ever really worth it? Say that you are home, up in your bedroom you hear glass breaking somewhere in the house, then glass crunching as if underfoot. You turn to your spouse and say "Call 911, tell them our house is has been broken into and an intruder is in our home". As you do so, you grab hold of your pistol. As you go to secure the bedroom door (only you and your wife are legitimately in the home and you do not have children) you have a thought: "Is there one in the chamber"! You are uncertain, maybe your pistol does not have a chamber loaded indicator, you were trained by a firearm's instructor, in your a home defense course, to always do a Press Check before using your pistol to be sure it is ready to go. He seemed like a great instructor, he worked for a legitimate firearm's instructional outfit, he was a member of several well known gun rights groups, everyone in the class was impressed by his seemingly professional demeanor and his extensive subject knowledge. Do you do what he taught you, what you have practiced now for the past year since taking the course? Do you do a Press Check or not. Me, I would opt out.

The reason I would not do a Press Check, even if uncertain as to whether or not my pistol was loaded, would be because I believe a Press Check only accomplishes one thing other than letting you know a round is in the chamber. That one other thing is that it makes you feel good. You feel good because you think your pistol is combat ready but you may be in for the shock of your life if you wind up in a situation where you need to actually defend yourself with your pistol. Think about it (I will probably tell you to use the little gray cells again and again). What could be wrong, after all you just did the Press Check, so you know your pistol is loaded and combat ready - right? Of course, you know I am going to answer "WRONG"! While your pistol may indeed be ready, the truth is that all you may have accomplished by performing a Press Check would have been to have falsely reassured yourself that your weapon was ready to go if needed. How can that be? Let me give you some examples that may seem far fetched but that I know for a fact, after having experienced them first hand, do happen. By the way, when I say I experienced them first hand, I mean I was there and observed them. These things did not happen to me because I usually shy away from doing Press Checks.

Here is what I have witnessed, while at the range, observing other shooters doing Press Checks doing Press Checks:

A shooter is loading during a low light shooting course. He has pistol and flashlight out. He turns the light on and places light between teeth. He then goes to do a Press Check and drops his light which rolls around on ground until it stops, precisely pointed right back at him and it lights him up better than the Las Vegas Strip on a moonless night.

Another shooter, also in low light training scenario, takes his light and places it under his arm, does the Press Check or tries but does not have the light under the correct arm and has to twist pistol around to be able to see into chamber - the pistol is now pointed at the shooter next to him. The guy attempting the Press Check is also lit up more than enough to make a good target.

A shooter, in daylight, is finished shooting for the day. He has finished cleaning his pistol and goes up to the line to load for the street. He took out a mag, inserted it into the mag well by way of a combat load - eyes toward a perceived target. He then did a seemingly perfect Press Check and the pistol sure looked loaded to him but not to me. In fact, despite him thinking it was loaded for the street, or that it was in a combat ready condition, I was sure it was not loaded with one in the chamber. The shooter then removed the mag and loaded a round into the mag to top it off to make up for the one he thought he just chambered. There was not a live round in the chamber even though he did a Press Check and saw a brass colored casing in there. You see, the shooters that day had been doing malfunction clearing drills. That meant that each shooter had loaded three snap caps into each of their magazines, one snap cap between two live rounds and two other snap caps together in succession between live rounds in each mag. This assured that on one malfunction they could tap, rack, reengage, but on the other they would have to tap, rack, reengage (in this case, while at the range, they would still see a threat and would fire but this time the gun would not go off because there had been two dummy rounds back to back). In the even of two misfires in a row, they had been instructed to do an additional set of moves consisting of essentially stripping the mag, racking two or three times while visually inspecting to see the chamber was empty if possible, then inserting a new mag and reengaging.

Now with the shooter in question, we will never know why but he wound up with at least one snap cap in the magazine from which he was loading for the street. Maybe he never finished going through three magazines during the drill or maybe had a fourth also loaded with snap caps or maybe he emptied and cleaned his mags, after the course of fire, and when reloading them somehow put a dummy round into one of his magazines. The result was the same no matter the cause, at least one dummy round, a snap cap with brass base, was loaded in that magazine. That magazine just so happened to be the magazine with which he had just loaded the pistol and I got to see it all just because I had been intently watching him because he was a bit of a problem shooter as far as I was concerned.

This is what I saw. As he loaded, I saw the mag come up, and just as it was about to enter the mag well, I saw a flash of red at the top of that magazine. Not a flash as a muzzle blast, just a quick view of the color red and then he loaded. To me, it meant only one thing, he had just put a snap cap into the chamber, had done a Press Check and was incorrectly assured that his pistol was ready to be used against an armed assailant if need be. I asked him if he was satisfied that his pistol was loaded and he told me he had done a Press Check and he was certain of it being loaded. I asked him if he would mind going over Press Check technique for me. He stepped up to the line and demonstrated the Press Check for me. Then I asked him to do one more thing. I assured the line was safe, made the line hot, and told him to draw and fire a single round for me. He tried it. There was a click, no bang. He hesitated only for a moment, and he did a perfect tap, rack and reload. He never noticed that the round ejecting was a snap cap and he tried to fire again. It went click again, no bang. The next round had been the second of the pair of dummies that he had placed back to back. I called a cease fire. He cleared his weapon and had a slightly befuddled look on his face. He asked me what had went wrong and I told him to look for the two rounds he had just ejected from the pistol. All he could find were the two snap caps. He was embarrassed and that was because the light had come on, he knew what had happened. Because of that mistake and the embarrassment, he listened to my differing opinion of Press Checks and decided to try and then go with an alternative to Press Checks. I don't think I ever saw him do a Press Check again.

Another shooter, an experienced and usually very competent tactical shooter, was at the range one day and loaded up with a combat load from behind cover during a combat course of fire. Guess what he did next - he did a Press Check. So did she, and her, and that other guy and him too, all on different days over the years. I have seen it numerous times at the range. Think about the outcome of doing it at the range. Maybe, someday, you are in actual combat, you have been defending yourself by shooting at someone who has been trying to shoot you, you run dry, you are behind cover, you combat reload, always looking toward the threat, then you take the time to take your eyes off of the threat, pull the slide a bit out of battery and look into the chamber to see if it is loaded. Yep, it only took a split second. but think again about what you just did and what could happen in a real life situation like that because you did a Press Check. You look up and do not see your assailant! Where did he go? Had you only kept your eyes on him and scanning for additional threats you would have seen him run over to the other guy who has a shotgun and now you are being double timed by assailants who are in an unknown hiding spot. Think it cannot or will not or has not happened, think again.

Why did the shooter, who just combat loaded during simulated combat do a Press Check? Was it because he realized he was at the range and he was following range procedure that he had learned at his academy or at a private training course? Is it that he would only do it at the range and never do it in a real life combat situation? The truth is that, during a real life encounter, shooters almost invariably resort to things they learned too do in training; that happens about 85% of the time. You can very safely bet that he, or you, would revert to prior training and if it was to do a Press Check to make sure your pistol was loaded, well there you have it, there is a good chance you would do it on the street just as you did in training and just as this shooter did during simulated combat.

This was not limited to one shooter. I have seen at least 15 to 20 different shooters do this repeatedly during simulated combat training. Sometimes they would do it and every now and then they would not. Even after being reminded not to do it by an instructor on the line during a given firing exercise, by the time they ran dry again and were reloading during the same exercise, some of them did it again. That was just moments after being told not to do it again. Why did it happen again? Were they dumb, hard headed stubborn fools, or was it because they had been trained to do it and old habits die hard? If you chose the last choice, there is hope for you.

What else can a Press Check accomplish for a shooter? I have seen shooters do Press Checks between courses of fire during a qualification. They reload on the line, do a Press Check by very carefully pulling back on the slide so as not to unseat the loaded round then allow the slide to creep back forward. What is wrong with that picture? They have been shooting, the gun is fouled, maybe it was fouled before they even came to the range (a check for clean guns has been performed by ranger personnel at the range where we shot in recent years but some dirty chambers can get through even today especially if fouled with copper). They have pulled the slide out of battery and possibly pulled the round back out of the chamber just a tad. They allow the slide to go forward and holster up. They draw to fire at the next step in the course of fire. Most of the pistols fire but now and then one does not. It goes click - not bang. They tap, rack, reengage. It goes bang but that took a split second or three and a bad guy (if this was on the street) could have been firing back during that time.

Why did the gun not fire? Probably because the round was unseated during the Press Check, pulled out of battery, and never completely went back into battery. This can happen because of fouling in the chamber. Even though the pistol will go fully into battery, placing a round fully into the chamber, when the slide is allowed to slingshot closed, the fact is there may not have been enough force to put the slide back into battery after a Press Check. This can be caused by built up copper from copper jacketed ammo that was not properly cleaned out of the chamber, it can be caused by excessive unburned powder, it can be caused by brass shaved off of the shell casings. These things all happen at the range so they can happen in the field too. If you then do a Press Check, with a gun fouled like that, you may be in for trouble. Even a push on the back of the slide, either with your thumb or the heel of your off hand may not be enough to reseat a round that was pulled back just enough to cause it to come out of battery. This is one of the reasons you are taught to slingshot a pistol slide and not to ride it forward. Well, there is no way to slingshot it during a Press Check.

Yet another shooter, this one a gal, loaded on the line. She then proceeded to do a Press Check. I am not quite sure how it happened but while doing the Press Check, she somehow managed to hit the mag release button and while the mag did not fall out, it did drop down enough to be useless unless first reseated properly. She did not notice it either. I did but sometimes you have to let the shooters learn by making mistakes so I said nothing at that point. She was firing a pistol with a magazine disconnect safety, I think it was a S&W 6906 if memory from over 20 years ago serves me right. With that type of safety, if the mag was not seated properly or was out of the pistol, the gun would not fire. She holstered up and thought she was ready to go after having been reassured by the Press Check. For the next step in the course, she drew, fired - well she tried to fire. She made a decent recovery with tap, rack and reengage but wasted time after having been assured that the Press Check meant her gun was loaded and would fire.

Now take this another step, take it into your home - that same scenario that I spoke about at the beginning of this article. You pick up a gun to defend yourself and loved one. You are not sure it is loaded or have a momentary doubt. You decide to do a Press Check. There is one in the chamber. You know your pistol is ready to fire because you do not have a magazine disconnect safety and you do not even own a snap cap to mistakenly load into your weapon. Your pistol will fire with only a round in the chamber whether or not a magazine is in the gun. Do you see where this is going? Think about the situation in which you find yourself, use those little gray cells

Your house has been broken into by someone unknown. There is definitely an intruder in your home. Your spouse is calling 911 and is speaking to the 911 operator. You have armed yourself. You have secured the bedroom door. You have taken the best cover and or concealment you can find. Your heart is racing somewhat so are your thoughts. Adrenalin has pumped into your system, you are pumped. Your body has readied it self for the possibility of mortal combat in defense of your spouse and yourself. You are pretty calm, but you are also pretty scared - you have the strangest comical thought at a moment like this - you hope your sphincter factor is strong. As I said, your thoughts are racing you push that thought away and have another - that you are prepared for this. Yes, you have trained for this - you think you know what you need to do and it is all based upon your training. Then you realize that somehow your senses, in some regards, seemingly have dulled. In others they seem heightened. How could that be that some senses seem dulled and others heightened. You see everything clearly but have tunnel vision, your eyes locked on the bedroom door. You listen intently but some noises like your radio in the bedroom and your wife talking to the 911 operator seem miles away as you intently hear another piece of glass crunch loudly underfoot somewhere in your home.

You have a strong firm grip on your pistol, you are pumped up and feeling good even though you are scared. Suddenly something seems to be terribly wrong. You look around, your wife is still on the phone, the door is still secure, you still hear the bad guy walking through your home but there is something else wrong - you just know it. What else is wrong? You think - my gun is not fully loaded but you have no idea why you think that. Then you have a thought that calms you again. Didn't you just feel so uncertain about whether or not your gun was loaded that you did a Press Check. Seeing the shell casing in there gave you the reassurance you needed so you try to stop worrying but something you cannot pinpoint is nagging you.

No time to think about it now though. Your bedroom door is hit and hit hard, it gives way, the intruder confronts you and as he does so another intruder, never heard by you until that moment, smashes in your bedroom window from outside. One has a pistol, the other a shotgun. You come up and fire at one, he goes down immediately. You turn and point the gun at the other, who is still a threat, and you fire but it only goes click. You mind is racing at about a thousand miles a second. You think: "Why did it just go click and nothing more".  You pull the trigger again and it goes click again. You hear yourself screaming inside your head: "Tap, rack, reengage". You revert to training, you now tap, rack and just as you are about to reengage it hits you, you know what happened, you know what is wrong and you feel helpless unlike anything you have ever felt before. Heaven help you now because your gun will not. You just realized that when you tapped, there was no feel of a magazine in the mag well. Your gun is empty. That was what had been bothering you; you must have subconsciously realized the weight was wrong for it to have been fully loaded but it never reached you consciously. Sometime, maybe when you first picked up the pistol, or when you maneuvered it to do the Press Check, you somehow hit the mag release and the magazine fell out and you never realized it in your altered state of perception; believe me - your perception does change and markedly so.

Luckily for you, the second bad guy saw your gun pointing at him after you shot his buddy. He turned to flee as soon as you pointed it at him. Then he heard something you did not, the distant wail of sirens and that sealed it, he was outta there and so was the third bad guy, the one whom you never saw, the one still rummaging through your living room. If that is not how it turns out, then how else would it unfold once you realized your gun was gun was empty. Maybe that your loved ones would miss you dearly.

Do you think things like this cannot happen - then think again and again and again and again - use those little gray cells. Bad stuff happens. I have seen all these malfunctions or accidents at the range, all related to the false sense of security that a Press Check instills, all either partially or completely, directly or indirectly, caused by Press checks. They happen with inexperienced shooters as well as with experienced shooters. The one coomon link between them all has been the Press Check. Thank goodness they all happened at the range and not in a real life do or die situation as just described. When they happen at the range, we can learn from them and correct bad habits before something bad happens to us in a real life bad situation. When they happen to us in a do or die setting it is all to often that we wind up the loser.

So what is there that you can do to avoid using Press Checks and at the same time be pretty much assured that you have at least one in the chamber of a weapon that you want to have at combat ready. It is pretty simple although I cannot guarantee it is foolproof; fools just have a way of screwing things up badly and even competent folks can have the brain fart now and again. The potential for calamity is always with us. Still, my method, is one that works. Note, I don't call it my method because I claim to have created it; I did not. I call it my method because I use it. It is a method of making your weapon combat ready that was taught long before the Press Check was even a thought that passed through someones head. While it is a method to assure a weapon is combat ready, aspects of it also can be used, at least to some extent, even if you do not keep your weapon loaded at all times.

In a moment I will describe the method that I use when I want to assure my pistol is loaded to be combat ready. Before I go further, please note: I said to be combat ready! You need to realize that keeping a weapon at combat ready may be totally against all reason dependent upon certain circumstances. Some of those circumstances can be if you have children, or mentally incompetent adults, in the house, or if you have been drinking or are the influence of narcotics or other mind altering drugs. The decision is yours to make on when to keep your firearm combat ready. I will not discuss that here in this piece. It is your responsibility, not mine, to determine when you can safely have a loaded weapon at the ready. One last note, by at the ready or by combat ready, I mean a fully loaded weapon ready to be picked up or drawn and fired in a moment if need be. In the case of a double action only, like a SIG DAK, or double/single action semi-auto, such as a Beretta 92 series pistol, that means with the hammer uncocked, without the hammer drop being engaged, with the gun fully loaded and otherwise ready to go. In the case of a pistol like a Glock, with the pistol fully loaded. In the case of single action automatics like a Colt 1911, it can either mean with the gun fully loaded and hammer down or also mean with the pistol loaded, hammer cocked, safety engaged. It does not mean with the gun cocked without the safety engaged.)

Okay, now that I said that last, when I want to load my pistol, well ahead of any potential self defense situation, to be combat ready, I make sure to completely inspect the pistol to make sure it is clean and functioning properly. I also inspect my magazines likewise. Then I inspect my ammunition to make sure there are no obvious defects and that only the proper rounds for the pistol I am loading are nearby. I then load my magazines, each to full capacity. I load from a box of ammunition without dumping the rounds onto a table. I do this to assure I can easily count how many rounds are missing from the box when I am done loading the magazines. If three magazines would take a total of 45 rounds, then 45 rounds had best be missing from a full box of 50 for the mags all to have been loaded fully. I then physically and visually inspect the magazines to make sure each is loaded all the way. I give them a physical double check by trying to get an additional round into each of them. (This does not always work with new mags with very stiff springs or if a bullet is somehow loaded vertically instead of seated horizontally above the follower.) Then I look at the numbered holes on the mag to make sure a cartridge can be seen through each hole. If for any reason, I do not think the magazine was fully loaded, I empty it and reload it. Then I load my pistol from one of the full magazines with no empty or partially magazines nearby. Note, I said from one of them because I virtually always have more than one magazine available in case a reload is needed. I insert the mag with enough force to seat it properly and I listen for the click of it engaging the magazine catch.Then I slingshot the slide to assure it moves forward with full force to properly seat the first round. I then holster up and take out the magazine while the pistol is holstered, or I can take out the mag from pistol in hand, then holster it or put it down on a table. Remember, the mag I am now taking back out of the pistol just had been fully loaded a moment before. I now replace the missing cartridge, the one that went into the chamber, by placing another round into the magazine. I then load that magazine back into the pistol again with enough force to seat it. The magazine is now again fully loaded and the pistol is fully loaded too, including one in the chamber. If I am distracted, for any reason, I do it all over again to make sure it has been done right since my life or the lives of my loved ones may depend upon it.

As for doing a Press Check, I do not need to do one because if the magazine was fully loaded when I first loaded one into the chamber then, by simple logical reasoning, if the mag could take another round, one must have certainly been loaded into the chamber to allow for the free space now in that magazine. Unless I somehow unloaded the pistol along the way - it is definitely loaded with one in the chamber at this point and is fully loaded once I replenish the magazine and replace it in the pistol. I try not to be quite that foolish. Yet, people, both firearms instructors and shooters who are not instructors, argue with me that my method does not assure the chamber of the gun is loaded and only a Press Check will do so. I can only tell them this: "Get it, the gun was empty, the mag was full, you loaded one into the chamber from the full mag, you took out the mag without unloading the cartridge from the chamber, and were able to top off the mag with one round meaning that the room created in the mag was created by a round leaving it and going into the chamber, so when you top off the mag and put it back into the pistol, the pistol is fully loaded. Why on earth would you ever need to do a Press Check if you reliably made your firearm combat ready in that manner every time you made it combat ready?

Now if you want to tell me, "Well, I keep my gun unloaded in my night stand, with a fully loaded mag in there next to it, or I keep it up on shelf like that, or even in my safe like that, so how will I know if my gun's chamber is loaded after I get to it and attempt to load it unless I do a Press Check". You will not, at least you will not until you attempt to fire it, check the loaded chamber indicator, or do a Press Check. Remember though, I said even in such a situation you can partially follow my method. How - by keeping the magazines that are next to the gun fully loaded.

Also bear in mind that I just wrote about your senses being heightened and some being dulled. I spoke about you body being pumped full of adrenalin, about you being pumped, excited, scared, ready to go. I did not speak about fine motor skills versus gross motor skills. A gross motor skill would be akin to you slingshotting the slide when reloading as opposed to the fine motor skill required for you to hit the slide release with your thumb to allow it the slide to go forward. Doing a Press Check requires fine motor skills. Fine motor skills are often decreased markedly, to the point of failure, during a very stressful situation. Gross motor skills usually prevail throughout. When you try to pull back the slide, just enough to take a peek, while doing a Press Check, during something like a home intrusion, you may be so pumped up and excited that you perform a gross motor skill rather than the fine motor skill required to do the Press Check. The outcome is you rack the slide, extract and eject the round in the chamber and are now a bullet down. Again, think about what, where, when, why and how you are apt to do something. Do you really want to do a Press Check then, in the face of a potential threat to your life when you are shot full of adrenalin and may not be able to do it properly? Do you want to do one at any time if any of problems mentioned above can be the result?

For me, I just see no need for a Press Check once I have loaded my weapon to be combat ready when done the way I do it. Your situation may be different. You may not keep the gun loaded because of young kids in the house, or because grandpa lives with you and he has mild dementia, or whatever, I am just giving my take on it and I think Press Checks are little more than foolish reassurance at best. Of course, most of my pistols, if not all, that I would choose to have at combat ready have a loaded chamber indicator which negates the need to ever do a Press Check. When it comes right down to it, you need to decide for yourself, are Press Checks worth the potential risks they can incur. Now you have been made aware of some of the potential problems that can be directly or indirectly, fully or partially, caused by Press Checks. Are you still willing to perform them? The decision is yours to make.

All the best,

Glenn B