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How Much Ammunition Must You Carry?

Updated: Mar 6

A frequent question among those who have trained to carry a firearm is whether to carry extra ammo, and how much. One can dream up reasons to carry no reloads, one reload, or several reloads. As with all issues pertaining to equipment, I think a levelheaded solution will derive from a frank assessment of how much inconvenience one is prepared to endure in exchange for the benefits of having more ammunition on them.

With all equipment, one must be clear upon why you need it, and balance that need against the practical effort and inconvenience of maintaining and carrying the equipment. For example, many of us carry a firearm we consider to be less-than-optimal in order to make carrying it practical, given our particular life circumstances. A rifle is far superior to a hand gun for personal defense, but carrying a rifle in my day-to-day life would be absurd. Spare magazines (or a speed loader or speed strip) are just one more layer of inconvenience.

There is no legal impediment to carrying extra ammunition, as there may be with a knife or a gun. But they have to be maintained, remembered, concealed, and you have to keep track of them. Whether this is a significant cost, day-in-and-day out, depends upon your individual circumstances.

Against that cost, we have to weigh the benefit. Why carry a reload at all? The answers I have heard to that question are: that one does not want to run out of ammunition in a fight; one may need another magazine if a malfunction occurs that requires one to discard the magazine that came in the gun, and carrying more ammunition makes one “feel safer.”

So, what are the chances you will run out of ammunition in a fight? That will depend, of course, on the fight. To help us predict, we can look at how many rounds have actually been fired in real confrontations by others over time.

Reliable statistics regarding the number of rounds fired by ordinary citizens in violent confrontations are impossible to find. But the FBI and other police organizations keep track of the number of rounds fired by police officers in officer involved shootings.

Statistics from the National Police Foundation, gathered from the Major Cities Chiefs Association and other sources, from 2005 through 2017, show the average number of rounds fired across all incidents involving police shootings was 7.6. In 53% of the shootings, the officer(s) fired three or fewer rounds. In 267 of the recorded incidents, only one round was fired. In 179 of the incidents, two rounds were fired, and in 184 of the incidents, three rounds were fired. This means in 630 out of 1180 shooting incidents, three or fewer rounds were fired. On the other end of the scale, in twelve of the incidents, 21 rounds were fired, and in eight incidents 18 rounds were fired.

I train to fire twice, then take a beat to assess the result. I suspect in most cases two well placed rounds will be sufficient to dissuade an attacker. But often that has proven not to be the case. If I see that two is not enough, another two should do the job, or two more after that. My 1911 holds eight rounds, likely more than what I will need.

A stock Glock 17 holds seventeen rounds. To my mind, that is enough ammunition, if we control our rate of fire.

Of course, blasting away in a panic will burn more ammo. But it is obviously not as effective as well aimed shots, is dangerous to bystanders, and invites legal trouble.

Consider that in 50% of the shootings examined in the study cited above, the subject and the officer were only 15 feet apart. In 60% of those shootings the distance was only 20 feet. That is less than seven yards. In only two out of ten shootings was the distance more than twelve yards. I submit that if one stays reasonably calm, effective hits at these ranges should not be a problem, and if one is missing at those distances, missing faster will be of no help. This is a training issue, not an equipment issue.

Also consider that between about 1850 and the 1980’s, all we had were revolvers that held six (or fewer) rounds. The six-shot revolver was standard police issue from about 1880 until the late 1980’s, when the Glock 17’s hit the market. That’s a hundred years. We have to ask, In that time, how many people (police or civilian) were shot because they ran out of ammunition during a fight?

Conversely, Increased magazine capacity has not resulted in fewer officers being shot in the line of duty. What it has done is to allow people to rely upon having a ton of ammo they will not likely be able to use constructively.

Some say more ammo is required to assure that one “has one more round than the bad guy.” I have also heard that if there are multiple assailants one will need more ammo. These reasons do not hold up to scrutiny.

“One more round than the bad guy” would make a nice bumper sticker. But if fails as a rationale because it puts you in the position of having to guess – or imagine – how many rounds the bad guy will have. If he has six, then eight does the job. If he has 13, then you need 14. What if he has 14? What if he has 20? One can chase that number up into the hundreds. So where does your imagination draw that line? And how much time do you think you will have to be shooting all those rounds?

Then there is the “multiple assailant” rationale. If one faces three assailants, it seems logical that one will need more ammunition. But this assumes that one facing multiple assailants is going to have an opportunity to actually fire upon all of those multiple assailants. Unfortunately, the chances are that in a shoot-out with three assailants, one of them is going to get one good hit before you get three. Dreaming that you need enough ammo to mow down multiple assailants ignores the more likely prospect that you are going to lose that fight before you exhaust your ammunition. That unhappy prospect is made even more likely if you stop to reload. Better to fire, then leave, moving laterally, as fast as you can, and hope to escape.

Finally, there is the prospect of needing a second magazine due to a malfunction that requires one to jettison their first magazine. I have to allow this is real, although it should be extremely rare. Ask yourself, in all the time you have spent running your gun on the range, and excluding malfunctions that were deliberately induced for training purposes, how many malfunctions requiring you to jettison your magazine have you had?

The number for me is zero. That’s in about 40 years. I have encountered an occasional ammunition-related malfunction. or made an error myself, that required a “tap-rack.” But nothing that required me to ditch my magazine. If you are having the kinds of malfunctions that require you to strip your magazine, there is something wrong with your gun, or more likely your magazines, and you urgently need to get that problem fixed. Carrying more magazines is not a solution.

The chances that I will ever be involved in any kind of a shooting incident are extremely small. Then, stacked upon that unlikely prospect, is the very remote chance that I will have to reload in the course of that incident. Still, for my peace of mind, I carry a spare magazine. One. If I need more than that, reloading is not the most urgent problem with which I have to be concerned.

Just think about it.


1 Stephens, Carrell W, “Officer Involved Shootings: Incident Executive Summary.”

2 In a third of these incidents, more than one involved officer fired a weapon.

3 The idea of assessing the effect of one’s shots is itself controversial in some circles. But that is another topic.

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