I first published this article in January of 2012, but the issue it addresses–stiff recoil springs in semiautomatic handguns–is a perennial problem. With more and more women taking up arms (praise the Lord and pass the handguns!), spreading the word about proper technique is more important than ever. Strength is only partially the issue; technique is paramount.
NOTE: Articles of this kind are intended for the general information of the reading public. Because I cannot be present when and if you attempt the procedures outlined, I can’t guarantee your safety and must trust that you will always observe the basics of safe firearm handling. In handling firearms, power tools, driving, etc., we assume certain adult risks and responsibilities.
One of the most significant and hilarious ironies of the 1994 Clinton “assault weapon” ban—now long defunct—was the provision of the law that limited all newly manufactured firearm magazines to 10 rounds. As we now know, the law accomplished nothing at all—with the exception of removing many Democrats from federal office (come to think of it, that’s a significant accomplishment!)–and magazine capacity restriction was one of the sillier aspects of a law that could never cause a reduction in crime or increase safety, as indeed it did not. When its sunset date arrived, it was allowed to die a quick and merciful death. Most Congressional Democrats learned their lesson and let that particular dead horse lie.
By the time the law went into effect, manufacturers had squirreled away a substantial supply of regular capacity magazines, thus they were seldom in short supply during the decade-long run of the law. The law accomplished essentially two things: (1) it allowed manufacturers to raise the price of regular capacity magazines (supply and demand), and (2) it encouraged the invention of the Glock 26 and every handgun that followed Glock’s lead.
In many ways, Glock seems to be the Apple of the firearms world. Like Apple, Glock often does it first and best and everyone else rushes to make something similar and as good. So it was with the Glock 26 (9mm), commonly called the “baby” Glock. Since new magazines were limited to 10 round capacity, Glock downsized their popular 19 to accept a double stack, 10-round magazine. The result was a smaller, lighter and even more concealable handgun that has been very popular since, and has encouraged a great many similar models from all of the major manufacturers. The handgun depicted in this article is a Glock 43X, a descendant of the G26.
There is, however, no such thing as a free lunch. Small, short barreled pistols like the Glock that fire 9mm and more powerful cartridges need powerful recoil springs to compensate for less slide mass compared to a duty/full-sized handgun in the same caliber and configuration. Many people find noticeably greater effort is required to cycle the slide of compact and subcompact versions of popular, full sized—duty–handguns. Another factor with such weapons is the relatively small size of their slides provides less gripping area for many people, particularly those with larger hands.
Remember that with virtually all pistol designs, cycling the slide manually requires not only overcoming the tension of the recoil spring, but also the (lesser) tension of the hammer or striker spring which is simultaneously cocked to prepare the handgun for firing the first round. The recoil generated from the firing of that first round will accomplish slide cycling/cocking thereafter.
I know of some people with these difficulties that have talked about having others load their first round (?!), or have looked to gunsmiths to lighten their recoil springs. These and similar ideas are not only impractical but dangerous. Reducing the power of recoil springs can cause all manner of failures that could conceivably put the shooter in real danger–no competent gunsmith should entertain such an idea–and whether one regularly carries a semi-automatic pistol or merely relies on it as a home defense gun, they must be capable of loading, unloading, and performing malfunction drills unaided. Anything less is actually dangerous. Anyone who cannot cycle the slide of their handgun cannot be sure the weapon is loaded or safe, and surely can’t participate in the training necessary to master their handgun.
This issue seems to be a problem primarily for women, but it’s certainly not limited to them. Fortunately, by using proper technique—technique that has the added benefit of enhancing safety and mirroring proper grip and stance—virtually anyone can master their small handguns.
I’ll mention one alternative: The KelTec P17, a 17 round .22LR pistol. It’s reviewed here. Cocking (slide cycling) effort is slight, and it’s a very accurate little handgun with an unusually good trigger. At $199.00 MSRP, which includes three magazines, it’s a real bargain. Granted, the .22LR is normally not considered an adequate personal defense cartridge, but manufacturers have developed loads that are considerably more effective than ever before, and if due to physical issues one can’t carry a larger and more effective weapon, it’s a viable alternative. The handgun you can carry, manipulate and accurately shoot is far more effective than a larger and more powerful one you can’t.
NOTE: ATTEMPT THE DRILLS THAT FOLLOW ONLY WITH A CLEARED HANDGUN! BE SURE THERE IS NO MAGAZINE IN THE WEAPON AND THE CHAMBER IS EMPTY. VERIFY THIS BY SIGHT AND TOUCH. BE SURE YOUR WEAPON IS POINTING IN A SAFE DIRECTION WITH A SAFE BACKSTOP. IF YOU ARE NOT ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN THE WEAPON IS CLEARED AND SAFE, DO NOT ATTEMPT THESE DRILLS.
This photograph illustrates the common Weaver stance. The Weaver stance, invented by LA Deputy Sheriff and noted competitive shooter Jack Weaver in the late 1950s, has long been the standard for defensive pistol shooting. It provides a very stable shooting platform because the right/strong hand is pushing against the left/weak hand, which is pulling backward, producing a dynamic tension. The arms form essentially two triangles, which stabilize the handgun. It also orients the handgun so its barrel is directly in line with the shooter’s strong arm and the wrist is straight/in line with the forearm, which not only improves accuracy but significantly controls recoil and muzzle flip. This stance is the foundation of proper semi-automatic handgun manipulation. Again, the handgun is a Glock 43X.
These photos illustrate the proper weak hand grip for slide cycling:
Notice the slide is gripped not by the thumb and a finger or two, but by the heel of the hand and all four opposing fingers.
All are positioned over the serrations at the rear of the slide. This maximizes hand/arm strength. Notice too the first/trigger finger is in register, out of the trigger guard, off the trigger, and extended straight forward, in contact with the frame. This must be the default trigger finger position until a fraction of a second before pulling the trigger. When a shot has been fired, one should immediately return the trigger finger to register, unless of course, more than one round is immediately necessary. This is one of the basic, mandatory procedures of firearm safety and must become second nature whenever a firearm of any kind is in the hand.
NOTE: some handguns come with serrations on the slide near the muzzle. There is no practical reason to ever use such cosmetic affectations. Putting one’s hand anywhere near the muzzle is a recipe for serious injury.
Keep in mind too that in cycling the slide to load or unload your handgun, you should be trying to duplicate the function of the weapon when it is fired. In other words, move fast, with determination and force. You will not hurt the gun! You cannot generate more cycling force and speed than actually firing a cartridge. Handling the weapon weakly or tentatively is more difficult than doing it energetically and you’ll be more likely to experience all kinds of malfunctions.
TERMINOLOGY MOMENT: A “malfunction” is a stoppage that can be cleared within a few seconds without tools. The two most common types are a failure to feed a cartridge into the chamber and a failure to extract/eject the empty brass. A “jam” is a mechanical malfunction, such as the bending or breaking of a part. A jam cannot be cleared quickly without tools and often requires the ministrations of a gunsmith.
If you do it properly, you’ll hear a rapid and sharp “snap-snap” as the slide reaches the limit of its rearward travel (snap #1) and as it goes into battery (snap #2) when you release it. You will not hear this snap-snap when actually shooting because the gun will be going “bang” instead. The slide cycling will occur much more rapidly and the report of the firearm will cover the snap-snap, which is still there. Remember, you only have to move the slide a few inches to the rear; the recoil spring will do the rest of the work when you’ve done yours. Release the slide when it hits the rear stop!
The next two photos illustrate the wrong way to cycle a slide. In the first photo, the shooter is using their thumb and the tips of their fingers, and is trying to cycle the slide across their body. Not only is this very weak, it’s very dangerous. Muzzle awareness is supremely important. It is ridiculously easy to point the muzzle of a short-barreled weapon in an unsafe direction without realizing it. Maintaining a Weaver stance when manipulating a handgun will maintain muzzle awareness and be far more likely to keep the muzzle in a safe direction.
By the way, do this drill standing, not sitting. It allows you to use the strength of your upper body more efficiently.
This second photo illustrates another, very common, incorrect method. Again, this is a weak grip–none of the muscles of the hands and arms are used efficiently–and promotes very poor muzzle control. Also, in order to do this, one must break the straight line between barrel and forearm and cock the wrist at an angle—never a good idea as it promotes poor accuracy, magnifies recoil and promotes failures to eject and feed due to “limp-wristing” (holding the weapon weakly or with a flexible wrist which does not provide a solid foundation against which the weapon can cycle).
This photo illustrates the proper method. From the Weaver stance, grip the slide properly, and simultaneously push forward with the strong hand while pulling back with the weak hand. This uses the strength not only of both hands, but of your upper body. Most people can do this without bending their strong elbow, in which case, the “forward push” is more a matter or concentration than movement. Remember to immediately release the slide when it hits the rear stop—it’s easy to feel and hear. If this feels harsh and violent, that’s OK. Remember: the point is mimicking the actual function of a handgun when it fires.
As this photo illustrates, you may choose to slightly bend your strong arm elbow, but the barrel of your handgun should remain in line with your forearm, and your muzzle should remain pointed in a safe direction (downrange). This slight modification of Weaver may make it somewhat easier to push forward with the strong hand while simultaneously pulling back with the weak for some people. To fire–of course–you should assume a proper Weaver position with the strong arm fully extended.
Keep in mind these methods may feel odd or difficult at first, but with practice, they’ll become much easier and feel more natural. As I previously mentioned, they can be done safely with a cleared handgun, but one may become more comfortable overall if live fire on a range is employed once the basics are mastered with an empty weapon.
This method, once you are comfortable with it, will also allow you to check your chamber to confirm that it’s loaded, which is often called a “pinch-check (AKA “press check”).” A classic pinch check can be performed on unaltered Model 1911’s, but is not possible with many other pistols that have under-barrel recoil spring guide rods. To check the chamber, lock your strong arm elbow firmly against your side so the top of the chamber/breech is in front of you, again with the muzzle pointed straight ahead and in a safe orientation. Withdraw the slide only enough to confirm the presence or absence of brass—finger in register—and allow the slide to go into battery. It is a good idea to give the back of the slide a good forward rap with the palm of the weak hand to be sure that it’s fully in battery (if it’s not, most pistols won’t fire, and if they do, it’s dangerous). The gun will not be hurt!
This method, where the first finger presses against the rear sight, works well if one is strong enough, and if the handgun is made to accommodate it. In fact, it was used by Keanu Reeves in John Wick 3, the third in a series of movies that generally uses correct firearm techniques. Again, squeeze only enough to retract the slide sufficiently to see brass in the chamber, and rap the back of the slide with the palm of the weak hand to ensure the slide is in battery (fully closed) Some handguns, like most Glocks, are designed so the extractor protrudes outward from the slide when a round is chambered. Learning how this feels, one need never perform a press check with such firearms.
Loading The Handgun: Once you’ve mastered this simple process, it’s easy to load your handgun. Insert a loaded magazine—always tap sharply upward after you think it’s seated, just to be sure–and cycle the slide, chambering a round. Remove the magazine and holster the handgun, or put it down with the muzzle in a safe direction. Add a fresh round to the magazine, bringing it to full capacity. Being sure the muzzle is in a safe direction, reinsert the magazine, again giving it a firm upward rap with the weak hand palm to ensure it is fully seated. You won’t hurt the gun!
REVIEW (Cleared weapon/muzzle in a safe direction/safe backstop):
(1) Strong Weaver position.
(2) Trigger finger in register (ALWAYS!).
(3) Proper grip on the slide with heel of palm and all four fingers on the serrations at the back of the slide.
(4) Simultaneously push with strong hand and pull with weak hand.
(5) Move quickly and forcefully, immediately releasing the slide when the rear stop is hit.
(6) Do this drill the same way every time.
Optical Sights: What about the increasingly common, small, slide mounted red dot sights? For most people, if their hands aren’t uncommonly small, the same techniques will work. They may have to slightly adjust their grip to accommodate the sight. It’s a good idea to be careful to grip the slide, not the sight, which could be loosened, or even demaged. The model depicted is the S&W Shield Plus, with a Crimson Trace red dot sight.
Should one be unable to properly cycle a slide, Smith & Wesson is making several models of their popular Shield handgun series, designated “EZ” with slides easier than usual to manipulate. No doubt for liability reasons, these models incorporate a grip safety.
If you’ve followed the procedures properly, you’ve probably discovered strength you didn’t know you had. Actually, it was always there, you just weren’t using it efficiently. There are certainly some people with unusually weak hands, but absent a medical condition that would render the method I’ve outlined here impossible, it is not time consuming or difficult to build the necessary hand strength through such common methods as squeezing a racketball or tennis ball, or using one of the common grips strengtheners on the market. For most, merely practicing these drills will develop the muscle control and memory necessary.
I also recommend The Complete Book of Combat Handgunning by Chuck Taylor. Disclosure: I hold instructor’s certification from Taylor’s American Small Arms Academy. It is one of the best basic texts available.
Good luck and always practice basic firearm safety!