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The Empty Chamber Carry Paradox: Don’t Do It

Empty chamber carry was once described to me in the same spirit as Schrodinger’s Cat, a popular scientific paradox. Essentially, “Schrodinger’s Empty Chamber Carry” is the paradox that it’s unsafe to carry with a loaded chamber. Somehow, though, the shooter will be able to competently and safely chamber a round to neutralize a lethal threat under extreme stress. While this paradox is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the reality of empty chamber carry can be unforgiving.

Let’s evaluate the pros and cons for those who carry with an empty chamber. After some testing on my part, you may see why empty chamber carry is not necessarily the preferred method of carry. If anything, maybe we’ll all learn a little something in the process.

Origins of Empty Chamber Carry

The origins of empty chamber carry can be difficult to pinpoint, but it’s hard not to look to the Middle East. Empty chamber carry is also commonly referred to as “Israeli Carry.” As one might assume, this method of carry was popularized by the Israelis. But why? Back at its inception, Israel was a fledging nation building up armaments to defend itself. The vast array of handguns they acquired were in varying conditions, with some questionably functional at best. Furthermore, the manual of arms was different for many of them.

The firing pin block safety – the round circle in the center of this Glock slide – blocks the firing pin from moving forward. This safety design was not standard on most pistols until the latter half of the twentieth century. [Photo: Tom Stilson]

At that time, most semi-automatic firearms were also not equipped with a drop safety. A drop safety effectively blocks the firing pin from striking the cartridge primer if dropped or hit with sufficient force. While a drop safety is a common safety feature today, it wasn’t at the time. In the interest of safety, Israeli handgun shooting techniques were taught to start with the chamber empty and the magazine full. With modern firearms, the presence of a drop safety largely negates the need for empty-chamber carry.

Justifications for Empty Chamber Carry

When discussing empty chamber carry, it does nothing to be dismissive or neglect to address the main justifications behind doing so. Accordingly, the best thing to do is discuss these common concerns or rationales one by one.


I’ve heard this argument occasionally. The concept is that if the carrier is disarmed, the aggressor won’t be able to chamber a round into the firearm in time to use the gun against the carrier. This line of thinking cuts both ways. If the assailant can’t chamber the gun before you can act, neither will you if attacked by an assailant. A defensive firearm is a reactive weapon. Thus, you’re already behind the aggressor’s action. By requiring the chambering of the firearm prior to firing it, you’ve lost a significant amount of time. Even the most well-trained are significantly behind the curve with an empty chamber — something I’ll demonstrate shortly.

holster retaining gun from gun grab
If not properly concealed, a gun grab is a possibility. If open carrying, retention is a must. This firearm is retained by a Safariland ALS holster securely mounted to a belt to minimize the risk of disarmament. This is a far better option than carrying with an empty chamber. [Photo: Tom Stilson]

Proper retention starts with proper concealment and a quality holster. Gun grabs from assailants are common with open-carry advocates and law enforcement. Retention devices on the holster and proper situational awareness help prevent these issues. If you’re carrying, carry concealed. If you have to open-carry, carry with a holster properly secured to your belt (not a paddle holster) and use a holster with an adequate retention device.


As mentioned earlier, modern handguns are equipped with a drop safety. A drop safety prevents accidental discharge of the firearm unless all safeties are deactivated and the trigger is pulled. For example, early Colt 1911s (commonly known as Series 70)didn’t include this feature. Since then, even the venerable 1911 has integrated a drop safety.

empty chamber carry gun in holster
This modern leather inside the waistband holster adequately covers the trigger guard on this Glock 17. [Photo: Tom Stilson]

Modern holsters should cover the trigger enough to prevent inadvertent depression of the trigger. While examples exist of negligent discharges during drawing, holstering, and carrying, the vast majority of these are traced back to obstructions during holstering, improper finger placement during drawing, and improper holster carry. These issues arise primarily due to poor equipment selection, poor firearms handling, and — most of all — a lack of training.

Comfort and Confidence

For many folks, the early stages of carrying a loaded firearm is uncomfortable, awkward, and unsettling. They’re overtly aware they’re carrying a piece of steel and polymer readily capable of causing death or serious injury. This awareness isn’t bad, but there’s a strong distinction between respect and fear of such an instrument. Fear is a lack of understanding of the threat, whereas respect is understanding its capability and how to properly handle such a tool. Firearms should be respected accordingly.

drawing firearm from holster but not empty chamber
Practice and training are the only way to adequately build competence with a firearm. Quality time spent on the range translates to confidence in your guns, gear, and skills. [Photo: Tom Stilson]

The strongest antidote to fear or concern of carrying a loaded firearm is simple: instill confidence while building competence. Confidence is built through repetition. Early stages may be carrying with an unloaded or empty-chamber firearm around the home. If the trigger isn’t pulled, you’ve built confidence in your equipment and capabilities. Furthermore, there are no dire consequences to finding out your gear is subpar. Building competence is resolved with a commitment to proper training. Proper training reduces your liability with a firearm while making you a competent shooter. The foundation is simple: proper holster, proper firearm, and proper training.

Testing Empty Chamber Carry

Defending yourself with a firearm is a purely reactionary behavior. There is little action except in your efforts to prevent or avoid a confrontation. Furthermore, carrying with an empty chamber makes the assumption your other hand will be available, or operable, to cycle the slide. Cycling the slide under stress requires a rehearsed and practiced action. There are competent shooters that still induce malfunctions in their firearms occasionally due to improper slide manipulation under stress. A simple short stroke of the slide can produce a nightmarish double-feed upon a secondary effort to clear the weapon.

As with anything, it’s one thing to claim empty chamber carry puts you dangerously behind the reactionary curve, but it’s another to demonstrate it. As part of that, I stepped out to the range and performed some drills on a steel target at seven yards. The test is simple: 15 strings of fire at seven yards from the holster. The first 15 shots are with a loaded chamber, while the remaining 15 are with an empty chamber. Let’s see which is faster.

drawing from holster
Even with the fastest draw, racking a slide while drawing adds time to engage the target. This time is critical in surviving a gunfight. [Photo: Tom Stilson]

The data didn’t lie. In dropping five of the slowest shots, the average draw time to engage the target from a loaded chamber was an average of 1.16 seconds at seven yards. For empty chamber carry, the time rose to an average of 1.76 seconds. I’m not a world-class shooter by any means, but even my capabilities added a previous 0.6 seconds to time-on-target. A critical note in all this is that on at least two occasions, my hand slipped, and I had to re-rack the slide to chamber a round. The times in these instances were around 2.1 seconds. If a capable shooter can make this error, a timid or inexperienced shooter unwilling to carry with a loaded chamber has a far greater chance of encountering this event.

Keep One in the Pipe

I began this article with a sarcastic comparison of empty chamber carry to Schrodinger’s Cat. While sarcasm doesn’t sit well with some, it holds a parcel of blunt honesty. Empty chamber carry is not a common practice nor is it still employed with highly trained military units. In fact, this practice is a necessity of a bygone era. While tradition holds strong in many realms of the firearms community, this isn’t one we should continue to embrace. Train with your firearm and become competent and confident with it. As thousands before have realized, it’s not the firearm that’s the danger, it’s the untrained person behind it.

The post The Empty Chamber Carry Paradox: Don’t Do It appeared first on The Mag Life.

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