A Round In the Chamber?

The question, “Do cops keep a round in the chamber,” has been making its “rounds” through the writing groups this week. Several people have written me saying they’ve heard both yes and no answers. And now they’ve asked me to confirm the real answer to the question. I’m not sure, but I may have started this discussion with my comments regarding Detective Kate Beckett from the Castle TV show. In case you haven’t seen the show, in the last episode, Beckett, for some reason did everything wrong, from tasting a fat pinch of heroin to chugging a shot of whiskey in the captains office.

I know, I know, I know. This is a TV show. It’s for entertainment. It’s fiction. You love it, and you especially love the sexual tension between Castle and Beckett. Honestly, I heard you the first 1,000 times you told me to stop picking on the love of your life, Nathan Fillion. The truth is, you rarely ever see me write anything about Fillion’s character. Why? Because he’s not playing the part of a cop, therefore he shouldn’t be expected to know police procedure. So he’s pretty much safe from my comments.

Beckett, well, she’s a different story. She should know better. Like this week when she pulled out her pistol and racked the slide to chamber a round before stepping into a dangerous situation. I assume she did this in case the need to shoot someone came up. Actually, I don’t know why she even carries a gun. Normally she just kicks butt and asks questions later. She’s one tough cop.

I like Beckett. I think Stana Katic does a fantastic job with the part, which is why I hate to beat a dead horse to a second death, but I wish the writers would up the police procedure believability factor just a notch. The Beckett character is extremely sharp and Katic portrays that intelligence quite well. So well, that to do dumb police stuff simply does not come across well at all.

Like reading a really well-written novel, it’s easy to step into the Castle world. I mean I’m there. I can hear the sounds of the police station. I smell the gun oil. And I feel the sudden tightening of the suspect’s muscles when they’re about to resist arrest. I’ve been there, so I know what it’s like. Therefore, when I switch on Castle on Monday nights I know there’s a chance I’m going back, even if it’s only for an hour. However, it’s becoming more and more of a chore to watch, but that’s not what today’s post is about.

Some of the people who wrote me after reading this week’s Castle blog, wrote to say I didn’t know what I was talking about, that it’s against the law to carry a live round in the chamber, even for a police officer. One person actually said I was an idiot and should have my blog license revoked. WHAT???

Well, that person got the idiot thing right, I suppose, but not the part about police officers not keeping a round chambered in their weapons.

The answer to the question, according to my years of personal experience, and to the answers I received from over twenty active law enforcement officers, is YES. Cops keep a round chambered at all times (with the safety off, if equipped). In fact, it’s almost second nature to do this when loading a weapon.

When you ask an officer how many rounds he/she carries in his/her weapon they’ll respond with an answer something like, “Fifteen plus one.” This means they have a full magazine containing fifteen rounds and one in the chamber. Some officers take the answer one step further and include, “Plus I’m carrying two full magazines on my belt. That’s fifteen rounds each, for a total of forty-six rounds, including what’s in my pistol. Yep, I’m carrying forty-six rounds, four short of an entire box of ammunition.”

When loading their weapons, officers first insert fifteen bullets into the magazine. Then they shove the full magazine into the pistol, pull back the slide and then release it, which loads a round into the chamber. Then they eject the magazine and replace the round that was loaded into the chamber. They now have a pistol that’s loaded to 15+1, or whatever number of rounds their particular weapon holds.

Most of the officers I spoke with stated their department policy mandates that all service weapons be loaded to the +1 capacity (a full magazine plus one in the chamber). Doing so decreases the amount of time an officer needs to react when involved in a deadly shooting situation. The time an officer spends placing a round in the chamber could be the amount of time it takes to save his/her life.

When under fire, the last thing you want to do is to use up precious time chambering a round.

* Two examples of police firearm policy in the U.S.

Madison Wisconsin Police Department Firearms Policy and Procedure:# Carry of Firearms

1. Semi-Auto Pistols
1. The Town of Madison Police Department authorizes only semi-automatic Pistols for daily carry in uniform and investigative assignments.
2. All uniformed officers shall carry their duty weapon while driving a department vehicle.
3. All semi-automatic pistol (semi-auto) magazines will be loaded to capacity during duty carry.
4. All officers must carry a minimum of two magazines loaded to capacity. One must be carried in the weapon and one must be carried on their person, available for immediate use.
5. Only Department authorized semi-auto pistols will be carried on-duty or off-duty by officers.
6. All semi-automatic pistols will be carried with the chamber loaded.

Boston Police Department requires a firearms inspection at role call. Policy mandates as part of that inspection that officers remove the magazine and then eject the round from the chamber. When reloading, officers are required to replace the magazine and then place a round in the chamber.

Again – U.S. officers carry with a round in the chamber and safety off.

27 replies
  1. AAR
    AAR says:

    For those of you who aren’t in law enforcement, there is a very good reason why not to carry with a round in the chamber and it has nothing to do with the half second. When I was working for Sunnyvale DPS in the late 70’s everyone carried revolvers. This all changed when an officer was disarmed in a fight and shot with his own weapon. That’s why some think it’s best to carry with none in the chamber. I don’t agree because as a professional you should never ever put yourself in a position to become disarmed. Some departments deal with this by arming their officers with “trick” guns. We first went with the S&W 59 series that have features that make it easy to make inoperable in a fight. you also need to be familier with the 59 series to fire it because it’s non-standard in some ways where if you’re not fasmiler with it you may make it inoperable yourself if you use it like a standard 1911 .45 cal. To my knowledge, there is only one law enforcement agency (with the exception of the NYPD (TV version) that doesn’t carry one in the chamber, that’s israel. Why they do it I have no idea.

  2. johnmarinville
    johnmarinville says:


    I don’t know about police procedure (that’s why I am here, to learn) but I do know the military procedures. Well, Air Force, anyway. Unless you’re an MP, the Air Force tends to focus more the kinds of guns that are mounted on the wings of an airplane, so our procedures with regard to handguns may be fairly basic in comparison to other military branches.

    But I remember quite clearly that we are taught from day 1 to carry our M-9’s with one in the chamber, safety off, and only 14 in the clip. Unlike what you’ve described the police doing, we simply load the mag and go; we don’t remove it and replace the chambered round.

    I remember this so clearly because I first learned the basics of M-9 just two days after learning the basics of the M-16, and it seemed so strange to me, after they drilled it and drilled into our heads to use the safety on the M-16, that we did NOT use the safety on the M-9.

  3. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    JIM DOHERTY sent me an email detailing his thoughts on this topic. Here’s what he had to say:

    JD – I’ll add my voice to the twenty-odd other coppers Lee consulted when this question came up. I carry one in the chamber in addition to the 15 in my mag, and, in doing so, I’m following the policy of my department.

    It’s possible that, back when the standard police sidearm was a revolver, there were some cops who, following the old west cowboy tradition, kept the chamber under the hammer empty. I’ve never personally known a wheel-gun carrying police officer who did this, but it’s possible there were some.

    Cowboys in the Old West, according to some research sources, typically kept the round under the hammer empty during trail drives. The rationale for this was that, if the revolver (most of which were single-action) fell out of the holster, the weapon wouldn’t accidentally go off if the hammer was struck during the fall.

    It’s possible that some police officers followed this tradition during the period when revolvers were still the most common handgun in law enforcement.

    But tactically, that wouldn’t have made all that much difference, unless the officer needed more than five shots in a given incident. This is because all the officer would have to do with a double action revolver (and virtually all police revolvers are double-action), is squeeze the trigger and the empty chamber would revolve away while a loaded chamber would revolve under the hammer. No time would be lost trying to get that empty chamber filled.

    With a semi-automatic pistol, this is not the case. If there’s no round under the chamber, the shooter has to rack a round into the chamber before s/he can fire, using up precious time in a critical situation.

    There was a time when military police in the U.S. Armed Forces were required, by policy, to keep the chamber empty and rack in a round if the need for shooting arose (unless they were in a combat zone). I don’t know why the military had such a policy, but I don’t think this is the case any longer. It may have had something to do with the fact that military police were the only American law enforcement organization whose members were typically armed with semi-automatic pistols (Colt 1911 .45’s) rather than revolvers (and even this was not universal; USAF Security Police were armed with revolvers), and were often patrolling in non-military sectors. It was probably a civil liability consideration rather than a tactical one. I’m told by old-timers that this regulation was often observed in the breech.

    To the best of my knowledge, aside from military police, no American law enforcement agency has ever had such a requirement.


  4. Ed
    Ed says:

    I came across this from a link to the Writer’s Poice Academy.

    I can’t imagine the ignorance of anyone claiming that it is illegal to carry a round in the chamber, especially for police, in the US.

    I think the problem is that many writers get their information from police shows and other books which drew their information from similar sources. Hence you have a self perpetuating myth.

    Also, the action of the officer chambering a round adds drama and can heighten the tension.

    Having said all of that, not carrying a round in the chamber is tactically suicidal.

    As well as being slower and requiring more movement, there are situations where you may not have both hands available to chamber a round, like when one hand is tied up in an unarmed struggle or injured. There are times when if you extend the gun out far enough to rack a round in the chamber it may be grabbed or diverted by a close-in attacker. There are times when you must be able to shoot someone the instant your gun clears the holster. You may need to surprise someone who has the drop on you who is momentarily distracted.

    All you need to do is look at various situations where people were attacked with weapons and without and ask how would it have been to have had to have chamber a round in that situation.

    As for safety modern handguns are designed to be safe when carried with a round in the chamber and are even safe if they fall to the ground in that condition

    For what it is worth, I have written articles that have appeared in SWAT magazine and have attended numerous shooting and tactical courses taught by former or current Police and Military personel, and the question of a round in the chamber never comes up. It is taken for granted that you will carry with one in the chamber.

  5. Dave Swords
    Dave Swords says:

    Thanks you, Meg.

    I misunderstood. I thought Pat meant that to “call upon” or “call out” the special team (Spec. Operations Team where I’m from) was somehow looked upon in a negative fashion. Now I understand Pat’s meaning.

    By the way, at my old department, the acronym S.O.T. has nothing to do with the definition of a sot. But I could tell some stories. 🙂

  6. tudza
    tudza says:

    From my reading, the key to avoiding accidental discharge after good training and a well engineered pistol is having a good holster. The last article I read about someone carrying concealed and having their weapon go off, in the toilet killing no one but doing much damage to porcelain, made it clear that the guy had his pistol shoved into his waistband.

    I wonder if those last two sports stars who managed to shot themselves with their own guns in public were using holsters? I never heard that much detail on the news. Good sense seemed to be in short supply was all that was clear.

    Using a holster apparently can also prevent the opposite from happening. I watched this video of one former police detective who told of a man that carried a revolver in his pocket loose with his change. When the time came, his weapon would not fire because a coin had slipped into the action.

  7. jenifer
    jenifer says:

    I’ve also seen departments in the US moving away from calling their tactical response units SWAT. It is apparently bad for public relations – sounds too violent I guess.

  8. Meg
    Meg says:

    Hey Dave,

    I’m not Pat, but I think I can answer your question – here in Canada, most of our rapid-response type teams are called ERT (Emergency Response Team) instead of SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics). I know the one in Toronto is called the ETF (Emergency Task Force), and I would assume the one in London is probably called something along those lines too. So calling the team a SWAT team would be un-PC, because that’s not their name (and because SWAT tends to convey a different meaning than ERT or ETF).

    I’ve gotten the impression it’s kind of like calling a Scotsman English.

    – Meg

  9. Dave Swords
    Dave Swords says:


    I don’t know if you will see this post, since it is being written the day after this blog, but I wanted to ask you something about your last line.

    Calling the SWAT team would not be politically correct? Do you mean for officers to call on the SWAT team?

    Could you explain?


  10. Chris
    Chris says:

    Lee, I’m out of Vegas & I keep my gun ready to go, rounds chambered. Why would anyone in law enforcement want to create more lagtime for themselves. Trust me most criminals aren’t thinking about whether or not it is against the law to have a round in the chamber, because they shouldn’thave a gun in the first place.

  11. Bob Doerr
    Bob Doerr says:

    I remember Barney Fife was only given one bullet and told not to put it in his gun unless it was necessary. (Andy Griffith TV Show for you youngin’s.) But other than that in my nearly thirty years of law enforcement we always had a round in the chamber.

  12. SZ
    SZ says:

    Me thinks you have many more lovers then haters. I would love to see some of the funny ones though.

    I am volunteering at the PD here now, though I do not think the Lt. carries a gun anymore as he is in the office all the time. He still has a car, so maybe it is in there. I will have to ask,

  13. Pat Brown
    Pat Brown says:

    I went back over the notes I made during my recent Citizen’s Police Academy and here is what I learned: (this is London, Ontario, pop 370,000 — last police officer killed on duty back in the late 1800s)

    Officers use Glock 22s with 15 rounds, they DO NOT chamber a round. I very specifically asked that question of the detective sergeant who gave the weapons lecture and he was very firm in his response.

    Officers carry 3 magazines

    I also asked if officers carried backup guns and was emphatically told NO, they are not allowed to.

    Officers do not carry their weapons home, in fact they are prohibited from doing so just like any other citizen.

    Tac uses 9 mm Glocks. Glocks were chosen as the most reliable and with interchangeable parts, something he said not all semi-automatics have.

    ARs used are C8 semi-auto 14 1/2 inch barrel, from Colt Canada
    C8A2 .223 rifle

    Remington 870 shotgun only carried by supervisors and they are mostly used for things like putting down injured animals like deer struck by cars.

    Semi-automatics were not adopted in Ontario until 1994 after an officer with the Peel police was killed in 93. He was carrying a .38 revolver, the killers had semi-automatics.

    Very few weapons are ever fired by the police in London. In December when I took this course there had been 2 the entire year. It is often years between such events.

    When in London, Ontario Do Not call the Emergence Response Services SWAT or you will have your head chewed off. That is considered very un-PC.

  14. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Mysti – No, there’s no more chance of an accidental discharge with a fully loaded pistol than with a revolver. You’d need to pull the trigger to shoot either. The special safety procedure is to keep your finger out of the trigger guard and off the trigger unless you plan to shoot. The same is true with any firearm.

    Example – Say you want to change the channel on your TV. What procedure do you follow to make that happen? You reach for the remote, aim it at the TV, and then push a button to change the channel, right? Same thing when a police officer needs to fire his/her pistol. They reach for it, remove it from the holster, aim at their target, and then pull the trigger.

    The TV remote doesn’t change channels automatically, and a cop’s gun doesn’t fire automatically. They both require an action by the user. Now, please don’t confuse the two, or you’ll end up with a lot of bullet holes in your TV. But, that might be a good thing if the shows don’t get any better than what’s currently available.

  15. Mysti B.
    Mysti B. says:

    Interesting! It makes sense, but isn’t there a higher risk of accidental shootings? Or are special procedures in place to account for this?

    Thanks so much for this blog!!!

  16. Camille Kimball
    Camille Kimball says:

    I write about real cops, not fictional ones. Once in awhile one of them will give me a forensics lesson. It is always about not letting the bad guy shoot you or an innocent third party first (if the situation has come to that). So I don’t have official policies in my back pocket but stopping in the middle of a gun battle to get your weapon ready sounds like a dead cop to me.
    Every trial I go to starts with a jury questionnaire asking the potential panelists which cop and lawyer shows they watch–for this very reason. Nobody wants a jury full of people who are expecting CSI and Perry Mason. Oy.

  17. Rick M
    Rick M says:

    I don’t know of any agency that does not carry a round in the chamber of their handguns. As you know, most of the times cops are going to have to use their handguns suddenly. For instance, when an officer is out on a traffic stop and the badguy pulls a gun, that cop doesn’t have time to draw and “rack a round.” With most gunfights being decided in under 3 seconds, taking the time to chamber a round would be stupid.

    Whether it’s a revolver or a semi-auto handgun, you carry it loaded, ready to go. Most departments have gone to double action/single action (S&W, Beretta, Sig-Sauer) or “safe-action” (Glock) semi autos, and carry them round in the chamber. A lot of agencies have even gotten away from putting on safeties on semi autos that have them (such as Beretta 92F or S&W 3rd generation handguns). Even agenceis that carry single action (M1911 style) carry them loaded and ready to go, “cocked and locked” (round in the chamber and safety on).

    You’re absolutely right. Though not required, most cops I work with carry their guns +1, a full magazine and one in the chamber.

    In fact, most agencies now “train as they fight.” What this means is that when on the firing range, all firearms are loaded and ready. ANd if at any time during the course of fire, the students run dry (empty) or have a malfunction it’s their responsibility to get the gun back up and running and into the fight.

    I liked the line about having your blog license revoked—bet that’s one of those people who have that famous line of “slipping the safety off of their Glock.”

  18. Maggie Toussaint
    Maggie Toussaint says:

    I think wordpress ate my comment. I’m glad officers have a round in the chamber. They deserve to have that protection since they are putting their lives on the line each time they go to work.

  19. carl brookins
    carl brookins says:

    I thought at first the whole thing was tongue in cheek. After 15 plus years in TV on the productions side I’ve given up expecting reality in the fantasies called cop shows. I’ve mostly given up participating in these kinds of email bouts. for ex.
    I loved the LAW & ORDER couple of detectives in the CI segments, Vincent D’Onofrio in particular. His tortured relationship with the cops around him and suspects was wonderful. Not realistic, not reality, of course.

    Anyway, having the cop draw and chamber with the associated sounds is a great suspense raiser.

    I know lots of cops locally and when I’ve asked the question this all relates to, they look at me as if to say, “what planet did this guy roll in from?” OF COURSE they carry the sidearm with one in the spout. There are very few crazy cops out there.

  20. Dave Swords
    Dave Swords says:

    Hey, don’t be knockin’ the bullet in the pocket. I’ve known some mighty fine lawmen that did it that-a-way!

  21. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Yeah, I can’t imagine ever not carrying a round in the chamber. That’s no different than carrying a revolver with one less bullet – five in the cylinder, but none in the chamber, the action spot, where the shootin’ takes place. Hmm…and that’s sort of like carrying your bullet in your shirt pocket.

  22. Shawntel
    Shawntel says:

    If you don’t have a round in the chamber, you might as well be carrying an unloaded weapon. I’ve been taught that fine motor coordination goes right out the window under stress, and I can imagine that if you were to engage with a weapon, you’d be under stress. Thank you very much, I’ll keep mine +1 every time.

  23. Norm
    Norm says:

    Just to chime in here, our Cal-Fire training (training is policy) had us carrying a round in the chamber. Our training followed Calif Hwy Patrol practices (and everyone followed POST). If at a qualification shoot you chambered a round at the line it meant you had a misfire.

    TV and movies have the officer chamber the round to build tension. Tension is a good thing in stories but perhaps it could be achieved in a more realistic way?

  24. Carla
    Carla says:

    I have a hard time believing you get hate mail, but I have heard there are people who insist police procedure, as stated by an experienced officer, is wrong because “that’s not how they did it on CSI”. I won’t make any remarks about said persons’ politicial beliefs, either, but I’d bet they believe everything they see on TV. Just last night I watched CSI:NY and the ME stated the results of a tox screening on a dead body that had just arrived within the day. I cringed; there’s no way the NYC ME’s office would get back tox results in under 24 hours even if the mayor himself made the request, correct? (There is such a thing as “backlog”.)

    Sorry for the haters, but know that the rest of us stand behind you 100%. I consider you my best source of information for police procedure and the proper care and handling of firearms. THANK YOU for sharing your knowledge with us!

  25. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Dave – Yes, I remember when we first started making the switch, many of the older officers (I can’t believe there was actually a day when I wasn’t one of the “old guys”)refused to carry the semi-autos. Instead, they asked for waivers allowing them to carry their old six-shooters.

    Yes, that post was from the U.S. Maybe I should devote a day to post “The Best Of The Best” hate mail that I receive. Most of it is anti-cop, but some is devoted to me personally, especially since I started the Castle reviews.

  26. Dave Swords
    Dave Swords says:

    Hi, Lee

    Years ago, when a semi-auto pistol with a round in the chamber had to be carried with the safety on, many people did not carry the weapon “cocked and locked” (one in the chamber, hammer cocked backed, with the safety on.) That is one reason why police departments were slow to go to autos.

    However, with the innovation of internal safeties and decocking levers, that method of carry is no longer needed on most semi-autos and, to my knowledge, EVERY officer carries with one in the chamber. It’s no different, functionally, than carrying a fully loaded revolver.

    And, as to the person who came up with the idea that carrying one in the chamber is illegal for a police officer (assuming this post was from the U.S.)… well, I just don’t know what to say to that.

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