We’ve all heard the warnings. If you don’t have a round in the chamber you might as well carry a rock! A gun without a round in the chamber is just a hammer! Anyone who carries a gun with the chamber empty must be afraid of their gun! Not carrying with a round chambered means you must not have any training! Well, my friends, as with so many of the things we hear in the gun world the myth sometimes overpowers the reality.
Let’s start with a clarification. Although often referred to as the Israeli Method or the Israeli Technique, carrying chamber empty (C3) is not restricted to the Israelis, nor did they develop it. It is gotten that label because of the fact that the Israelis popularized it as a method of carry and developed an entire method of presentation around empty-chamber carry. And their reasons for doing so are quite pertinent: a method of carry that allows safe carry with quick response time for (at that time) a largely untrained population with a diverse variety of firearms. I use the term as one that is easily recognizable, even if not technically correct. I prefer referring to it as “Condition 3”, or C3 for short. The history of C3 goes back to the early days of the autoloader, and is still being written today.
When autoloaders first came on the scene the normal and expected method of carry was with the hammer down on an empty chamber. The handgun would be drawn and the chamber loaded only when one was anticipating trouble, and the safety used as a temporary situation until the gun could be returned to its proper mode of carry, with the chamber empty. Lots of folks aren’t aware of it, but the 1911 was originally designed without any safety, as Browning felt it was irrelevant.
The most important development in C3 history to me was the adoption of that method of carry by the members of the Shanghai Police under W.E. Fairbairn. As the result of a number of incidents, Fairbairn (along with Eric Sykes) began to develop a new way to bring Shanghai P.D. officers to a high level of expertise with their handguns given the limited amount of training time and resources available to them. This training included, in part, carrying the gun with an empty chamber and then chambering a round as part of the draw stroke. This proved to be quite successful and when World War II broke out Fairbairn and Sykes were tasked with training commando units in close combat, including pistol use. They chose the chamber-empty target-focused method that had worked so well for them at Shanghai P.D., and for many of the same reasons. C3 allowed a person to safely carry and adequately use a firearm with a very limited amount of training. Fairbairn also wrote several books which also served to popularize the chamber empty carry method.
Chamber empty carry was the dominant method of carry for military, police, and civilians for most of the 20th Century. Toward the end of the century the rise of double-action autoloaders and the influence of Jeff Cooper’s Modern Technique made significant inroads, although chamber empty is still the dominant method of carry worldwide.
So, with a history of successful use behind it why does C3 create such a storm of controversy? Critics argue it is too slow, that it can’t be used under many circumstances, and the myths flow like water. Let’s look at some facts.
1. SPEED. The most common argument is that racking the slide during the draw is just too slow. The facts are that racking the slide is only one part of a complicated picture, and not a particularly important part from the perspective of speed. Let us assume that racking the slide adds a half second to your total presentation time (which is pretty slow, by the way). And let us assume that you can draw and fire at the 2 second mark. If the attack comes before you can draw and fire (2 seconds) having the chamber loaded or not doesn’t matter, as you don’t have time to draw and fire at all. If the attack comes after a 2.5 second time frame having the chamber loaded or not doesn’t matter, as you have time to chamber a round. Only if the attack happens in that critical time frame after 2 seconds but before 2.5 seconds does the chamber condition matter. Also the speed of presentation can also be affected by such things as type of holster, where the firearm is carried, and so on. Yet we don’t see a big fight over IWB versus OWB, or thumb-break versus open top, or appendix carry versus carry at 4:30, although each of those can impact the speed of presentation just as much or more than chamber empty versus chamber loaded.
2. SAFETY. Another common argument is that you won’t be able to chamber a round under various scenarios. You might only have one hand available to you. You might be fighting off someone with your off-hand and wouldn’t be able to rack the slide. You might be shot in one hand and wouldn’t be able to use both hands to rack the slide. While there is an element of truth to those fears, let’s look at them carefully. First I would suggest that anyone who carries an autoloader should be capable of racking the slide and manipulating the firearm with one hand. If you can’t, perhaps a revolver would be more appropriate. The arguments for needing both hands to draw the gun are the same arguments that would be accurate in case of clearing a malfunction. But more importantly, this is only one side of the safety argument, and a questionable one at that.
To truly look at the safety issue we need to move beyond the “I’m in a gunfight right now” mentality and move more toward the “What is the risk involved in carrying a gun day in and day out?” Let’s face it, for most of us the actual gunfight scene is not going to happen. If it happens it is going to involve a few seconds of our life. Admittedly they are going to be extremely important seconds, but we have to balance that against the thousands of hours we will carry the gun, and the thousands of times we administratively handle the gun. Only then can we do a proper risk assessment.
Whether we like to admit it or not, mistakes happen. And even though we talk a lot about how if people will just follow the 4 safety rules, or if they will just get more training, an honest assessment shows that we don’t follow the safety rules all the time and even the best trained among us make mistakes. Fairbairn recognized this long ago and formalized a response: Keep the chamber empty until you need to use the gun, and then empty the chamber ASAP after you are done. Let’s face it, if there isn’t a round in the chamber the gun cannot discharge.
Chamber empty lends itself to situations where there is a lot of administrative handling. Visualize the person who has to go into the Federal Courthouse several times a day. He has to unload and reload each time. Loading and unloading are the times that are the most prone to negligent discharge. Many shooters have said they want an empty chamber on their house gun because children or others may get hold of it. So they charge the chamber each morning and remove a round from the chamber each night. Perhaps these folks could be better served by maintaining the gun C3.
3. FIREARMS. Lots of folks out there still have, and for whatever reason, still carry/use a firearm that is literally unsafe to carry with the chamber loaded. Noted firearms author Mas Ayoob discussed this in an article for Backwoods Magazine (Feb. 2007) stating, “You don’t want to carry a round in the chamber of any semi-automatic pistol that doesn’t have a firing pin lock. It’s not drop-safe.” Those include most autoloaders made before the 1970s, the first generation Smith & Wesson autoloaders, a number of inexpensive pistols like Jennings, Lorcin and Raven, and so on. Even some modern guns, in certain conditions, can be problematic. Ayoob (Guns Magazine, Feb. 2001) again says, “Condition Three does have its place for carry, however. If I am carrying a gun like a Glock, which does not have a manual safety per se, and do not have access to a holster which covers the trigger guard (as is strongly recommended by the Glock factory), and have to shove the gun into my waistband, I'll make sure the chamber is empty.”
4. PERSONAL ISSUES. Here we get into an area that covers a multitude of issues. Some folks just aren’t comfortable with a round in the chamber. We all know that being comfortable about what you carry is important, so that personal preference and concern can matter. For me personally, I find the safety and long, heavy initial DA pull of some traditional DA/SA guns troublesome. When using firearms like those based on the Walther PP-design I find I actually get an accurate first shot of faster by racking the slide and firing SA than flipping the safety and then fighting through the DA pull. A friend has used a Browning Hi-Power for decades, and has always had trouble with the safety. For him, chamber empty works better.
5. MINIMAL TRAINING. Sadly, many if not most gun owners do not train regularly. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that most gun owners don’t train much at all. And it was for those people that the Israeli Method was designed. Going back to Fairbairn, the chamber empty carry was designed to allow those with minimal training to safely carry a firearm. That was also the rationale behind the method early on for Israel. We do a lot of carrying and administrative handling of a firearm, not so much actual shooting. So recognizing that failure and working it into the system is a good idea. C3 carry recognizes that the danger to the carrier is as great as or greater from negligent discharge than actual attack by a criminal. By acknowledging this problem of minimal training by many gun owners and carriers we can then examine a carry method that reduces the danger while still allowing an effective response.
To conclude, most people tend to look at problems from their own point of view, without considering that others might have different concerns, different needs, different levels of training, and so on. Failure to recognize this is harmful to open and honest debate, and in some cases becomes blatant elitism. From my position, I tend to suggest chamber loaded carry as the normal and standard default position, just as I tend to suggest a DAO autoloader as the standard default weapon for those who choose to carry an autoloader. But just as a SA auto might be better for some persons or for some situations, chamber empty might be better for some persons in some situations. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method. The Thinking Gunfighter looks at his own situation and tries to identify what maximizes his advantages and minimizes his disadvantages and makes an informed decision.