If a semi-automatic is your defensive handgun of choice, you need to learn the press check.
A press check with a semi-automatic handgun is the slight retraction of the slide so that verification can be made that there’s a cartridge in the chamber. Put another way, a press check is a way to confirm your pistol is loaded. I’ve found that many shooters do not fully understand when a press check should be conducted or how it should be done. As with many things firearms related, there’s not a single specified or correct way to do a press check … if it’s done safely.
When To Press Check
The correct time to conduct a press check is when you’re unsure a cartridge is in the chamber of a semi-automatic pistol. If you’re conducting a press check for any other reason, you’re just trying to look cool. Just as with how some shooters rapidly scan from side to side—without really looking—after an engagement, a press check that fails to offer a true 100 percent confirmation of pistol status is a waste of time. A press check is no different than conducting a reload or performing immediate action; it’s a process that should be driven by need—a specific need—as opposed to an action you perform out of habit.
For example, when you need to make sure a handgun is unloaded, such as you would before cleaning it, that verification process should be absolute. This absolute certainty is just as necessary when you’re checking to make sure your self-defense pistol is loaded. A press check is less of a tactical practice than it is a practical one. It’s like looking both ways before you cross the street.
So, what are some examples of when a press check is necessary or suggested? Well, let’s say you’re shooting in an action pistol match and have been given the command to load your gun. After inserting the magazine and racking the slide, it might be a good idea to conduct a press check to make sure a round went into the chamber. If it did not, you’ll lose valuable seconds once the shooting stage starts as you load your handgun. This same logic applies when loading your carry gun to carry it. If you hope to use it to save your life, it better damn sure be loaded.
But should you always, in either of these instances, conduct a press check? Well, no, not really. If you’re loading your handgun in the daylight, you can probably watch as a cartridge is loaded into the chamber. You can also check your magazine to see if it is one round down after you cycle the slide. Also, some modern semi-automatic pistols are equipped with a loaded chamber indicator, with some you can feel the external extractor to discover the same, and others have visual windows where you can see the brass of the case in the chamber.
I prefer all these methods to partially cycling the slide. This is partly because you can maybe cycle it too far and jam the gun or fully eject the loaded cartridge. Or, after opening the action, the pistol does not want to go fully back into battery. Some pistols need slide velocity to fully chamber, especially on top of a fully loaded magazine. And, most importantly, monkeying around with guns is how accidents occur.
How To Press Check
But let’s say that you want to be sure your handgun is loaded, and let’s assume your handgun doesn’t have a feature that allows you to see if there’s a cartridge in the chamber. How are you supposed to safely conduct a press check? First and most importantly, and as with any other thing you do with a handgun, you need to be safe. Being safe starts with treating the pistol like it is loaded, pointing it in a safe direction and keeping your finger off the trigger. If you can’t work within these guidelines, you have no business conducting a press check.
Next, you must grasp the slide and gently move it rearward on the frame until you’ve extracted the cartridge in the chamber enough to see it and, ideally, feel it with one of your fingers. Why is feeling important? When you clear a firearm, you feel in the chamber to make sure it’s unloaded because sometimes our eyes play tricks on us. And you might feel the need to conduct a press check in the dark where you won’t be able to see. For this reason, your default press check activity should include looking and feeling. Do it the same way every time.
There are a couple ways you can do this. You can reach under the slide with your support hand and grasp the forward grooves to push it to the rear. Then, once the slide is slightly retracted, you can look and feel with your trigger finger to see if there is a cartridge in the chamber. Another method is to grasp the slide over the top with your support hand, and as you slightly retract it, feel for the chambered cartridge with one of the fingers of your support hand or your trigger finger.
I prefer the over-the-top method because I like to keep my fingers away from the muzzle of pistols. Why? I’m human, and humans tend to make mistakes … and sometimes do dumb stuff. Anything I can do to prevent me from making a mistake is better than the alternative. I also don’t do a lot of press checks unless I’m on the range. Even then it’s rare, because I pay attention to my pistol when I’m loading it, and I load my carry guns and keep them loaded.
Being able to conduct a press check safely (and answer the question of whether your pistol is loaded) is a good skill to have. But do it for purpose instead of out of habit or to look cool.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
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