Loaded or empty chamber? For carry? For home defense?

Today, we’re going to cover 2 common questions that people have about what condition to leave their gun in.

First…what condition should your home defense gun be in?

Second…is it ever OK to carry a gun with an empty chamber?

We’ll go over both…and it’s important that you read this, because getting either of these wrong could expose you to increased liability or risk.

For your home defense gun, one of the big drivers, amazingly enough, is protecting firemen.

You see, with a semi-auto, if there’s a round in the chamber and it happens to cook-off in a house fire, it’s going to leave the muzzle with enough velocity to go through stuff and hurt/kill people.

This isn’t the case with loose ammo, boxed ammo, or ammo in a magazine.

Here’s what that looks like…make sure to watch a few seconds and they pan out to show how close a fireman was standing to the bonfire as the rounds were cooking off…

If the round in the chamber happens to cook-off before the rounds in the magazine, then you have the possibility of multiple rounds firing.

There’s an easy solution…

Store all of the guns you’re not carrying with a full mag and an empty chamber.

For revolvers, the equivalent would be to have the hammer down on an empty cylinder.

There are a couple of reasons for doing this beyond basic gun safety.

If every firearm is stored in the same condition, you KNOW that you have to chamber a round when you pull one out of your safe before you use it.

I’ve got 2 exceptions in our house…

First is my carry gun, which is always close by at night and has a round chambered.

Second is a pistol under my bed in a heat-treated/hardened gun safe with a round in the chamber.  The hardened steel will stop a pistol round and the gun safe is too small to allow the slide to reciprocate enough to chamber a 2nd round.

Otherwise, semi-autos, bolt rifles, lever actions, and pumps are all locked and stored with an empty chamber and the safety off.

***Quick simple tip for magazine fed guns***

Always load your rifle magazines so that you know whether the right cartridge or left cartridge is on top.

On my AR mags, the first round always goes to the left and 2nd to the right.

So, at night, I can pull my gun from the safe in the dark, charge it, drop the mag and feel the top round (in the dark) to see if it’s feeding from the right or left.  If it’s off to the right, then I don’t have a round chambered.  If the round is off to the left, then I do.

Is it OK to carry a gun with an empty chamber?

A:  It depends.

Here’s what I mean…you should aspire to carry a gun in a way that you’re comfortable carrying with one in the chamber.

Tactically, there are a dozen reasons why it’s smarter to carry with one in the pipe…starting with the fact that you may not have the time, dexterity, or skill to rack the slide (or rack it one-handed) in a self defense situation where your attacker is on top of you.

For a hunter & guide in Wyoming in 2019 an empty chamber and the inability to chamber a round most likely caused the bear-mauling death of a guide.

For civilians in self-defense situations, the fact that they had an empty chamber seldom makes the news.  What we read is, “the gun malfunctioned,” “the gun misfired,” or something similar because the gun owner either tried to press the trigger without a charged firearm and blamed it on the gun.

Some people point to “Israeli” carry…which is to carry with an empty chamber and rack it as part of the draw stroke, but this is more complicated, takes more time and effort to get proficient at, and depends on having 2 free, working hands.  This method of carry is a “base” level of instruction designed to minimize negligent discharges among people who carry but don’t practice rather than to maximize combat effectiveness.

There are probably millions of gun owners who carry with an empty chamber, thinking that the empty chamber is one more safety that could keep them from shooting someone in a case of mistaken identity.  That is not a good course of action and could be better handled with proper training.  The exact same general lack of training or incorrect training that increases the chances of a mistake-of-fact shooting with a chambered round is very likely to also result in a malfunction when trying to chamber a round under stress.

Here’s a couple of instances where I think it’s absolutely fine to carry with an empty chamber…for a time…

> Shooters who have decades of 4H or NRA hunting experience where you never chamber a round until you’re ready to shoot.

> Shooters who are scared to death of carrying with a loaded chamber, but want to get comfortable enough that they can carry with a loaded chamber.

In a couple of extreme examples, I’ve had people “practice” carrying an airsoft gun…just to get confidence that everyone’s not going to see that they’re carrying and that it’s not going to randomly fall out.

Then, carried with an empty chamber until they got comfortable that their gun wasn’t going to randomly “go off” on it’s own.

I have been lambasted and chastised for this approach and my “tolerance.”  I’m OK with that.  If I can teach/reach someone where they’re at and help them get to the point where they are comfortable carrying with a loaded chamber, it’s much, much better than telling a shooter that it’s all-or-nothing and there are no baby-steps available.  My approach has changed over the year and I’m now much more interested in helping people become better versions of themselves than trying to turn them into me.

Finally…within a few days to a couple of weeks…they had earned confidence to know that carrying a firearm is amazingly and thankfully boring and they were able to start safely and confidently carrying with one in the chamber.

Of course, there are a couple of caveats…

First, safe carry depends in large part on a safe holster that covers the trigger and holds the firearm securely during ordinary movement.  Don’t go cheap or cute on holsters.

Second, if you’re going to carry in appendix position, I’d strongly encourage you to have either a factory double action first trigger press, a factory double-action-only trigger, or a safety until you have developed disciplined, safe habits that have been reviewed and evaluated by a competent instructor who knows the safe and unsafe factors to look for with appendix carry.  You have a ton of control over whether you’re doing it in a way that makes it way safer or way more dangerous.

Both of these questions came up quite a bit from people who registered for the Dynamic Gunfighting presentation earlier this week.  I want to strongly encourage you to not only sign up for the free training >HERE< but also make sure to sign up for the full step-by-step follow-along course that I’ll be offering at the end.

Questions?  Comments?  Fire away by asking below…

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30 Comments

  • Jerry Drummond

    Reply Reply June 13, 2022

    How likely is it for a chambered round to “cook off” in a fire? I would like to do the Myth Buster’s thing on this, but I don’t have a sacrificial firearm.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply June 13, 2022

      The ignition temperature is about 100 degrees lower than paper, if that gives you any idea of how likely it is 🙂

  • OldProf49

    Reply Reply June 12, 2022

    As an old revolver shooter, I was originally trained on wheel guns. I’ve carried both single and double action revolvers, often with an empty chamber under the hammer (always with single actions). When carrying one of my modern, snub nosed guns, I carry it fully loaded and keep it in that condition at home. The ammo cooking off story may cause me to rethink that. I haven’t totally migrated to semi autos though I have a few that I carry. One of my criteria for a carry semi auto is that it MUST have a DAO mechanism. I’m unwilling to commit to the extensive retraining necessary to competently, safely carry either a SAO or a DA/SA. I think the manual of arms is just too different from the revolver’s *Draw gun… Point Gun… Pull Trigger… Repeat As Needed* simplicity. That’s the way I’ve trained, both dry fire and live fire, for so many years that, at my age, I’m unwilling to change. Fortunately, there are many semi autos that are DAO. Two of my favorites are Kahr (all models) and Ruger (LCP, LC380, LC9s). These are modern, well engineered and manufactured firearms. They have essentially the same firing protocol as a double action revolver, and I believe they are safe to carry fully loaded.

  • Jeffrey-Frank

    Reply Reply June 12, 2022

    Great article and good comments also. One aspect that I can think of that I don’t think was mentioned is with home storage. If the machine is on your person or locked up(making it less accessible in an emergency) regular safety is the rule, but, for the ones that are staged throughout the house (or car) there is often the possibility of children or an untrained curious adult gaining access to it. Empty chamber would be the best under those circumstances yet that would mean that the one on your person should be left empty or develop 2 skill sets to be more sure that the first trigger pull in an emergency does not go click

    • Ox

      Reply Reply June 12, 2022

      I’m not a fan of staging unsecured firearms throughout the house…unsecured fire extinguishers, yes, but unsecured firearms, no. Guns staged around your house should be locked up.

      I used to be a proponent of having guns all over…and remember the feeling of coming home (more than once) to find that we’d left a light on that we forgot. “Is there someone in the house?” “Did they find any of the guns?” “Did they steal them?” “Are they waiting for us?” 1 or more gun safes and a couple extra fire extinguishers can solve the kid problem, the untrained adult problem, and the bad guy problem.

  • Bret Beringer

    Reply Reply May 27, 2022

    I wanted to tell you how surprised I am that the mature discussion here changed my mind ( my wife would be shocked that was possible).
    I have four guns strategically placed and each one was loaded with one in the chamber. Always wanted to be ready and always positioned the to be secure and pointing in a safe direction. However, a gun is a mechanical item and mechanical items can fail, which always worried me because even with safety in mind as mentioned above, the what if’s set in.
    So, with everything considered, I have set everything up without one in the chamber.
    That’s my decision and I feel a slight burden has been lifted. Everyone decides for themselves but this works for me. Thank you.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply May 27, 2022

      Thank you, Bret! Happy to help.

  • Tordon

    Reply Reply September 29, 2021

    There is ZERO risk of an Accidental or Negligent discharge with an empty chamber. That fact far outweighs the arguments for chambered carries.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 29, 2021

      I understand where you’re coming from, and it sounds like this may be a hot-button issue for you.

      Generally, it is a a bad idea to use facts, logic, and reason to defend against an argument based on emotion, but I’m going to take a shot at it.

      First off, it’s interesting to note that empty chamber goes back to the 6-guns of the wild west when people would only load 5 rounds into a 6-gun because there was nothing between the hammer/pin and the primer and negligent discharges were possible from hitting the back of the hammer. It’s not a new thing.

      In modern times, the most common reference for empty chamber is Israel. Israel taught empty-chamber carry to it’s people as a very quick way to get a lot of guns out into the hands of a mass of untrained people to stop terrorist attacks. They dynamic is very different in a terrorist attack and a mugging/assault, so empty carry worked in this case. In any case, it was openly considered to be a base-level method of carry for unskilled shooters. Skilled shooters still carried with one in the chamber for reasons I’ll cover.

      There actually is quite a bit of risk of accidental or negligent discharge with an empty chamber. How, you may ask? I’ll give you an example…
      People who carry with an empty chamber tend to have less experience and comfort-with-arms than people who carry with a loaded chamber. One of the consequences of this is the tendency to pre-place the trigger on the finger in a high-stress situation and press the trigger as you’re racking the slide and negligently discharging the firearm. This happens at shooting ranges with amazing regularity.

      It’s important to ask why accidental or negligent discharges happen with loaded chambers. There are 3 main reasons:
      1. Unsafe guns
      2. Unsafe holsters
      3. Unsafe operators

      Unfortunately, where we find one of these factors at play, we normally find 2-3. And 1 & 3 are factors with empty chamber as well as loaded.

      When you use a safe, modern, well designed gun with a well designed holster and have a modicum of training, the difference between the risk of chambered carry and empty chamber is negligible.

      If carrying empty is what allows you to carry vs. not carry, then it may be a good transitory option, but I would strongly encourage you to make sure that you’re carrying a modern, well designed gun in a well designed holster and getting regular professional training until you ARE comfortable with carrying with a loaded chamber.

  • Steven Haro

    Reply Reply September 7, 2021

    I didn’t understand you’re statement about how you load you’re AR mags? The rounds to the left or right?

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 7, 2021

      The bump on the follower is on the right, which pushes the first round to the left and the 2nd to the right. That means that if the magazine is loaded with an even number of rounds, the top round will be to the right. If you put a mag in, run the charging handle, and take the mag out, the top round will be to the left IF there is a round in the chamber. Does that help?

  • Dion

    Reply Reply September 7, 2021

    What is your opinion on carrying a Glock in appendix position with one in the chamber seeing that it’s neither SA or DA but has the “safe action” system?

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 7, 2021

      It depends on whether you’re talking about me personally or other people 🙂 Personally, I’m very comfortable and confident with it, BUT there are a few factors…
      1. My draw doesn’t put my finger in the finger guard early. I test and verify this occasionally with video.
      2. My holster does not collapse.
      3. I am deliberate about verifying that the holster is clear of clothing and that my pelvis is pushed forward as I reholster. I never speed-reholster as I can with an outside waist band duty holster.

      With students, I have them draw, present, press, and reholster a few times dry. If they are smooth and safe, then I’m good with them working from the appendix. If they are not, then I have them move the holster to their strong side hip.

      The biggest risks with appendix carry is SOMETHING pressing the trigger…namely a finger or clothing. Both of those can happen with trigger safeties.

  • Edward Osander

    Reply Reply February 20, 2021

    I am not the sharpest tack in the box so I don’t understand your explanation as to how you ascertain whether you have a round loaded in your AR. It you load your mags as stated (1st round to the left, which I assume is the top one in the mag, and 2nd to the right) how can you say that after charging it and dropping the mag if the first round is to the right then the AR does not have a round chambered. If it chambers a round then the left cartridge would be in the weapon and you should feel the right cartridge on top. What am I missing?
    I always enjoy learning things from your articles. Please keep up the fine work.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply February 20, 2021

      I’ve got to clarify that because I see the potential for confusion when I re-read it in light of your comment…

      The follower on an AR mag has a bump on the right hand side.

      That means that the first round loads to the left. That’s the bottom round in the mag…and all odd rounds will be on the left side and even rounds on the right.

      When you’ve got 28 or 30 rounds in a mag, the top round will be to the right.

      If you run your charging handle on a full mag AND a round gets picked up from the mag and chambered, the top round will then be on the left hand side.

  • Johnny Crumpton

    Reply Reply February 20, 2021

    Good article…

  • Randy

    Reply Reply August 31, 2020

    As a retired firefighter I really appreciate you talking about a chambered round in a home defense weapon. I have been in a fire with loose ammo cooking off and it will definitely get your attention but you hardly even notice if a round hits you. Would certainly have been a different story if the rounds were chambered.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply February 19, 2021

      Hey Randy…have you watched this video from SAAMI? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SlOXowwC4c They show burning a pallet of ammo, dropping it from a crane, running over it with a bulldozer, and more…really cool stuff.

  • Julie

    Reply Reply August 31, 2020

    My feeling is that, if I’m carrying for protection, I’m only going to pull that gun out because I need to shoot something/someone. Making the decision to shoot involves a dozen smaller decisions and calculations. Having to rack the slide is one less thing to have to decide when your stress level is skyrocketing and your mind is racing. I think it makes sense to get to a point, with both proper equipment and training/practice, that you can carry with a round chambered. It also adds one round to your favor.

  • Scott Cooper

    Reply Reply September 8, 2019

    I always carry with an empty chamber and I practice my dry fire with the rack as part of the draw stroke, without any issues. Do I lose a half second on the draw, yes. Is it possible I could be attacked and not be able to rack, yes. But I think those scenarios are very remote. Negligent discharge (firearm coming out of holster) is a larger risk to me both physically and from a liability standpoint and honestly, if my situational awareness allows for me to be attacked that quickly, I might not be able to draw, chambered or not. So I manage the risk and play the odds and I have decided to carry empty chamber but practice racking as part of the draw stroke to offset that slower draw. To me, I would rather see 30 million Americans carrying daily in a safe manner, empty chamber, than see 1 million carrying with the risk of negligent discharge.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 8, 2019

      Excellent reasoning for why you do what you do.

      • William L DeLalley

        Reply Reply September 7, 2021

        Maybe I’m wrong, but my thinking is my gun will only go off if I squeeze the trigger. Otherwise they always sleep in high quality holsters which do mot drop the gun without noteable force.

        • Ox

          Reply Reply September 7, 2021

          For the most part, you are correct. There are rare reports of pistols discharging without a finger or clothing or anything else in the trigger guard, but they’re very rare. The biggest risk is that SOMETHING presses the trigger on the draw or on the reholster. It would most likely either be your finger or clothing. There is an additional risk of the pistol being squeezed out of a poor holster when you sit and clothing/body pressing the trigger. There’s also a slim possibility that an incredibly thin/flimsy holster could allow the trigger to be articulated while the pistol is fully holstered…but that has been like a pink unicorn for me (I’ve heard of it, but never seen a holster that thin/flimsy in the wild)

  • Gail Rodgers

    Reply Reply September 6, 2019

    I have several friends that either purse or backpack carry or pocket carry. To me, all those pose a risk of the trigger catching on something in the bag or pocket. I’d be terrified of carrying that way, so I’d definitely leave the round out of the chamber in those cases.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 6, 2019

      I agree that some of those methods of carry can be scary. I strongly recommend that, no matter what method of carry you use, that you have the trigger covered. In a pocket, you can do it with a pocket holster. In a purse, backpack, or fanny pack, you can do it with holsters made for those cases or with a bikini clip-on trigger guard cover.

  • Dan

    Reply Reply September 6, 2019

    Yeah, appendix carry worries me. Negligent discharge could rob one of some very important equipment…

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 6, 2019

      There’s that 🙂 For most people, the biggest issue isn’t that the muzzle is pointed towards their tackle, it’s that it’s pointed towards their femoral artery.

      That being said, there are 10s of thousands of people who carry safely in appendix position without incident every single day.

  • Chuck

    Reply Reply September 6, 2019

    There is a third alternative that no-one ever mentions. That is to carry the semi-automatic with no round in the chamber but with the piece cocked. It takes less effort to rack the slide with the piece cocked than it does with the piece uncocked. With the piece already cocked but the chamber empty, you might have the hammer/striker fall but with no serious results.

    With the piece cocked, racking the slide just operates the slide and seats a round. The cocking mechanism is already in its cocked position and the slide is much easier to operate.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 6, 2019

      It really depends on the firearm on whether or not it will be easier to rack the slide after you’ve just racked it.

      On DAO (double action only) striker fired guns, there won’t be a difference.

      On DA/SA (double action / single action) guns with a hammer like a Beretta 92FS or single action (1911) style guns, it may be easier, but then you’re going to get into a safety/consistency issue…

      The reason why people don’t talk about hammer back, safety off, empty chamber is because, in short, on a firearm with a hammer, if the hammer is back, you want the safety on unless you’re ready to fire.

      You never want to carry or store a firearm with the hammer back and safety off, even with an empty chamber.

      To begin with, it’s too easy to fire the weapon if your trigger finger sneaks into the trigger guard.

      Secondly, it needs to be a habit that any time the hammer is back, the safety is engaged until you’re ready to fire. Having one set of rules for when there’s a round in the chamber and another set of rules when there is not a round in the chamber is likely to cause bad outcomes for good people.

      So, if it is noticeably (and necessarily) easier for you to have your pistol in that configuration, you’re going to want to store your pistol with the safety engaged…and that means one more step to make the pistol ready to use. But if the additional force needed to overcome the hammer combined with the light portion of the spring tension, it may be wise to find a pistol that is easier to manipulate.

      I hope that helps.

      • Kevin

        Reply Reply August 31, 2020

        I actually carried this way for a while (nothing in the pipe, but the slide racked (Springfield XD-S) – but for a totally different reason – to build confidence that the gun wouldn’t AD.

        When I downloaded each day, I’d look at the condition, “Yep – gun was still cocked, nothing changed” – over time I got over my paranoia and was able to transition to carrying with one in the pipe without ever giving it a second thought.

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