New concealed carriers often ask the question, “Wouldn’t it be safer if I carried my semi-automatic handgun without a round in the chamber?” On its face, this makes sense—if there’s no round in the chamber, there’s no chance of a negligent discharge, right? But in practice, carrying a gun that’s not ready to shoot is a dangerous practice that can cost you severely when it matters the most. “Is it necessary to carry the semi-automatic pistol with a round in the chamber?” famed instructor Massad Ayoob asks in this video from Wilson Combat. “The answer is, only if you want to be fully prepared to survive.”
Back in the early days of semi-automatic handguns, guns weren’t drop-safe like they are now. Thus, carrying the gun without a round in the chamber protected you from the gun going off and hurting someone if it was dropped or fell out of its holster. This is no longer an issue with modern guns, so this argument is moot.
Some people who advocate carrying without a round in the chamber like to call it “Israeli carry” because this method was popularized (though not invented) by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the IDF was just getting off the ground. The story goes that it was common for IDF soldiers to carry their handguns without a round in the chamber, but there was a good reason for this—the brand new army’s soldiers were using a vast array of different firearms, many cast-offs and surplus from other nations and World War II, and without a standard-issue handgun, empty-chamber carry and “draw-rack-present” was a way to sort of standardize the training of a lot of soldiers who all carried something different.
But citizen concealed carriers are not soldiers, and you’re not being trained to a standard alongside others with different firearms. You know your gun and train with it. You are carrying it for defense, not offense. Therefore, the “but the Israelis do it!” argument is moot, too.
The Problems with an Empty Chamber
There are two main problems with empty-chamber carry, and the first is that it’s just too slow. No matter how much you practice drawing and racking the slide before presenting the pistol to the target (threat), working the slide costs time, and time is at a premium in a defensive gun use. By the time you realize you need to go to your gun, you’re already behind the threat’s own timeline and reacting to what he’s doing, and wasting time working a slide is going to make it worse. You’ll be experiencing an adrenaline dump and tunnel vision, and one more step in your draw-and-shoot process is the last thing you need to remember.
The second problem with empty-chamber carry is maybe even more important: You have no way of guaranteeing that your off-hand will be free to run the slide when it’s time to draw and shoot. What if the perpetrator has grabbed you by the arm? What if you’ve got a baby in your free arm? What if you’ve been knocked to the ground on your off side and can’t get your arm free in time, or worse, it’s been injured? What if your purse gets tangled up around your left arm and you can’t reach across your body easily? What if your adrenaline is pumping so hard that your hand gets the shakes? What if the threat is so immediate that you don’t even have time to acquire a proper shooting grip and must shoot one-handed from the hip or from a retention position? The reality is that empty-chamber carry requires two hands free, and you have no way of knowing if you’ll have that luxury when you need it.
A Possible (Temporary) Exception
If you have a modern gun that’s drop-safe, which just about all quality modern firearms are, you have no need to worry about carrying with the chamber empty to avoid a dropping accident.
But I admit that I make one exception to my “always keep a round in the chamber” rule, and that’s for new concealed carriers. When you first start carrying concealed, particularly if you’re new to guns as a whole, it’s normal to feel nervous. If carrying a gun without a round in the chamber helps ease your nerves while you get used to the practice of concealed carry, I say go for it. I was so anxious when I first started carrying concealed, years ago, that I actually carried the gun totally empty—no ammo in the chamber or the mag—for a couple of weeks until I started to get over my fear of printing in public. Then I carried it with a loaded mag but an empty chamber for a few weeks after that until concealed carry because second nature. Handling the gun safely over time will get you familiar enough with the whole situation that you will feel comfortable moving on to carrying a fully loaded firearm with a round in the chamber.
If you are afraid of carrying a gun with a round in the chamber, ask yourself why. Are you afraid the trigger will pull itself? It won’t. Are you afraid you’ll drop the gun and it’ll go off? It won’t. Are you just generally afraid and a little bit scared of your gun? This is common among newbies, but it can almost always be worked out with more training and practice. The more you shoot your gun at the range and safely handle it at home and on your person, the more that fear just fades away as you come to understand what the gun does and does not do and that it really is a safe tool in your responsible hands.
It's true that a gun with a full mag and an empty chamber is better than no gun at all, but it’s certainly not optimal, and to give yourself the best chance in a defensive gun use, you should carry your self-defense firearm with a round in the chamber. If you are not comfortable doing so, ask yourself why, and see if you can’t train that fear out through practice and familiarization.