Handgun Slide Manipulation

You cannot run a semi-automatic handgun without operating the slide, and there are several different ways for you to perform this task.

By Richard Mann (RSS)
December 5, 2011

The three most common methods for handgun-slide manipulation require you to position your support hand over the top, behind or under the slide. Then, there is the misused and misunderstood slide-release lever, which is actually a slide lock. I’ve watched shooters on the range look at their handguns like they were alien life forms when it came time to work the slide, probably because they didn’t know how to do so or were not sure which method to use.


If you’re going to be proficient with a handgun, you need to be able to hit targets and run your gun. That means loading, unloading and clearing stoppages. If you are a fan of History’s “Top Shot” television series, you’ve seen competitors stumble and even be eliminated because they couldn’t run the gun they were given. Here’s a look at each method’s positives and negatives.

The Slide Release

It’s a slide lock, used to lock the slide to the rear during cleaning. It is also activated by the pistol’s magazine follower after the last round is fired. During a Class-Three stoppage (double-feed), which is also referred to as an “I’m screwed” malfunction, you should also use this control to lock the slide to the rear.

Reloading a pistol,clearing a handgun stoppage

Deactivating the slide lock to chamber a cartridge can be difficult under stress, as slide lock levers are small. This procedure also does not allow the slide to go forward with the full force of the recoil spring behind it.

The positive to deactivating the slide lock to chamber a cartridge is, with many handguns, you can do so with your shooting hand alone. If your support hand is injured, this could be important, but you can also use the sole of your shoe to release or cycle the slide, and you don’t need a special rear sight like some argue to accomplish this task. The downside is, in situations of high stress, you might not be able to execute the fine-motor function necessary to depress the slide lock with 100-percent success.


working a handgun slide,clearing a handgun malfunction

Operating the slide from underneath is easy to do, especially for handguns with forward slide serrations and those with easy-to-cycle slides. Extra care should be taken to ensure your support hand does not drift in front of the muzzle.

For a time, it was fashionable to place your support hand under the barrel, forward of the trigger, and use your thumb and a finger to pinch the forward portion of the slide to cycle it. This worked reasonably well when the handgun was equipped with forward slide serrations and if the slide was not too difficult to cycle. It’s a similar procedure to executing a press check.

With practice, you can become quite proficient with this method, and there is minimal movement required to execute the cycling of a slide in this manner. It also looks like you are executing some cool, ninja move. The problems with this technique are twofold. You do not have a great deal of grasping strength when your palm is facing up. And, under stress, you might accidentally put a bullet through your hand if you allow the appendage to go forward of the muzzle after cycling the slide.


how to cycle a handgun's slide,clearing a handgun stoppage

Operating the slide from behind is a popular technique employed by competitive shooters because it is fast. From a tactical standpoint, however, it minimizes your ability to defend against a gun grab.

Many competitive shooters rotate the handgun 90 degrees to the left and grasp the slide between the thumb and fingers of their support hand. Then, they sort of push with their strong hand and pull with their support hand. This affords reasonably good grasping strength and is very fast, because you can keep the handgun extended toward the target and, when you rotate the handgun back, your support hand is there, ready to reacquire your two-hand grip.

From a tactical perspective, if you’re working the slide, you’re out of the fight. If you’re not in the fight, your handgun should be kept close to the body, where you have maximum control over it. You don’t want to have your handgun fully extended with a one-hand grip when the bad guy grabs it. Alternatively, you could use this method and hold the handgun close to your body, but you’ll look and feel like a chicken trying to fly, and it can be hard to perform in tight spaces.


Gunsite method for racking a slide

The over the top handgun slide manipulation technique is the one taught at Gunsite. It offers a lot of grasping strength and can be used to work the slide, regardless of the reason for doing so.

Reaching over the top of the handgun and grasping the slide with the thumb of your support hand pointed toward your chest is the slide-operation method taught at Gunsite. While it may not be as fast as the behind method, this technique gives you the most powerful grip and can only be performed with the handgun relatively close to your body—where the handgun should be when it is not being fired. When executing this technique you need to pull the slide to the rear until it meets resistance and slips from your grip. Your support hand will then continue its reward motion.

A downside is many shooters tend to point the handgun to their support-hand side when executing this technique. This can create a hazard on a range when working in a line of shooters. Ideally, when using this method you should rotate your torso slightly to your strong side and keep the handgun’s muzzle oriented down range.

More To It

You must cycle the slide after inserting a fresh magazine into an empty pistol or after loading a handgun you have shot to slide lock. There is good argument for cycling the slide even after you have loaded a handgun that was just fired, even if it was not shot to slide lock. Just because the slide is forward and you think a live round is in the chamber does not make it so. Sometimes slide locks do not work after the last round has been fired, and it’s always a good idea to simplify any procedure. Do it the same way, every time.

Additionally, when conducting immediate action for a Class One (failure to feed), a Class Two (stovepipe) or a Class Three stoppage, it’s a good idea to respond in kind. In other words, use the same slide-operation technique, always. Why use a different technique when clearing stoppages than you do when reloading?

There’s also a good argument against the “From-the-Rear” method when dealing with a stoppage. It might be necessary to tilt the handgun so the ejection port is pointed toward the ground as opposed to the sky. This lets gravity work to your advantage when trying to clear the action. It’s almost physically impossible to do this when using the behind the slide technique unless you have a carnival like ability to weave your arms into pretzel-like configurations.

handgun training

Savvy pistol shooters will pick one method of slide operation and use it when they load, clear a stoppage and conduct a press check. This simplifies the training process.

Pick One and Practice

I prefer the “Over-the-Top” method because it seems to be the one that works for every situation. I try to make it a point to use this technique every time I operate a handgun slide, whether I am conducting tactical training, engaging in competition or just checking the status of a handgun.

I’m a simple man and I’m much happier and proficient the less I have to learn and attempt to master. I see no reason to complicate the operation of a simple tool. That’s why I am so good at picking my nose and scratching my backside. I do it the same way every time.

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24 Responses to Handgun Slide Manipulation

  1. Brian Liston says:

    There is nothing special about a rear sight that enables the in extremis cycling (not just releasing, but cycling) of a pistol slide. Most service pistols ship with sights that will work. The Novak type rear sights that prevent this technique should be considered special. The author should go practice this technique using (snap caps) a car steering-wheel, door handles, duty belt, etc. Then tell us if the rear sight doesn’t make a difference in one handed operation of a pistol slide.

    Good luck to him if he’s using the pistol in photos – full length guide rod and Novak sights definitely limit your options.

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  3. TomcatTCH says:

    Pressing Mr. Trigger is a fine-motor function. This needs to be done to get the rounds out of the magazine, in order to give you one reason to work the slide.

    Getting the magazine out of the handgun is also a fine-motor function. Unless it’s a European heel magazine catch, there is a fiddly little button that needs pressing.

    If you are running the slide to clear a malfunction, you need to be thinking. Assessing the malfunction and doing the remedial actions are complex gross motor skills at best.

    I know we devolve to our level of training, and that trigger control goes out the window a lot of the time during stress, people do have trouble dumping mags, be they empty or otherwise, and folks lock up firearms under stress then look at the dang thing in wonder.

    Maybe not using the slide catch to drop the slide is removing a level of complexity, but the time benefit is certainly there.

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  5. lucusloc says:

    I call shenanigans on the slide release being more of a “fine motor skill” that using any of the above methods, especially the under method. if you can pull a trigger or dump a mag under stress you can hit the slide release and save yourself some time. if you cannot do the prior two then training to be able to manipulate the slide wont help you at all.

    If you train for it and that is what your hands know to do then they will do it. I can hit the slide release on all my carry guns without thinking, just like i can find the trigger and mag release. Its the same motion for every gun, and is just a downward motion of the thumb. hell, i would go so far as to argue that the slide release less “fine” than a mag dump, and certainly less fine that exercising proper trigger control (tomcat mentioned that trigger control can go out the window, and i think that just “grabbing” the trigger is perhaps not really a fine motor skill)

    do it like you said, find one that works and do it that way every time. as for me i prefer the slid release, its faster and lets me get my hands back into proper grip without having to grab all over the gun, with the added benefit of working with only one hand if needed.

    the slide release is a tool too! learn to use it.

  6. Sigivald says:

    You cannot run a semi-automatic handgun without operating the slide

    Snarky gun-obsessive reply: Luger.

    But, hey, toggle’s close enough, and kinda of a bitch sometimes.

    Less snarky reply, but yes I know it’s still missing the point: Beretta-style tip-up barrel.

    That one’s actually realistic.


  8. Mike Puckett says:

    Slide lock, slide release, I don’t care what you call it. If you can’t use it, you are either a lefty, have something like a sig- with a f-ed up release or aren’t trying.

    When you insert a fresh mag, your weak hand thumb is almost right on top of the damn thing anyways. All you have to do is reach up a bit and press down slightly. This does not work for all guns but it will certainly work for a Glock even on its this release lever as I have done so thousands of times with never a single miss and it will work for a 1911 too.

    BTW, Ken Hackathorn and Larry Vickers BOTH advocate using the support-side thumb whenever possible and there is even a varation for leftys that works almost as well.

    This has been tested against the slingshot method you advocate and it is about a half second faster than the method you advocate.

    You talk about class one, two and three malfunctions. The remedy for the first two is the same, a Tap, Rack Bang. The latter is a Rip Drill and I assure you, if a TRB does not clear th eweapon, I am going to find some deep cover before I attempt to remedy it.

    Not to mention you have to operate the slide release for a Rip Drill anyways.

    Never once have I had any problem applying a proper TRB when necessary. We can carry the whole muscle-memory thing to extremes if we are not careful.

    Not to mention the slingshot method can and will induce malfunctions in pistols with slide-mounted safties such as the M-9. I have witnessed people engege the safety inadvertantly using this technique to release the slide.

    What is a half-second in a gunfight? Mabey the rest of your life.

    I would be more than happy to meet you at Triangle to put this to the test. Bring your PACT timer and see for yourself.

  9. Chuck says:

    If one carries a semi-auto handgun one should also carry a minimum of one spare magazine in a readily-accessible belt carrier. The fastest way to clear a Class 3 stoppage is drop the mag, forcibly removing the magazine if it fails to drop free, locking the slide to the rear and clearing the double feed. Insert the spare mag, drop the slide with the slide lock lever and the gun is running again. Worst case, you have no less ammunition available than if you didn’t carry a spare mag, and you’re back in the fight. Best case, you can retrieve the dropped mag after you’ve won the gun fight.

    Women, in particular, have trouble manipulating the slide because they don’t have the arm strength to do it. 1) Learn the “close to body” technique for compensating for poor arm strength; 2) start developing arm strength. Mother Nature is a ruthlessly cruel, heartless bitch, and she doesn’t care how good or kind a person you are, what job you have, how little spare time is in your schedule, and she doesn’t give a damn about your kids, either. Do weight training to get the arm strength.

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  11. unclebryan says:

    Good advice in the article — unless, as I do, one has a Beretta 92 with the safety release on the back of the slide. You really can’t use the rear grip with this firearm. I do use the overhand grip but one can’t let one’s hand drift to the rear of the slide. I love my Beretta and have owned it for about 25 years. Still, the slide-mounted safety is the worst thing about it. Not that it doesn’t work or anything. I like the “hammer drop” part of the safety. That’s a plus.

  12. Kerry says:

    “A downside is many shooters tend(ency) to point the handgun…”

    • Kerry says:

      Oops, also, “…to point the handgun to(wards) their support-hand”
      Thanks for the good info. I like your reasoning for the Gunsite method and will adopt it.

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  14. Swen Swenson says:

    All of the positives of the “over-the-top” method immediately become negatives for a southpaw like myself. Now the ejection port is angled upward and my palm is covering it, both likely to cause problems doing a tap, rack, bang drill or attempting to clear a round from the chamber.

    For southpaws the “from-the-rear” method has the advantage of angling the ejection port downward with no need for contortions, and keeping all body parts clear of the muzzle.

    I’d also point out that as a southpaw I have no problem operating the slide and magazine releases on my 1911, I just use my forefinger instead of my thumb, making both controls easy to reach and operate positively, and allieviating any need to rotate the handgun in the hand to reach those controls as the right-handed often must. All I need is an ambidexterous safety and I’m a happy camper.

    • Swen Swenson says:

      Ergonomically speaking, I’ve often wondered if the 1911 wasn’t designed like the earlier Colt single-actions to be fired left-handed, keeping your right hand free for your trusty saber. All seem much easier to operate left-handed, except that someone fouled up and put the thumb safety of the 1911 on the wrong side! :)

  15. Richard Mann says:

    All good comments but remember; sometimes slide locks do not work – if you have not seen it happen, you still have some shooting to do – and, some handguns to not have a slide lock. This makes using the support thumb impossible.

    Go to any local pistol match or police range and count the times shooters fail top release the slide lock after reloading. It may not happen to you, but it happens.

    There are no absolutes; guns are different, people are different and so are situations.

    As for the comment about Novak sights and full length guide rods when operating a slide with one hand, one of the best methods is to place the slide against the bottom of the shoe sole and cycle it. You can do this with any semi even if it does not have sights. Few instructors teach it because it is not conducive to square range training. Oh, and, those are not Novak sights on the 1911 in the photos; they are XS.

    Thanks for the comments.


  16. Brian Liston says:

    My mistake: I meant to say “Novak type rear sights” as I did in the first reference.

    Although the techniques we’re talking about can be done safely, they would not be preformed while still having two free hands that work. It’s good to have options though, and a rear sight that can be caught on any hard edge expands your options. (Note: I don’t mean to imply that this would be my first criteria in selecting sights).

  17. Chris Hess says:

    Cock the hammer on your 1911 before doing the one hand slide manipulation as it reduces the force needed for completion.

  18. Travis says:

    I’m far from an “instructor” but I often take family to the range, and have worked/shot closely with very well-informed instructors over the years. When I have a new shooter (either new to firearms, or just handguns) I usually start them with dropping the slide via the slide lock to chamber a round. This is only because on one of my pistols, (springfield xdm 45 4.5″) is rather sensitive about going all the way into battery, if you do not release the slide correctly, it will go all but 1/16″ forward, and appear to be ready to fire, but will not, because the user did not release the slide when it was all the way back. Anyone who’s been shooting a few times will learn to primarily rack the slide, but for beginners its a hard concept to grasp, that it NEEDS to slam forward, because they ease it forward.

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  20. Lefty says:

    Well, all these methods are fine FOR RIGHT-HANDED PEOPLE.

    Ever try the overhand grip with ther gun in your left hand and racking with your right hand?


    I want to take a “Bite out of crime” but not a “Bite out of my Brevis.”

    Thats, Pollicus Brevis, to be exact. The medical term for that fat muscle God gave you to hold handguns.

    aka, “opposable thumbs” -or- what separates the Chimps from the Chumps. (Or, if you saw the new “Planet of the Apes” movie, thumbs are apparentrly not needed to fire AK-47′s)

    Well, my Brevis is bigger than most (OK, get your mind out of the gutter) and that big mound of flesh on my right palm fits really nicely inside some of those wide and deep ejection ports that a few great semis have like the Ruger SR9.

    Meaning, the only way to do an overhand is to grasp it behind the port which defeats the entire purpose of the overhand grip gfiven how much your palm plays a part..

    ALSO, if I grip it too tighly, I even manage to get a little epidermis between the slide and the frame, which makes it essential to let that slide snap back in place. Ride it back a little and it’ll bite.

    That’s not a problem with tight-fitting slides that have little tolerance (“gap” not “gripe”) between the bottom of the slide and the top of the frame with which to bite the thickest part of your palm.

    I have to use the “grab the rear with my right hand and push the gun forward with my left hand” approach, Karate-style.

    Well, not exactly, because the proper kata is to start off with your thumb up & elbow down near your side, and twist your arm and fist 90 degrees as you strike a blow with your knuckles or outstretched fingers.

    Sorry.,..I digress.

    But, you get the idea. The corporate world, run by left-handers, makes everything fit for right-handers.

    Actually, the easiest solution is to get a revolver. No slide to rack, and I can work a speedloader a lot easier with my left hand than my right.

    Since I use a triangular stance with both hands on the gun, the fingers of my right hand are wrapped around the trigger guard with my right thumb around the back strap, so I’m halfway holding the wheel gun with my right hand anyway

    I flick the cylinder release with my right thumb, flip it out with my right fingers, and hold it with my right thumb, while inserting the reloader. A quick flip to the right while I bring it back on sight, with my right-hand fingers nowhere near the trigger, keeps the gun pretty much still pointed on target.

    As far as slides go, the easiest I’ve worked is a used S&W SD VE – the rental at the gun range. I don’t know how much it’s been used, but they’ve told me it’s a popular rental and top seller because of price, quality, size,.and capacity (17 in 9mm, 13 in .40S&W.

    But, I still have to grab the back of the slide w/ my right while pushing forward w/ my left.

  21. Lefty says:


    9mm Luger is 16+1

    .40 S&W is 14 +1

    With 15 rounds of .40′s, with a price of $319, the .40 S&W SD VE40 is hard to beat.

    Not a Glock fan, so the extra green will be put to good use.

  22. Geordie says:

    I have a Beretta 9000s and when I cock the weapon the working parts stop to the rear I have to use the release catch to make them go forward for loading should this not be one action pull back and release, is there a problem with my gun any help would be appreciated.

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