While there are some obvious terminology differences between a tactical reload and a magazine exchange, I believe there really is a difference between the two in practice. I do NOT believe a tactical reload is a magazine exchange, but I do believe that you always perform a mag exchange when you do a tac reload. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is.
A tactical reload (tac reload for short) is when your slide (on a pistol) or your bolt carrier group (on an AR) is forward and in battery. You drop the mag, which could still have a few rounds left in it, or the mag could be empty, but there’s still a round in the chamber.
A tactical reload is reloading while your slide or bolt is in battery and there’s a round in the chamber. Period. Really, you could let the mag hit the ground, but there’s no reason to, right?
Well, there may be times when you want to let a half spent mag hit the ground. For instance, in a shooting competition. If you want to cut down on time, reload without having to manipulate the slide or catch the mag, let the mag drop and keep the slide (or bolt) in battery, and—walaa! (yeah, I spell it like it sounds)—you’ve saved some time.
Likewise, there may be times in a tactical defensive shooting situation when it would be advantageous to do the same thing. Ideally, you should do a mag exchange only when there’s time, such as a lull in the battle or if you’re behind solid cover. But if there’s not much time, you’re shooting on the move or you know you need to reload before meeting up with a bunch more evil people who want to kill you, those are other situations where you can keep the slide (or bolt) in battery and reload while letting the mag drop to the ground.
If there’s time, however, it’s a better option to keep the magazine and put it in your pocket or back into a mag pouch.
Calling this a plain old mag exchange is easier to understand for everyone. Calling it a tac reload only makes sense if you’ve heard and understood that gunfighting jargon before.
To recap and hopefully make more sense, I’ll break it down like this:
Example no. 1: Slide stays forward, empty or half spent mag falls to the ground. Technically, I am putting another mag in the mag well (exchanging the mag), but I’m not actually keeping the mag on my person, which I would view as exchanging it. I tend to call this a tactical reload.
Example no. 2: Slide stays forward, empty or half spent mag is exchanged with a full or mostly full magazine and I keep the magazine on my person. I’d call that a mag exchange.
I suppose both of these examples could be considered tactical reloads and both of them are also magazine exchanges, so in the end these phrases may just be best left as synonyms.
Safety warning: Jeffrey Denning is a long time professional in the art of self-defense and any training methods or information he describes in his articles are intended to be put into practice only by serious shooters with proper training. Please read, but do not attempt anything posted here without first seeking out proper training.
Cover: Jeffrey Denning