If you ask a person experienced in a skill how they do something, they may have to pause and think about how to answer. Even after putting some thought into breaking down an action in one’s own head, trying to move that information out and into an explanation can be difficult. This process is what makes effective educators and instructors so valuable. They can communicate an idea, concept, or skill to where the receiver can understand it.
Over the years of firearm handling, some things just become second nature. Manipulating thumb safeties, magazine releases, and slide stops are just things we do. As an instructor, breaking those actions down into easy to understand bites can sometimes be challenging. A simple explanation of “you just do this” and demonstrate an action does not always yield the intended results.
I talked with a fellow instructor, friend, and colleague recently, and we were jibber-jabbering about everything under the sun. One of the things that my fellow instructor brought up was how difficult teaching how to engage the slide stop on a semi-automatic pistol could be.
For those of you that don’t know what the “slide stop” is on a semi-automatic pistol, a quick rundown is it is a lever or switch, that when engaged, will allow the firearm to be locked open. The below illustration points out the slide stop on a 1911 pistol.
The slide stop is usually easily engaged or disengaged via the shooting hand’s thumb on a right-handed shooter. Of course, consult the manual for any particular firearm you are using to precisely understand how the slide stop work. I would say that every semi-automatic pistol will have a slide stop or bolt release that can be manipulated externally of some sort, but that is not true. There are models out there that lack such a component, though few and far between.
Much like my friend, I’ve found myself more than once struggling to explain exactly how to manipulate the slide stop while retracting the slide on a pistol, when a student does not just naturally take to the operation, getting past this part in the learning process the learning stalls.
First, let’s go through the process in the context of checking if a firearm is loaded or not and clearing it. Keep your finger off the trigger, and remember to keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. If an external mechanical safety can be engaged with the pistol in that state, engage it. Remove the magazine from the firearm. Pull back the slide with the non-shooting hand and when fully retracted, engage the slide stop with the thumb of the firing hand.
Based on my experience, here are some things to consider and keep in mind when learning how to engage the slide stop if you are experiencing difficulty:
- Feel comfortable and be proficient in pulling back and exercising the slide of the firearm. In a safe area, with an unloaded gun and no ammunition in the area, keeping your finger off the trigger, practice pulling the slide several times to get a feel for it. Fully pull the slide back and know where it stops.
- Examine the firearm. Know exactly where the slide stop is on the pistol and consult the manual. Read the manufacturer’s instructions on exactly how they break down this operation. Know which way and where you need to push the slide stop to engage it. Generally speaking, you’ll be pushing upward on the slide stop to engage it.
- If you have a chance to, have someone demonstrate the action slowly, paying particular attention to how they engage the slide stop.
- Just like every firearm model is different, every person is different. In the illustration above showing the unloading process, the user has very large hands. When he manipulates pistols, he can easily reach all the controls on a full-sized firearm without issue. While holding the gun (unloaded, pointed in a safe direction, and finger off the trigger), examine where exactly your thumb lines up with the slide stop. Before even trying to engage the slide stop, see where your thumb makes contact with it. Does your thumb reach? If your thumb does not reach, you may have to adjust your grip to make this happen.
The list above to think about and review came only after I had two students in a row that were having extreme difficulty engaging the slide stop. I told them how to do it. I showed them how to do it. But I did not break down each and every step in the process while the show and tell was going on because it was second nature to me. I then realized I do have to adjust my grip to manipulate the slide stop on certain firearms I use. I also realized that the students could get so wrapped up in the multiple steps involved that the small details get lost. While going over this operation as an instructor, it is easy to lose sight of what a student might be missing because new gun users may be sweeping the muzzle unsafely. At the same time, they try to execute this action, and that is where the instructor’s attention would be drawn.
Like learning any kind of skill, it is vital to study the operation and go in with a knowledge of how the device actually functions and operates. Practice the steps of the process independently before pulling it all together. See exactly how your hand interacts with the firearm and know how you specifically need to engage the slide stop. Yes, this is easy and second nature to some of us, experienced and not experienced in firearm use, but if this does not come easy the first time, it’s not the end of the world. If you think about what you’re doing, keep your wits about you, and go slow, learning this operation will come.
Stay safe out there and think before you do!
John Petrolino is a US Merchant Marine Officer, writer, author of “Decoding Firearms: An Easy to Read Guide on General Gun Safety & Use” and USCCA certified instructor, NRA accredited pistol, rifle and shotgun instructor living under and working to change New Jersey’s draconian and unconstitutional gun laws. You can find him on the web at www.johnpetrolino.com on Twitter at @johnpetrolino and on Instagram @jpetrolinoiii