Why Can’t I Lock the Slide Back?

high compressed ready

In this series of photos, the author demonstrates the technique he uses and teaches for locking the slide back. First he brings gun into his high compressed ready position, which is the most efficient place to work on the gun.
Photo: Laura Carson

At least 200 students who have come to our defensive handgun courses at Innovative Defensive Solutions could not lock the slide back efficiently or, in some cases, at all. It’s not for lack of trying. Most of the time the instruction they received in the past is the reason they are struggling to lock the slide back. There is a simple reason for this: either they were instructed the incorrect way to begin with, which is very common, or they have never had the proper instruction.

Many people think they are not strong enough to lock the slide back. Many others tell people who struggle with locking the slide back that it is a strength issue. While strength can help you lock the slide back, it is not the base component; the proper technique is. It also helps to hold the gun in the proper location and position in relation to your body.

In this article, we will discuss the most efficient way to lock the slide back in a personal defense context. But keep in mind that it works just as well for those who are sport shooters (IDPA, USPSA, IPSC, GSSF) or target shooters.

REASONS FOR LOCKING THE SLIDE BACK

First let’s cover the traditional method that is taught for locking the slide to the rear on the pistol. For the purposes of this article, we are not going to cover why you are locking the slide back, but we will concede it is for one of the following reasons:

  • During a malfunction clearance and you are at the point where a tap rack has not worked, a reload has not worked, and you need to rip/lock or remove the magazine.
  • You are clearing the gun at the end of a training session or for other administrative reasons and need to lock it open to inspect the chamber to make sure it is empty. This can include:
  • o Before storing the gun and/or making it inaccessible to unauthorized persons.
    o Casing the gun for transportation reasons, e.g., leaving the range and heading home.
    o You have a gun whose trigger needs to be pulled to do a basic field strip to clean it. Before you pull the trigger, check and make sure it is empty and clear of objects or ammunition. Also make sure it is pointed in a safe direction.

  • You are going to dry fire and once you have defined an area where it is safe to do so, you want to make sure the handgun is clear before starting your dry-fire session.
slide stop

Author uses his strong-side thumb to push on and activate the slide stop before he places his support hand on the gun. Photo: Laura Carson

TRADITIONAL METHOD

The traditional method of locking the slide back or at least the way it is often taught is where the issues begin. Most of the time the instructor has you bring the gun back close to your body, if it isn’t already, then instructs you to grip the top of the slide with your support hand and pull the slide all the way to the rear and then push up with your strong-hand thumb on the slide-stop button. After that, they tell you to release or ride the slide forward with the support hand until the slide locks to the rear.

There are numerous issues with this approach. Those 200 students who have come to our courses with this method in mind have submitted that they will not, or cannot, lock the slide back. Unfortunately many instructors, or significant others, after seeing a student struggle, take the handgun and lock it to the rear for them. This does not help because now the student does not have the opportunity to build or develop the required skill. Let’s quickly cover the issues with this approach:

  • It is not consistent with how we should be teaching, or as practitioners, interacting with the gun when we think about consistency, i.e., loading, unloading, and clearing malfunctions.
  • This method does require more strength and muscle endurance because we have to hold the slide to the rear or at least back far enough that we can find and then activate the slide stop so it locks the slide to the rear.
  • When loading, unloading, and clearing malfunctions, we should not be racking the slide to the rear and maintaining the grip on the slide once it stops (riding the slide). We should be pulling/racking the slide to the rear and, once the slide stops moving to the rear, we should let go and let the recoil spring do its job.

What is the correct way to lock the slide to the rear? Let’s briefly recap the grip and the location in which we should be working on the gun, and then we will give a step-by-step approach to locking the slide to the rear.

ejection port

Author brings his support hand up and over the slide and grips it behind the ejection port with a strong and secure grip. Photo: Laura Carson

GRIP

  • The web of the shooting hand should be as high as it can be on the back strap of the gun without interfering with the operation of the handgun (i.e., slide reciprocating to the rear).
  • The trigger finger should be straight and along the frame of the handgun, not on or in the trigger guard and not on the slide.
  • The middle-finger knuckle should have contact with the bottom of the trigger guard and all other strong-hand fingers should be wrapped around the grip with no space between the fingers. (In other words, you shouldn’t have your fingers splayed.)
  • The bore line/slide line should be in line with the forearm.
  • The strong-side thumb should be straight and tight along the frame of the gun, again as high as it can be without putting pressure on the slide. It should be high on the frame and on the opposite side of the gun as the trigger finger.

**Since this article is focusing on locking the slide, we are only covering the strong-hand grip, since the support hand will not be on the gun. (For a full two-handed grip, you can read other articles or watch videos here on Personal Defense Network to learn or acquire those techniques and skills.)

HIGH COMPRESSED READY POSITION

In my opinion, this is where you should be working on the gun. What does working on the gun mean? It means loading, unloading, and/or clearing malfunctions. It is also a default position you should be in when out of the holster but not shooting, and while scanning or processing information in your environment.

  • In front of the chest
  • Above the area that the gun would come up and out of the holster during a presentation
  • Close to the chest
  • Elbows in close to the body for strength and retention reasons
  • Gun is parallel to the line of sight
racking the slide

He is now pulling or racking the slide straight to the rear with his support hand while pushing forward with his strong hand. Photo: Laura Carson

CORRECT METHOD OF LOCKING THE SLIDE TO THE REAR

Now that we have recapped the grip and high compressed ready position, let’s dive into the correct method of locking the slide to the rear.

First, the gun should be in the high compressed ready position. Next, take the thumb on your strong hand and locate the slide stop on your firearm. Once you have located it, push up on the slide-stop lever until it cannot go any farther up. Remember, your gun should be parallel with the ground you are standing on. Now that you have upward pressure on the slide-stop lever, you can take your support hand up and over the slide, behind the ejection port and grip onto the slide. Most pistols have serrations here for you to grip onto.

Now push with your strong hand forward away from your body while simultaneously pulling or racking the slide to the rear with your support hand. Once you feel the slide stop, let go of the slide. If you still have upward pressure on the slide-stop lever when the slide is released and it moves forward, it will lock to the rear on its own without further interaction. If you think about what happens when you shoot the last round out of a semi-auto pistol, the slide automatically locks to the rear. The difference here is that you are pushing up on the slide stop rather than the magazine follower. Again there is no need to ride the slide forward until it catches. When done properly, it will lock to the rear just by having that upward pressure on the slide stop. Obviously you have to pull the slide far enough back so the slide stop can be engaged in the slide indentation, and also have the slide stop pushed upward all the way to the top so it is making contact with the slide so it will fall into that indentation.

LEFT HANDERS WITH A RIGHT-HANDED GUN

If you are left handed and using a gun with a slide stop on the left side of the gun or a gun made for right handers, the only difference in the above steps is that you want to use your trigger finger to activate the slide stop by keeping it straight and along the frame and dragging it up until the slide stop moves all the way to its highest position.

slide release

When the author feels the slide stop at the rearward most position, he releases the slide, which is then taken forward by the recoil spring and stops resting and locked on the slide-stop lever.
Photo: Laura Carson

WHY IS THIS THE BETTER AND EASIER OPTION?

For one, you don’t have to sit there holding the slide back to the rear while you find the slide-stop button, which can be difficult for those with less hand strength. It is consistent with loading the pistol because you are pulling the slide back and letting it go, which, by the way, is also how you should be unloading the pistol.

By using these steps and with practice, we hope you can now more reliably and efficiently lock the slide back on your semi-automatic handgun. If you are still having issues, seek out professional instruction and/or comment below for more feedback and discussion.

Common issues for those who still struggle with the above steps include: having a handgun that does not fit them (i.e., they cannot manipulate the buttons and levers on their handguns without breaking or manipulating their grip, which is not desirable in a personal defense handgun), and not having enough dexterity in their fingers to activate levers like the slide stop. With continual and proper practice, you will build dexterity and also strength, which will aid in mastering skills like locking the slide to the rear with ease.

To date, out of the more than 200 students who have come to our training courses and struggled with locking the slide back due to incorrect techniques, all of them have been able to lock the slide back when using this method. For those teaching friends and family, remember, it’s not about strength, it’s about the technique. Be patient and give them clear and concise instructions. Don’t take the gun from them and do it for them. Let them learn and develop the skills necessary to handle the handgun with confidence and competence.

By Evan Carson

Discussion
  • (will not be published)

63 Responses to “Why Can’t I Lock the Slide Back?”
  1. Mark F. Carson

    I want to congratulate my son, Evan Carson, on his first PDN publication. It’s a keeper! Good information, Evan.

    Reply
  2. Ken R

    Nice explanation. I agree with your Dad Evan, you’ve done a great service for those experiencing difficulty racking back a slide. I shared your article with my wife. Technique makes it happen. Kudos. Keep up your efforts. While you may sometimes get a critique that stings, your efforts are well-intentioned and help CCW permit holders wth semiautomatic weapons.

    Reply
  3. Sheila

    I have to change my grip in order to reach the slide stop on every firearm I own. The slide stops are too far to reach with my thumb. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Jeffery

      It’s possible that this firearm does not fit you, Some of my students are small and petit and have smaller hands. And many are carrying a 1911 because someone told them this is the best defense gun. But I always suggest going to the firearms shop and searching out a hand gun that fits them in all the areas that apply to being able to operate a firearm effectively.

      Reply
    • debbie

      i have the same problem, my husband purchased the gun without me, so i didnt know if there would be a problem or not.

      Reply
      • Sherra

        It drives me crazy when I hear that guys have purchased guns for the women in their lives without being told which specific brand, model, and caliber the woman wants. Firearms are a personal purchase and the firearm MUST fit the person for whom it’s intended. Would your guy go out and buy you a bra without your specific instructions of what brand, style, and size? Of course not! Everyone’s breasts are different, just as everyone’s hands are different. Just because one size/style fits someone who is very similar does NOT mean it’s going to fit you and your needs.

        Reply
  4. Randall Knapp

    This technique is fine for those that have the strength but sometimes people do not have the strength and have to rack the slide back cross ways across the chest and in close but when doping it this way they need to turn sideways to keep the gun pointing down range.

    Reply
  5. John Brodt

    I have never responded to anything like this before, but feel that I should now. I do not like the idea of having the muzzle of any kind of gun level with the ground when racking the slide in any situation where you don’t know what could be in line with the muzzle, as on the other side of a wall. I learned a good lesson more than 40 years ago when checking out a friend’s semi-auto handgun that would not work after he put it back together after a good cleaning. I took the gun from him with a round still chambered, pointed it down range and tried to pull the trigger. It felt jammed so I cleared the round and let the slide go forward to chamber the next round not prepared for what happened next other than having the muzzle pointed at the ground as I had always been taught. To my surprise, as soon as the round chambered, the magazine emptied full auto. Fortunately, all rounds went into the ground. He had reassembled the gun wrong. It happens.

    Reply
    • idstraining

      Having the gun pointed in a generally safe direction is very important when handling live guns, obviously, the situation may dictate that the muzzle be pointed in another direction and that is important to recognize. However, for the vast majority of situations I think the high compressed ready is an excellent default position.

      Reply
    • Jay

      SLAM FIRE!! You were very lucky, actually. I like your attitude as expressed in your comment, and agree!

      Reply
    • Mike Thomas

      Suffice it to say the gun should always be pointed in a safe direction. That may be parallel to the ground or it may be pointed at the ground. Down isn’t always a safe direction (if you’re in a two-story building for instance). If you’re at the range, keeping the muzzle pointed at the backstop/target should be safe.

      Reply
    • rburch20

      The issue with just having it pointed at the ground is that may not be a safe direction.

      I you are on a stone floor, or an upper level apartment, down may be more dangerous than pointed level at a full book case, or out the window at the side of a hill…

      Reply
      • Customer Service

        Hi Jim. This pistol shown in the photos with the article is a Glock 19.
        Thanks
        Deryck-PDN

        Reply
  6. Joe Sholes

    Your advice for the left handed shooter does not work for me. If I keep the trigger finger straight it does not generate enough strength and movement in that portion of the finger that is needed to lift the slide lock while pushing the slide back (I have strong hands). I have tried your suggestion on glocks, sigs, walther and others. In most cases the slide lock does not protrude enough for your finger to lift in this position. I have found the only method that works is to change hands. Let me know your secret.

    Reply
    • idstraining

      Joe, thanks for the feedback. I have students that have had the same issue in the past. What I tell them is that if you don’t consistently try and work on this technique it will be difficult for you to complete this task, it will also be hard to build the dexterity in your finger in order to be able to complete the task. It may not be easy at first and you may struggle, however if you are persistent you will actually be building the dexterity and possibly the strength that you need to complete the task. Although this is more about technique then strength, more hand and or finger strength is never a bad thing.

      Reply
      • idstraining

        Another option for “left handers” with a gun that has a slide stop on the side of the gun that is used for righties is to get an extended slide stop, it can cause havoc for right handed shooters but is generally out of the way for left-handers except when needed.

        Reply
        • Bridget

          Very true. Glock actually installs the extended slide stop for free with most of their weapons, not all. It made a huge difference with my 19.

          Reply
  7. LeRoy Russell

    Thanks. I just purchased a M&P9 Shield and was having trouble in the store. I know this will be a big help.

    Reply
  8. Phil euper

    What is the solution for a hand with the proper grip and the strong side thumb is not long enough to reach the slide stop and put the upward pressure on it ? Purchase a smaller handgun?

    Reply
    • idstraining

      Thanks Chris, long time no talk, hope all is well with you and your family!

      Reply
  9. Russell Cowan

    Good comprehensive, understandable article……thanks for the effort exerted……RC NRA Inst.

    Reply
  10. Dennis

    Thanks for the good advice for right handed shooters. But left hand… well your advice really does not work well at all. For one to use the left hand trigger finger, causes you to let loose your grip on the gun. Therefore, pulling the slide back, with the released grip, pulls the gun out of your hand. Besides, having a large hand and finger, it’s almost impossible to bend it back to push up on the slide stop. I have a great grip and have no trouble racking the slide on any pistol, but the only way to rack and lock the slide, is to use my right hand to pull back on the slide while using my left had to firmly grip the pistol and push forward. When the side is back, I use my right thumb under the slide stop and quickly pull up the slide stop. I’ve tried every other way and it frankly won’t work. Thanks for helping out the 90% of the population who are right handed.

    Reply
    • idstraining

      Similar to the advice that I gave Joe….I have students that have had the same issue, initially, in the past. What I tell them is that if you don’t consistently try and work on this technique it will be difficult for you to complete this task, it will also be hard to build the dexterity in your finger in order to be able to complete the task. It may not be easy at first and you may struggle, however if you are persistent you will actually be building the dexterity and possibly the strength that you need to complete the task. Although this is more about technique than strength, more hand and or finger strength is never a bad thing.

      In addition, rather then bending your left-hand trigger finger, try keeping it straight and dragging it straight up, I understand that that is a awkward position, but again, you will never build that dexterity if you dont keep training and practice the technique.

      Send me an email and I will send you a short video to show you what I am talking about….if that would help. Evan@InnovativeDefensiveSolutions.com

      Reply
  11. Rick Wehrheim-HomeGuard Associates

    Hey Evan – Congratulations on your new association with PDN (a terrific organization). I took a course with you many years ago in Virginia. I was very impressed with your knowledge and professionalism and have since become an NRA Instructor in several disciplines. Quick question-what is your opinion of utilizing a modified low ready position instead for “safety sake”?

    Reply
  12. Ken

    Tnx for the great article. This is going to help immensely when we teach the Restricted Course to those with “lesser” body strength.

    Reply
    • idstraining

      Thank You, glad it could be of help to you, kudos to you for taking the role of a teacher, it is a very important one.

      Reply
  13. James Caton

    I have attended two IDS courses taught be Evan and I am very excited to see that his knowledge and expertise is now also available via PDN. You guys made a great decision to bring him on board!

    Reply
    • idstraining

      Thanks James, glad you found me on PDN. Come out and train with us soon, I think the last time I saw you was…. July of 2016 when you took our Fundamentals of Defensive Handgun Course in King George, VA….Stay Safe!

      Reply
  14. Kent Hawley

    I took my sister to the range for her first indoctrination to shooting. I loaned her a S&W M&P 22. She had an exasperating time trying to manipulate the slide lock. Now I realize her big brother (me) is the one with the problem. I’ve been doing wrong since I’be been shooting semi-autos. Maybe she’ll give me another chance. Thanks for the article Evan and PDN.

    Reply
  15. Tony Goe

    I’ve found that on all models tested at firearms dealers it is best to insure when releasing the slide lock that thumb pressure be Straight down and sometimes with a slight pull to the rear on the release lever. Some models can be very difficult but with a very small dab of lube on the notch/indentation the catch/release effort works much easier.

    Reply
    • idstraining

      I do not recommend using the slide “stop” as a release. Even on the few guns where it is designed to be a release I would still recommend using the over hand rack method for consistency and efficiency purposes.

      Reply
  16. Vince

    I, myself do not have that issue, “but” if there is a better way, I’m all about it, and I may be able to pass it on.

    Reply
  17. Jay

    I bravely did my CCW range time using my Highpoint C-9 which is big, blocky, and has a VERY strong slide spring. It proved to be a challenge at first, esp. outside on that crisp 34 degree morning (to boot) so gripping anything was a hard thing to do
    when the hand\fingers went numb. But…in spite of that…I was able to progress using the strong hand “push” method. After that I’ve since used H&K, Ruger, Glock, S&W, Springfield, Walther, etc., firearms which seemed to be a piece of
    cake as far as the slide rack and lock routines. Maybe everyone should start on
    the venerable HighPoint which would set them up nicely for any other. And btw,
    I can shoot just as accurately with the HP as ANY other and though not my primary
    piece was a great learning tool(including FTF’s, FTE, etc., et al but have had this
    with other guns too depending on the brand and grain of the ammo). Make sure you find the perfect match of ammo to your personal weapon and once you do…
    STICK TO IT! AMEN.

    Reply
  18. Keith M Sheehan

    Just came back from the 4- combat handgun course at Front Sight. Lost only three points in scores, but was crushed with penalty points because my 73 year old, left handed body couldn’t clear high and low jams with my Springfield “V-10″, with its 3 1/2” barreled, nested mainspring frame. -just didn’t have the strength in my trigger finger to lock the slide back. Love the gun, carry it every day, and luckily, it has never malfunctioned once in after the first 500 rounds of ‘break-in’. I’ve fired about 3,000 rounds a year with it for the past 17 years. Great gun, unyielding rules at Front sight (none of the three instructors could clear the low brass jams either).

    Reply
  19. Rod

    A slight variation on this is to turn your body 90 degrees to your right ( right handers ) so the muzzle remains down range. Then keeping the firearm close to your chest perform the push- pull action. By keeping the firearm close to your body you have more strength and not as easily available to a gun grab. Trying to evaluate a malfunction with a loaded mag. ??? Unload prior to trouble shooting.

    Reply
  20. Lowell Rudd

    Many of my elderly, differently abled and female students do not have the strength to power the slide back as you’ve described, especially with a firearm like the Berretta 92 or similar. My solution is to quarter to the right to maintain the down range muzzle configuration, lock the left arm into the rib cage, gasp the slide with the left hand in an over the slide grip with maximum gun to flesh contact and pushing the lower forward against the slide with ones’ right hand using the main shoulders in the back and chest. As the firearm is comp[lately supported by the left hand, the right thumb is completely free to locate and set the slide lock. Other then that, I appreciate you trying to move people away from holding a wobbling gun way out in front and trying to pull the slide back with thumb and fore finger.

    Reply
  21. Paula Campbell

    Thank you so much! I have a hard time locking the slide back (short fingers) and this is helpful; I am going to practice what you have discussed in this article! This is also getting placed in my email file for “2016 gun” with a star so I can refer back to it if need be.

    Reply
  22. Michael Stewart

    A comment about the left handed techniques. The stamped metal slide stop on my S&W SDVE gives me enough purchase with the edge of my trigger finger to use the method described. My XDs, however has a ridge around the slide stop, and it sits significantly closer to the frame.

    Through trial and error, I have learned to index my right thumb against the extractor so that my right ring finger is positioned above the slide stop when I reach the end of rearward travel. A quick flick with the tip of the ring finger pulls the slide stop up with very little trouble. It’s not infallible, but it’s the best work around I’ve found so far.

    Reply
  23. Kristin Berg

    A short video to accompany the instructions would be helpful next time. The pictures were OK but not exactly helping me visualize this.

    Reply
  24. Gerri

    What I do is different than discussed above, so here goes. I am close to 70 y/o, and don’t have the hand
    strength I used to have many years ago.

    First, I drop the magazine from the pistol, then “rack the slide” to empty the chamber. Then, with the slide in the forward position, I carefully pull the hammer back till it locks in position. Next I pull/push the
    slide back and lock it in place.

    It was explained to me, in a semi automatic pistol there are two springs. The slide return spring and the hammer spring. By cocking the hammer, again carefully, first, you are now working against only one of
    the springs. This works for my Bersa and my Beretta quite well.

    Reply
  25. glen

    There is simply no way that I can make this work for me as you explain. My thumb is just too short to reach the slide stop without changing my grip on the gun. This is true on every pistol I’ve shot, even sub-compacts. I suppose I could install extended slide stops on my carry guns, but I don’t want something that will cause other problems.

    Reply
  26. Todd

    Good article and clarity on the subject, which seem’s to be glanced over by Instructors. Student’s should learn from the start to work in the “work space” of the chest area, and do so until they can do that, without taking eyes off threat.

    Reply
  27. Ryan

    Evan,

    Thanks for this article. One question…any idea on the “official standard approach” to racking a slide?

    My situation is as a state police applicant I may be entering a training environment where EVERYTHING is mandatory and uniform.

    My handgun is a large 45 semi-auto ‘built’ for right handed folks..I shoot lefty.

    I have been racking the slide by fully extending my strong arm as I pull back the slide with my right hand (weak) and use my right hand thumb to manipulate the slide lock lever. To do this, I ‘roll’ the handgun on it’s right side slightly. The strength issue is a non-issue for me and this approach is fine from my perspective…but the visual of this technique obviously does not match what you are suggesting and would not match what ‘others’ would do who were right handed. When I try to use my trigger finger as you suggest, I can not get it back that far on the weapon and still maintain control. These are BIG heavy Sigs with pretty strong recoil springs.

    Thoughts appreciated. Ryan

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi Ryan. There is this myth that lefties need ambidextrous controls to run a handgun efficiently and that really is not the case with 99% of the modern striker fired handguns. When you get into Double/Single or Single Action only guns problems can arise. Ideally, you want to be able to manipulate any buttons/levers using the strong hand only and sometime with these guns the docker and/or safety lever is on the left side of the gun. When a gun is issued to armed professionals they don’t have the option to change and must find a technique that is as efficient as possible and will work in a life or death situation.

      Operating the gun in an extended position (even if strength isn’t an issue) is putting the gun in a position where you are not as strong, where it is easier for someone to attempt to grab it, and isn’t consistent with presenting the gun in and parallel with your line of sight. As for locking the slide to the rear (which is primarily an administrative action), the technique in the video below makes it much easier for lefties running a standard gun.
      https://www.personaldefensenetwork.com/video/left-handed-shooters-myth-015210/
      Thanks
      Deryck-PDN

      Reply
  28. Steve

    It has to be said: For some people, a revolver is simply the best choice. I work at a Gun Shop, and I’m an Avid Handgun Shooter. I have seen some Elderly People, Men and women, and some others that simply don’t have the hand/arm strength to perform a slide lock. Another thing I must mention, I see a lot of people release the slide and let it Fly forward and slam shut on an Empty Chamber. Not a good practice! Not only is this Dangerous, it sin’t very good for Any Semi Automatic Handgun. Safety First!

    Reply
  29. Skyviking

    The best way for a Left-handed shooter to lock the slide back is to transfer the pistol to the support (right) hand and go from there: strip the magazine out, put in your pocket, rack the slide as described (push out with the hand holding the gun while pulling back the slide with the Left hand, palm down), either with the LH on top of the slide BEHIND the ejection port or, if there is room (think 1911, SIG, Glock, CZ, XD- not advisable with a Beretta 92), IN FRONT of the ejection port. If you study this administratively, you will know where to place your LH on the slide so that when the slide is fully to the rear, you can use your Left Thumb to actuate the slide stop lever if you cannot reach it with the right thumb…

    Reply
  30. Nancy

    I shoot lefthanded with a standard Gen 4 Glock 19. If I line up my right thumb with the notch in the slide that the slide lock slips into, I can flip the lock into place with my thumb when the lock lines up with the notch.

    Reply