Detachable Magazines
Plague or Pleasure?

14 November 2000
By Scott Powers
(with the gracious assistance and advice from several members of the Law Enforcement community)

Detachable Magazines on bolt action rifles. Specifically, bolt action TACTICAL rifles for police and military sniping use. Personally, I have loathed these items for years for the headache they represent. More so because the unsuspecting public, often the gullible recipients of the marketers' honed skill, has long been on the receiving end of some seriously flawed designs. The most recent of which can best be illustrated by Remington's failed attempt in the DM series, now discontinued and for good reason.

My own views aside, lets look into reasons people "think" they need a faster way to load a rifle. Further, let us examine if in fact the addition of a detachable magazine actually does what they are advertised to do - that is, to make loading faster and more reliable under stress. After all, what is not to like about being able to dump a mag and quickly replace it with a freshly topped off unit?

Historically, the world's militaries have played with this issue since the turn of the century. Earlier in fact. For an infantry soldier, a fast reload is worth its weight in gold because you may have 50 more targets just awaiting your loving attention. But often, these attempts to modify existing rifles failed. The most notorious attempt was in WWI when the German forces tried to field a 20 round magazine for the renowned Gewehr 98. It failed for a multitude of reasons including the force required closing the bolt over a fully loaded magazine. And it was not exactly detachable either. Other attempts led to permanent box magazines of medium volume and tubular magazines permanently affixed to the rifle, but a true detachable magazine for a bolt action rifle, in the modern sense, did not come about until the late 1940s. Examples like this abound and the results, over years of experimentation, were Detachable Magazine designs that were DM in name alone. The Lee-Enfield series of rifles is an excellent example. While the magazine was certainly removable it was neither encouraged nor recommended other than for cleaning. Tommies were not issued a bandoleer full of loaded mags and let loose on the Hun. Their single magazine was numbered to the rifle and it was expected that this magazine was to be kept in the rifle at all times and be loaded from strippers through the top of the receiver. Why? Because they knew to do otherwise would result in faulty or damaged magazines and dead troops. In many cases, one magazine would not function in another rifle of the same design. Attempts at mating detachable magazines to bolt guns litter firearms history and provide for some interesting reading. Infantry weapons aside, our focus is the tactical rifle. So lets look a little further into how the notion came to pass.

The spawn of modernization

The advent of the semi-auto finally brought about functional and reliable detachable magazines. The operating system on these weapons provided enough force to load from a full magazine and the magazines themselves, for the most part, were considered expendable equipment. If you got a bad mag in the field, you tossed it and used one of the remaining half dozen strapped to your hip. Those that were not considered toss-aways were built extremely tuff of heavy gage steel. The G-43 magazine is a good example. It worked. It was heavy and you got three if you were lucky. But most importantly, the rifle was designed at the outset to use it. That is a key ingredient to ANY rifle, semi-auto or bolt gun, which would use a detachable magazine.

With the introduction of the assault rifle, magazines became sturdy and aplenty. Looking at a typical AK-47 magazine, you quickly realize you have an alternative weapon should hand to hand fighting break out. As a blunt instrument, it rocks. And while the M-16 magazine is nowhere remotely as hardy, the good ones could take minor abuse and function fairly well so long as the feed lips were not distorted. The shooting world became accustomed to fast follow up shots and quick magazine changes. Over time, this modern infantry style of shooting worked its way back into the minds of both the public and the gun marketers who, seeing a trend, were more then willing to fill it.

In a way, you could say this trend was the death knell of precision shooting for the majority of the shooting public, who prior to the Second World War consisted primarily of serious minded shooters who in part survived on their skill with a rifle.

And there the problem begins. Somehow the idea of a fast mag change, fostered by the masses and foisted on them by the gun makers, has crept into the tactical shooting world. Some have argued that not only is a fast follow up needed, but a fast reload to boot. One reason given, the only one to make sense in fact, has to do with swapping load types. Having two or three mags allows one to carry several loads for varying purposes. But for the sheer speed of loading one can not logically argue in favor of the DM. Realistically, how many police find themselves facing the screaming horde on a typical call out? And if they did, how many would be allowed to simply blast away at said horde in a wanton dealing of instant justice? You are right. NONE. Most police, in today's environment, are required to turn tail while the horde overturns the police cruiser and burns down their own city. So in terms of tactical use, a bolt action police sniper rifle will generally be used as it was intended: to place one well aimed shot into a person who is threatening the lives of others. On the off chance of a fouled shot due to glass or other barriers, or just poor marksmanship, a second shot will certainly be required and the faster the better within reason. So what do we have? Two shots out of five. So far, no need yet for a second magazine. Worst case scenario: The officer is facing a group of hooligans bent on destruction and murder. Again, as a SNIPER, what is his role? He can hardly operate as the entry team, taking out all 6 or 8 bad guys in a matter of seconds - not with any hope of certain incapacitation! To even attempt it means some of the targets will be wounded and highly motivated to start shooting any and all comers. The sniper may be tasked to duel it out with a group of criminals as happened in California a few years back, but again, in that case, a bolt gun at close range during a street fight is not the weapon of choice to bring to the party. He would have gone in with an AR15 assuming availability. An M4 carbine is even better. And if he is really lucky, he will be able to use his bolt rifle as designed - with a ballistic advantage and from a fairly concealed position, while other officers engage the criminals in a more up close and personal manner with weapons designed for that task. How about a running target. I do not know the general policy on shooting movers. But I can tell you that five rounds is more than enough to nail a mover at 100 yards with certainty. Further, if you miss those first five shots the odds of having ANY shot after ANY reload, DM or Box magazine, is zero! Nobody is going to stand around waiting for you to nail them after this!

So what do we have so far? A police sniper, when properly employed, will have little reason to fire more than a few rounds if ANY. If he does have to reload because the situation requires it, he will generally have back up from an SRT who will be dealing with the targets in a much more dynamic manner. If he does not, it is unlikely that he will have a target left in his sights to shoot at. If he is really lucky, he has a back-up sniper in the form of a spotter who is also a trained sniper. This is FAR more important than having a second magazine on the standby for volume shooting. That individual should not only be on the scope, but have access to a rifle of his own, either semi-auto like the AR series or bolt action sniper rifle. Two snipers should have little reason to perform multiple magazine changes in seconds. Lets face it, most callouts seem to last hours, not seconds. You have time to swap loads if necessary.

Frankly, if an officer finds it necessary to reload (as opposed to changing loads), we are either undergoing a rebellion or his shooting skills are pretty questionable. But to give this hypothetical individual some leeway, we will assume a fast reload is required. What does it take? Very little. With practice one can speed load a bolt action rifle, through the top or the bottom, in less than two or three seconds. Just watch any stress course at a tactical match. You will see some seriously fast reloads without DMs. And in MANY cases, those with DMs are SLOWER because many of the designs DO NOT WORK.

So, do you really need a DM for changing loads? No. With a little skill and training you can dump one load and replace it with another in a timely manner using a traditional and reliable internal box magazine.

The DM mentality

I don't know if I just coined this phrase but it seems to fit the general shooting public where detachable magazines are concerned. "If I have the rounds, I can shoot faster!" seems to be the credo. Just go to any range and observe the shooters. The serious ones are slowly punching little groups in paper. The mega-magazine types are tossing lead down range at a prodigious rate and hitting very little black in the process. If you want to train someone to shoot well, you do not give them a repeater with a full magazine. You give them a single round and make them work hard for the next round by precisely placing the first. In the civilian world, a DM magazine often means sloppy shooting habits because the shooter knows he has more where that came from. It is a license to waste ammo and it creates a laziness of the mind. This seems to have afflicted people at every range I have been too. The mad minute is a military term for tossing massive amounts of firepower down range. It has no place in precision shooting. Yet you will see shooters with both semi-auto and bolt rifles, with detachable mags, doing just that. Pure wastage. It obviously has no place in serious shooting circles. In and of itself, the magazine is not the culprit in this case, it is the mindset of the individual. I can recount numerous conversations overheard at gun shops where individuals expressed reasons for DMs on their bolt guns and to a man, not one of those reasons made any sense to me. Most sounded like simple chest beating or testosterone tossing.

About the only reason I can see using a DM in an LE rifle is for swapping match ammo for Barrier penetrating ammo. Even then, when considering the functional issues and chances of misfeeding, it may be just as fast to dump the one load out of a traditional hinged floor plate and feed in the next load in a normal manner. And realistically, how fast do you REALLY need to do this? Think about it.

Function and Reliability

Here we get to the real issue at hand. If a magazine, either internal or detachable, can not reliably function, people will DIE. A police sniper cannot afford to have a fielded system with a magazine that may or may not function when the time calls for that one important shot. It is not hunting where if you lose a deer because your brand X rifle failed to feed, nothing suffers but your stomach. In the real world, things are not so simple. Law Enforcement sniping is not a sport.

I would like to pass on some comments garnered from several experienced police marksman and trainers. They have seen it all in both competition and in the field. By and large, the DM has proven a dismal failure when added as an afterthought to an existing design. With their permission, I am including portions of their comments. The first comes from Brian K. Sain of the Port Arthur (Texas) PD who recently attended the excellent sniper competition put on by Snipercraft. The second from John Peterson at the SIG Arms Academy.

BKS

"The only guys having trouble [with their equipment] were those with rifles with detachable box magazines. These guys were about ready to wrap their rifles around the nearest tree. I saw these rifles cost guys big points in the competition. Some were working okay but the vast majority of them would not feed. My biggest concern was that these officers' rifles were operational and were not functioning reliably. I knew Remington had already discontinued the D/M models but I called anyway and politely explained who I was, what I did for a living and the problems my peers had experienced at Sniperweek. I explained that a "missed target or messed up hunt" took on a whole new meaning to the guys that use their rifles for real.

"I previously had one of the LTWs with D/M. It sucked. Since Remington doesn't make 'em anymore, I traded it for the same model with a floorplate to a collector. He was glad to get it and I was glad for him to have it (good riddance). The floorplate model works fine."

JP

"I am seconding the motion on being wary of detachable magazine sniper rifles. Most were designed to go on the guns as an afterthought and few rifle models out there had detachable mags on their original models (but the ones that do seem to work just fine).

Some possible advice when evaluating a sniper rifle that has a detachable magazine:

  • can the magazine change or loading be done while in the prone and without a lot of noise?
  • get single column/single stack.
  • If there is a "trick" to getting the magazine in and out that would break down under stress or when in an awkward position?

(Author's note: This is most important. If you are required to pinch, pull, squeeze and push, you ARE NOT going to be performing quick reloads under stress!)

  • can you get spares very fast and will they work the same? Some makers of the detachable magazines made so many guns so fast they did not have enough spares or the spares were slightly different than those issued with the original rifle.
  • when the magazine is full to capacity, can it be loaded into the well easily with the bolt closed or does it need to be downloaded by one or more rounds?
  • On long actions using shorter rounds/calibers: be wary of these as some have problems with feeding when going for follow-up shots (part of this is training but the initial problem has to do with the mag well and bolt throw being designed for a longer cartridge)
  • If retrofitting the receiver with a detachable box magazine, will it have any detrimental effect on accuracy or other mechanical problems? I know of various cases where .308's, 7mm's, and .300's were retrofitted and it screwed up either accuracy, or other factors. In one case they had to replace their stock!
  • If doing a magazine swap (open air/match ammo to barrier ammo or open air/match ammo to limited penetration, etc) what is your procedure and how do you know which is which? Try practicing this up high somewhere or on a table or something, can be tricky!

"Other lesson learned: when something new comes out on the market, don't be the first one to buy it (or the first thousand.) Let someone else be the guinea pig, try before you buy, or at least "wait and see."

"And don't rely on info from other guys or vendors (vendors especially) who claim that someone high speed or something uses their product. I have in a number of cases tried to verify this and what I normally find out is that either these were samples (of which many did not make the grade or are still in testing) or that some of these fellows are full of crap. In one case a fellow on the team referred to as "the buyer" said the item that they had was in fact in their possession - in a box waiting to go back!"

The comments of the above two individuals echo many others that have piped up on the issue. The general consensus is that if you are using a DM rifle for police work, you run a real risk of failure to feed.

To sum it up, if you must use a DM style magazine, do so at your own risk, not at the risk of the public at large. By and large, most of the comments I received while considering this article had little positive to say about the DM concept in action. Other than changing types of rounds (Barrier, Light Pen, or Match) there seems to be little merit in the risk that a DM presents in the field. I feel so strongly about this that I would not recommend them even for military use. Why? ARTILLERY!!! If you have to shoot that much at one time, you had damn well better be calling in the Arty. And moving a lot.

If you are already employed with a DM style rifle it is well worth your time to put it through a series of tests to assure functionality. Stress courses and tactical matches are a great proving ground for these systems. Problems not encountered at the range will often rise up to bite you under the combined stress of competition and a timed event. Through these experiences you can alter your style and method of reloading and weed out bad magazines, rifles, and equipment. Even the standard internal box magazine can exhibit problems when you are speed loading under stress. It pays great dividends to expose yourself to higher levels of stress to find out just how good, or bad, your equipment is.

In closing, and to head off an overwhelming deluge of mail in favor if the DM on bolt guns, let me state that yes, there are some examples that work. Retrofitting is seldom successful, but occasionally a company will create a product that genuinely works. If you have one of these and have proven to yourself BEYOND A DOUBT that it will function as designed, then by all means, use it. But historically retrofitting seldom results in a 100% reliable system. If your job places the lives of others in your hands, you owe it to them to assure that your system works, EVERYTIME.



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