The Case Against That “Special” Mag

I occasionally hear people mention that they carry one or two magazines with “special” ammo in it, just in case something special happens.  I can remember doing this, among other things like a mixed load in my shotgun (birdshot, buckshot, slugs), a mag of JHP and a mag of FMJ for my pistol to address vehicle based threats, or a variety of mags for my rifle to address various threats.  My argument to myself at the time was that I would have a mix of ammo solutions to address a variety of threats or potential problems.  What I was actually doing was trying to come up with a technology fix for an inability to problem solve on the spot or proper equipment selection ahead of time.

These days I try to pick the best platform for my perceived threats and skill level and I pick the most appropriate ammo and standardize for as deep as I expect to use that platform.  I will give an example:  I have a couple rifles that I rotate through truck duty, they are all zeroed on a single lot of AE223BK that I have a couple of cases of.  Now this is not a spectacular round by any means, it is a solid range round with decent accuracy and tolerable terminal performance.  What it does have is a fairly good reliability, it is prevalent and easy to acquire in bulk, feeds reliably in my guns, has minimal variation from round to round, and I have yet to have a failure in this model.  This round also allows me to have a loaded plate carrier, chest rig, spare mags in my rifle case, spare mags over the safe, spare mags scattered all over vehicles, work, and home that are from the same lot with plenty left over that I can confirm zero on those guns promptly after any modifications to the gun or routinely for confirmation.

If I had this level of depth with green tip M855 I would not be able to confirm zeros as easily at my primary range due to steel traps and the price would be slightly higher.  If I had this level of depth with a boutique round that wasn’t armor piercing I would be able to zero and confirm my gun regularly but the cost would be significantly higher and I may not be as apt to replace the ammo as often to account for exposure to the elements, etc.

If I had a mixture of ammo I would be giving up my ability to surgically apply force due to different zeros for each load along with the delay in application of that force by introducing a decision to load or not load a different round into the gun.

Some may say the difference between two rounds of the same caliber at common defensive ranges is minimal and will make no difference.  I would have probably agreed with that statement some time ago until I recently setup a couple stages of fire for a pistol shoot and shot one for a demo.  The stage was a 10yd hostage shot from the holster.  I didn’t want to use up my carry ammo so I snagged a free box of frangible 124gr from the range and loaded up a mag with a few rounds.  I didn’t need much as it was a single shot to the brain box, GO or NO GO.  I setup the timer, BUZZZ, draw, sights, trigger, sights, assess.  My shot was in the hairline, about 4″ high and an inch or so to the left.  I scolded myself and setup the shot again, round number two broke the line of the first shot.  Slow fire on the correct sight picture for shot number three and clover leaf, all three shots within the size of a nickel.  This ammo was different enough to be off 4″ at 10yds from my standard load, significant enough to be a NO GO at a high value shot and potentially the difference between a loved one living or dying.

I am not saying there is no use for boutique or specialty ammo BUT you need to understand that anything worth doing is worth going all in on.  If I transition to a specialty round for my truck rifle I will buy enough to outfit all the mags stashed in the truck, armor, chest rig, and enough to zero and confirm zero at least once a month for a year.  This prevents any gaps in the ability to deliver accurate fire across the entire load out AND allows me to confirm zero regularly in the event that I need to change the configuration of the carbine OR zero for another round for high round count training and return to my ‘operational’ ammo.

Ask any upper level instructor with a background in Special Operations and they will place an emphasis on a consistent ability to ‘stand and deliver’ on the clock and at distance.  Having multiple ‘operational’ rounds in your kit for each caliber diminishes this capability.

So, in short, pick a round that you can get easily and use without restriction in your area, and standardize on it for carry.  Learn the limits of that round and how to overcome those limits through tactics and application.


I use ‘operational’ loosely, don’t read too far into it.  It is just easier to use than duty/CCW/defensive/etc.


Until next time, Stay Sharp.

Mike G

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2 Responses to The Case Against That “Special” Mag

  1. PC says:

    The one exception I would make to this very valid argument is the use of tracers. SOP will very from unit regarding the inclusion of tracer rounds w/in mags predominantly loaded with FMJ rounds. 1:4, 27:3 mixes – the combinations are endless.

    Some unit’s SOP also include certain leaders, JFOs, or JTACS carrying some mags of nothing but tracer to mark targets for maneuver, fire support, or CAS elements. I had a peer who carried nothing but tracers for his entire combat loads – but that seems to be extreme.

    • apcmikeg says:

      Definitely. No argument from me here in regards to tracer for general application such as infantry and direct action application but I would be hesitant without heavy testing for any application where precision is a necessity. I don’t want a POA/POI shift part way through a magazine if I have to take a high percentage shot.

      When I was in Iraq I started out loading mags with 3 tracer followed by 4:1 to allow for ‘directing’ fire and showing when a mag was empty. I also carried 2 mags of straight tracer. I later went to just 4:1 in mags with 2 mags of tracer and eventually went to just green tip. Early on I was leading TCNs and the ability to ‘direct’ fire seemed beneficial, later on I was more likely to be shooting alongside more experienced guys and didn’t have a need to ‘direct’ fire.

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