How many mags?

It’s a really common question I get, especially from newer shooters. How many mags? The other two common questions go hand in hand – Tuned or not? And, tuned by whom? I’ve even heard speculation from others about how many mags I own – speculations that were used to then justify (supposed) needs for lots of gear. (ya know, folks, if you want to know what I use, you can just drop me an email…) So, here ya go – a comprehensive look at my mags for Open division, and some discussion about how to determine what might work for you!

The opening picture really tells the tale – that’s all the magazines I own for my Open gun. 8. 4 big sticks, 4 regular. I actually call them “big, medium, and short sticks”, due to capacity differences. I almost never use two of the big sticks (they generally stay in the safe), and 5 of the 6 remaining mags do all the heavy lifting. I’ll get into the particulars of the mags in a bit.

For Open or Limited, I need a minimum of 4 magazines. I keep three pouches on the belt – one for a reload, one as a backup (in case I have a yard sale mid-stage, or fumble the reload, or either of my start mags or reload mags goes down mid-stage), and one as my Barney mag. The third mag also serves as my start mag for unloaded gun start stages, and is my N+2 backup mag. If stuff goes really wrong mid-stage, it doesn’t hurt at all to have one more solution to try to retain points. With a mag in the gun, and three mags on the belt, that’s four mags minimum.

I prefer to not use a big stick unless I need it strategically for the stage. My big sticks run, ok? I’m not worried about using them. However, when you look at absolute reliability, my smaller mags retain better spring pressure and have more margin for error than the big sticks, so all else being equal, I run the smaller mags. So, I have a fourth small mag to fill that role. Thus 5 mags minimum.

For shooting a more capacity limited division, for me, the minimum is five pouches and six magazines. Preferably six pouches and 7+ magazines, with the sixth pouch usually being left empty except for special conditions where a couple of reloads are needed in strange places for strategic reasons. I’m going to own a Production gun soon, and I’m tempted to pick up a total of 10 mags for it. I don’t really feel a need to try to come up with more than that, though.

Tuned or not? All of my tubes are tuned, to some degree. “Tuning” means different things to different people, and if done improperly can destroy a magazine permanently. All of my big sticks were tuned by different professionals, with different degrees of action being performed on each one. I tuned the other four mags myself. Aside from trying to get ultra-high capacity, I can do all the tuning myself (and so can you). The only thing I can’t easily do is form the mags using a mandrel. So, if I get a tube that’s malformed, I can’t fix it (I just return it as a defect), and I also can’t stretch an undersize tube up to optimal dimension. Getting absolute maximum capacity requires getting that interior dimension as wide as possible without going too wide – a mandrel’s the only way to do that reliably and safely.

My big sticks hold 30, 29, 29, and 28, but generally are used loaded down a round for both reliability and grip durability. The problem with max capacity in any magazine is that it can put a lot of tension on the top of the mag catch when you smack it home. That can lead to developing a crack in the grip, which can then lead to a lot of weird problems with the gun until you identify the crack (like hammer follow, strange trigger pulls, etc). A good rule of thumb is, if you can’t seat the mag with moderate pressure gradually applied to the base of the mag – that is, you have to push it in hard, or you have to slam it in – then you’re endangering the grip.

The 30 is an SPS tube tuned by Glen Higdon. It’s loaded with Bolen guts and has a Bolen basepad. I’ll be frank, SPS tubes aren’t up to the quality of STI or SV tubes. They’re quite a bit thinner and have to be re-heat treated before they’ll actually hold dimensions at all. Even after that, you really don’t want to drop these tubes a whole lot, or you risk bending them in weird ways. I only use this mag when I don’t intend to reload. Usually, on those kinds of stages, having an extra round (29, remember) doesn’t hurt anything. I will very rarely load this mag to 30 so that I have 31 rounds in the gun to start. I think I’ve done that maybe three times in a match in 4 years. The truth is, I don’t need this magazine. It’s a rarely used, specialized piece of gear, and frequently stays in the bag through a whole match unused. The Bolen guts are interesting, in that the spring is made so that the bottom two coils collapse together, making some extra room in the mag (that’s where that extra round comes from – the same tube only holds 29 with Grams guts). But, the spring seems to wear out more quickly for me. The Bolen pad is well made, and is a smaller aluminum design, but it’s a real pain to get off the tube. You can use a tool of some sort to compress the mag spring to make things easier, but on the whole, I really don’t like dealing with these pads for frequently cleaned magazines due to this.

One of the 29s and the 28 were tuned by Grams Engineering. The 29 is an SV tube; the 28, an STI tube. I bought the 28 from a local shooter while the 29 was off to be tuned by Grams, so that I’d have a big stick (which was a good thing, because it took an awful long time to get that 29 back). I can’t say that I’d go that route again, honestly. After careful comparison to my stock STI and SV tubes, I believe I can get the same results (minus the witness holes) on my own in a much shorter timeframe. The 29 round big stick is my go-to big stick. The 28 lives in the safe. Both are loaded with Grams guts and bear Grams 4mm basepads. I like Grams guts, and run them in all of my mags (except the SPS big stick). I don’t like the Grams pads so much. They’re made from Delrin, a plastic that’s very good for machining (as witnessed by the consistent size of these pads), but that’s unfortunately kind of brittle. This leads to cracking in these pads. I own 5 or 6 Grams pads and all but one of them have cracks in various places – luckily, no fatal failures on mine, yet. I have seen one break through the bottom of the pad, though, and have also seen them crack fatally along the pin hole, so I keep a spare in the parts box, just in case it happens at a match and I can’t buy a replacement onsite. On the plus side, Grams apparently has a very good warranty policy for these situations – I’m told they will replace the pads if you send the cracked ones back in to them.

In contrast to the Bolen and Grams pads, Dawson Precision makes stronger aluminum pad that requires no tools to disassemble, but they don’t fit smaller hands very well (they bulge out quite a bit at the front), so I can’t use them as an alternative.

The 2nd 29 round big stick is kind of funny. It’s an STI tube that was tuned by Brazos Custom Gunworks and sent out to a customer. That customer decided the tube must be oversize (it wasn’t) and proceeded to squish it in a vise until he broke the weld on the front of the magazine! Bob gave me this tube to use to practice big stick reloads so that I wouldn’t have to beat up my other tubes. I put a spare Grams pad on it and filled it with Grams guts. It works just fine, but usually lives in the safe, too.

The medium sticks are both STI tubes that I tuned myself (trim off excess material that bangs on the feed ramp, carefully squeeze any wide spots in the vise, set the feed lip width, polish feed lips and mag interior thoroughly). These mags use an Arredondo base pad and insert, and have Grams guts. They can hold 25 rounds if I put Grams 11 coil springs in them, but I don’t like the spring pressure I get that way. So, I clip a 13 coil spring by one coil, and get a capacity of 24 on a standard STI 140mm tube, and plenty of spring pressure. I load them to 23. The Arredondo pad is the best compromise I’ve found for my hands – it extends capacity, is relatively easy to get on and off, it’s super sturdy, and fits my hand well. The downside is that you have to use an insert to prevent the follower from rolling over when the column of ammo gets below the ribs in the magazine. The insert can have some issues if you’re not careful about how you reassemble the mag. In practice, it doesn’t seem to be a huge issue, though.

Finally, the short sticks. These are both SV tubes that I also tuned. They are loaded with a standard Grams 11-coil kit, and have Arrendondo flat base pads on them. On a standard SV 140mm tube, these mags hold 21, and get loaded to 20. My best reloads happen with these magazines (their short overall length makes them easy to handle), so you’ll frequently find one of these in my front magazine pouch.

Interestingly, I find that I don’t need extra witness holes in these shorter mags. There are already holes in the sides of both magazines, and (in .38 Super), the bottom hole on the right side happens to coincide with 20 rounds. Easy peasy.

I’ve been considering adding a couple more medium sticks to the bag. I’ve found a few stages where starting with and loading to a medium stick is the best bet for me, and I also like to have a medium stick in that last pouch (I indicate my left arm off the basepad on the mag in that pouch). They’re not required, but that’s about the only thing I’m considering adding at the moment… unless, of course, the political climate gets stupid…

I hope that puts to rest any rumors around me having excessive numbers of magazines laying around, and gives you some idea of what gear you might actually need to get started into a new division in USPSA.

About the author


USPSA Grand Master, NRA Instructor, http://re-gun.com/about/

Permanent link to this article: http://re-gun.com/2011/04/how-many-mags/

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