Leader Advice: Keep a Bullet in the Chamber

By | March 10, 2021

[March 10, 2021]  “When you’re about to go into combat, you do what you gotta do.  Expect the unexpected and ready yourself.”  Sitting on Jonny Hancock’s porch sipping whiskey and smoking cigars, we had a conversation like no other.  Jonny was giving me some leadership advice, ‘keep a bullet in the chamber [of your rifle],’ he said.  In other words, be prepared.

Combat is the ultimate test of manhood.  It is an age-old fact that humans are stretched to their limits when faced with an enemy intent upon killing them.  To survive contact with an enemy, complete the mission, and bring your soldiers home, means that a leader must simultaneously ready his men for the physical and psychological impact of death and destruction. Still, he must also keep his head and not panic.

Sometime in early 1972, Jonny’s long-range patrol unit was part of the First Battle of Quảng Trị (part of the Easter Offensive).  Unexpectedly, his patrol was cut-off and surrounded by elements of a North Vietnamese regiment.  Outnumbered and outgunned, it was a desperate fight.  Up to that point, the American and South Vietnamese military made progress against North Vietnamese regular units, frequently destroying them in one-sided firefights.  This time it would be different, and Jonny knew it.

Jonny was new to the team but played a pivotal role by carrying an M79 grenade launcher.  It was the fact that his Lieutenant had failed to do proper mission planning (the radios wouldn’t transmit in the terrain) that led to the situation unfolding that would get most of his men killed and wounded.  Fortunate for his team, Jonny had taken plenty of grenade for his launcher.  He was ready.

The team always traveled with extra ammunition, frag grenades, and radio batteries.  Despite traveling light by taking little food and no equipment other than their weapons, ammo, and a PRC-25 radio, there was no escape from the trap set by an experienced enemy.  Luckily, a South Vietnamese Marine Division saved the patrol from total annihilation.

This taught Jonny a lesson he would never forget.  Be prepared.  Be ready, know the basics, be ready to step into a leadership position that you may have to fill, else your men will die.  Warfare does indeed test our very limits.  It can consume those who live through those times with fear or, like in the case of Jonny Hancock; it can teach us that we can achieve more than we think we can.  But only if we keep a bullet in the chamber.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

18 thoughts on “Leader Advice: Keep a Bullet in the Chamber

  1. Dale Paul Fox

    I was a Boy Scout and learned this early on in life. Fortunately, I never forgot that being prepared was the way to ensure success in everything we do. There is much more to life, obviously, but this is a way to ensure we don’t veer from the right path.

    1. Scotty Bush

      Dale, right on. The more I speak with young kids who are teenagers, the more I realize they are not prepared for life. Instead of learning leadership and technical skills they are learning about ‘social justice’ (which is a bunch of bs anyway). I fear they will led a terrible life.

  2. American Patriot

    Eureka, someone actually gets it. Thank you, thank you, thank you Gen Satterfield for sharing this story and the leadership lessons you picked up with your friend. This is more than just being prepared but it is a mental state too. I like this series, don’t let it drop. 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸

    1. Greg Heyman

      This is just too good. Well said, American Patriot. There are just too many folks bout there that don’t ‘get it.’ And we have a country that reinforces the notion that we are not to be trusted nor handle real responsibility. Sad.

  3. Yusaf from Texas

    Reminds me of those days when I was in the army. I’m happy that I did my time there. Since I learned so much, I still pass it along to others.

  4. Joe Omerrod

    Gen. Satterfield, thanks for bringing up your friend Jonny Hancock again. I just love how you said you sat on his porch drinking whiskey and smoking cigars (Cuban if I am not mistaken from yesterday’s article). Real stories by real men doing real things that matter instead of just whining about the world. You two are actually doers in a world of suck-ups and victims.

    1. Jeff Blackwater

      “I should have followed Ant’s example in the summer”, the Grasshopper thought sadly. “I would have been so happy now…” Prepare for the hard days to come.

    2. Max Foster

      … and to know that most people live day to day without much thought at all for tomorrow. As well, we encourage this type of behavior that can and often does led to others being forced to help them out. Then they learn that their failures are not really failures at all but that they are a victim and should expect help from others. That is what our govt is teaching us today. Don’t worry, if you are “oppressed” we will help you. This is the same as giving a man a fish when he hungry instead of teaching him to fish and to feed himself forever.

      1. Gil Johnson

        Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
        This proverbial saying suggests that the ability to work is of greater benefit than a one-off handout.

  5. Lady Hawk

    Well done! More good advice. I think it most appropriate for junior leaders as those with more experience have figured this out already. Just my thinking. Keep this series going.

  6. Janna Faulkner

    Hey, Gen. Satterfield, great job on this one. I loving your mini-series on “leader advice.” I really like the symbolism you use. In this case, I would have called it “keep your powder dry,” to use an older phrase which I think means the same thing here.

    1. British Citizen

      Good point, Janna. I would have used this also. Great article, however on being prepared and how it will benefit us in the future. Delayed gratification? Perhaps.

  7. Army Captain

    Good one, from an Army vet. Thank you, Gen. Satterfield because I always keep a round in the chamber, just in case.

    1. rjsmithers

      You said it, Army Cpt. Be prepared, that is the Boy Scout motto and implied within the US army as well. That is why they promote those who can look ahead, see problems down the road, and come up with solutions before the problem manifests itself. Another great reason to keep coming back to this leadership blog by Gen. Satterfield.

      1. Audrey

        Yep, be prepared or else be prepared (mentally) to die. Of course, this is what so many folks simply fail to do. They know that something is on the horizon in their life and just wait for it to slap them upside the head. Then they act surprised and want others to help them out. Like not having any money saved for a rainy day.


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