Clearing Handgun Malfunctions
Article first appeared at Shooting Illustrated.
Modern semi-automatic handguns are remarkably reliable tools. Still, they’re mechanical devices made by man and can suffer breakage that renders them totally inoperable. Or, more commonly, they can suffer a temporary stoppage rendering the gun inoperable for that often crucial moment.
Most shooters have likely experienced a malfunction at some point, and a lot of us may cuss the gun itself. But such blame may be misplaced. The gun is only part of the operational equation.
Reliable semi-automatic operation depends not only upon the gun working correctly, but also upon properly functioning magazines to feed the firearm, ammunition loaded within the range of pressure levels required to operate the action and loads that feature the correct length and bullet profile to feed smoothly from magazine to chamber. If any leg of that gun/magazine/ammunition triad fails, a malfunction can occur and temporarily stop the operation.
Operation can be quickly restored if the shooter recognizes the type of malfunction that has occurred and takes the correct Immediate Action (IA) to restore the gun to proper operation. Then, the shooter should analyze the specific malfunction to determine the cause and take corrective action to prevent it from happening again. Here’s a look at the four most common malfunctions.
This is one of, if not the, most common malfunctions in a semi-automatic pistol. It is characterized by the round feeding from the magazine, but failing to enter the chamber—instead having the bullet’s nose lodge up against the barrel hood above the chamber and locking up the action.
The IA drill for a tip-up is to strip the magazine from the gun, rack the slide to clear the action, insert a new magazine and rack the slide to chamber a fresh round. If the round is jammed up tightly, simply hitting the magazine release may not drop the magazine. The support hand should move to strip it out of the pistol.
Some shooters may try to retract the slide, turn the gun onto its side and jiggle the loose round out. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it makes things even worse.
Diagnosing the exact cause of a tip-up malfunction can be frustrating. It requires a methodical approach, because it could be magazine-, ammunition- or firearm-related. Determining when and where the malfunction occurs will help in discovering and correcting the problem.
If the gun is at slide lock, a new magazine is inserted forcefully and hitting the slide release results in a tip-up malfunction, the cause could be worn magazine feed lips. If the lips are not holding the round securely, the nose can bounce up and take an upward—and incorrect—angle into the chamber. It could also involve a weak magazine spring that allows the leading round to bounce. See if you can duplicate the tip-up with other magazines using the same load. If other magazines function properly, you have isolated the cause to that specific magazine.
If you can’t duplicate it with other magazines or if the tip-up occurs while the gun is cycling during firing, it’s time to look at the load. Not every bullet profile will properly fit every barrel’s feed ramp. Some guns just will not feed certain loads. This is not uncommon in 1911-pattern guns using John Browning’s original feed-ramp design. That system was created to shoot 230-grain ball loads, and may not readily accept some other profiles. Gunsmiths have learned how to throat the barrel and alter the 1911 ramp to feed other bullets, but the incompatibility problem is not confined to the 1911. I have a Smith & Wesson M&P45 that will not feed factory 185-grain wadcutters. The short bullet nose hits low on the feed ramp and bounces above the chamber mouth and up into the hood in a classic tip-up. Loads with a short overall length can also cause tip-ups.
If the failure occurs with certain loads, the cause has been found. If the malfunction occurs with a variety of different loads and through different magazines, the feed ramp is the likely culprit. It may be damaged or just out-of-spec from the factory. This happens, and requires the attention of a gunsmith.
This malfunction occurs when one round from the magazine is properly fed into the chamber, but the following round in the magazine jumps out from behind and tries to join it. The result is a chambered round with a second round jammed up against its base, stopping the slide from going into battery.
The IA drill for a double feed is the same as for the tip-up—strip the magazine from the gun, rack the slide to clear the chambered round, insert a fresh magazine and rack the slide again to chamber a new round. This is the only way to clear a double feed, and again, don’t count on the magazine dropping freely with a push of the magazine-release button. The second cartridge will normally lock things in place. You must hit the magazine release and then slide the support hand down to physically strip the magazine from the gun. It may take some effort because the second cartridge will likely have jammed things up tightly.
This is definitely a magazine-related malfunction. Like any part on the gun, magazine components can wear out. Worn feed lips are the most common culprit. But if it occurs from slide lock, you may also have a weak magazine spring that allows the round to bounce through the worn lips. In either case, this magazine needs attention.
Double feeds are one reason savvy shooters put an individual identifying mark on each of their magazines that allows them to quickly determine exactly which magazine is causing problems. This failure is also the reason experienced shooters always carry a spare magazine. Some may think the 16 rounds in their 9 mm carry pistol should be more than enough to handle any situation, but unfortunately, some common semi-automatic malfunctions require the magazine in the gun be quickly removed. If a second magazine is not at hand, things can get ugly.
This malfunction occurs when the fired case does not fully clear the gun after being extracted from the chamber and ends up trapped within the ejection port by the returning slide. When trapped in an upward-facing position, it looks very much like a little smokestack sticking up.
The IA drill for a stovepipe is to maintain a firm grip on the gun with the firing hand while slipping the trigger finger into the register position (finger out of the trigger guard and pointing forward along the frame above the trigger guard). The support hand then slaps onto the top of the slide and corrals the trapped case, while sweeping rearward to clear the empty case and cycle the slide to chamber a new round.
This malfunction most often occurs because there was insufficient force to drive the slide fully rearward while slamming the extracted case onto the ejector with enough force to expel it cleanly from the gun. This could be a gun-related malfunction caused by a worn out recoil spring. Many manufacturers recommend recoil springs be replaced every 5,000 or so rounds, but I have gone more than 30,000 rounds with a factory recoil spring without problems. Still, it’s always best to follow the manufacturer’s advice.
An extremely dirty, pitted or corroded chamber could also be the culprit causing a stovepipe. If it impedes the clean extraction of the fired case, the recoil spring force—even on a properly functioning spring—can be restricted enough to prevent the proper ejection cycle. A damaged ejector could also cause a stovepipe. Any of these factors would cause the fairly frequent stovepiping and would indicate it’s time for a trip to the gunsmith.
Another common cause is shooter-induced: a “dry gun.” Steel parts moving against one another require lubrication. Some gun owners, especially new ones, neglect to properly lubricate their firearms.
However, if a stovepipe occurs only rarely, it’s likely an ammunition issue involving underpowered ammo. This can happen with factory loads, although it is rare. It’s far more common with handloads. Many competitive shooters “load light” to reduce recoil, and if they go too light and don’t install a lighter recoil spring, stovepipes can occur.
Stovepipes are the one malfunction where the magazine is not a likely culprit, with one exception. If, when clearing a stovepipe, a second live round is also present within the operating action, it indicates the round released early (worn feed lips) and contacted the fired case during the ejection cycle, which prevented it from clearing the gun. In this case the IA drill is the same as with a tip-up or double feed—strip the magazine, rack the slide to clear the loose round, slam in another magazine and rack the slide to chamber a fresh round.
You bring the gun onto the target and press the trigger. But instead of a bang you get a click. The IA drill here is the “tap/rack.” Tap the magazine baseplate forcefully to assure the magazine is properly seated, then rack the slide to clear the chamber and cycle a new round.
This is most likely a firearm or ammunition issue, but in one case it could be magazine-related.
If the click occurred after the gun was at slide lock and a fresh magazine was slammed into the gun with enough force to send the slide forward, but a round was not chambered, it indicates a weak magazine spring. The leading round bounced back into the magazine and the carrier overrode it and did not chamber the round. Anything else indicates gun or ammunition failure.
A defective primer is a common cause of the dreaded click, and this can occur with factory or handloaded ammunition—especially if the handloader did not fully seat the primer. If the anvil is not in firm contact with the bottom of the primer cup, the firing-pin blow may not ignite it. It merely sends the primer forward, and that may seat the anvil and allow a second strike to ignite it. Some guns have a second-strike capability, but the tap/rack is still the surest solution to the problem, since you do not yet know precisely what caused the problem.
A weak firing-pin strike to a properly seated primer is another possibility, and that is gun-related. It’s rare with guns using an inertia firing-pin system where the firing pin is driven by an external hammer (1911, CZ 75, Browning Hi Power, etc.). If the hammer sends the firing pin forward, then a broken or damaged firing pin is the likely cause, although a broken firing-pin spring that impedes the firing-pin strike could also be the culprit.
Striker-fired guns are a different story. They require spring pressure, not a hammer blow, to propel the firing pin, and those springs can weaken. I was once involved in an IDPA match with a 9 mm striker-fired pistol that had seen a lot of use. In that match, I had five misfires out of 90 rounds, and got plenty of practice with the tap/rack drill. After replacing the striker assembly, that gun has gone another 15,000 rounds without problems.
If this malfunction seldom occurs, then it is likely ammunition caused. If it happens with any frequency, your gun needs professional attention. See a qualified gunsmith.
There is one major caveat to the tap/rack remedy. You must hear only a click. If you get a pop or a poof instead, it means the primer did ignite, and that bullet may be lodged in the barrel (a squib load). If you rack the slide and an empty case comes out, you also have an ignited primer and possibly a lodged bullet. Do not chamber and fire another round! Stop and inspect the bore. Firing into an obstructed bore can result in serious damage to both the firearm and the shooter, so be extra careful if you think you might have had a squib.
Despite what you might read online, any semi-automatic handgun can malfunction. Those who can execute a quick and positive IA drill will get the gun back into action quickly and be better prepared to defend themselves and their loved ones. Practice your IA responses, and you’ll be prepared for most any failure.