Firearms are complex machines with multiple parts moving at high velocity under heat, friction, and stress. As a result, firearms can experience mechanical malfunctions for various reasons, from fouling and a lack of lubrication to parts breaking.
What is a Misfire?
A misfire occurs when the firing pin or striker fails to detonate the primer or the primer fails to ignite the propellant charge in the cartridge. Misfire is synonymous with failure to fire, and you’ll usually experience this type of malfunction as an audible click. A misfire can be caused by a defective primer or a light primer strike.
If you experience a failure to fire, manufacturers usually recommend you wait 30 seconds to 5 minutes before attempting to clear the weapon. This guideline is intended to rule out the possibility of a hang fire — i.e., delayed primer ignition. If you open the breech and the round fires, you will experience an out-of-battery ignition, which can injure you or cause damage to the firearm.
Once you’ve removed the unfired cartridge, examine the primer and compare it to other spent cartridges fired in the same weapon. If the primer strike appears normal in-depth and diameter, this may simply be a defective round. However, if the dimple is smaller than usual and shallow, this could be an indication that your firing pin or firing-pin spring needs replacing.
How Do You Safely Clear a Malfunction?
Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction at all times and your index finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard. Then, retract the slide or charging handle to open the breech and unload the gun. However, a misfire isn’t the only way in which a firearm can malfunction.
Clearing Handgun Failures
When your gun fails to cycle, and you need to return it to a serviceable condition rapidly, there’s a simple drill that is widely taught in shooting schools called “tap, rack, bang.” This drill describes a three-part sequence of actions that can remedy most stoppages quickly.
First, tap the magazine to ensure it’s correctly seated in the magazine well. An improperly seated magazine can cause a failure to feed. Magazine failures cause many firearm malfunctions.
Grasp the top of the slide with your support hand and rack, or retract it, forcefully. Don’t ride the slide forward — allow the recoil spring to return the action to battery. This will unload the gun and plays an integral role in clearing several common malfunctions.
Failure to fire
If you’ve experienced a failure to fire, you’ll need to eject the potentially defective cartridge and feed a fresh one from the magazine. This allows you to determine whether the ammunition or the weapon causes the failure to fire. Additionally, this maneuver enables you to clear failures to eject.
Failure to eject
A failure to eject is also called a stovepipe or stovepipe jam and occurs when the spent cartridge case fails to exit the weapon fully. In semi-automatic pistols, this typically results in the casing becoming stuck between the slide and the barrel face.
Stovepipe Jam (Failure to Extract)
As part of the racking procedure, you can catch the spent cartridge, which is usually vertical, between the fingers of your support hand and remove it as you retract the slide.
A double feed occurs when either the pistol attempts to feed two live cartridges simultaneously or fails to extract the spent cartridge and attempts to feed a live round. When you perform the standard tap and rack drill, you’ll notice immediately that the slide is still out of battery. At this point, you need to remove the magazine by depressing the magazine catch.
Double Feed Jam
If the magazine doesn’t drop free — it may be stuck if the top cartridge has been forced partially out by the slide — you’ll need to remove it physically. Magazines that have extended base plates or lips are useful under these circumstances.
Next, rack the slide repeatedly to ensure that no round remains inside the weapon, return the loaded magazine, and rack the slide again to load it.
If the double feed occurred due to a failure to extract, rather than a faulty magazine or weak recoil spring, the extractor or extractor spring may be broken.
Aim the weapon at a safe target and press the trigger to fire the weapon to prove that it’s functional.
How to Avoid Malfunctions
Many common malfunctions are avoidable.
Always use high-quality ammunition
As every manufacturer will tell you, always use high-quality, new, factory-loaded ammunition in your firearms to ensure consistent, optimal performance. Low-quality ammunition is the number one cause of misfires and can also contribute to other stoppages.
Avoid low-quality magazines
Poorly made magazines can cause failures to feed due to weak feeding springs, lips that spread, or followers that tilt. Alternatively, if the magazine doesn’t seat at the correct height, the slide or bolt may consistently have difficulty stripping the rounds.
Modern magazines, including those manufactured for semi-automatic rifles, often feature anti-tilt followers to increase functional reliability.
Clean and lubricate your weapons
Proper firearms maintenance requires both periodic cleaning and lubrication to avoid stoppages. As powder propellants burn, they produce fouling, which can accumulate on the surfaces of reciprocating parts, altering tolerances and causing sluggish operation.
Don’t neglect your magazines, especially if you fire your weapons in sandy, muddy, or dusty environments. While it’s not generally necessary to clean your firearms after every range session, two notable exceptions are when using corrosive ammunition and black powder.
Shotguns can pose some unique challenges regarding malfunctions compared with handguns and rifles. If you’ve ever asked, “What might cause a shotgun to explode?” there are a few potential causes to consider.
An obstructed barrel can cause any weapon to experience a catastrophic failure, bursting the barrel or causing the weapon to blow apart. Some obstructions are minor and can be forced out by the bullet or shot charge; however, you shouldn’t take unnecessary risks. Always check the barrels of your firearms, including shotguns, before shooting.
If you handload shotgun shells, the weight and type of powder are crucial. Overloading shotgun shells can cause a catastrophic failure, whether the weapon is new and modern or old and used. You cannot afford to be careless under these circumstances — always double-check the quantities of powder and shot you’re loading.
You may have noticed that you can load a 3” shell into a 2¾” shotgun chamber. The reason for this is that the chamber is designed to accommodate the length of a fired shotshell. The unfired length of a shotgun shell is different because the opening is crimped.
When you fire a 3” shell in a 2¾” chamber, the crimp unfolds into the forcing cone, extending its length. As the forcing cone tapers toward the barrel, this can cause the pressure in the chamber to rise sharply. If you’re firing an older shotgun, the risk of a failure is higher.
Keeping Your Guns Secure and Protected
At We the People Holsters, we understand the importance of identifying and clearing malfunctions for the practical and effective use of firearms, from handguns and rifles to shotguns. We manufacture high-quality holsters for every major handgun brand to keep your weapons secure and prevent unintentional discharges.