Magazine Maintenance for the AR-15

By Glen Zediker published on in Gun Gear, How To

The magazine is a part of the rifle, and it’s a moving part. The magazine feeds the daggone thing its rounds so it can fire its bullets. That’s how important the magazine is.

Four magazine followers Magpul, “green,” ancient Colt metal, newer Colt plastic

This is a follower. A whole line of them. It follows the rounds up from the magazine. The guide ridge is there to orient the cartridges so they “double-stack” correctly. The real improvements have come in changes to the front and rear guides or skirts. The old-style (Colt original, and similar) had virtually no support inside the box at the bullet end. The newer designs, like the Magpul, make it just about impossible for the follower not to sit correctly throughout its travel. This follower goes in all my magazines now, except for the old ones that already work.
[left to right]: Magpul, “green,” ancient Colt metal, newer Colt plastic

I get a lot of correspondence from folks complaining about magazine problems. I never liked the answer I gave them, and that’s led to this article. “Well, I use old aluminum magazines with metal followers and never have any problems…” I have been shooting off of the same Kroger-sack-full of Vietnam-era Colt-brand mags I bought in 1977 for $2 apiece. They all work.

Well, I finally got some new magazines! And then I had to fix them. So, now I have some answers.

There are four pieces/parts to a box magazine: the follower, which is the tray that lifts the cartridges into position; the spring, which powers the follower; the base plate, which secures the spring, and the box.

If you take your finger, or the eraser-end of a pencil, and push nilly-willy around on a follower, you sometimes can make either end stick down. This can also happen when the rounds are pushed up in operation. When you can’t make a follower stick from pushing on the front or rear, the magazine should function. The newer follower designs were drawn up to help that happen, when they are correctly oriented atop the spring.

When an AR-15 magazine malfunctions, it’s usually because the follower didn’t behave correctly, and the nose of the round stuck down and then stuck in on the front inside wall of the box. If the follower sticks down at the back end, the bolt rides over the waiting round because it can’t catch the cartridge base. The reasons followers don’t behave usually come from their orientation in the magazine.

Older model Colt AR-15 magazine circa 1960

It’s skin deep. Here’s one of 8 I take to Camp Perry. It’s an old Colt-brand made late-‘60s. Internally it should now be inferior to new ones, but it doesn’t work that way, and that’s because this one works. Off as it may sound, the aluminum GI mags are usually way on better than commercial steel magazines. If you see one that’s blotchy gold or silver that’s just the finish worn down to the anodizing. Don’t pay collector prices for Colt, though. Adventureline and Simmonds are others from that era that is very good.

The deal behind the “green” follower the armed forces went to was to solve a common problem of failures to feed the last 2 rounds from some 30-round magazines. The change was to add a skirt to the front and extra length to the skirt at the rear to help stop the follower from tilting. These skirts ride against the inside front and rear box walls. This follower design is better. Get them by the dozen for low cost.

I say, however, that there are fewer follower problems and more spring problems. A box magazine is spring-driven, and there are differences in springs. Chrome-silicon (CS) springs, when exploited to its capacity by the spring maker, is always better than music wire. CS magazine springs put a more consistent, constant load on the follower and, this is big, just don’t change. They can be left sitting compressed without getting “soft.” This is a huge concern and potentially disastrous circumstance for a tactical pro. If you want to check a spring for adequate load, put two rounds in the magazine and push them down about 1/8 inch. They should spring fully and instantly back up. If they don’t, the spring is sacked. Replace it.

The correct orientation for the follower atop the spring (neither installed in the box) is with the bullet-end sitting a little higher than the back end. Dead level is good; a little nose up is a little better. If you work with enough different springs, you’ll notice that not all springs will do this. You have to help.

Pliers are the tool and, again, the idea is to get the follower sitting just a little nose-up. Tweaking on the topmost coil does that. If the follower is nose-down when it’s installed onto the spring, when it gets back into the box and buttoned up, that orientation can return. Even if the spring is crammed in there and it seems that there’s plenty of pressure against the follower to keep it up and sitting level against its stops, when the rounds are dealt in and the follower goes down, the shift or tilt can happen.

There’s more to say, but another time. Until then, take care of magazines. Clean them periodically (at least once a year). Lube with dry lube if at all. I don’t. Oil traps grit.

How many magazines do have in need of repair? Do you have a magazine maintenance tip? Share your answers in the comment section.


Glen Zediker has worked professionally with some of the greatest shooters on the planet, as well as leading industry “insider” rifle builders, manufacturers, and proven authorities on gunsmithing, barrelmaking, parts design and manufacture, and handloading. And he does pretty well on his own: Glen is a card-carrying NRA High Master and earned that classification in NRA High Power Rifle using an AR-15 Service Rifle.

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Comments (21)

  • gkmiller

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    best aluminum mags are the original 20 round vietnam war aluminum mags. they are straight not curved. you do not have to replace their followers because they only go straight up no pressure on a curve like the 30 rounders.replaced all of my 30 round followers with magpul followers. i think they are the best ones out there.

    Reply

  • jimmy D

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    Of all the AK magazine springs I have pulled and checked (new and used) the length has varied only about one coil height. I don’t load mine to full capacity to keep the first bullet from being thrown to high, which is the only problem I have seen from a good metal mag.

    Reply

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