Firearms

Firearm Malfunctions — Hang Fires and Duds

Dud round showing where the firing pin struck the primer that did not ignite

I should start by saying that not all firearm malfunctions are equal. Some malfunctions are relatively minor and can be easily fixed. Others are malfunctions that are much more serious and can damage the firearm or be dangerous to anyone nearby. It should also be noted that proper cleaning and maintenance can prevent most, if not all, of the mechanical malfunctions.

Primarily, there are two main categories that are responsible for firearm malfunctions, with numerous subcategories within each. The two main categories of malfunctions are:

  • Ammunition malfunctions – Ammunition does not work as expected. This type is also called a misfire.
  • Mechanical malfunctions – There is some problem with the firearm’s mechanism, which causes it not to work properly.

Ammunition Malfunctions

We will look at the malfunctions caused by ammunition. There are several different types of ammunition malfunctions such as the hang fire. This is also known as a delayed discharge. You have just aimed at the target and squeezed the trigger. The hammer falls and nothing happens. Assuming you have a round in the chamber, you may have just experienced either a hang fire or dud cartridge.

That chain of events could also signal a hang fire (also known as delayed discharge) as opposed to a premature discharge, but nonetheless troubling. A hang fire may occur when the trigger is squeezed and the hammer releases properly. However, there is a perceptible delay from when the hammer is released, and the round ignites.

The delay in time can vary. It may be a fraction of a second, or many seconds, before the cartridge ignites and fires. At the very least, this may have the effect of throwing off the shooter’s aim and sense of timing causing the shooter to miss the target. At the worst, if the shooter does not keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, someone could be hurt. To clarify, let’s look back in time and look at the history of the hang-fire phenomenon.

In the early days of firearms, such as matchlocks and flintlocks, things worked a lot differently than they do now. Back then, there was always a delay between the time the trigger was squeezed, and the firearm discharged its projectile. In fact, the inventor of the percussion lock specifically considered this delay in the design of his firearm in an attempt to solve the delay issue.

Scott Wagner standing in front of a car door with a Smith and Wesson .38 Bodyguard pistol
Perhaps a defensive situation is the only scenario where you would immediately eject a round without waiting to determine whether it was a dud or a hang fire.

Unfortunately, he was not successful, and the issue was not completely solved. One of the problems he could not overcome was the quality of the powder. Hang fires continued, because the quality of the powder could not be relied upon to always ignite in those days.

Although technology advanced, problems persisted — even after the advent of smokeless powder and centerfire ignition. This was because of quality control issues during the manufacturing process. During the early days of centerfire ammunition in World War I, when it was first being used in early machine guns that were mounted on propeller-driven aircraft, a hang fire could be catastrophic. You see, in those days for fighter aircraft to have forward-firing guns, they had to be timed to fire through the spaces of the turning propeller.

The Slow Mo Guys on YouTube took this on and built a recreation to show how the bullet fires when the gun is synced to the propeller rotation and what happens when it is not.

The issue of bullets not shooting the prop was solved by an interrupter gear (a mechanism invented by a Dutchman, Antoine Fokker) that allowed the guns to shoot through the gaps of a rotating propeller. The mechanism ensured that the aircraft’s guns would only fire when the propeller blade was not in line with the barrel’s muzzle. However, if one experienced a hang fire, that would cause the bullets to come out a fraction of a second too late. In that case, the bullet could strike the rotating propeller blade destroying its ability to generate thrust. The result was, Goodbye Charlie!

Causing a Hang Fire or Dud

Let’s examine more closely the chain of events when a hang fire occurs. The primer is struck by the firing pin and ignites. For whatever reason, the main propellant in the cartridge doesn’t burn fast enough (right away). It burns slowly until it builds up enough pressure to break the crimp of the cartridge and push the bullet out of the barrel.

One of the main causes of this is when the ammunition is very old and has been stored improperly for a prolonged period of time. Paradoxically, even if the ammunition is not old but was stored improperly, the powder can become weak and unstable, causing ignition issues. Additionally, if ammunition has been stored in damp conditions or exposed to penetrating cleaning solvents such as WD-40, it can also experience hang fires or become a dud.

Holding a pistol in a safe direction waiting for a hang fire
After experiencing a hang fire, you should continue pointing the firearm in a safe direction downrange for at least 30 seconds in case the powder ignites and the gun fires.

Another area where we see a high percentage of hang fires is with reloaded cartridges. Cartridges can experience this issue after not being cleaned properly prior to reloading. For example, the primer pocket in the cartridge may be partially blocked with residue.

Another issue with improperly cleaned reloads is when the solvents and lubricants used during cleaning and resizing are used incorrectly. More specifically, the lubricants were not cleaned out of the primer pocket and main chamber. Finally, commercially-manufactured cartridges may also have this issue if they are old or were manufactured using improper methods and bad quality control. We see this occurring more often with foreign-made ammunition.

How to Handle a Misfire

When you experience a hang fire, what should you do after you have squeezed the trigger, and nothing happens? Is this a dud cartridge or hang fire? How can the user tell the difference?

It is of paramount importance to point the firearm down range, in a safe direction, for at least 30 seconds — in case it is a hang fire. You might also advise the Range Safety Officer (RSO) or others with you so they can act accordingly. If it is a hang fire, the cartridge will ignite with anything from a full power discharge to a discharge of a lesser degree.

If the firearm does not fire after 30 seconds, you may then conclude that the cartridge is a dud and remove it from the firearm.

It is not a good idea to begin examining the firearm right after it fails to fire. The delay may be due to a hang fire. Likewise, it is not a good idea to eject the cartridge from the firearm right away. The hang fire may cause the cartridge to fire when it is outside the barrel. Although a cartridge that ignites outside of the confines of a barrel is not as lethal, it can still cause injury and be disconcerting to anyone in the vicinity.

Carefully removing a dud round from a handgun
Carefully extracting the dud for disposal.

Once again if the firearm hasn’t fired after 30 seconds, it may be concluded that this is not a hang fire, and the cartridge is a dud. The cartridge may then be removed, but it should be disposed of safely. Why? Because there is a dangerous possibility that the cartridge can fire later. For example, it may not have fired because the primer cap was bad, but the propellant inside the cartridge is still good and can go off if exposed to flame or heat.

Some ammunition factories have very poor quality control and manufacturing methods, and their ammunition is sold especially cheap. For example, .303 cartridges manufactured by POF (Pakistan Ordinance Factory) have a reputation for being of very poor quality and experiencing hang fires and dud cartridges in every box of ammunition. Several Enfield users have recommend not buying or using any ammunition from this manufacturer. You are not saving any money by purchasing cheap, low-quality ammunition, as it is unreliable and quite dangerous to shoot with.

Ammo Disposal

Just a few words about the proper disposal of bad ammunition. Most shooting ranges have a bucket somewhere for shooters to dump their stray dud rounds. Please remember that disposing of ammo improperly can be dangerous and most ammo contains lead — an evil element in many locals. Depending on where you live, throwing lead out with the garbage might be illegal.

Burying the ammo in a rural area seems to be a common solution to the bad ammo disposal problem, but you should be aware of the local laws before choosing this option. Another option might be your nearest police department or sheriff’s office. Call and ask whether they will dispose of it for you. Another viable option might be a hazardous waste site in your area. Keep shooting and stay safe!

Have you ever experienced a hang fire? Do you remember the brand of ammunition? How did you handle it? Share your answers in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (12)

  1. This was one of the most important and informative articles I’ve read on this site. Very well written and sure to save some reader from making a HUGE error. How many instructors cover these issues? You are darn lucky if you had such an instructor. God bless the author for covering this topic in detail. Kudos brother!

  2. This was one of the most important and informative articles I’ve read on this site. Ver well written and sure to save some reader from making a HUGE error. How many instructors cover these issues? You are darn lucky if you had such an instructor. God bless the author for covering this topic in detail. Kudos brother!

  3. Good article. Had plenty of those dud rounds over the years. The author informs us to wait and be safe. Very good advice. You can see an accident waiting for those who want to look down that barrel.

  4. Good article. Had plenty of those dud rounds over the years. The author informs us to wait and be safe. Very good advice. You can see an accident waiting for those who want to look down that barrel..

  5. I had an experience with a round that the primer went off but the powder in the shell did not. The bullet left the shell and lodged in the barrel, just far enough in, that the next round would not seat in the chamber. Not realizing that the bullet was in the barrel. I tried to rechamber a new round but it still would not go in, it was then I realized the bullet was stuck in the barrel. Thankfully it did not let another round to chamber or it could have caused to gun to explode if that next round had discharged.

  6. I had an experience with a round that the primer went off but in the charge in the shell. The bullet left the shell and lodged in the barrel, just far enough in that the next round would not seat in the chamber. Not realizing that the bullet was still in the chamber I tried to rechamber a new round but it still would not go in, it was then I realized the bullet was stuck on the barrel. Thankfully it did not let another round to chamber or it could have caused to gun to explode.

  7. Thank you for another great article. By the way, Dale’s comments are spot on. Over the years, the conventional wisdom I’ve heard was to delay doing anything for a full minute, but most of the times this has happened to me I doubt I waited that long. Many years ago I ordered a lot of Greek .303 British ammo, coined in the haste of WWII, headstamp indicating that it was manufactured in 1944. Most of it went bang, but some of it went click-bang. I do not recall if I had any out and out duds. I’ve recently had just a few of my 9mm handloads have a misfire. Some were when I foolishly experimented with magnum small rifle primers, before I found a source for small pistol primers. Most of my 9mm pistols wouldn’t strike the primer hard enough to ignite them, but fortunately a couple of them did. I’ve also had a couple of misfires with Unis Ginex small pistol primers, which are imported from Bosnia Herzegovina. I tumble my cases in walnut shell media, deprime them, and use a Lee primer pocket cleaner on every one. I suspect I may have simply not seated the primers deep enough because both fired on the second attempt. I’ve found that a pistol with exposed hammer (especially the CZ-75) that allows restrikes can sometimes alleviate the need to remove the guilty cartridge from the chamber before making a second attempt. Diligence in reloading pays off, as does diligence in maintenance of the weapon.

  8. Good article, Mr. LaPorta. I appreciate the history and raising awareness of hangfires, as most people are entirely unaware. I’ve seen one too many videos of people looking down barrels in confusion. Darwin-award winners aside, we all need a refresher on this one from time to time as well.

  9. I have experienced both hang fire and dud ammo. As always, and as suggested, I keep the firearm pointed down range waiting 30 seconds for the round to fire. So far, I’ve never had the bullet fire. I then remove the round from the chamber and examine it. In center fire ammo the reason mostly is a light primer strike. I then reload the round back into the gun and attempt to fire it again. If it fires, then everything is OK. If it doesn’t fire I dispose of the round in the “DUD” container.

    I reload all of my center fire ammo. The first step in the process is to remove the spent primer. Then, I wet tumble the brass with stainless steel pins. This cleans the inside and outside of the case along with the primer pocket. Contrary the the suggested text of the article about dirt in the primer pocket or lubricant getting in the primer pocket, because I wet tumble the brass this is not an issue. After wet tumbling and then drying the brass in my oven, set at 200 degrees for 30 minutes, the brass comes out dry, clean and shiny. It almost looks like new brass.

    Rim fire ammo is another story. Due to the way the priming compound is added it sometimes doesn’t fill the entire rim of the cartridge and causes a hang fire. When this happens I still aim the firearm down range for 30 seconds. If it doesn’t fire, I remove the round from the chamber, re-insert it into the chamber so that the round is in a different position than before so that when the firing pin hits the rim, it hits it in a different spot on the rim. If it fires, then everything is OK. If it doesn’t fire I dispose of the round in the “DUD” container.

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