Semi-automatic pistols, which make up about 20% of the guns owned in the United States, have a lot of benefits. They hold more ammo, fire faster, and can be more accurate with practice. Unfortunately, creating a more complex mechanism means they can be more prone to malfunctions as well. Understanding what to do in various circumstances will keep you, your firearm, and everyone around you safe. Here are five common pistol malfunctions and what you can do to prevent, or quickly correct, them.
If the next round from your magazine doesn’t make it into the chamber, you may find it with its nose lodged against the barrel hood. This awkward positioning will lock up the action and jam the weapon. Inexperienced shooters may tell you to pull the side back and jiggle the stuck round loose. However, this could make things worse. Instead, remove your magazine — which might take a bit of extra work if the jammed bullet prevents the ejector from dropping it automatically — and rack the slide to clear it. Once cleared, insert a new magazine and get back to shooting.
These malfunctions can have various causes, from poor quality ammo to worn magazines or problems with the firearm itself. Preventing tip-up malfunctions requires diagnosing the underlying cause.
Generally, you only want to fire one round at a time when shooting a pistol. However, your pistol may have other ideas. On occasion, the magazine will try to feed two rounds at once, jamming the action. This is known as a double feed. When a double feed happens, fixing it is usually straightforward. Remove the magazine and cycle the action until your double-fed rounds fall out — always keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction of course.
Thankfully, these malfunctions normally happen when you cycle the action when there’s already a round in the chamber. It’s a problem that is easy to avoid with practice. Keep closer track of your ammo count, and ensure you’re not cycling the action unless the chamber is clear.
Stovepipe (Failure to Extract)
It isn’t always the unfired rounds that jam up the works, but on occasion you may suffer a piece of brass that has failed to fully eject. A stovepipe malfunction, also called a failure to extract, occurs when the spent brass is stuck upright in the ejection port. It gets its name because it looks like a little smoke stack or chimney sticking up. This malfunction often occurs when there isn’t enough force to move the slide back while hitting the case to expel it from the gun.
These malfunctions are often caused by a worn-out recoil spring. Most manufacturers recommend replacing the recoil spring every 3,000 to 5,000 rounds. You may be able to get away with more, but expect problems when you exceed these recommendations.
Misfires and Hang Fires
It’s the one malfunction every gun enthusiast dreads — the click! without a bang! You pull the trigger and the firing pin moves, but the cartridge doesn’t fire. If not properly handled, this can be extremely dangerous. Managing misfires on the range, or in the field, starts by waiting 30 seconds, preferably a minute, to ensure it isn’t a hang fire instead of a misfire. If the bullet doesn’t fire, eject the cartridge and leave it. Do not pick it up to inspect it. Then, continue shooting.
Misfires are usually caused by poor-quality ammo or cartridges stored improperly. If you experience the same issues with new ammo, you may need to look into having the firing pin checked. For the former, try not to store ammunition for long periods in hot or humid environments that could corrode the casing or interfere with the primer and powder. For the latter, keeping the firearm clean and well maintained can help prevent this problem.
Hang fires are why you wait after hearing the click! With a hang fire, there is a delay between the firing pin striking the primer and the ignition of the powder that causes the discharge of the firearm. Treat it like a typical misfire — waiting 30 seconds to a minute. If the cartridge fires, eject the casing (if necessary) and continue firing as usual. If it doesn’t fire after the waiting period, treat it as a misfire and act accordingly. The prevention of hang fires is the same as a misfire.
When you pull the trigger and hear a muffled pop or poof, instead of the gun’s normal report, you may have a squib load. These are fairly rare but can be dangerous if you don’t handle them properly. Squib loads happen when the cartridge fires, but there isn’t enough force to move the bullet out of the barrel. If this happens, stop firing immediately.
The bullet from the squib load is blocking the barrel. In the best-case scenario, pulling the trigger again would only damage the barrel. In the worst scenario, it could cause severe harm and significant injury when the pressure buildup causes the gun to essentially explode. Do not look down the barrel of the gun (ever!). Instead, look from the action end to determine whether the barrel is blocked. If it is, stop firing and seek the help of a gunsmith to remove the bullet without damaging the weapon. Thankfully, these malfunctions are rare, but it is important to be aware of them and ensure you don’t continue firing with a blocked barrel thinking one round will clear the bullet that is stuck.
A pistol malfunction can range from a mild annoyance to a downright dangerous condition. It could happen when you’re target shooting for fun, hunting for dinner, or protecting yourself. Understanding what can cause these malfunctions is the first step in preventing them and staying safe should a malfunction occur. Ensure you are using high-quality ammo and maintaining your firearms regularly. You can’t always avoid every potential pistol malfunction, but these simple steps can help prevent them from becoming a regular thing and interfering with your hobbies.