Mechanical malfunctions are usually caused by dirt, rust, damaged parts, poor maintenance procedures, out of spec parts, etc. Within this category, we have some subcategories as well. Let’s look at some of the malfunctions that fall within those parameters.
A failure to feed, due to a mechanical problem, is caused when something prevents a cartridge from properly feeding into the firing chamber. One cause is when the magazine isn’t properly seated in the firearm. Another possibility to be examined is whether there is a buildup of dirt and fouling causing rounds to not feed properly. Damaged or out of spec parts also needs to be investigated.
At the opposite end of the operating cycle is the failure to extract the fired cartridge case properly. When that happens, a second cartridge will attempt to load into the chamber, without the first one being removed from it. This causes the type of stoppage that is referred to as a double feed.
Another common type of malfunction is the failure to eject. In this situation, the cartridge fired. However, due to a mechanical problem, it is extracted but failed to completely eject out of the firearm. Instead, it gets caught in the ejection port. The stovepipe type of jam is a classic failure to eject. It is the one most commonly seen and the easiest to clear.
The most disconcerting malfunction occurs on very poorly maintained firearms that causes the safety device to fail. This may cause the firearm to fire unintentionally, without the user expecting it. That, of course, is the most dangerous type of malfunction.
Let’s look at all of these malfunctions in more detail to better understand their causation, correction and possible prevention. The first of these malfunctions we will look at is failure to feed, also known as FTF. A failure to feed is defined as the cartridge failing to seat completely into the chamber for some reason.
In a semi-automatic or automatic firearm, a FTF means the cartridge does not properly travel from the magazine to the chamber and the action remains partially open. When this happens, the weapon is said to be out of battery.
When hollow point ammunition first became commercially available, failures to feed almost always occurred because the feed ramps and throats on handguns were not designed for the shorter, truncated projectiles. Up until that time, pistols were designed to accommodate the only available ammunition of the time — ball.
If you wanted to shoot the new hollow point ammunition, it was a common practice to take your gun to a pistol smith. The smith would ramp and throat the pistol to accommodate the new truncated shape.
Today, the reasons why this might occur could be as simple as a faulty magazine, the accumulation of dirt in the firing chamber, or the magazine not being fully inserted into the firearm, which prevents the cartridge from seating properly in firing chamber.
The magazine is one of the first items to examine after a failure. Dents, bulges, damaged lips, or a weak magazine spring could result in the cartridge being misaligned as it exits the magazine and attempts to feed into the chamber and result in a failure to feed. Additionally, there is always the possibility the magazine is in good shape, but it may not have been seated all the way into the firearm. This would cause the cartridges to not enter the chamber.
A damaged cartridge with dents or bulges could also cause a failure to feed, as the slide may not pick the cartridge up correctly. Likewise, it may not fit into the chamber correctly because of the dents or bulges.
This next issue really falls more under the heading of ‘operator error’ than firearm malfunction and that is riding the slide. This is when the user holds the slide as it is moving forward and impedes its speed. When this happens, the slide may not have enough momentum to properly seat the cartridge into the chamber.
If you need to retract the slide, bring it fully to the rear briskly. Then, let it go (like a slingshot), and let the recoil spring do the job of loading and seating the next cartridge. Slingshotting the slide is something new shooters seem to take some time to get used to.
In most cases, a failure to feed can be easily corrected. For example, dirt in a firearm can generally be easily cleaned. An improperly loaded magazine can be pushed into place. Damaged cartridges can be removed from the magazine and discarded, etc. All of these are easy for the average user to do and do not incur any expense at all.
In other cases. (e.g., a damaged magazine or a weak magazine spring), the magazine spring may need to be replaced, or the entire magazine may need to be replaced. The cost of replacing a magazine is usually very affordable, as magazines are considered expendable.
The next type of failure we should examine is the failure to extract. A failure to extract occurs when the slide or bolt moves backward, but the empty cartridge case remains behind in the chamber. In this situation, a new live cartridge may sometimes be forced into the base of the fired cartridge. The slide stays open, and the firearm becomes jammed.
A failure to extract causes a second cartridge to attempt to occupy the same space in the chamber holding the slide partially opened. The magazine may get stuck and refuse to drop out of the weapon as well. This type of jam sometimes requires some effort to correct.
There are a few reasons why a failure to extract may occur. If it has not been a problem in the past, I would first examine the cartridge to see whether it is defective or damaged around the cartridge rim. If damaged or deformed, the extractor claw may slip off the cartridge head, allowing it will remain in the chamber. Bulges in the cartridge could cause excess friction with the chamber walls, and that extra resistance could cause the cartridge to slip the extraction claw.
If the cartridge appears fine, I will look for dirt and corrosion. Dirt or corrosion in the extractor claw or firing chamber can cause the empty cartridge to not be picked up with enough grip to extract the cartridge. The final culprit can be a damaged or bent extractor claw that may not grab the cartridges correctly. A weak extractor spring could also cause this malfunction to happen.
A failure to extract will cause a stoppage, and the weapon will cease to function until the problem is corrected. The cost of fixing any of the issues mentioned is usually not costly, in either time of parts. In fact, proper maintenance, which should be a standard practice carried out routinely with any firearm, could avert any of these issues. Damaged extractor claws and extractor springs can be replaced inexpensively, as these parts are readily available for most firearms.
Defective cartridges can be disposed of. If it is the cause, a better quality of ammunition can be purchased — even during these difficult times filled with cheap foreign imports and poor quality control.
If you have old or obsolete firearms, there are good sources for parts that are no longer produced. Two venders that I have had good luck with over the years are Jack First and Numrich Arms. Parts for currently produced firearms are readily available and reasonably priced, so don’t skimp on routine maintenance.