When it comes to reliability, firearms and vehicles have much in common. Each is a machine of irreducible complexity—if one part goes bad the machine stops. Each requires maintenance and changing of springs and lubricants. And each may cause loss of life if not maintained. Some shooters have no idea what reliability is, because they have not really tested their firearms.
A few hundred cartridges a year doesn’t tell us much. A cylinder of ammunition from a revolver tells you even less. When it comes to different types of firearms we may make compromises of power for portability, and accuracy may be traded for a lighter weight. However, reliability should never be considered anything but mandatory.
Then there are the Mack Trucks of firearms; the service grade weapons that always work and are durable. Are we willing to accept less reliability from compact firearms? The discussion isn’t something that is often voiced, but it should be. Reliability standards are available.
Most of us are familiar with the original Colt 1911 Government trails in which 6,000 trouble free cartridges were fired. The Beretta 92 has fired even more in government testing. The SIG P226 was chosen after a test program in which 190 handguns fired 228,000 rounds of ammunition by the Ohio State Patrol. The French government chose a polymer frame SIG variant after similar testing, and the FBI chose the Glock. All of these handguns are service grade.
Any of the individual millions of SIG, Beretta, Colt and Glock pistols may be expected to come out of the box running, but what about your personal handgun? You have the luxury of proofing the handgun for yourself. You should train, and you certainly should keep up with malfunctions and know the difference between firearm-, ammunition-, and shooter malfunctions.
The National Institute of Justice standards for firearms reliability are reasonable and easily followed. The NIJ defines reliability as the propensity of a firearm to fire with every press of the trigger. The handgun should fire 300 rounds of service grade ammunition between cleaning. So, we have a means to set a standard and a guidepost for reliability. Having tested a great many handguns, I can state that a quality firearm will go well past this benchmark.
At 500 to 1,000 rounds, some become dirty and tend to slow down but still perform normally. The slide will need a nudge forward as powder ash and lubricant builds up. In some cases, lubricant is blown off the long bearing surfaces. The handgun should be field stripped and cleaned and lubricated every 300 rounds. This isn’t going to cut into your reality show time too much.
Since quality ammunition is expensive, I use handloads for practice. In proofing new guns, however, factory generic ball such as Winchester USA is used. You do not need to confuse the issue when proofing a gun. Winchester USA ball ammunition runs, and runs well, in firearms. If you have a problem, then the problem is probably gun relegated.
As I mentioned, ammunition is expensive. A good defense load such as the Winchester PDX costs roughly as much for a 20-round box as a 50-round box of ball ammo. There is a lot of technology and time and expense in those open mouth hollow points. With the reputation of modern loads for feed reliability, we tend to skimp on personal requirements. I test a lot of guns but you can bet the farm, the ones I carry have been proofed with the carry load. A few years ago a friend told his readers ‘plunk down a C Note for your test loads.’ That was great advice but at the time that meant up to 250 rounds of ammunition.
Today, it may mean 100—or less. I do believe a realistic minimum for proofing is 100 rounds, and I recommend more. If the load is a +P load, or uses a lighter bullet than standard loads, then even more rounds are needed to proof performance. I begin with a properly clean and well lubricated handgun. A little oil is okay for carry, you will not fire many rounds in a gunfight. But if you are on the range the handgun should be sopping wet with lube to last 100 rounds. When firing proof loads the handgun must operate properly, fire, feed, chamber, and eject each round perfectly.
If the firearm short cycles, stove pipes, or fails to feed, all bets are off. Be certain that you are not limp wristing the pistol. A self-loading pistol requires a steady platform to recoil against. Be certain that you are not letting your thumb slip into the slide lock during recoil and lock the slide or slow the slide’s action. Be certain the magazine is properly seated and that your hand isn’t moving in recoil and bumping the magazine release.
One of the reasons I deploy service-grade and service-size handguns is the smaller guns have smaller controls, hand fit is tighter, and the smaller handguns recoil more and may cause the hand to move around on the handgun. Small handguns, even from quality makers, are more subject to shooter-induced malfunctions than larger handguns. As an example, some years ago when the Kel-Tec PF-9 first came out, I had difficulty with the pistol. I was suffering slide locks after four or five rounds.
There were also short cycles. I knew my thumb was hitting the slide lock, and I knew I was riding the slide with my hand. I also knew it was a very compact 9mm and a worthwhile handgun. I went to the range with 100 rounds of Winchester 115-grain FMJ and 100 rounds of Winchester 115-grain JHP. I was determined to properly control the handgun.
I fired as quickly as I could load the magazines. I fired at man-sized targets at 7 yards, concentrating on gunhandling. The grip was as firm as possible and the thumb away from the slide lock. I locked down hard to control recoil. After 150 rapid fire rounds, my hands were sore and so were my wrists, but I continued. 200 smoking brass cases were on the range surface when the slide locked back for the last time—and there were no malfunctions.
The PF-9 proved a reliable lightweight handgun suitable for deep concealed carry, but one that demanded a proof of not only the gun but the shooter. This is true of any handgun. Every handgun deserves the same type of familiarization and reliability check. If the shooter is skilled and the ammunition is good quality, then any malfunction will be the fault of the handgun. That propensity to fire with every pull of the trigger is pretty important.
Do you know whether your firearm is reliable? How have you tested it? Share your perspective in the comment section.