Will Your PDW Be Ready When You Need It? — Firearms and Reliability

Bob Campbell shooting handgun from the hip

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.

Bob Campbell shooting handgun from the hip
Is your handgun reliable from the retention position? It should be.

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.

HK45 recoil spring
The HK45 recoil system is a marvel but periodic check of any recoil spring will keep the pistol going.

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.

Two Browning High Power handguns and magazines
Beginning with good gear never hurts- these High Power handguns are both well maintained but one has much more wear.

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.

Two AR-15 magazines with a sheet of numbered stickers
It is a good idea to print labels and affix them to individual magazines. This helps with discerning which magazine has given trouble.

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.

man gripping handgun
Compact handguns have much to recommend for concealed carry but they also demand close attention to the proper grip.

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.


About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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 (3)

  1. with all of these new lubricants and all the hype behind them … how do you which is going to be the best? A huge barn will be needed to store all of the things purchased and don’t work.

  2. I use a Soviet DRY Lubrication, used at the Battle of Stalingrad. My Grandfather, was a Forced Conscript in the German Army, and HE Used it There. Called Russian Standard TY38.1011315.90, which is rated to minus 70F…

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