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If you’ve shot a semiauto handgun more than just a handful of times, it’s happened to you: the infamous malfunction; the bane of self-loading firearms.

There are many causes of semiauto handgun malfunctions. Common ones include poor technique by the shooter, mechanical problems, ammunition, dirt, improper lubrication, weak springs and magazines.

With so many potential failures facing us—especially during competitions, during which multiple rounds are fired—it’s important to know how to quickly get our pistols back in the game.

My husband, Chris, always says, “The body won’t go where the mind has never been.” In other words, the only way to learn how to clear gun malfunctions is by practicing clearing those malfunctions.

The three most common malfunctions in semiauto handguns are misfires, double feeds and failures to fully eject (also known as “stovepipes”).

MISFIRE

A misfire (or “failure to fire”) occurs when the firing pin hits the cartridge but the gun doesn’t fire. The main causes for this malfunction include:

  • A bad primer caused by an indentation or blemish
  • Riding the slide forward (causing the gun not to go fully into battery)
  • Improper springs (light/wrong/worn/broken)
  • A bad firing pin
  • Carbon build-up in the working parts of the gun
  • Also, if you’ve had work done on your pistol (as I have with one of my competition guns), it might only work with certain primers. Some primers are too hard for a particular gun’s light spring to detonate.

DOUBLE FEED

A double feed occurs when the casing from a fired round doesn’t fully extract and two rounds try to get into the chamber at the same time.

A double feed occurs when the casing from a fired round doesn’t fully extract and two rounds try to get into the chamber at the same time.

This can occur when the casing from a fired round doesn’t fully extract and two rounds try to get into the chamber at the same time. As with a misfire, there are many possible causes for a double feed:

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  • The ammunition
  • An improperly seated magazine
  • Dirty chamber
  • Faulty magazine spring

No matter the cause, a double feed is identified when the gun’s slide gets stuck partially open.

FAILURE TO EJECT

A failure to fully eject occurs when the fired ammunition case is trapped with a portion sticking out of the gun’s ejection port (hence, the common term for this malfunction—“stovepipe”). When this happens, another round cannot feed into the chamber until the casing is removed.

A failure to eject occurs when the fired ammunition case is trapped, with a portion sticking out of the gun’s ejection port.

A failure to eject occurs when the fired ammunition case is trapped, with a portion sticking out of the gun’s ejection port.

Possible causes for this malfunction include:

Underpowered ammunition

  • A dirty chamber
  • An improperly lubricated gun
  • A weak recoil spring

The most common cause, however, is failing to manage recoil properly (“limp-wristing”) by holding the pistol incorrectly.

AVOIDING MALFUNCTIONS

The following are a few steps a shooter can take to avoid these malfunctions:

– Buy quality ammunition from reliable sources. If you reload your own ammo, use a sizing gauge to confirm that all your rounds are consistent.

– Visually inspect each piece before loading your magazines.  When you seat the magazine into your semiauto handgun, do so firmly. Avoid slapping it in (as you might have seen done on TV). When releasing the slide during loading or reloading, do not slow it by “riding” it forward. Pull the slide back all the way, and let it fly. It’s the momentum of the slide that seats the cartridge properly and ensures the slide is in battery.

– If you have been shooting a lot or using your handgun in a wet, dirty or dusty environment, be sure to give it a periodic, proper wipe-down and then re-lubricate it. This does not replace correct cleaning of the firearm after a shooting session; it involves standard field disassembly, wiping down and brushing all the components and lubricating them before reassembly.

– When shooting, be sure to maintain a proper, high-thumbs-forward grip.

Your first response to any click instead of a bang should be a tap/ rack process. This should clear most misfires and failures to eject.

TAP, RACK, REASSESS

1. Firmly tap the bottom of the magazine with your palm to be sure it’s seated.

2. Rack the slide to chamber a fresh round.

3. Visually check that the slide is in battery.

4. Continue shooting.

If this doesn’t clear the malfunction, execute the following technique to solve a double feed.

LOCK IT OPEN, CLEAR IT, RELOAD

1. Lock the slide to the rear to remove spring pressure on the slide.

2. Remove the magazine and let gravity help clear any loose rounds and casings from the gun.

3. Visually and physically check to make sure the firearm is free of ammunition.

4. Insert a fresh magazine.

5. Release the slide to chamber a round (remembering the above warning about not riding the slide).

6. Continue shooting.

There are other malfunctions you might encounter, and other people might have their own spins on how to clear them. Asking a competent shooter for help is your best bet if you are drawing a blank. Nothing beats hands-on instruction.

At the very least, remember the bottom line in each of these techniques is to unload the gun and then reload it! Oh—and always keep your gun pointed in a safe direction.

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.