Handgun Malfunction

How To Clear And Prevent Handgun Malfunctions

Guns malfunction... even revolvers.  It’s something that happens.  It doesn’t mean a gun isn’t great, just that it is a mechanical device, and like all mechanical devices, it will break down under certain conditions.

Types of Malfunctions

If you think about what a gun does, it's quite miraculous that they don’t fail more often. Anything that contains an explosion powerful enough to send lead hundreds of feet has to take a beating.  Modern firearms have a plethora of moving parts with very tight tolerances.  If you add unburnt powder and lead or copper residue into the mix, it’s a perfect storm of grit that could foul up any machine.

It’s not whether your trusted sidearm will malfunction, it's when.  We all hope that it will never be when we need our pistol, but there are no guarantees.  So, we train. Just like you want to be accurate, fast on the draw, and quick on reloads, you better learn to be decisive with your malfunction drills.

Some drills are easy to practice, while others are near impossible.  It's hard to induce a double-feed into a pistol in a way that you can practice clearing, so you go through the motions while pretending there is a double-feed.

Luckily the most common malfunctions are the easiest to train for.  On the other side of the coin, those that are hardest to clear are the hardest to train for.

Types of Malfunctions

How malfunctions are broken down will vary greatly on where you train or learn. Different schools, books, instructors, videos, and other media have different ways of classifying the many issues that can happen to a handgun.  I personally prefer the 3-tier system as it simplifies clearing the malfunctions.

Type 1 Malfunctions

A type 1 Malfunction is characterized by a click but no bang.  Meaning the trigger and firing pin fully reset but no round was discharged.  These are the easiest malfunctions to clear and are often caused by either a shooter error or ammunition error.

Fail to Fire

This is an ammunition error where a round is in the chamber but was not ignited by a primer strike.  It’s just a bad round and nothing can be done but to get the dead round out of the way and get a good round into the chamber.  Some schools classify no round in the chamber, or a failure to load, as a Fail to Fire.  I do not.  If you did not properly ready your firearm, you need more training, not a drill to help you.

Fail to Feed

This is an error often caused by an improperly seated magazine.  After the first round is fired, the gun cycles normally but does not load a second round into the chamber.  This is also an easy malfunction to address unless there is the off chance that you have a bad magazine.

Type 2 Malfunctions

These malfunctions are characterized by a trigger that does not click when pulled.  Sometimes the firearm will look to be in its normal firing order, meaning the slide looks to be fully closed with no obvious obstructions.  Occasionally there will be a noticeable obstruction or the gun will be badly out of battery but those situations are somewhat rare.

Type 2 Malfunctions can be induced by shooter error, bad ammunition, or mechanical failure. In most cases, they are not difficult to address.

Failure to Eject

This happens when a spent casing is extracted from the chamber but does not clear the firearm.  It can be caused by a variety of reasons.  The most common is probably improper shooting form such as ‘limp-wristing’ the gun. Ammunition that is not powerful enough to fully cycle the slide can also lead to the same issue.  The worst case is a broken extractor which can effectively take a firearm out of the fight.

Failure to Extract

This means that the spent casing is lodged in the chamber and has not been extracted through normal operation.  This is most commonly an issue with ammunition, either a weak or broken case rim or hot loaded ammo that cause case expansion.  It could also be a mechanical issue with a broken extractor which is much more serious.

Out of Battery

These malfunctions can be caused by the above malfunctions, or be an issue all its own.  Any time the slide of the gun fails to seat fully, even if it is just millimeters off, you could have a problem.  If it is not a Fail to Eject issue, it is most likely caused by a firearm that has not been properly maintained.  Luckily this is generally an easy malfunction to address.

Type 3 Malfunctions

The dreaded Type 3 malfunction is also characterized by a mushy trigger but a firearm that is obviously out of battery.  The single Type 3 malfunction differs from the type 2 in the way we address the issue.  Sometimes that will require servicing the gun rather than a field expedient method of clearing.

Double-Feed

This is the only type 3 malfunction.  It is a pain in the butt to deal with, if you can deal with it at all.  It is often caused by a mechanical issue with the extractor but can be an issue where the casing of a round had a catastrophic failure.  This is a rare malfunction, especially with modern pistols.  It is hard to train for and harder to correct.  If this happens, a gun is usually out of the fight.

That is a total of 6 malfunctions and when you consider everything that seems to go wrong with the other machines in your life, it’s not so daunting to deal with them.

Clearing Drills

Now that we know what malfunctions are out there, we need to sort out a method to deal with them.  One that can be practiced and rehearsed until its second nature.  Having a problem with your gun is bad enough, having one in combat is potentially deadly.

I will admit that my knowledge comes from the old school of firearms training so I may use terminology that is somewhat different than what some schools teach today, but the processes are the same.  If memory serves, all of the drills taught today came from Jeff Cooper’s teachings back in the 1970s.  There is nothing new folks, just different names.

T-R-E Drill

If there is a single solution to deal with 90% of the malfunctions, this is it.  Sometimes called T-R-R (Tap-Rack-Reevaluate) among other names, it’s all the same in theory.  I prefer Tap-Rack-Evaluate for no particular reason other than that is what I was taught and have taught for years.

A simple T-R-E will address all Type 1 malfunctions and has a good chance of correcting Type 2 malfunctions.  It is theoretically possible that it could address a Type 3 but it would be rare.  To execute a proper T-R-E maneuver:

STEP 1:

Tap the Magazine:  This is not a love tap.  This is a serious -driving the magazine into the mag well- tap.  Smack the crap out of it.

STEP 2:

Rack the Slide: Once again, don’t be gentle.  Grab the slide and try to rip it off the gun. There are teachers that condone tilting the firearm to face the ejection port downward but I have never noticed a difference.  It’s up to you.  Pick one way and train that way exclusively.

STEP 3:

Evaluate the Chamber:  Some schools teach you to tilt the gun upward and peer into the chamber while others suggest using the trigger finger of the right hand to feel inside the chamber.  I look but if you want to touch, go ahead.

Back on target.  If you had any normal Type 1 or Type 2 malfunction, you will be back in action.

T-R-E Follow Up

If you failed to clear your issue with a simple T-R-E drill, it's time to escalate.  This is common with Failure to Extract issues.  No catchy acronyms this time, just a two-step process.  After the T-R-E and another failed attempt to fire:

Rack the Slide:  Do it hard and do it three times.  Some schools teach you to watch for the casing but I find it smoother and easier to train for if you just do 3 complete cycles every time.  Keep it consistent.

Bang on the Slide:  Though it works better with striker fired guns, it will work on hammered pistols too.  Slap the back of the slide forward as hard as you can to drive the pistol back into battery.

Unless your Type 2 malfunction was a very difficult Fail to Extract, it should be cleared.  If it isn’t, repeat the process.  Sometimes it will help, sometimes it won’t but it’s the best chance for fixing a troublesome Fail to Extract.

Type 3 Drill

If you have a malfunction and have properly trained for it, you will have already started the T-R-E when you notice the firearm is badly out of battery.  You may not be aware you have a double-feed until you get to the Evaluation step. At that point:

Rip out the Magazine:  Get it out of the way, on occasion, that will be enough to allow the extra round in the chamber to spring downward and out of the gun.

Rack the Slide:  Once again, do it hard and do it three times.  Some schools suggest turning the extraction port down or even upside down but I have never seen an advantage.  If the round is going to become dislodged, it will do so through the mag well just as easily.  Watch for the gun to go back into battery.

Reload:  Do a clean tactical reload.  On one occasion in practice, jamming a full magazine into my pistol knocked the spent round out but that was a happy accident.  Only reload when the gun is back in order with the jammed round out of the way.

Repeat or Retreat:  If the gun still fails to go back into battery, and you wisely didn’t attempt to reload, you can repeat racking the slide.  Just be aware that you are a sitting target unless you have some cover.  If you have cover... USE IT!  If you don’t it’s time to do everything you can to get out of the situation.

Your chances of clearing a Type 3 malfunction in a combat situation are slim.  It’s a bad day for sure.  Sometimes luck just isn’t on your side so you do the best you can.

Avoiding Malfunctions

While some people will drone on about how to prevent malfunctions, I won’t.  As I said, the three possible causes of malfunction are shooter induced, ammo induced, or mechanical failure. There are four steps that will prevent most of these issues:

1) Learn to Shoot:  Properly, with a proper stance and proper form.  A part of learning to shoot is also knowing how to properly use a handgun including properly seating the magazine which causes more malfunctions than any other issue.

2) Clean your Weapon:  A properly seated magazine will take care of 70% of your malfunctions.  Of the remaining 30%, most of those will be resolved just by properly maintaining and lubricating your firearm.  Watch a video or talk to your local gun shop if you need tips.

3) Use Good Ammo:  Don’t take your brother-in-law's reloads out as carry ammo.  Don’t buy cheap carry ammo.  We all know the good brands, invest in them and use them for carry only.

4) Use a Good Gun:  What is a good gun?  Well, it’s a well-made, quality firearm.  We all know that. One of the trusted brands.  But it is also a firearm in good working order.  If your Glock is worn out, it is no longer a serviceable carry pistol.  Don’t train with your carry gun.  I own 2 Glock 19s, one for training and one for carry.

Summary

I first want to be clear that in the 10 minutes you spent reading this article, you could have gotten more out of proper instruction.  You can spend an hours online reading articles like this and watching videos but nothing beats hands-on practice with quality feedback from a competent training school.  Those hours would be far better spent with proper instruction.

By all means, read articles and watch videos.  Having a solid foundation of knowledge is a great thing but at some point, you need that knowledge tested.  Don’t wait for the situation where you need your gun to defend your life for the real education to begin.  Train and practice.  That is what separates the expert from the novice.

Should you ever be in a situation where your firearm fails, it will be a crap-your-pants moment. It’s like getting punched for the first time.  You won’t be ready for it, no matter how much you think you will be.  Your best bet is to have some training that your body will revert to without thinking because your mind is going to be reeling.

Training for Type 1 and 2 malfunctions is simple.  Have someone else load your mags and slip in a snap-cap or dummy round somewhere in the mag.  Training for type 3 is much harder.  You can set up a double-feed by hand but it will never be as solid a jam as what your gun seems to do so do what you can and hope luck doesn’t give you a Type 3 when you are depending on your pistol.

Shoot a lot, practice often, and hopefully you never need any of your training.  When it comes to firearms, the skills you learn are the best time and money you could ever waste.

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