Firearm malfunctions (failures or stoppages) can and will eventually occur, even when using the highest quality firearms and ammunition. If not identified and handled safely, some malfunctions can damage the firearm or cause injury, even death. If not handled quickly, a malfunction can cost a competition shooter a match, cost a hunter a successful hunt, or cost you your life if the firearm is being used for personal defense.
Common types of malfunctions are:
It's important to be able to identify each type of malfunction, then to take the appropriate action. Beginners should have an experienced shooter or instructor assist them with malfunctions until they're confident that they can handle them safely.
Let's look at each one of these specific malfunction types in detail.
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Founder and Chief Instructor
Shield Personal Safety Training
Photos by Instructor Armand.
For safety reasons, no live ammunition was used when taking these photographs.
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Possible Causes: This is most commonly due to faulty ammunition, either a bad primer, no powder charge, or worn out casing (in the case of reloaded ammunition). If you repeatedly experience misfires when using various types of quality factory ammunition, then it could be due to a worn, defective or dirty firing pin. On a revolver, a failure to fire will also occur when all live rounds in the cylinder have already been fired, and the shooter keeps shooting either with spent casings or empty chambers.
Prevention: It could just be a rare bad cartridge, but if it happens repeatedly with the same type of ammunition, try another type, maybe of higher quality or from a more reputable source.
Description: The cartridge does not fully feed from the magazine into the chamber. The ejection port is not fully closed, exposing the casing of the misfed cartridge. On pistols, the slide does not return to its full forward position, and you may notice the guide rod and/or barrel sticking out of the front of the gun.
Double Feed (semi-automatics)
About the Author:
Instructor Armand is the founder and chief instructor of Shield Personal Safety Training. He's a USCCA Certified Firearms Instructor, Utah Certified Concealed Firearms Instructor, NRA Certified Firearms Instructor, NRA Certified Range Safety Officer, Refuse To Be A Victim® Certified Instructor, CA DOJ FSC Certified Instructor, CA DOJ Certified Fingerprint Roller, hunter, and CCW permit holder.
Action To Take: On semi-autos, keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, take your finger off the trigger, rotate the wrist of your shooting hand 90° to 180° inward (counter-clockwise for right-handed shooters, clockwise for left-handed), and cycle the action, repeatedly as necessary, until the spent casing is ejected. On revolvers, try using a more force when pressing or hitting the ejector rod, being careful to hit it straight on, to avoid bending it.
Possible Causes: Worn, oversized or malformed casings; dirty chamber; worn or damaged ejector pin (semi-autos); improper grip (semi-auto pistols); roughly machined chambers (revolvers).
Prevention: Keep your firearm cleaned and lubricated. It could just be a rare bad cartridge, but if it happens repeatedly with the same type of ammunition, try another type, maybe of higher quality or from a more reputable source. Follow proper grip fundamentals.
Description: On semi-auto pistols and rifles, the cartridge is fired and the spent casing is extracted, but is not fully ejected from the chamber. The casing may either be jammed in the chamber or is partially protruding from the ejection port (often referred to as a "stovepipe"). On revolvers, this is when the cylinder is released and swung open, and the ejector rod is pressed, but one or more casings do not eject from the cylinder.
And here's one by John Minton, showing what NOT TO DO when you get a hang fire. NEVER look down the barrel of a firearm!
Failure To Extract (semi-automatics)
Action To Take: Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and take your finger off the trigger. Lock the action open. If the partially chambered cartridge ejects, then close the action, feeding the next round into the chamber, and continue firing. If the partially chambered cartridge does not eject, remove the magazine to avoid a double feed. If the misfed cartridge falls out, put the magazine back in, close the action, feeding the next round into the chamber, and continue firing. If the misfed cartridge is still partially lodged in the chamber, try closing the action again to see if that fully feeds the cartridge. If the cartridge fully feeds, put the magazine back in the magazine well with a little smack at the bottom to make sure that it gets fully seated, then continue firing. If the cartridge does not fully feed into the chamber, try giving the back of the slide a little smack (pistols) or pushing the forward assist button (rifles) to help push the cartridge fully into the chamber. If the cartridge still does not fully feed into the chamber, have a gunsmith remove the cartridge. Don't attempt to remove the stuck cartridge yourself unless you have the proper tools and experience to do so without damaging the firearm.
Possible Causes: Oversized or malformed ammunition, faulty or dirty magazine, magazine not fully seated, dirty chamber, worn or damaged recoil spring, improper grip, or the shooter racked the slide but eased it forward instead of allowing the normal force of the recoil spring to push the slide fully forward.
Prevention: Keep firearm and magazines clean, use quality ammunition, inspect magazine for defects, check for a possibly worn recoil spring, follow proper grip fundamentals, and when racking the slide, pull all the way back then let go. Don't help the slide forward.
Possible Causes: Faulty ammunition, either a bad primer or bad or insufficient powder charge.
Prevention: Same as for misfire.
Failure To Eject
And here's one by Ohio Wolverine, showing how dangerous squib loads can be if not noticed and handled safely.
"Blessed be the Lord my strength which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight" -- Psalm 144:1
"When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace" -- Luke 11:21
"he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one." -- Luke 22:36
Misfeed (or Failure To Go Into Battery) (semi-automatics)
Description: The cartridge is fired, but the spent casing does not get extracted from the chamber.
Action To Take: Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and take your finger off the trigger. Remove the magazine to prevent a double-feed. Cycle the action several times, until the spent casing is extracted and ejected, put the magazine back in, cycle the action to load the next round into the chamber, and continue firing. If the spent casing does not extract and eject, have a gunsmith remove stuck casing. Do not attempt to remove the stuck casing yourself unless you have the proper tools and experience to do so without damaging the firearm.
Possible Causes: Worn, oversized or malformed casings, or dirty chamber.
Prevention: Keep your firearm cleaned and lubricated. It could just be a rare bad cartridge, but if it happens repeatedly with the same type of ammunition, try another type, maybe of higher quality or from a more reputable source.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. No amount of prevention can completely eliminate the chance of malfunction, and no amount of information and safe practice can completely eliminate the risk of damage or harm. The reader takes full responsibility for how this information is used, and the author is not responsible for any damage or harm caused by actions taken as a result of reading this article.
Description: The action remains mostly open, exposing a cartridge in the chamber, and another cartridge fed right behind it from the magazine.
Possible Causes: Faulty ammunition, probably insufficient powder charge.
Prevention: Use quality ammunition.
Description: After pulling the trigger, you hear a softer than normal pop or poof (instead of a loud bang), and you feel little to no recoil. It's possible that the cartridge fired, but with not enough force to push the bullet completely out of the barrel. IMPORTANT: Squib loads are somewhat rare, but can be very dangerous if not handled properly, so it's important to know how to recognize them, to pay attention for them when shooting, and to properly deal with them if and when they occur.
Action To Take: Stop firing. If you do indeed have a squib load, firing another round into the blocked barrel will most likely damage the firearm, sometimes catastrophically, and can possibly cause severe personal injury or death. Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and take your finger off the trigger. On semi-automatics, remove the magazine and lock the action open, ejecting the spent casing. On double-action revolvers, release and swing out the cylinder. Without looking through the muzzle end of the barrel, visually inspect the bore to determine whether or not a bullet is stuck inside it. Only if you are absolutely sure that there is no bullet stuck in the barrel should you continue shooting. If there is a bullet stuck in the barrel, unload the firearm, and have the manufacturer or a gunsmith remove the bullet. Don't attempt to remove the bullet yourself unless you have the proper tools and experience to do so without damaging the barrel.
Here's a YouTube video by Iraqveteran8888, showing a squib load and how to safely handle it.
Action To Take: Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and take your finger off the trigger. Lock the slide back. Remove the magazine. (The magazine may not fall out upon pressing the magazine release button. You may need to pull the magazine out.) Cycle the action until the double fed cartridge falls out. If there is still a cartridge partially fed into the chamber, see "Failure To Feed" above.
Possible Causes: This happens when the action is cycled when there is already a round in the chamber.
Prevention: See "Failure To Feed" above.
Description: You pull the trigger and hear a click, but the cartridge does not fire.
Action To Take: Stop firing. Ensure that it was only a click that you heard. If it was a small pop or poof, proceed as a possible squib load (see "Squib Load" below). If it was only a click, proceed as follows. Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, take your finger off the trigger, and wait 30 seconds (60 seconds for muzzle loaders). It could turn out to be a hang fire (see "Hang Fire" below), in which case it will eventually fire. If the cartridge does not fire after waiting, do the following. On semi-auto pistols and rifles, cycle the action, ejecting the bad cartridge and feeding the next round into the chamber, and continue firing as normal. On revolvers, just continue firing then eject the bad cartridge along with the spent casings as normal.
Here's a YouTube video by Kanaal van 1982jah, that shows what a misfire looks and sounds like, and how to safely wait to see if it turns out to be a hang fire.
Description: This initially appears as a misfire (see "Misfire" above). You pull the trigger and at first only hear a click, then after some delay, the cartridge fires.
Action To Take: Initially treat as a misfire. If the cartridge eventually fires, then it's a hang fire, not a misfire. Continue shooting as normal.
Here's a YouTube video by Jackson Hole Shooting Experience, showing a hang fire.
You may have noticed that the "Action To Take" for these malfunctions almost always starts with "keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and take your finger off the trigger". When faced with a malfunction, it's easy for some beginners (and even some experienced shooters) to become frazzled and nervous, causing them to momentarily forget their basic firearm safety rules. Remember to always think safety first. When you encounter a malfunction, stop, make sure your handling the gun safely, then calmly assess the situation and determine the correct, safe course of action. Seek assistance from a more experienced shooter if necessary.
One of the two most common causes of malfunctions is a poorly maintained firearm (dirty, rusted, not lubricated, etc.). Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions on how to properly clean, lubricate, maintain and store your firearm to keep it in good working condition.
The other common cause of malfunctions is the ammunition used. Sometimes it's because the ammunition is inferior, or of low quality. Other times it's just because the bullet shape or size, or the casing simply does not work well with your firearm. Many people argue that reloads are inferior to factory ammunition, while others trust only their own reloads. This can be a tough call, and may just require some trial and error to determine what ammunition works best with your firearm.
If you're properly maintaining your firearm, and it still malfunctions regularly when using reputable factory ammunition, then it's possible that there's a problem with your firearm. Seek help from the manufacturer or a gunsmith to troubleshoot a possible defect with your firearm.
The ejection and feeding mechanisms of semi-automatic pistols are powered by the recoil energy generated from the firing of the cartridge. If you are not properly gripping the pistol, you might experience what is called "limp wrist", where the pistol is not gripped tightly enough and wrists are not locked, so when the gun is fired the muzzle pops up much more that it should if it's gripped properly. When this happens, an excessive amount of recoil energy is absorbed by your hands instead of going to the slide, causing either the slide to not slide back far enough to fully eject the spent casing and/or not slide forward with enough force to fully feed the next round into the chamber. Be sure you're following the fundamentals of proper grip.