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    Clearing Jams and Malfunctions

    If it moves, it can jam. Jams and malfunctions are, unfortunately, a fact of life with semi-automatics. In the event of a problem, it is imperative to understand what caused the jam, because that will directly affect what type of correction needs to be made.

    Semi automatic pistol with a cartridge case stovepiped in the ejection port for Jams and Malfunctions
    A ‘stove pipe’ occurs if the casing only partially ejects and gets caught in the slide.

    Murphy’s law is alive and well and you should expect and be prepared for a problem at the worst time. The best solution for a malfunction during a gunfight may be to switch to a backup gun. However, that may not be an available or practical alternative. Either way, it is important to learn what can cause a particular jam or malfunction and practice identifying the problem and correcting it. That way, should it happen at a particularly sensitive moment in the future, you would instinctively know what to do. As hard as it might be to imagine, a proper training regimen includes making your gun fail… and practicing to correct the issue.

    The first thing to do with all problems is to fully get behind cover; otherwise you will be out in the open, completely exposed and preoccupied. I remind you of this even though you should already be behind cover! Don’t forget: a jammed gun is still a loaded gun. Keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction and follow all gun safety mandates.

    Assuming no operator errors and that you are using a properly functioning gun that feeds correctly. If not, see a gunsmith or send it back to the manufacturer. There are five main malfunctions that you may encounter:

    • Failure to fire
    • Failure to eject
    • Double feed
    • Failure to go into battery
    • Squibs

    Failure to Fire

    close up of a semi automatic pistol that has not gone fully into battery
    The casing may be visible in the chamber opening with a failure to go into battery malfunction.

    If you hear a ‘click!’ rather than a ‘bang!,’ you have experienced what is known as a failure to fire. In a gunfight, a ‘click!’ is the loudest noise you will ever hear. Often, a failure to fire is due to a misfeed caused by the magazine not being seated properly within the gun during loading. Assuming that you actually pulled the slide back to load the gun, the solution is the classic ‘tap and rack.’

    Tap the magazine in (hard) with the butt of your hand and rack the slide to feed a new round. If there is a live round in the chamber, the tap and rack will eject the chambered round and strip a new one from the magazine. The tap and rack is a good technique to try just about any time there is a failure.

    Another potential cause of failures to fire could be a weak magazine spring. If feeding issues happen often, with the same magazine, it is probably the magazine spring or other damage to the magazine. Look for dents and compare the magazine opening to another to see if the lips have been compressed or damaged in any way.

    Smacking the magazine base to reseat it
    To tap and rack, reseat the magazine with a stern hit of the hand and a rack of the slide.

    If feeding problems persist with multiple magazines, you might not be inserting the magazine into the gun firmly enough. Some high-capacity magazines, if filled to the limit, exert excessive pressure against the cartridge making the magazine difficult to seat properly. If this is the case, simply load one less round than full capacity.

    TIP: Label your magazines with paint underneath the base pad to help identify them easily. I use numbers for my practice/competition magazines and letters to identify my carry magazines.

    If the magazine is not at fault, there could be an issue with the firing system: either a weak or broken hammer spring, or broken firing pin. To diagnose these issues, check the primer hit. Compare the depth of the primer hit to other spent cases. If there is no dimple, you probably have a broken firing pin. If there is a shallow dimple, you either have a broken or weak spring, or a broken firing pin. See a gunsmith for advice.

    If it’s not the magazine and firing system, the problem could be bad ammunition. Change ammunition and also try the rounds you are having a problem with in another gun to see if it also misfires.

    Racking the slide of pistol
    To tap and rack, reseat the magazine with a stern hit of the hand and a rack of the slide.

    A good way to practice clearing drills is to mix a dummy round in with your bullets. The best method to do this is to have a friend load your magazines for you and place a few dummies in some of your magazines so you don’t know which magazines have them and which do not, nor will you know when to expect them in the magazines that do. Treat the “failure” in training as you would in real life: Get fully behind cover, diagnose, repair, and reload.

    Failure to Eject

    Ejection problems can stem from many causes. If the extractor is weak or broken, the casing will not be extracted from the chamber properly. A ‘stove pipe’ occurs if the casing only partially ejects and gets caught in the slide. The solution is to simply brush your hand firmly along the top of the slide in a karate chop method to dislodge the casing or run the tap and rack drill turning the gun sideways to help the ejection.

    Casings will occasionally stove pipe. If the problem persists, it could be a bad ejector or the main recoil spring could be too heavy, thus interfering with the slide motion. If your recoil spring is up to factory specifications have a gunsmith check the extractor and ejector. If you are using reloads, a weak charge may also be the culprit.

    Double Feed

    Double feed in a semi automatic pistol
    A double feed occurs when the previous round or casing does not eject and the slide picks up a new round from the magazine, jamming it against the one still in the chamber.

    A double feed occurs when the previous round or casing does not eject and the slide picks up a new round from the magazine, jamming it against the one still in the chamber. The double feed is considered to be the most serious of the jams because it is the most time consuming to clear — so much so that in a gun fight the gun should considered useless and your backup weapon should be employed.

    In order to clear a double feed, you need to drop your magazine, empty the chamber, and reload. The magazine will be lodged firmly in the gun, held in by the round it is trying to feed. To release it, first lock back the slide to relieve pressure, then press the magazine release button and pull the magazine from the gun. Mostly likely, the magazine will be held tight and some force will be needed. To eject the original round, rack the slide firmly a few times. If that does not dislodge it, lock back the slide and slip a pencil or similar object through the barrel to push the round/casing out. Once the round is ejected, insert a new magazine (since the old one may have contributed to the problem or may have been damaged), rack the slide, and you are ready to fire.

    Failure To Go Into Battery

    If a round does not completely seat in the chamber, the problem is called ‘failure to go into battery.” This type of failure can be caused by a gun that is dirty or a by a round that bulges. A dirty gun can slow the slide motion, reducing its ability to push the round completely into the chamber. Fouling can reduce the chamber’s width, keeping the round from completely seating.

    Swweping a stovepiped cartridge case from a pistol with the flat of the hand
    ‘Karate chop’ along the slide to clear a stovepipe malfunction.

    Bulging rounds are normally found in reloaded after the resizing die was not completely cycled downward. With either situation, hit the back of the slide with the bony part of the bottom of your open palm. If the slide does not fully engage, lock open your slide, drop the magazine and run a pencil or similar object down the barrel to dislodge it.


    A squib is a round that lodges in the barrel because the cartridge did not have enough (or any) gunpowder. This is a common error with noncommercial reloads. The first sign that you have a squib load is when you hear a ‘pop!’ instead of a ‘bang!’ The pop is the sound of the primer exploding in an empty case. If you hear a ‘pop,’ stop shooting immediately. If you continue shooting with a bullet blocking the barrel the gun will most likely explode.

    To clear a squib, remove the magazine and lock back the slide. Insert a pencil-shaped object down the front of the barrel and push the bullet out. It dislodge without much effort.

    Clearing Revolvers

    With fewer moving parts than semi-autos and no feeding issues to be concerned with, revolvers jams tend to be really easy to difficult to clear—without much in the middle. The two most common jams with revolvers are squibs and high primers.

    Smacking the back of a pistol to force it into battery
    Hit the back of the slide to push it forward when the gun fails to fully go into battery.

    A high primer is where the primer is not fully seated in the casing and protrudes slightly out the bottom of the round. This protrusion rubs against the frame of the gun and stiffens the rotation of the cylinder or jams it completely. To unjam, hold the cylinder-locking mechanism open and swing out the cylinder. This may take significant pressure. Remember you have a live round in the gun — keep it pointed in a safe direction at all times.

    Clear a squib in a revolver the same way as in a semi-auto—open the cylinder, insert a pencil shaped object down the front of the barrel, and push the bullet out.

    These malfunctions are the common ones that can occur with any type and brand of firearm. Practice identifying problems and clearing jams as you would any other technique: with empty guns and dummy rounds. Learn the movements slowly and speed up with practice.

    Not all jams can be cleared easily. If you can’t unjam it yourself, it’s safer to let a professional help—especially if a live round is causing the problem. Carefully pack up the gun, and tell the gunsmith about the problem—and the fact that your gun is loaded—before you hand it over. Let the gunsmith unpack it.