Here’s What to Do if Your AR-15 Doesn’t Work

Last Updated on February 9, 2024.

It happens to all shooters every once in a while – your AR-15 jams up or otherwise won’t shoot. Knowing what to do next is crucial in these tense situations. Here’s what to do if your AR-15 doesn’t work.

Here's What to Do if Your AR-15 Doesn't Work

Types of AR-15 Malfunctions

When your AR-15 just clicks and won’t fire, it’s not as simple as when issues come up with a handgun. This failure to fire is called a stoppage and results from your AR-15 not cycling to the next round. 

An AR-15 is a gas-powered rifle, and so you may be unable to solve all the firearm’s issues on your own. There are five common issues that AR-15 shooters face: feeding malfunctions, fouling, mag malfunctions, problems with buffer springs, and extraction failures. Here’s some more about each stoppage. 

Type 1: Failure to Feed

This is probably the most common stoppage issue with AR-15s and can occur at any point from when you initially load it to when you try to fire it. If a round can’t load in the chamber, you may have an FTF or failure-to-feed stoppage. This may be due to lousy ammo or a bolt out of battery.

It’s most easily diagnosed when you know you have a live round in the chamber, but your gun still won’t fire. If you pull the trigger, but nothing happens, you’re either suffering from faulty ammunition or a defective firing pin

To check, keeping your gun pointed downrange, look at the bottom of the unfired round versus the casing of one you fired before. If the marks on the bottom of the cases are equal, you may have lousy ammo; if the latter seems more prominent than the former, your firing pin may be weakening

Type 2: Failure to Eject

If an empty casing isn’t ejected, then you have a different type of AR-15 malfunction on your hands. It’s often called a smokestack or a stovepipe due to the casing sticking straight up out of a pistol during an ejection issue; with an AR-15, the case will stick out to the side from the ejection port. 

Type 3: Double Feed

When two rounds are trying to occupy the same space, the chamber, you have a double feed. You press the trigger and, when nothing happens, you go through your loading sequence. When you cycle the charging handle, it feels weird, like there’s something in the way

Maybe your faulty magazine let another round slip into the chamber, or there are issues with the extractor springs. 

Sometimes this occurs without explanation and never happens again.

Type 4: Stuck Cartridge

When a cartridge case is stuck in the chamber, the charging handle won’t revolve since the extractor is stuck on the blockage. A few scenarios could cause this dilemma – the chamber may not be of the proper size and is too narrow, the rounds could be out of shape, or the extractor spring may be failing.  

Type 5: Bolt Override

When a case gets wedged on top of the bolt group, your AR-15 has a bolt override issue. The charging handle cycles part way but stops completely before full extension. With a casing stuck over the bolt, there will be no spring pressure at all on the charging handle.

What To do if Your Ar-15 Malfunctions

Once you have identified what kind of malfunction you’re dealing with, you need to form a plan of action, and you need to do it quickly. 

A jammed or malfunctioning AR-15 on the range is one thing, but if you’re in a pressing situation that doesn’t afford you time to look up resources, you need to know what to do at that moment

Take Immediate Action

No matter what part of your AR-15 is having an issue, the first steps you want to take when your AR-15 is not cycling the next round is to tap, rack, and reassess.

  • Tap – Knock on your magazine to make sure it’s loaded correctly. 
  • Rack – After you’ve ensured that the magazine is secure, load the chamber by cycling the charging handle quickly and cleanly.
  • Reassess – Usually, the immediate action after tap and rack is bang, but you may want to give everything a quick reassessment before you fire your weapon again. If nothing has felt off after tapping and racking your rifle, then pull the trigger and see what happens.

If taking immediate action doesn’t resolve the stoppage, you may need to give some added attention to your AR-15 to clear it thoroughly.

Clearing a Bolt Override

If you diagnose a bolt override, take out the magazine and move the bolt back by keeping sustained pressure on the charging handle while whacking the butt of the AR-15 on the ground. 

Solving a Smokestack Jam

If you can visually confirm the casing that’s jamming up your AR-15, you may be able to quickly clear it by sweeping the ejection port. You can do this tapping and racking with the ejection port pointed at the ground so the jammed casing can roll out. Make sure to chamber a round before firing again

Fixing a Double Feed

If you’ve tried tapping, racking, and firing, but to no avail, you may have a double feed, one of the more complicated issues you can face. To take pressure off the casing blocking the bolt, lock the bolt in its rear position and take out the magazine. Rack the bolt two or three times to see if anything pops out. 

If you’re fond of 30-round magazines, but your AR-15 suffers from double feeds often, you may want to reconsider as you may be fouling the mechanism yourself with your choice of mags. Contrary to popular belief, a buffer spring is not as strong as one might believe

If you have a tightly packed 30-round mag and a weakened buffer spring, it will have trouble pushing a round into the chamber, and the natural thing to do is to cycle it again, which causes a double feed.

The Last Round

Knowing the basic types of malfunctions associated with AR-15 MSRs is a savvy way to stay on top of your game. Your first order of business is to tap the magazine, rack the AR-15 again, and reassess the scenario. If this doesn’t do the trick, you may have to examine the issue more deeply.

If you're looking for modernize pistol version of AR-15, check out this in-depth buying guide.

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