Three Common Pistol Problems & How To Correct Them

If you shoot a semi-automatic handgun with any regularity, you can guarantee that eventually you will experience some sort of weapon malfunction. A pistol is a piece of machinery comprised of intricate moving parts. Every time the weapon is fired, those complex components are subjected to a powerful explosion that can create an internal pressure that exceeds 50,000 psi

Although modern firearms are amazingly reliable, when repeatedly exposed to that type of pressure, something is bound to go wrong every once in a while.

You can minimize your chances of a malfunction by using quality ammo, keeping your handgun clean and well lubricated, and using proper shooting technique. However, even if you play by all the rules, you will still occasionally encounter a stoppage.

Part of being a safe and responsible shooter is being able to recognize and correct common pistol malfunctions. If you use your handgun for self-defense, the ability to fix these problems quickly could mean the difference between life and death. However, they can be frustrating and potentially dangerous, even if you are only a recreational shooter.

Knowledge is power, so use this guide to help you identify and correct three of the most common pistol problems.

Hangfire

Usually when a shooter pulls the trigger on his or her handgun, the hammer or firing pin strikes the cartridge primer, and the shot occurs almost instantaneously. A hangfire (also called a failure to fire) is when there is a delay between the act of pulling the trigger and the actual discharge of the weapon. 

A hangfire is a serious and potentially dangerous situation. Even though there is a lag between the trigger pull and the shot firing, the ignition process has been initiated by the firing pin. That means things are brewing inside the cartridge that you can’t see. After a delay (which may be anywhere from nanoseconds to several seconds), the gun will eventually discharge. 

What Causes a Hangfire?

A hangfire can occur for several reasons, including a faulty spring or firing pin in the weapon. When the spring or firing pin do not strike the primer with enough force, it causes a delay in the firing process. 

While a light tap from the firing pin is the most probable cause of a misfire, they can also occur due to damaged or defective ammunition. If the primer or powder charge of a cartridge has become contaminated, this could lead to a dangerous misfire.

The quality of modern ammunition has almost made misfires a problem of the past. However, if you are shooting older ammunition, or cartridges that have been exposed to the elements, the chances of a misfire increase. Unfortunately, even with quality ammo, you may still experience a misfire from time to time.

What To Do If You Experience a Hangfire

If you experience a hangfire, it is important to remember that your handgun could discharge at any moment.

KEEP YOUR WEAPON POINTED IN A SAFE DIRECTION.

Do not pull the trigger or open your handgun’s action. If the powder does ignite when the cartridge is unconfined, it could cause major damage to your firearm and serious injury to you or others in the vicinity. 

Be patient. Keep your muzzle pointed in a safe direction for at least 60 seconds. After a full minute has passed and the handgun has not discharged, you can safely assume it is simply a dud round. In this case, you can follow the protocol for the safe handling of a dud round, more commonly called a misfire.

Misfire

A misfire (also called a dud or failure to fire) is when the trigger is pulled but the firearm does not discharge as expected. A misfire happens because the primer, or the powder inside the cartridge, does not properly ignite.

What Causes a Misfire?

A misfire can be caused by the same factors that cause the more serious hangfire. Although a misfire isn’t dangerous in and of itself, shooters often initially mistake hazardous hangfires for the relatively innocuous misfire.

What To Do If You Experience a Misfire

If you experience a misfire, you should always treat it as a serious hangfire. Keep the muzzle of your weapon pointed safely downrange for at least a full minute just in case there is a delay in powder ignition within the cartridge.

After a minimum of 60 seconds has passed and no discharge occurs, unload your weapon, clear the chamber, and check the barrel for any obstruction. If the weapon is clear, inspect the culpable cartridge for corrosion, contamination, or a light primer indentation.

Your handgun may function more reliably with a specific brand or type of ammo. If you experience hangfires and/or misfires with a particular type of ammunition, switch to something more reliable.

You can dispose of unwanted or defective ammunition through most local gun ranges, by contacting local law enforcement, or through your area’s waste management department. Do not throw damaged or contaminated ammo in the trash.

Squib Fire

Although squibs are really not all that common, we’ve listed them here because they can be incredibly dangerous. A squib fire occurs when a bullet is fired but there isn’t enough force to push it all the way out of the barrel. As a result, the projectile becomes an obstruction in the barrel. The obstruction must be removed before another round is fired, or it could cause catastrophic damage to the firearm and potentially harm the shooter. 

What Causes a Squib Fire

There are several factors that can cause a squib fire, including:

  • An improperly made cartridge.
  • A misshapen bullet.
  • Improper ignition of the primer.
  • A breached case.
  • A previous barrel obstruction.

How to Identify a Squib Load

If you are in a fast-paced or high adrenaline shooting situation, a squib load may be difficult to detect. Here are some ways a squib may present:

  1. A soft “pop” rather than the loud report that usually accompanies a gunshot is a tell-tale sign of a squib fire. This sound can be difficult to catch on a loud gun range or during active drills, especially when the shooter is wearing proper ear protection.
  2. Lighter than usual recoil can also alert the shooter to a squib fire. If a shot feels light compared to your other shots, you need to stop immediately and check for a squib. 
  3. Squib rounds often produce a tiny puff of smoke. This puff may come from the barrel of the gun or from the action.
  4. Sometimes a squib round may partially cycle the action of a semi-automatic. If your handgun’s action does not cycle properly and it is accompanied by any of the previous signs, check for a squib.

What To Do If You Experience a Squib Fire

If you think you may have experienced a squib fire, remain calm. Be sure to keep your firearm pointed downrange. Sometimes what shooters think is a squib fire, isn’t a squib at all. It may actually be a hangfire.

DO NOT LOOK DOWN THE BARREL OF YOUR GUN. 

After waiting at least several seconds, keep your weapon pointed in a safe direction while you drop the magazine, rack the upper receiver to the rear, and lock it in position. Check the chamber for a live round

If there is a case jammed, use your fingers, a pocket knife, or other tool to remove it. 

Once the chamber is clear, disassemble your weapon. Once you have removed the barrel from the upper receiver, you can visually inspect it for an obstruction. Be sure to keep the muzzle end facing away from you. You may need to shine a flashlight down the barrel to locate the obstruction. 

If you can see daylight and cannot locate an obstruction, you should be good to go. Once you have confirmed there is no round lodged in the barrel, you can reassemble and reload your pistol. 

You may be able to push the bullet through the muzzle using a dowel or metal cleaning rod. Make sure you follow the rifling in the barrel to prevent damage. Depending on how firmly the bullet is lodged, you may need to have a competent gunsmith handle the situation.

Summing It Up

Even experienced shooters will be faced with these common pistol malfunctions every so often. If you are a novice shooter, the key is not to panic. Keeping a level head when faced with a potentially dangerous complication is tantamount to your safety and the safety of your fellow shooters. 

In addition to keeping calm, you also need to know how to identify and safely clear any possible malfunctions. Make sure you know how to address these common and potentially dangerous situations before you encounter them.