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Pistol Malfunction Clearance

By:  William P. Flinn


We go to the range (hopefully often) and practice shooting, but how often are we going to the range to practice NOT shooting?  What I am talking about here has to do with a firearm that doesn’t go “bang” when you pull the trigger.  What do you do then?  Have you practiced dealing with these problems?  Are you prepared?

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time with fellow firearms instructors where we concentrated on training with pistol malfunctions.  The purpose of our training together was to get a refresher and more practice dealing with firearms malfunctions, but also to improve our firearms handling under stress. To add to the exercise of clearing malfunctions, we added the element of stress by using a shot timer and lots of yelling and screaming at each other.  I was able to follow that up with more tactical pistol training with
Makhaira Group in Northern Colorado.  Both training evolutions were a real eye-opener, and a great refresher on the types of things that can go wrong.

Training for malfunctions at a basic firearms training level and training with malfunctions at the tactical training level are dealt with a bit differently. When you take the NRA Basic Pistol course, you are being introduced to firearms, and perhaps you are even shooting for the very first time.  As a beginner, we want you to concentrate only on safety, and not the stresses of an actual gun fighting situation.   But at the tactical training level, we are training for a stressful crisis situation, and are mainly concerned with getting a malfunctioning firearm back into the fight.  Safety is always paramount, of course, but when you’re being attacked and in a gunfight, your life may depend on how quickly you can re-deploy your firearm in order to save your life.

In this article, I will discuss malfunction types and terminology, and how to deal with them at the various training levels – basic and tactical.  This article will cover some malfunction terminology to prepare you for stepping up to tactical malfunction clearance training.

Basic Malfunctions Explained:
There are essentially three types of malfunctions – failure to fire (both semi-automatic and revolver), failure to extract/eject (for semi-automatic firearms), and failure to feed (for semi-automatic firearms).  Failure to fire is further broken down into three malfunctions - misfire, hangfire, and squib load.  As beginners, we have all the time in the world to assess a malfunction, and it is essential to take all the time necessary so as to learn to recognize a malfunction and to ensure safety in dealing with the malfunction.  So before moving on with how to deal with these malfunctions at the beginner’s level, let’s first take a more in-depth look at some actual malfunction terminology and definitions.


Basic Malfunction Definitions:

Failure to Fire:  This defines a malfunction where the ammunition does not fire, or does not fire correctly.  In other words, this is anything BUT a normal “bang” and normal projectile exiting from the barrel of the gun, and with normal velocity.  There are basically three types of “failure to fire” malfunctions:


  • Misfire: When you pull the trigger, nothing happens.  Ever.  The ammunition did not discharge at all.  Possibilities include ammunition malfunctions or firearm malfunctions.

  • Hangfire: When you pull the trigger, nothing happens at first, but after a short delay the ammunition discharges.  Most likely an ammunition malfunction.

  • Squib Load: When you pull the trigger, the ammunition discharges, but there is reduced recoil and a reduced or muffled sound.  The ammunition did not discharge to the level of performance at which it was intended.  This is commonly an ammunition problem.  For hand re-loaders, this is why looking at minimum as well as maximum powder charges and primer requirements is so important.  This is an extremely dangerous type of malfunction, as will be discussed shortly.


Failure to Extract/Eject:  When you pull the trigger on a semi-automatic pistol, with another round waiting in the magazine, you expect the ammunition to fire, and the cartridge casing of the round just fired to fully eject when the slide of the firearm cycles back.  Many times, you get what is known as a “stove-pipe” where the casing gets wedged into the closing slide, and prevents it from closing all the way.  This is also known as a “brass high” malfunction.  Or, you can have a situation such as a ripped casing, where the spent cartridge does not extract, and is blocking the chamber.  This is not applicable to a revolver.

Failure to Feed:  When you pull the trigger on a semi-automatic pistol, with another round waiting in the magazine, you expect the ammunition to fire, the cartridge casing of the round just fired to fully eject when the slide of the firearm cycles back, and a new round (and only ONE new round) to be loaded into the chamber.  In many cases of a failure to feed, the previous cartridge casing failed to extract, and the next round cannot feed into the chamber.  This is often called a “double-feed” or “brass low” malfunction.  This is not applicable to a revolver.

Dealing With Malfunctions at the Basic Training Level:

While you’re at the range, and you pull the trigger but the bang doesn’t happen, you have either a misfire or a hangfire.  Problem is you don’t know which one it is right away.  You are not training for an active threat yet.  You are simply training for how to deal with a malfunction.  The safest way to deal with this type of malfunction is to keep the muzzle of the firearm pointed down range for thirty seconds.  If nothing happens, you have a misfire.  If the round fires somewhere during that thirty seconds, then you have a hangfire.  After the thirty seconds, unload, inspect your ammunition, reload with different ammunition, and try again.  If the problem persists, then you possibly have a problem with your firearm.  Take your firearm in and have a qualified gunsmith check it out for you.  I also recommend taking the ammunition you were using with you so that the gunsmith can determine if you have an entire bad batch of ammunition.

The squib load is the most dangerous malfunction of all, in my opinion.  While a misfire or hangfire usually imply that either nothing happens at all, or an ammunition discharges at a delayed time but at normal velocity, the squib fire is a significantly diminished ammunition discharge.  This is extremely dangerous because it usually means that the bullet leaves the cartridge case but does not have enough energy to leave the barrel.  The bullet stays inside the barrel, in other words.  If a subsequent shot is attempted with a barrel obstructed by the previous bullet, this can have severely dangerous consequences.  I have seen guns with barrels that are completely ripped apart by the explosion that occurred from attempting to shoot through an obstructed barrel.  I can only imagine the consequences to the shooter.

If you suspect that a squib load has occurred, immediately stop shooting, unload the firearm, and have a qualified gunsmith service the gun to remove the obstruction.  If a gunsmith is not available, then have the range safety personnel on duty help you make the gun safe for transport, and then take it to a gunsmith as soon as possible.  Do NOT use the firearm until a gunsmith has given the okay to do so.

For the failure to eject and failure to feed scenarios with a semi-automatic pistol, keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, open the slide and assess what is happening.  Pull the magazine out, and ensure that all ammunition is clear of the chamber.  With the magazine out, cycle the slide several times to ensure that the firearm is unloaded, and that the slide functions properly.  Inspect the ammunition.  Check your grip and stance, reload, and try it again.  The reason I say to check your grip is that you may have a problem with “limp wristing.”  This is a condition where the recoil of the pistol causes your wrist to bend too much, and this will affect the semi-automatic firearm’s ability to properly cycle the slide.  Your grip may be too loose, or your wrist strength may be insufficient.  If you have a wrist strength problem, you may be better suited to shooting revolvers instead.

Remember – at the basic training level, you are concentrating on safety first, and assessing the malfunction second.  You have all the time in the world.  Those paper targets are probably not shooting back at you.  Take your time, assess the malfunction, and safely get your gun back into service.  If there is any doubt whatsoever, stop shooting, make the firearm safe, and take it to a gunsmith for servicing. 




Dealing With Malfunctions in the Tactical (Gun Fighting) Arena:
So now that we have discussed some of the basic malfunctions, we will now discuss them in a little more detail by classifying them into malfunction “types” along with some practical procedures for clearing them.  And instead of being on the range and shooting at paper bull’s-eye targets, we are training for tactical scenarios, where we are in a gun fight to defend against a life threatening situation.  One basic concept that applies to all of these malfunction types, is the idea of immediately assessing what the gun is doing and what condition it is in.  When you pull the trigger, what happened?  Is the slide forward, or is it back?  Is the slide back all the way, or just partially?  Are there any obstructions, such as empty brass or another loaded cartridge keeping the slide from going all the way forward and loading another live round?


For most all malfunctions, the NRA curriculum teaches the “slap/rack/bang” method for clearing malfunctions. Slap the magazine, rack the slide, pull the trigger.  But this method does not fully assess the problem, in my opinion.  The Makhaira Group teaches a much more thorough method for assessing, and actually results in getting back into the gun fight more quickly.  They teach an acronym known as “SPIR.”  Slap the magazine, Pull the slide, Inspect the chamber, and Release the slide.  Take time to inspect, as opposed to doing slap/rack/bang over and over.  Without really assessing what is happening, you may not be able to get back into the fight as quickly as possible.  And notice that the “bang” is not even mentioned in this procedure.  Both Makhaira Group and Front Sight teach that once the malfunction is cleared, you are assessing the threat situation to determine if firing again is even warranted. Remember: The goal is to stop the threat, not continue to put lots of bullets downrange if the need does not exist.

So let’s look at these malfunction types and some methods for dealing with them:

The SPIR Assessment (by Makhaira Group):

  • S              Slap the magazine

  • P             Pull the slide

  • I               Inspect the chamber

  • R             Release the slide


Type 1 (Failure to Feed): The “double feed” is a typical problem here.  The spent casing failed to extract, and another fresh round is trying to feed into the chamber.  But the chamber is obstructed, keeping the round from feeding into the chamber.  Do your SPIR technique.  When you inspect the chamber, you will notice the double feed situation.  Get to cover immediately so that you have time and protection to deal with the situation.  Pull the magazine, retain the magazine if it still has rounds in it, and rack the slide repeatedly until the chamber is clear.  Insert the magazine, chamber a fresh round, and assess the threat situation to determine if you need to continue shooting.

Type 2 (Failure to Fire):  In most cases, the slide is forward, but pulling the trigger results in a “click” and not a “bang.”  This could be a light strike of the firing pin against the primer, a bad primer, or a squib load. Do your SPIR technique, assess the condition, then attempt to shoot again.  If you still continue to have problems, change magazines.  Insert the magazine (if needed), chamber a fresh round, and assess the threat situation to determine if you need to continue shooting.


WARNING:  If you pull the trigger and hear a muffled “poof” instead of the normal “bang,” stop immediately.  Do NOT attempt to fire another shot, as you may have a squib load malfunction, with a bullet stuck in the barrel.  This is a very dangerous condition, and may result in firearm damage and severe personal injury.  If you are in an actual gun fight when this happens, MOVE - get out of there as quickly as possible, and get to safety.

Type 3 (Failure to Extract):  This could be a faulty extractor or a ripped cartridge case.  If the extractor is faulty, then it needs to be repaired or replaced.  If the case is ripped, then you need a broken shell extractor.  I recommend having one of these tools for each caliber that you shoot.  Do your SPIR technique.  Assess the condition.  If you have a broken casing or some other difficult to fix malfunction, get to cover immediately so that you have time and protection to deal with the situation.  Then attempt to clear the ripped casing.  If you are able to clear the problem, insert the magazine (if needed), chamber a fresh round, and assess the threat situation to determine if you need to continue shooting.

Type 4 (Failure to Eject):  A common type of malfunction of this type is what is referred to as the “stove pipe.”  The spent casing did not eject all the way, and lodged in the slide, keeping it from closing all the way.  Do your SPIR technique.  You will probably notice the slide partially open, and brass sticking out.  Cant the gun to the side so that the ejection port is facing down, and rack the slide to fully eject the casing and allow a fresh round to enter the chamber.

Here is a pretty good video by Clint Smith that demonstrates the various malfunction clearance types, and how to practice clearing them at the range.  He teaches tap/rack/bang, but the explanation of the malfunctions is the important point:



Note that he uses different numbers than discussed above for the malfunction types, but discusses them in terms of “failure to fire,” “failure to feed,” etc.  The number of the malfunction types discussed above is as taught by Makhaira Group in Northern Colorado.
Wrapping It All Up:

In this article series, we discussed the importance of being able to clear firearms malfunctions.  Malfunctions can be caused by problems with ammunition, problems with the gun, and in the case of semi-automatics with a cycling slide, problems with the shooter.  When you are first learning to shoot, safety is of the utmost priority, and therefore malfunction clearing techniques are a little more drawn out.  But in a crisis situation where your very life may depend on your ability to deploy a firearm, a much quicker assessment is needed, along with the ability to clear it and get back in the fight.  Being familiar with the different types of malfunctions will help you with your assessment, and making the clearance procedures second nature will keep your gun operating.  Practice is the key to success in clearing malfunctions.  Get some advanced training (Makhaira Group is a great resource if you are in Northern Colorado).  Make sure you practice safely, and practice often.


Be informed, be protected, and be safe!

About The Author:  "The Gonz" is an NRA Certified Firearms Instructor (Pistol, PPiTH, RTBAV), US Concealed Carry Association Affiliate Instructor, and an NRA Certified Range Safety Officer.  Additionally, he a trained and certified Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) member, with several years of training in the Incident Command System (ICS) procedures and practices.



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