Semi-automatic firearms, from center-fire pistols and pistol caliber carbines to rimfire rifles and pistols, predominate in action shooting sports. And every one of them can, and likely will, malfunction at some point—especially if the clock is ticking.
Malfunctions are not always the fault of the gun itself. Semi-automatic operating systems consist of three key components—gun, magazine, and ammunition. If one of those components fails, a malfunction will occur. Here are the four most common malfunctions, how to quickly clear them and what might be addressed to prevent them in the future.
This malfunction sees a round fed into the chamber, but with a second round jumping from the magazine and jamming in tightly behind it. This leaves the slide/bolt jammed behind, or sometimes on top of the second round and locks the gun up tightly.
This double feed jam will lock the gun up tightly and requires that the magazine be forcefully stripped from the gun to clear it.
The only way to clear this jam is to get the magazine out of the gun. And with it tightly locked up, just hitting the magazine release button doesn’t work. The magazine needs to be physically stripped from the gun. Rip the magazine out, rack the slide to clear everything in the gun, slap in another mag, chamber a round and continue through the course of fire.
Normally, this is not a gun or ammunition issue. The most common cause is worn magazine feed lips that allow a round to jump free during normal cycling. A weak magazine spring that allows rounds to bounce around in the magazine under recoil can also contribute.
The Tip Up
This malfunction is characterized by a round feeding from the magazine towards the chamber, but failing to find it and winding up with the bullet’s tip jammed up into the barrel hood. Similar to the double feed, the quickest way to clear this jam is to strip the magazine, rack the slide to clear the action, slap in a new mag, chamber a round and go. Trying to “diddle” a tipped up round into the chamber is a futile and time-consuming exercise.
A tip up jam is best cleared in the same manner as the double feed. It’s a waste of precious seconds to try and diddle that errant round into the chamber.
Worn magazine lips are a common cause. That’s one reason why savvy competitors number their magazines for easy identification. If one number is involved in a lot to double feed or tip up jams, it’s time to set it aside for repair or replacement.
But magazines aren’t the only culprit here. Handloaded rounds that are over or under the proper overall cartridge length for the gun can also cause tip up, as can a damaged barrel feed ramp.
With rimfire rifles, another cause can be an action gunked up with old lube and powder fouling. This can slow the forward bolt speed, change the chambering rhythm, and send the round off target— especially if one is shooting standard velocity (1,070 f.p.s.) loads.
This malfunction occurs when a fired case is properly engaged by the extractor, rides back with the slide/bolt, but fails to hit the ejector with enough force to kick it out of the gun. The fired case then winds up jammed between the slide/bolt as the action closes. In a center-fire semi-automatic handgun, it often sticks straight up, looking for all the world like a little smokestack—thus the name. (Also known as a stovepipe.)
A smokestack jam can be quickly cleared. But it’s important to check the chamber to be sure it’s empty, or a double feed can occur.
The quickest way to clear this jam, with pistol or long gun, is to cant the ejection port sharply towards the ground, retract the slide/bolt forcefully to free the trapped case, and then quickly look into the chamber before releasing the slide or bolt.
The reason for the chamber check is that, on rare occasions, a round may have made it into the chamber due to forward bolt momentum. That leaves the chamber occupied, and releasing the slide/bolt will feed a new round and create a double feed jam. If the chamber is occupied the most effective option is to eject the magazine, then drop the slide to engage the chambered round, slam in a new mag and go.
Smokestacks are normally caused by under-powered ammunition that didn’t provide enough force to strike the ejector properly, whether factory or handloads. With a handgun, it can also be a weak (limp wrist) grip. Another possibility is a dirty operating action that impedes slide/bolt travel (especially in rimfire rifles). If the problem persists, it could also be a damaged ejector or extractor.
The gun cycled properly. But when the trigger is pulled there’s a click instead of a bang. The immediate drill is the Tap & Rack—tap the base of the magazine to assure it’s properly seated, then rack the slide to clear the chamber and send in a new round. The most common cause is a dead primer or high-seated primer. Sometimes an improperly seated magazine can cause the slide/bolt to ride over the round in the magazine and fail to chamber it, thus the need for the tap.
But, there is one big caveat to the Tap & Rack.
If the click was accompanied by a poof or dull thud—or if you saw an empty case ejected from the gun—STOP! This is a clear sign of a squib load that has left a bullet in the barrel. The barrel must be checked before any further shooting.
Malfunctions will occur, and they will eat up time on the clock. The quicker they can be safely cleared, the less damaging they will be to the shooter’s score.