We’ve all heard about Murphy’s Law. Unfortunately, some of us seem to encounter it far more frequently than others. I would count myself as one who lives too much on the “sees it more” end of the spectrum. As a general rule, Murphy’s Law means that anything that can go wrong in your critical time of need will go wrong.
For those of us who shoot, one of the ways things can go wrong is to have a malfunction with a semi-automatic handgun. We might go thousands of rounds at the range without having a problem. Then, when they do start happening, they seem to really come in numbers and at just the wrong time.
This happened to me years ago at my first 3-gun match. I decided to shoot the event in the Heavy Metal class, which meant that I needed a rifle chambered in at least 7.62 NATO, a 12-gauge pump action shotgun and a .45 ACP single stack handgun.
Most other guys were operating Martian guns with virtually no muzzle rise and what seemed like limitless ammunition supplies attached. My choices got me in trouble with regard to the handgun and shotgun. I had countless malfunctions, and clearing them cost me precious seconds in the overall time and standings. Of course, running into a malfunction during what amounts to a game is one thing; having it happen while your life is hanging in the balance is something else entirely.
It is not sexy or fun to practice clearance procedures, but it is impossible to overstate the importance of doing so at the range on a fairly regular basis. The best thing I have found to do when practicing the clearance of the most common “failure to fire” malfunctions is to randomly load dummy rounds into magazines. A friend can do the loading for you, or you can load a number of magazines and then mix them up in a range bag or ammo can. The important thing is to not know the order of the rounds as you shoot—the appearance of every dummy round should be a surprise.
Personally, I believe the best method of trying to perform all malfunction clearances is the “tap-rack” method. It’s simple, and in high-pressure scenarios, simple is good. Of course, “tap-rack” will not work for the dreaded “double-feed,” but trying it first is still the right thing to do because we are not likely to immediately recognize what kind of malfunction we have when we are in a fight. If it doesn’t work, we are immediately informed that we should find cover and begin the proper clearance sequence, because it’s going to take a few seconds.
The “failure to fire” or “Class 1” malfunction means that you are expecting the gun to make a very loud “boom” noise after pressing the trigger, and it actually makes a disconcerting “click.” There could be a number of causes, but the “tap-rack” method should fix the problem. Authoritatively tap the bottom of the magazine using the palm of your support hand. Then, while rotating the gun so the ejection port is facing the ground, aggressively rack the slide.
The centrifugal force that is generated by rotating the gun using this procedure will help clear the “stovepipe” or “Class 2” malfunction. This is where a piece of spent brass gets caught in the ejection port area while it is being ejected from the gun. If the brass is somehow caught on the edges of the ejection port, the forces created by the rotation should free it. The slide will pick up a new round of ammunition from the top of the magazine, and you will be back in business.
The “double-feed” or “Class 3” malfunction is the doozy. It is usually caused by a defective magazine that allows two rounds to feed while the slide is operating, instead of just one. The two rounds attempt to occupy the same limited space in the chamber of the barrel. This locks up a semi-auto pistol worse than the D.C. Beltway during rush hour.
If “tap-rack” doesn’t work, I know that I’m almost certainly dealing with a double-feed. To clear it, I need to lock the slide back using the slide lock lever, aggressively strip the magazine out of the gun, rack the slide with authority three times to help ensure the chamber is cleared, insert a new magazine and operate the slide one last time to load the gun and get back to it.
To set up a double-feed for practice, use dummy rounds. Load a few rounds into two magazines. Lock the slide back and insert one of the magazines into the gun. Then, with the slide still locked back, carefully insert a dummy round into the chamber using your fingers. Then, slowly release the slide so that a dummy round feeds out of the magazine and butts up against the back of the one in the chamber.
If you ever get bored with the standard clearance procedure, try clearing a double-feed using only your support hand (left hand for a right-handed shooter). I believe it is the most complex and difficult procedure in handgun shooting. If you can do it well, you can do just about anything. At the worst, trying it will teach you to always stay in the fight and never give up.
Your goal with this practice is to get to the point where you immediately initiate clearance procedures when you get a “click” instead of a “bang” or when you experience something worse. There should be no perceived hesitation. The added benefit of loading dummy rounds into magazines is actually witnessing your flinch mechanism when you get the “click.” Ideally, it will hardly be noticeable. A secondary goal during this practice should be to get to the point where the front sight hardly twitches when that “click” comes. If you make this happen, you will be an outstanding handgun shooter.