Learn to quickly identify and clear the most common handgun malfunctions and get back in the game with these pistol malfunction drills.

The most common pistol malfunctions include:

  • Failure to feed
  • Failure to chamber
  • Failure to lock
  • Failure to fire
  • Failure to unlock
  • Failure to extract
  • Failure to eject
  • Failure to cock

Several types of malfunctions can occur in a semi-auto handgun and the first thing a shooter needs to do is identify the type of malfunction. Before we get into the malfunction terms, let me explain the eight cycles of operation that any firearm goes through in the firing cycle. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 155mm Howitzer or a 22 LR Derringer, these are fundamental to any firearm.

Cycles Of Operation In Any Firearm

Feeding – This cycle starts when the bolt, slide, breechblock, while moving forward, contacts the cartridge in the magazine and gets the cartridge out of the magazine and started into the chamber. In single-shot handguns like the Thompson/Center Contender, feeding is performed by the shooter’s hand, then chambering is performed when the cartridge is seated by hand into the chamber, which leads to:

Chambering – This is where the cartridge enters and seats into the chamber of the firearm.

Locking – This cycle is where the breechblock (slide, bolt, etc.) is locked with the barrel. This cycle can vary from firearm to firearm, blowback pocket pistols are “locked” at the slide and barrel by the spring tension of the recoil spring, while a recoil operated firearm like an M1911 the barrel is locked to the slide by the top locking lugs, and is also locked to the frame by sitting on the slide stop pin, which is mounted crossways into the frame.

Firing – The cartridge is fired by the firing pin or striker indenting the primer, crushing and detonating the primer pellet.

Unlocking – This cycle is where the chamber pressure of the fired cartridge drops to a safe level allowing the slide, or breechblock to unlock from the barrel.

Extraction – The cycle is where the cartridge is extracted by the extractor, and removed from the chamber.

Ejection – This cycle is where the fired case is completely ejected away from the firearm by the ejector.

Cocking – This is the cycle where the firearm’s trigger mechanism is reset in order to fire the next cartridge.

When malfunctions happen in a match, like in this photo, malfunction drills allow the shooter to clear the gun and get it back into the game without going into a panic.
When malfunctions happen in a match, like in this photo, malfunction drills allow the shooter to clear the gun and get it back into the game without going into a panic.

Handgun Malfunction Terms To Know

Now that we have a basic understanding of how the firearm operates, we can better understand how it can malfunction. Here is some basic handgun malfunction nomenclature:

Failure to feed – This is where the ammunition may start to come out of the magazine, but the slide’s forward motion has stopped before the cartridge has fully exited the magazine. There could be several reasons for this. Usually, with a semi-auto pistol, this malfunction is either related to a bad magazine or with the use of reloaded ammunition not assembled correctly.

Failure to chamber – This is where the cartridge has exited the magazine but is not fully seated into the chamber and the slide is not completely closed.

Failure to lock – This is where the cartridge is fully into the chamber, but the slide is just out of battery enough to not fully close, and the trigger mechanism is disconnected, rendering the pistol unable to fire.

Failure to fire – Here, you pull the trigger, the hammer or striker falls and there is no kaboom! There could also be several reasons for this.

Failure to unlock – This is extremely unusual in a semi-auto. Normally if the pistol fires, the slide will move rearward, except in very unusual circumstances.

Failure to extract – The pistol fired, but it left an empty case in the chamber. This is usually a pretty bad condition when it happens on the firing line in a match, but is usually a pretty simple fix back in the shop.

Failure to eject – This is where the cartridge fired and was pulled out of the chamber, but the spent case did not clear the gun. It was not ejected away from the pistol.

Failure to cock – This is where the hammer follows the slide down during the firing cycle. This is always a bad situation. Sometimes, there wasn’t enough power in the cartridge to fully push the slide rearward and also not far enough to the rear to cock the hammer. Usually this is a squib load. If it’s not a squib load, then there is an issue with the hammer and/or sear engagement, and a gunsmith needs to get involved. If it is a squib load, you need to immediately get the pistol off the firing line, and get the bullet cleared out of the barrel. Bullets usually get stuck in the barrel from squib loads.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the functioning cycles of a firearm and basic malfunction terms, we can go through some of most common malfunctions that semi-auto firearms will experience, and drills to clear a malfunction and keep you in contention in a match situation. This section will focus on malfunction drills for the competitive shooter, which may or may not be different from a tactical or self-defense drill.

Here, the shooter has identified the malfunction, and instinctively knows how to clear it.
Here, the shooter has identified the malfunction, and instinctively knows how to clear it.

Pistol Malfunction Drills

Now that we have an understanding of what a malfunction is, the next point to learn is how to identify what type of malfunction you are dealing with. Different malfunctions require different clearing steps. The first step in clearing a pistol with a malfunction that happens during a match is to determine as quickly as possible what the nature of problem is, then, also as quickly as possible, apply the proper corrective action.

Failure to feed – If, at the start of the stage, the pistol fired one or more rounds, and you have a failure to feed, this could be either an ammunition or magazine problem. This is why it’s important to test the gun at the range with a variety of different handloads and factory loads, with a variety of magazines, not under match conditions. Shoot as much as possible with your match gun, match ammo, match magazines, etc. While testing at the range, try testing the pistol with factory ammunition and see if you can replicate the malfunction. If you can, it’s not the ammo, and is therefore likely a magazine issue and you should try changing magazines. If it still malfunctions with different magazines and factory ammo, then it’s likely an issue with the pistol. Regardless, you are on the firing line and the pistol fails to feed after firing a round or several rounds and the clock is running. Depending on how far the round tried to feed into the chamber, you can try to clear it quickly by just racking the slide back, and letting it go forward. This is actually best performed as the Tap Rack Bang Drill.

Tap the bottom of the magazine to make sure it’s seated, rack the slide, then try to fire the gun. This will likely eject the offending cartridge and feed in a new one, getting the pistol back into the game. Sometimes, this is caused by reloaded ammo, where the case may not have received enough crimp on the case mouth or the round may be seated a little too long or too deeply. Semi-auto handguns are sometimes a little finicky about seating depth. Ejecting that round and getting a fresh round into the gun will usually get you back in the game.

As a side note, semi-wadcutter ammunition is more finicky than round-nose ball ammo. If you reload for bullseye, semi-wadcutter is almost mandatory, since you want the cleanest hole in the target as possible for scoring purposes. The problem with semi-wadcutter ammunition is that it’s sometimes a little hard to feed properly, so many top shooters load their match ammunition with round nose “hardball” bullets for better feeding.

Failure to Feed 2 – This is where you are firing a string and the gun tries to feed a round into the gun but has an empty piece of brass or a live round halfway into the chamber, and is trying to feed another round on top of that one. This is a fairly uncommon but serious malfunction in that the shooter can’t just rack the slide and continue shooting. The shooter needs to strip the magazine out of the gun, cycle the slide two or three times quickly, then insert a fresh magazine, cycle the slide and try to continue shooting.

Failure to Feed 3 – This one doesn’t happen very often, and is usually an ammunition or cleaning or maintenance problem. This is where the slide feeds the round forward, but doesn’t quite go all the way into battery, with the slide staying out of battery just enough to activate the disconnector and render the pistol inoperable. Usually, you can bump the slide with the palm of the hand to seat the slide and fire the gun. If not, try cycling the action to remove that round and feed in another one.

Failure to Fire 1 – This is a situation where you have a single action semi-automatic like a 1911 with a thumb safety, or a DA/SA like a Beretta pistol with an external safety. You draw, present to the target, press the trigger and nothing happens. If you have a 1911-type pistol, chances are that the safety is engaged, and you failed to fully disengage the thumb safety. If you have a pistol like the Beretta, you will be pressing the trigger, the trigger will go to the rear, but it will feel like it’s disconnected, which it is. If/when it happens, be prepared for some good-natured ribbing from your shooting buddies. You may also have too high of a grip on the gun, thereby activating the grip safety. Funny things can happen when the buzzer goes off, and I’ve seen this happen more than once. If you press the trigger and the trigger doesn’t move and the gun just seems like it’s locked up, it’s because it is. Disengage the safety, re-acquire the target and commence shooting the string.

Failure to Fire 2 – You are on the firing line getting ready to shoot a stage, your firearm is loaded and in the holster, and you have a plan in your mind on how to complete this stage. You nod to the RO that you are ready. You hear the beep, draw the handgun, get a sight picture, press the trigger and the hammer falls with a sickening click. You have one of two situations: when you were given the command to load, you did not fully seat the magazine, and when the slide was cycled to get the first round in the chamber, it ran over the top of the first cartridge in the magazine and the gun didn’t load and chamber the first round; or the cartridge did load and is sitting in the chamber, but the primer, for some reason, did not detonate, either by not being impacted by the firing pin, or if the primer was struck by the firing pin, you have a dead primer.

Regardless, you have a gun that didn’t go off, and the timer is ticking, so you have to get the gun back in action. The way to do this is to simply rack the slide. Do this forcefully by taking the finger off the trigger, and then pulling the slide to the rear and letting it go, slingshot-style. This should get the offending round out of the chamber a fresh round into the gun. Re-acquire the sights and sight picture and engage the target. When doing this, make sure that the ejection port is not covered up by your weak, or non-firing hand to ensure the round has plenty of room to clear the gun. Always remember to check the chamber when you load the gun, this will make sure that a cartridge actually went into the chamber when the gun was loaded.

Here, the fresh magazine has been inserted and the slide is about to be released, recharging the gun.
Here, the fresh magazine has been inserted and the slide is about to be released, recharging the gun.

Failure to extract – This is usually caused by an extremely worn or possibly a broken extractor. Not much you can do with this malfunction other than clear the gun, take it off the firing line and turn it over to a qualified gunsmith.

Failure to eject – This is usually caused by an underpowered cartridge that doesn’t have enough recoil energy to fully push the slide to the rear and kick out the empty case. Always check your reloading manuals to make sure you are loading a middle-of-the-road cartridge. You want a Goldilocks round. Not too much power, which will wear out both the gun and the shooter, but not under-powered to where the gun malfunctions.

One form of ejection malfunction is called a stovepipe. It doesn’t happen too often, but I’ve seen it a few times. This is where the empty brass is not fully ejected and is caught by the slide going forward feeding in the next round. This is called a stovepipe jam because the empty cartridge case is poking up out of the ejection port and looks like a stovepipe. This type of malfunction happens from time to time and when it does, the gun is actually in the process of feeding a new round into the chamber and the spent case doesn’t clear the ejection port before the slide is starting to close while feeding in the new cartridge. The best way to clear this jam is to simply wipe the brass out of the gun with the non-firing hand from front to back, the slide should then close on the live round and then you begin firing again.

In malfunctions with semi-auto pistols, many times failures to feed and failures to eject are not caused by a mechanical failure. They are actually caused by shooter error. Weak recoil spring and weak magazine spring can cause all types of malfunctions, but a weak grip, or a shooter not having firm resistance in the arms will cause many of the types of the failures discussed here. The reason is that the semi-auto pistol has to have a firm surface for the recoil spring to operate against. If the shooter doesn’t have a firm grip and tension in the arms, it will take away energy from the recoil spring, making it difficult for the spring to do its work.

I’ve actually demonstrated this on the firing line by taking a bullseye pistol that was functioning normally and, with a weak grip and just enough tension in the arms to keep the gun level, inducing a failure to feed and eject twice out of two, five-round magazines. Granted, the recoil spring on a bullseye gun is very light, usually about four pounds lighter than a stock Colt 1911 spring, so it was easier to take away energy from that system, as opposed to a full strength recoil spring on a stock gun, but the concept is the same. If the recoil spring is a little worn and the gun is dirty, it becomes easier to have these sorts of malfunctions if the shooter doesn’t do his or her part.

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Competitive Pistol Shooting, available now at GunDigestStore.com.


Gun Digest Shooter's Guide to Competitive Pistol Shooting

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