Clearing Malfunctions

This is a guest post by Scott Sylvester800px-Failure_to_eject_(FTE),_firearm

At some point in your shooting career you are going to experience a malfunction with your handgun. Be it a semi-auto style or revolver, both with occasionally experience problems and knowing how to clear a jam under stress is an essential survival skill. When talking about malfunctions we are talking about these categories:

  1. Failure to feed
  2. Failure to fire
  3. Failure to extract
  4. Slide obstruction
  5. and the worst for last – Double feed

Revolvers have a much more reliable track record since the only malfunction they are likely to experience are 2) Failure to fire, and 4) Obstruction that prevents the cylinder from rotating when the hammer is cocked or when the trigger is pulled. A revolver will never experience a Double Feed and the cure for most revolver malfunctions is to simply pull the trigger again. Unless the cylinder locks up or there is something external that prevents it from turning, a well maintained revolver will provide you with tens of thousands of rounds of reliable operation.

A semi-auto is a bit more finicky when it comes to operations and even the type of ammunition you use can affect reliability. The tighter the tolerances on the handgun can also affect consistent operations. One example I can give you is 1911 style handguns. These works of art are finely tuned precision machines that I liken to the Formula 1 of handguns. As a result, the ultra tight tolerances sometimes make them malfunction more frequently than a Glock or Sig Sauer which have a bit of play in them to allow for rougher handling. Aficionados will tell you there is a difference between a combat 1911 and a collector or carry 1911… but I do not want to digress into a debate about 1911 pistols.

The good news about clearing a jam in a semi-auto handgun is that unless you are experienceing a Double Feed, all of the other clearing methods are the same quick series of actions. The method I teach and use is the “Tap, Roll, Rack, Ready,” method. (T3R) This is a slight variation on the two more common drills you've probably heard of the Tap, Rack, Ready or the outdated and irresponsible Slap, Rack and Fire.

The method I teach is only a minor variation of what you are used to, but I've added the “Roll,” part to allow gravity to assist me. When you handgun does not fire, simply “Tap,” the bottom of the magazine well to ensure the magazine is seated firmly in place. Now, “Roll,” the handgun inboard (towards you) until the ejection port is facing downward as you, “Rack,” or cycle the slide. By rolling the gun over I'm using gravity to act with me instead of against me.

In the standard method where we simply “Tap, and Rack,” gravity is pulling downward on an object we are trying to expel upward and away from the chamber and ejection port. By adding the “Roll” action we are assisting the mechanical operation of the handgun with the expulsion of the empty case, or round with the bad primer, or the stovepipe that got caught in the port.

When you conduct the roll, you will need to transition from a two handed grip, to a one handed grip. If the gun is in your right hand, turn the handgun towards the centerline of your body or towards your left hand as your support hand moves backwards towards the grip serrations on the rear of the slide. You'll find that with a little practice, as you let go with your support hand, you will begin to roll the slide into the support hand naturally.

Once you have cleared the obstruction, simply roll the gun back to firing position, reestablish your two hand grip, assess, and fire if necessary. After a few repetitions you will find this additional roll technique takes no longer than your standard / traditional clearing method.

To clear a slide obstruction malfunction, you will first need to assess what is causing the obstruction, I typically see these when shooters practice firing from the withdraw position (near the hip.) As they shoot the student sometimes fail to account for the actuation of the slide and it strikes thier ribs, body armor, or catches a piece of thier shirt as the slide cycles. Whatever is in the way, you need to remove it (tear the shirt free) and then conduct the Tap, Roll, Rack and Ready drill mentioned above.

The reason we do the T3R drill is to ensure the gun is in battery and a round is chambered. If the slide actuates and strikes something, there is a high probability that the slide did not lock into battery, the empty case did not eject since there was not enough room for the ejection port to open, or the next round may not have been pushed all the way into the chamber.

The last and worst obstruction is the dreaded double feed. A double feed occurs when the empty case is not expelled as the slide cycles and the next round is stripped out of the magazine and fed into the case already occupying the chamber. The recoil spring cannot push the slide back into battery since it is braced open by the new round, and the magazine spring is applying vertical (upward) pressure causing a lock up of the handgun.

When you initially experience a Double Feed, it may not be instantly apparent. When the handgun doesn't fire you should immediately begin your Tap, Roll, Rack, and Ready drill. When you return to the ready position this is typically when you notice the gun is still out of battery and there is a bigger problem. If you need to diagnose and you are in a shooting situation, take (hard) cover, and follow these steps.

To begin clearing a Double Feed we need to relieve the spring tension. The first step is to lock the slide open using the slide stop. This will eliminate the recoil spring tension and allow you to remove the magazine. You may find, magazine is hard to remove due to the round still being stuck partially under the feed lips. You may need to apply pressure to the magazine release button and strip or forcefully pull the magazine free from the handgun. If you have a spare magazine, discard the magazine you just removed from the gun… if you do not carry a spare magazine, then retain the one you have and beware.

The number one cause of semi-auto handgun malfunctions is usually the magazine. I recommend you number all the magazines you own. As you experience a malfunction you will know which magazine is causing the problem and you can test, repair or replace it. The numbering prevents you from mixing the defective magazine in with your other spares. If a magazine fails, stop carrying it!

Now that the spring tension is gone and the magazine has been removed, cycle or rack the slide at least twice and then visually inspect the ejection port to make sure the chamber is clear of the empty case and the blocking live round. Now simply insert a fresh magazine, charge the handgun and get back in the fight.

To be competent at the T3R drill and clearing malfunctions, you have to practice and build good neural pathways that make these actions nearly automatic. For the majority of malfunctions, there is a very simple way to train.

Next time you go shooting, after you fire a few rounds during practice, collect a few empty (spent) casings from the ground in the same caliber as the gun you are using. When you reload your magazines to continue live fire practice, randomly mix in 3 or 4 of the empty cases in with the live rounds. As you continue to practice shooting or running drills you will pull the trigger and nothing with discharge. The random mix will cause a bit of suprise and will be your cue to begin the T3R, Immediate Action Clearing Drill.

To practice clearing a Double Feed, you will have to set up the handgun for this particular malfunction. You can do it by locking the slide open, dropping a spent casing into the chamber and pushing it into place, and then adding a fresh magazine and charging the weapon. As the slide goes forward it will strip the top round off and bury it into the rear of the empty case creating a double feed situation. Once you clear it, you'll have to set it up again so these are fairly labor intensive to practice… but that does not mean you shouldn't.

Until next time, stay safe and train hard. For more training articles visit our friends at Home Defense Gun and check out the One Weapon Any Tool Facebook Page.

Your mind is the weapon, everything else is just a tool.

Scott S

Failure to eject (FTE), firearm” by WarnichtmehrfreiOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.


  1. Your statement that “Revolvers have a much more reliable track record” is not true. Revolvers in addition to breaking firing pins, locking the cylinders, and breaking springs also have trouble with loss of timing accuracy, shaving lead, and occasionally exploding. During M9 testing the reference model S&W Model 10 in .38 Special had the lowest rating of any gun tested for reliability prior to a malfunction. cartridge setback, and bullet backing out of the cartridge are both revolver only problems.

    If a revolver has a failure to fire due to a slow primer and you pull the trigger again, you may have a cartridge detonate while it is NOT lined up to the barrel. As revolvers wear, they often start spitting lead at the shooter, which is a sure hint to stop using them. As the cylinder gap increases, it can also cause the barrel to be blocked with a bullet, and that cannot be cleared by pulling the trigger a second time. It may blow up the gun.

    In the case of WWII era guns used by the German forces they required an open top on part of the barrel so that if a barrel were bulging, likely due to a stuck bullet and subsequent firing, the gun would continue to function. This would not be a problem with a revolver if it does not blow up first. Pulling that trigger a 2nd time as you suggest could easily result in exceeding proof load pressures. Automatics have much higher chamber pressures in most loads and aren’t as likely to explode. The Seal were using 70,000 psi proof loads in their M9s and broke quite a few of them that way, but none that I know of exploded.

    You say a well maintained revolver, that is true.. it’s going to need service, which means sending it to the factory to have the cylinder and lock mechanism reworked in many cases, something automatics don’t have problems with. An automatic will never explode due to a worn cylinder bolt and won’t shave lead either. I doubt that a high powered revolver would last even 10,000 rounds. With an automatic, the user can simply replace the barrel.

    Revolver used with handloads are especially dangerous as it’s possible to double or triple load a .45 long colt, for example which usually does blow up the gun. Some shooters have lost fingers from this.

    Revolvers also LACK proper safety mechanisms. Older designs will fire if dropped. There is no safe way to lower a hammer on a full cylinder, so many experienced shooters keep one cylinder empty to prevent accidental firing.

    Your statement about 1911 style handguns is partly true. The civilian models which have been tuned for accuracy are not very reliable. The military versions, which have not been produced since about 1944 are more reliable, but woefully inaccurate. The basic design of the M1911 does not support both qualities to a high level. The design that succeeded it does (Browning’s P35, or Browning Hi-Power).

    The “double feed” as you call it is usually caused by a worn ejector. In the case of a revolver, the equivalent failure is a squib load blocking the barrel with a bullet. The failure to eject with a stovepipe failure is typical of ammunition failure or too little power, common with US loads of some ammunition calibers.

    1. Failure to Feed – generally caused by weak ammunition or damaged magazine lips or incompatible bullet shapes
    2. Failure to Fire – most often caused by hard or defective primers, occasionally broken firing pins
    3. Failure to extract – generally caused by a worn extractor or dirty chamber
    4. Stovepipe jam – generally caused by weak ammunition
    5. Double Feed – generally caused by extractor failure
    6. Bullet stuck in barrel

    Where your advice is inadequate:
    2. Failure to fire – A failure to fire should ALWAYS be treated as an ammunition fault FIRST. It MUST always be assumed that the cartridge IS GOING TO DETONATE. NEVER as you suggested pull the trigger a second time on a revolver. NEVER immediately eject the cartridge that misfired for a new one. The minimum correct action is to wait at the very least 30 seconds to see if the primer will cookk off or not. If you pull the trigger on a revolver a 2nd time you could blow up the gun, or fire a bullet that is not lined up to the cylinder when it does delay fire.

    3. Failure to extract – generally requires an extractor replacement unless you can verify it is an ammunition being too weak to cycle the gun problem.
    4. Stovepipe – see above
    5. Double Feed – Depending on the gun, this can be easily cleared by removing the magazine and relieving the pressure on the loaded cartridge by pulling back on the slide.
    6. You didn’t mention bullet stuck in barrel. This is a gunsmith repair in every case. But your suggestion to pull the trigger again with a revolver could be disastrous. Some automatics may not blow the barrel if you fire a round into an obstructed barrel, but some will. If this happens with the common fully enclosed barrel automatics they will be severely disabled and could be a total loss.

  2. All good points. I’m trying to communicate a technique, not a technical analysis of every single what if…Please write an article outlining everything you mentioned and submit it. You are obviously very experienced.

  3. With Glock-type pistols, on failure to fire you get a click from the trigger but no bang. With a failure to eject or a double feed you get a dead trigger. In that case, check the weapon to see which you have before trying to clear it, so you know if a simple tap, roll, rack will be sufficient or if you need to go straight to the double feed clearance.

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