Sometimes It IS The Gun

Those of you who read my columns regularly know that I often emphasize the importance of marksmanship fundamentals in achieving effective results when it is necessary to use firearms. Those fundamentals must be learned and practiced so that they are there when you need them. Everyone wants to go through their entire career without being involved in a gunfight, but if or when it does happen, it is too late to start learning those lessons. So we learn, and practice what we have learned, as best we can. Such emphasis on individual performance can give the impression that all that is necessary is to be a skilled operator. We sometimes forget that we should also be testing and evaluating the effectiveness of our equipment. If we have not achieved the results we expect, and we have verified that the shooter is doing his or her part, we then need to look at the tools. I mention this now for several reasons.

First, budget constraints and ammunition shortages have severely limited the ability of many agencies to maintain the training programs that they would prefer to conduct. As a result, the firearms and ammunition that are being used are not really being wrung out on the range to make sure they are performing properly.

Second, I am seeing both agencies and individuals having to change the ammunition they use because of availability, or lack of availability, of their familiar or preferred brands and types.

Third, I am seeing instances of equipment problems being misdiagnosed as user error, simply because someone is assuming that less practice means less skill. I want to emphasize right here that nothing I am saying should be considered an excuse for poor skills on the part of the shooter. Frankly, if there is a problem, it is usually the workman and not the tools, but not always. If the tools are not up to the task, they need to be changed, repaired or replaced.

Keep in mind that when I say gun, I am really talking about an operational system that is both the gun, including all of its parts, and the ammunition that is being fired from that particular gun. The firearms generally selected for agency use are excellent machines. They are built to be reliable and effective in the most demanding of conditions, that of protecting people's lives.

The same can be said for premium quality duty ammunition. It is rare that there are problems with reliability of modern ammo, as long as it is stored properly and inspected regularly. But sometimes there are problems with any machine and sometimes there are problems with any manufactured product. Also, combining a quality gun with quality ammunition sometimes produces non-quality results. Let's look at a few examples of how things can go wrong. And please remember, you only find these things out through hands-on experience and testing. Such experience and testing needs to happen on the range, not on the street!

Gun Problems

Semi-automatic weapons are now pretty much the norm for law enforcement. There are still some revolvers out there, usually in back-up roles, but I am going to address semi-autos for now. The most obvious concern of the majority of people when shooting semi-auto pistols is feeding malfunctions. They can be shooter induced, but they can also be from damaged magazines, poor maintenance and incompatible ammunition. When a pistol is not feeding properly, and it isn't caused by the shooter, I usually look first at the ammunition, then at the magazines and then at the gun itself. I'll talk more about ammunition later. For now, let's look at the guns.

Are the magazines, especially the feed lips, damaged? I've seen magazines with dents in the body and feed lips bent out of shape from being dropped on hard surfaces. I've seen magazine springs that are simply worn out. Magazines are relatively cheap and should be replaced if they are damaged. Even if the body of the magazine isn't damaged, the springs should be changed based on the manufacturers recommended schedule. Every department should have a responsible, qualified person who does routine inspections and maintenance on all department firearms. The guns themselves have parts, especially springs, that should be replaced periodically and all manufacturers have recommended maintenance schedules. Follow them.

I know of instances where officers were having mechanical problems with their issued guns and the departments just assumed they were user induced. One gun that jammed constantly had a bad barrel. Once it was changed, the problem stopped. One officer I know of was seeing all his bullet holes hitting well left during training. He was initially told that, All Glocks shoot to the left. While some people do find that they shoot Glocks a bit left until they get used to a proper grip on the gun, in this case the sights were out of alignment. Adjustment made, problem solved. By the way, never underestimate the effect of improperly adjusted sights, especially on handguns. Small changes often have a huge effect on the accuracy of pistols.

Another handgun I am familiar with was consistently shooting about six inches low. Sometimes this can be corrected by changing the height of the front or rear sights (if they are not otherwise adjustable), but in this case the slide itself was the problem. It was replaced and the gun now shoots exactly to the point of aim. I know of some similar problems that required a new barrel and slide, to assure proper alignment when the two locked into battery. All manufacturers of police service guns stand behind their products and will fix identified problems. Your role is to identify any problems before the guns are used on the street.

Ammunition Problems

Some guns just don't like certain ammo, and that does not mean that either is defective. They are just not compatible. Put another way, some ammo just works better in some guns than others. For example, I have some pistols that are superbly accurate with Speer Gold Dot. I have others that put Winchester Ranger in one hole at 25 yards and shoot patterns, not groups, with Gold Dot. Some folks just assume that if the gun is good and the ammo is good, they should work well together. Don't assume - test! Many agencies have done extensive ammunition testing for accuracy and penetration in various materials, such as ballistic gelatin, window glass, sheet metal, etc. All of that is certainly important. But how many have tested the ammo in their duty guns for function and accuracy? I have seen cases where certain bands and types of ammo shoot low, high, left or right, sometimes by significant distances, from the point of aim. Simply changing to a different brand, bullet weight, or bullet design solved the problem.

Nowadays, with ammunition being so scarce, departments sometimes change brands simply because they have to take what is available. Whenever you change you should run sufficient tests to make sure functioning and accuracy are not compromised. A lot of people are surprised at the amount of variance they find. It is monetarily painful to shoot up what little premium ammo you can find, but you cannot trust that you will get identical results from different brands or types of ammunition. Always test what you carry, even if your range ammo is working fine.

Another important point about ammunition is that you must keep track of the lot numbers. A friend of mine has recently been having problems with misfires. At first we thought it might be his pistol, but we had misfires with the same ammo in other guns. Inspection of the packaging showed that the ammo was all from the same lot. Bad lots do happen. The manufacturers will make good on the ammo and will usually want it back so they can evaluate what went wrong with that particular batch. Rest assured it doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it will affect everyone using that lot, so you need to know who has it. Occasionally you'll see premium ammo being sold off in bulk, with the warning that it is for Training Use Only. That's a clue that there were problems with that lot. Heed the warning.

Obviously, you won't find out any of this unless you are alert to the possibility, however remote, that your equipment may be the problem. With training being reduced because of lack of money, lack of ammunition, or both, the chance of discovering problems through sheer repetition is reduced. Check out any problem and be sure it is not just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As I've said before, the street is not the place to discover that your life saving equipment is not up to the task.