There is no shortage of techniques for clearing a stoppage or malfunction; just trying to explain the difference between the two sets off a hailstorm of debate. Whatever works is what is important.
Stoppages most often occur in the cycle of operation of the pistol, usually caused by a dirty, un-lubricated pistol, bad magazines (to be covered in a future article) under power ammunition, poor grip (including unlocking the wrist while shooting). Yes, there are other contributing factors, but these are the primary ones.
A malfunction relates to a mechanically broken pistol that usually cannot be placed back in service on a short notice. I would like to deal with the stoppage techniques in this article and discuss malfunctions in a later article.
First, prevention or at least steps we can take to prevent this from happening are important, but please keep in mind there are no guarantees. It is hard to believe that in the year 2009 the primary cause of stoppages is still dirty, un-lubricated firearms. With all the training and preaching about the importance of cleaning and maintaining our side arms many of our fellow officers continue to not take this seriously. A properly maintained and lubricated firearm following the manufacturer's guidelines is as important to you and those that may have to rely on you as understanding sound tactics and techniques to survive a firefight on the street.
Every time a firearm is taken apart, cleaned, lubricated, and put back together, you should perform a function check. Often at the beginning of a training class I will have the students unload, make the pistol safe and perform a function check. I am often surprised by the number of officers that have been trained and carrying the firearm for some time that still do not know how to properly perform a function check on their side arm or a shoulder mounted weapon they may be using.
Inspection of our duty ammo before we load our magazines is as equally important. The primary objective is to keep our pistols at peak operational readiness so when we draw to place our firearm in service we feel confident it will perform, as we want it to when justified in its use. (Preventative maintenance guide coming soon.)
So, let's move on to some more terms such as in battery, out of battery, slide forward, slide out of battery, primary stoppage, secondary stoppage, and the list goes on. Bottom line, we need to identify why the gun did not work when we pulled the trigger and it should have fired, but it did not. However, looking may be a problem under reduced light conditions.
Here is a situation to think about not often addressed in training: Slide locks to the rear, gun is empty, no rounds in the magazine, (no mechanical problem with the gun) yet the shooter is still trying to fire the pistol (ever see this?). This wastes valuable time when they should have been reloading. The reason this occurs is the officer was never trained to understand how the pistol feels in the hand when the slide locks to the rear. While this may not be a stoppage by definition, it is a concern, especially under reduced light conditions.
A drill I have found helpful for the new shooter is to have them load all three of their magazines with three rounds, lock in on the center of the target at about 2 yards from the target, close their eyes, and on command fire all three rounds rapidly. Not only will they feel the recoil of the weapon, but they will feel the slide lock to the rear in their hands. This will help condition them to know when it is time to reload. Doing this a couple of times doesn't take too many rounds and helps the shooter progress.
Let us talk about what most of us call the primary method of immediate action. For most of us, when the slide is in the forward position and we have pulled the trigger and expected the pistol to fire and it does not, we tap the magazine floor plate, rack the slide and re-assess the situation, meaning fire if justified, hold fire if not. The issue here is that many of us continue to place our non-dominant hand over the top of the slide blocking the ejection port.