The dirty dozen

     The modern duty handgun is safe, dependable and durable. But for good measure, here are a dozen rule violations which can make a handgun less reliable:

1) Get bug repellent on a polymer gun

     The rumors are true. DEET (N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) is one of the most effective bug repellents in the business. Unfortunately, it is also an extremely effective solvent. Some manufacturers have warnings about getting DEET (and other solvents) on the magazine feed lips. It's actually best to avoid overspraying DEET-based products on any part of the gun.

     When shooting in a mosquito-prone area, apply DEET-based products to the back of the hand, not the palm. This will also keep the palms from becoming slippery.

     Solvents designed for cleaning guns, like Hoppe's No. 9, are safe for polymer. Clean the working areas of a handgun normally and use mild soap and water for where the hand connects to prevent a slippery grip.

2) Use steel case cartridges

     There has been a lot of discussion about the detrimental effects of using steel cased cartridges for practice. One would think that steel cartridges would score or break the extractor. Generally, they won't, as the cartridges are usually made of mild steel.

     Another theory says untreated steel will rust. Although there certainly is a risk of corrosion, almost all steel cartridges have a protective lacquer. There really isn't any usable data about galvanic corrosion, but there may be some steel products out there where this may be an issue.

     Steel cartridges are not recommended for use on a regular basis, as steel lacks the inherent elasticity of brass. It may be soft enough to feed in a chamber, but it does not seal the chamber like brass does. The bottom line: Using steel cartridges occasionally will not harm the gun. Use it sparingly and clean the gun well afterward.

3) Repeatedly chamber the same round

     A cartridge is composed of a brass case, primer, powder and bullet. When loaded, the case mouth must pinch on the bullet hard enough so it does not move prior to firing. Repeatedly chambering the same cartridge can shorten the length of some cartridges, to the point where the firing pin may not get a decisive strike; and it can cause the bullet to work its way out of the cartridge, causing it to change the characteristics of the shot or (in extreme cases) get it lodged in the barrel.

     The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute (SAAMI) explains if a cartridge is too long, it will cause the firearm to feed incorrectly or, more likely, fail to fit in the magazine. If it is too short, it can increase the pressure inside the cartridge to dangerously high levels.

4) Repeatedly chambering a shouldered cartridge

     The headspace of any cartridge is the area which indexes it in the chamber, preventing its excessive forward movement. The SAAMI dimensions of a case allow for the variations of case lengths. For a straight walled case where the rim is the same diameter as the case mouth like a .45 ACP, .40 S&W or 9mm, the cartridge headspace is on the case mouth. For the .357 SIG, headspacing is on the case shoulder, the area where the wide base of the cartridge tapers to its smaller diameter.

     SIG SAUER has capitalized on the law enforcement utility of the .357 SIG by making their P250 Subcompact Nitron models in this caliber. When the .357 SIG case shoulder stops the forward motion of the cartridge on the case shoulder, the brass shoulder slams against the steel walls of the chamber. Do this too many times and the case gets shorter. If the case is too short, the firing pin will not contact the primer reliably.

     The solution is simple: Rotate cartridges in the magazines by emptying the magazines before a shift. Reload and use a different bullet in the chamber that day. Once a month, rotate the bullets out by shooting them. Fill up with fresh ones to ensure that the magazines are inspected daily, the bullets are visually inspected and the gun goes bang when the trigger is pulled.

5) Lubricate your magazines

     We already discussed lubricating magazines with DEET, which is a no-no. Most manufacturers have a version of limited lubrication in their instructions. Some even go as far as recommending that one does not lube the magazine at all.

     When penetrating oils became popular in the mid 70's, several anecdotal stories about bullet failure due to contamination from oil surfaced. Incidentally, they mostly concerned revolvers. The military, our largest data gatherer, found that coating a magazine with oil can cause ammunition to fail and render guns unreliable. Currently, small arms users are urged not to coat a magazine with oil or lubricate them liberally. The idea is to prevent over-oiling. The latest school of thought is to wipe it on, then wipe it dry. Or better yet, use a Tuf-Cloth from Sentry Solutions.

6) Mix practice and duty magazines

     Does anyone want to use their practice magazine in a firefight? Not really. Having a set of practice magazines will make for more realistic training. Officers should pull the floorplates off the practice mags and paint them a unique color. Orange (or pink, blue, etc.) for practice, black for duty.

     Agencies who issue a single gun/single caliber can provide practice mags for tactical training. They should use carpet remnants behind barricades and likely areas of magazine changes to increase the likelihood that the practice mags will land on the carpet.

     Officers should still shoot with their duty mags during static shooting drills. If their duty mags look like they will be marginal, they become practice mags. Remember, magazines are one of the most likely causes of failure and should be inspected before the watch.

7) Ignore your laser

     If the officer is press checking the gun, is he press checking the laser? Red and green dots have been popping up all over the place in law enforcement duty because experts recognize their inherent advantage. Carry an extra set of batteries and press check the laser before and at least once during the shift. Carry cotton tip swabs to clean the lens of accumulated lint, dust and gases after practice.

8) Ignore the gun's exterior

     Finishes on modern handguns have reached the point where they are fairly maintenance free, meaning users pay less attention to the outside of the gun, even though they may lubricate the inside meticulously. But even "stainless" metal can be stained. Ask any criminalist with a specialty in hemotaphonomy about blood stains and "stainless" surfaces.

     A look under a magnifying glass will convince users that the exterior of his or her gun is dirtier than imagined. Buildup begins in the cocking serrations on the slide, where it is shoved and removed from a holster. Flecks wear from the holster and the surface of the gun gets shiny. If the user carries the gun inside the waistband off duty, the buildup in the grip and other recessed areas likely contains skin cells and antiperspirant. Dust from clothing and uniforms will congregate behind the hammer and trigger and where the slide and frame meet. This stuff will eventually work its way inside the gun.

     Use a toothbrush and soapy water on the grip of the polymer gun, and a Tuf-Cloth on the whole exterior. Scrub the cocking serrations and sighting plane on the slide. Tuf-Cloth bonds a corrosion resistant shield to the surface and the cloth is reusable.

9) Fire on an empty chamber

     Years ago, firing a gun on an empty chamber was considered a bad idea. Some firing pins were tempered to such an extreme hardness that they would crack without the cushion of the soft metal of the bullet primer. Although dry firing on most modern duty firearms will not spoil them, why tempt fate? An inexpensive investment is a package of A-Zoom Snap Caps, which can be reused just about forever.

     The same safety rules of any shooting practice apply to dry firing. Every once in a while, a user is "surprised" by the fact that they left a bullet in the chamber or did not drop the magazine before beginning disassembly. According to the rule of negligent discharges, the gun will always be pointed at the most expensive or tragic object in the area when it goes off unexpectedly. So always point the gun in a safe direction, even if it is "unloaded."

10) Conflict lubes

     Some lubricants are solvents for others. Follow the recommendation of the manufacturers first, and use the same name brand grease and oil if they are both used on the same gun.

11) Use non-coated aluminum cleaning rods

     Aluminum rods are generally cheaper and are quite durable. Unfortunately, uncoated ones oxidize and the resultant oxidation can easily abrade steel. In fact, the product of aluminum oxidation is manufactured to abrade steel. This is not what one wants in a gun barrel. For field use, portable field kits from Otis Technology or Hoppe's BoreSnakes are recommended.

12) OK, baker's dozen

     What is the worst, most wear-causing thing a person can do with a handgun? One can quickly break an extractor by putting a bullet in the chamber and letting the slide slam home.

     The extractor on any duty handgun grabs the back of the bullet when the slide moves forward. This action is cushioned by the motion of the bullet being stripped off the magazine and the fact that the action begins at the beginning of the forward movement. While the bullet is moving forward, the extractor contacts, then works its way around the case rim. The bullet wiggles a little before fitting neatly in the chamber. If this has to occur on a stopped bullet, while the slide is at its maximum velocity, it will eventually cause the extractor to fail.

     For clarification, the phrase was "will fail" not "might fail." Even a chipped lip on the extractor will lose a firefight.

     This is the short list of things to do and not to do to get more mileage from your handgun. The most important rule of this list is applying common sense.

     Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches at Hartnell College in Salinas, California.