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Pistol Stoppages & Their Causes

Pistol stoppages on the range are a common occurrence, and happen when the shooter causes the pistol to stop operating in the manner for which it was designed. The shooter causes the stoppage by failing to properly operate the firearm. Stoppages differ from malfunctions, which are described as the weapon or one of its components breaking. What’s the likelihood of a pistol malfunctioning? A former USPSA national champion and gunsmith, Michael Plaxco, opines that a properly manufactured and maintained stock pistol should reliably function even with 1,000 rounds through it before cleaning. So what is the takeaway? Simply that stoppages are shooter induced and can be prevented.

On the range, stoppages can be a nuisance. We often take our time clearing them, some of us even continue the ill-advised practice of raising our hand to summon a line instructor to help clear - bad idea. In a gun battle, clearing a stoppage quickly can be a matter of life or death. If you or your agency has an instructor clearing shooter-induced stoppages, you are possibly setting that shooter up to fail should he have that problem occur on the street.

Causes of pistol stoppages:

  • The weapon is not in battery. This may occur in a variety of ways:
    • Fouling accumulation or dirty chamber
    • Insufficient lubrication
    • Improper grip
    • Riding the slide forward
    • Worn recoil spring (part of weapon maintenance)
  • Stovepipes  casing fails to clear the ejection port caused by:
    • Improper grip
    • Poorly maintained weapon
    • Interference with the slide’s operation
  • Magazine not fully seated - results in the slide going forward on an empty chamber.
  • Improper grip, aka, limp wristing - failure to firmly hold the weapon and provide resistance for the slide to function properly causes pistol stoppages.
  • Contact shots can prevent the weapon from cycling, thus allowing the one shot.
  • Spent case in the chamber - dirty chamber that impedes operation of the extractor. However, check that the extractor is not broken. The stoppage then becomes a weapon malfunction.
  • Weapon fails to cycle - can be caused by riding a thumb too high on the slide, retarding its movement, or riding a thumb on the slide lock or safety.

The above stoppages are the most common problems for shooters. The remedies are simple and should be known and practiced so that they become muscle memory.

Fixing the stoppages:

  • Tap, rack, bang - many of us use this as the go to method which has proven to clear many stoppages. However, it may also exacerbate your inability to fire the weapon by forcing the defective round deeper into the chamber. Options include removing the mag and cycling the slide several times.
  • Double feeds - lock the slide to the rear and remove the mag, tip the weapon to the ejection port side and cycle the slide vigorously several times, then insert a fresh mag.
  • Stovepipes - easily eliminated by firmly grasping the weapon to allow for resistance.
  • Quick fixes for stoppages, particularly in a gun battle
    • Dropping the mag and inserting a fresh one
    • Immediately going to your backup weapon
  • Regular inspection and maintenance of the pistol to ensure it is clean and properly lubricated. Will a dirty, dry pistol still operate? Probably, but why take the chance that it won’t, particularly when you may be staring down a thug’s muzzle? 

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