Hang Fires and Squib Loads – Dangerous Ammunition Malfunctions

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The 4 Cardinal Rules of Firearm Safety (link to article here) are a great start to gun safety. Notice that “start” is the operative word. When you advance on your personal journey into firearms usage and training, you will ultimately build more safety rules than just the four.

One place you will build up your safety acumen is in the area of malfunctions and clearances.  This article discusses two dangerous ammunition malfunctions which every target shooter and competitor should be aware.

Hang-Fire Malfunctions:

A hang-fire is a perceptible delay in the striking of the primer of the cartridge and the ignition of the powder charge.  Typically, this is not a malfunction which causes damage to the firearm. It does presents an opportunity for danger in the actions of the shooter

The danger of hang-fire malfunctions is when the shooter changes muzzle direction.  If the shooter tries diagnose the problem, changes the muzzle direction and the cartridge finally ignites; the bullet will travel in the direction the muzzle is pointing.

If the muzzle is pointed in an unsafe direction, like at another human being, this has the potential to hurt or kill someone.

Clearing the malfunction:

If the cartridge does not immediately fire, the shooter must maintain proper muzzle discipline.  Always point the firearm down-range, in a safe direction for 10-15 seconds or more.  Keep the muzzle pointed down range, remove the magazine/ammunition source and clear the chamber. The muzzle direction is pointed down-range during this whole process.

Squib-Load Malfunctions:

A squib-load is simply an under-pressured cartridge.  Either there is not enough propellant in the cartridge; or the propellant has become contaminated, thus affecting the performance of the projectile. Squib-loads are a danger to the shooter and the firearm the shooter is handling.

Essentially, an under pressured cartridge may not have enough force to push the bullet completely out of the barrel of the firearm.  This creates a barrel obstruction by lodging the bullet solidly in the barrel.

If you as the shooter do not notice the under-pressured round, any subsequent rounds shot into the obstructed barrel have the potential to cause massive damage; turning your pistol into a hand grenade.  It can damage the pistol, and if there is enough pressure behind the barrel obstruction, it can literally blow up the gun in your hand.

Extreme lacerations to the hand and loss of fingers may be a consequence of this dangerous malfunction.

A squib-load will produce a strange sound and significantly reduced recoil than a properly functioning round.  Typically, you will hear a small pop or puff sound like air is leaking from the cartridge.

Clearing the malfunction:

Stop shooting immediately if you hear the gun make one of these pop or pfft sounds.  Keep the muzzle pointed down range, remove the magazine/ammunition source and clear the chamber.  At this point, you want to examine the barrel and ensure there are no obstructions.

DO NOT look directly down your barrel.  Disassemble/field strip your handgun if possible and remove the barrel from slide.  Shine a light through the barrel to see if there is an object blocking the light.  For a revolver which you cannot remove the barrel, you can release the cylinder and use a light to look for a barrel obstruction.

You may need a wooden dowel to smack out the barrel obstruction.  The emptied barrel should be examined for any swelling, or gouging after it has been cleared and cleaned.  You may need to take the firearm to be examined by a trained gunsmith or armorer in order to ensure the safety of the gun in the future.


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