One of the most terrifying experiences I’ve had with a firearm happened when I was duck hunting, using 3″ goose loads that had spent a little too much time soaking in my “dry” box. Though they’d gotten a little crusty after a few seasons of being lugged around, the primers still looked passable. After taking my first shot at a bird, I pulled the trigger for my second barrel (I’m an over-under kinda guy) and was greeted with a pronounced ‘click.’ Sliding the shotgun to my hip, I prepared to eject the shell and try again with a new one. That’s when it went off, nearly recoiling right out of my hands. A full three seconds after the primer had been struck, it ignited. This is referred to as a “hangfire,” and is one of a few major misfires that can occur during shooting and could prove disastrous if you’re unaware of them. Especially in a day and age where shooting hand-loaded or military surplus rounds is common practice, it’s essential you proceed with caution.
The primer went “pop”
Typically, when you hear a “pop” instead of your firearm’s usual bark—and you’ll notice a substantial drop in felt recoil when you squeeze the trigger—it means the primer ignited, but the powder didn’t (or was absent; reloaders with progressive presses know what I mean). This is referred to as a squib. This is a very definite sign that you should clear the weapon and look to see if the bullet even left the barrel. In many cases, the primer doesn’t have the power to push the bullet more than a couple inches up the barrel. Knock the lead out with a push rod before reloading. If you don’t and fire again, you could experience a catastrophic failure (right) where your weapon’s barrel splits or the entire weapon comes apart in your hands (violently and dangerously, I might add). A semi-automatic weapon, unlike a bolt-action rifle or revolver, will likely jam up before the next shot since the recoil or gases needed to cycle the action won’t occur with only a primer ignition. Again, clear the weapon and check the barrel for a stuck bullet (top).
Nothing but a “click”
If you pull the trigger and only get a “click”, it could mean the firing pin didn’t strike the primer squarely, hard enough, or the primer is dead or defective. Wait a second after that click to make sure it isn’t a hangfire like the one in my shotgun anecdote. When you’re confident it’s not going to go off, clear the weapon and check the offending round. If the primer is only dimpled and the bullet is still seated, you may have a tough primer (some brands require a harder impact to ignite), a primer that was seated too deep in the cartridge case, or a weak firing pin spring.
Don’t fear, but be clear
When seeing images of exploded guns or bloody injuries coming as a result of misfires (or more likely, rounds that were reloaded FAR too hot), it’s easy for a new shooter to become a little paranoid. Fortunately, these instances of misfires are few and far between—even less so with factory ammunition. But knowing what to do when your gun malfunctions can save a whole lot of heartache and pain down the line.
Featured image courtesy of HeroHog at The Firing Line Forums.