First, don’t call a weapon malfunction a jam. Jam is something you put on toast and if you use that term to refer to a malfunction, you are labeling yourself as a novice. So do yourself a favor.
Even the highest quality, best-made guns eventually suffer a failure or malfunction, and it may not indicate a problem with the gun. Sometimes the failure is induced by faulty ammunition, lack of lubrication or debris that builds up over time. If a gun keeps having the same malfunction on a regular basis, it is an indication that perhaps ammunition should be switched or the gun should be looked over by a competent gunsmith. If the malfunction is occasional – the frequency of that is a judgment call – it can still be a serious problem though, especially if the malfunction occurs in the middle of a life and death encounter with a criminal. So, learning how to clear common malfunctions is serious business and the procedures should be performed automatically and quickly.
Some instructors or firearms schools may teach different procedures than are described here for clearing malfunctions, so these techniques are a way, but not the only way, of correcting them. However, these procedures are taught by some of the most respected and oldest schools like Gunsite Academy near Prescott, Arizona. However, do not think you can learn how to do these things by reading this article, reading a book or watching a video. There is no substitute for training by a competent instructor who can watch what you are doing and make corrections on the spot. So, this article will give you a taste of the procedures but is not to be taken as instruction. It does have value though because the first step in learning is to realize that there are things you don’t know.
While some of the clearing procedures here have applications for other guns, these are specifically for the AR-15 family of weapons. Included are the military M16 and M4 which are based on the AR-15 and have similar operating systems, although the AR-15 is a semi-automatic gun while the others are capable of fully automatic or burst fire.
Those with military experience shooting the M16 or M4 are probably familiar with the clearing technique using the acronym SPORTS which stands for Slap, Pull, Observe, Release, Tap, Squeeze. It is a bad procedure and is not used by those who are highly trained in manipulation of the AR-15. It can actually make a malfunction worse. Here’s why.
Slapping the bottom of the magazine does not always fully seat and lock the magazine into the magazine well. It also does not confirm that the magazine is locked in place. And if the bottom of the magazine is slapped when the bolt is locked open, sometimes rounds are actually launched into the air through the open ejection port. It’s kind of funny to see it happen, but it’s a waste of time and ammo.
Pulling the charging handle to the rear and letting it go to chamber a fresh round is fine, but the method taught is to use the firing hand – the right hand for right-handers which instead should be holding on to the pistol grip. It is better to keep that hand on the grip so a shot can be fired quickly if needed.
Observing is a waste of time. The technique taught is to pull the charging handle, hold it to the rear and rotate the gun so the ejection port is up, then look into the port to observe. If the port is facing skyward, then gravity will pull any debris or loose rounds into the gun thus aggravating the malfunction. Besides, if it is dark, one may not be able to see into the ejection port and looking to see what caused the malfunction is of no help if the proper clearing technique is used.
Releasing the charging handle is okay, but that is done only after the observing step described above, which just slows down clearing the malfunction.
Tapping the forward assist is the next step and is a very bad idea. If a round is stuck in the chamber in the first place, tapping the forward assist may only stick it tighter, and may stick it so tight, that it cannot be removed without tools. There are better ways to fix a round that is not fully seated.
The last step is to squeeze the trigger. But that ignores the situation where the fight may be over and a shot is not required. It is irresponsible to launch rounds when there is no threat. As a cop or non-sworn civilian, the result can be jail time or worse. Just because the military does something a certain way and a person has been in the military, does not necessarily make that person a gun expert.
Here are some better ways to clear malfunctions that some very highly trained and switched-on personnel use. A malfunction, for our purposes, is a stoppage in the operation of the gun. It requires immediate action to return the gun to operating condition so it can save a life. These actions must be learned and practiced so that they are done automatically, without thought. There is no time to waste in a fight for your life.
Keep in mind that drawing a backup gun may be the best course of action in some circumstances. For example, if the threat is close, it may be faster and smarter to transition to a backup handgun instead of trying to clear the AR. That is a decision for you to make. The closer the threat, less time may be available for clearing and the easier it is to score a hit with a handgun. On the other hand, the further away the threat, the harder it may be for the opponent to shoot you which may give you more time to clear the stoppage. Also, consider the availability of cover or concealment. But, transitioning to the backup gun is something that requires instruction and practice. You don’t just drop the AR and pull the pistol. So get some training. How to do it is too complicated to go into here.
FAILURE TO FIRE
There are several common malfunctions or stoppages. The first most common is a failure to fire and is characterized by a press of the trigger followed by a click, or a dead trigger, and no bang. It could be caused by the bolt not stripping a round from the magazine, a round not chambering fully or faulty ammunition. At this point, it really doesn’t matter if you are in a gunfight. You just need to get the gun running so you can defend yourself. The immediate action is to take your finger off the trigger and place it straight along the receiver while maintaining a firing grip. Then with the support hand, push the magazine into the magazine well hard so it seats – don’t slap it on the bottom – pull it firmly to make sure it is locked in place, roll the gun to the right so the ejection port is down and gravity can help clear any objects from the gun, pull the charging handle smartly to the rear with the support hand, and then let it go so that it runs forward with the full force of the spring driving it. Then get back on the sights and determine if another shot is needed. If so, shoot.
If the magazine doesn’t seat fully by pushing it firmly into the magazine well, dump the magazine and insert a fresh one. Magazines that don’t seat properly need to be discovered in training, not in a fight, so check all your magazines on the practice range. If none of your magazines lock in place properly, get the gun checked by a gunsmith.
Sometimes, fully loaded 30 round magazines will not lock into place if the bolt is closed. So a trick taught at some gunfighting schools is to load only 28 rounds in the magazine. Some operators want the full 30 rounds at the ready though, so it’s a personal choice. Just make sure your magazines work right before you need them in a serious social encounter.
When racking the charging handle, the blade edge of the support hand can be used depending on which side the latch is on or if the handle is ambidextrous, the handle can be pinched between the thumb and forefinger to release the catch, or the first and second fingers can be used like a claw to pull both sides of the handle to the rear at the same time. Figure out how to do it in training though, and don’t wait until you are in a fight to figure it out. And don’t ride the charging handle forward. Let it go. These guns are built to be run hard. Don’t coddle them.
FAILURE TO EJECT
Another common malfunction is the failure to eject a fired cartridge case. The signal that you have a problem is, again, pressing the trigger and getting nothing but a click or dead trigger. This malfunction could be caused by a weak extractor or ejector and may result in a spent case being caught between the bolt face and the front of the ejection port. Or sometimes, the spent case just stays in the chamber. But you don’t have to stop and figure out why the gun did not fire, just perform the immediate action described above for a failure to fire and get back into the fight.
A third common type of malfunction is a double feed. It could be two live rounds trying to chamber at the same time, or a live round and an empty case trying to occupy the same space. Both are handled the same way and will require more time to fix than the previous two malfunctions. When the trigger fails to make the gun go bang – just like in the first two cases – perform the same immediate action that you did for the first two malfunctions. In this case, though, it will not fix the problem. You will get another click or dead trigger with no bang, which is your signal that you’ve got bigger problems and must take additional action.
However, since it will take more time to fix this malfunction, first decide if you have the time and/or have a place to take cover or get concealment. It may be that the best option is to rapidly leave the area. Only you can decide, and that decision must be based on your individual situation. Maybe if you are part of a team that can support you, you can let them know your gun is down, they need to cover you and take care of your area of responsibility while you fix your gun. If you are alone, your decision may be entirely different. This might be the time to go to your backup gun.
If you choose to remain in the area and are going to take the time to fix the problem, get to cover or concealment (cover is much better because it stops bullets, concealment hides you, but does not stop bullets), or kneel down so you make a smaller target, pull the charging handle to the rear and lock it in place with the bolt catch – you should know how to do this efficiently, that’s why you need training – then push the charging handle all the way forward so it won’t be damaged, remove the magazine – it may need to be yanked out if gravity doesn’t pull it out – and hold onto it if it is your only magazine. If you have a spare, discard it, then rack the bolt three times to clear the chamber. That may or may not clear the stoppage. Next, again lock the bolt to the rear and stick your fingers upward through the magazine well to remove any rounds that don’t want to fall out. You will need to stick your fingers all the way in as far as you can get them because they need to reach the upper receiver. A tip: You can usually get your fingers in farther if you orient your thumb towards your body. Then rack the bolt three times again. Next, insert a new magazine (or the old one if you don’t have a new one), push then pull to make sure it is locked, chamber a round by pulling back on the charging handle and then get back on the sights to see if you need to fire a shot.
Incidentally, some schools omit racking the charging handle three times before sticking fingers up through the magazine well believing that step just slows down the process, wastes time, and seldom clears the malfunction.
In any case, always carry a spare magazine. Magazines are often the cause of malfunctions, so besides it being a good idea to have more ammunition, a fresh one may be needed to get your gun back into running condition.
There are other malfunctions that can occur, but there is no room to cover them here. They are usually going to require a lot of time to fix and are not something that can be done in the field or the middle of a fight. They may require tools and the skill of a gunsmith or armorer, so it is probably a good idea to carry a backup gun.
Get good training and practice reducing these malfunctions until you can perform the techniques automatically while maintaining situational awareness.