Getting Out of a Jam – Clearing Malfunctions in an AR-15

AR-15 AR-15 Authors Doug Larson
Getting Out of a Jam - Clearing Malfunctions in an AR-15

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.

(Doug Larson photo)

The first step in clearing a malfunction in an AR-15 is to keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, take the finger off the trigger and place it straight along the lower receiver without pressing the magazine release button, push the magazine firmly into the magazine well and then pull hard on it to make sure it is fully seated and locked in place.


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.

(Doug Larson photo)

If a spent case fails to eject, sometimes it is caught between the bolt face and the front of the ejection port like this, which is called a smokestack.

(Doug Larson photo)

Sometimes a case that fails to eject is caught laterally with its axis roughly in line with the axis of the bore. Clearing it is done with the same procedure as clearing a smokestack.


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.

 (Doug Larson photo)

If a spent case stays in the chamber, it is called a failure to extract and usually results in the next round trying to get into the chamber like this. It may require the same steps to clear as a double feed, but may not.


(Doug Larson photo)

A double feed can look like this, but doesn’t always. Clearing it takes a little longer than clearing a simple failure to fire or extract, but can be done fairly quickly in the field. It requires training and practice though.

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.

Getting Out of a Jam - Clearing Malfunctions in an AR-15

Clearing a double feed often requires that the bolt be locked open which is done by retracting the charging handle at the same time the other hand presses the bolt catch.


Getting Out of a Jam - Clearing Malfunctions in an AR-15

To clear a double feed, after the bolt has been locked open and the magazine removed, the first three fingers of the support hand are inserted into the magazine well in order to dislodge any stuck cartridges, cases or other debris.

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.

Getting Out of a Jam - Clearing Malfunctions in an AR-15

A bolt override like this is a particularly difficult stoppage to clear and usually requires tools and extra time to correct. Clearing this stoppage is beyond the scope of this article. (Doug Larson photo)

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.

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  • Mike Puckett February 26, 2022, 12:30 pm

    “If a spent case fails to eject, sometimes it is caught between the bolt face and the front of the ejection port like this, which is called a smokestack.”

    No, it’s called a stovepipe.

    • LEE T WALKER May 1, 2022, 9:49 am

      “Observing is a waste of time.”

      When this guy started criticizing SPORTS, I knew this was going to be dumb. But that sentence on “O” is completely laughable.

      Fire his ass.

  • Gerry Taylor April 8, 2019, 5:51 am

    Sounds like your PC expression has got you in a “JAM”…or should we call it a “writer’s malfunction”.

  • Rodger Young September 14, 2018, 10:20 pm

    A double feed is exactly that, two rounds feeding from the magazine. A live round and a fired round is a Failure to Eject or a Failure to Extract depending on where the fired round is in the receiver.99% of Double Feeds are magazine related.

  • Alex September 5, 2018, 5:59 pm

    I love how the author totally discredits “SPORTS” and then goes on to tell you to do the exact same steps. Slapping the magazine (hard) is the same thing as pushing it into the mag well. Pull the charging handle, observe and then release the handle/BCG. It is the same dam thing. Looking into the chamber can be useful, especially if you have a double feed or bolt over ride. It gives you that information sooner than having to repeat the same steps only to realize the issue wasn’t resolved so now you have to clear the “JAM” anyways. I’ve put it into practice many, many times and I have never second guess the practice or effectiveness of it.

  • T September 5, 2018, 3:54 pm

    I believe in practice. Clear the firearm over and like it’s part of the operation. Load a snapper in the bottom of the mag and go till it hits, clear, continue to march.

    My wife inheritted guns from her Army Gen grandfather. A remrand .45, colt gen officers hamerless, and a nice P-08 bring back. She had never fired a gun, let alone owned museum pieces.

    So I started her out with the .22 wheel gun, grad to a Buckmark target auto and now she’s handling the Big Boys much better. All firearms can malfunction, semi autos will, and herein lies the rub, carry a semi, BE READY.

  • Jay September 4, 2018, 10:06 am

    After reading the article and especially the comments, it’s no wonder things are in such a screwed up mess. So many people getting their panties in a wad over semantics! Jezz, jam works fine be it a gun, situation or bread, or not, no biggie!

  • chris krupp September 4, 2018, 4:15 am

    All terminology aside. Sgt. Pop, On his soap box, Got to the heart of the matter. ALL firearms at some point, For whatever reason. Will jam, malfunction, What the hell ever. The author, At least tried to offer some solutions.
    The bitchfest over wording means nothing.
    Thanks Sgt. Pop for a reminder in the common sense realities. And thanks to the author for the effort………….

  • Scott September 3, 2018, 7:08 pm

    “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.”


    So I’m supposed to use a five-syllable term (weapon malfunction) which could mean any number of things, instead of a one-syllable word (jam) that communicates exactly what happened, in order to avoid what… peer pressure?

    I understand the reason for differentiating ‘clip’ from ‘mag’, but if the gun is jammed, it’s jammed.

    Apparently there is a good reason why the word ‘jam’ is used, and it has nothing to do with toast:



    verb (used with object), jammed, jam·ming.

    1. to press, squeeze, or wedge tightly between bodies or surfaces, so that motion or extrication is made difficult or impossible: The ship was jammed between two rocks.
    2. to bruise or crush by squeezing: She jammed her hand in the door.
    3. to fill too tightly; cram: He jammed the suitcase with clothing.

    4. to press, push, or thrust violently, as into a confined space or against some object: She jammed her foot on the brake.
    5. to fill or block up by crowding; pack or obstruct: Crowds jammed the doors.
    6. to put or place in position with a violent gesture (often followed by on): He jammed his hat on and stalked out of the room.
    7. to make (something) unworkable by causing parts to become stuck, blocked, caught, displaced, etc.: to jam a lock.
    8. to interfere with (radio signals or the like) by sending out other signals of approximately the same frequency.
    (of radio signals or the like) to interfere with (other signals).
    9. to play (a piece) in a freely improvised, swinging way; jazz up: to jam both standard tunes and the classics.
    10. Nautical. to head (a sailing ship) as nearly as possible into the wind without putting it in stays or putting it wholly aback.

    verb (used without object), jammed, jam·ming.

    11. to become stuck, wedged, fixed, blocked, etc.: This door jams easily.
    12. to press or push, often violently, as into a confined space or against one another: They jammed into the elevator.
    13. (of a machine, part, etc.) to become unworkable, as through the wedging or displacement of a part.
    14. Jazz. to participate in a jam session.


    15. the act of jamming or the state of being jammed.
    16. a mass of objects, vehicles, etc., jammed together or otherwise unable to move except slowly: a log jam; a traffic jam.
    17. Informal. a difficult or embarrassing situation; fix: He got himself into a jam with his boss.
    18. jam session.

    Origin of jam
    1700–10; apparently imitative; cf. champ1, dam1

  • LG September 3, 2018, 3:47 pm

    ” … Getting Out of a Jam – Clearing Malfunctions in an AR-15 ….” Get an AK, much easier and faster.

  • Brock Auten September 3, 2018, 2:19 pm

    Don’t get upset because you were called out for using the wrong term. You are right you can call it whatever you want but it is still incorrect. I appreciate that you served our country but sorry the military doesn’t teach correct mechanics. There is a reason why you are reading the article and not writing it. Don’t talk shit about something you obviously don’t know enough about.

  • Sgt. Pop September 3, 2018, 1:52 pm

    The second main paragraph pretty well address anybody’s better “Other Way” As a trainer on the M9 and M4 range with Nat. Guard units that were getting ready to deploy, of the thousands of rounds down range, and 2 companies of men over several weeks training, I cannot recall a “Failure to Fire” that wasn’t ammo or mag. related. These were well used (yes and abused) unit training mags. Starting in 1965, I have shot about everything from CETMEs to M2’s and many hours on my (NG’s) match M14, and I can assure you, all are capable of JAMMing, Failure to Fire/Function, burp, hiccup, or whatever term most satisfies you, and most i’ve seen were mag., link, or ammo related. Rounds get dropped and stepped on and then loaded (no, I know you don’t do that, but somebody does), rounds (and links) can get crushed by ammo can/ lids also. I have seen rounds fresh out of the “box” that had bends/dents or creases in them that would cause a F2F or JAM. If used and/or abused long enough, there isn’t a magazine out there that can’t be made non-op. Anyhow, if you and your favorite “gun” that isn’t an AR platform weapon, hasn’t had a F2F, just shoot some more. OK, off my soapbox now…..

  • chris krupp September 3, 2018, 1:32 pm

    Malfunction …Jam……You gotta be shitting me. Gonna have a pissing bitch fest over a word ?? We are our own worst enemy.
    The meaning is clear in the use of either word. Who gives a shit……

    • American Patriot September 16, 2018, 7:51 pm

      Christ you guys sound like a bunch of liberals whinning back & forth about a word. In a SHTF scenario you can call it a F**K-up just another simple term to indicate that something is “wrong”. Fix it & move on…..if your in a fire fight nobody else gives a sh!t what exactly went wrong except you need to take care of it. So grow the F**k up…..This is why the left is kicking our a$$es cause they can work together!

  • ~ Occams September 3, 2018, 12:14 pm

    When you’re being shot at you yell ”JAM!” You don’t worry about the politically correct nomenclature…..

  • Bear the dog September 3, 2018, 11:59 am

    Lock the bolt back and yank out the magazine that will usually clear 90% of the blueberry jams, oh I mean uh malfunctions

  • FirstStateMark September 3, 2018, 11:34 am

    Jam is something you spread on toast, something you do with friends with musical instruments and something your firearm does when it fucks up. This one word means many things so get use to it!

  • Rick September 3, 2018, 11:06 am

    I will stick to the term “jam” it has even been used on many owners manuals . So for all you fancy pants that like using your malfunctioning term stick your pinky up your ass while you sip on your tea. I’ll grip my beer and clean my Firearms. Also he said “slapping the bottom of magazine” can I back hand slap it or is bitch slapping it better? ; )

  • chris krupp September 3, 2018, 10:23 am

    Sorry, Trying to be nice for once. Jams, F***s up. S***ws the pooch. This was the reason I ditched the Colt H-Bar I owned. Don’t need to have all sorts of training to realize there are much better rifle designs than the AR…..

  • chris krupp September 3, 2018, 10:02 am

    This is why I refuse to own a AR-15 platform rifle. VERY poor design is apparent when rifle malfunctions.

    • American Patriot September 16, 2018, 7:56 pm

      I’ve never had problems in all the years I’ve owned AR’s but then I’m obsessive when it comes to taking care of my guns, rifles, weapons or whatever PC term you’d like to use!

  • Tenbones September 3, 2018, 9:46 am

    I’ll stick with using the term, “Jam”, as it tends to roll off the tongue easier and gets the point across. Maybe if I’m sipping tea with my little finger in the air at some social gathering, I might use the term, malfunction.

  • Andrew September 3, 2018, 8:28 am

    While all the options you mentioned are effective and good to use if you have the 10-15 seconds to do them, not including a back up weapon. Also without a bunch of practice they are by no means the quickest way back in the fight. Through trail and error and luck, one of the fastest ways and most frowned upon way to solve all malfunctions minus you magazine not seated properly. If you keep your non-firing hand in position grab the charging handle with your firing hand and slam the buttstock on the ground. It will clear double feed, junk in the way and kick out the round that failed to fire. Now granted people do not want to chance cracking their buttstock but push comes to shove and you can clear the malfunction this was as fast as drawing another weapon.

  • Demo September 2, 2018, 2:16 pm

    I only skimmed after the initial “don’t at jam” or else.

    You dear author are a tool.

    “Completed” hours of training. So impressed.

    Having served active duty for many decades I can state we say “jam”.

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