Why Your Super Reliable Carry Gun Suddenly Becomes a Jam-O-Matic

Editor’s Note: The following is a syndicated article by author Tamara Keel that first appeared in USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine Volume 15, Issue 6, October 2018 under the title, “Get Out: Rejection Rejection” 

I used to quip that I’d like to be a coroner because, if I were, I’d just list the cause of death as “lack of oxygen to the brain” in each and every case.

This old joke returned to memory in a recent discussion about pistol reliability. We were discussing why a known good pistol was exhibiting issues in a training class when I remarked that, assuming the gun had no broken or out-of-spec parts, there was only one real cause of malfunctions: The spent case wasn’t striking the ejector with sufficient force to eject cleanly.

The rub is that there are multiple things that could cause that to occur.

The most common cause in my experience is weak-sauce range ammunition. Inexpensive 115-grain 9mm FMJ ammo isn’t loaded very heavily under the best of market conditions. During ammo panics, there seems to be a tendency at some manufacturers to lighten powder charges and pass the savings along to the customer.

I’ve chronographed separate lots of 115-grain that were barely supersonic on average, with the slowest rounds of a 10-round string struggling to top 1,050 feet per second. Subsonic 115-grain ammo doesn’t give much recoil impulse to work with in order to function the gun. Where this rears its ugly head the worst is when the feeble recoil of these rounds meets the recoil spring assembly of a gun like an HK, intended to stand up to the force of tens of thousands of duty loads. The owner of the previously super-reliable pistol is left wondering why it’s suddenly a jam-o-matic.

That rearward velocity of the slide relative to the comparatively stationary frame can be dissipated in other ways too. The pistol would obviously eject most positively if the frame were somehow held magically still, while at the other end of this spectrum is the malfunction most commonly referred to as the “limp-wrist,” in which the frame is allowed to move rearward enough under recoil that the spent case can’t get all the way out of the gun before the slide closes on it.

SEE ALSO: Proper Way to Use Cover

That same malfunction can be induced in other ways as well. For example, I’ve been in classes that involved shooting while pulling the gun back into a retention position. Pulling the gun toward you while shooting is functionally doing the same thing as limp-wristing: moving the ejector backward through space at the same time the slide is traveling rearward.

The most pedestrian reason for the spent case not hitting the extractor with sufficient force is the slide being slowed by friction. The source of the friction could be external, such as an errant thumb pressing against the side of the slide or the shooter’s body or clothing in the case of a poorly indexed retention position. It could also be internal friction.

While modern service pistol designs tend to be relatively indifferent to dirt and lack of lubrication, they’re not magic. It’s possible for enough dry dirt and crud buildup to provide drag on the slide travel sufficient to impact proper ejection. Older, metal-framed designs tend to have much larger bearing surfaces between the slide and frame rails, with concomitantly more sensitivity to dirt and lack of lubrication.

So you can see how, while the actual cause of the malfunction is the same, there are many overlapping roads that can lead to it. The typical real-world example of this is the shooter who turns up at a class like Extreme-Close-Quarters Combat with his regular carry gun — we’ll say a Glock 19 — that’s been a paragon of reliability for the last 6,000 rounds. Be that as it may, he’s suddenly clearing malfunction after malfunction. “I don’t get it,” he’ll say as he clears yet another failure-to-eject, “It’s been 100-percent reliable up until now. I even put a fresh recoil spring in it just last week.”

But he bought a case of inexpensive FMJ for the class, which has barely enough energy to run the gun under ideal circumstances, and now it’s trying to cycle the slide against a fresh recoil spring while the friction of the shooter’s thumb is pressing against it in hundreds of rounds of retention-position shooting. It’s a perfect storm for turning a previously reliable gun into a hot malfunctioning mess.

Use good ammo, keep the gun lubed to spec and don’t hold it wrong. Everything else should take care of itself.

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Dflow February 2, 2019, 7:33 pm

    Been shooting Federal since 77. Multiple calibers, multiple platforms.
    Never a problem. I plink with Federal Brass and rely on HSTs for business.
    Wouldn’t give you a dime for that Winchester white box. Misfires and squibs.

  • G February 2, 2019, 1:57 am

    Yes even a well cleaned and lubricated firearm can become problematic just from being in its holster warm against your body day after day. You have to clean and lube a carry firearm at regular intervals regardless of use. If you want it to be reliable that is.

  • JoeUSooner February 1, 2019, 10:56 pm

    Good article… but, actually –

    Use good ammo, keep the gun lubed to spec and don’t hold it wrong… and everything else WILL take care of itself. Works that way for me, anyway.

  • Ryan February 1, 2019, 9:41 pm

    Or, when it absolutely, positively has to go “bang”…carry a revolver!

    • Scotty Gunn February 2, 2019, 8:40 pm

      Revolvers jam, too. Seen it happen many a time. Dirt between the cartridge and recoil shield. Backed out primers. Seen bullets move forward under recoil-should have been crimped harder, and jam by sticking out a whisker.

  • Dan February 1, 2019, 12:02 pm

    Another option is to crony the ammo first, know what it is doing, and then use a reduced recoil spring. I reload and for range days, enjoyment, I will do this, training is anther matter.

  • LARRY D DAVIS February 1, 2019, 10:10 am

    Maybe it’s just because I’m old, or maybe it’s my miltary background, but nothing in this article is new information. If the firearm operator doesn’t do his/her part, there is an increased potential for FTE. If the firearm becomes overly dirty (pistol or revolver), there is an increased potential for FTE. If the ammo is underpowered for the firearm configuration, there is increased potential for FTE. I’ve seen these FTE events occur again and again; the article simply revisits these age-old causes.

    • Tim Gay February 1, 2019, 1:02 pm

      Yessir. But there are always new shooters joining the ranks that have no idea why their carry gun is jamming.
      Thank you for your service.

    • Sean February 2, 2019, 12:38 pm

      “Repetition is the mother of learning”, not to mention “There is nothing new under the sun”. Sometimes folks just need it said again… and again… etc. ad nauseum. At least Ms. Keel didn’t talk down to the reader like some writers do.

  • TOM February 1, 2019, 9:27 am

    When shooting autos I always use full power loads, practice with what you will shoot! I carry .45s 90% of the time but on occasion carry a pocket 9, & as with 45s always use full power on the 9s. No problem!

  • TMONK February 1, 2019, 9:25 am

    OVER THE YEARS I HAVE HAD MANY SEMIAUTOS AND WATCHED THEM RISE TO THE GO TO HAND GUN AND AMMO HAS ALWAYS BEEN A PROBLEM.I HAVE A 686 WITH A 2.5 INCH BARREL,THE GUN IS WORN FROM YEARS OF SERVICE, IT ONLY CARRIES 6 ROUNDS, IT IS RATHER BULKEY AND NOT A GUN YOU WANT TO TAKE TO FIRE FIGHT, BUT IF YOU HAVE TO THROW DOWN WITH THIS GUN IT WORKS, IT DOES NOT CARE WHAT YOU FEED IT, AND WILL HIT A TARGET AT 50 FEET

    • PANTEXAN February 4, 2019, 11:14 am

      And your caps lock is on.

  • James Smith February 1, 2019, 9:03 am

    Personally , i think the article is bang on and well written. The first time i read an article by Tamara , i didn’t see the author ‘s name ( I assumed it was a guy ) , i felt crappy for that. Her gun experience is 5 times more than mine , explaining opinions & knowledge excellently. I find it dead sexy too. Would like to meet her & BS about guns. Look up her bikini photo . /wink, she finds it funny/embarrassing , i believe.

  • michael February 1, 2019, 7:58 am

    I found that Speer lawman training ammo(FMJ) works to the same specs as their gold dot jhp’s/ same velocity. If you can find lawman ammo, try some, it is in a navy blue box, easy to spot on the shelves. It also comes in 115/124/147 grains ro make things even better

    • James Smith February 1, 2019, 9:10 am

      I agree with Mike on this one. I find that ammo good in numbers. But i always look at listed velocity when i buy , other than .45acp & intentionally subsonic , who wants slow bullets ?

  • Green tip February 1, 2019, 7:50 am

    To the point of weak ‘range’ ammo; the only time you’d find me using my SD ammo (Win Ranger 147 gr HP’s) ON THE RANGE is when thoroughly testing it TO BE SURE the G19 (or other carry gun) or Shield flawlessly eats it. Otherwise it’s only FMJ’s or comparable…

    • tyler February 16, 2019, 7:22 pm

      I don’t train or practice with $1+ rounds, and I don’t chrono — but I do research a bit. I evaluate duty loads the old fashioned way. When I settle on ammo that runs the gun smooth, I’ll stock up on FMJ rated to the same velocity at the same bullet weight. No data; no use. A lot of the most available decent duty rounds have economical and rated FMJ to match. I’ll often buy & try both at the same time to verify feel and function.

      I won’t buy bottom-of-barrel anon ammo. I will reach for that cost range in practice ammo by reloading. Crank them up to — but not beyond — a recipe for the same velocity as store-bought. If I can’t find a difference, I hope I’m good to fly until something changes.

  • Bill T. February 1, 2019, 3:47 am

    The terminal ballistics on cheap range ammo is also not good. Even if your firearm cycles, it might not stop the bad guy as you’d expect. Use ammo designed to stop the assailant.

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