Firearm malfunctions

Every one of us who has or currently teaches firearms classes encounters the home builder that brings their work to class.  In most cases as soon as you hear “I built it”, or “I am a gunsmith” you kind of shake your head and chuckle.  Occasionally they survive the entire training without a hitch, most often they have some issue, generally on day two, maybe day three, it depends on how intense the class is.  I have seen them crap out before lunch on day one.   Issues can range from inconvenient to catastrophic.  Improperly tuned or installed extractors on a 1911 are common.   Trigger work (or replacement parts) that result in a failure to reset, or light primer strikes are common on striker fired pistols.  Improperly installed sights that move or fly off under recoil happens frequnelty.    Every class taught or attended over the last 25 years or so has had something similar, and its not just pistols.  The AR15 is almost ubiquitously  unreliable under protracted use when tinkered with even by some very experienced gunsmiths.  Failures are not the sole purview of the home builder. I have seen highly customized AR’s take a dump after a couple hundred rounds.  It is a platform that is easy to customize, but not every change leaves reliability unaffected.  Just because you paid over 2K for your AR does not mean you purchased reliability, there is a big difference between function and fashion, and they are seldom synonymous.  There are custom builders that put together solid working AR’s that are fashionable, but many build fashionable rifles that just don’t work under harsh conditions.  Unfortunately they often look and cost the same.

Its just a glitch, only happens on occasion

Maybe short of “this thing has been Flawless” this is the most common response to your firearm failing to function properly at training.  Firearms built for fun on the range can have this problem. Happens all the time for me, building guns is fun.  Trying something different, tinkering, all these things can be what makes guns enjoyable. Its not uncommon for me to induce failure to see how to best fix it, or just see what works.   For me its mostly an AR thing, but it can happen to other systems.  Just understand, if the weapon is designed to save yours or another life “glitches” are unacceptable.  Occasional malfunctions (not attributable to ammunition) are not OK, PERIOD!  If the class you are attending is to teach or enhance that skill its not advisable or acceptable there either.  You would never take a “glitchy” gun to a fight, don’t take it to costly training either.   If for no other reason you spend precious training time (and money) fixing your gun instead of using it.  Nor is it particularly helpful in competition, at least if you intend to do well.  Consider, a single “glitch” can cost top shooters the competition and often does.  Translate that to the real world and it may cost a life.  If you are using proven ammunition in a self defense or working firearm and there is a “glitch” that is a problem not an inconvenience.  Either fix it, have it fixed, or leave it in the bag until you can.  One of the most useful adages for me came from a former Master Class IPSC shooter.  When asked how often he practices malfunctions he stated “seldom, I prefer to use a gun that works”.

Honesty with yourself is CRITICAL!

Here in lies the heart of the problem for most builders.   Too often those who build, invent, improve or modify things get their hormones wrapped into the process. I get it, without some hormonal content cool stuff would not get invented, thats not the issue.  Its when testing occurs that things get dicey.  Rather than be honest about what your genius has created or improved upon you ignore facts.  Firearms are machines, they either do what they are supposed to or not.  When they don’t do yourself a favor and recognize it.  Don’t make excuses, blame something or someone else, or write it off as a “one off”.  Its a problem to be solved, its part of the scientific method.  Build or improve, test, recognize the results, improve as needed.  Scrap the stuff that did not work.  If you are building a work of art no problem, get all the feelings you can find wrapped into it.  If you are building firearms designed to save lives your hormones will get you are someone else killed or seriously injured.  Lying in general is problematic, lying to yourself for the sake of ego or any other hormone based malady is just down right stupid.  It’s kind of pathetic to see in person.   Its almost sad to watch someone look at his pistol or rifle like it let them down with a “thats just not possible, it was perfect” look on their face.  No, it did not work, its not perfect, your not perfect, it just did not work. NOTHING on the drawing board or bench survives the range unscathed,  its just a fact.  Until it works as designed on the range in real life, with real ammunition, under real conditions its just a cool idea.   Now, get passed the ego and figure out why.

When you “test” your firearm at home really test it.  Running a few hundred rounds down range prior to class on your “build” is not testing.  Running 100 rounds every month for three months is not testing either.  Sending some ammunition down range for function at your local indoor range does not cut it.  Get it hot, dirty, and test it outside in as harsh conditions as you can find.  Do so with the ammunition you will use at the class.  If you are going to expend 1000 rounds in the class, put at least that many through it in testing.  Above all make no excuses, if it does not work either fix it, find someone who can,  or leave it at home and take one that works.

No firearm is Perfect! 

Firearms made by mainstream manufacturers have no lock on perfection (no matter the marketing).  Machines fail, period, even those touted as flawless.  Work in this business long enough and be honest, and you will see everything fail at some point.  Just because a big name made it or imported it does not mean it works under harsh conditions.  Not every weapon, mainstream or otherwise is truly suited for use off the range.  That being said proven firearms manufactured by proven companies fed factory ammunition fail less as a rule.  Weapons void of modification also tend to be more reliable.  Don’t get me wrong, having tested some very highly customized rifles and pistols many are just as “flawless’ as anything.  As a rule though,  the more they are tinkered with the less reliable they become when used more than admired.  Nothing is absolute, but in general a factory built firearm designed for use in harsh, hot / cold, and dirty conditions will complete most classes without failure.

The best firearm is an expensive hammer with cheap ammunition. 

Use good ammunition, put cheap ammo in just about any firearm and you can get it to malfunction.  Most of the time when a proven pistol or rifle has issues at a class it is being fed reloads or cheap ammunition.  When you attend a class do so with proven ammunition, reloads or otherwise, but for the most part your best choice is new factory loaded ammunition from a reputable company.   Almost without fail when someone starts having issues with their factory firearms it is ammunition related.   I have lost track how many times someone has complained  about their latest “perfect” polymer pistol not working only to find out they borrowed someone’s reloads cause “good ammunition is expensive”.  If you are going to use surplus ammunition or reloads make sure it really works in your gun.  If they are “your” reloads take special care when loading for the class.  Double check each load for fit, primer depth, and do all you can to assure no double or light loads.  Having seen a couple “oops” loads that resulted in catastrophic failure either from a squib or explosion it is not pretty.  Whatever you saved in ammunition cost may just get made up in the cost of surgery.

Bottom Line

Before all of the haters come out of the wood work this is not about bashing builders, home or otherwise.  It’s just simple observation over decades of training and teaching, along with  building and assembling my own firearms.  For many the ability to assemble an AR, or now even some combat plastic from your favorite parts catalog is what gun ownership is all about.  I get it, its fun, and I will continue to do so for a long time.  In my case the assembly or build process is far more enjoyable than shooting the end product.  Anyone knowing me just laughed out loud.  Every time I put together a rifle that will “stay as is” it gets torn down and re-built a month later.  My shop is littered with the parts of guns that would never get changed.  There is just something about putting something together then seeing it work.  That being said, when I teach at Gunsite, or attend training the weapons used are not my builds, but factory weapons proven over some hard use.  My carry guns are frequently factory with nothing more than a sight change to accommodate my 58 year old eyes.  Custom builds are built by gunsmiths that have proven to build firearms that are as “flawless” as flawless gets in the real world.  Proven by me putting sometimes thousands of rounds through their builds. My life is just too important to leave to chance.  If my carry firearm develops a “glitch” on the range it gets fixed or put away until I can figure out why, no matter who built it.

Assembling firearms and tinkering with them is a blast for many, myself included. Its not that I cannot build an AR, or even 1911 that will run hard, hot and dirty, I can and have.  Building combat plastic from the Brownells catalog is a ton of fun,  I have done it a couple times, long before it became the “thing” to do.  That being said, unless you are a writer testing a product, you are generally at training  to learn what is being taught, not test your gun.  In general taking a simple factory weapon will allow you to learn more then malfunction drills.  By all means, if your latest creation works, take it, just do yourself a favor and take along a mostly un-altered factory gun just in case your flawless build suffers its first malfunction after having been completely flawless!