Dead Trigger: Clearing Malfunctions

By Chad Hiatt

Imagine: You're in a very bad situation, and you're fighting for your life.  You're being shot at by one or more bad guys.  You have your own gun out, you're prepared to take action, you're sighted in, you pull the trigger.

And nothing.  No bang.  And a bad situation just got worse; can you clear your gun fast enough to stay in the fight and survive? 

It's frequently said that most gunfights take place within ten feet (and nearly all take place within twenty feet), and most gunfights are over in three to five seconds.  Many of you have seen me clear semiautomatic handgun malfunctions, whether as a demonstration at a member meeting or as a training exercise at a live-fire event or a dry-practice seminar.  Understanding how your handgun works, how it can malfunction, and having practiced to the point of instinctive reaction how to recognize and clear those malfunctions could save your life.

You can practice all of these techniques dry, at home, in a safe condition and mindset, using inert practice rounds (such as SnapCaps).  You can also practice them on most any range.  Do so.  When the pressure's on, you don't want to have to think these steps through.

Contents


Type I - Malfunction: Failure to Fire ("click")

First symptom: You pull the trigger to fire.  Your gun goes "click" instead of "bang."

To correct the malfunction:

  1. Index your trigger finger (think "finger straight.")  Get it off the trigger.

  2. With your support hand, slam your palm up against your magazine's base to ensure it is firmly seated.

  3. With your primary hand, roll your handgun sharply to the right, so the ejection port points downward.

  4. With your support hand laid across the back of the slide, briskly and firmly pull your slide back, letting your support hand slide off at the slide's full travel; the slide will snap back forward on its own.

  5. Resume your normal shooting grip and sight picture on target, slack out of the trigger.

  6. Reassess the situation and decide to either shoot or not shoot.


Do NOT automatically incorporate pulling the trigger afterwards into your practice; you must make the conscious decision to either shoot or not shoot.  The situation could have changed in the fraction of a second it took you to clear the malfunction.


Type II - Malfunction: Failure to Eject ("stovepipe")

First symptom: You pull the trigger to fire.  The trigger goes all the way back without any resistance or a click (this is frequently referred to as a "dead trigger").

You do not have enough information to know what's wrong, yet.  It's going to take a precious fraction of a second to assess the state of your gun and correct it.  Someone is likely shooting at you.  MOVE.

Diagnosis:

  1. Index your trigger finger (think "finger straight.")  Get it off the trigger.
  2. MOVE.  Get your feet involved; move sideways, towards cover if you can.  Keep your gun pointed towards the threat.  In practice, take a single step if you need to -- make your brain expect to move whenever you have a dead trigger.
  3. Tip your gun muzzle upwards such that your eyes, which were across your sights, can now see into your gun's ejection port.


Second symptom: You see the spent case of a round sticking up or sideways out of your ejection port ("brass high").

To correct the malfunction:
  1. With your support hand, slam your palm up against your magazine's base to ensure it is firmly seated.
  2. With your primary hand, roll your handgun sharply to the right, so the ejection port points downward.
  3. With your support hand laid across the back of the slide, briskly and firmly pull your slide back, letting your support hand slide off at the slide's full travel; the slide will snap back forward on its own.
  4. Resume your normal shooting grip and sight picture on target, slack out of the trigger.
  5. Reassess the situation and decide to either shoot or not shoot.
Do NOT automatically incorporate pulling the trigger afterwards into your practice; you must make the conscious decision to either shoot or not shoot.  The situation could have changed in the fraction of a second it took you to clear the malfunction.

Note that, once you've diagnosed it, the steps to correct a Type II malfunction ("brass high") match the steps for clearing a Type I malfunction ("click").


Type III - Malfunction: Failure to Extract ("double feed")

First symptom: You pull the trigger to fire.  The trigger goes all the way back without any resistance or a click (this is frequently referred to as a "dead trigger").

You do not have enough information to know what's wrong, yet.  It's going to take a precious fraction of a second to assess the state of your gun and correct it.  Someone is likely shooting at you.  MOVE.

Diagnosis:
  1. Index your trigger finger (think "finger straight.")  Get it off the trigger.
  2. MOVE.  Get your feet involved; move sideways, towards cover if you can.  Keep your gun pointed towards the threat.  In practice, take a single step if you need to -- make your brain expect to move whenever you have a dead trigger.
  3. Tip your gun muzzle upwards such that your eyes, which were across your sights, can now see into your gun's ejection port.

Second symptom: You see the back of a round still in the chamber, and you see another round trying to feed up from the magazine, nosed into the back of the round still in the chamber ("brass low").

To correct the malfunction:
  1. With your support hand across the back of your slide and your primary hand thumb pushing up on your slide release, lock your slide back.
  2. With your support hand, slap your magazine pouch; do you have a spare, full magazine at the ready?
  3. Forcefully strip your loaded magazine out of your gun -- gravity alone won't reliably do it.  Hit the magazine release as you grab and yank the baseplate of the magazine of your gun.
  4. If you do have a spare magazine (you just checked), let the magazine you just yanked out fall and smash to the ground; discard it.
  5. If you do not have a spare magazine, retain the magazine you just yanked out, and transfer it from your support hand to your primary hand, holding it with your pinky finger against the grip of your handgun.
  6. With your support hand, forcefully operate your pistol's slide three times.  Not once, not twice; three times.  It may take multiple slides before your extractor throws that stuck round out of the chamber.
  7. With your support hand, grab your magazine (either from your belt carrier, or from your primary hand if you retained it) and load it into your pistol.
  8. With your support hand laid across the back of the slide, briskly and firmly pull your slide back, letting your support hand slide off at the slide's full travel; the slide will snap back forward on its own.
  9. Resume your normal shooting grip and sight picture on target, slack out of the trigger.
  10. Reassess the situation and decide to either shoot or not shoot.
Do NOT automatically incorporate pulling the trigger afterwards into your practice; you must make the conscious decision to either shoot or not shoot.  The situation could have changed in the fraction of a second it took you to clear the malfunction.

Malfunction: Emergency Reload ("empty")

First symptom: You pull the trigger to fire.  The trigger goes all the way back without any resistance or a click (this is frequently referred to as a "dead trigger").

You do not have enough information to know what's wrong, yet.  It's going to take a precious fraction of a second to assess the state of your gun and correct it.  Someone is likely shooting at you.  MOVE.

Diagnosis:
  1. Index your trigger finger (think "finger straight.")  Get it off the trigger.
  2. MOVE.  Get your feet involved; move sideways, towards cover if you can.  Keep your gun pointed towards the threat.  In practice, take a single step if you need to -- make your brain expect to move whenever you have a dead trigger.
  3. Tip your gun muzzle upwards such that your eyes, which were across your sights, can now see into your gun's ejection port.

Second symptom: You see your chamber and magazine are both empty ("no brass").

To correct the malfunction:
  1. With your support hand, retrieve your spare magazine from your belt pouch.
  2. As you bring your support hand up to your gun with the new magazine, eject your spent magazine.  You moved, hopefully to cover.  You do not want the bad guy to hear your empty magazine hit the ground before your handgun is already reloaded and ready to shoot.
  3. Firmly insert your new magazine and release your slide to chamber a round.
  4. Resume your normal shooting grip and sight picture on target, slack out of the trigger.
  5. Reassess the situation and decide to either shoot or not shoot.

Do NOT automatically incorporate pulling the trigger afterwards into your practice; you must make the conscious decision to either shoot or not shoot.  The situation could have changed in the fraction of a second it took you to clear the malfunction.

Malfunction: Improper Detonation ("squib round")

First symptom: You pull the trigger to fire.  You hear a "pop" instead of a "bang".  Your slide may not fully operate.  The gun sounded wrong; too quiet.  The shot recoil felt weak.

To correct the malfunction:
  • You cannot correct a squib round in a fight.  Discard your gun and transition to a backup weapon, or retain it and focus on alternate means to attain cover, evasion, and escape.

What happened?

Your gun had a round chambered, you pulled the trigger, and your gun attempted to discharge the round.  The firing pin in your gun struck the round properly.  Due to a manufacturing defect, the round in your gun failed to discharge properly.  Normally, the primer (the small round part in the back center of the round) is struck by the firing pin, the primer ignites, and the ignition spreads into the gunpowder inside the round's case, forcing the bullet out at high speed down and out your gun's barrel and cycling your gun's action from the pressure released.  The "pop" you heard was the primer igniting, but the gunpowder inside the case failed to burn completely, or at all.  The pressure from the primer igniting was just enough to send the bullet into your gun's barrel -- and it's probably still lodged there, stuck.  The pressure may have been enough to cycle your gun and eject the spent round, or it may not.  If you were to try to shoot your gun again, the next bullet you fire would strike the base of the bullet stuck in your gun's plugged barrel.  The full force of that impact could rupture your gun's barrel or cause a similar explosion of metal and debris in your hands.  At the least, it'll ruin your gun; at worst, it'll injure you.

A squib round must be cleared by a competent gunsmith.  Have your handgun serviced and checked by a qualified armorer before you use it again.  If you can do so safely, remove the gun's magazine and operate the slide to clear the chamber to unload your gun.

Quick Reference for Clearing Malfunctions

TYPE I - MALFUNCTION

"Click"
    1. Slam magazine.
    2. Flip gun to the right.
    3. Rack the slide.

TYPE II - MALFUNCTION

"Dead trigger"
Finger straight, move to the side as you flip up and look at your ejection port.
"Brass high"
    1. Slam magazine.
    2. Flip gun to the right.
    3. Rack the slide.

TYPE III - MALFUNCTION

"Dead trigger"
Finger straight, move to the side as you flip up and look at your ejection port.
"Brass low"
    1. Lock the slide back.
    2. Check for a spare magazine.
    3. Forcefully strip the current magazine out of the gun (optionally retain it, if you don't have a spare).
    4. Vigorously rack, rack, rack the slide (three times).
    5. Insert the new magazine (or reinsert the retained magazine).
    6. Rack the slide.

EMERGENCY RELOAD

"Dead trigger"

Finger straight, move to the side as you flip up and look at your ejection port.

"No brass"
    1. Index a fresh magazine.
    2. Eject your spent magazine as you bring up your fresh magazine.
    3. Insert the fresh magazine.
    4. Release the slide.

IMPROPER DETONATION

"Click and pop; weak recoil; bad sound"

Stop.  Carefully unload if you can; have the gun serviced.  If you're in a fight, discard the gun.



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