Ammunition is as important to the shooter as the firearm. However, it is not often the shooter invests much time into considering the issues they may experience with their ammunition. Therefore, I want to spend a little time discussing ammunition and the malfunctions you may experience.

The correct name for handgun and rifle ammunition is a cartridge. There is the centerfire cartridge and the rimfire cartridge. For brevity, I will discuss the parts of the centerfire cartridge in this article. The centerfire cartridge consists of a case, primer, powder, and bullet. The case houses the primer on one end and a seated bullet on the other. Packed in the case is the powder. 

The cartridge is loaded into the firearm and subsequently discharged. When the weapon’s firing pin strikes the primer, it creates a spark. This spark ignites the powder. As the powder burns, it produces gases that push equally in all directions. This gas pressure propels the bullet (projectile) out of the case, down the weapon’s barrel, and out the muzzle.

There are three types of cartridge malfunctions. 

First is the “misfire.” A misfire is a failure of the primer to ignite the powder when the firing pin strikes the primer. A misfire may result from a defect in the cartridge or the weapon itself. Perhaps the primer was bad, or maybe the firearm has an issue that results in a light strike of the primer or no primer strike at all.

Second is the “hang fire.” A hang fire is when there is a delay in the powder’s ignition after the weapon’s firing pin has struck the primer. This delay may last for several seconds. Unfortunately, when a cartridge does not discharge immediately, there is no way to know if it is a misfire or a hang fire. That is why you must keep your firearm pointed in a safe direction for at least thirty (30) seconds following the weapon’s failure to fire. After waiting thirty seconds, you can open the weapon’s action and remove the cartridge.

Third is a “squib Load.” The squib load is when the cartridge develops less than normal pressure from the discharge. The low pressure can result from little or no powder in the case. There is enough energy to get the bullet out of the case, but not through the barrel and out of the gun. The bullet may become lodged in the barrel. An obstructed barrel is very dangerous.

Things that can help you identify a squib load include; little or no recoil pressure, reduced discharge noise (like a pop instead of a loud bang sound), and perhaps reduced or no muzzle flash. If you experience any of these, you should suspect a squib load. If you suspect you’ve experienced a squib load, stop shooting immediately, keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction and unload the weapon. You have to verify there is no obstruction of the barrel. Firing a shot with an obstructed barrel may result in significant personal injury.

Knowing about and understanding the cartridge malfunctions will enhance your understanding of your firearm’s operation and what can go wrong. This knowledge will make you a safer shooter.


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