Magazines and reliability

Handguns are machines made up of a number of individual parts all working in harmony to achieve a particular goal. If we use these machines with any frequency, sooner or later some of those parts are going to wear or break to the point where they stop working in harmony with the rest of the parts and the gun ceases to function. The magazine of a semi-automatic firearm is also a machine and is the component of your semi-automatic firearm that is most likely to fail.

They can fail in many ways…some blatantly obvious, and some not quite so obvious. A magazine with a visible crack or severe dent is pretty easy to see. A magazine with feed lips that have been spread due to wear and tear or just shoddy materials and construction is not quite as easy to see…at least not until you actually try to use the firearm. Then suddenly you get this:

Worn, damaged, or just crappy magazines can really complicate your life.
Worn, damaged, or just crappy magazines can really complicate your life. Photo courtesy of J.P.

There are multiple problems at play in this picture. Firstly, the follower of the magazine has apparently become stuck in the magazine tube. This happens occasionally if the magazine gets dirty or the magazine tube itself is damaged or manufactured poorly. A weak magazine spring or broken/marred follower can also result in the follower sticking in the tube which removes spring tension on the rounds in the magazine and allows them to flop around.

If that circumstance is combined with a magazine with feed lips that have spread out over time due to wear or bad metallurgy, you end up with what you see in the picture above. The follower was no longer applying pressure to the rounds and the feed lips are so spread out that they don’t effectively hold the cartridges within the magazine. The end result is that the chamber of this pistol ends up looking like a particularly unsuccessful clown car impression.

While all magazines will eventually break or experience problems, some of them are more prone to doing so than others. One of the reasons the Springfield XD line has not been adopted by more law enforcement agencies is due to the fact that their magazines tend to tolerate abuse with much less grace than those for, say, a Glock 17 or a Beretta 92. In my experience, XD magazines tend to suffer breakages or damage more easily than factory-quality magazines from Glock, Sig, Beretta, and Smith & Wesson. Others with more experience than I bring to the table have noted this tendency as well.

Of course, XD magazines are not the only ones that can experience problems. All magazines will eventually stop if you cram enough crud in them. I’ve experienced a follower freeze-up with a factory Beretta 92 magazine, but that was during a training course where we experienced torrential rains just short of tropical storm level. That storm turned the range into a gravely mud pit which is not ideal conditions for working on speed reloads. There was actually standing water on the range deep enough to submerge the magazine. It was also stepped on several times, driving the magazine into the mud until it was full of enough mud and small gravel to stop the follower. I picked up the magazine from the muck and a round fell out. I noticed the others were loose in there, deduced what had happened, and then gave the magazine a sharp smack which freed the follower. (Hooray for good magazine springs) The magazine ran just fine for the rest of the day, but I didn’t use it again after that day until I had the chance to clean it.

Dropping magazines, especially partially loaded ones, on the ground is often very hard on the magazine. Apart from dirt, mud, and other detritus that gets inside the magazine, baseplates and feed lips will sometimes crack, and tubes will sometimes bend or dent. This fact is, believe it or not, where the so called “tactical reload” came from. I actually discussed this with Tom Givens in his Intensive Pistol Skills class a few weeks ago. In the early days of Gunsite the gun that 99.99% of people showed up with was a 1911. In those days there was no Wilson/Rogers 47D magazine and folks didn’t show up to classes with massive piles of magazines for training. Everyone was using GI or factory Colt magazines in their guns. Dropping these magazines on the crushed granite of the range ended up destroying them to the point of students almost put out of commission because they didn’t have any functional magazines left. If the magazines never hit the granite, then you never have that problem, right? VIOLA!! The “tactical reload” as we know it was born. Just think: All that arguing about reloads you see on the internet dates back to a practice adopted to get around the fact that 1911 magazines circa 1977 sucked out loud. Stew on that one for a bit without getting depressed. I dare ya.

I know of police departments who have had magazines that outlasted the career of the officers those magazines were issued to. I’ve encountered police officers carrying magazines that were originally issued a decade and a half before the officer currently carrying them was even in the academy…and all that time without a single spring change or cleaning. It was actually a violation of policy for the officer stuck with those magazines to do any preventative maintenance on them like changing the magazine springs or cleaning them. Now that he’s no longer at that agency I can happily report he violated those policies and maintained his magazines. He determined he would rather risk disciplinary action on the off chance that someone cared enough to notice he replaced magazine springs than to risk death when they caused a stoppage in a gunfight. To paraphrase Tam, magazines are not the frickin’ family silver. They need to be cleaned occasionally, maintained occasionally, and replaced hopefully long before they start puking bullets into the chamber three at a time…and yet many citizens and sadly even many law enforcement agencies neglect to maintain or replace magazines when necessary.

So here is my quick and dirty list of magazine tips and tricks:

1. Use factory quality (or better) magazines in your pistol

With some notable exceptions (like the 1911) the factory magazines are likely to be the most durable and reliable magazines available for your pistol. Use them. Yes, they will likely be more expensive than some aftermarket magazines but there is a reason: They will work more reliably and last longer. One of the big sources of complaint about the M9 pistol in the military was due to somebody in the bean-counting section of the Pentagon getting a visit from the good idea fairy and issuing a bunch of really crappy aftermarket magazines that choked whenever exposed to sand. (Because it’s not like our troops ever go to sandy places, right?) They saved a few bucks in the short run but in the process turned a bunch of M9 pistols into paperweights. Don’t repeat that mistake. It’s just not worth it.

2. Inspect magazines and replace magazine springs regularly

The magazine spring wears each time it is compressed and decompressed. If you load and unload a magazine frequently it will wear the spring pretty quickly…some springs more quickly than others. If the magazine spring is too weak it will not get the next round into feeding position at the proper time during the feeding cycle, and that can lead to a number of different types of stoppage. Some magazine springs are sufficiently anemic that even being compressed and left alone will cause them to “set” and hinder reliable function. Springs are relatively inexpensive and you can keep them on hand without too much trouble. On a carry gun you may want to consider replacing the springs in your carry magazines once a year as cheap insurance.

3. Have dedicated training magazines and dedicated carry magazines

As I mentioned earlier, typical training tasks are hard on magazines. It would be wise to have some magazines you can beat the daylights out of without consequence while reserving a few magazines solely for regular carry. I want to treat my carry magazines with care and caution so that there’s less of a chance of a magazine related failure should I need to use the weapon in self defense. Labels, colored tape, and spraypaint are pretty cheap, so it’s easy to make a magazine visible as a training-only magazine.

4. Clean your magazines 

Most pistol magazines can be disassembled for parts replacement and cleaning. Every now and then it doesn’t hurt to take your magazines apart and inspect the inside of the tube for dirt, debris, or damage. You would be amazed at what sort of stuff you find stuck inside your magazine tube. I’ve found dirt, dust, bits of paper wrappers, lint, and even the remains of a couple of insects…all things that guns don’t like to eat. Dust and other light crud can be easily removed by a clean cloth. Mud and caked on dirt may require more aggressive action like a bottle brush. Here again I would make particular effort to clean my dedicated carry magazines on a more frequent schedule than my training magazines. Even when carried on your body in a proper magazine holder you’d be surprised at how much crud works its way into your carry magazines.

5. Be willing to throw magazines away

Magazines are wear items. They will eventually suffer a breakage or damage that is irreparable. When that happens you have to be willing to toss them in the garbage (or recycling bin) and move on with your life. They are a tool, they’ve served their purpose, and now they no longer perform their required function. Ditch ’em.