Question of the Day: How Do You Know if a Firearm is Reliable?

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“The real issue for me,” Ralph wrote in his conclusion of the Caracal C vs. Glock 19 comparo, “the plastic Arab lacks the Glock’s record of reliability. Even though TTAG’s testers have thrown well over a thousand rounds of God-knows-what downrange with the Caracal C with only a single bum bullet, I’d only consider the C for my Every Day Carry (EDC) after the gun’s reliability and durability were proven through some kind of torture test. Or a longer track record.” FWIW, the Caracal’s now my carry gun. Other than the video above (F not C), I have no reason to doubt the Caracal C will go bang when needs be. What constitutes “reliable” for your self-defense gun? Personal experience? Brand rep? Interior exam? Lack of YouTube problemas? Que? [h/t Totenglocke and Stephen]

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About Robert Farago

Robert Farago is the Publisher of The Truth About Guns (TTAG). He started the site to explore the ethics, morality, business, politics, culture, technology, practice, strategy, dangers and fun of guns.

40 Responses to Question of the Day: How Do You Know if a Firearm is Reliable?

  1. avatarspymyeyes says:

    reliable in a firearm = you pull the trigger, gun goes bang.

    the more times you do this and it keeps going bang, the MORE reliable it becomes.

    given the factors of maintenance, ammo, and human error, putting enough ammo through your weapon until you make it malfunction is NOT an indication of reliability because of wear & tear on the moving parts will at some point make it fail all by itself.

    If you have reached 1000 rounds fired through your weapon with ZERO failures, you have a damn fine weapon by any standard!

    I have broken that mark with S&W 9mm M&P 17+1 and fed it every different brand, grain count, bullet composite, and case composite, and have YET to make it fail to go boom with each trigger pull.

    My other favorite is my 45. revolver that handles 45 long colt, 454 casull bullets like a dream and is dead on accurate. Same testing for me as with my M&P but have only reached the 500+ mark due to expenses of ammo, but man, it’s a FUN gun to fire!

    • avatarChainsawWieldingManiac says:

      The more times you pull the trigger, the LESS reliable the gun becomes, as you’re putting wear on the parts. What’s really happening is that you are gaining knowledge about this gun’s general reliability. There is some irony in that as you start trusting the gun more, the less reliable it’s becoming.

    • avatarRich S says:

      “If you have reached 1000 rounds fired through your weapon with ZERO failures, you have a damn fine weapon by any standard!”

      I disagree. That mark is sort of unremarkable in and of itself, IMO. 1,000 rounds over how many range sessions? Cleanings inbetween? Was that 1,000 rounds of the kind of hollow point ammunition its going to be carried with?

      A handgun that’s put through an intense multi-day course and manages 1,000 error-free rounds, despite growing accumulations of dirt or sand in the magazines, is probably a pretty darn reliable weapon. By contrast, it doesn’t really mean that much if a gun is taken to an indoor range ten time over the course of a month or so, fires 100 rounds of Remington UMC without any problems each time, and gets cleaned periodically during that time.

      • avatarspymyeyes says:

        well rich, to answer your questions in order:

        20+ range sessions over one year,
        ammo, was hollow point copper, stainless steel, full jacketed, lead round and flat nosed, and any other that one of the 3 ranges that I go to has for sale,
        and I clean my weapons after every use, as I was taught to by more than one gunny

        FLAME DELETED

        • avatarRich S says:

          “FLAME DELETED”

          Not sure what exactly you took umbrage with, but no offense was intended. Voiced an alternate opinion to a portion of your post and tried to explain my rational. Was not trying to claim my stance as fact, categorize you as entirely “wrong” or imply anything else of potential insult.

  2. avatarzerplex says:

    Apparently the there is a 30# recoil spring in there resulting in some of the weirdest scariest loading procedure gun handling skills I have seen in quite some time.

    • avatarJames says:

      I agree. The factors in reliability, for me, are
      -Quality of materials
      -Quality of design
      -Quality of manufacture
      -Test performance (read: personal range time, endorsements by fellow shooters, professional reviews, and so on)
      -Branding

      If some random, no-name shop were to enter the AR market with an offering that had a cast aluminum lower, didn’t adhere to accepted design principles for that type of weapon (which is why I would never buy one of the handgun-caliber chambered AR carbines), slams a bunch of them together to get them out the door in order to make this quarter’s profit reports, I would have to classify that rifle as unreliable.

  3. avatarJeffD says:

    For me, reliability is brand reputation garnered by reading countless reviews, watching too many videos, visiting damn near every LGS within 50 miles, and talking with shooters on the range.

  4. avatartdiinva says:

    I am less reliable than any firearm I own. Virtually ever FTF, FTE or failure to go bang has been my fault. (not that I have that many) The only failure that I can attribute to mechanical problems was a bad magazine on my 1911 a couple of years ago.

  5. avatarNathan says:

    On a side note, there is one thing that that Pakistanis have got better than us. I wish I could just put together an SBR at the range.

  6. avatarAaron says:

    Reliable? How about this definition: “when you leave a gunfight in a horizontal position, still breathing.”

    • avatarDerek says:

      I hope you mean a vertical position? Although, leaving a gunfight still breathing is a win in any position I suppose.

  7. avatarAnon says:

    To me reliable is a firearm that never has a problem that wasn’t caused by ammunition or user error. I will never carry a gun that fails for another reason. As far as hunting guns, I am more forgiving of hunting shotguns and such. One failure or so in 1000+ shells and I’m happy (my $300 stoeger has 10,000+ shells not a single malfunction).

  8. avatarAharon says:

    “What constitutes “reliable” for your self-defense gun?”

    A gun that fits my hand like a glove and repeatedly fires a bullet into a target.

  9. avatar230therapy says:

    I never purchase a newly designed gun, regardless of how “AWESOME” it is. I have seen too many problems with them that required recalls. Even Glock has had problems with their new Gen4 design. The Fantastic Plastic Arab won’t be in my safe any time soon.

  10. avatarready,fire,aim says:

    how do you know your weapon is reliable ? well if the name is kel tec you know you have a 50/50 chance something will break or fall off…

  11. avatarDon says:

    With a new gun, particularly a semi-auto, I strip and clean it, then oil it according to manufacturer specifications. Then I shoot about 100 rounds factory and about 100 rounds reloads through it during a range trip. I take it home and clean it, and then repeat this one or two more times. If I don’t get any malfunctions I consider the gun to be very reliable. Especially for a semi-auto if I am going to use it as a defense gun I will test a small amount of the particular defense ammo I am going to use through it at this point (about 10 rounds). Striker guns I do this “test” periodically if I am going to carry them because I’m not totally impressed with striker spring life compared to larger hammer mainsprings, as I’ve worn them out. I’m not as fussy about my revolvers (because they’re not as fussy either).

    I’m not into the whole “torture test” thing. I’m not going to fail to clean my guns or put dirt in them to see how long they work. I can’t conceive of a likely real life scenario where I won’t be able to wipe the gun out every 300 rounds or so. Even if the world ends, you could clean a gun effectively with urine and lube it with the oils from a sweaty forehead if you really needed to. I don’t think 1000 round continuous shooting tests really tell you anything useful, except how the gun performs continuously up around 1000 rounds, which is something that most people never need to experience.

    -D

  12. avatarJason says:

    Failure rates usually follow a bathtub curve. There is a higher initial probability of failures in a brand new gun, car, dvd player, whatever. It’s just do to some manufacturing problem that has yet to rear it’s head.
    Once the thing runs successfully for a while the probability of a failure goes down for hopefully a long time. Inevitably time and wear will ultimately win and the probability of failure will go up again.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see published bathtub curves for various weapons and have some statistical data to go on for making a purchase? Of course we’d never see that kind of data and are left to wade through you tube videos and forums.

  13. avatarJason says:

    Failure rates usually follow a bathtub curve. There is a higher initial probability of failures in a brand new gun, car, dvd player, whatever. It’s just due to some manufacturing problem that has yet to rear it’s head.

    Once the thing runs successfully for a while the probability of a failure goes down for hopefully a long time. Inevitably time and wear will ultimately win and the probability of failure will go up again.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see published bathtub curves for various weapons and have some statistical data to go on for making a purchase? Of course we’d never see that kind of data and are left to wade through you tube videos and forums.

  14. avatarKYgunner says:

    Research, research, research.
    If its a full size gun, are there any military/police units using it? This is a good indicator as they do more research before giving a contract than one person could do in a life time.
    If a compact, non-biased reviews (this site, forums, SOME YouTube channels like NutNFancy). If its for SD, must have reliable function under carry conditions.
    Haven’t shopped for an AR yet, but I’d stick to name brands that are recognized for quality, and check AR-15.com for reviews by people that own them.
    Last of all, but first in importance is personal experience. At that point it doesnt matter what anybody says. If it doesn’t shoot right, shoot straight, shoot comfortably, and shoot every time under the conditions it will be used, she ain’t reliable

  15. avatarRopingdown says:

    I buy a carry pistol when I see it gain and hold favor among expert para-military types who practice extensively and operate on their own in dangerous circumstances with no armorer to turn to for weeks at a time. SAD-SOG people are good examples. Then I shoot it for a few hundred rounds. I take it apart and have my brother X-ray the parts at his dental office. If that item fed what I shoot and the parts show no stress cracks or other defects during X-ray and visual inspection, I assume the thing is reliable and don’t think about it until I hit the recommended first parts replacement round count, at which time I replace some springs and small parts. and repeat the X-rays: This usually requires maintaining two copies or of a carry gun. This is essentially the process used by the people I copy. Why reinvent the wheel? I wouldn’t expect those guys to reinvent legal research.

  16. avatarRalph says:

    Buying a pistol early in its production is like buying a car in its first year of production. A good factory will test and test, but until the gun or car is loosed upon the world where the users will wring it out for real, reliability remains a big, fat question mark.

    • avatarRopingdown says:

      I agree. Would anyone intending to go brown bear hunting use some innovative new-design new-manufacturer rifle? Also, even the people with beater rifles check their firing pin and bolt periodically, and do a function check every morning. If X-ray isn’t available a fluorescing liquid soak and UV light will show stress cracks most times. [Clean it well after, obviously. Laugh. Unless you want your carry piece to fluoresce later.] I would remind RF of his own comment about the difference between a Ferrari 355 in the shop, versus a gun that quits mid-string. Innovative guns are for the range or gopher hunting.

  17. avatarST says:

    I would advise against using police/law enforcement use as a guide for reliability.Government agencies are usually constrained by fiscal law to select the least expensive product which isn’t unsafe or hazardous to use.Field testing can o establish whether or not a gun model meets the requirements,but beyond that the least expensive bidder wins.See M9 vs Sig 226.No intelligent gun person would say that because the Sig lost that its unreliable.At the end of the day,the only reliability stat that matters is the one on the gun you own.

    • avatarRopingdown says:

      Absolutely agree. I do think it makes sense to look at what people who actually face frequent serious danger alone choose. However, if they don’t have the freedom to purchase and carry what they want it isn’t worth looking. The fact that police carry what they are allowed is no endorsement whatever.

      • avatarCarlosT says:

        That’s something I wish Glock fans would keep in mind. While the gun itself is fine, the reason a lot of police departments carry it is because Glock made them deals they couldn’t refuse.

        For example, when a lot of departments were looking to convert from revolvers to semiautomatics, Glocks made trade in deals, greatly reducing the cost to the department. For Glock it was still a profitable deal because they could sell the used revolvers to gun wholesalers who would then put them on the used market. It didn’t stop there, either. Glock would provide training for department trainers and armorers, which would further entrench them in the organization. When the next round of procurement for duty guns came around, if there were any question it would be what model, not what manufacturer.

        I’m not knocking Glock for this. It was a very good, very smart business strategy, and one that wouldn’t have worked if the gun were unreliable or otherwise massively flawed. But it doesn’t make the gun a supergun or anything like that, either, and it doesn’t mean the strategy couldn’t have work for another gun of similar quality.

        • avatarRopingdown says:

          CarlosT: There is, to me, something odd in the whole Glock bit. On the one hand it is cheap, relative to many “good brands.” What is odd is that Glocks keep turning up, more and more often in my anedotal survey, in the holsters of serious people who have a choice. But they’re also still the go-to choice for units with financial constraints. It is as if the “cheaper choice forced by budgets” for which see Delta…is also the increasingly frequent choice of much better-paid guys free to choose [read XE and SAD SOG]. This is not a common occurrence in the manufacturing world.

        • avatarCarlosT says:

          Yeah, like you said, you have to take a look at what actual decision was based on. I’m not knocking the Glock as a gun, I’m just agreeing with you that the fact that so many departments carry it doesn’t mean what a lot of Glock fans think it means.

          Glock is up there in the first tier of manufacturers, along with Sig, Springfield, Smith and Wesson, H&K, and some others I’m probably forgetting.

        • avatarPhrederick says:

          *scowl* You forgot CZ.

  18. avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    In general, there are only a couple things that are really necessary for real-world reliability:

    First, loose tolerances are what make a firearm more reliable in the face of dirt, wear, poor cleaning or operator mistreatment, etc.

    An excellent example is the AK-47 and variants: When you pick one up, the thing rattles it’s so loose. But it goes “bang” nearly every time you pull the trigger with something in the chamber. Why? Because the tolerances are so loose that it doesn’t get jammed up by dirt.

    Now pick up a match-tight rifle. Not the sort of rifle that most TTAG readers think of as a “match” rifle, but a real match rifle, with the sort of tolerances that benchrest shooters demand. Get a little bit of dirt into the chamber and you often cannot close the bolt into battery. Or look at a tightened 1911 – get a little bit of sand into the slide rails and it’ll wedge up so tight, you need a rubber mallet to get the slide off. Look at real match .22LR’s – guns like an Anschuetz – and you’ll notice that you can get them dirty enough that you can’t get the brass to extract under some conditions. Their chambers are that tight.

    At the point you see what a real match-tight gun (as opposed to those that are advertised as “match” firearms) demands in the way of cleaning, you’ll quit thinking about carrying any “match” firearm for defense.

    Second issue is proper presentation of the ammunition coming out of the magazine in a semi-auto, magazine-fed bolt gun, etc. Semi-auto failures to feed, double-feeding, mis-presentation of the ammunition into the chamber, etc are most frequently caused by magazine issues. Too many people mis-treat their magazines, they don’t clean them, or (worse yet) they buy cheap-assed magazines and try to make them work. Don’t spend hundreds or thousands on a quality firearm and then get cheap on the magazine(s). Finish the job: get good magazines and good ammunition.

    Revolver issues usually fall into two broad classes: Mis-treatment and genuine wear. Let’s not worry about the genuine wear, because most people won’t shoot their revolvers enough to experience genuine wear on the pawls, hand, bolt, etc. If you’re shooting as much as Elmer Keith, then let’s talk about wear. But mis-treatment? Oh, that we see a lot of. Don’t do that stupid “spin the cylinder and flip it into the frame” bullshit. Don’t slap it into the frame. Too many people do stupid crap that bends the base pin, the crane, etc. Then they wonder why their revolver doesn’t work so well any more.

    Keep the cylinder, chambers, forcing cone free of crap, leading (if you use cast bullets), clean the barrel every so often and good quality revolver will usually just work. If one round fails to go “bang,” all I need to do is pull that bang-switch back again and I get another chance. That’s why I like them quite a lot – often better than a semi-auto. If there’s one beef I have with modern gun owners, it is that they overlook the very real advantages of revolvers because they think they need 15+ rounds per magazine, rapid magazine changes, the ability to carry a half-dozen magazines, etc. Most encounters never see a shot fired, those that do are over in the vast majority of cases in two rounds or less. I’d rather than a five-round revolver that’s small, light and reliable enough to carry all the time than my IPSC race gun that sports 21 rounds per magazine.

    Last point: Don’t let hacks work on your self-defense pieces, especially revolvers.

    After those issue, what you need to do in order to prove a firearm reliable is to use it. A lot. In different conditions, with and without cleaning, with different types of ammo, etc.

    • avatarCarlosT says:

      I overlook revolvers because I have yet to encounter one I’ve enjoyed shooting. My main issue is the heavy triggers. If my initial exposure to guns had been revolvers, I’d probably never had gotten into shooting.

      • avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        The double-action trigger in revolvers can be lightened, but there are limits.

        First, because it’s a safety issue. The NYPD showed what happens when some people have no external safety and depend on a heavy trigger pull to keep their booger-hook from making the bang-switch go ‘on’: You get people shooting themselves in the foot when they re-holster their weapons. Hence the “NY Trigger” on Glocks.

        Second, a big part of the DA trigger pull is the rebound spring, and if you cut too many turns off it, there’s a limit to how fast you can cycle the action because you’ll be waiting for the trigger to reset.

        Third, attempts to lighten the mainspring can result in unreliable ignition of ammo with heavy primer cups.

        But the typical S&W DA pull can be lightened up a bit.

        Now, with all that said, you can vastly improve a revolver’s trigger “feel” by asking a competent smith for an “action job,” which consists of smoothing out the metal on both sides where the action parts (hammer, trigger, rebound slide, bolt, etc) slide on the frame interior, then adding some good lubricant.

        • avatarCarlosT says:

          What sort of improvement can someone get and still have a reliable revolver? And what sort of price range do those services run?

        • avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

          Because of the forum software, I’m going to have to reply to my own posting, which looks stupid.

          OK, first, what does a S&W pull start at? It depends a little bit on which “frame” revolver we’re talking about, J, K, L or N. (Let’s put aside the hand-cannons with the X frame).

          The spec is about 2.75# to 3# for single action, about 11 to 12# for DA.

          Let’s not worry about making the SA trigger any lighter. That’s plenty light already.

          The DA can be brought down by lightening the rebound spring to, oh, a bit over 8#, and with mainspring&hammer changes, to perhaps 6#. Some smiths claim they go lighter, but I’d start to wonder about how reliable ignition becomes.

          Before you worry too much about making the DA pull *light*, get the creep and crunch out of the pull and make it smooth. For some people, there’s not much that can be done because the pull is too long, and it will never feel “nice” to them because you’re asking them to pull that DA trigger back a long, long way compared to a semi-auto in SA mode.

          Price range: $100+parts and up, depending on whether anyone made a mess inside the revolver previously.

  19. avatarfrankgon4 says:

    Relaible: I can shoot a the gun with no problems. I can hand the gun to my brother and he can shoot the gun with no problems. Hand it to my other brother and his friends and they can shoot with no problems. The gun goes bang with every shooter. A thousand rounds like this and no problems, then I deem the gun reliable.

  20. avatarBob says:

    My primary carry gun, never a failure of any kind after maybe 20 range sessions of upwards of 1000 rounds using both target and carry ammo. I have 100% confidence in it.

    My primary HD, several thousand rounds over several years. Had 3 failures the first range session (determined to be mag related), after that no issues. Again, 100% confidence.

    A gun I bought to replace above HD, 10% failure rate first range session, 4% failures second session, 1% failures for the next half dozen sessions. All Fail-To-Feed. At one point it was sent back to supplier who told me I was “limp wristing” to which I throw the BS flag. No failures per se the last 500 rounds or so. I have zero confidence that in a life-or-death situation it will go bang. In the last few weeks I believe I may have found something in that I noticed some of the brass has odd scratches which I intend to investigate when I have the time. I’m hoping its magazine related. But it will almost certainly never become the HD gun I intended it to be.

    Why do I tell you this? Because both HD guns are nearly identical models, proven designs made by the same well known manufacturer for many many years. I guess I just got one excellent copy and one that was made on a Friday at beer-thirty.

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