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By Guy Neill

Modern ammunition is amazingly reliable. Problems, given the number of rounds manufactured, are extremely rare. They are rare enough that the shooter may be at something of a loss as to what to do if they experience a misfire. Understanding the potential causes of misfires and how to handle them could save your gun and possibly your life.

If you do experience a misfire, where the gun goes “click” instead of “bang,” the first thing to do is wait a few moments with the gun pointed in a safe direction to ensure it isn’t a hangfire (a delayed discharge). Once you are sure it’s safe to extract the cartridge, continue to keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and examine it. Take the round out of the chamber and see if the round has a firing pin indentation on the primer. Is the bullet still in the casing?

If the bullet was left somewhere in the bore, that indicates the primer fired and pushed the bullet out of the case, but failed to ignite the powder charge (if there was a powder charge).

Is there any unburned powder in the mechanism of the gun? If there is no powder evident, it likely indicates there wasn’t powder in the cartridge, and was not a true “misfire.” This is still a problem, however. If the bullet was driven into the bore, it’s a more serious problem than a true misfire and you’ll have to remove it.

If there is powder in the action of the gun, that means the primer failed to ignite the powder charge. There can be several reasons for this.

If you didn’t note whether or not there was powder in the action, examine the bullet once it’s removed from the bore. If the base of the bullet is clean, it indicates there was powder in the cartridge. A bullet with a blackened base tells us it was a primer-only event. It wasn’t a true misfire, but an indicator of a cartridge failure.

Contamination of the powder is one reason the powder may have failed to ignite. If water, oil, or some other contaminate gets into the powder charge, that can prevent the powder from burning. Characteristics of contamination include clumping of the powder or oiliness.

Another possible cause of a charge failing to ignite is the priming compound being contaminated. This is more difficult to check and is best left to the factory rather than trying to check it yourself.

It’s not common, but there have been occurrences of the primer not having enough priming compound. This may result in the primer firing, but with too little priming compound, it may not generate enough of a spark to ignite the powder. There’s no way to tell from examining that primer, though, unless it did not fire at all. Again, this sort of determination is better done by the manufacturer.

Even more rare, but not unknown, are primers that somehow left the factory with no priming compound at all. The factory can likely determine if this was the cause by examining if there is any residue of the priming compound in the cup.

If there is no indentation in the primer from the firing pin, then it’s not a true misfire. Instead, it indicates a problem with the firing mechanism of the gun. Something prevented the firing pin from making contact with the primer.

Or, the cause may be a bit more mysterious. Some years back we had a revolver shooter in our group shooting practical pistol competitions. In rapid fire his revolver would sometimes misfire. Or so we thought.

He had the gun checked, and the gun smith could find no problems. Still, the problem persisted and even progressed. It gave an increasing number of misfires in a single cylinder.

Looking at the cartridges after he had problems, we saw there were clear firing pin indents in the rims of the cartridges that had not fired. The cylinder was not locking up appropriately and turned past the locking notch, allowing the firing pin to strike the rim instead of the primer.

We dropped some light oil on the pivot points inside the revolver and reinstalled the sideplate. The gun performed reliably – firing all chambers as it should. Apparently there was old oil or debris that was interfering with the mechanism – as in preventing the locking bolt from engaging as it should. The oil washed it away and provided enough lubrication to allow proper function.

If there is an indent, the misfire could still be the fault of the gun. If the firing pin broke, or if the spring driving the firing pin or hammer is weak or broken, it may not be able to deliver sufficient energy to the primer to ignite it. This sort of indent will appear shallower than a normal firing pin blow.

If the gun checks out, the primer becomes the focus of the misfire. The leading cause of misfires with reloaded ammunition is primers that are not fully seated. Fully seated is defined as the primer anvil legs being seated against the bottom of the primer pocket. If the primer is not completely seated, the firing pin strike can move the primer deeper into the primer pocket, robbing energy from indenting the primer cup as it should.

Characteristically, misfires of this type have firing pin indentions that look light. Should you choose to try to fire the cartridge a second time and it fires, it’s certain that this was the problem. A second (and, rarely, a third) firing pin strike firing the cartridge indicates the first firing pin strike completed seating the primer and it functioned as it should on the second strike.

But it may not fire even if this was the problem. The first firing pin strike may have broken the priming compound inside the primer, leaving little or no priming compound to be crushed between the anvil and the primer cup indention. In this circumstance, the cartridge has little probability of firing no matter how many times it is struck by a firing pin.

Such primer seating problems are virtually never seen in factory ammunition because of the quality checks used. Still, there have been some.

To recap, a true misfire is when the primer fails to ignite when struck by the firing pin. There can be several reasons. What appears as a misfire may be a cartridge failure where the primer actually fires, but the cartridge does not propel the bullet out of the bore.

If the misfired or failed cartridge is a factory cartridge, the manufacturer wants to know about it. Having the production lot number will help them.

Fortunately, problems with ammunition are rare. Problems can arise, and knowing how to assess any that do occur can allow the shooter to eliminate potential future problems.


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  1. Gee, this isn’t the definition of a “misfire” in Hollywood… there it’s a one in a trillion event where an unloaded firearm fires a live round and kills someone, after having been declared safe by multiple experts.

    • Hey Pb, I was going to add to your comment a week ago, and when I hit “submit”, the whole shebang was done n’ gone…. curious. Oh well, it’s old news now

  2. I’ve had a couple .22lr misfires. It seems like there was a .380 misfire in there somewhere. The one that really got my attention though was a squib in a 9mm semi. I’m glad I kept a wood pencil in the bag.

    • I’m surprised you were able to clear the 9mm slug with a pencil…

      • One more trigger pull and it would have needed more than a pencil.

        Was Federal white box target loads. I kept the slug but could not find the case after finally getting it to rack back.

    • I would say that 80% of all misfires, FTFs, and such have come from ammo I’ve purchased over the past year, from inventory produced while manufacturers have been trying hard to catch up with demand. One 50-rd box of Winchester white box 9mm FMJ had four duds in it. The next box produced under the same lot number had two more. And that was only what I shot on that particular day in a training course. Other students there told me they noticed an increase in faulty factory ammo, too.

      • Was it 115 grain? I had one from ammo that I purchased two years ago. It fired the second time. I haven’t had a problem with the Winchester 124 grain NATO.

  3. “…Once you are sure it’s safe to extract the cartridge, continue to keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and examine it. Take the round out of the chamber and see if the round has a firing pin indentation on the primer. Is the bullet still in the casing?”

    No, I’ll clear the round and *not* pick it up and inspect it.

    I’ll clear the round from the weapon and then kick it downrange, and take a look at it after the shooting is done for the day, thank you.

    I’ll let my dumb-ass brain-damaged troll pick it it up and ‘inspect it’, if he wants to…

      • GF, feel free to do as we do, and just humiliate it mercilessly.

        Kick it square in the teeth, it likes the abuse! It’s a punch-toy for all! 🙂

      • Hey it’s pretend veteran ‘I Haz A Question’. The ‘man’ who implied he’s a veteran just yesterday. Which of course is a complete lie. I hope guys like you and Geoff enjoy the freedom you actively avoided fighting for!

        • “Your Reckoning”?

          What a joke!

          Little boy (very little, I’d bet!), I am your reckoning, and don’t you ever forget it, especially when you lick the men’s room floor… 😉 😉 😉

        • Yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and believe the long time patrons to gun websites about potential past service over a No-Name troll with stolen valor accusations and no proof…. Unless you are claiming you know his full name, Social, and have access to look up where all the DD214s are kept

  4. So I shouldn’t shoot my Taurus with 2nd strike capability after a failure to fire? Got it. How about my AR? I have a lowly S&W Sport. No forward assist or dust cover. I don’t miss it. I have shot an AR that does. I want that boo-lit out not jammed in. With all that less than stellar ammo floating around I would caution against getting the cheapest chit. Even Winchester is having QC “problems”. Weak loaded m193 etc. too. They load for Herters too among others…

  5. As a note – I’ve had a roughly 50 percent success rate with dud-appearing .22lr being re-chambered at a later date and firing successfully, as long as the the firing pin strikes at a fresh spot…

    • I learned long ago to never fire open lead bulleted .22LR. All the misfires and squibs I’ve ever encountered in that caliber in my lifetime were lead bullets. Never once had a problem with copper jacketed. I know the bullet is on the front end while the primer/rim is on the back, and they shouldn’t have anything to do with each other, but I wonder if the manufacturing process of copper plated ammo follows superior quality standards. Dunno.

      • Interesting. I’ve never really paid much attention on the ratio of jacketed vs. ‘bare’ lead rounds.

        The bulk of my mass purchase at the beginning of the virus panic was existing production copper-plated, and I’ve only gone through a few hundred rounds of it so far. Now that supplies are easing up, I’ll have to rectify that…

      • Did you learn the term ‘copper jacketed’ during your imaginary military service, ‘hero’? Man what a 🤡 you are!

    • There are two methods of priming rimfire. The method refered to as “Eley Primed” because they patented it years ago, is a two step process which helps prevent air bubbles in the rim. It’s obviously more expensive in process time.

      The cheapest .22 ammo assuredly uses the cheaper standard process.

      Quality .22 Target ammo is plain lead, and highly reliable (especially compared to the “buy it by the bucket” grade ammo.

  6. Good article. I’ve never had any sort of problem with 9mm ammo. As other commenters noted, then there is .22LR ammo.

    I wait several seconds for a possible hang fire, then I rotate the .22LR round and re-strike it. I think I’ve had almost a 100% success rate with firing on re-strike. The one exception was with the Ruger 10-22 with a new BX trigger installed. They lightened the hammer spring in that unit, and it just didn’t strike hard enough. Took the spring out of the stock trigger and put it in the BX (trigger pull increased very slightly) and the problem was fixed.

    Once I had a .22LR casing split down the side and stick in the chamber. I had a dowel rod in the pistol case to knock it out. I brought the RO to my bench first to OK my actions and put others at ease.

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