Clearing Semi-Auto Handgun Malfunctions

If you’ve shot a semi-auto handgun more than just a couple of times, it’s happened to you. Malfunctions are the bane of self-loading firearms. There are many causes of semi-auto handgun malfunctions; common ones include: poor technique by the shooter, mechanical problems, ammunition, dirt, improper lubrication, weak springs and magazines. With so many potential failures facing us, it’s important to know how to get our pistols quickly back in the game.

The 3 most common malfunctions in semi-auto handguns are misfires, double feeds and failures to fully eject (also known as stovepipes).


A misfire, also known as “failure to fire,” occurs when the firing pin hits the cartridge but the gun doesn’t fire. The main causes for this malfunction: a bad primer caused by an indentation or blemish, riding the slide forward (causing the gun not to go fully into battery), light/wrong/worn/broken springs, a bad firing pin or carbon build up in the working parts of the gun. Also, if you’ve had work done to your pistol, like you may with a competition gun, it might only work with certain primers. Some primers are too hard for a gun’s light spring to detonate.

double feed in semi auto Malfunctions

Double feed

This can occur when the casing from a fired round doesn’t fully eject and two rounds try to get into the chamber at the same time. As with a misfire, there are many possible causes for a double feed. Whether it’s the ammunition, an improperly seated magazine, dirty chamber or faulty magazine spring, a double feed is identified when the gun’s slide gets stuck partially open.

stove pipe im semi auto Malfunctions

Failure to eject

A failure to fully eject occurs when the fired ammunition case is trapped with a portion sticking-out of the gun’s ejection port (hence the common term for this malfunction, a “stove pipe”). When this happens, another round cannot feed into the chamber until the casing is removed. Possible causes for this malfunction include underpowered ammunition, a dirty chamber, an improperly lubricated gun or a weak recoil spring. Failing to manage recoil properly by holding the pistol incorrectly is the most common cause, though.

Avoiding malfunctions

A shooter can take a few steps to avoid these malfunctions:

  • Buy quality ammunition from reliable sources. If you reload your own ammo, use a sizing gauge to confirm all your rounds are consistent.
  • When you seat the magazine into your semi-auto handgun, do so firmly and don’t slap it like you see on TV.
  • When releasing the slide during loading or reloading, do NOT slow it by “riding” it forward. Pull the slide back all the way and let it fly. It’s the momentum of the slide that seats the cartridge properly and ensures the slide is in battery.
  • If you have been shooting a lot or using your handgun in a wet, dirty or dusty environment, be sure to give it a periodic, proper wipe down and then re-lubricate it.
  • When shooting, be sure to maintain a proper grip.

Your first response to any “click” and not a “bang” should be a tap/rack process. This should clear most misfires and failures to eject.

Tap, rack, reassess! 

  1. Firmly tap the bottom of the magazine with your palm to be sure it’s seated.
  2. Rack the slide to chamber a fresh round.
  3. Visually check that the slide is in battery.
  4. Continue shooting.

If this doesn’t clear the malfunction, execute the following technique to solve a double feed.

Lock it open, clear it, reload! 

  1. Lock the slide to the rear to remove spring pressure on the slide.
  2. Remove the magazine and let gravity help clear any loose rounds and casings from the gun.
  3. Visually check to make sure the firearm is free of ammunition, and also check with your finger.
  4. Insert a fresh magazine.
  5. Release the slide to chamber a round (remembering the above warning about not riding the slide).
  6. Continue shooting.
Failure to eject semi auto

There are other malfunctions you may encounter, and other people may have their own spins on how to clear them; asking a competent shooter for help is your best bet if you are drawing a blank. Nothing beats hands-on instruction.

At the very least, remember the bottom line in each of these techniques is to unload the gun and then reload it! And, always keep your gun pointed in a safe direction.