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Patrol rifle malfunctions are easier to fix than you thought: Part 1

When it comes to setting up, clearing and training to clear patrol rifle malfunctions, we need to go in depth on how to clear the problem instead of labeling it


Photo/Billy Ehteredge

Many officers can be overwhelmed when faced with a malfunction in their patrol rifle. It doesn’t have to be that way. With a bit of training and practice, most patrol rifle malfunctions are quick and easy to correct.

One reason officers find clearing patrol rifle malfunctions daunting is because of how the malfunctions are labeled and described by instructors. Type 1, Type 2, Type 1408 — why don’t instructors just describe the malfunction?

The single most common semiautomatic patrol rifle malfunction is the failure to fire malfunction. In other words, the patrol rifle goes “click” instead of “bang.” This is usually due to the magazine not being fully seated and locked in. Other reasons generally involve faulty ammunition, dry or dirty rifles, or weak magazine springs. If this occurs, the quickest remediation is the standard immediate action drill:

  • TAP: Firmly strike the base of the magazine with the support hand to ensure it is fully seated.
  • RACK: Rack the bolt vigorously to ensure the cartridge is ejected.
  • READY: Ready to fire if the situation still calls for gunfire.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When it comes to setting up, clearing and training to clear patrol rifle malfunctions, we need to go in depth on how to clear the problem instead of labeling it. So, let’s talk about how to set up for training, diagnose during a fight, and fix simple and complex rifle malfunctions.

If you chose dry practice of any patrol rifle malfunction drills with dummy rounds, verify the rounds you will be using are in fact “dummy” rounds. Brightly colored training rounds are preferred with bright orange tip and orange primer insert. Visually and physically verify your rifle is unloaded and double check the magazine well and chamber. Place any and all live ammunition in a separate room inside a safe storage container.

Patrol rifle malfunction diagnostic procedures

Some malfunction procedures are based upon visual inspection of the chamber. While this sounds acceptable, it is important to note that most confrontations occur during low or altered light conditions. Some other procedures rely upon hearing what the rifle does or doesn’t do. When attempting to fire the first round the shooter may hear a click, not the bang that was expected. This may seem obvious, but if the gunfight is in progress, and shots have been fired, there is a strong probability that nothing will be heard due to the noise and the effects of stress including auditory exclusion. This means a more comprehensive, reaction-based approach to malfunction diagnostics is necessary.

Visual confirmation is secondary using this process providing officers with information as to the extent of the action necessary to fix the problem. It has been my experience that this method is easy to learn, retain, and utilize under stress.

We normally start with dry practice before switching to live fire training. This forces officers to attempt to fire the weapon to diagnose the problem. The officer cannot simply pick up the rifle, peek into the chamber, and run through a function check procedure. In a combative situation, you will be attempting to fire the weapon, or had been firing the weapon, when it goes down. Our training should replicate this reality.

Generalized malfunction clearance guidelines

The following generalized guidelines have proven to support fast, efficient and reliable malfunction clearance under stress:

  1. Move and communicate by getting to cover while communicating with partners;
  2. Bring the rifle into your natural workspace to perform manipulations;
  3. Aggressively handle the patrol rife by attempting to rip the charging handle off the rifle when racking and releasing the charging handle. Do not ride it forward;
  4. Avoid breaking the final firing grip when manipulating the charging handle unless necessary or during remediation of a complex malfunction;
  5. Breathe and slow down taking a little time in the beginning could save you a lot of time at the end. Just because you can do something fast does not mean you’re doing it right and fixing the problem.

Combative gun-handling positions

When performing any combative manipulation, follow the concept of head up, eyes up and gun up. If you choose to keep the rifle mounted on the shoulder, be aware that clearing most of these malfunctions means attempting to get spent casings and debris from the chamber. So, it is imperative you keep the rifle upright or roll it to face the ejection port toward the ground allowing gravity to help clear obstructions. Gravity is your friend. Let gravity work through the large openings of the magazine well and the ejection port.

Common patrol rifle malfunction procedures

I am going to reference each malfunction with a brief description of the malfunction. Like I said before, labeling a malfunction as type 1, type 2, type 3 etc., does nothing to aid the operator in determining what is wrong with the operation of the firearm. Malfunctions are broken into two categories, simple malfunctions and complex malfunctions.

Simple malfunctions

  1. Failure to fire
  2. Failure to eject

Complex malfunctions

  1. Deep failure to eject
  2. Failure to extract
  3. Double feed
  4. Triple feed
  5. Failure to unlock

Simple rifle malfunction drill

Let’s focus this article on training to clear simple rifle malfunctions. Overall, it’s no different than clearing a malfunction from your handgun. The same immediate action is used as the primary malfunction procedure. This action will solve most of the malfunctions experienced with the patrol rifle.

Tap magazine aggressively (finger out of trigger guard).

Rack the charging handle to rear and release; do not ride charging handle forward!

Ready to reassess the target and environment.

Let’s take a look at these simple rifle malfunctions and how to set them up in training.

1. Failure to fire

Failure to fire is generally a shooter-induced error. It’s usually caused by the failure to properly seat the magazine, bad ammo, a dirty bolt face or a damaged/broken firing pin. The most common is failing to properly seat the magazine while loading. The failure to fire is cleared with the immediate action drill: Tap, Rack, Ready.

Setting up the failure to fire at home

  • Verify you are using only dummy rounds!
  • Rifle, dummy rounds and a magazine.
  • Insert magazine and drop bolt chambering dummy round.
20210328_143902 close up.jpg

Photo/Todd Fletcher

Setting up the failure to fire on the range

  • Rifle, live rounds and a magazine.
  • Drop the bolt.
  • Insert the magazine with live rounds.
  • You should have a magazine loaded with an empty chamber.
  • Press check to verify.
20210328_143756 close up.jpg

Photo/Todd Fletcher

Failure to eject (stovepipe)

With the failure to eject, the bolt has cycled to the rear and caught the previously spent casing as it was being ejected. There are two different types of failure to eject: the stovepipe and the deep failure to eject. With a stovepipe, the spent case is caught between the edge of the bolt carrier and the front vertical edge of the ejection port. Either failure to eject can be caused by blocking the ejection port (operator error or possibly crowding cover), a dirty weapon, a weak or broken ejector, or a weak extractor spring. The stovepipe is cleared with the immediate action drill: Tap, Rack, Ready.

Setting up the stovepipe failure to eject at home

  • Verify you are using only dummy rounds!
  • Rifle, spent casing, dummy rounds in magazine.
  • With the bolt forward, insert a magazine loaded with dummy rounds.
  • Pull charging handle back far enough to place the spent casing into the ejection port between edge of the bolt carrier assembly and the front vertical edge of the ejection port.

Photo/Todd Fletcher

Setting up the stovepipe failure to eject on the range

  • Rifle, piece of spent brass, and a magazine with live rounds.
  • Insert the magazine.
  • Pull charging handle back far enough to place spent casing into ejection port between edge bolt carrier group and front vertical edge of ejection port.

Photo/Todd Fletcher

So why go through the whole procedure of tap, rack, ready to clear a stovepipe malfunction? Why can’t we just pull the offending case out? If you are firing the rifle, your first indication of a malfunction will be pulling the trigger and feeling a click. In this case, the hammer has fallen, and the rifle will not go on safe. If there is enough brass available for you to wipe off or pull out, when you do, the bolt can drop forward onto a live round, but you would still need to reciprocate the bolt to cock the hammer to get the rifle to fire. So, you still need to rack the bolt to the rear. Simply performing the immediate action drill clears the malfunction without having to think about this issue at all. Again, the stovepipe is cleared with the immediate action drill: Tap, Rack, Ready.

Trying to wipe the brass away is a training scar caused by drilling vs. fighting. If you’re working on drills, make sure you’re training for the fight instead of just going through the motions. Police1 columnist Chrystal Fletcher constantly reminds officers and instructors to shoot the gun, not the drill. This is a good example of why that’s important.

Training with dummy rounds at home in a safe environment is better than not training. Beware that a critical component of the diagnosis process is attempting to fire live rounds. Running a drill where the malfunction is already set up and can be visually diagnosed is far different than firing the rifle and experiencing the malfunction during a fight.

Next month, we will discuss how to clear more complex malfunctions. In the meantime, get your patrol rifle out and practice clearing failure to fire and stovepipe malfunctions.

Todd Fletcher is the owner and lead instructor for Combative Firearms Training, LLC providing training for law enforcement firearms instructors from coast to coast. He has over 25 years of training experience as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor. He retired after more than 25 years as a full-time police officer and over 31 years of law enforcement experience.

Todd is a member of the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) and the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA). He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), and was selected as the 2022 ILEETA Trainer-of-the-Year. He is also a member of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) and won the 2023 IALEFI Top Gun Award. He can be reached at