5 important lessons about firearms maintenance
Your lifesaving emergency equipment won’t work properly if you don’t maintain it
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I have a friend who’s the lead firearms instructor and armorer for a small (approximately 70 sworn) police department in a major metropolitan area. He recently completed a command-directed inspection of all handguns authorized for duty use and was troubled by what he discovered.
The results of this inspection raise some important points about police training, firearms maintenance protocols and the reliability of police duty weapons that are relevant to all Police1 readers, regardless of demographics. It doesn’t matter whether your agency is small or large, local, state or federal, or whether you carry an agency-issued firearm, or a privately owned one. The truth is, we share a lot more similarities than differences, and it’s a safe bet that everything that happens at my friend’s agency is also happening at yours.
Before we take a look at some of the lessons we can learn from his agency’s recent experience, a word on reliability is in order.
A firearm’s reliability depends on the relationship between the pistol itself, the ammunition it fires, the shooter’s technique and how the firearm has been maintained. Each of these elements must be well regulated to ensure reliability, and a breakdown in any of them can disrupt the firing cycle and cause a malfunction. When several of these elements degrade simultaneously, a malfunction is virtually guaranteed.
We’re going to focus a lot on the maintenance part of the equation in this article – because my friend’s inspection highlighted some real deficiencies in this area – but all of us need to remember that maintenance is just one piece of the reliability puzzle.
The inspection process
Officers in this agency are issued a pistol that they must complete initial training with. Once they have qualified to carry the issued firearm on duty, they are permitted to purchase alternative weapons from an extensive list of department-approved guns and carry them on duty after training and qualifying with them. If an officer normally carries a privately owned weapon on duty, he or she must still train and qualify with the department-issued firearm during one of the 8-10 mandatory training sessions each year.
In this fashion, if an officer is involved in a shooting and their personally-owned weapon is booked into evidence, they have ready access to a department-issued replacement weapon that they have previously trained and qualified with, and are authorized to carry on duty.
As a result of this liberal policy, there is a wide variety of weapon types in use at this agency, and many officers have three or four weapons they are authorized to carry on duty as either a primary or backup. The large number and diversity of weapons presented a logistical challenge for the inspection team, who were required to complete the inspection in a short window of time.
There would not be time to detail strip every authorized weapon and subject it to an extensive shooting protocol. Instead, every authorized firearm would be function tested with a single magazine or cylinder’s worth of duty ammunition, and they would be field-stripped and inspected.
Here are some of the significant lessons learned from this inspection.
Distressingly, about 90% of the inspected weapons were improperly maintained by the officers. A sizable number of the firearms had no lubrication at all, which prevented many of them from operating properly. Another large group had a sloppy excess of lubricant, which allowed oil to get into places that it shouldn’t be, and attract other contaminants that gummed up the works. Many were just downright filthy, and hadn’t been properly cleaned in a long time...if ever.
A few guns demonstrated problems that required a more detailed disassembly and inspection but were so badly corroded that they couldn’t be taken apart. These guns had to be soaked in penetrating oil, secured into a vise, and carefully beaten apart with a punch and mallet to get a look at the internals ‒ which were often so badly damaged that replacement parts were necessary to fix the gun.
The department has a fully stocked cleaning room the officers have free access to at all times, so they can properly maintain their weapons, but it was apparent that most of them were not taking advantage of this important resource.
Lessons: It doesn’t take much time or effort to properly maintain your duty weapon. If you don’t know how to properly maintain your weapon, consult the owner’s manual and ask someone to show you. Armed professionals must keep their firearms in good working order, and must develop good weapons maintenance habits because their lives and the lives of others depend on them.
It was noted very early in the inspection that firearms that were carried as secondary, off-duty, or backup guns were especially likely to be neglected by the officers. While the primary duty weapons weren’t in great shape, overall, these secondary weapons were in even worse condition. Considering the circumstances in which these weapons are likely to be needed – alone and without backup, or in a desperate situation where the primary weapon is down and you’re still under attack – it was especially distressing to see how poorly they were maintained, and how poorly many of them functioned.
Lessons: Secondary weapons require just as much attention as primary weapons. An emergency reserve weapon that doesn’t work will do you no good at all in an emergency.
Listen to your gun
Several officers had experienced malfunctions with their firearms during past training events that they failed to investigate at the time. When these firearms experienced the same malfunctions during the function-test portion of this inspection, it didn’t take long to diagnose the issues as maintenance-related.
One of the most distressing – and common – malfunctions witnessed was the failure of a weapon to fire the first round. In practice, an officer would attempt to fire a round and it would not ignite, so the officer would clear the malfunction with immediate action (“Tap, Rack”) and resume firing. On some particularly problematic weapons, these failures to fire (FTFs) might continue intermittently for a while before the weapon settled into a normal rhythm and ran without interruption.
Without exception, the weapons that demonstrated this tendency were striker-fired guns that had an excess of solvent and oil buildup in the striker channel of the gun. As a result of poor maintenance practices, these chemicals were allowed to collect and harden into a gummy paste that prevented the striker from hitting the primer with enough energy to detonate it. When the action was cycled after the first failure (“Tap, Rack”), the blockage was often freed sufficiently to allow the next round to fire, but in some cases, it took several cycles before the gum softened enough to free up the striker. In the worst cases, the gun had to heat up from firing several times before the blockage melted enough to make the gun work reliably, but when the gun cooled, the blockage would harden again and set the stage for a malfunction later on.
A similar problem raised its head with weapons that showed a tendency toward failures to extract (FTEs). Investigation of these problem weapons showed that a gummy mix of residual solvent and oil was freezing external extractors in position, which prevented them from pivoting as they were designed to. The gummy blockage would actually “glue” an extractor in place, guaranteeing that a fired case would not extract and eject cleanly. Some of these FTEs had previously been improperly diagnosed as “limp-wristing” or grip issues when the real culprit was improper maintenance.
Is it possible that many of the first-round malfunctions that we’ve seen in recent officer-involved shooting videos might have been caused in part or in whole by improper maintenance practices?
Lessons: Clean and lubricate your gun properly. Remove all trace of solvents after they are applied so that no residue is left on the gun. Apply oil only where it is needed, and do not over lubricate the gun. Avoid putting lubricant in areas where it is not appropriate, such as striker channels and magazine tubes. If your gun stops working properly, don’t ignore it! Determine the cause and correct it immediately, because gun problems don’t go away, they just lie in wait, for later.
Every gun has its weakness
While some firearm designs may be more inherently reliable than others, every gun has its own Achille’s Heel, and you need to be aware of what yours is.
We previously described how the striker-fired guns were especially vulnerable to FTF malfunctions caused by an excess of solvent and oil residue in the striker channel. None of the hammer-fired guns that were tested and evaluated in this inspection suffered from this issue – even when the level of contaminants in the firing pin channel was similar – because the hammer-fired guns deliver much greater energy to the firing pin and do a better job of overcoming the blockage.
Does that mean the hammer-fired guns are more reliable than the striker-fired guns? No, not necessarily. The hammer-fired guns have their own set of vulnerabilities. For example, one of the 1911 pistols suffered from so much corrosion under the mainspring housing that it had to be hammered apart, and many parts had to be replaced entirely, including the mainspring itself. This corrosion happened because moisture easily found its way into the gun through the gaps on either side of the grip safety and mainspring housing, along the back strap. This is a vulnerability that striker-fired guns like the Glock and M&P don’t share, by virtue of their plastic grip frames.
Not all guns of the same type are created equally, either. The striker-fired Glock pistols allow the user to easily remove the extractor components for a full cleaning, but the striker-fired Smith & Wesson pistols do not, because the extractor is secured by a pin that’s not designed to be routinely removed, and must be replaced with a new pin each time it is.
Lessons: Know your gear! Your pistol has its strengths and its weaknesses, and you must know what they are to keep your equipment in good order. You must know what the problem areas are on your firearm – which areas require the most attention from you to keep them running smoothly. Reliability has nothing to do with brand names – they can all fail if they’re not properly operated and maintained by you;
Firearm maintenance is simple, but that doesn’t mean that everyone understands it. Sometimes agencies assume personnel know more than they do about what it takes to properly maintain their firearm. Agencies also incorrectly assume their personnel are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and don’t check to make sure that they are – verification is important, here.
Lessons: Agency leaders and trainers must ensure their personnel are adequately trained in firearms maintenance – it’s not enough to say, “It’s in the manual.” Agencies must take an active role in coaching, evaluating, and monitoring their people to make sure they’re doing what they need to be doing to keep their duty firearms in good working order. Consider what you’re doing to train your people and periodically inspect their equipment, to ensure compliance with standards.
A police officer’s firearm is perhaps the least likely piece of equipment to be used, but when it’s required, it absolutely MUST work properly.
There are many components to firearms reliability, and proper maintenance is certainly one of the keys to success. Take some time today to make sure that your lifesaving equipment – and that of your troops – has been properly maintained, so that it will work for you when you need it most.
Be safe out there.
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