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Pointing Firearms: Range Safety or Real World?

by George on March 7, 2013 10:17

This article was published by the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors in their magazine, "The Firearms Instructor," Issue 54.  Please note:  revisions to this blog article have been made to reflect changes in the case law that was in force at the time of the original writing. 

Police officers have been armed with firearms almost since the inception of law enforcement in the US.  Since equipping officers with handguns, shotguns, submachineguns, and rifles, officers have pointed those weapons at suspects whom those officers believed to be a reasonable threat.  It is inarguable that many shootings have been prevented as a result.  Is that practice of pointing handguns at suspects without the present intent to immediately shoot wrong?

In the last few years, some well-known gun writers and police trainers have been urging officers, agencies, and law enforcement in general, to consider that unless the officer immediately fires, the pointing of a firearm at a suspect is a “violation” of safety rules.  Pointing a gun, according to them, is therefore an inappropriate, unreasonable tactic.  What is the basis of their beliefs?  Range Safety Rule Number 2:  “Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.”  This new idea will be referred as the “Rule 2 Negligence Standard.”

One trainer wrote that “while not a violation of law,” pointing a gun at a suspect and not shooting is a violation of the safety rules of gunhandling and should subject the officer to discipline by his agency.  This action should be considered as “causing” the officer and agency to be civilly liable.

It is important to understand why these well-intentioned individuals are mistaken in their beliefs, and how to argue against the inevitable accusations by plaintiffs and the media (as well as those in your own agency) who will take up the chorus in claiming that any pointing of a firearm at a suspect without firing it is a violation that should be subject to sanction and/or judgment.  These people are, in effect, attempting to create a new negligence standard for American law enforcement—one which is unnecessary and impractical.

As law enforcement trainers, there really are consequences to everything we do and say—often resulting in life-or-death.  If this misunderstanding of range rules in the street is permitted to grow and become “normalized” as part of training, the courts will sooner or later incorporate it into their understanding of “proper” police work and prevent any officer from muzzling someone without shooting.  From that moment on, any officer who points his or her weapon at a suspect and fails to fire will likely be guilty of excessive force.  The result?  More officers hesitating to draw guns, and more police shootings with suspects who thought they could beat the cop to the draw.  More suspects will be shot with a corresponding drastic increase in liability exposure.  And more officers are going to be shot down.

When addressing an issue with a “new interpretation” of an existing concept, care must be taken to extrapolate the possible consequences.  While well-intentioned, this concept has not been well thought out.  The old adage applies—be careful what you wish for, you may get it.

Bottom line:  When an officer has a reasonable belief that a suspect or situation might be dangerous or threatening, he or she may presently point a firearm at a suspect in order to ensure their safety.  It is lawful to do so.  And it is NOT in any way a safety violation of “range” safety rules to point a gun at a suspect(s) who may be armed, violent, or outnumber officers.

Tactical Reminder:  As I pointed out in an article entitled, “The Proper Weapon Hold on a Suspect” (The Police Marksman, November/December 1993), the proper method of holding a suspect at gunpoint is to keep the weapon pointed at the suspect’s waistband.  This permits observation of the suspect’s waistband and hands, allowing the officer to see threat cues, predatory positioning, and aggressive movement while still “on-target.”

POINTING A GUN CAN BE EXCESSIVE FORCE

An officer can now be subject to discipline and liability by pointing his weapon at an individual or group when the officer is unable to articulate the threat he or she felt existed at the time.  In the federal court's denial for a motion for summary judgment, the court stated that pointing a firearm (in this case, a submachinegun) at a subject is “excessive force” when there is no legal reason to do so is Baird v. Renbarger (7th Cir., 576 F.3d 346, January, 2010).  From the facts of the case it would be apparent to any reasonable officer that pointing a firearm at a person in this situation might be unreasonable:

  • An officer who was verifying a VIN during a visit to an auto shop believed the VIN had been tampered with.
  • Returning the next day with a search warrant, the officer pointed a subgun at the occupants of the business, and forced them at gunpoint to sit on the floor together. 
  • The officer then detained the occupants of adjacent shops at gunpoint, including a group of Amish men, requiring them to sit with the others who were detained.

The federal district court determined that it was “objectively unreasonable” in these circumstances to aim a submachinegun at wholly compliant and non-threatening subjects.  The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals used the major factors within the totality of the facts known to the officer at the time of Graham v. Connor (1989):

  • The severity of the crime at issue:  The crime of altering a VIN is one that is not associated with violence.  The court remarked, “…this is a far cry from crimes that contain the use of force as an element, crimes involving the possession of illegal weapons, or drug crimes, all of which are associated with violence.”
  • The threat of the subject to officers or others:  This officer had been to the auto shop the day before, but articulated no belief that the occupants were threatening in any way.  On the day of the warrant service, all immediately complied with his and other officers’ orders.
  • The active resistance or attempt to flee:  None of the detained subjects resisted at all or attempted to escape.  

Other courts have weighed in on this subject, ruling that an officer pointing a gun at a suspect absent indications of threat is excessive force, including the 9th Circuit in Robinson v. County of Solano (2002) and 3rd Circuit in Baker v. Monroe Township (2005).  Some of the facts in these and other cases leading to a finding of excessive force  or summary judgment motion(s) are:

  • While investigating a crime of illegally shooting dogs, officers pointed a gun at a handcuffed, searched prisoner for an extended period of time.
  • Detaining an infant/child/children at gunpoint.
  • Pointing a gun at the head of an elderly man after he had been handcuffed.
  • Generally it is not justified to point any firearm at a compliant individual when the circumstances are not threatening.  Even if the circumstances were threatening a few moments ago, as soon as that changes, officers must reflect those changes in their behavior and stop pointing guns at compliant or restrained people.

Bottom line:  Point a firearm at a person only when you can articulate your reasonable perception of danger this person poses to you or others, whether it is through their acts or their connection to the dangerous circumstances in which you find yourself.  Failing to be able to explain why you needed to point your weapon at someone can create huge problems for you.

Note: After the submission of this article, the juries in Baird and in Robinson decided in favor of the officers, their verdicts were that there was no excessive force in these cases. That said, the federal circuits are weighing in, and officers should take note that pointing firearms at a person whom the officer does not reasonably perceive as threatening is considered to be excessive force.

THE COURTS SUPPORT OFFICERS POINTING GUNS AT PEOPLE WHEN JUSTIFIED

The US Supreme Court has always held that it is permissible for the police to point guns at people suspected of violent or weapon-related crimes.  This includes those who are suspected of a non-violent crime but who are known to have carried weapons in the past.  Federal Circuit Courts and Courts of Appeal routinely have ruled that officers may hold people at gunpoint when the circumstances reasonably create the fear of violence.  Even the 9th Circuit in Duran v. City of Maywood (2002) stated that two officers moving toward the location of a shots-fired call with their handguns drawn did not increase the likelihood of a shooting.

When an officer reasonably believes the circumstances could be possibly threatening or violent, especially those involving drugs, weapons, or violent individuals, the drawing and pointing of a weapon is wholly permitted.

TOOLS OF INTIMIDATION?

Proponents of this “Rule 2 Negligence Standard” argue that the police firearm is not intended to be “tool of intimidation.”  I would argue that every police tool, from “command presence” to OC Spray, the Taser, baton, Police Service Dog, and every firearm is a tool of intimidation.  The very presence of a police officer who is confronting a criminal suspect is inherently intimidating.  The uniform, bearing, and the weapons the officer carries are designed to be so.

The US Supreme Court in Graham supports this concept of intimidation of suspects, stating, “The right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some form of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it” (emphasis added).  The Court recognizes that intimidation is part of law enforcement.  It is hard to argue that there is a higher level of intimidation other than directing a muzzle directly at a person and telling them to stop their behavior or they will be shot.  The realization of their mortal vulnerability as well as the officers’ intent causes most suspects to comply to avert a shooting.

VIOLATING “RANGE RULES”?

There can be little question that a firearm is a dangerous tool.  It is designed and intended to harm a living being in defense of life (or hunting for meat).  Its carry and display must be regulated and training imposed upon officers in order to reasonably minimize the chance for tragedy by preventing unintentional discharges. 

Range rules were developed through hard won wisdom.  A moment’s inattention or distraction and someone is needlessly injured or killed.  As the range rules have been promulgated and enforced, injuries from firearms accidents have steadily decreased.  Firing ranges are generally safe places to be as a result.

The National Rifle Association’s “Gun Safety Rules” include only three parts:  1. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction;  2. Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot;  3.  Always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use.  This is a good start for gun safety, especially on a cold range where weapons remain unloaded until directed.

The late Jeff Cooper of the American Pistol Institute at Gunsite Ranch in Arizona developed a version of these rules, one that many officers have been trained in.  The four so-called “inviolate” Firearms Safety Rules are:  1.  All guns are always loaded;  2.  Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy;  3.  Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target;  4.  Always be sure of your target.  This article is not intended to discuss the efficacy of these range rules as they are generally stated (which should certainly be up for discussion).  Rather, the application and intention of Safety Rule Number Two will be discussed.

The trainers and writers who are promulgating the “never point a firearm at a suspect unless you intend to shoot” negligence standard explain that while it is legal to point a firearm at a person in limited cases, it is a “violation” of the safety rules.  It is therefore unsafe and should be prohibited.  They agree that having your handgun (or shoulder weapon) in your hands early is a good thing in possibly dangerous circumstances (because, as we all know, the fastest drawn gun is the one that is already in your hand).  They argue the in-hand weapon should be held in a low-ready or off the line of the suspect until the decision to shoot is made.  Additionally they note that there is little difference in reaction-response times between a properly positioned weapon that is held off-target and one that is held on-target.  This, they reason, will reduce or eliminate the possibility of injury due to unintentional discharge and resulting civil liability. 

While some of their reasoning for why they believe an officer should not point guns at people they do not intend to shoot may be useful in limiting liability, the purpose of an officer possessing a firearm is not about civil liability prevention.  It is rather about defense of life and creating compliance.

  • Defense of life.  The main purpose for carrying a firearm is to shoot another person to save life.  Stopping a suspect’s imminent or actual threat to life by shooting bullets through their body is the only reliable and proven method of quickly stopping life-threatening behavior.  Shooting a person necessarily requires the muzzle to be pointed at them.  Proponents of the “Rule 2 Negligence Standard” are not against officers shooting people who earn getting shot.  Their concerns are how and when that muzzle is brought on target.  That is the center of this discussion.
  • Creating Compliance.  Many, if not a universal experience, officers have had the experience of a non-compliant suspect in a dangerous situation, or possibly armed, suddenly become compliant when confronted by the muzzle of a police weapon.  Almost all people understand there is a fine line between a gun being pointed at you and that gun being fired at you.

What creates compliance when muzzling a suspect?  The fear of being shot.  The presence of a handgun in police confrontations is universal—officers carry handguns at all times.  A handgun in an officer’s hand is an increase in the degree of the threat to the suspect.  The suspect’s perception of the threat posed by an officer’s handgun muzzle pointing directly at him is dramatic.  A pistol in-hand is cautionary, a firearm pointing at you is a whole other universe of reality—that’s imminent and real.  Confrontations with an armed suspect results in compliance because that suspect knows that if he tries to outdraw a handgun pointing at him, he’ll lose.  Simply put, many, many shootings are prevented because officers muzzle suspects.

SO HOW DO WE TRAIN IT OUT OF COPS?

So let’s say we do adopt the “Rule 2 Negligence Standard” and declare that pointing a gun without shooting to be a violation of policy, tactics, safety, and, eventually, law.  What will the result be?

  • Slower response to deadly threats.  Most will agree that officers today are much slower to respond with force than their forbearers.  This reflects our society at this time.  It must be considered that by adopting the “Rule 2 Negligence Standard,” officers will likely be even slower to draw and fire their weapons than they are today.  Of course, there will be an attendant increase in shootings, and the resultant increase in both suspect and officer injuries and death.
  • increased allegations of misconduct.  Due to more sophisticated offenders who already take advantage of the system, the allegations (both true and false) of “the officer pointed his weapon at me” will increase.  This will be especially true in both criminal and civil courts.  The “he said/she said” nature of many of these complaints will cast a pall across law enforcement, causing many to leave their handguns in their holsters until the last possible moment before a shooting for fear of being falsely accused of brandishing.
  • A natural response to great threat.  In highly threatening circumstances, officers will point their guns at a suspect due to their own fear and desire to prevent a shooting.  Many officers, if not most, have had the experience of facing a suspect whose actions were so intense and threatening that the officer could have legally shot him but didn’t for one reason or another.  Universally, these incidents were emotionally startling in their intensity and focus.  Having a weapon in one’s hand and, if given time, NOT threatening a dangerous person with it before a shooting is not natural.  It would be a very difficult training issue and a behavior that could not be prevented.

Pointing a firearm at a suspect in a dangerous, possibly imminently threatening situation is something that we cannot “train out of officers.”

  • Hard-wired response.  It is a hard-wired human behavior to throw our hands and arms forward and up between that which we perceive as suddenly threatening and ourselves when startled.  This action has been termed the “startle reflex.”
  • Posturing to prevent violence.  Humans who feel threatened but are not yet engaged in combat, tend to “posture” in an attempt to intimidate their adversary.  They point the most dangerous weapon they have at that other person before blows are exchanged in hopes that the other person will become discouraged and demoralized, and desist or submit.  This intimidation is designed to avoid physical conflict.  When posturing, unarmed combatants will point their fingers or shake their fists.  If armed with a knife, it will be displayed between the two parties and pointed at the other person as a warning.  A club will be ominously swung in the direction of threat, or struck against an object as an example of the consequences of engaging in physical conflict.  Guns are pointed as a display of warning and threat.
  • A threat of last resort.  Pointing a gun is the highest level of threat—short of actually shooting the suspect—an officer has.  A pointed gun and a yelling officer are wholly intended to transmit the message that “There is nothing left except to shoot you, so comply with my orders.”

How is something this instinctive to be trained out of an officer?  It can’t be.  The result of the “Rule 2 Negligence Standard” requirements will be that many officers will be disciplined and possibly lose their jobs as a result of their natural and instinctive response to their perception of great danger.  Citizen complaints will increase.  False accusations of officers brandishing will become the norm by criminal defendants and civil plaintiffs.  Officers will be forced to defend the negative—arguing that something did not occur.  The civil liability exposure for “excessive force” will dramatically increase, resulting in more lawsuits and increased litigation costs, settlements, and adverse judgments.

REASONABLY MUZZLING A SUSPECT IS SIMPLY NOT A “VIOLATION”

There is no “violation” of range safety rules when pointing a weapon at a suspect when the situation is sufficiently threatening.  Rule #2 states:  “Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.”  It says, “…willing to destroy,” not going to destroy.  This is a paper target rule when taken literally. 

A police officer who muzzles a suspect, as discussed, is conveying the willingness to shoot that person.  However, that officer is communicating to that individual that he simply has not made the decision to shoot him yet, but is very, very close.  The decision as to whether or not the suspect will be shot is now up to the suspect and his actions.

The law as interpreted by the courts permits officers to point guns at suspects in circumstances that justify it.  An officer who points a gun at a suspect is implicitly telling that suspect to change his behavior immediately or he’ll be shot.  As Clint Smith says, “The muzzle of a .45 pretty much means ‘go away’ in any language.”

The “Rule 2 Negligence Standard” is a misunderstanding of the rules intended to increase range safety and safer gun-handling.  Officers in the street work under a different context.  They not only shoot to protect life, but attempt to protect life by reasonably intimidating a threatening suspect by pointing a weapon at him. 

By adopting the “Rule 2 Negligence Standard,” it will likely be sooner rather than later that officers will be prohibited by the courts from employing this important safety practice.  Yes, unintentional discharges occur, but not at a greater frequency than before.  And when they happen, agencies will settle with the plaintiff to compensate for the loss.  But the shooting of more suspects who attempt to fight their way out of an arrest when confronted by an officer who is hamstrung in their last-ditch ability to convince a suspect that the only way out without risking serious injury or death is to comply will be out of proportion to the very limited number of injuries from unintentional discharges.  Sometimes pointing a gun at a suspect is the only chance an officer has to prevent a shooting.

Adopting this misinterpretation of “Safety Rule 2” will increase civil liability beyond anything now seen from the few unintentional discharges that occur annually in the US.  Many more suspects will be shot, injured, and killed as a result of its adoption.  More to the point will be the needless loss of police officers in the line of duty because of a misinterpretation of something that was originally designed to keep them and all gun owners safer. 

Instructors and administrators:  Let’s really think about the very real consequences of this before incorporating it into our legal and tactical doctrine.

Dealing with Stoppages / Weapon Malfunctions

by George on November 1, 2010 11:47

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  --Albert Einstein

Every shooter of a semi-automatic or select-fire weapon will eventually experience a stoppage of some type.  How this malfunction of the weapon is approached has consequences.  Failing to clear a stoppage will prevent you from reengaging a Threat quickly enough to save your life.  Because stoppages happen—and can happen on any shot—every shooter must be prepared through proper, well thought out training to get back into the gunfight.

After 30+ years teaching the employment of firearms to people who carry guns for a living, one thing I know about “gun-guys” –especially instructors of gun guys—is that most love complication.  The more complicated the shooting “procedure,” the better.  And better yet if the description of the task is clouded by arcane jargon known only to a few “real gun-people.”  And it is best by far if the phrasing sounds anything at all like it is derived from the military. 

Complicated isn’t better…it’s just complicated.  Memorizing multiple “procedures,” each with multiple and varying steps may work for you, but it is difficult for most to remember in the midst of a high-threat environment where your weapon just stopped and you really need it to work right now.  Human history has demonstrated over and over again that the more moving parts something has, the more likely it will break down.  And gunfights were made for “Murphy’s Law:  If something can go wrong, it will go wrong, at the worst possible moment.”  That means the person in the gunfight who is least prepared for Mr. Murphy is likely to be the one who doesn’t make it. 

Uncomplicated methods and procedures are the key to effectively reacting and functioning under the crushing pressure of a deadly force situation.  Simplifying the entire concept and making the clearing of a stoppage as simple as possible is the key to effective response to a stoppage. 

How you clear your weapon should be uncomplicated—regardless of the weapon system (handgun or rifle), the method should be as universal as possible so that there is commonality of actions in bringing that weapon back into battery and available for the fight.  If anything in combatives can be principle-based, it is generally more effective than attempting to employ a “technique-based” solution that requires specific responses to specific conditions. 

FUNCTION AND STOPPAGE BASICS:

There are two functions that must be performed properly in order for any well-maintained semi-automatic or select-fire weapon to fire:

  1. The loaded magazine must be seated properly.  Because the weapon is magazine fed, the properly loaded magazine must be both inserted properly and seated in order for the bolt face to strip the bullet out of the magazine and into the chamber.  To resolve any stoppage and get the weapon working again, you must feed ammunition to the machine . 
  2. The slide must be "in battery" on a loaded chamber.  Because the slide or bolt must be in battery (locked forward) in order to fire, pull the slide (or charging handle or lever) back and release it.  DO NOT  “HELP” IT MOVE FORWARD.  Do not treat it gingerly—let the mechanism do its job.

When the weapon malfunctions and a stoppage occurs, these two functions must take place to get that weapon back into battery and available for the fight. Any response to a stoppage, or malfunction drill, primarily involves either ensuring the weapon is loaded, or unloading it before reloading it.  These activities occur each time you practice, and are ingrained into your habits (which is why trainers seek to "habituate"--create habits--of loading and reloading the same way each time).  These developed skills are essentially the same skills you employ to clear stoppages.

Firearms Trainer Clint Smith came up with some great phrasing (when doesn’t he?) that we think really helps officers, military personnel, and civilian shooters to better understand how to immediately get their weapons back into operating condition.  Clint’s phrase:

  • “If it stops working, reload it.
  • If that doesn’t work, unload it, and then reload it.”

IF IT STOPS WORKING, RELOAD IT

In order to “work,” a firearm must be loaded.  A “loaded” weapon is one in which a live cartridge is loaded properly into the chamber.  If the weapon stops working, the goal is to get it reloaded (a live round in the chamber and the weapon in firing condition—or “in battery”) as soon as possible in order to be of use.

If the slide or bolt is locked back, feed the gun.  Replace the empty magazine with a loaded magazine, and drop the slide or bolt in order to get the weapon into battery.

If your weapon was loaded and it failed to function for any reason (failure to feed, failure to extract, failure to eject--stovepipe), feed the gun--reload it.  Immediately:

  • Tap.  Tap sharply up on the base of the magazine with your palm heel (or any hard surface if your reactive-hand—the hand not operating the weapon’s controls at present time--is unable to fulfill the function) to ensure it is seated firmly.  This provides ammo to feed the gun. 
  • Rack.   Pull the slide or charging handle/lever sharply back with your reactive-hand and release it.  Do not help the slide or bolt move forward.  Allow the mechanism to work as it is designed while firing:  it slams back to its mechanical stopping point (or, actually, the limits of its springs), and then slams forward until the breech is closed and locked.  This puts a new live round into the chamber ready to be fired.

Racking the slide of a handgun:  Many instructors will tell you that you have to perform this "X" way with "Y" grip while holding the weapon at "Z" angle.  Context determines how you manipulate the slide--when you are under fire, you may not rack that slide or bolt the way you expected to because getting shot at tends to make most folks a bit stupid and their expectations a joke that they can hopefully wonder or laugh about later:

  • You may grip the rear of the slide with your "hand over," gripping with your 3rd, 4th, and 5th fingers and palm, pulling the slide back using arm strength as you push forward with the gun-hand--unless you don't or can't because of a lack of strength (smaller individuals and many females have problems with this method).  It is not a rare event to see a shooter punch himself or herself in the mouth using this method when under stress (I've always thought that recognizing and clearing a malfunction was tough enough without adding a punch in the teeth, but that's just me).
  • You may grip the rear of the slide with your thumb and forefinger like God designed you to grip things--unless you don't or can't.
  • You may "push-push" with your reactive-hand over the slide pushing and the gun-hand pushing in opposite directions to maximize your strength (many smaller male and females need to use this method).

How you rack or manipulate the slide doesn't matter and while there may be a "better" way, there really isn't a "best" way to do it.  Just get it done.

“Mortar Method” for the AR15/M16:  Sometimes the bolt will fail to unlock because the brass is stuck in the chamber, and the bolt is locked forward.  In order to “Rack” the weapon when the charging handle will not move and bolt is closed, the “mortar method” can be used if you have time:

  • Collapse the adjustable stock (if present).  This prevents the small pin holding the stock in place from shearing and rendering the stock incapable of extending.  It also decreases the likelihood of destroying the buffer tube—in the past, the buffer tube has snapped, preventing the weapon from operating.
  • Grasp and depress the charging handle latch with your shooting hand.
  • With your reactive hand, grasp the foreend stock with the reactive-hand.
  • Strike the butt of the weapon on the ground with both hands.  Multiple strikes with the butt to the ground may be necessary to break the bolt loose.

Once you feed the machine, the weapon is now functional for most stoppages you will experience.  If you press the trigger and the weapon fails to fire, move to the logical second phase of weapon stoppage clearing.

IF THAT DOESN’T WORK, UNLOAD IT, AND RELOAD IT

The “Tap-Rack” method will clear all but a double-feed, and all but a few rarely encountered malfunctions in a rifle.  If you are in a gunfight at close range and you are not behind cover (something that stops bullets and their effects) with a malfunction that cannot be immediately cleared by the Tap-Rack method, your best move is to transition to a (second) handgun and get back into the fight, or to run to cover to clear your weapon (if you do not have a handgun/second handgun).  No one is going to clear a double-feed or other more complicated malfunction in time to respond while standing within a few feet or yards of an Imminent Threat.

If the Tap-Rack fails to bring the weapon back into battery, unload the weapon, making sure that the chamber is clear and the magazine is out of the weapon.  

  • Lock back the slide/bolt.
  • Unload the weapon.  Ensure the weapon's mechanism is clear of live or spent rounds.
  • Reload the weapon. 

Locking back the slide or bolt first relieves the pressure on the magazine, permitting the mag to more easily be removed.  While some authorities will tell you to discard the magazine, modern magazines that were not damaged when you loaded the weapon—why would you load your weapon with a damaged mag?--will likely not be the cause of the problem.  There is generally nothing wrong with reloading the weapon with the same magazine after it has been cleared.

Regarding checking the chamber after the slide or bolt is locked back and the magazine is released, visually (or physically—by inserting a finger into the ejection port and chamber) inspect the chamber to see what condition the weapon is in—is there an unextracted round in the chamber, a number of rounds are caught in the ejection port, debris is fouling the weapon, etc?

  • If the chamber has a round in it, work the slide/bolt until it is clear.
  • It may require you reaching into the ejection port to dislodge a round, casing, or debris. 

Once clear, lock the slide or bolt open, and load the weapon.  While it is not vital to lock the slide or bolt open at this point, it does clear the way for a fully loaded magazine to be inserted without problem.  This is purely a personal preference.

Once the weapon is reloaded, if it does not go “bang,” it should be considered to be a “catastrophic malfunction” (a mechanical breakage of the mechanism that cannot be fixed in the field).  If your weapon is "broken," transition immediately to a handgun/backup handgun to finish the fight. 

AR15/M16:  a rare, but possible malfunction are the “Bolt Override” (an empty casing is lodged between the bolt carrier and the gas key) and "Charging Handle Impingement" (an empty casing is lodged between the bolt face and the back of the charging handle claw where the gas tube pass-through is located) malfunctions.  In both malfunctions, a live-round will be partially loaded into the chamber.  Both malfunctions will be identified by the presence of spent brass lodged in the bolt carrier space.  In this case, a general principle won’t work, and a specific clearing method is necessary.  After dropping the magazine, reach up through the magazine well with a finger(s) and push the bolt back to the rear--if truly jammed, attempt to gain some space by using the "mortar method."  While holding the bolt carrier to the rear with your finger(s), strike the charging handle forward with your hand into the locked the position.  This should clear the malfunction.  If it does not, that is what God made secondary weapons and battleground pickups for.

Context-Based Stoppage Response

Responding to any stoppage is context-based.  Depending on the circumstances you find yourself in at the time your weapon malfunctions will in large part determine how you will react.  It is contextual based on the weapon system you are operating, the proximity of the Threat, and the availability of cover (actual cover that stops bullets and the effects of bullets).

Within touching distance of the Threat:  If you are in touching-proximity of the Imminent Threat and your weapons goes down, immediately aggress the Threat and divert his muzzle to a safer direction.  Disarm and neutralize the threat.

In proximity to the Threat—Conversation distances:  If you are within conversational distances—beyond two steps away from the Imminent Threat and your weapon stops functioning, keep moving!  Reload your handgun, or transition to a handgun, whichever is reasonable, and reengage while moving.

If at a distance from the Threat—at rock-throwing distance or beyond:  At these distances, cover is the most valuable action.  Move to cover.  If while moving you can reload and get your weapon back into battery, do so and engage the Imminent Threat as you continue to move if your background permits. If armed with a rifle, transition to your handgun--a pistol is capable of convincing suppressing fire at most shooting distances.

If behind cover and the Threat permits it:  Clear all malfunctions by any means possible to get back into the fight:  Reload your weapon.  If it doesn’t work, unload, then reload your weapon.  Always be ready to transition to a handgun/second handgun if you are aggressed by the Threat. Maintain situational awareness to prevent the Threat from flanking or assaulting you unawares.

CONCLUSION

Shooting has always been complicated by instructors who teach techniques, because by their very nature, techniques are complicated and dogmatic, whereas the human fighting for his or her life is not.  Clearing stoppages is no different.  Getting to the simplest method of operating a weapon—including fixing any stoppage or malfunction—is one of the keys to being successful in any life-saving shooting.

“If it stops working, reload it.  If that doesn’t work, unload it, then reload it.”  Simplicity is not “simple”—it means “uncomplicated.  Since the weapon can only work if its loaded, and by far the most common activity other than firing the weapon is to load and unload it, it is valuable to think of clearing any stoppage in these simple terms.  Reload any weapon that stops working.  If it doesn’t work, it needs to be reloaded—so unload it and reload the weapon. 

The only variable is that of weapon systems—it is generally faster to transition to a handgun if your primary weapon is a rifle than it is to address the stoppage—and the context within which the weapon malfunction occurs.  Sometimes your reaction to a stoppage may be to aggress and go hands on, while other times you will have time to hunker down behind cover and problem-solve.

The bottom line is that responding to stoppages should be as principle-based as possible while at the same time effective during any situation you find yourself in.  Simple enough to work under life-threatening circumstances…which is as uncomplicated as it can be, but not simpler.

Note:  Keep your weapon clean and lubricated to limit stoppages.  The best product out there that we have found--and we've tried almost everything over the years--is FrogLube.  This is an amazing product.  More in another article later.  Try it.  Contact Cutting Edge Training (training@cuttingedgetraining.org) for a 40% discount, or contact FrogLube to request a sample.  We use it on every weapon--and every metal surface--we own.