Cutting Edge Training

America’s Combatives and Liability Trainer Training With Real-World Impact

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. 


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.”


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.


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.


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 ( for a 40% discount, or contact FrogLube to request a sample.  We use it on every weapon--and every metal surface--we own.