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Common AR-15 Malfunctions and How to Address Them

Posted by Alice Jones Webb on Mar 7th 2020

Common AR-15 Malfunctions and How to Address Them

If you spend even a nominal amount of time shooting an AR-15 (or any other firearm), you will eventually experience a failure or malfunction. However, a malfunction doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem with your weapon. More often, the failure is caused by faulty ammunition, insufficient lubrication, or dirt and debris.

While malfunctions themselves are rarely dangerous, experiencing one in the middle of a life or death confrontation can have dire consequences. Therefore, it is highly important for shooters to learn how to resolve common malfunctions quickly and proficiently.

This article is designed to give you a basic understanding of common techniques for clearing malfunctions. However, the best way to understand the causes and cures for common AR-15 malfunctions is through proper training with a competent and qualified instructor.

Safety First

If you experience any sort of malfunction with your AR-15, you should immediately remove your finger from the trigger. Do not attempt to fire your weapon until you have thoroughly assessed the situation.

Even when fixing a malfunction, you should always keep your firearm pointed in a safe direction.

Failure to Fire

Perhaps the most common AR-15 malfunction is failure to fire. A failure to fire occurs when you press the trigger and get a simple “click” instead of the anticipated “BANG.” It could be caused by faulty ammo or a round failing to chamber properly (also called “failure to feed”).

First, remove your finger from the trigger. Next, check to see if the magazine is properly locked in place. You can do this by simply tapping and tugging on the magazine. After establishing the mag is properly seated, cycle the charging handle to load a cartridge. If the malfunction was caused by a deficient round, this process will eject the round and load a fresh one.

If your magazine doesn’t seat properly, dump it and replace it with a fresh mag. It’s best to identify a magazine that doesn’t seat properly during range practice rather than during a self-defense scenario.

Some experienced shooters choose to load their 30-round magazines with only 29 rounds. Often, fully loaded magazines do not lock properly in place when fully loaded, usually because there is not enough give in the spring. Dropping one round can remedy this problem, allowing the magazine to easily lock into place. While you lose a small amount of magazine capacity in the process, this practice can prevent failure to feed issues.

Failure to Eject

Another common malfunction is failure to eject an empty case. This malfunction may be caused by a weak extractor or ejector resulting in spent brass getting wedged between the bolt face and the ejection port. The stuck brass is sometimes called a “stovepipe jam” or “smokestack jam” because the spent case often sticks straight out like a shiny brass chimney.

Again, the first thing you do to address a failure to eject is to remove your finger from the trigger. Tap and tug on the magazine to ensure it is properly seated, then cycle the charging handle.

If this action fails to resolve the issue, and you still have a case jutting out of the ejection port, lock the bolt to the rear to relieve the pressure on the round. You may need to sweep the case clear using your hand. Once you’ve removed the case, cycle the bolt to ensure the chamber is clear, and you’re ready to load the next cartridge.

Double Feed

A double feed occurs when two live rounds attempt to occupy the chamber at the same time. The same problem occurs when a live round and an empty case are vying for the same space. It looks just like a log jam of ammunition and can be caused by a faulty magazine, extractor or ejector failure, or a weak spring. Sometimes it just happens for no apparent reason.

Regardless of the cause, the first thing you need to do is take your finger off the trigger. Then, push the charging handle completely forward and remove the magazine. Gravity may not be enough, so you might need to give it a good yank. Finally, rack the bolt three times to clear the chamber.

Hopefully, this is enough to clear the blockage. If not, lock the bolt to the rear and stick your fingers up through the magazine well to remove any stuck rounds. Keep the receiver vertical, so gravity can lend a hand. Again, rack the bolt three times to clear the chamber and then insert a new magazine.

Bolt Override

This malfunction occurs when spent brass or a live round lodges above the bolt in the forward position. Although relatively rare, this malfunction causes many shooters to panic.

If you encounter a bolt override, you should first remove your finer from the trigger. Drop the magazine and move the bolt to the rear position by keeping pressure on the charging handle. While maintaining pressure on the charging handle, bump the butt of your rifle on the ground. Don’t be delicate. You may need to strike the ground several times to create enough space to clear the malfunction.

Once enough space has been created, reach your fingers up through the magazine well and apply pressure to the bolt face. You can use a tool if you’re concerned about smashing your fingers.

Strike upward on the charging handle, but be careful not to strike too aggressively. If you use too much force, you could break the charging handle. The upward strike should dislodge the stuck round or spent brass.

Finally, pull the bolt to the rear so the round falls clear.

Although correcting this malfunction requires some force, it isn’t an emergency situation. The key is to keep calm and not panic.

Final Thoughts

Although fixing most common AR-15 malfunctions isn’t complicated, it can be nerve wracking. Like many things in life, prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best way to prevent an AR-15 malfunction is to keep your weapon clean and well-lubricated. Do not neglect basic weapon maintenance. The time you invest in regular maintenance will pay off by increasing the life of your weapon and improving its performance. 

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