by Ben Small
A good friend called me last weekend, fresh from the range. He'd been shooting skeet with a twelve gauge, and said he'd never seen a more frightening experience. Seems one of the gunners, an old-timer, retired air force officer who loads his own ammo, fired his shotgun and nothing happened. Instead of opening the breech or attempting to extract the dud, which might be what someone with no firearms background might do, he kept the shotgun pointed down-range and he waited.
Some twenty seconds later, the shotgun went boom.
This is a hangfire, the delayed ignition of a round. Its causes can be a defective primer, bad ammo, or failure to store ammo in keeping with manufacturer's specifications. Regardless of cause, the effect can be deadly, either to the shooter or another. Because hangfires can occur with any ammo, not just shotgun ammo.
Imagine opening the breech to fetch a dud round only to have it go off with the breech open. Most likely the gun will explode, and it will kill or injure you or someone standing near you. And if it's a rimfire or centerfire round, like those in handguns or rifles, it might injure or kill someone hundreds of yards or even a mile or more away. Depends on where you were pointing the gun when the delayed ignition occurred.
In this case, the cause was a defective primer, or perhaps a perfectly good primer inserted incorrectly inside the shotgun cartridge, a mistake that sometimes happens when one is careless for a moment in his reloading procedures. But it could just as well happen with old surplus ammo bought in bulk. Who knows where and how that ammo was stored? It may have been kept in a leaky duffel or left outside in a high humidity environment -- for a long time. Regardless, there's a delayed or incomplete ignition.
Some long-time gunners tell me it's just a matter of time before one experiences a hangfire, especially if one is reloading his or her own cartridges. Primers and ammo do go bad, however, even in production ammo.
So the point is, if your gun doesn't fire and you think it's a dud, keep it pointed down-range and wait... for at least thirty seconds. Some advise even that is too short a time -- better off at a minute. As kids, we learned not to approach fireworks that don't go bang right away, but to be sure there won't be a delayed ignition.
That's a hangfire, too. And we've all heard of someone who blew off some fingers on the fourth of July or New Year's Eve..
Funny thing, though, is while every knowledgeable shooter knows about hangfire, I don't recall ever seeing one in a novel. And that's too bad, because a hangfire adds a certain unexpectedness that can be woven nicely into a well-plotted book.
Well, maybe I'll have to fix that...