Monday, April 6, 2009


by Ben Small

What if your protag or perp, in a hurry, picks up some ammo, plugs it into a gun and it goes poof?

Can this happen?

You betcha. I had it happen to me at the range a few weeks ago. There was a cloud of smoke and burning powder, some of which burned my cheek, and then the gun locked up. Yes, the bullet made it out of the barrel and there appeared to be no damage done, but I would not have been able to fire a second shot without clearing the cartridge and risking damage to the gun.

Not all guns and cartridges play well together.

So what went wrong?

Well, it could have been a hand-loaded cartridge, perhaps using the wrong powder or too much of it. Or it could have been a reloaded cartridge, and maybe the case failed. Bullets may look simple, but they are anything but. The standard cartridge is the product of precise development engineering and testing, where various corrosive or non-corrosive primers must be matched with cases matched to specific cylinders, each with dimensions proven through years of experimentation in controlled environments. But that’s just part of a bullet’s development. There’s also choice of powders, some fast burning, some slower. And on top of that, you add a bullet, which requires weight, composition and construction choices. Each manufacturer’s bullet is different, and there are many standard production bullet manufacturers.

And then there are the wildcatters and reloaders, those who make their own bullets. Believe it or not, there are millions of these people, and the market for bullets, cases, primers, powders and loading equipment is enormous. Take a look at Gun Digest, the leading gun magazine, considered by many as the place to look for gun ads. You will find pages of advertising for each of these items.

But that’s just the bullet side of it. You gotta consider the gun, too. Guns can be finicky about the ammo they’ll eat.

What prompted this article was my experience at the range. I was firing a high end pistol, a Sig Sauer X-5 9mm pistol, perhaps the most accurate production pistol currently made. It’s a match grade pistol, which means the fittings are tight. And I was firing Winchester Ranger ammo, again, a high grade of ammo.


Now, it could have been a bullet manufacturing error, but if so, I would have expected to have the problem recur. And it did. But only in this gun. My much cheaper Beretta and Glock had no trouble with this box of ammo at all or with Winchester Ranger ammo in general.

A defective gun? Believe it or not, this match grade pistol ate the much cheaper aluminum cased Blazer ammo with nary a hiccup. And it ate all the other non-Winchester Ranger I fed it.

No, the answer in this case – pardon the pun ― was in the mating of the gun and ammo. Ask any gun expert about what ammo works best in any particular gun, and he’ll tell you he can’t know without experimentation. Usually this answer means accuracy will vary depending upon the individual characteristics of the gun, the barrel, its condition, the weather, lubrication, the weight of the bullet and how all these conditions work together.

But sometimes they don’t work at all. And sometimes the mating of ammo to gun can be dangerous. Guns do explode; people can be hurt. Usually, the problem is careless handloading, maybe a defective case, an improperly seated bullet or poor choice of powder…or too much of it. Or maybe the gun was poorly maintained, over lubricated or under lubricated. Maybe there was a bulge in the barrel. The Gun Zone - Springfield M1A
The Gun Zone - Glock

This stuff does happen. Kabooms aren’t common, but they occur. Jams are much more common, especially with semi-automatic firearms. That’s why some people prefer revolvers.

A gun owner who shoots his gun frequently will know what ammo it likes. But someone who picks up a gun or ammo may not have a clue. And some guns are more finicky about ammo than others. For instance, Glocks and Berettas feed on just about any form of standard production ammo. Springfield XDs and XDms seem to like heavier weight bullets. A Sig Sauer .22 LR Mosquito is notorious for having ammo preferences. Shoot modern .30-06 ammo in an M-1 Garand, and you may get a nasty surprise. The military version of .30-06 ammo, the bullets for which this gun was designed, use a slower burning, lower pressure powder.

What to do when the gun jams… A seasoned shooter will know; an amateur probably will not.


Chester Campbell said...

And how often do you read in a mystery where a gun jams? Is that because we don't think people will believe it, because they never hear about it in real life?

Unknown said...

Not very often, unless it happens to save the protag's life. But unless the attempted murder is a spur of the moment thing, I think it's more likely the protag will be the one picking up ammo and jamming it into whatever gun is available, hence the one more likely to have a jam. But spend a day at a range and experiment with ammo, and you will have jams, most likely. When fiction is discussed in gun fora, rarely, I admit, the complaint is often made that writers don't know much about guns. On the other hand, if there's a writer who does know something about guns and guns play heavily into his story, they'll read it and discuss it. Stephen Hunter's books, featuring Bobby Lee Swagger, one of which turned into the movie Shooter is a good example. It's popular and is often discussed on gun fora, as are all Hunter's books.

But one doesn't have to get that deep into the sport to be real. I think some of these aspects may make a mystery or thriller a bit more real and add a new dimension. We see more gun jams in movies than we do in books.