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“Reliability” refers to how consistently a system, product, or handgun, for example, performs the way it is supposed to function over repeated trials without failure. It is the quality of being dependable and trustworthy and instills confidence in using it again and again. In this author’s opinion, reliability is the most important criterion for selecting and using a handgun for self-defense and personal protection. This is a significant statement to make, but I believe it. Another thing I believe and have sadly discovered is that all machines fail or underperform at some point in time. This is mostly due to physical wear and tear, lack of maintenance, or even operator error, but it will happen. So, know what contributes to reliability and follow a plan to ensure that your self-defense handgun is ready to perform effectively.
Goal of a Concealed Carry Handgun
As most know, the purpose of a handgun is not generally to kill but rather to stop an attack or threat. A handgun is designed to be used for self-defense and personal protection at short distances in various deadly-force situations. A gun is relied on to perform consistently and effectively over several encounters and is used to save lives.
So “Reliability” is an inherent part of one’s self-defense goal and for the handgun.
General Life and Death Questions to Answer
Before using a handgun in self-defense situations, including personal protection and home defense scenarios, there are several key questions that all self-defense shooters must answer for themselves. These questions and their answers are often neglected but might be of critical life-or-death importance. Here are just some of the questions that shooters should know the answers to.
- How many rounds to shoot in your specific gun to determine if it is reliable?
- Should you shoot only JHP rounds and 115-grain ammo?
- How often should you clean your gun, and how frequently and where do you oil it?
- What are some common malfunctions or stoppages the shooter should recognize and avoid?
- What is an acceptable frequency for any given malfunction or stoppage?
- What are some names of the top reliable handgun manufacturers?
- What drill or procedure should the shooter use to test a self-defense gun?
- What are the standards and failure rates accepted by the military and law enforcement?
Here are the eight factors that contribute to determining the reliability of your concealed carry handgun.
Number of rounds shot.
So, is it best to shoot for the reliability of the handgun 100, 200, 300, 500, 1,000, or 10,000 rounds? Generally, the more rounds down range, the better to determine the reliability of a handgun for self-defense purposes. But, as we know, at this time, ammo is scarce and pricey. However, my life is worth protecting and carries a high personal price tag. I personally want to shoot 500 rounds through any handgun that I am considering for concealed carry or personal protection. Realistically for me, this is not always possible during this current ammo scarcity and cost environment. So I want to strive to shoot 500 rounds or as near to that as possible for reliability reasons. For me, this is enough ammo testing for a usual break-in period and for reliability determination. Most new handguns have a break-in period which can vary a lot from 100 to 200 rounds or so. Of the many new handguns I have reviewed, I have found that usually malfunctions and stoppages occur within the first 100 to 200 or so rounds. But subsequently, after cleaning and lubricating them, the next several testing rounds do not have problems. So, shoot about 100 to 200 rounds for your gun’s break-in period, then shoot at least about 300 more rounds without experiencing a single stoppage or malfunction. If I experience even one malfunction or stoppage (not directly caused by my improper shooting or handling skills) in 500 rounds, then that particular handgun is not for me for self-defense or personal protection. I will not have a high degree of confidence in it to defend my life or the lives of my loved ones. Taking a chance on that gun is not worth it for me.
While it varies from gun to gun, plan for a break-in period of 100 to 200 rounds, in addition to at least about 300 rounds for overall reliability. It is important to initially clean and properly lubricate any handgun before testing for reliability and accuracy.
Types of rounds shot.
I believe it is best to shoot both full-metal jacket (FMJ) and jacketed hollow-point (JHP) rounds to see how the gun will cycle and perform with various ammo. Usually, begin your reliability test shooting FMJ rounds since I have learned that quite a few pistol and revolver guns will not properly cycle and perform the same when shooting FMJ and JHP rounds. And with FMJ rounds, there will be less lead buildup in the barrel.
TIP: A FMJ bullet has a lead core that is encapsulated by a metallic outer coating or jacket, typically made from copper. They are cleaner to shoot and more consistent for accuracy than bare lead bullets. FMJ bullets protect your barrel from lead deposits forming in the rifling grooves since there is no bare lead contacting the barrel. Shooting FMJ through your handguns will generally increase the barrel life since there will be less wear and tear on the rifling.
TIP: The weight or grain of a bullet affects how a specific defensive handgun performs. Bullet weight influences the amount of felt recoil and muzzle rise, and terminal performance. For example, the usual 115-grain 9mm round offers reliable cycling, comfortable and manageable felt recoil, and acceptable terminal performance. Bullet weight can cause a reliability problem in some revolvers. If lightweight revolvers are loaded with heavy-weight bullets, recoil can cause heavy-weight bullets to creep forward in the case and jam the cylinder.
Even high-quality guns and premium ammo will not always function the same with different ammo. I have experienced malfunctions and stoppages with premium, top-grade JHP ammo in high-quality handguns. And no malfunctions or stoppages when using ball ammo in average-quality production guns. It depends, so know for yourself how your chosen concealed carry, home defense, or personal protection gun will handle and perform with various ammo brands, types, and weights. Bullet weight is also a consideration, with 115-grain weight loads in 9mm tending to have a higher velocity than slower 147 grain. A 124-grain 9mm bullet is a good compromise for self-defense, and it is used frequently by law enforcement and the military.
Maintenance and cleaning priority.
Without a doubt, no matter how high the initial manufactured-in quality is for a handgun, if a handgun is not properly maintained and cleaned, it will not be reliable over time. Of course, a gun’s design, workmanship and materials quality, and an effective manufacturing process do significantly contribute to the reliability and any maintenance schedule. But dedication to properly and frequently cleaning the gun and regularly maintaining it by sufficient lubrication and changing defective or worn-out springs and parts is essential for the handgun owner. The handgun owner is responsible for maintaining and cleaning the gun and must assume that accountability, no matter how well the gun is made. This responsibility includes regularly cleaning the handgun to get rid of lead-particulate buildup, powder residues, grime, dirt, and other contaminates inside the gun. These needless buildups and contaminants cause a gun to malfunction, not operate properly, and become unreliable. I frequently see misfires, failures to eject, failures to feed, and other malfunctions and stoppages which are directly attributable to dirty, uncleaned, and poorly maintained handguns. These are avoidable with proper and frequent maintenance and cleaning. I clean my guns after each range visit. Also, be certain to follow the manufacturer’s schedule for replacing worn and used recoil springs, trigger springs, extractors, and ejectors. Although there is no exact round count for replacing many of these parts, the general consensus for replacing the common recoil spring is about 3,000 to 5,000 rounds. While this is not set in stone, to avoid cycling issues, try to replace recoil springs after this general round count. And they are inexpensive at about $10. and well worth the time for replacement and this preventative maintenance.
Stoppages & malfunctions experienced: types and frequencies.
Stoppages and malfunctions are major considerations in determining reliability. In fact, the U.S. military branches have specific standards for evaluating their duty handguns, and various reliability tests are conducted during the procurement processes. These standards change, but here are some very general ones. Generally, some of the key military standards are the Required Service Life (usually about 25,000 rounds), Mean Rounds Between Stoppages (2,000 rounds between stoppages or about 95% reliability), and Mean Rounds Between Failures (hardware deficiency- 5,000 rounds between failures or about 98% of completing a 96-hour mission without failure.) Generally, my military shooting friends and my Air Force procurement experiences tell me that the military expects handguns would have an overall failure rate of about 1:2,000.
Law enforcement reliability standards are similar to the military. A U.S. National Institute of Justice Report, “Baseline Specifications for Law Enforcement Service Pistols,” in November 2016, specifies in Section 5.2- Reliability that “pistols shall exhibit a mean overall malfunction or failure rate of no greater than 1 in 2,000 or shall exhibit a mean rounds between failure of no less than 2,000.” And that “pistols shall be durable and exhibit no failures due to wear or damage for a total of 10,000 rounds.”
Personal opinion and preference have a lot to do with practical reliability expectations in personal protection. There is no justification, in my opinion, for having a personal handgun used for self-defense and concealed carry that has a usual failure rate of more than 1 in 1,000 rounds fired. This is a strict standard, but I believe lives are a very important influencing factor. How a shooter determines a standard is very subjective and involves various shooting tests, amounts of ammo, present environmental factors, and experiences. Given our present shooting environment and the costs and availability of ammo, it is probably not practical for most shooters to shoot 1,000 rounds to determine their self-defense handgun. But it makes sense to this shooter that the more you shoot a handgun and the fewer malfunctions and stoppages it has, the better. So, for me now, at this time and in our present environment, shooting at least 500 rounds to determine the reliability of a handgun and ammo that will protect my life is certainly worth it.
Handgun manufacturer’s quality reputation.
There are some obvious high-quality handgun manufacturers, and I have written almost 1,000 reviews about many of their handguns. Of course, what is “quality” and “the best” is very subjective. The criteria vary, and the same poll taken only weeks apart will often give drastically different results. With that in mind, here are the “best handgun brands” from Werner Brandes at Ranker.com on October 15, 2020, based on 74,700 votes from gun lovers. In no particular order, here are his 12 top manufacturers:
Smith-Wesson, Springfield Armory, Walther, H&K, CZ, Glock, Sig Sauer, Colt, FN Herstal, Kimber, Ruger, and Beretta. There are certainly other top manufacturers not given in this brief list.
Online reviews, evaluations, and professional recommendations.
A good source for the reliability of handguns are the many online handgun reviews from many reviewers. Of course, some reviewers are very general in their evaluation process and do not even include their criteria and give their definitions of them. I always use my ten criteria to evaluate any handgun objectively I review and try to be impartial and fair in my evaluations. But opinions are very subjective, and biases can unintentionally creep in. I find it helpful when determining the reliability of guns to look to professional shooters and pistol world champions. They have succeeded not by sheer luck but usually have a rational method and proven techniques for their success. In addition to my research, gun testing, and firsthand reviews, I read reviews and seek opinions of professionals like these to help me determine handgun reliabilities:
- Jerry & Lena Miculek
- Rob Leatham
- Max Michel
- Doug Koenig
- Julie Golob
- Robert Vogel
- Shane Coley
- Michael Seeklander
Magazines and parts durability and performance.
Before you use your self-defense handgun, be certain all components and parts will perform as expected and determine their functionality and reliability. Check the functioning and performance of:
- all magazines: to ensure they drop freely from the magazine well
- the magazine release: easily located, reached, and works well
- the trigger: operates smoothly & properly; clean break and quick reset
- all safeties, e.g., manual, grip, and trigger: function well
- de-cockers (if present): work properly
- the slide: locks back and releases with a properly-functioning slide lock/stop/release lever; locks open on an empty magazine, and
- all buttons and levers operate well and smoothly.
Gun handling skills and shooting fundamentals.
The principal and paramount element that affects the reliability and accuracy of a handgun is the shooter. Shooters often overlook that an individual’s marksmanship and shooting skills, practicing fundamental mechanics and safety protocols, and experiences handling and using handguns help determine a gun’s reliability. Knowing the basics and implementing proper grip, stance, sight alignment, sight picture, breath control, trigger control, movement control, and follow-through are absolutely key to not only your self-defense but also to enhancing a gun’s reliability. The practice of the fundamentals does significantly lead to the development of muscle memory and to improved reliability. So get to the shooting range regularly and practice your self-defense and carry handgun. Errors by the shooter may result in a malfunction and reliability concern. The way you handle a certain-sized handgun and its felt recoil, your grip and finger placement, your press of the trigger, your shooting stance, magazine ejection, slide racking, and aiming, for example, all affect a gun’s reliability and can lead to malfunctions, stoppages, and inaccuracies. Sometimes the blame is quickly placed on the gun when the shooter’s failure to follow proper basics and techniques may be the culprit. Maybe it really was the shooter’s improper grip and limp wristing that caused the failure to eject or fire. Of course, it is important to know, train with, and practice with each specific handgun to sharpen skills for using that gun in self-defense. While there are some nuances among handguns, really, there is no significant adjustment in the basics necessary for effectively using them.
To determine reliability for your self-defense handgun, shoot about 100 to 200 rounds for your gun’s break-in period, then ideally shoot at least about 300 more rounds without experiencing a single stoppage or malfunction. Shoot both full-metal jacket and jacketed hollow-point rounds to see how the gun will cycle and perform with various ammo. Recognize that no matter how well the initial manufactured-in quality is for a specific handgun, if it is not properly maintained and cleaned, it will not be reliable over time. Before you use your self-defense handgun, be certain all components and parts will perform as expected and determine their functionality and reliability. A specific handgun is reliable, considering specific magazines and specific ammo. It is this author’s opinion that a personal handgun for concealed carry and self defense use should not have a failure rate with malfunctions and stoppages of more than 1 in 1,000 rounds fired. It just is not worth the risk for the shooter or loved ones, and there are so many fine handguns available. Since the principal and paramount element affecting the reliability and accuracy of a handgun is the shooter’s skills, take a class from an experienced, certified, and professional instructor to learn the fundamentals of how to properly handle and accurately shoot a handgun within legal parameters.
Continued success and practice, practice, and practice!
Photo by author.
* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only, and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense, and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.
© 2022 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col. Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.