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How a squib load can challenge modern police firearms training

When you use dangerous tools in a dangerous profession, one may someday fail you through no fault of your own


Back in the revolver days we taught officers about hang fire and squib load ammunition. Bear in mind I’m talking about revolvers loaded with cartridges, not cap & ball muzzleloaders…I’m not that damn old.

Hang fire rounds are those in which the primer fires when struck by the firing pin, but the round doesn’t fully fire until after a distinct pause, which could be several seconds. I have never experienced a hang fire.

What is a squib load?

A squib load is one that fires immediately upon impact of the firing pin, but is severely reduced in power, caused either by a contaminated powder charge or a severely reduced powder charge (or no powder at all).

Squib loads generally fail to expel the bullet from the barrel, requiring a metal rod and hammer to drive them out before the sidearm can be put back into action. I have experienced a couple of these over the years, all caused by reloaded ammunition, until recently.

When I took my agency to the range for a handgun tactics refresher we experienced a squib load with factory ammo produced by a major U.S. manufacturer. This very rare occurrence made me realize how modern training techniques can almost guarantee a catastrophic weapon failure in the case of a squib load.

The tap-rack clearing maneuver is dangerous with a squib load

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the sergeant conduct a Tap-Rack Type 1 malfunction clearance on his Glock 22. He immediately came back on target and fired another round in the string of fire. The next round was noticeably louder than normal and the target “poofed out” with a larger than normal impact. The pistol jammed in such a way we could neither fully open or close the slide – completely out of action.

Beyond any armorer-level repair, the Glock factory in Georgia found the problem: a minute bulge in the muzzle of the barrel that jammed in the muzzle end of the slide, cracking the recoil spring ring in the slide. The cause of the damage was a squib load that left the projectile stuck in the barrel very near the muzzle.

The under-powered load that stuck the bullet failed to fully function the pistol, causing the malfunction the Sergeant had been trained to clear automatically. The Tap-Rack clearing maneuver chambered a fresh round, which blew the stuck bullet free, causing excessive pressure that bulged the barrel, cracked the slide ring and jammed the mechanism solidly in a partially open position. Had this happened in a street fight instead of on the training range, the Sergeant would have been in deep trouble; trouble only a backup gun could have solved.

Should we rethink police firearms instruction?

Back in the day, we trained our officers to stop firing when their semi-auto pistol malfunctioned. On the range they would raise a hand to signal a malfunction, a range officer would clear the problem, and the officer would be given an “alibi” shot to finish his qualification string.

Some of us felt this system was wrong, incorrectly training officers to stop in the middle of the fight if they experienced a malfunction. So when us young bucks had been around long enough to make changes, we trained officers to identify and clear their own malfunctions. Ideally, they practiced malfunction clearing until their mid-brain could initiate the Tap-Rack sequence without conscious thought. My sergeant did exactly that with his Glock and, in the process of doing what we had trained him to do, blew up his pistol, putting him and the pistol out of the fight.

I have subsequently re-thought nearly 40 years as a police firearms instructor. Is our modern technique flawed? No. I believe training officers to automatically clear a malfunction is still the right thing to do.

Malfunctions during police gunfights are fairly common; NYPD’s SOP9 statistics show about a 20 percent malfunction rate using Glock 9mm pistols – one of the most reliable sidearms of all time. Gunfight conditions are MUCH more severe than any training event, so we MUST train our officers to clear their own malfunctions and trust that our ammunition supply will contain few, if any, squib loads.

The computer world defines reliability as Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF). What is the MTBF of duty ammo from a major manufacturer? I can’t quote a hard number, but based on my years of experience I would say overall, maybe 1 in every 5-10 thousand rounds, and the most common failure is a failure-to-fire. We had a round fail-to-fire the same day as our squib load…2 failures out of about 4,000 rounds from one lot of ammunition in nearly new, perfectly maintained pistols.

What is the rest of the story? The ammunition was “white box” training ammo (full-metal-jacket bullets) loaded by one of the largest U.S. ammo manufacturers. In fact, it was the current “state bid” .40 S&W caliber training load used by most police agencies in my state. The ammunition company agreed with our findings: a defective cartridge from their plant caused the blowup, so they bought us a new pistol, no argument at all.

I feel no need to name the brand of ammunition because the whole situation balanced out. The company loaded a defective round, but their response and customer service was perfect. Squib loads in modern factory ammunition are EXTREMELY rare, yet they remain a possibility. Most major companies load their duty-grade ammunition more carefully, often on different machines, so defective duty ammunition is even more unlikely.

All I can say is that no training protocol will ever be perfect. Someday an officer in a fight for their life may experience a squib load only to clear the problem and experience a catastrophic weapon failure on the next pull of the trigger. When you use dangerous tools in a dangerous profession, one may someday fail you through no fault of your own. Carry a backup gun.

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