SIGHTING IN ON: Semi-Auto Pistols: Testing for Reliability


Testing your gun-ammo combo without breaking the bank.
By Mike Wood

I recently had a friend from a medium-size agency show me his new semiauto pistol, which he had purchased as a combination backup/off-duty weapon. He was very proud of the new pistol and spent some time talking about all the features that he liked about it. He told me how comfortable it was to carry due to its compact size and low weight. In fact, he had been carrying the pistol for several months now and sometimes “forgot it was even there,” because it was so comfortable to carry.

I thought it was a nice pistol and was impressed with the trigger pull in dry fire. “How does it shoot?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t got it to the range yet.”
Houston, we have a problem.

I’d like to think this guy is an anomaly, but sadly I’ve known several people through the years who have taken a new pistol from the box, loaded it, and started to carry it for duty or self defense before they ever fired a single round through it to prove that it actually worked. I’ve also seen several who shot a single magazine through a new gun, and declared it “Good” on the spot, without further testing.
Similarly, I’ve seen even more people switch to a new type of ammunition and carry it for duty or self defense without ever shooting some of it through their pistol to see if it actually worked reliably in the gun. My own agency forced its officers to do that just a few years ago, when the ammunition contract changed from one brand to another—we shot our semi-annual qualification with the old stuff, and were handed a box of the new stuff to load up for duty as we went out the door at the end of the day. The new stuff was a different brand, with a different powder, bullet weight, velocity and bullet ogive, and we had no way of knowing if it would run or choke in our issued pistols. Fortunately, I had several boxes of the old load at home that I could continue to use for duty until I was able to test the new fodder sufficiently in my own pistol.

I don’t think the readers of this magazine need to be told why it’s a bad idea to rely on an unproven gun and ammunition combination. I think we can all agree that this is not a wise move, and it could have tragic consequences, especially for someone in this profession.
Yet, we see people do it, including people who should know better. I think the ammo “crises” of the past handful of years have made it even more common, actually. Cost and availability issues have made it harder to get a suitable quantity of ammunition, with the result that more and more of our friends are relying upon untested gun/ammo combinations. As such, it’s probably a good time to revisit the idea of how and why we should test a semi-auto pistol for reliability.

Advice From the Old Sages
The traditional advice for semi-autos has always been something to the effect that you should be able to run 200 rounds of your chosen “duty” ammunition through your gun without any malfunctions before you consider the combination trustworthy.

I used to swear by this advice and still think it’s good, but the truth is that it dates back to another era. Back in the day when most autoloaders were designed to run on FMJ only, and the traditional modes of manufacturing lead to wide variations in tolerances, the 200-round standard was an excellent rule of thumb. However, with the rise of modern production techniques and quality control procedures (CNC machining, ISO 9001, etc.), today’s guns have better, more consistent, tolerances and there’s less variation in performance across a wide range of samples. Plus, today’s duty and self-defense guns are almost universally designed to run on JHPs right out of the box, so there’s a reasonable expectation that they actually will, and shooting 200 rounds of them to prove it might be overkill.

Besides this, the pressures of the better part of a decade’s worth of ammunition shortages have changed the landscape when it comes to supply. Finding 200-plus rounds of your chosen duty ammunition can be quite a feat in the current market, and even if you can find that much, it’s probably going to cost you in excess of a dollar per round. The logistics and economics of the situation alone simply make the old 200-round standard unrealistic for most shooters and agencies today.

A Workable Standard for a New Era?
So, let’s talk about an alternative—something that might allow you to validate reliability in your modern design semi-auto pistol without going into debt over the ammo bill. We’ll start by shooting a few hundred rounds or so of FMJ ammunition through your pistol. These first 150 to 200 rounds will allow your pistol to “break in” at a cost that you can (hopefully) accept at current prices. Supplies are still pretty tight right now, but you should be able to find some kind of FMJ to make this part work, and it will allow you to work through the early hiccups that some pistols have straight from the box (most of these will surface and then disappear in the first 200 rounds or so—if they linger beyond that, it’s time to start investigating). Plus, it will allow you enough time to learn the system so you won’t be inducing your own malfunctions, by taking an inappropriate grip, accidentally interfering with the slide or controls during firing, robbing the slide of recoil energy due to a poor shooting platform, etc.

After the FMJs have smoothed out both your technique and the gun’s moving parts, it’s time to clean and lubricate the pistol, then start shooting some of your “duty” JHPs through the gun to see how they function. I’ll suggest that the best and most affordable way to do this is to mix them in with some less-expensive FMJ ammo. It’s important that you do this with a plan in mind, and don’t do it haphazardly. Here’s what I would recommend:

1. Mark the baseplates of a given quantity of magazines that you will use “on duty.” This is usually at least three magazines—one for the pistol, and two spares.

2. For each of these magazines, load them so you have two rounds of your duty JHP ammo in a row at the very bottom, two in the middle, and two at the very top of the magazine. Fill the rest of the space in between with FMJ.
3. Shoot each of the magazines (loaded in this fashion) a minimum of three times each. On the first go, shoot the pistol with two hands on the gun. On the second go, shoot it with your primary hand only, and on the last run, shoot it with your support side hand only.
4. If you experience a problem, take notes about which magazine it was, the type of ammunition (JHP or FMJ), which number it was in the magazine, and with what hand combination you were shooting.

It’s important to load two of the JHPs in a row next to each other, because you want to see how they feed when the slide is powered by a fired round of the same energy. Also, it’s important to distribute the JHP rounds at the top, middle and bottom of each magazine, because you want to see how the combination works when the magazine spring power is at its greatest and at its weakest, and points in between. This is critical because (manufacturing flaws aside) modern semiauto pistol reliability is mostly about the delicate balance between the recoil spring, the magazine spring, and slide energy. Most modern pistols have suitably shaped chambers and feed ramps, and most modern self-defense cartridges are loaded with bullets shaped to optimize feeding, so in many cases, it’s really all about the timing dictated by springs and slide velocity/energy.
When the shooting is done, you will have tested each of your duty magazines when they are at full capacity with maximum spring compression and power, at mid cycle, and at the end of the cycle when magazine spring power is weakest. You will have also tested the gun/ammo combination using a solid (two-hand) platform, and two weaker (strong and support side-only) platforms, which have greater potential to induce a malfunction.
If a certain test “fails” due to a malfunction, you can follow up with repeat tests of the same type until you are satisfied that it was an anomaly, or you have verified that there is a legitimate issue with the gun/ammo combination.
Assuming that you ran the test with three magazines, you could do the whole evolution with slightly more than a single, 50-round box of expensive JHP ammunition. If you had a “fail,” you would certainly need more JHPs to troubleshoot, but if everything went well, you could test three magazines and have enough rounds left over for a full duty load out with just two 50-round boxes of duty ammunition—half of the amount suggested by the old 200-round standard.

Good to Go?
This test protocol isn’t perfect, but I think it’s a reasonable start, especially in the current ammunition draught. I would personally like to run more JHPs through the gun before I declared them “reliable,” but that is probably more a matter of personal comfort than statistical validity. If a certain JHP design is going to give you reliability problems, it will probably surface during this abbreviated test. If you don’t experience any problems using this protocol, then you’re probably good to go.
Even if it’s not perfect, this protocol will hopefully make it more likely that our fellow officers, family, friends, and citizens will actually take that new blaster out and shoot it before they start relying on it to save someone’s life. That would be a good start in my book.
Be safe out there! PM

Mike Wood is the author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis. Please visit the official website for this book at for more information.


1. Varying weights, dimensions, and shapes of bullets can influence how a particular load will feed and function in your pistol. The only way to know is to test each load.

2. Mark your magazines and keep careful notes about which magazine is in use when you encounter a malfunction during testing. A string of malfunctions with the same magazine may point to the magazine as the culprit, not the ammo.

3. They might all look the same, but each one is a unique individual with its own tolerances and flaws. You need to test yours individually, and not accept generic testing results for your model.

4. Put a pair of the JHPs you’re testing at the top, middle, and bottom of the ammunition stack in your magazine. Fill the rest of the space with FMJ.

5. Shooting with one hand weakens the stability and strength of the shooting platform, but it may be necessary in a defensive encounter. You need to know if your ammo has enough power to reliably cycle the slide, even when the platform has been compromised and cannot offer normal resistance to recoil forces.

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