The Care, Feeding and Reliability of Semi-Automatic Pistols

By David Tong

My primary interest in the shooting sports involves semi-automatic pistols in all calibers from .22 LR to .45 ACP and this goes back for 34 years. What I would like to discuss is related to my experiences and how best to enjoy these popular arms for target practice, competition and personal protection. While many of my comments will apply to the 1911, I will discuss that particular pistol in relation to more modern tackle later on in this article.

I was first employed by Jeff Cooper’s own gunsmith, Mr. James Hoag, who is still in business in Southern California. While the computer revolution has certainly improved the consistency of manufacture of arms, 30 years ago in this shop we certainly had no shortage of reliable 1911 model pistols used by both police and combat shooting competitors, and I vividly remember both Mickey Fowler and Mike Dalton. These champions used Hoag-built pistols to become IPSC Master Class shooters in the Southwest Pistol League, which Cooper founded in the early 1970s.

These pistols were shot daily by these and others for several thousand lead-bulleted reloads per week, so we saw just how filthy a 1911 could become and still keep working. At the time, the only game in town was a modified Colt pre-or-Series 70 Government Model in .45ACP, well before all of the other manufacturers came along to make the 1911 the most copied semi-automatic pistol of all time. I have seen powder residue from over 1,500 rounds shot in three days, with nothing more than motor oil used to keep pistols lubricated, and this was by no means unusual or extraordinary use.

Malfunctions then and today tend to be primarily magazine related. Older pistols like the 1911 have both a frame and barrel feed ramp and were designed around round nosed, full metal jacketed military ball ammunition, while just about all of the newer designs dispense with the frame feed ramp and have magazines designed to provide a proper “nose-up” attitude that directs the round directly into the chamber.

Old style U.S. Government Issue magazines had straight, nearly full case length feed lips, while all newer designed guns and mags use shorter release length lips. Examples of 1911 magazines the author has used over the years include Chip McCormick Power Mags, Colt factory (made by Colt subcontractor Metalform) and Novak’s .45 Shop (made by subcontractor, the Italian company “ACT”).

Magazines should be routinely, every 500 rounds or so, stripped and cleaned using standard solvents and then wiped dry. One can very lightly oil the spring to combat corrosion, but the interior of the mag should be left dry so as not to accumulate powder residue. During the cleaning, I always inspect the magazines for cracks on the feed lips on the corners of the rear spine of the magazine. This is generally where a magazine will fail, due to spring tension and usage, although leaving McCormick or genuine Colt magazines fully loaded for months, or even years, does not usually promote problems.

The most common magazine induced malfunction is the so-called “bolt over base” failure, where the slide overrides the loaded magazine and fails to strip the round from it. Usually this is remedied by installing a new factory magazine spring, or one from Wolff Gunsprings of Pennsylvania. These are available in standard, or +5% strengths, with the latter used to increase feed speed when heavier than standard recoil springs are used. Unless one is experiencing feed issues, I would tend not to replace magazine springs unless one is using a heavier-than-stock recoil spring.

Another type of malfunction is a partial feed, with the bullet either impacting the barrel’s feed ramp and stopping, or entering the chamber, but not fully seating. I would usually check the extractor tension to insure that it was not excessive, ensure that the chamber is adequately clean, or inspect the cartridges to see that they have been properly loaded and that overall length and diameter of the cartridge is within specification. If a round fails to fully chamber, this may indicate a weakened recoil spring and this is a normal wear item available at minimal cost that should be replaced every 1,500 to 3,000 rounds in a 1911 pistol.

I have also seen feed problems that involve the loaded round impacted mid-case by the slide on the way to the chamber, requiring a “tap-rack-bang” drill to clear. These are usually also a sign of weak mag springs.

Just about all pistols operate using a “controlled round feed,” meaning that the rim of the case is grabbed by the extractor on the feed stroke from the magazine and guided into the chamber by it. This is similar to the system used by manually cycled bolt-action rifles such as the Mauser ’98 and the Winchester Model 70.

On a Model 1911, the extractor is essentially a leaf spring and it must be fitted to provide the correct amount of tension on the cartridge. A simple test of this is to strip the slide of its barrel, take a loaded cartridge, and place its rim under the extractor. See if the tension is sufficient to hold it against the breechface.

In addition, it is best to ensure that the lower edges of the extractor are lightly radiused and have those edges broken by a Swiss file and polished. I would also advise that older 1911's have their standing breech faces polished with 400-grit aluminum oxide, to smooth the surface and allow the case head to slide under the extractor hook with minimum friction.

On more modern designs, the extractor is usually a coil-spring powered hook, visible to the rear of the ejection port, pivoting around a cross pin drilled vertically through the slide (Beretta 92, HK USP, Smith & Wesson 1911s, Springfield XD) or retained by a plunger detent pin (Glock, HK-P7 Series, some recent Kimber 1911 models, SiG P-Series, Walther P-38 and PP/PPK Series). These are usually very reliable and require little maintenance, though I have personally had my Kimber TLE extractor eject itself on recoil. The company replaced the entire slide with a conventional 1911-style internal extractor under warranty.

I would static test these extractors the same way. The ejector on most semi-automatic pistols is a pinned in place fixed hook attached usually to the left rear of the frame rail adjacent to the hammer. These generally have no functional issues, though the occasional one can be angle adjusted, again with a small Swiss file, to alter the ejection pattern to keep hot brass from hitting the shooter, or to shorten the distance the brass flies to aid in its recovery if one reloads.

While this list of possible reliability issues seems long, especially to a revolver shooter, I feel the need to remind the readers that it also doesn’t take much to tie up a revolver; just a few grains of unburned powder under an extractor star is enough to keep the cylinder from closing after a reload, while an average good self-shucker can be relied upon under more extensive use. (I think I can recall having to blow powder from beneath the extractor star of a DA revolver once in about 45 years! -Ed.)

Most of the modern (designed and manufactured after about 1980) semi-auto pistols of good manufacture tend to run pretty well, though all benefit from a regular cleaning and lubrication regimen, with few exceptions. Beretta 92 series pistols should have their locking blocks examined and/or replaced every 5,000 rounds or so, to ensure they do not crack from recoil forces, and owners of these pistols should always use factory magazines and adequate lubrication of the slide and frame rails Ditto the locking lug recesses on both sides of the interior of the slide.

Glock and Heckler & Koch USP pistols generally don’t have reliability issues and generally do not require much lubrication to function. Glock pistols will occasionally break slide locks or their attached leaf springs, but these are drop-in replacement parts offered at minimal cost. While there are those who may insist that lubing is optional for these handguns, it is my view that heavy sliding moving parts should have some lubricant to reduce wear, so long as it is not “excessive” and traps powder residue against those surfaces. Glocks and HK USP's have stamped frame rails that are both hardened and thin and act, presumably, as “crud cutters.” They offer minimal space for foreign object collection as the slide recoils and are among the very few pistols lacking conventional rails and thus do not need much lubricant to function. (Glock recommends a non-greasy lubricant such as Prolix, not gun oil. -Ed.)

I also think that the SiG P-series pistols require minimal lubrication, though it is a good idea to keep after corrosion on earlier carbon steel slides, grip screws and magazine bodies with an invisible light film, but observable by feel, as necessary. Current models have slides manufactured of machined stainless steel, although I would still use a good quality light lubricant on the rails. In my opinion, the combination of steel slide and aluminum frame, typical of many modern pistols, should be lubed.

These, and the Smith & Wesson “Third Generation,” the Czech CZ-75 series and Springfield’s XD should all be lightly lubricated. Typically, in addition to the slide and frame rails, I would also place one drop of gun oil on the firing pin lock stud protruding from the underside of the slide adjacent to the disconnector track, two drops at the unlocking surface of the barrel and slide and two drops applied to the barrel tube as it slides within the slide.

I have personally used standard old Hoppe’s No. 9 solvent, or some of the newer copper-cutting solvents for cleaning and some of the newer “cleaner, lubricant, protectant” (aka “CLP”) products such as “Break Free,” Tetra, or most recently, a full-synthetic product known as “EEZOX” that promises a wide operating temperature range of -40 to +150 degrees F. It is of very light viscosity when applied lightly to manufacturer’s directions and becomes a dry lube when the volatile carrier evaporates, thus making it good for dusty conditions. One has to discontinue use of more conventional lubricants, so as not to over lube with EEZOX, as the dried film is invisible. I have also used Tetra’s “Gun Grease” on the slide and frame rails, as these are heavy reciprocating/sliding surfaces and this light grease reduces the likelihood of having one’s lube stain clothing.

.22 pistols suffer, generally speaking, more powder residue than centerfire pistols. In addition, their lubricated lead bullets leave more barrel residue, and it would be good in my opinion to clean them every 250-500 shots by routine stripping and lubrication. Pistols such as the Colt Woodsman, High-Standard or Ruger .22 automatics are very reliable and robustly constructed and seldom experience problems if they are kept reasonably clean.

The same cleaning regimen applies to centerfire pistols shooting mostly reloaded lead bullets. The powders used in reloading are often not as clean burning as factory loaded jacketed ammunition, which compounds the problem. Please note that neither Glock nor Heckler & Koch recommends the use of lead bullets in their polygon-rifled barrels, due to possible lead stripping causing a potential over-pressure situation.

I would suggest examining a concealed carry pistol weekly by unloading it, field stripping it and brushing it free of any clothing lint from covering garments, especially if worn inside the waistband. Usually a good cleaning every 250-1,000 rounds is all that is necessary, although I would make sure that the bore was clean and lacked obstructions of any kind.

For daily carry use, I carefully inspect every round of ammo before I load it into my magazine for burrs, dents, or out of spec diameter. Sometimes I will go as far as stripping the barrel from the pistol and dropping each round into the chamber to ensure that it passively chambers from gravity alone to double check diameter. Look at the factory tapered crimp or case cannelure that helps to hold the bullet in place on the feed stroke, in order to insure that there is no bullet setback that can cause an over-pressure situation.

Bullet ogive (nose) shape should be rounded in profile for reliability. Some of the older jacketed hollow point designs, such as the Sierra jacketed hollow cavity loaded by Cor-Bon (among others), use a more sharp-edged truncated conical design which may exacerbate feeding problems. The general rule of thumb for maximum reliability is to use a bullet shape that is as close to “round nosed FMJ” as possible, particularly in 1911 pistols. Bullet shape seems to make little or no difference to Glock pistols.

Note that while I am discussing the most prevalent, straight-walled cartridges, such as .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, 9X19mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP, less common bottlenecked rounds such as the 5.7X28mm FN, 7.62X25mm Russian Tokarev, 7.63mm Mauser and .357 SiG offer theoretically near flawless feeding due to the bore diameter being much smaller than the case diameter. In essence, the rear of the chamber is a large funnel. This may be one of the reasons why the .357 SiG round has been adopted by elements of the U.S. Secret Service and Federal Air Marshals.

I distinguish in my own mind between “service level clean” and “storage level clean.” The former merely needs to have the bore cleaned, the breech face of the slide tooth brushed free of powder residue under the extractor and lightly lubricated as required. Long-term storage is more a matter of protecting it against corrosion, although the lubricants mentioned above will do a good job of protecting one’s investment, as will storage in a cool, dry place.

Having said all this and despite all the things that can potentially go awry, the semi-automatic pistol is where most of the design ingenuity, manufacture and sales is happening in the handgun market today. With good care, a quality autoloader can be one’s trusted companion for decades of use.

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Copyright 2009, 2013 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.