The Cornered Cat
Bullet Surprise and a bonus

Wrote a new article yesterday: How to Win the Bullet Surprise. Really owe a thank you to my son Timothy, who came up with a reasonably catchy title for it when I came up dry. You should probably go read it.

It’s hard for me to put up new articles. Not because there’s not a lot to say. On the contrary! Even after 15 years of studying this stuff, I still find new things to think about every single day. One reason I’m so taken with the entire field of firearms and self defense is because although it initially might seem a bit narrow, there’s always some new vista opening up just around the next bend. Always something new to learn, always some fascinating new way of looking at things we thought we knew, always something happening in the world that will stand everything you’ve been doing on its head and kick over the box that holds all your preconceptions. So it’s not that.

It’s just … well, there’s this little problem I have with perfectionism. The perfect article, I think, would always include everything that you or anyone might need to know about a given topic. I’m a detail person. I like details. But you know what? There’s just not enough time in the world to make that happen. The pixel mines don’t run that deep.  😉

Never quite sure how much I can get away with when it comes to not-wrong but maybe-blurry approximations, either. I don’t like to do it, but sometimes in the interest of saving the poor overworked dwarfs laboring deep inside the pixel mines, I’ll resort to approximations anyway. Not incorrect, but … you know. Incomplete.

Here’s a case in point: the picture of the stovepipe malf in the new article. (Did I mention there’s a new article? You should go read it.) My inner perfectionist will probably need to  replace that picture, later. It beautifully illustrates a stovepipe, but … it’s a blurry approximation of what really happens. 1 There are nuances that didn’t make it into the picture.

Stovepipe malfunctions can be caused by a broken ejector.

In a modern polymer gun, a stovepipe doesn’t usually happen in quite this way.

A true stovepipe like the one shown in the picture really isn’t how Glocks and other modern polymers usually present the same symptom. Oh, sometimes they do. The picture isn’t outright wrong. Not really. Besides, we still call what they do instead a “stovepipe.” It just rarely looks like that. True stovepipes, with the case sticking straight up as shown in the illustration, are almost exclusively a 1911 thing. That’s why old timers say, “Oh, don’t bother with a tap, rack for a stovepipe! Just brush the brass off the top of the gun.” They could do that, reliably, with that style of gun because that style of gun produced that style of malfunction almost exclusively. Brushing it off was the obvious and easy fix.

But when a modern polymer does the same basic thing for the same basic reason, the case usually doesn’t stand up like that. It doesn’t look like a stovepipe sticking out of a log cabin’s roof. Instead it lies flat along the ejection port with its case mouth toward the muzzle end of the gun. You’ll still see visible brass on top of the gun, which still stops the slide from closing by clogging the ejection port area. Here’s the kicker, though: that sharp open mouth of the case will skin a very painful 9mm stripe of skin right off the palm of your hand if you try to “just brush the brass away” with that type of not-really-a-stovepipe-stovepipe malfunction.

Add to this that the art and science of defensive handgunning has come a long way in the past three and a half decades. We now know that it’s a lot more efficient and a lot more reliable to give people a single technique that they can build a lot of practice time with, that they can always use to clear the gun whether or not the lighting allows them to really see what’s going on, whether or not the situation allows them to take their eyes off the threat, whether or not they’re carrying this type of gun or the other type of gun, and so on. So most trainers no longer teach students to brush the brass away when there’s a stovepipe. Because our understanding of how people learn physical skills has advanced, and because we use many different types of guns that weren’t on the market before, it’s an obsolete idea now even though it was once best practice. 2

Could’ve added all that to the article. Or some of it. Maybe. But … well, one of the hardest truths any writer has to learn is this one: something can be the absolute best stretch of writing you’ve ever done in your life, about the most important subject you’ve ever addressed, and it can also at the same time still not belong in your current piece of work. That’s a tough fact to swallow.

Maybe I’ll revisit it another day.


  1. And not that you need to know this, but I’m kicking myself for using the wrong gun to show it in the first place. Since I wanted a stovepipe-stovepipe, I should’ve used a 1911. And I didn’t. But I was on the home stretch by the time I realized it was going to be a problem. I’d already taken all the other pics and tweaked them too and that was a lot of time spent, and besides I wanted it all to be a visually matched set so the readers didn’t get too lost in an article that was already annoyingly tech heavy, and by then I couldn’t take an entirely new set of pictures in the time I’d given myself, and the bottom line is, I was no way no how going to not finish yet another article, leaving it to clutter my hard drive and my psyche with all the unfinishedness of it. Again. No. Just no. So there we are; instead of obsessing about the perfection I couldn’t achieve, I went ahead and ran with what I had. But my inner perfectionist is still being a whiny little snot about it. Can you tell?
  2. Best practice now is tap, rack to both diagnose and clear any stoppage, followed by unload/rackrackrack/reload if tap, rack doesn’t do the job.

2 Responses to Bullet Surprise and a bonus

  1. larryarnold says:

    Another good article.

    One of the items on my pre-Vietnam checklist was to qualify with the M-16. (My Ft. Benning unit was still issued the M-14.) So I found myself on a shooting range with several other officers, almost all of whom outranked me.

    We stood in concrete “foxholes” and shot at pop-up silhouettes. As we finished our last string something went “tink” off my steel pot and dropped down at my feet. I figured “empty case” and concentrated on dropping my last target. The range sergeant called “Cease fire” and everybody cleared his rifle.

    But something made me look down, and what I saw was an M-16 extractor.

    The sergeant was ready to send us off the firing line when I called a halt. “Lieutenant?” the sergeant said in that tone NCOs reserve for shavetails. I handed him the still-hot extractor, and showed him it wasn’t mine.

    He started checking. Sure enough, the major two foxholes left had his bolt (minus extractor) open, magazine out, and a live round in the chamber.

    Of course, the bolt should have stayed open while we were moving back, and the barrel should have had a rod down it before we left the range, and… But Murphy was certainly lurking about.

    I got a “Good eye lieutenant” from the sergeant, a “Thanks” from the major, and qualified expert. It was a fine day.

    Ever since, it ain’t unloaded until I see the empty chamber and magazine well.

  2. awalker1829 says:

    I also found out through a good deal of use that my M1911A1 produced stovepipes with certain non OEM magazines. Some part of the upper mag housing was always the culprit. In those cases, tap and rack also included shaking (with the muzzle pointed in a safe direction) to dislodge the partial ejection without getting my fingers pinched by the slide.

    As for safety, a firearm is never unloaded until the operator visually confirms that it is properly secured.

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