A Very Serious Setback

Concealed Carry: Repeatedly loading and unloading the same round can cause setback, a dangerous condition where the bullet becomes jammed too far into its case.

Repeatedly loading and unloading the same round can cause setback, a dangerous condition where the bullet becomes jammed too far into its case, as seen in the center cartridge of this image.

Meet Joe Safety. Joe tries very hard to be a safety-conscious gun toter.

 

Whenever he gets into his house, he goes straight to his gun safe, draws his Blastomatic 2000 from its holster, unloads the weapon, and locks it away. When he goes back out, he reloads the weapon and holsters up.

What Joe doesn’t realize is that this habit of his isn’t quite as safe as he’d like to think.

For starters, the additional administrative handling of the firearm simply exposes him to a statistically greater chance of a negligent discharge. All the extra loading and unloading, the flicking of safeties on and off, the chamber checking, (Remember, Joe is safe! He always checks his chamber!) creates that much larger window of opportunity for a mistake, especially if he’s tired or distracted.

 

A slam-fire is a loud noise when you were just expecting a “KA-CHIK!”

 

Additionally, most any weapon that feeds rounds into the chamber mechanically can discharge when being loaded. Sure, the chance is infinitesimal, but this is why it’s especially important to be vigilant about what direction the muzzle is pointing when the gun is being loaded or checked. A slam-fire is a loud noise when you were just expecting a “KA-CHIK!”

One reason that this habit isn’t so safe is a reason not often considered: With each of those repeated chamberings, Joe may in fact be creating an expensive pipe bomb. The violence of the loading cycle in most self-loading handguns causes the top round to be stripped from the magazine and slammed nose-first into the feed ramp before being deflected up and into the chamber. This can cause the bullet to be forced slightly backward into the case mouth. Done once, this usually doesn’t cause a problem, but premium hollowpoints are expensive, and Joe keeps putting the ejected round back on top of the magazine, subjecting it to this mayhem two or even three times a day.

 

For one, lighter bullets not only take up less space in the cartridge, but seem less subject to setback-causing inertia.

 

All this combines to reduce the volume of space in the cartridge containing the powder, which greatly magnifies the pressures generated on firing. Studies have shown that as little as one tenth of an inch of bullet setback in a 180gr. .40S&W cartridge, for instance, can cause chamber pressure to double, and this can cause dangerous overpressure situations that can damage the gun.

This can be mitigated in several ways: For one, lighter bullets not only take up less space in the cartridge, but seem less subject to setback-causing inertia. Another way would be to use a lower-pressure round which should offer a greater safety margin. Alternatively, one could carefully monitor the overall length of one’s carry loads and discard those showing signs of setback.

The best way, of course, would simply be to eliminate all unnecessary loading and unloading of the weapon. There’s no real reason to be fiddling with the pistol that much if you don’t have to; unless you have gremlins living in your gun safe, nobody’s going to be shooting it in there anyway, so it probably won’t hurt to just leave it loaded (just be aware that you’re picking up a loaded gun when you reach into the safe). Stop touching it so much!

 

 

 

[ Tamara Keel has been shooting guns as a hobby since she was eighteen. She has worked in the firearms business since the early 1990s. Her pastimes include collecting old guns, writing, and being bossed around by house cats. ]

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