Catastrophic Failures…reasons for carrying a backup gun

Written by Greg Ellifritz

Topics: Articles

  • SumoMe

I always tell people “Guns are like cars.  You can buy the most expensive and most reliable car ever created, but given time it WILL break down.”



People don’t believe me.  The most common retort is “But my xxxxx has NEVER malfunctioned”.  I just nod and smile but inside I’m thinking:  “That’s because you don’t shoot or carry your gun the way I do.”  If you shoot 50 rounds a year, your gun likely will never break.  If you really run it hard, I promise you that it will.



I shoot a lot.  I’m not nearly at the level of some, but I’ve sent an average of 15,000 rounds a year downrange for each of the last 10 years.  In addition to that, my job as a full time police firearms trainer as well as an instructor at one of the largest shooting schools in the country ensures that I see several hundred thousand more rounds fired through my students’ guns each year.  That’s a lot of opportunity to see guns puke.



I’ve seen every type of gun break.  You name it, and I’ll tell you a story about how one broke.  In fact, I think I’ve broken every single carry gun I’ve ever put a significant quantity of rounds through.  If you work them hard, they’ll all die.



With that said, it’s no secret that I think that Glock and Smith & Wesson M&P pistols are generally the most reliable fighting handguns made.  Overall, I see far fewer issues with those guns than with any others.



But that doesn’t mean they are bulletproof.



Yesterday I was training our newest officer at the range.  I was shooting a demonstration of the drill that I wanted him to complete with my duty pistol, a  Generation 3 .45acp Glock 21.  I fired a couple of rounds in a five-shot string and then I heard the dreaded “click” when I pulled the trigger again.



“Damn, I hate having malfunctions in front of a student!  I should have lubed this gun today!” was what I was thinking as I immediately executed a Tap/Rack.  A live round flew out the ejector port and  I pulled the trigger again.  Another “click”.  Another Tap/Rack.  Another live round flying.  And then a third “click”.



Time out.  I stopped the drill and unloaded my gun.  Something was obviously wrong.  I looked at the three ejected live rounds and there wasn’t a single mark on any of the primers.



“OK”, I thought.  “I know what this is”.  The gun seems to be working, but the primers aren’t getting hit.  Having graduated Glock armorer’s school four times, I realize the most common causes of this type of malfunction are either a broken firing pin, a weak firing pin spring, or a clogged firing pin channel.  All are easy fixes.  I’ve seen them all before.



I took the gun apart and detail stripped the slide.  Everything seemed to be in perfect order.  Firing pin was intact.  Spring had good tension.  No gunk in the channel.  I cleaned everything anyway and put my gun back together.  When I tried to shoot again, I got the same result.  “Click.”  No primer strike.



I must have missed something.  I broke the gun down again and then a saw what I had missed.  It was something  I had never seen before.  The vertical extension of the trigger bar was completely sheared off!


See anything missing?


If you have no idea what I’m talking about, let me explain…



The Glock pistol has two internal safeties to prevent the gun from firing unless the trigger is moved to the rear.  One of those safeties is called the “firing pin safety”.  It’s a little button that has to be depressed before the firing pin can protrude through the breech face.  It gets depressed by the vertical extension of the trigger bar as the trigger moves rearward.  No vertical extension means that the button doesn’t get pushed and the firing pin can’t reach the primer.


Two side-by-side Glock 21s. The closer one has no vertical extension. The farther one is what the gun is supposed to look like.


I’ve seen millions of rounds fired through Glock pistols and I have never seen this happen!  The part isn’t under any real stress and doesn’t usually snap off like that!



My gun hadn’t been too beat up compared to other pistols I’ve used.  This one was made in 2003.  I put 32,000 rounds through it before the first serious breakdown in 2010.  In that instance, I broke off one of the rear slide rails.  Glock replaced the frame (including the trigger that broke).  The new frame/trigger had about 9,000 rounds through it.



It was a fight stopping malfunction and it couldn’t have been prevented.  It’s an easy fix, but it requires a spare trigger bar, a punch, and about 10 minutes.  You can’t fix it in the middle of a gunfight!



I was thankful it happened on the range instead of the street.  I was even more thankful that I had a .38 revolver on my ankle that I could have transitioned to if I was in a gunfight.  Yes, I was carrying a second gun even though I was just teaching on the range.  I always carry one.  Why?  To prevail in this very same type of situation.



If you don’t carry a backup gun, you are foolish and misguided.  This type of malfunction happens randomly and cannot be immediately fixed.  If it happened in a gunfight and you didn’t have a second gun…well…I hope you paid your life insurance premium.  Your spouse is going to be rich.



Don’t trust your life to any mechanical device!  All mechanical devices can fail!  One = None.  Plan for breakdowns and embrace the concept of redundancy.  Your spouse might not get that life insurance windfall, but I bet that will be OK.



Now for the good news….



Since I didn’t have a spare trigger bar to replace my broken one, I had to pull a new gun out of the armory.  I chose to break in a brand new Generation 4 Glock 21.  The Gen 4 guns have a different frame texture, new recoil spring assembly, and adjustable backstraps to accommodate different hand sizes.



They also have a reputation for not being as reliable as the Gen 3 guns.  Early production Gen 4 guns had random feeding issues.  Glock even had a recall (even though they don’t call it that) on some recoil springs.


Generation 4 Glock 21


I’m happy to report that my new Gen 4 Glock 21 ran like a champ!  325 rounds in two days with no cleaning or lubrication.  I shot several types of ammo and even used my Surefire X-300 on it for several magazines.  Not a single hiccup.



I had issued my new officer a Gen 4 Glock 22 in .40 (his preference) the day before.  It performed equally well.  700 rounds over three days and no malfunctions.  Whatever problems Glock had with their Gen 4 guns don’t seem to be an issue with these two samples.



…But I’ll still carry my backup gun just in case.











16 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Gary Hoff says:


    Here is another one for you. My son’s G21, now probably 10-12 years old, started having occasional failure to fire episodes. These would be random. We replaced all of the innards of the gun frame and slide except the trigger bar assembly. He still had the problem. Since this was his duty gun, he bought a new G21. He replaced the trigger bar on the old one and as far as I know has not had a problem. I suspect that the vertical extension was worn enough so that sometimes the firing pins safety was not pushed up all the way. The safety button had contact marks on the button from the firing pin.

  2. James Thomas says:

    I was training a student one day at the local outdoor range who was learning to shoot a Glock 19 (Compact 9mm) pistol. After firing several shots the student was preparing to fire a carefully aimed shot. Immediately after pressing the trigger the slide and barrel fell off the pistol and into the dirt. Needless to say I was astonished. I quickly gave him another Glock and we completed the training session. After the student left I was determined to find the exact cause of the catastropic failure.
    The failure occurred due to the failure (breakage) of the slide lock (flat) spring. When the spring failed all of the normal spring tension holding the Slide Lock Bar in place was releaved. Sometime during the string of fire the Slide Lock Bar fell out of the pistol. Once the trigger was pulled nothing held the slide and barrel in the gun and they just fell off the front of the frame. The Slide Lock Bar was never recovered but 1/2 of the Slide Lock Spring was still captured in the pistols frame.
    I replaced the spring and Slide Lock Bar and have never had another problem with the pistol.
    As a remedy, anytime I perform a routing recoil spring replacement I now replace the trigger spring and the Slide Lock Spring. Additionally, I now insert a small rubber wedge under the Slide Lock Bar to prevent it’s removal should the Slide Lock Spring fail again. Of course this rubber wedge needs to be removed each time the gun is disassembled for cleaning.

    • Greg Ellifritz says:

      That’s interesting! I had never thought about blocking the slide lock spring. That’s a good idea. I just chose to get rid of the gun when it happened to me!

  3. Bob says:

    Until a new trigger bar could be installed, wouldn’t the removal of the firing pin safety “button” and spring rendered the pistol operable?

    • Greg Ellifritz says:

      Good thinking, but no. The extractor is partially held in place by the firing pin safety button. Without it, the extractor would fall out.

  4. James Thomas says:

    Good info. You are so correct on not completly relying on your primary carry gun. It can and will fail at some time. Even a little P3AT Kel-Tec secondary pistol could get you out of a tight situation if necessary.

  5. Bill Kunert says:

    The glock problems were gen 4 9mm. the new springs were replaced, no problems now.

  6. Ron says:

    Reading this makes me want to go open a safe door now, and say thank you to my revolvers.

    Great post!

  7. Daryl says:

    Whenever someone gives me their “reliability” pep talk, I remind them that jetliners fall out of the sky.

  8. Dann in Ohio says:

    Curiosity… How many tap-racks after a malfunction in a real situation before you transition to the back-up gun… if any…

    Dann in Ohio

    • Greg Ellifritz says:

      General advice is:

      Tap/Rack (1x)
      Extended Malfunction Drill (Mag out, rack 3x, Mag in, rack) (1x)
      Backup gun

      Usually the only reason to go to the extended drill is when the standard tap/rack doesn’t clear the malfunction. I stayed on with the tap rack more times than usual here because it was obviously working to clear the gun. I actually though I had a couple of bad rounds initially.

      • Dann in Ohio says:

        Thanks, I always kind of debated that in my mind… and unfortunately only real-life can truly test the situation… so, I want to practice… but still hope to avoid testing it in real-life… lol

        Dann in Ohio

  9. Dave R says:

    Greg, i am just curious why in the world are you shooting your carry gun that much? I use a separate gun for shooting matches and classes so I don’t rack up a big round count on my carry gun. I know of other trainers that do the same. I have broken my match m&p twice in about 20k rounds (broken slide release and broken trigger return spring). Certainly carrying a backup gun is valid, as anything mechanical can fail – but why push your luck?

    • Greg Ellifritz says:

      Good point. But in my experience, random part breakage isn’t really a function of amount of use. I’ve seen just as many parts break on guns with a couple hundred or a couple thousand rounds than I have with guns with 50K plus.

      I have a frequent replacement schedule for all the commonly broken parts in the Glock and think that when I shoot it as often as possible, I’m more likely to notice any problems so that I can fix them early.

      Nothing wrong with doing what you are doing though.

  10. Trevor Shepherd says:

    Well, I don’t know about the second thing for non-cops who are concealed-carrying. I don’t even know about it for cops who are off duty. I may have misunderstood what Greg wrote, but it sounds like you are carrying a second gun often even when off duty (?). I don’t know you, so again maybe I’m misunderstanding, but I got the impression that you live a pretty active life off the job, and I would imagine that involves wearing a lot of casual clothing. So, where do you hide the second gun when you are off duty? How many times does a physically active guy like you wear long pants (i.e., to hide the ankle-holstered second gun)? I’m not being critical, I am just sitting here thinking to myself that I can barely get one gun concealed on me when I am leaving the house, and I sure can’t think of where I’d put that second one.

    As I’ve said before, I think training, tactics, strategies, and equipment should be different for cops and non-cops. I’m carrying a gun just in case, but i am very, very unlikely to ever have a life-threatening encounter with another person. Between the gun, the knife, the flashlight, ballistic pen, sharp-edged paper, cell phone, etc, pretty soon I’m going to need a little red wagon to pull behind me to carry everything. I’m not saying you should not carry one, or that some other person should not carry one. I’m saying that I am unconvinced. And no, I don’t only shoot 50 rounds a year or a month, or even a week. I shoot about 5,000 rounds a year, all self-defense training (mostly on my own or with a partner).

    And, I’m kind of leery of that whole ankle holster thing, but I am a big believer in the idea that individuals should figure out what works best for them and not just what works best for Massad Ayoob or whomever else. So if the ankle holster works for you, that’s good. Personally, having something dragging on my ankle all day would drive me up the wall. But aside from the comfort thing, I don’t think I could pull off those transitions to an ankle-holstered second gun without getting killed by the bad guy in the process. Sure, anyone can practice and become proficient at anything, given enough time, but I think gun fights are chaotic spastic festivals where arms and legs are going everywhere and anywhere at once. If I was a cop, I can see why having a second gun on duty would make sense, but I’d want it in a belt pouch on off-hand side of my belt. That’s just me, I guess. Maybe no department would let me carry it there. Who knows?

    • Greg Ellifritz says:


      On duty I always carry a backup gun. It’s generally a J-frame revolver or a Glock 26. Both are carried in an Alessi ankle holster. I’ve had no issues with regards to losing the gun even though I’ve worn it every day at work for 18 years.

      Off duty, I will always have a backup weapon or two. I live and work in a very safe area and usually feel comfortable with my Glock 19, a spare mag and a backup knife.

      If I’m going to a higher threat area, I do carry a backup gun off duty. It’s generally my J-frame or a Ruger LCP. I carry the J-frame in a coat pocket or ankle holster when weather is colder. In the warm weather, I carry my LCP in a pocket.

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