Perpetuating Bullshit: the truth about mag failure (and maintenance)

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Magazines are supposed to be consumable items, though the heads of S-4s everywhere may implode to hear it.

Today Dave  Merrill is going to talk about a good, simple way to inspect your rifle mags for functionality. Before he does that, however, he’s going to rant about about the perpetuation of bullshit – magazine malfunctions, self-leveling followers and pigeon religion. OH, and he’s also going to explain the acronym UASB: Use, Abuse and Stupid Boots. Because that’s what makes rifle magazines go bad. Mad Duo

Magazine PMCS and self leveling followers 9

Perpetuating Bullshit

Magazine Malfunctions, Self-Leveling Followers and Pigeon Religion

Anti-Tilt followers are the current gold standard for AR-15 magazines. Hk magazines (formerly known as, ‘Teutonic Gnome Magic Mags’) have them, current production USGI magazines have them, MagPul has them; in point of fact, virtually all other aftermarket magazines seem to have them. The vast majority of end users prefer them, some of them violently so. I’ll admit outright I have a literal small mountain of them—but was this all built from a molehill?

To delve a tad into this issue let’s go way back, back past Desert Storm and Operation Urgent Fury to when Kyle Lamb was in boot camp, only needed to shave once a day and never had to trim his nose hair. This was around the end of the Vietnam War. Straight-walled 20-rounders (20 round magazines) were the 5.56 mag du jour and the Archies topped the charts with their hit, ‘Sugar Sugar’.

Not everyone had 20’s though; some LRRP/SOG pipe hitters were in possession of some of that precious few, those first curved 30’s of the late 1960s. Curved 30s began hitting the stage among Big Army units right at the ass end of the war in the early 1970s. Due to the sheer number of 20-rounders, it took nearly another decade before they were filtered (almost) completely out of the system.

Most of these 30 round magazines sported black followers, with some notable exceptions. The origins of the, ‘modern’ green follower has been subject to some debate. Some claim that the green followers resulted from black follower failures. They contend that since they were designed for the straight 20s they had a hard time feeding in the curved 30 rounders. Others point to a manufacturing defect in magazine bodies from a certain manufacturer. Others wonder if it might have been something else entirely.

Regardless, the relatively softer green followers hit the scene in 1988, which was right around the time Daryl Holland discovered running water and electricity. These sported a lengthened front leg to prevent tilt. In the early 1990s they became US Military standard and the black followers were relegated to commercial and law enforcement production. It is noteworthy that no provisions were made to retrofit older magazines with the new followers but instead were meant to be filtered out like the 20 rounders of the past.

Magazine PMCS and self leveling followers 11

 

 

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Somewhere circa 2007 the DoD started looking for an improved 30 rounder. Tipping their proverbial hats to Hk and Magpul, the new magazine (which started fielding in 2009) featured a 4-way anti-tilt tan follower and an improved reversible spring. The OCD afflicted among us would be pained to learn that the hump in the follower sits on the opposite side of all others. Just as before, older magazines were not to be retrofitted. Unit armorers were also to receive a field gauge in order to identify feed lips that were out of spec. The new mantra became, “Tan – is the plan. Green – start to lean. Black – take it back” and they all lived happily ever after! (Okay, not really).

Old USGI magazine
Old ass mag I was issued.

There’s obviously a little more to this story. Have you noticed the trend? About every two decades, a partial overhaul was made to the magazines, each generation easily identified via their distinct follower coloring. In recent years I’ve heard some alarmist hyperbolic cries that mostly amount to: “Green followers will get you killed! If you have any magazines with green followers change them out immediately!”

Aftermarket 4-way anti-tilt followers are only a few bucks a pack, so if it’s going to save your life… right?

Magazines issues are the number one reason for failures in the M16/AR15. No rifle, no matter how badass and amazing, will run well with a ballsack magazine. So, one would do well to know how and why magazines go bad and how to identify them.

Old USGI rifle magazine
A different old ass mag I was issued.

BF Skinner was a well known psychologist and behaviorist. My favorite experiment that he ever performed was making pigeons superstitious. Seriously. Here it is straight out of the most used unreliable school paper source, Wikipedia:

One of Skinner’s experiments examined the formation of superstition in one of his favorite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon “at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behavior.” He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions.

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.

Skinner suggested that the pigeons behaved as if they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their “rituals” and that this experiment shed light on human behavior: The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking.

While small unit leaders are incredibly proficient at demonstrating and teaching proper malfunction clearances, the slightly deeper knowledge of identifying root causes of said malfunctions is often lacking. Even worse is erroneous attribution, most of which will simply accomplish nothing or exacerbate the issues.

Enter the Pigeon Religion.

Ever had a magazine give you a double-feed and you were told to lube more? That’s erroneous attribution. How about your superior tells you to mark it and trade it into the armory, and what you receive back is another magazine that’s already marked, ‘BAD, DO NOT USE’? That last one happened to me.

AR 15 mag followers: magazine maintenance.
Bolt override motherfucker malfunction.

 

gunmagwarehouse
They even have those mags that the press is always talking about.

 

AR 15 mag followers
Classic doublefeed malfunction.

Pigeon Religion leads to all sorts of voodoo rituals that hold no place in reality. These rituals include:

-Disassembling magazines to physically stretch out the springs with your hands

-Unloading magazines on a regular basis so the springs can “rest”

-Swapping out magazine followers

-“Reforming” feed lips with hammers or pliers

-Loading more than 30 rounds, “because it’s really meant to hold 32”

The more I consider it, the less I resent Hk for making their heavy steel mags almost impossible to disassemble.

The following is a recent conversation between one of my friends and a young enlisted Soldier:

Pvt: Sergeant, I got a pencil stuck in my mag

[Look of befuddlement combined with anger from the Sergeant]

Sgt: I don’t even want to know why but how in the hell…

Pvt: I was told that mags with sears that bend aren’t good so I was checking and I think I broke it

[Moment of comprehension that information, methodology, and terminology are all completely wrong]

Sgt: Who told you—just gimme that shit.

[Sgt disassembles magazine and removes pieces of an ink pen]

(No, you didn’t read that wrong: He said, ‘sear’ instead of ‘follower’ and, ‘pencil’ instead of, ‘ink pen’)

Performing Pigeon Religion rituals probably seem to make complete sense at the time. After all, everyone else was doing it, right?

So long as it’s properly formed in the first place, Magazines go bad from UASB. That is: Use, Abuse & Stupid Boots.

Sitting right next to me as I write is a magazine I was issued just prior to OIF 1. It is a 30 rounder with a black follower made by Parsons Precision Products. If anything, I am always a sucker for alliteration. The problem though is that this magazine that was issued to me in 2002 was manufactured sometime between the early 1970’s to the early 1980’s. This magazine is more than likely older than I am.

Kyle Lamb prior to Basic Training. 20-rounders were the magazine du jour.
Kyle Lamb prior to Basic Training. 20-rounders were the magazine du jour.

It stands to reason that the older a magazine is, especially one in circulation in the US military, the more it has been used. It also means the greater the chances someone has executed a Pigeon Religion ritual of some kind. Issued mags with black followers can be anywhere from 20-40 years old, green followers from 6-25 years. AR/M16 magazines are meant to be consumable items but all too often it’s not the way they are treated.

So how exactly is one supposed to check a magazine? Here’s the quick and dirty method (no special tools or gauges) for USGI magazine PMCS (Preventative Maintenance Checks & Services). All you need are some live rounds and an in-spec lower (one with a known dimensionally correct magwell that drops mags free)

-Inspect magazine visually for dents or dings in the body or feed lips and the spine (especially at the top rear) for any separation or broken welds.

-Ensure magazine drops free from lower both empty and filled with rounds. If the feed lips have spread the extra friction will keep the magazine in place.

-Fill magazine and smack the bottom of it pretty good either on your hand or a padded surface. You want to hit it hard enough that the rounds move a bit inside. If rounds pop out, it’s an indication of feed lip spread or deformation.

-Ensure an empty magazine engages the bolt lock. If it does not it’s an indication of a worn magazine spring (some attachments to bolt releases will cause this test to fail due to the added weight).

The magazine should fail any of those tests before it fails in the gun. Conspicuous that this is also the reason you don’t slap a magazine in like an 80’s action flick; if you force a round out it can go over the top of the bolt and cause a bolt-override.

Either trash the mag or clearing mark it as, ‘for training use only’ if it fails PMCS. My preferred method of disposal is to simply throw it downrange and shoot it, though there is something to be said about a training magazine that can gift malfunctions without intentional setup.

Magazines I shot because of double feeds.
Magazines I shot because of double feeds.

Shockingly, none of the above involves shoving a screwdriver, pen, ruler, or other such implement down against the front of the follower to see if it will tilt and stick.

Swapping a follower out will not cure spread feed lips, split spines, dents, or worn springs. Now, there are some advantages to the new style followers: They are easier to load from stripper clips, feed better in guns that are cycling over-spec, and more easily accept rounds of larger weight. Some aftermarket followers are impregnated with lubricants to aid in feeding. If buying new anti-tilt followers provides you some additional confidence in performance continue to do so; they are pretty inexpensive after all. Just remember that simply because a magazine doesn’t contain the newest color of follower means that it will automatically get you killed.

AR15 magazine maintenance tutorial.
A tutorial for you. Here’s how you properly use (and maintain) your AR15 magazines.

All of this said, most of the issues directly stem from UASB and our almost complete lack of proactive maintenance of company-level weapons systems. The order to completely remove magazines with black followers finally made it down the line twenty years after updated followers debuted.

Keeping mission critical out-of-spec items in inventory is a false economy and needs to be addressed. If we gave our helicopters the same treatment as our M16/M4’s, they would be pretty and shiny but also drop out of the sky like rocks on the regular.

-DFM

John Plaster in Vietnam. CAR15, grenades and beer - what's not to love?

[John Plaster in Vietnam. CAR15, grenades and beer – what’s not to love?]

 

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DFM

Emeritus Dave Merrill wrote for Breach-Bang-Clear from late 2013 until early 2017, including a year as its Managing Editor. He departed our ranks in May of 2017 to accept a well-deserved position as social media manager for RECOIL Magazine. He is a combat veteran of the Marine Corps who describes himself as a "...former urban warfare and foreign weapons instructor for Coalition fighting men." Merrill's articles are well worth the time it takes to read them - there's a lot of knowledge tucked away in that skull.


DFM has 82 posts and counting. See all posts by DFM

19 thoughts on “Perpetuating Bullshit: the truth about mag failure (and maintenance)

  • May 20, 2019 at 2:26 am
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    Funny, I have many 20 round mags, metal followers, that is what the military used on the 20 round mags, civilians had the black plastic ones.
    all run fine. Zero issues, loaded to 20 all the time.
    Some date back to the early 60s.
    Small phont .223 stamped colts.
    Later 5.56 marked colts. Late 60s early 70s.
    And new black plastic follower civilian 20 round colts.
    You do not want an anti tilt follower in a straight 20 round mag, the follower needs to tilt,
    I had issues the m16a1 in boot camp,
    But that thing was worn out bad.
    Had no issues with the m16a1 at first duty station.
    Had to keep it clean, just like any ar!

    Reply
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  • October 10, 2014 at 6:36 pm
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    I recently re-discovered an unloaded 30 round Colt mag with a metal(?) follower, it still has red clay from (probably) Sicily DZ in the crevices. It worked fine, but I’ve permanently retired it.

    Reply
  • October 8, 2014 at 8:28 pm
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    I’m a really old guy. This is my story and yes, “True story dude”. In the stone age, shortly after the adoption of the M-16 the rifle was a piece of shit. I’m sorry but it was. The Basic class right before mine had actually stopped training with M-16A1s and finished with M-14s, a confidence builder that our DIs mentioned from Day 1. It wasn’t clear what rifle we’d be training with. My entire time in Basic was spent with the A1. Most ran OK (and that doesn’t mean well), but some, most particularly mine, didn’t run for shit. I did a lot of pushups over that weapon, A LOT OF PUSHUPS. Whenever we’d go to the range my squad, a sensitive bunch of young draftees for the most part, would take bets on the number. The feeling seemed to be amongst range staff and my DIs that we needed to develop “confidence” in the weapons and I became the focus of this effort. I wasn’t cleaning it right, I didn’t piss on my fingers before firing, I was shitting in the breech… it was all my fault… and the sensitive young lads of my plts all believed this after a while. There was one kid from Puerto Rico who also didn’t know how to take care of a weapon either. He didn’t speak English and asked me in Spanish why we were always doing pushups. I explained to him we were not taking good care of the weapon. He nodded as if he understood for the first time. To this day, and I’m in my 60s, whenever someone starts talking about the A1 I immediately do pushups. You think you know about pigeon religion… you don’t.

    Upon entering my first unit I requested to be a Pig gunner. I had more confidence in an M-60 or my girlfriend being faithful for next year than I ever did in an A1. I saw nothing to shake my faith in the pig (no sense talking about the girlfriend, I was young) But plenty to shake my faith in the A1 (has their ever been a weapon issued to an army that had a constant flow of info, most of it not true, going to the users?) One day by magic we started getting all these 3X5 comic books with a big titted blond explaining maintenance on the A1. I studied it with great attention and finally the truth came out. The weapon was perfect, God his own self used and A1, but mags and maintenance were bad. I kept that little comic book with me at all times and I still think of God doing pushups and feeling bad about his shortcomings. One thing I learned is that the 20 rd magazine was being overloaded with 20 rds. They should only have 17 in them (I still blush when I think of how stupid I was). I also learned that my AKM was a piece of shit, heavy, got too hot and they didn’t even have the decency to make their mags out of aluminum… God, I felt badly about it, but i kept the AK anyways.

    Fast forward to the mid 1970s. We’ve been issued a box of five 30 rd mags… all the boxes had previously been issued to others and returned. We were told that the magazine was a 30 rounder. Before the end of the 70s were told (once again) that overloading the mags was a real problem and we needed to stop loading the thirty rounders with 30s and load them with 27 (God continued with his pushups).

    Clint Smith does not like the forward assist. He makes a damn good case for not forcing rounds into the chamber when they don’t want to go. And it does make a lot of sense. However, at my advanced age I have about 2 billion reps on IA drills for the AR. I agree with Mr Smith… but we’re dealing with so much pigeon religion at this point that I’m not sure why we bother. I’ll stop here, I could go on for another 20,000 words, but why bother? In the end it is what it is. I spent years believing the 1911 was the end all. I hated glocks, POS in my mind. After they did away with the 1911, almost overnight, problems with pistols ended. It got to the point where we didn’t even talk about the M9’s maintenance, people seemed to get that rather quickly… of course us older guys hated the 9 mm… Kind of intersting that today I don’t own one AR or 1911. I’ve owned my share in the passed… and no sense showing you my collection of AKs and Glocks, there’s just no sense arguing about it. it is what it is. BTW, Good article on AR mags.

    Reply
    • October 8, 2014 at 11:57 pm
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      BTW, I was taught at NCO Academy that most of the problems with ARs were caused by lining up the gas rings. We were taught to space them and this would solve all our problems. It didn’t of course and some tender young lads gave me their share of pushups over there failure to listen to my wise council. I told this to my son a couple of months back when we were cleaning his AR and he told me, “that’s not true, it doesn’t matter”. If I thought about it I’m sure I could come up with many other bullshit fixes and for ARs… but why bother?

      Reply
  • October 8, 2014 at 6:22 pm
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    The green followers were junk. To say any different is just being a contrarian attention whore.

    Reply
  • September 19, 2014 at 7:09 pm
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    One little thing he forgot, and Ill forgive him as he is a young pup, is that a whole piss pot full of magazines, beginning with the time the M-249 SAW was introduced, (that’s the first one with the metal skeletanized butt stock, not that fancy plastic one you kids have now) belted ammo was scarce and often only in the go-straight-to-war inventory while training took place with M-16 mags. We beat the shit out of them, and then turned them in and the next grunt got them issued and did the same. A lot of those mags ended up in Desert Storm, and of course, later issue.

    Reply
  • September 18, 2014 at 1:11 am
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    My probs with the aluminum mags were always the lips. Once they started giving problems, that was usually the end – unless you carefully repair them and which is not for the faint hearted.

    Reply
  • September 17, 2014 at 2:40 pm
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    Say what you will about a magazine follower and “Pigeon Religion”. But blowing into an NES cartridge before you put it in works damn it!

    Reply
  • September 16, 2014 at 9:56 am
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    Good stuff, but a small typo. “Just remember that simply because a magazine doesn’t contain the newest color of follower DOES NOT MEAN that it will automatically get you killed.” I’ve got at least a couple hundred black follower mags plus a bunch of the old 20 rounders, some new in the box. Never a bobble due to the follower.

    Reply
  • September 16, 2014 at 2:13 am
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    The “old ass mag I was issued” and “a different old ass mag I was issued” are clearly the same mag, identifiable from markings on the body of the magazine. Truth in journalism much?

    Reply
    • September 16, 2014 at 6:18 am
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      Just an incorrect photo caption

      Reply
    • September 16, 2014 at 9:19 am
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      All the information in that article and you pick on a photo. Jesus.. Get a life

      Reply
      • September 16, 2014 at 3:08 pm
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        How can you trust information in an article when there’s obvious fallacies or mistakes in other parts of the article?

        Reply
        • September 17, 2014 at 6:51 am
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          You sound like you woke up this morning and your favorite blow up doll had deflated.

          Reply
        • September 20, 2014 at 4:01 pm
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          You shouldn’t ever blindly trust any source of information, even if you can’t find obvious flaws. Always run the information past your “B.S. filter”, previous experience, common sense, and other “known good” sources. Typos happen, even to the best.

          Reply
  • September 15, 2014 at 10:50 am
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    I once fixed a pistol magazine like the above. It was a match and the shooter’s mag kept causing jams. I said I could fix it. I unloaded it, set it on a post and shot it with my 9mm. The rest of the match ran smoothly.

    Reply
  • September 15, 2014 at 9:15 am
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    Pigeon religion: Also see “cargo cult”.

    Reply

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