Magazines are supposed to be consumable items, though the heads of S-4s everywhere may implode to hear it.
Today Mad Duo 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. That’s what makes rifle magazines go bad. Mad Duo
Magazine Malfunctions, Self-Leveling Followers and Pigeon Religion
Mad Duo Merrill
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[John Plaster in Vietnam. CAR15, grenades and beer – what’s not to love?]
Mad Duo, Breach-Bang& CLEAR!
Emergency: Activate firefly, deploy green (or brown) star cluster, get your wank sock out of your ruck and stand by ’til we come get you.
About the Author: A combat veteran of the United States Marine Corps, Dave “Mad Duo Merrill” is a former urban warfare and foreign weapons instructor for Coalition fighting men. An occasional competitive shooter, he has a strange Kalashnikov fetish the rest of the minions try to ignore. Merrill, who has superb taste in hats, has been published in a number of places, the most awesome of which is, of course, here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He loves tacos, is kind of a dick and married way, way above his pay grade. You can contact him at Merrill(at)BreachBangClear.com and follow him on Instagram here (@dave_fm).