I was told it would happen to me eventually, but I didn’t believe it. I was pretty sure I was going to be able to escape this fate and avoid the consequences by virtue of my conscientious behavior. I was wrong.
Last week, coming home from a range session, I decided I should give my competition handgun—a Springfield model XD Mod.2 5” Tactical—a good cleaning. It had been at least 600 rounds since the last cleaning—about two weeks—and with two matches coming up, I figured it was time. I broke it down, grabbed the barrel and ran a patch through. Whoa, that felt weird. Was it really that dirty? I ran the patch through again. About halfway down, it felt really rough, like it was dragging on something. I grabbed a flashlight and looked down the bore. The rifling started out OK from the chamber, then turned into a twisted wreck in the middle of the barrel. I looked at the outside and finally saw it. A bulge. I had fired a squib. Then fired again.
Bad Things Can Happen
If you read gun blogs long enough, you’ll find pictures of blown up guns. Sometimes it’s people trying to fire the wrong cartridge in a gun, other times, it’s a squib. A squib is one of two things; a no-powder cartridge or a low-powder cartridge. Either way, the bullet doesn’t leave the barrel. If you follow a squib with a full-power cartridge, the second bullet forces the stuck one out, often building up tremendous pressure and sometimes destroying the gun. Occasionally hands and faces are collateral damage.
Thankfully, in my case, it was a simple barrel bulge. The barrel is ruined, but there’s more to the story. At first, I thought it happened that day at the range. But the more I played back the tapes of the previous two range sessions in my mind, I came to another conclusion. It’s a little scary, and kind of incredible.
The genesis of my busted barrel is some new powder I wanted to try in my hand loads. I was pretty happy with Hogden HP-38, but everyone and their cousin was telling me to try Vihtavuori N320. After looking all over town for some, I scored a pound at the Barrett’s gun shop in Murfreesboro, Outpost Outfitter’s. I finally got around to working up some loads for it.
The problem was, I couldn’t get it to meter in my press to save my life. About every fifth case had anywhere between no powder and half a charge. It was frustrating as heck. Curse words may have been uttered. I thought I had payed really close attention and caught every low- or no-powder case, but apparently I was wrong.
As I went on, working up 20 rounds of each load to test, I became increasingly frustrated that it was metering so inconsistently. I’m pretty sure this is where it all went wrong. I finally gave up about 1/2 way through the load development process and did something else.
A few days later, I headed off to the range with my chronograph to test the loads I managed to crank out. Everything came across OK, except the velocities were all over the place. Due to the poor metering, my charges were not consistent. It wasn’t enough to cause concern, but they weren’t accurate either. I wasn’t super-impressed up to this point, and had all but dismissed N320 as a powder I was going to use.
I typically load 20 rounds of each powder weight; 10 for the chrono and 10 to shoot for off-hand accuracy and point of impact testing. I like to know how they feel. It was there that it all went wrong. And as usual, it was a perfect storm of problems.
I had a few magazines that weren’t locking the slide back on empty. The springs are simply worn out and I need to get new ones. No big deal. As I was shooting through the test loads, I did a reload, brought the gun up and pulled the trigger. Click. Instinctively, I did a tap-rack, thinking I had failed to chamber a round after the reload, or that I had a bad primer. I pulled the trigger on the follow up shot. That all happened in about 1.5 seconds. The follow up shot felt a bit odd. There was more smoke and blowback than usual, and the recoil impulse felt weird.
It was off enough that I stopped shooting, cleared the gun and pulled the slide to look down the barrel. It was clear at a quick glance, so I figured it was just one of those under-charged cases. In fact, it was a double-bullet shot. I went back to shooting. That afternoon, I probably shot another 100 rounds or so. The gun seemed fine, though it was running a little hot; but I attributed that to the powder.
Range Sessions Two and Three
That all took place on Monday. The following Saturday, I headed to the range again. This time, I shot a good 300-350 rounds through the gun. I had just put in a new Powder River trigger set (review of that to come—but boy, it’s nice!) and was getting used to it. Little did I know the barrel had a big bulge in it.
The following Thursday, I hit the range again. This time, I fired another 300 rounds through the gun running a variation of El Capitan. I had just put new sights on the gun and was getting used to those. The gun generally shot OK. In fact, one of the first shots I fired was a carefully aimed head shot at 10 yards, and it went right into the 0 in the head box. So it was still shooting accurately. Except for all those -3 hits; those were definitely the barrel.
Finally, when I got home, I discovered the bulge. This is where it’s both scary and impressive. First, I fired a pair of 135 grain polymer-coated bullets through the barrel at once, causing a nice bulge. Then I proceeded to put another 600-700 rounds through it and it shot accurately enough that I didn’t notice anything was wrong. Say what you want about Springfield, but those barrels are strong.
Don’t Load When Tired or Frustrated. This is the first thing for me. I became increasingly frustrated as I was loading the N320, and should have quit earlier than I did. But being stubborn, I pushed on and ended up loading a squib. Had I bailed 30 minutes earlier, I may have saved myself $154 + shipping on a new barrel.
Visually Check Every Load. I put LED lights over the top of my press so I can easily see into each case to verify powder drop. I’m normally really good about checking it, but I need to be better. This could have been a lot worse. Progressive presses are great, but they demand my full attention. Several other things were going wrong that night, all leading to more frustration. And I can’t be fully attentive if I’m frustrated about something not working right.
If a Powder Isn’t Working, Stop. Again, I should have given up on N320 within the first 20 loads. At least 10 of those were not metered right, and it took forever to get each step dialed in. Being fairly new to reloading, I’ve now learned that not all powders will work with my set up. HP-38 meters just great and it shoots fine. I should have stuck with that. Sure, I’d be out $40 for the N320, but I’m confident I can sell that to someone eventually. It’s a fine powder if your powder drop handles it well. Mine doesn’t; at least at these charge weights.
When You Get a Click, Stop. I should have stopped when I pulled the trigger and got a click; especially when working with new loads. This is a bit of a training scar for me; I’ve done so many failure drills that tap-rack-bang is so ingrained it happened without even thinking. But when testing new loads, especially when I was having powder troubles, I should have slowed down, stopped and assessed.
When I played the tape back in my head, I remember an empty case coming out of the chamber during the tap-rack. That should have been my clue that it wasn’t a dead primer and I need to stop and figure out what’s going on. Sometimes having all those motions on automatic is a good thing—a match or a gunfight—but sometimes it’s not. I’m not sure how I’ll train for this in the future, but it’s now in my mind.
I’m definitely slowing down my testing and evaluation regimen. I’ve put the N320 on the bottom shelf until I can find someone who can use it, and will go back to HP-38. I’ve ordered a new match-grade barrel and need to get some new mag springs. Thankfully, I have 9 mags, so I can carry on. There is a big benefit in marking your mags…
I need to find a way to train for a better evaluation period during a tap-rack failure. I’m not sure what yet, but it’s in my head. The bottom line is I am thankful I have a strong barrel and the use of all my fingers. I’ve also learned to give the gun a more thorough going over after each range session. Had I discovered this after the failure, I would already have a barrel here and not be trying to figure out what I’m shooting in the next match. Which is tomorrow. When it’s unlikely that I’ll have a barrel.
So there you go. That’s my squib tail. Hopefully the last one I’ll ever have to tell…