We left off on part IV with basic left-handed AR manipulations, but it doesn’t end there, like any semi-automatic firearm, AR’s can sputter, cough or puke occasionally. The military teaches a malfunction clearance drill called “SPORTS” which is an acronym for:
“Slap” the magazine,
“Pull” the charging handle,
“Observe” the chamber,
“Release” the charging handle,
“Tap” the forward assist and
“Shoot,” …assuming you have a target that is still a threat.
Many credible instructors consider this flawed, primarily due to the third step; “observe.” First of all, “observe” only works when you have enough light to see the chamber. Second, and more importantly, the eyes and visual cortex are tied to the frontal, logical, “thinking” portion of the brain. The muscles performing the pull and release action, however, perform it by a programmed algorithm that originates in the central, primitive "action" portion of the brain. We usually refer to these techniques that have become automatic, not requiring direct thought, as “muscle memory." The commands for physical actions that begin as electrical signals in this portion of the brain occur before, and in spite of, rational thought or processing what we visually observe. Examples of this would be pulling one's hand away from a hot stove or, more aptly, locking one’s keys in the car. The hands and arms carry out the familiar action of closing the locked car door, even though your eyes are looking at your keys sitting on the front seat. By the time you can actually decode the visual signals into logical thought, the muscles have done the deed and left you standing there thinking “that was stupid.” By that same token, the “observe” stage in SPORTS slows you down because it requires you to interrupt or delay a physical routine by attempting to process logical thought, which is asking a lot of the brain, particularly during the heightened stress dealing with a malfunction in the midst of a shooting or gunfight. The same might be said of all such “diagnostic” techniques, so called because they involve diagnosing what is specifically wrong with the weapon and determining how to fix it, rather than the preferred “non-diagnostic” techniques, which basically involve a series of actions that can be performed by rote as a neuromuscular routine, in the absence of logical thought, to clear any malfunction without the need to even know what it is. The added benefit of "non-diagnostic" techniques is that, instead of using our eyes to figure out what's wrong with our rifle, we can use them to diagnose what's wrong with our environment, which might be kind of important.
AR’s are capable of a number of different malfunction types, which one could categorize as either simple or complex. Simple malfunctions are those such as ammunition misfires and failures to feed resulting in a "live trigger," or "click" but no "bang." The bolt is shut enough to allow the hammer to fall, but the rifle doesn't fire. The response to this type of malfunction is to:
1. Ensure the magazine is seated by pushing it or giving it a sharp tap with the heel of the right hand, then grip it and tug to verify it is locked in place.
2. While holding the seated magazine with the right hand, use the left hand to run the charging handle HARD. This simple action should quickly clear misfires, failures to feed and simple stovepipes. For those of you who have a difficulty releasing the pistol grip with the firing hand, there is a reason we're doing it this way. We use the hand to hold the magazine and run the charging handle with the left hand because if these first two steps don't clear the malfunction, we need our right hand where it is, so we can slide it up and thumb the magazine release.
3. If that isn’t going to work, the malfunction may be more complex such as a classic double feed, V or "wedge" double feed
...or if you're having a really bad day, a "brass over bolt." You might actually get some clue as soon as you press the trigger because if the bolt is being held open due to a double-feed, the hammer won't fall. Giving credit where credit is due, this technique is a left-hand adaptation of a clearance technique taught to me by Stoney Smith of Paragon 6 training. As before, we ensure the magazine is seated and attempt to run the bolt. If you feel a lot of slack in the charging handle, slide your right hand up the magazine, use the right middle or index finger to press the bolt hold-open and lock the bolt to the rear. If the bolt can't move in either direction, that takes us to "brass over bolt" which we will discuss in a moment. If the bolt does lock, press the magazine release button with the right thumb and forcefully yank the magazine out of the mag well.
Stow the magazine and clear the chamber by reaching up into the magazine well with the fingers to clear any stuck rounds, which should fall out of the magazine well.
*Caution: don't close the bolt while your fingers are in the magazine well!
Once assured that the magazine well is clear, remove the fingers from the rifle and press the bolt release to close the bolt. There may or may not be a round in the chamber, but we don't care. Re-insert the magazine with the right hand and use the left had to run the bolt, ejecting any rounds (live or otherwise) that may be in the chamber and reloading the rifle.
I mentioned "brass over bolt" malfunctions, and these are somewhat rare in my experience, but they do happen from time to time, typically as a result of a botched malfunction clearance.
These are particularly troubling because the charging handle can neither fully retract, nor will it slam home. There is actually a very easy way for lefties to clear these, adapted from a technique shared with me by Rob Tackett, instructor for Critical Carry Firearms Training and maker of excellent quality steel targets.
1. Extract the magazine with the right hand, then grip the magazine well and depress the bolt catch hard, to hold the bolt in place.
2. With the left hand, "karate chop" the rear of the charging handle, which will force it forward and should force the trapped round out and allow it to fall out of the mag well.
3. Lock the bolt to the rear, manually clear any remaining obstructions from the magazine well, then remove the fingers from the bolt area and press the bolt release to close the bolt.
4. Insert a magazine and cycle the action to reload the rifle.
The last type of malfunction I want to address is a round or cartridge stuck in the chamber and preventing easy retraction of the charging handle. In this case, one needs to “mortar” the rifle by following these steps:
#1. With the right thumb, press the magazine release, strip and stow the magazine, then place rifle on safe.
#2. With the left hand, close the collapsible stock to shortest length to reduce leverage on the buffer tube that can snap it off or damage it.
#3. Take a knee if necessary, and rotate the rifle with the muzzle pointing up and away from you and the right side of the rifle facing you. Place the left index finger over the charging handle release latch and the left thumb on the right tab of the charging handle. Hold the rifle by the forearm with the right hand.
#4. Firmly strike the heel of the stock on the ground or other hard surface and allow the momentum of your right arm to assist in retracting the charging handle and bolt. It may take more than one attempt.
#5. Once the bolt has retracted, run the charging handle with the left hand a few times to verify the chamber is clear, then insert a magazine and reload the rifle. Don’t forget to disengage the safety!
That covers the great majority of the AR-15 malfunctions that can be cleared without resorting to tools. Now: you need to practice these with an unloaded rifle, slowly, smoothly, deliberately, and repeatedly, until the motions become fluid and automatic.