What does “reliability” really mean?

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A recent rifle class in which I assisted brought to mind a topic which is just not understood amongst gun owners: “reliability.”

What is “reliable”? You’ll hear all kinds of definitions, all kinds of criteria. My definition is deceptively simple: the next time you pull the trigger, the gun will function perfectly. That means zero, zilch, nada, nyet failures. Every single time, regardless of how many rounds you’ve just shot. Not just “bang”, but feed, fire, eject, and feed again.

Sounds like I’m easy to please, right? You’d be surprised at how few guns actually do perform to this standard. I expect a reliable gun to do this after a full weekend of shooting, regardless of the number of rounds I’ve shot, as well as right after cleaning. Every single time, without exception.

Note that I don’t specify any particular number of rounds, because I’ve encountered instances where reliability was defined by some arbitrary round count, such as 500 – and when the gun crapped out on the 501st round, it was still deemed to be reliable since it had met the number! Sorry, not in my book.

One test I’ve heard (for autoloading rifles) is “six magazines of duty loads, fired as quickly as you can change magazines.” Sounds great, right? I’ve seen an AR-15 which would only pass such a test one time, yet the owner decided it was reliable because it met the test criteria! The fact that it couldn’t perform the feat again did not dissuade him in his opinion.

The only caveats are that 1) the gun be maintained according to the maker’s recommendations and 2) fed ammunition which conforms to industry standards for that caliber. Anything else – such as the ever-popular mud wrestling test, making it into a popsicle, and other such activities – can be considered the ballistic equivalent of a Harlem Globetrotters game: entertaining to watch, but no indicator of an ability to win the NBA finals.

I’ve seen more than one gun which happily ate a magazine of ammo after being dropped into a mud puddle, but couldn’t be counted on to function perfectly at any unannounced time. Mind you, it malfunctioned maybe once every 400 or so rounds, but sooner or later it would fail. Reliable? Not by my definition.

You’ll run into many people who will tell you that this is “no big deal – I’ve got lots of guns that will do that.” At the risk of offending someone – believe me, it’s not my intention – I will quote Hugh Laurie, playing the namesake character in the TV series ‘House’: “everyone lies.”

When I say “every time you pull the trigger”, I mean EVERYTIME. When I say zero failures, I mean ZERO. One fellow of my acquaintance is known locally for his promotion of a particular gun, which he insists is “absolutely reliable.” This is a fellow with a good reputation, someone that other people consider honest and, presumably, look up to. Trouble is, he lies – I’ve seen his gun fail, and I know others who have witnessed it too. Yet, he continues to insist that his gun is “perfectly reliable.” In one class, I met someone with an HK 91, supposedly the epitome of functionality; of course, the owner insisted it was “reliable”. It suffered a FTF the first day, and an FTE the second. The owner continued to refer to it as “reliable”.

If your gun will not function with ammunition that meets industry-standard specs, then it is unreliable. I had an encounter with a gunstore commando a while back; he was going to loan his “custom built” AR-15 to another employee. He gushed that his pride and joy was the most reliable gun he had ever seen – then, almost in the same breath, told the other fellow not to shoot Winchester ammunition in it, as “it won’t feed Winchester all of the time.” Even if it functioned 100% with everything else (though I doubt it), that it wouldn’t work with one specific brand means that it simply wasn’t reliable. (Back to revolvers – if your wheelgun won’t fire every brand of ammunition in its caliber with zero misfires, it’s not reliable!

My favorite rifle instructor, Georges Rahbani, always says that you are only as good as you are on demand – the same goes for your gun!

-=[ Grant ]=-

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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