This article focuses on one of the pistol’s most overlooked functional components… pistol magazines. In this article, I will cover a brief history of the magazine followed by a detailed description of magazine components and conclude with tips for magazine maintenance.
So why dedicate an entire article to pistol magazines? Well, two decades of competition shooting and on deployments around the globe have convinced me that the magazine is the leading cause of mechanical malfunctions in semi-automatic pistols (and rifles). Sure, there are other components like the extractor and ejector that vie for the top prize, but most would agree that the detachable box magazine is the clear winner. Furthermore, as a recreational shooter and firearms instructor, I’ve observed many gun owners reveling in their ability to clean and maintain their firearms while neglecting the magazines. If you are not yet convinced, here are two more reasons: (1) magazine maintenance is simple; and (2) a little effort can prevent a $40.00 part from turning a $1,000 pistol into a frustrating single-shot nightmare.
The maturation of smokeless gunpowder through the latter half of the 1800’s led designers such as Hiram Maxim to harness the recoil produced from firing self-contained cartridges to “auto load” the next round in his machine guns. Shortly thereafter, other firearm manufacturers sought to adopt this recoil-operated self-loading principle to pistols. In 1893, Hugo Borchardt designed the the C-93 (right inset) with an 8-round detachable box magazine, which became the first semi-auto pistol as we know it today.
Although Borchardt’s design was reliable, it was too large and unbalanced for mass acceptance. It didn’t take long, however, for other manufacturers to tweak and improve on the C-93, which led to the Mauser C-96 “Broom Handle,” the German Luger Pistol, the Browning M-1900 (left inset), and… wait for it… the 1911.
There have been plenty of innovations in semi-automatic pistol design and manufacturing over the course of time. The same can not be said, however, regarding innovations in semi-automatic pistol magazine design, which have changed little over the years.
Let’s take a closer look at pistol magazines.
Although some of the materials have changed, most pistol magazines are comprised of the same components they have been for over 100 years.
Body/Tube – a metal or polymer shell in which the components reside and interact to both store and feed cartridges as part of the cycle of operations. The feed lips, located at the top of the magazine tube, hold the cartridges within the magazine and work with the follower to ensure proper alignment for feeding.
Spring – provides constant tension to the follower which holds the cartridges in position secure against the magazine feed lips and ready to be fed into the chamber.
Follower – metal or polymer fitting that: (1) captures the top end of the spring; (2) uses spring tension to hold the cartridges in position secure against the magazine feed lips; and (3) contacts the slide lock after the last round is fired. Metal followers are more rigid than polymer followers, but polymer followers contain a greater degree of inherent lubricity which enhances their ability to glide within the magazine tube.
Locking Plate and Floor Plate – function together to capture the spring from within the bottom of the magazine.
Different Types of Magazines
Magazine capacity is a function of volume available (length and width of the tube) and caliber of the cartridges. Single stack or “in-line” magazines contain between 6 and 10 cartridges. Staggered or “double stack” magazines contain between 10 and 33+ cartridges. Certain pistol frame dimensions limit magazine capacity, which can be altered by lengthening the magazine tube or by adding extensions. In the photo, you can see the 1911 with a standard 8-round magazine and an extended 10 round magazine. Below it is the Sig P938 with the 6 round flush magazine and the 7 round magazine which includes the “finger extension.” At the bottom, you can see the Glock 17 with the standard 17 round 9mm magazine compared to the same gun with an Arrendondo +6 magazine extension, bringing the capacity to 23.
Please note, some states limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds (with certain exceptions such as .22LR tube-fed rifles). New York is a unique and inane case, where passage of the 2013 NY SAFE Act further restricts magazine capacity. The ruling states: “A magazine size of 10 rounds is legal while no more than 7 rounds may be loaded into the weapon at any time.” The bottom line is that you are responsible for knowing the laws of your state and the legality of magazine capacity and extensions. Resources such as www.handgunlaw.us can help you determine the legal magazine capacity in your state (click here).
We load rounds into them and let them sit with the springs compressed for weeks or months, we drop them on the ground and step on them during competitions, or they sit in the bottom of our range bag while we lovingly clean and maintain our pistols. If you are guilty of any of the above, it is not too late! Magazines are easy to clean and maintain.
At the end of each range session, you may have noticed how much carbon is built-up behind the chamber and against the breech face. Now picture a cut away of the magazine inserted into the frame, you’ll see that the top of the magazine and the feed lips are in that same area and collect a considerable amount of carbon build-up as well. This carbon build-up can prevent the follower from moving freely to the top of the magazine,misalign the cartridge, and cause a misfeed.
Shooting in a dusty or wet environment can introduce dirt particles into the interior of the magazine tube or cause corrosion of the spring, mag tube interior, or exterior. Dust, dirt, or rust inside of the magazine tube can create friction that prevents the follower from moving freely. If this friction supersedes spring tension, the cartridges are not pushed snugly against the feed lips, which can cause a misfeed. If dirt or corrosion build-up on the outside of the magazine tube, the magazine can either fail to “fall free” of the pistol frame during a speed reload or the magazine body can become jammed into the frame.
At the very least, clean and wipe-down the exterior of the magazine body, the top of the follower, and inside of the feed lips after each range session. This is satisfactory in many cases, but if you are shooting a high volume or shooting in a dusty/wet environment, you’ll need to clean the follower and the inside of the magazine tube as well.
Removable floor plate magazines – In most cases, simply depressing the take-down pin “unlocks” the locking plate from the floor plate, which can then be pushed forward from the magazine body. This releases the magazine spring and follower. Each component can then be individually cleaned, lubricated, and re-assembled. Note: Glock pistol magazines can be a bit more difficult. Once the take-down pin is depressed, you must simultaneously add pressure to the sides near the base in order to remove the floor plate.
Fixed plate magazines – Most of these magazines have a follower that can be removed by rotating it through the front of the feed lips. It can be tricky to do this since the follower is under spring tension throughout the process. Once the follower has been extricated, pull the recoil spring through the feed lips, clean the individual parts, and re-assemble.
Magazine brushes are relatively inexpensive and provide enough rigidity to depress the follower while scrubbing the interior walls of the magazine tube.
When shooting sports such as USPSA (United States Practical Shooting Association), where magazines are routinely dropped on dusty, dirty, and rocky surfaces through the course of the match, a few strokes with the mag brush can go a long way to prevent malfunctions.
Spring Tension – While many shooters pay close attention to the number of rounds fired through their pistols in regard to replacing the recoil and mainsprings, few consider replacing the magazine springs. This is also a consideration for those who carry concealed or maintain a loaded pistol for home defense where the magazine spring is under constant tension from a full magazine. Unlike manufacturers who recommend changing the recoil and mainsprings after a certain number of rounds fired, magazine manufacturers offer no such recommendations. Keep in mind, magazine springs can last a long time, but if you have cleaned the tube and follower and are still experiencing insufficient tension, maybe it is time to spend $10.00 to purchase a spring kit. Brownell’s sells a full array of magazine replacement springs. (click here).
Full Replacement – Sometimes, hard use, age, damage, or loss make it necessary to purchase new magazines. Certain firearm manufacturers like Glock and H&K own proprietary rights to their magazine designs, so you can only buy replacement magazines from the gun manufacturers. For other manufacturers, there are a number of after-market magazine suppliers. I have found Mec-Gar to be a reliable magazine manufacturer for both after-market and OEM products. You have many options at different price points. Just remember that saving a few bucks on a magazine can lead to reducing a quality pistol to single shot status.
1911 Magazines – For the 1911 shooters out there, I offer the following observations. In the photo to the right, you can see the four different types of single-stack 1911 magazines. The Steel Leaf follower is a favorite among 1911 purists, but I do not recommend using this type of follower with an aluminum framed pistol. I’ve read a number of reports citing feed ramp damage from the follower moving forward with the last round stripped from the magazine. The all-steel followers are very rigid, but can fail in a dusty or dirty environment where the particles become wedged between the two metal surfaces and inhibit the movement of the follower. The polymer followers have a greater inherent lubricity, but the polymer body lacks rigidity and can wear out (lose its shape) after a few years of heavy use. For concealed carry and competition, I’ve found the Tripp Research “Cobra Mag” with its hybrid polymer/metal follower to be the most reliable. I’ve run these magazines hard for 10 years now and I’m very satisfied with them. At $36.95 each, they are among the more expensive 1911 magazines, but they are also the most reliable.
Most shooters commit tremendous attention and energy in selecting the the right pistol for concealed carry, home defense, competition, or recreation and painstakingly care and maintain them after every range session… only to neglect the primary source of malfunctions. With any luck, I’ve convinced you that just a few minutes dedicated to cleaning and maintaining your magazines can enhance your pistol’s overall reliability as well as your performance on the range or in a personal defense scenario. Magazines are easy to clean, easy to maintain, and a minor investment compared to the cost of the pistol itself or a misfeed when your life depends on it.
Stay Safe and Shoot Straight