Breaking in a new defensive handgun

So, you got a shiny new pistol you plan on carrying or keeping around the house for self defense.  Great!  But, how do you know it will work when you need it to?

Over the years, I’ve answered many questions about how I break in a defensive handgun.  It’s not a fancy process, but it is one that works.  Essentially, it breaks down like this:

  • visual inspection
  • cleaning
  • function checks
  • shooting it…a lot

Some manufacturers specify a certain break-in regimen.  If your gun has a factory suggested break-in process, definitely follow that.  Assuming there is not a recommended process, consider using my method of breaking in a new defensive handgun.

Out of the Box Thinking

When I first get a new pistol, there are a number of steps I walk through to check and prep the gun.

Initially, I give the gun a visual inspection looking for anything unusual or obviously damaged.  If anything looks to be broken, I will address that problem before doing anything else.

Assuming everything looks fine, I then field strip the handgun.  If it is a firearm that is completely unfamiliar to me, I will read the manual to make sure I do it right.  YouTube is also a great reference as there are many good videos showing you how to field strip various firearms there.

Once disassembled, I go over all of the parts looking for anything that is obviously a problem.  If nothing looks amiss, I clean the gun very well.  Once clean, I then add lubricant per the manufacturer’s suggestions.

When the gun is brand new, I will typically add a little more oil than normal when heading to the range.  For the first few hundred rounds, the metal is likely to wear a little more.  A little extra oil can help keep things from binding up.

Once the gun is cleaned and oiled, I will function test the gun.  Using dummy rounds, I will cycle the gun using the different magazines to make sure feeding and ejecting is operating normally.

I will also dry fire the gun anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred times.  This helps me to get a feel for the pistol and smooth out the trigger before I ever send rounds downrange.

Range Time

When heading to the range for the first time, I take a cleaning kit and plenty of ammunition.  Since this is a firearm I intend to use for self defense, I will put a lot of rounds downrange to make sure it will run reliably.

I will shoot 250-500 rounds of factory practice ammunition through a pistol to start off.  A reliable FMJ (full metal jacket or “ball”) cartridge from the likes of Federal, Remington or Winchester will help make sure everything runs smoothly.

When getting acquainted with a new pistol, I want to make sure that I eliminate outside variables like cheap ammo and reloads.  Cheap imported loads may not be exactly SAAMI-spec, and could cause malfunctions that you mistakenly blame on the gun.

I will also mark the magazines so I can clearly tell one from another.  Daubbing a small amount of different colored fingernail polishes on the mag floorplates will allow me to tell if malfunctions are happening with just one of the magazines.

It normally isn’t a problem, but if I experience any problems that I think might be caused by dirt, grime or buildup, I field strip and clean the gun on site.  Once reassembled, I continue the evaluation, looking for anything that cause the unusual fouling.  If the slide rails start looking dry during the shooting, I will add a little lubrication to them.

Handguns are much more reliable than they have ever been in history.  Even so, it is not terribly unusual to have a few malfunctions in the first few hundred rounds.  However, I like to have 200+ consecutive shots without a malfunction to consider the pistol reliable with the ammo I am using.

Once the new pistol has reliably digested several hundred rounds of practice ammunition, I like to run my preferred defensive ammunition through the gun.  Just because a gun will work with the practice ammunition, does not mean it will be reliable with another load.

I like to run 200 rounds of my carry load through the pistol before trusting the gun.  Yes, that is an expensive investment.  However, I figure my life is worth it.  You can get away with fewer rounds, but only you can make the call on how much you want to invest into ensuring reliability from your pistol.

If I do not uncover any reliability problems in this initial range trip, then I load the gun up and start using it as a defensive handgun.

Ok, but…

Shouldn’t a new pistol run 100% reliably when you buy it?  Yep – it should.  However, are you willing to bet your life that your gun wasn’t a “Friday” gun that was sloppily slapped together in the factory by a worker trying to get out the door to his weekend?  Are you willing to risk that one of the machined or MIM parts doesn’t have some hidden flaw that will be discovered only after running the gun for an afternoon?

No gun, not even a revolver, will be 100% reliable.  If you put enough rounds through it, any firearm will eventually fail.  The point with my break in process is to ensure the gun is reasonably reliable.  If I don’t shoot it a lot, how will I know?

Shooting just a magazine or two is too small a sample size to reliably predict the pistol’s performance.

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