Jim’s Gems #6 – Myriad of Magazine Questions

By January 6, 2018Columns, Jim's Gems

Over the course of a year, I receive numerous questions related to magazines in semi-automatic rifles and pistols. Questions like:

  • Who makes the best aftermarket magazines for the 1911 (or, whatever type pistol/rifle you can think of)?
  • Should I rotate my magazines?
  • Should I buy a certain aftermarket brand or stick with the original manufacturer?
  • How long will the magazine last?
  • How many should I have on hand?

…and many more. The list of questions about magazines is pretty long.

This article will help you get through these questions, discover what’s a myth versus what’s the truth and hopefully give you some of the hard-learned lessons. When it comes to magazines, these are lessons I have picked up over the past 25 years.

As far as how many magazines one should have on hand for any given gun, well that depends.  If this is my primary defensive handgun, to start with, I like to have at least 6 magazines.  I may add more later – they are available so “cheap” compared to the old “Crime Bill” days (circa 1994-2004).  Ten pistol magazines, total, would be enough to satisfy me.  My back-up or secondary gun, may only have a total of 6 magazines.  If it’s my defensive rifle, I would like to have a dozen (at least), though 20 rifle magazines would be better.

Why so many magazines you may ask?

Magazines are a depletable material – they wear out. Furthermore, I do not like to constantly remove cartridges from the magazine every time I need to practice. This is serious business and we need to buy enough equipment to get the job done, not barely get the job done.

The Good

Thankfully, we have an excellent selection of factory and aftermarket magazines and magazine support that’s developed over the past 25 years. In the 1980’s we had few quality magazines to choose from. Most people just assumed that semi-automatics “jammed”. Unfortunately, not much thought was put into the “why” they jammed. Fortunately, that has changed and now the gun buying public actually expects their defensive magazines to function.

Imagine that!

Several companies have raised the bar on excellent aftermarket magazines like those from Wilson Combat, Magpul, Mec-Gar and many others, are making much higher quality products than ever been available before. Add to that, companies like Magpul, Wolff Gunsprings, Taran Tactical and others, are making a lot of magazine related parts and/or enhancements that are improving magazine function.

Generally speaking, I always prefer the factory magazines (OEM) from the same company that originally made the handgun that I purchased, whether it is a pistol from Glock, Sig Sauer, H&K, Beretta or Smith & Wesson M&P series.  In most cases, these companies have a lot more at risk if the pistols don’t work properly than would an aftermarket company.  Furthermore, the original company has probably tested more combinations of ammunition and shooters through their handguns than any aftermarket company can afford to test.  Thus, I generally get better performance and durability using the OEM magazines.

Surprisingly, I have seen numerous people foolishly save a whole $10.00 (per magazine), when buying a cheap aftermarket substitute rather than the OEM magazine.  Friends, this is just plain silly.  With a defensive pistol, you are betting your life on the ability of the magazine to feed cartridges under various conditions, on demand, into the barrel.  If it doesn’t feed, it will not stop your deadly force threat.

In Jim’s book:  Cheap = Dead. What’s your life worth to you? Stick with OEM magazines and parts for any defensive handgun or rifle.

defensive pistol, glock, magazines, shooting

Left-right, earliest to latest version of Glock 17 magazines

Now, I’m not saying that Magpul doesn’t make an excellent product, because they do.  I own, use, tested and have examined dozens of Magpul brand Glock, AR-15 and SR-25 Pmag magazines that work perfectly.  I know of one instructor that has a first generation Magpul AR-15 Pmag, 30 round version, that he has left loaded for almost 10 years.  Guess what…It still works!  I have shot thousands of rounds through several Magpul brand Glock 17 and 21 round 9mm magazines, in multiple Glock model 19 and 17’s – all without incident.  If I had my choice, I prefer the original equipment.  The exception being the excellent AR-15 Pmag, would be my first choice for my defensive carbine.

Companies like H&K, Sig Sauer, Beretta, Glock and Smith Wesson have spent a lot of time and effort ensuring that their favorite pistol of the month is working when it leaves the factory.  Glock is currently in the 8th version of the Glock model 17 magazine, improving it each time it’s re-designed.  Both Sig Sauer’s P226 and Beretta’s 92F have at least four different versions of their 9mm magazines alone.  With each time, they are getting better.

defensive pistol, sig sauer, shooting, magazines

Sig Sauer P226, 9mm, with 20 round “stick” magazine inserted and various versions of 15 round magazines. All are factory mags. Note factory rubber bumpers to protect magazine base when dropped and assist in seating.

I have seen some shooters have magazine problems with these “newly” (built in the last 20 years) designed guns.  In almost every case, it’s because someone thought that they were going to “improve” the factory equipment by changing to an aftermarket spring, follower or base plate.  Here’s my simple piece of advice…”Don’t mess with it.”  Use the OEM equipment as is.

As far as the 1911 version of pistols, one of the biggest problems when I started was getting enough of the magazines that you could use to work.  For several reasons, using cheap or WWII vintage magazines designed only for FMJ or Ball ammunition is not what I’m wanting to bet my life on.  The first reason is the quality of the spring steel – it is just not there.  Yes, I have fired original magazines and ammo of WWI and WWII vintage, through old 1911’s to see if it would work.  Some, in fact, did but I wouldn’t want to bet my life on 70 to 100-year-old springs.  One vintage magazine working reliably is the exception and not the rule.

defensive pistol, 1911, feed lips, magazines

1911 magazines from Left to right: (1920’s vintage) U.S. G.I. contract 1911 mag 7rd, (1980’s) Colt commercial 7rd, (2016) Colt commercial 7rd, Wilson Combat 47D 8rd magazine. Note the taper of the feed lips, as they progressively release the cartridge earlier, to work with the shorter nosed JHP bullets of today.

The second reason is that the build quality of the magazine body is out of tolerance in most cases.  This causes magazines to stick inside of the magazine well of the handgun, not dropping free.  I have seen weld cracks break at the base plate, or feed lips give way due to improperly hardened metal.  Finally, the last issue is that feed lips are designed to feed FMJ/Ball ammo, not the shorter-nosed JHP defensive ammo in use today.

Thankfully, Wilson Combat has led the way on 1911 pistol magazine development. In my own 1911’s, I have discovered the best magazines are the Wilson Combat brand, 47-D model or their Elite Tactical Magazine (ETM).


The magazine bodies are thicker and more resistant to damage than the average bargain bin $10.00 special. The followers allow for an additional 8th round to be loaded versus the original 7 rounds. The longer base pad assists in better seating the magazine during rapid reloads, as well as protecting the bottom of the magazine from damage when dropped. Lastly, and most importantly, if you want hollow point ammunition to feed, the feed lips are recontoured. This allows the cartridge to release earlier enabling the shorter nosed JHP bullets to feed into the barrel.

The Bad

1911, defensive pistol, magazines

Various 1911 magazines: Note unmarked magazine floor plate on top. You don’t put your name on it, I don’t bet my life on it.

While I cannot possibly identify every worthless or suspect magazine that’s out there, let’s hit a few of the main one’s I would stay away from. Just to name a few…Pro Mag, Tapco, Triple K, KCI (Korean Glock Mag copies) and those without stamps or from an “Unknown” maker.  My personal favorite being the magazine with nobody’s name stamped onto it. If you aren’t proud enough of your work not to sign or mark it, why would I want to bet my life on said “Unknown” magazine to work properly?

There are several magazine issues that I tend to see with the above makers.  The magazines do not feed JHP or soft point ammunition properly, do not drop free when empty, do not drop free partially loaded, some bind in the magazine well, or do not securely lock into place as designed by the original manufacturer.  Obviously, any of these issues can get you hurt in a defensive situation.  Not to mention, it’s just aggravating when your equipment fails to function, as well as building training scars.

defensive pistol, glock, magazines

Left to right, Glock 17 standard magazine (17 rds), early (1993 vintage) Glock 17 mag with +2 floor plate (+2 floor plate below) and Magpul 21 round Pmag (circa 2017). The Magpul 21 round Pmag, is legal for USPSA competition in a Glock 17/34.

I cannot tell you how many times I have spoken with students during training who noted that their pistols did not work.  Only to hear from the student, that their gun and ammo was perfect…only their magazine didn’t work.

Well my friends, if your magazine, pistol, ammo or you do not work together, then I would say that your “system” has failed.  All components must function on demand and as expected. Either repair or replace the suspect magazine(s) accordingly.

As far as AR-15 magazines are concerned, be aware of worn out military surplus magazines. Many of these surplus magazines you see out there for $5-10.00 each, have seen better days. Some people will say, “Just buy a new spring and follower.” However, I have found that by the time you buy a new spring and follower, then you are at the price of a Magpul Pmag – all without the work and frustration.

defensive pistol, 1911, magazine

When cleaning and inspecting magazines, check for cracked feed lips as noted on the right side of the stainless magazine.

There are other magazine issues I have seen with military surplus AR-15 mags.  The feed lips are bent too far out (due to being left loaded for extended periods of time) for proper function, thus causing feeding issues.  No, they can’t be bent back into place and work for long either…regardless of what “George the Gun Guy” tells you down the street.  When aluminum is fatigued to this point, it’s time to replace the magazine.

The Ugly

What is the biggest issue I see if we are using quality magazines and they still fail? Weak springs are the biggest failure and dirty magazines are a close second. All springs take a set (collapse, or get shorter) over time. That’s part of life. Embrace and understand this fact, regardless of who makes the product.

defensive pistol, magazine, spring, shooting

Weak spring (left). During cleaning look at the spring length!

I personally guard against this being an issue by numbering and initialing my magazines with a felt marker.  I also add the service date when they were placed “in-service” inside of the floor plate.  This helps serve as a reminder when I last had new springs inside, as well as helping me to identify a troubling magazine when I’m training.  If magazine “number 3″ keeps acting up, it’s either got to be repaired or replaced.  It also helps me keep my magazines in training, while not inadvertently picking up someone else’s.

The next issue I see is when shooters do not like to clean their magazines.  Clean these anytime they have hit the ground.  This is something we can control.  We can’t always control when we get into a deadly force situation, but we can control the condition we keep our defensive gear in.  Using a 1/8” drift punch and a magazine brush, I can disassemble, clean, inspect and reassemble a Glock 17 mag in less than two minutes.  I believe that my life is worth two minutes.

The Ugliest

defensive pistol, shooting, magazines, marking.

This is an example of how to mark magazines.

Magazine rotation?  Don’t waste your time. Once magazine spring steel has taken a set, it’s set. Learn the failure points of your magazine springs and then track when you have last changed out your springs. Rotating magazines does prolong this, however now you have twice as many magazines to replace than the three or so you would normally have in service. Now, all of your springs are taking a set and getting fatigued, rather than only three.

Spring bending? Please, pretty please with a little sugar on top, DO NOT do this. As noted earlier, all springs take a set and become shorter over time. Bending or stretching springs longer only further weakens an already weakened spring. I only need to ask, “How do you break a paper clip?” You get the idea.

From my personal experience, I have learned that:

  • Glock and H&K magazine springs generally last about 5 years when left constantly loaded, before feeding or failing to lock back on the last round start to become an issue.
  • Sig Sauer and Beretta springs last about two years before feeding issues arise.
  • My old 1911 magazine springs were changed out each year on January 1.
  • Third generation S&W automatics would fail around 10 months!
  • I cannot say what the “normal” failure points are on the newer S&W M&P series magazines because so few a sample has been noted by me.  But, in about two years of being constantly loaded, you will start seeing failure to lock back on the last round.

Your mileage may vary. The obvious fix is spring replacement.

defensive pistol, 1911, shooting, magazines

Left to right, standard Colt floor plate (flat), Wilson Combat low profile (steel) and Wilson Combat extended 47DA (aluminum) 1911 magazines. Note base plate heights.

The magazine is the heart and soul of any semi-automatic firearm. They matter more than fancy grips or any other widget you could put on, or in the gun. Without decent magazines, these high-capacity defensive guns now become ineffective, slow-to-load single shots. If you are spending your hard-earned cash on a decent defensive gun and ammo, why wouldn’t you take a few minutes to think about what feeds the cartridges into the weapon itself?

Until next month…Caveat Emptor!


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