If you keep one or more firearms loaded for self-defense, you may have asked, “Can this harm the gun?” The answer is complicated and depends on the firearm, how it feeds and cycles, and more. Let’s find out why keeping your gun loaded may cause problems and how you can best preserve your weapons against wear or damage.
Is it Bad for a Gun to Leave it Loaded?
In the short term, no, it is not bad. In the long term, yes, it may cause some damage to the magazine spring. Action and feeding springs can become permanently deformed when compressed for a prolonged period, becoming weaker in the process. If you keep a firearm loaded for months or years at a time, it may be a good idea to periodically relieve the tension on these springs to ensure optimal functionality.
Why Leave a Gun Loaded?
Many gun owners keep a handgun, rifle, or shotgun loaded for home defense. The realities of self-defense limit the practicality of loading a firearm during a home invasion or armed robbery. When you’re adrenalized, you also lose fine motor control; therefore, the fewer actions you perform that require manual dexterity, the more success you will have in deploying your weapon.
However, there has been a persistent debate among gun owners and firearms enthusiasts for decades: “Does leaving a gun loaded for a prolonged period cause the springs to lose strength?” The answer is complicated. Some argue, vehemently, that you can leave a firearm loaded indefinitely, and it will continue to function flawlessly. Others argue that springs, when placed under a load for months or years, can become damaged. To cut through the haze, it’s necessary to discuss the basics of how springs work to find a suitable compromise.
A spring is a device that stores mechanical energy under an externally applied load to perform an action. Springs compress and expand, extend and contract, or twist and release. This is called the spring cycle and consists of elastic deformation. When the load is removed, the spring returns to its resting state. The most common types of springs in firearms are compression springs and torsion springs.
- Compression Springs
A compression spring is a helical spring that stores energy when compressed linearly and releases that energy when allowed to expand. This type of spring cycles reciprocating action parts — e.g., the slide or bolt carrier group — propels strikers, and raises or advances cartridges in magazines. The spring’s resistance to compression forces when at rest can also serve to delay the opening cycle in some firearms.
- Torsion Springs
A torsion spring is a helical spring that stores energy when twisted, exerting torque in the opposite direction of the load. This type of spring actuates rotary hammer mechanisms in many rifles and handguns.
A well-designed spring made from properly heat-treated medium- to high-carbon steel should be able to undergo tens or hundreds of thousands of cycles without experiencing noticeable fatigue. However, there’s another factor to consider.
When a spring is compressed, extended, or twisted for a prolonged period, it may deform permanently (i.e., undergo plastic deformation). In the context of springs, this is called creep or set. In a compression spring, you can most easily observe creep as a shortening of the spring’s length at rest. As a spring permanently deforms, it loses elasticity or strength, which can compromise its ability to function as designed.
Common firearm malfunctions, such as failures to feed, fire, extract, and eject can all be caused by damaged, deformed, or defective springs. What follows are some of the most common spring applications in firearms and how these springs may be affected by creep.
Typically, when you charge a firearm — i.e., a semi-automatic pistol, rifle, or shotgun — the hammer or striker cocks on the sear. This compresses or twists the hammer spring (mainspring). If the hammer spring experiences creep, it may deliver a less forceful blow to the firing pin. In striker-fired pistols and other weapons, there is no hammer. Instead, the striker impacts the primer directly. A light firing-pin strike may fail to detonate the cartridge primer, causing a misfire.
If you experience a misfire on the range, the standard procedure is to wait 30 seconds to five minutes — depending on the manufacturer’s recommendations — before opening the breech to rule out the possibility of a delayed primer ignition.
Some firearms, namely double-action pistols, provide a second-strike capability, which allows you to deliver a successive blow to the cartridge primer. If you press the trigger a second time and the round still doesn’t fire, eject the cartridge and examine the primer indentation. If the dimple is shallow, this could be caused by a weakened hammer or striker spring. Hammer springs differ from one weapon type to another, so it’s a good idea to understand how to safely relieve tension when these weapons are not in use.
- Double-Action/Single-Action (DA/SA) Pistols
DA/SA pistols usually have a decocking lever or decocker/manual safety catch located on the side of the frame or slide. The purpose of this device is to lower the hammer without firing the chambered round, allowing you to carry the weapon safely. The SIG P226 and Beretta 92FS pistols are notable examples of weapons using this system. (It should be noted that a decocking lever can fail, so always follow Rule #2 when activating it: “Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.”)
- Single-Action-Only (SAO) Pistols
SAO pistols do not possess a decocking lever, so you will need to lower the hammer manually to relieve tension on the mainspring. While keeping the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, place your dominant thumb on the hammer spur, press the trigger, and let the hammer move forward slowly.
You may also want to place your non-dominant thumb in the space between the hammer and the firing pin as an added precaution. The M1911 hammer design also has a half-cock function to catch the hammer if your thumb slips.
While this is advisable for long-term storage, it does require that you cock the hammer manually before you can fire the weapon, so it may not be the best option for a defensive firearm. The standard method of carrying an SAO handgun is Condition One (“cocked and locked”) — i.e., a round in the hammer, full magazine in place, hammer cocked, and safety on.
- Striker-Fired Pistols
Semi-automatic pistols that use a striker system, such as the Glock series, do not generally provide a way of decocking the striker without pressing the trigger. In these weapons, you will need to unload the gun to safely press the trigger and allow the striker to move forward safely. A notable exception to this rule is the Walther P99, which has a decocking button on the slide.
- Pump-Action Shotguns/Lever-Action Rifles
To decock the hammer of an external-hammer pump-action shotgun or lever-action rifle, you follow the same procedure as with a revolver or SAO pistol. However, depending on the weapon, this may not be the ideal way to keep the weapon loaded. Half cock is the safe hammer position in the Winchester Model 1897 shotgun and Model 1894 rifle, as this stops the hammer from directly contacting the firing pin.
In addition to the hammer or striker spring, semi-automatic firearms also have action springs (also called return or recoil springs) that are necessary for cycling. When the weapon fires, the bolt thrust or gas pressure generated by the fired cartridge forces the slide, bolt, or bolt carrier assembly rearward, compressing the recoil spring. The recoil spring then expands and forces the action forward. On the forward stroke, the bolt or slide strips the top cartridge from the magazine lips and feeds it into the chamber. The action must close with sufficient force to fully seat the cartridge into the chamber and, depending on the weapon, lock the breech. The weapon is now in battery — i.e., ready to fire.
Continuous operation may cause the action spring to become fatigued, but it’s more likely that leaving the action spring compressed for an extended period will cause it to become shorter and, thus, weaker. If the action spring becomes weak, it may not generate sufficient bolt velocity to reliably feed, chamber, or lock. This can cause failures to feed or failures to enter battery.
Magazines store multiple cartridges under spring pressure in preparation for feeding into the chamber of a firearm and may be fixed or detachable. As you load cartridges into the magazine, you compress the feeding spring, which applies progressively increasing tension against the lips or cartridge stop, depending on the design.
Keeping a feeding spring compressed for a prolonged period may cause the spring to experience creep, losing elasticity in the process. This is the same problem that can occur regarding action springs. A weak magazine spring may not be able to raise cartridges fast enough for the bolt or slide to strip, causing failures to feed. In addition, a weak spring may not lock the slide open in a semi-automatic pistol when the last round is fired, as the follower requires sufficient upward force to raise the slide stop.
Whether and to what extent this will become a problem depends on the type of magazine, the type of spring, the magazine capacity, and how long you leave it loaded. Loading a magazine to capacity — i.e., loading 15 rounds into a 15-round magazine — places more stress on the feeding spring than loading fewer rounds. As a result, you may want to partially load magazines when you expect to use this weapon at a later time but want to maintain readiness.
It’s also worth noting that you should never load more rounds into a magazine than it’s designed to hold. If the officially listed capacity of a specific magazine is 12 rounds, for example, don’t try to load 13. You may be able to fit an extra round, but this can place an excessive load on the spring and may cause the magazine lips to spread.
If spring creep is a potential cause of firearm malfunctions, how do you prevent this from happening? If you keep multiple firearms loaded, the first way to prevent spring wear is to periodically unload the magazines. Some manufacturers advise disassembling the magazine and allowing the feeding spring to “relax,” relieving all compression forces, including those caused by captivation inside the magazine body. There are, however, other ways to relieve stress on gun springs:
- Store Firearms Uncocked and Unloaded
It’s advisable to store non-essential firearms — i.e., those you do not rely on for self-defense — decocked and unloaded. If you’re a collector or own firearms for hunting or recreational target shooting, this is a practical solution. This is less controversial because it doesn’t risk the security of your household. Your concealed-carry, duty, or home-defense weapons are in a separate category. These weapons need to be accessible to you in an emergency — keeping a self-defense firearm unloaded defeats the purpose.
- Keep the Action Closed
Don’t store firearms with the action locked open for extended periods. Regardless of whether your firearm is a pistol, rifle, or shotgun, the slide or bolt should be forward unless you’re actively loading or unloading the weapon.
- Practice Shooting
You should practice with your self-defense firearms regularly to maintain proficiency. Dry firing can allow you to preserve muscle memory to some extent, but there’s no substitute for range practice with live ammunition. As Col. Jeff Cooper said: “You are no more armed because you own a gun than you are a musician because you own a piano.” Practice is crucial.
But aside from maintaining your skillset, range practice also provides an opportunity for the springs to cycle. Regularly using high-quality magazines should prevent the springs from permanently deforming, extending their service lives.
- Clean Your Weapons
Cleaning and lubrication are not necessary after every range session unless you fire black powder or corrosively primed ammunition. However, if you leave firearms loaded for months or years at a time, they may collect moisture, dust, or lint. In addition to relieving spring tension, the process of cleaning ensures your weapons remain clear of obstructions and functional at all times.
- Rotate Magazines
Rotate loaded magazines to avoid spring creep. If, for example, you have four Wilson Combat magazines for your M1911A1-pattern handgun or six magazines for your Glock 19. Keep 50% loaded for X amount of time — let’s say 90 days. After 90 days, rotate the magazines: unload two or three and load the others. This will provide your magazine springs with ample time to relax after weeks or months of continuous compression.
If you’ve noticed that a magazine or action spring has become shorter due to continuous compression, you can try repairing it by stretching it. Whether this will work is debatable, but it may serve as a temporary solution. If you need to stretch the spring, however, to regain function, it’s time to consider replacing the spring entirely.
Replacing magazine and action springs is one of the most reliable methods of addressing spring creep. Consider purchasing and storing spare parts for your firearms, including spring kits. The recoil or action spring for your handgun or rifle is more likely to become shorter through regular use, as long-term compression is less common. As a result, if you fire high round counts (i.e., thousands of rounds), having spare springs is recommended. Small springs, such as extractors and firing-pin springs, may also become lost during routine disassembly.
Safe Storage Laws
What about the law — is it legal for me to leave my firearms loaded? Depending on the jurisdiction in which you live, you may be subject to child access prevention laws (also known as CAP or safe storage laws). Regardless of the law, if you determine that you need to secure your firearms against unauthorized access, you have several options. Traditional gun safes are effective but limit emergency access. If you want to strike a balance between safety and security, there are various quick-access devices on the market, such as RFID-activated lockboxes.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2005 and 2010, criminals stole an annual average of 232,400 firearms during burglaries and other property-related offenses. As a result, it’s generally a good idea to secure your firearms when you leave your home unattended, regardless of whether you have children.
Can a Gun Fire if Left Loaded?
Unless a firearm is defective, it will not fire on its own. However, a loaded firearm may fire due to impact — i.e., if dropped or struck. This is especially true regarding shotguns. Some handguns, such as the M1911, use an inertial firing pin that may detonate the primer if you drop the pistol on its muzzle. Modern variants of this pattern use a titanium firing pin, which is lighter in weight, to obviate this problem.
Modern semi-automatic pistols typically have a firing-pin or striker safety, which prevents the firing pin from moving forward until the shooter deliberately presses the trigger. The popular Glock series uses the Safe Action System, which comprises three passive safety devices to fulfill this purpose: trigger safety, firing-pin safety, and drop safety.
However, to avoid legal liability, no manufacturer, no matter how reputable, will guarantee that its firearms won’t discharge when dropped. Firearms, as mechanical devices, can fail. A corollary of that is you shouldn’t rely on safety devices, whether active or passive. As practically every owner’s manual will tell you: gun safety is your responsibility.
What About Ammunition?
Some may ask, “What about the ammunition itself — does it expire?” The answer is that modern cartridge ammunition, unless improperly stored, should exceed the lifespan of the average human being. That being said, you should always store ammunition and cartridge components in a cool, dry place. If you live in a humid environment, consider placing spare ammunition in a hermetically sealed container with a desiccant to remove moisture.
The question of whether you should leave defensive firearms loaded for months or years is complex and controversial. Some noted authorities in the industry assert that you can leave your firearms loaded indefinitely without compromising functional reliability. Others insist that springs need to be periodically allowed to “relax” to preserve compression, extension, or torsional strength.
Without the benefit of a long-term study, most of the evidence for leaving springs compressed for years is anecdotal, whereas spring creep or set under a constant load is a verifiable mechanical phenomenon. For that reason, a compromise is advisable.
If you carry a handgun openly or concealed, you should practice with this weapon regularly because the fundamentals of marksmanship are perishable. In the process of firing your CCW, you’ll unload and reload your magazines, improving both your ability to fire your pistol accurately and ensuring that the springs can take a breather. For other guns in your household, take them apart from time to time and rotate your magazines. By following these simple guidelines, you should keep your guns running for years.
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