When referring to firearms, especially for self-defense or duty, the term ‘service life’ often surfaces. There’s a lot of mixed information regarding handgun service life, with different law enforcement, military, and civilian standards. But what does that really mean, and is there anything we can do to extend it?
What is service life?
Handgun service life is often referenced in two different manners. First, is a measure of the duration of time the firearm can be used in a specific role. This tends to be before any parts failure or significant malfunctions. Police and military units set their own service life standards, based on what they require.
These departments or units will adopt pistols that meet or exceed these standards. The firearm manufacturer will likely recommend a period of time or round count when you should perform preventative maintenance. You will likely develop your own regulations that work for your own views and shooting habits.
The second reference to service life is the expected lifetime of the firearm in general. This typically means with proper use and maintenance, and will require parts replacement as individual components break or wear out. In this manner, a quality handgun will typically last generations.
At this point you may be asking, “How do you know if your firearm has reached the end of its service life?” That really depends on how many/which parts fail. If you crack a slide or frame, it may be time for a new gun. If you just shoot out a barrel, that’s an easy replacement. Plenty of high-volume shooters end up replacing an entire gun one part at a time as it wears. If you notice your accuracy or reliability beginning to deteriorate, things may need to be worked on.
There are two different types of wear — wear from carry and wear from shooting/dry fire. Carry wear is typically superficial and does not affect function. Many carry guns will have finish wear from drawing in and out of a holster. Sweat and oil from the body can cause rust and make the gun look more used than it actually is.
Wear from shooting is a different story. Every round fired is another miniature explosion that the gun is forced to contain. Firing the gun also works the action, compressing/decompressing springs, locking/unlocking the barrel, ejecting spent brass, rubbing the slide and frame. All of these will result in wear on your gun over time.
With roughly a 30,000-round minimum expected service life before parts breakage, the average pistol has a long way to go. Many shooters get tired of the same gun and trade it within a few years. However, for those who frequent the range often or shoot competition, that number can be reached in a couple of seasons.
Even regular shooters who put a box or two of ammo downrange every couple weeks will put around 2,600 rounds a year (that’s a little over 10 years to reach that 30,000 mark). However, the truth is most people won’t even dream of reaching the end of their handgun’s service life. They simply don’t shoot it enough — often, not at all.
Cleaning and Maintenance
Having a good cleaning and maintenance schedule can help you extend the life of your firearm. It will also keep it more reliable. Excessive carbon fouling and powder buildup can contribute to uneven and premature parts wear. This gunk and uneven wear on moving parts creates extra friction in action, which can induce malfunctions.
I like to clean my firearms after every trip to the range. This prevents carbon buildup from getting out of hand. It also provides a good opportunity to inspect for damage or unnatural wear. Even guns that are stored in the safe get a good wipe down and re-oiling every few months or so to keep them in top shape. Oiling helps reduce the friction between the moving parts of your firearm to prevent malfunctions and excessive wear. It will also protect the metal and ward off rust.
All springs on your firearm will eventually wear, but the recoil spring is one to keep an eye on in particular. The recoil spring is responsible for providing the pressure and resistance to properly operate the semi-automatic action. As you shoot, the spring is compressed and released as the slide works forward and rearward to chamber/eject rounds.
Recoil springs are tuned to certain poundages to reliably operate the firearm based on factors such as slide weight and caliber. As the spring is worked, it will slowly become weaker/lighter. Eventually, it will not have enough force to fully eject or chamber ammunition and will need to be replaced.
Your handgun service life is also dependent on the type of ammunition you use and how often you shoot. Ammunition such as +P or +P+ offer superior ballistics, but will result in additional wear to the firearm. Your firearm was designed to handle ammunition loaded to a specific pressure to operate with standard ammo. Whether it’s rated for increased pressure loads or not, the extra blast will create more wear and shorten your firearm’s service life.
Similarly, higher-pressure calibers such as .40 S&W or .357 SIG will wear more than low-pressure numbers such as .45 ACP. This is just the nature of the round. This does not mean you shouldn’t use these, just pay extra attention to the firearm for possible wear or damage.
Additionally, extended rapid-fire shooting will create more heat and cause excessive wear. 10–20 fast mag dumps per range session will add up.
As you may imagine, some handguns will have a longer service life than others. This is due to several variables, but it’s primarily a sum of parts quality and level of manufacture. However, more money doesn’t always get you a longer service life. It also largely depends on the handgun design.
Some older designs may require more upkeep and, as a result of the technology at the time of manufacture, may have a more limited service life. Early cast parts and alloy frames simply cannot take that kind of abuse. Simplicity plays a role as well. Fewer overall parts provides fewer points of failure. This is what makes the Glock pistol and other striker-fired designs so popular.
The HK USP is another popular handgun design known for its durability. Based on the MK23 Offensive Handgun Weapon System developed for SOCOM, the USP was designed with durability at the forefront. No, it doesn’t have a 3-pound match trigger, but it features robust components designed for reliable ignition and consistent reliability.
Firearms from manufacturers such as Taurus, SCCY, and other import firearms come in at a lower price. However, they tend not to be built to the same standard. Tolerances are looser and parts are cheaper. They are not junk by any means, but they may require more upkeep to keep them running as they should and offer a lower service life.
Revolvers offer their own specific quirks in regards to service life. The timing may go out. This means the cylinder holes no longer fully align with the barrel. This will require gunsmith work to get right again. Further, springs may get jossled out of position if dropped or banged around. This is not to say all wheel guns have a short service life. In fact, there are many classic S&W and Colt revolvers still kicking today. They simply require their own specialized care.
With a better understanding of handgun service life, we can properly maintain and care for our firearms so they last as long as possible. This is a good reason to purchase a gun of good quality, as it will likely outlast you with proper use.
How do you measure your handgun service life? What preventative maintenance do you perform to keep your firearms working smoothly? Share your thoughts in the Comment section.
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