Accidental Discharge

An accidental discharge is when you fire a weapon when you don’t mean to. Obviously, bad things can happen when someone accidentally discharges a weapon. There’s a good chance of shooting someone you don’t necessarily want shot. Cranky, over at the Hostages asked me the following:

Hey, ever been around a clearing barrel when someone puts the barrel of the weapon into the opening and squeezes the trigger and it fires? Everybody laughs.

A clearing barrel is simply a 55 gallon drum, filled with sand, mounted with an opening. You stick the barrel of your weapon in there, and squeeze the trigger. That’s proof positive that the weapon is clear. Units deployed overseas that routinely go out armed with live ammo have them. Units in the states generally don’t. You clear your weapons at the range. And when you get back. And just before you put them in the armsroom.

Hawaii, 1986. We were back from a live-fire exercise and turning in our weapons. One of the guys in line had an M-60 machine gun. He had the bolt pulled back and the feed tray and cover closed. He extended the bipod legs and dropped the weapon a few inches to the ground while waiting for his turn at the window. The jolt of the drop let the bolt slip forward. And the weapon functioned perfectly after that, firing a 7.62mm round. Which went right past the crowd waiting to turn in weapons, hit the concrete wall, ricocheted, went right back past the crowd and across the street where it lodged somewhere in the battalion headquarters. It was a minor miracle no one was hit. But not even a miracle could have saved that soldiers stripes. You can have a thousand “attaboys” and they are all wiped out by one “Oh, Shit!”  I never did learn how he got all the way back to the company with a round in the weapon. He should have checked it, his assistant gunner should have checked it, his squad leader should have checked it, and the range safety NCO should have checked it. Still, soldiering is a human endeavor, and humans will always find a way to screw things up.

My own sin was, luckily, a venial one, and not a cardinal sin. My 20th birthday, still in Hawaii. The Big Island to be specific. We we conducting a raid. We had flown from the Pohakaloa Training Area in the center of the Island to some private land that allowed us to operate there. After getting off the Blackhawks, we had a long, long walk in the woods. Just before boarding the choppers, our Company Commander had reiterated his stance on accidental discharges- DON’T. He’d had a soldier shot in an accidental discharge and was adamant that it wouldn’t happen again. So, of course, it was my turn in the barrel. The company column stopped briefly and we all took a knee. As I knelt down, I heard the distinctive “POP” of an M-16 firing a blank. My first thought was “Wow, someone screwed the pooch!” My next thought was panic as my platoon sergeant clamped his hand down on my shoulder and asked what the hell was I thinking. I had not only screwed up, I’d done it with an audience. My platoon sergeant was directly behind me. Right behind him was the company commander and the evaluator grading our excercise. Oops. I had indeed fired the round. No harm done but for some embarrassment. Our standard operating procedure in those days was to travel on patrol with your finger on the trigger and your thumb on the safety. I’d somehow hit the safety (probably on my equipment belt) and not noticed it.  My CO awarded my a summarized Article 15 with 5 days of extra duty. It was just painful enough punishment to make sure the lesson was learned, but not so painful as to turn me off from soldiering.

The next incident was the one of the worst moments of my time in the Army. My brigade was at Grafenwhor in Germany. Graf is a huge complex of ranges, for everything from M-16s to tanks, Bradleys and artillery. I was working in the armsroom while the company went out to a range where squads mounted in M-113s would each practice assaulting an objective. While one of our squads were in the back of the 113, and just before heading out to shoot, the platoon leader tossed in some weapons lubricant (called Break-Free CLP) and advised everybody to make sure their weapons were lubed. George was armed witht he M-249 SAW. The normal way of lubing a SAW was to open the feed tray and squirt a little in there. Then you would pull the bolt back and pull the trigger and cycle the bolt back and forth a few times. But in addition to feeding from a belt laid on the tray, the SAW could be fed from a rifle magazine  mounted on the side of the weapon. George’s weapon had a magazine in the side. When he let the bolt go forward, it stripped a round from the magazine, fed it into  the chamber, where the firing pin struck it. The round fired and the bolt cycled. Seven rounds were fired. Each round struck the Track Commander in the back of his left leg and passed through to strike the driver in the back. Both were critically wounded. The Track Commander, a former college footbal star, lost most of his left leg. The driver’s injuries were so severe that he was later discharged with 100% disability.  George was court-martialed for negligence and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

5 thoughts on “Accidental Discharge”

  1. Hm, didn’t know that Break Free has been around for that long…:-p.

    Do have one nit pick: to me, it’s not an accidental discharge. Short of something like a slam fire or a runaway gun there is no such thing as a gun “accidentally” going off. If a gun “accidentally” goes off, more than likely someone somewhere screwed up, making it a negligent discharge. Even in the case of a slam fire or a runaway gun, someone screwed up (either in maintaining or manufacturing the firearm). “Negligent discharge” is the term I prefer. It’s semantics but I think it’s important.

    Sucks about the negligent discharge. I have a question, though…why did the weapon fire seven rounds? I can understand if George was holding the trigger down while he cycled the bolt that it would have fired until he let up and that seven rounds would have quite possible if he wasn’t expecting the weapon to fire, but the way you described it doesn’t sound like George had his finger on the trigger. If that was the case, it seems like the proper action would’ve been for the SAW to only fire one round, like the M-60 in the first story, and the fact that seven rounds fired indicates some sort of slam fire malfunction.

    On second thought, I imagine that this has something to do with the f act that the SAW is an open bolt design, but since I have zero knowledge about open bolt guns I can speculate no more than that.

    In any case, it always amazes me how people who really should know better can get careless around firearms. I’m to the point where I get slightly perturbed if someone hands me a weapon with a closed action. That probably makes me a safety nazi, but so be it. I’ve seen too many close calls where people who should know better got complacent and careless and almost got hurt pretty badly. The worst I saw involved a hunting trip where a relative of mine almost blew his head off with a 12 gauge while trying to cross a fence. The only thing that saved him was that he still retained good muzzle control so that when his gun went off the shot passed within inches of his face instead of through it.

    I put a post up at my place linking to a guy who made a website documenting his negligent discharge involving his 1911 chambered in .45 ACP. Well worth reading the whole thing if you handle guns on anything approaching a regular basis.

  2. Horseplay can get someone hurt. Back in the days when the Air Force still had .38 S&W one of our Security Policemen was up in the tower at the eastern end of our perimeter. He decided to practice his quick draw.

    Dumb, I know.

    He shot the window air conditioner.

    Our clearing barrel procedure was to remove the clip, pull the charging handle to the rear, lock the bolt, turn the rifle 90 degrees so the chamber was visible, visibly verify the chamber was clear, release the bolt, squeeze the trigger, and engage the safety. Then you turned your weapon into the armorer after pulling the charging handle to the rear, locking the bolt, and ensuring the safety was engaged.

    Still would occasionally happen that a round would be fired into the barrel.

  3. +1 on called them Negligent Discharges instead of AD’s. Rounds don’t fall out of the sky and into your gun: If there’s a round in the chamber, it’s because someone put it there, and if your finger’s on the trigger, you’re the one responsible for making sure it doesn’t get fired.

    I shoot USPSA, and they are picky as hell about rounds in a weapon outside of the firing line. It’s the one-way ticket home, guaranteed, if you have and ND, live round or dummy round in your firearm after the RO calls “Range is clear!”.

  4. I understand the semantics between “negligent discharge” and “accidental discharge” but I’ll make two points. 1. Accidental discharge was the term of art in use during my service, and 2. virtually all accidents of any type are a direct or indirect result of negligence.

    George did indeed have his finger on the trigger. That’s the only way to get the bolt of a SAW to go forward. His intention was to hold the trigger back and pull the bolt back and forth several times. When the weapon fired, it took him a moment to realize what was happening. Open bolt weapons, of course, fire when the bolt slides forward, and of course, as long as the trigger is held and there is ammunition, will continue to fire.

    There was no excuse, but there were mitigating factors. George and his squad had been up for about 36 hours, it was almost 3am (when humans tend to be a little slow) and it was dark. Further, the LT had no business poking his head in the track just as they were ready to roll. Not excuses, But it is an indication of some of the risk factors involved that lead to things like this. We didn’t do risk management back then the way we do now.

  5. In the Guard, we had ADs as well. One involved a .45 when a SP4 chambered a round and had a finger on the trigger. I soon heard that loud bang that rang my ears as he dumped one into the floor of the range. No one hurt tho thank God. Autopistols must have more care than other guns esp. with untrained soldiers.

Comments are closed.