What Does the Term "Hangfire (Hang Fire)" Mean in Shooting?

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Definition

In firearm shooting, the term "hang fire" or "hangfire" refers to a situation in which there is an appreciable delay between activating a firearm in order to fire it (i.e. pulling the trigger) and the actual firing of the gun. When a hang fire occurs, the primer inside the cartridge goes off, but the main propellant burns slowly at first until it builds up enough pressure to push the bullet out of the cartridge and through the barrel.

This may take a a fraction of a second, or even several seconds, to accomplish. This is a different situation than a misfire, in which the primer does not ignite at all. 

Hangfires are usually not dangerous, but they can play havoc with a shooter's accuracy because of the tendency of the shooter to move the gun slightly off target after pulling the trigger but before the gun has actually fired.

Most hangfires involve times that measure much less than one second, but some can be more lengthy--up to several seconds. Therefore, it's always a good idea to wait several seconds for a round or charge to fire after a misfire (which is not the same thing as a hangfire), to eliminate the possibility of accidents. Some experts recommend waiting as much as 30 seconds after a misfire before unloading the round. 

Causes

Most frequently, a hangfire occurs simply because the prime inside the cartridge doesn't ignite the powder charge instantly upon being struck by the firing pin, due to some obstacle or defect.Hangfires can also be caused by faulty ammunition, as well as by damaged (or just plain dirty) firearms.

Modern guns and ammunition have improved to the point where hangfires are uncommon, but they are still with us. The most common instances of hangfires involve muzzleloading firearms, especially flintlocks. 

In my experience, hangfires are slightly more common in shotshells than in metallic cartridges, simply because metallic ammo is better sealed against moisture and other contaminants.