When The Followers Lead…

I get a whopping lot of correspondence from folks complaining about magazine problems. I was never proud of the answer I gave them. Honest as it was, it wasn’t what anyone wanted to hear. I have been drawing from the same Kroger-sack full of Vietnam-era aluminum mags I bought 35 years ago for $2 apiece. “Well, I use really old aluminum mags with metal followers, and never have had a problem…” Now, I have plenty of new magazines. I have had to fix some so they will work. So now I have some better answers.

I once had a callous perspective on magazine function. The first malfunction was the last for that magazine. I literally threw it in the trashcan. I don’t do that anymore. It’s usually possible to fix them now. I say “now” because of numerous available “upgraded” internals pieces-parts.

When an AR-15 magazine malfunctions, it’s rarely the box itself. It’s usually because the follower (the tray the rounds sit atop) didn’t behave and the nose of the round got stuck down. When the bolt pushes that round out of the box, the bullet nose may not point itself into the chamber. Sometimes the follower sticks so the case-head-side is down and the bolt rides right over the top of the waiting round. Newer follower designs have taken big steps toward preventing those miscues.

If you take a finger (should use your own for reasons I won’t go into here) or the eraser-end of a pencil and push indiscriminately down and around on a follower, you sometimes can make it stick either end down. When you can’t make a follower stick from pushing on the front or rear of it, that magazine should function. The newer follower designs, when they are correctly oriented atop the spring, lick that problem.

The motivation behind the “green” follower the armed forces changed to was to solve a common problem of failures to feed the last two rounds from some bum 30-round magazines. The solution was to add a skirt to the front end of the follower and extra length to the skirt at the rear to help stop the follower from tilting. These extended skirts ride against the inside front and rear magazine box walls. This follower is better. Get a dozen in a baggie for very little money. There’s one designed for 20-round box mags (the 30-round version won’t easily install in all 20-round boxes).

I say, however, there may be fewer follower problems and more spring problems in a malfunctioning magazine. A follower is spring-driven, and there are differences in springs. Chrome silicon (CS), when exploited to its capacity by the spring maker, is better than music wire. CS magazine springs put a more consistent, constant load on the follower and—this is big—they just don’t change over literally years of use. They can be left sitting compressed without getting “soft.” This is a real concern and potentially disastrous circumstance for a tactical pro. If you want to check a spring for adequate load, put two rounds in the magazine and push them down only about 1/8″. They should spring right and fully back up. If they don’t, the spring is sacked.

The correct orientation for the follower sitting atop the spring (before either is installed into the box) is either dead level or with the bullet end sitting a little higher than the primer end. Dead level is OK. If you install enough different springs in enough magazines, you’ll notice that not all springs will provide this. You have to help. Pliers are the tool, and the idea—again—is to get the follower sitting flat or a little nose-up. That’s done by tweaking the top spring coil. I hate to use such technical terms, but it’s really just a matter of gently bending on the top coil until the follower is sitting correctly atop it.

It’s common in many mags I’ve disassembled to see the follower nose down when it’s installed onto the spring. When it gets back into the box and buttoned up, that orientation can return. Even if it seems there’s plenty of coil pressure against the follower to keep it up and sitting level against its stops, when the rounds are dealt in and the follower goes down, the shift or tilt happens. The design of the top coil on the spring itself, the attachment point for the spring onto the follower, as well as the installation orientation itself all factor greatly in attaining a proper follower attitude.

The preceding is a specially-adapted excerpt from the book The Competitive AR15: Builders Guide by Glen Zediker and Zediker Publishing,, (662) 473-6107.

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