Whether you are a shooter that likes to stockpile ammunition in the event of some unforeseen national upheaval or simply prefer to keep some extra cartridges lying around for hunting purposes, it is in your best interest to take reasonable care of that ammunition or you could be setting the scene for problems down the road. In the best circumstances, mishandling your ammunition could result in poor accuracy, bad shooting performance and missed opportunities. But, even worse, those same lackadaisical attitudes and practices can in some cases lead to personal injuries or damage to your firearms.
We’ve come a long way from the black powder days when a stray spark could turn into a devastating explosion. Generally, the smokeless powders of today only become explosive when the gases emitted in the ignitio n process are confined and unable to vent. Though I wouldn’t recommend doing so, if you touched a lit match to a small pile of smokeless powder it would typically result in an intense and violent burn, with the blaze reaching skyward some distance. Generally, the powder would just flame out because of the outside air. Just because a wayward spark is not as much of a concern these days doesn’t mean there aren’t other issues to consider with ammo storage.
ATTRITION THREATS TO YOUR AMMO
In some instances rough handling of ammunition can have consequences associated with it. No, I’m not talking about a cartridge accidently going off, but you should be concerned about what that same rough treatment may be doing to the powder inside those cartridges. A major factor affecting the burn rate of smokeless powder has to do with shape and consistency of the powder kernels. For that reason powder manufacturers go to great lengths to keep tolerances within those powder kernels to an absolute minimum. But over time that level of consistency can be degraded through attrition inside the cartridges. Abusive handling, shaking and other rough treatment of the cartridges can eventually result in changes taking place to the shape of the powder kernels. And if you are one of those people that likes throwing an extra box of cartridges behind the seat of your vehicle, or in the glove box, and then go off-roading, this could easily result in problems for you later on.
Aside from the problems associated with the potential changes to the physical shape of the powder kernels, sometimes chemical changes can occur to the powder that also will have a bearing on cartridge performance. Today’s smokeless powder is made up of essentially two component parts: nitroglycerin and some form of cellulose substance, such as cotton or wood fiber. Like the size and shape of the powder kernels, the combination and consistency of those component parts also can affect the burning rate of the powder. A few years ago, a major U.S. powder manufacturer conducted a series of tests that explored how modern smokeless powder could be adversely affected when exposed to high temperatures. The researchers wanted to know if there could be a potential problem for our military troops serving in arid and hot combat zones. Through a series of extensive tests the researchers found that when some ammunition was exposed to temperatures in excess of 125 degrees F very spooky things sometimes would occur. Under those conditions they found that sometimes it would result in the powder kernels beginning to “sweat” or “out-gas.” In other words, the increase in temperature would cause the nitro component in the powder to transform into a gaseous state then attempt to exit the cellulose material. It seemed the higher the temperature the more out-gassing generally occurred. Chemical changes like these can affect the level of chamber pressure generated when the ammunition is fired. But that isn’t where the story ends, nor is it necessarily the scariest part of this scenario.
After those cartridges had been exposed to the high temperatures, then allowed to return to more normal conditions, the powder did not always return to its original state. In this case sometimes the gasified nitro was unable to completely and uniformly reenter the powder kernels and that lack of consistency resulted in variations in the chamber pressure when those cartridges were fired. At times some of those cartridges produced dangerously high pressure levels while others seemed to perform more normally. It’s not exactly clear why these variations sometimes occurred, but possibly some of the cartridges may have been sheltered slightly more than others from the effects of the heat, or maybe it was the result of some other type of anomaly. But, why this happens isn’t as relevant as the unpredictability that may occur when these cartridges are shot. Depending on the type of powder used, and how susceptible it is to the effects of the high temperature, at best a shooter could possibly expect a difference in point of the bullet impact. At worst, the shooter could be subjecting his or her firearm to elevated and dangerously high levels of chamber pressures.
At first you might think your ammo would never be exposed to temperatures in excess of 125 degrees, but temperatures like this are much more common than you might think. Vehicle interiors often heat up above 125 degrees when parked in the sun with the windows rolled up. Think about it – if you keep a box of ammo on the dash of your vehicle for extended periods you may be setting up the perfect environment for this problem to occur.
Recently, some powder manufacturers have taken notice of this problem and came out with new strains of powders that are said to be less susceptible to temperature extremes. One such manufacturer is Hodgdon Powders, which has developed an extensive line of what are termed “Extreme Powders”. If you handload your own cartridges you may be able to immediately take advantage of the benefits associated with these new powders. On the other hand, if you purchase factory-loaded ammunition it may take some time before these powders become commonplace in the over-the-counter ammunition.
LONG-TERM AMMO STORAGE
In recent years there has been a shortage of ammunition available on the open market. I personally believe this shortage is a direct result of shooters purchasing more ammunition than they ever did before. In my opinion, uncertainty in our country’s direction and the fear of losing our personal freedom of legal gun ownership has resulted in many citizens stockpiling ammunition. But no matter what the cause of the shortage is, if you are contemplating long term or even short term storage of ammunition it is in your interest to take certain precautions to help ensure good shooting performance when that firing pin makes contact with the cartridge primer. Essentially, there are two important factors to consider in extended ammunition storage. The first is moderation and consistency in the storage temperatures and second is dryness. There are a number of ways to ensure those conditions are adhered to. Both of these factors are a matter of environment and that can, in some instances, be controlled inside your home. But aside from that, there are some great new products available on the market that can help you in these endeavors.
Federal Ammunition recently anticipated the problems associated with long term storage of ammunition and are now offering both .22 LR and 5.56x45mm cartridges packed in cans called Fresh Fire Packs. The metal containers these cartridges come in remind me of the type of cans Vienna sausage and sardines frequently are packed in, including a pull-top lid. And, similar to how optic manufacturers withdraw the air from inside their products and replace it sometimes with nitrogen, Federal does the same thing with their Fresh Fire Pack cartridges to deter corrosion and lock-out moisture. The Federal Champion .22 LR Fresh Fire Pack contains 325 cartridges loaded with 36-grain copper-plated hollow-point cartridges. And their counterpart 5.56x42mm NATO rounds come 30 rounds to a can and are available in either 62-grain FMJ or 55-grain FMJ.
“AT WORST, THE SHOOTER COULD BE SUBJECTING HIS OR HER FIREARM TO ELEVATED AND DANGEROUSLY HIGH LEVELS OF CHAMBER PRESSURES.”
MTM Case-Gard has for many years devoted a great deal of their production to the storage of ammunition and recently have come out with some great new products that would lend themselves to long term storage. They are known for their cartridge boxes, but they also have an extensive line of ammo boxes more attuned to the storage of large quantities of ammo. Many of those containers come equipped with rubber O-seals on the lids helping to keep moisture at bay. I personally believe their plastic military style ammo boxes are superior to those actually used by the military because they seal better, stack better and because they are made of heavy plastic there is no worry about rust and corrosion. This year MTM expanded that line to include what the company calls the “Ammo Crate Utility Box”. These boxes are great for long or short term storage of ammunition or even other items. They come with rubber lid seals that are tight fitting, lockable, durable and are available in a couple of different large capacity sizes.
BULLET POINT DAMAGE
A more immediate type of cartridge deterioration comes in the form of damage to the point of the bullets. Unprotected lead points over time can become bent or flattened and when that happens it can impact the performance of that ammunition. The result can be a reduction in shooting accuracy and a decrease in the bullet’s ballistic coefficient value, which in turn lessens the bullet’s ability to resist the horizontal drift from the wind. A way to get around this problem is to use bullets that come with plastic tips. Not only does this style of bullet resist point deformation, usually they come with a higher bullet coefficient value which works to improve long range shooting performance.
A considerable amount of point damage can occur to the cartridges held inside box style magazines of rifles with heavy recoil. When these rifles are fired, it can sometimes result in the magazine-held cartridges impacting the front of the magazine enclosure, thereby flattening and damaging the tips of those bullets. In some extreme cases this heavy recoil may even drive the bullets deeper into the cartridge case. When this occurs it is in the best interest of the shooter to not fire those rounds due to the potential of higher chamber pressures occurring.
THE WAY I SEE IT
The overall lesson to be learned here is if you take good care of your ammo and think about the conditions it is being subjected to those cartridges will take care of you. By taking a few simple precautions to store your ammunition in a reasonable manner and protect it from abuse your shot placement will likely be more consistent and in some cases you will be a lot safer. To put it another way, maybe you should treat your ammo much like caring for a small child. If you bounce that kid around on your knee a lot the kid could wind up spitting up on you. And, a cartridge could do the same if you bounce it around a lot. If you expose that same child to extreme temperatures – it is likely he or she will get sick and if you subject your cartridges to those same high temperatures they, too, could get sick, resulting in changes in performance or worse yet, damage to your firearm or even injuries to you. And, I think you can figure out what happens if your kid should incur injuries to the top of his or her head. This certainly wouldn’t be good for either a child, or your ammo.
FIVE AMMO STORAGE SOLUTIONS
1. MTM AMMO CAN, TWO-PACK Molded out of rugged polypropylene with reinforced bottom and thick sidewalls. Heavy-duty latch with double padlock tabs for your own locks. Equipped with a recessed handle and stacking ridges. 15 x 9 x 8.25 inches.
2. PLANO FIELD BOX Made from a durable polymer with a water-resistant O-ring seal, this ammo box has a brass bail latch and carry handle. It is lockable and with indentations and feet is also stackable. 13 x 8 x 10.5 inches.
3. RANGEMAXX SHOTSHELL AMMO CAN A smaller sized field box, the RangeMaxx holds up to four standard boxes of shotgun shells or small electronics and rangefinders. The box’s tongue and groove lid design resists water and features a hinged, lockable design for strength. Easy-grip handle for easy carrying. 14 x 6 x 5.5 inches.
4. SMART RELOADER AMMO BOX SmartReloader ammo boxes are made from highquality plastic to make sure your ammunition is stored properly. Their ammo boxes are not only storing boxes, but they will also work great at the range. SmartReloader ammo is guaranteed for 10 millions openings. The #1a box on the right fits 100 rounds 9×19, 9×21 and .380 Auto, while the #8 box on the left fits 32 rounds of .25 to .7mm (and similar).
MSRP: $7.79 (#8); $9.09 (#1a)
5. MTM AMMO CAN COMBOS MTM offers three ammo can combos: ACC45 (shown) which holds 700 rounds, ACC9 which holds 1000 rounds, and ACC223 which holds 400 rounds. The ACC45 kit includes: 1 each AC50, 7 each P-100- 45s Ammo Boxes in tactical black. P-100-45s hold: 45 ACP, 45 Auto, 10MM, 40 S&W, 357 Sig. The ammo cans come with a water resistant O-ring. The inside dimensions are 5.8 x 11.0 x 7.2 inches, while the outside dimensions are 7.4 x 13.5 x 8.5 inches.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the May 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.