Is it possible for ammunition to degrade over time, and if so, is it dangerous?
A Facebook follower recently asked us the above question, and interestingly, there’s not much straightforward information out there about that. (Part of the reason why is no doubt that no reputable ammunition manufacturer wants to promise that their product could never, ever go bad, because of course the first time they did that they would be sued by some walnut who’s been storing his in a seawater fish tank for the last five decades.) So, we turned to a retired U.S. Army colonel whose MOS used to include munitions inspection for some definitive answers. Here’s what he had to say.
“No, not really. But there are definitely some things your readers should know. To start with, the military uses the same ammunition suppliers that civilians do, and although we did codify the specifications for the ammo, ours wasn’t any better than what civilians can buy.
“For the most part, modern smokeless powder is quite stable, so it doesn’t ‘get old’ in the same sense that TNT can. Smokeless powder can lose its effectiveness over temperature extremes and high humidity, but modern ammunition is overwhelmingly so well-sealed that weather conditions aren’t going to get to that powder. The brass can become tarnished in high humidity, but that’s not a worry.
“So the short answer is ‘no’…with a ‘but.’ Want to hear about that ‘but’?” (Yes, yes we do.)
“It was the Reagan era, and I was in Honduras in an advisory capacity. It’s important to start this story by telling you that this is in no way meant as derogatory towards the Hondurans or their military. What you have to understand is that Honduras at the time was basically what would have happened if the Great Depression of the 1930s never ended. The poverty was overwhelming, but it was a proud sort of poverty; people would emerge from tarpaper shacks with dirt floors and no running water wearing clean, pressed clothing to go to work and school. And in any poverty-stricken society, wasting things is a cardinal sin.
“My warrant officer and I were inspecting a Honduran army munitions bunker. It was built into the side of a hill, so it was actually quite cool inside. I was struck by how much sheer stuff they had there…decades’ worth of military assistance from a wide array of countries, accreted in layers like an archaeology expedition. And then I heard it, my warrant officer’s voice.
“My warrant officer, like most of his breed, was a stolid and no-nonsense man. So when I heard him say, ‘Colonel. Colonel. Colonel, come here right now,” that thread of panic had me double-timing over there. He was standing over a 55-gallon drum, looking down. Even from my angle, I could see that his eyes were wide as pie plates and beads of sweat were forming at his hairline, despite the coolness of the room. He was breathing in only the top 10 percent of his lungs, pant-pant-pant, like that.
“So I looked down into the drum.
“I think there was some cased ammo at the bottom. Sitting on top of it were several Tupperware-like containers full of old DuPont gelignite. There were also a number of sticks of dynamite. Old dynamite. Sweaty dynamite. And sitting on top of all that, like the lethal cherry on top of an exploding sundae, was a grenade. The grenade’s pin was out. Securing the firing mechanism was a rubber band. An old, disintegrating rubber band.”
“We tiptoed out, and a few hours later, everything was undergoing a controlled destruction by our EOD guys. All the ammo did, of course, was go ‘pop’ when the fire hit it. It was the nitroglycerine, gelignite and anti-personnel grenades that were the problem.”
This isn’t to say that there are no possible problems that can be caused by ammunition. For starters, it’s important to never use modern smokeless powder in firearms made with Damascus barrels. It’s also possible that manufacturing mistakes can cause squib loads, hangfires, or just plain duds. (Here’s an article about how to inspect your ammo for such possible blems.) But if you stocked up on ammo about 10 years ago and now you’re worried about whether you might have to toss it…don’t be.
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