It Isn’t Going To Explode

One of my students was very interested in acquiring a supply of ammunition so she could regularly practice.  As regular practice leads to precise shot placement, and putting the bullet where it will do the most good is the only sure way to end a violent criminal attack, I thought she was pretty smart to ask.


So I ran down some of the common methods.  Saving a large amount of cash in order to buy in bulk, endlessly checking the Internet for deals, spending a great deal of time reloading, and buying military surplus when it is available.

No, not military surplus!  I should be ashamed that I even suggested such a thing!  After all, she didn’t want to die!

So she thought old military ammunition would kill her?  Suddenly, my perception of her changed.

crazy dog

This just didn’t make any sense to me.  What exactly did she think surplus military ammunition would do, anyway?

Why, she replied, is was incredibly volatile stuff!  Leave it lying about and it would suddenly explode, destroying her neighborhood and killing everyone for blocks around!

nuke image

Okay, hold on a minute.  Where did she get this stuff?

It seems that she had come across a news report a few years ago about a nasty explosion at a military arms depot.  See?  Military arms depot explosion, the depot stored ammunition, so if she bought some military ammunition then …..

Alright, alright, enough already.  I get the idea.  Last time I suffered through a logic train that twisted was when I rented an old Monty Python film.

Sure, a badly maintained ammo dump in a piss poor third world country blew up.  So what?  The explosions were caused by artillery shells and bombs, not small arms ammunition in quantities that she would be able to afford.

There isn’t anything bad about rifle and handgun cartridges that have been properly stored and cared for, no matter how old they may be.  I have personally used surplus ammo that was manufactured over 70 years ago, all without any problems.  But that is a bit of an outlier, as most surplus ammo I have purchased was less than satisfying.

You see, it all comes back to proper storage.  The longer ammunition sits around, the greater the chance that humidity and moisture will ruin it.  Water, it seems, it the great destroyer of cartridges.

raindrops in puddle

The wet doesn’t make it blow up all by itself, however.  Usually it just renders it inert, so your gun goes CLICK instead of going BANG!

So the most likely result from faulty ammo is that nothing at all happens, which is a great opportunity to practice clearing and reload drills.  But there is a way for old ammo to actually damage your expensive firearm.  It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

What I’m talking about is known as a squib load, or a round that produces less than normal pressure.  This usually comes about because water has degraded the propellent, but the primer still works.  The teensy tiny little explosion caused by the primer is supposed to set off the propellent and result in a much larger explosion, but even if the propellent is bad it is usually enough to push the bullet about halfway down the barrel.

So what happens if the next round works just fine, and the fast moving bullet which is screaming along at supersonic velocity meets one of his brothers all snug and still?  Nothing really happy, I assure you.

obstructed barrel results

Keep in mind that the vast majority of handgun calibers do not have the energy needed to blow the gun barrel apart, resulting in a barely noticeable bulge  instead of twisted metal shards flying about.


(Picture source.)

Barely noticeable, perhaps, but it still means you need a new barrel before you can use your gun again.  Kind of an expensive way to try and save money.

This isn’t to say that surplus ammo is going to screw up your expensive self defense tool.  People use it all the time, without negative results.  They simply pay close attention to the sound their gun makes with each shot.  If it goes cough instead of BANG!, then they unload the gun, maybe even field strip it, and check the barrel to see if a bullet is lodged inside.

Hmm.  On further consideration, that probably would take more brain power than my student has shown up to this point.

So what did I say?  I just told her to stay away from surplus military rounds if it would make her feel better.  Factory fresh is probably the best solution for her.



4 thoughts on “It Isn’t Going To Explode

  1. For someone who doesn’t know, being wary of military surplus makes complete sense.

    The military is going to be around a long, long time. Why would they be surplusing perfectly good ammunition? If you hear ‘surplus’ and think ‘used or defective’, then it makes sense.

  2. dustydog,

    In the realm of ammo, no: nobody hears ‘surplus’ and thinks ‘used’.

    And why does surplus ammo exist? Armies are preparing for war, and part of this involves stockpiling large quantities of ammo and other materiel. While modern ammo has a marvelously long shelf life, for purposes of reliability and simple management of that huge inventory, lots of ammo do get ‘expiration dates’ after which they’re sold off as surplus. If you’re a civilian target-shooter or hunter, it no big deal if one out of 1,000 rounds is a dud — from one perspective, it’s actually a feature: random unscheduled malfunction-clearing drill.

    But when you’re in battle you want the gun to go bang Every Single Time.

  3. Would’ve thought you’d get a lot of frame stress from a failing pistol. Nowhere for the gas to go but back.

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