Get The Lead Out

I was at the shooting range with two students just the other day.  We were having a big problem with constant jams when they were trying to fire their handguns chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge.

practice at the range

The problems were always the same, either failure to feed or failure to extract.  What does that mean, anyway?

Failure to feed is that the cartridge would only go into the chamber a short distance before getting hung up, half in and half out.  The gun wouldn’t go into battery, and so couldn’t be fired.

failure to extract failure to feed

(Not the actual gun discussed above.)

Failure to extract is the same thing, but it is when the gun is trying to get a cartridge out of the chamber instead of putting one into the chamber.  It pretty much looks the same, with a cartridge stuck half in/half out.

So what caused this annoying and recurring problem?  My students were both long time shooters themselves, and had brought along their own ammunition.  It turns out that the .22 ammo they were using was so old, the exposed lead bullets had started to oxidize.

Okay, so what do I mean by that?  The dark lead had started to turn white.


The white part swells up a little bit, and gets a hard and rough texture.  No wonder the cartridges didn’t want to go fully into the chamber, and it is no wonder they would get stuck as soon as they were jammed in there.

Hey, wait a minute!  I said that the lead oxidizes!  That is what happens when steel and iron rusts!  Am I really claiming that an inert metal such as lead will rust like iron?

rusty gun

Well, yeah, I suppose.  It will mix with the oxygen in the air to produce a new chemical compound.  Isn’t that what happens when something rusts?

This is something that can be prevented, all one has to do is keep the exposed lead bullets from oxygen when storing the ammunition.  One can coat the bullets with cosmoline or other pasty goo, or seal the ammo up in an airtight container with an oxygen scavenging packet.  It isn’t particularly hard or expensive to do.

The ammunition my students were using, however, had been purchased some time in the 1960’s through the 1970’s.  No effort had been made to package it for long term storage, with the cardboard boxes languishing in garages and the back of closets for the past half century.  The thought was that it was finally time to shoot off those old boxes of twenty-two, so they brought them to the range.  No surprise that the bullets were white and crusty.

badly oxidized lead bullets

(Still not the ammunition being discussed.)

The fact that they were trying to shoot cartridges that couldn’t be chambered illustrates two failures.

The first is that even experienced shooters will come across issues that they haven’t encountered from time to time.  They both knew what they were doing, but only when dealing with new and smooth ammunition.  They had seen that the lead bullets had turned white, but thought nothing of it when loading their guns.

The second failure is that even experienced instructors have to act as if their students are complete newbies all of the time.  I hadn’t checked their ammo because of course no one who knew what they were doing would deliberately load up deteriorated ammo in their guns.  That was just a crazy talk right there!

So what happened with the oxidized ammo?

There are ways to restore oxidized bullets, from using fancy solvents to just scraping the white away and polishing the bullets smooth.  But, c’mon, we are talking about common .22 Long Rifle ammunition!  Instead of going through all that effort new ammo was purchased and shot, while the old white ammo was safely disposed of.

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