How to Tell if Ammo is Bad
Bad ammo can cause all kinds of problems with your firearms and can even be outright dangerous to use. Today, we’re going to talk about the dangers of bad ammo and how to avoid these issues when and wherever we can.
Nobody wants to hear a click when they’re expecting a bang, and nobody wants ammo that is going to be unreliable when you need it most. Let’s talk about all thing’s bad ammo, and some things to look out for to avoid running into any issues with it.
What Do We Mean By “Bad Ammunition?”
Bad ammunition in this case means any ammunition that isn’t going to function reliably and as expected. This can be faulty hand-loads, corrosive ammo, improperly stored ammo, or just older rounds that are at or past the end of their shelf life. There are a lot of different scenarios that can leave you with ammunition that won’t function properly.
Now let’s look at what can cause ammo to go bad, how to avoid having your rounds ruined by time or moisture, and how to spot bad ammo before it ends up in the chamber of one of your prized firearms (and thus near your face, neck, eyes, and fingers).
Different Types of Bad Ammunition
If stored properly, ammo can easily last for decades. There are cases of people in modern times firing civil-war era munitions without any issues whatsoever. That said, the older the ammunition is, the more time it will have had to corrode and degrade.
Be especially careful with old ammunition and examine it closely before using it. You may also want to avoid using it in a carry gun or other defensive firearm as it is likely to be less reliable and lacking in the power department. Don’t cheap out on your self-defense.
Defensive modern ammo is generally going to be much more powerful, and more reliable as well. For hunting or shooting at the range though, old ammo that has been well cared for is generally 100% fine. Old bullets are also more likely to expose you to excess lead as well.Lead ammunition is of course still very common, but most of us aren’t handling a lot of it on a daily basis. Always wash your hands with a lead remover soap after extended shooting sessions, especially when shooting any kind of lead-based ammo.
Suspect ammo is what we’re going to call hand-loads or reloads that you don’t necessarily know the origin of, or that are offered to you by someone with unknown reloading skills. Every time you shoot someone else’s hand-loaded ammo, you’re putting your gun and possibly your health and safety in their hands. All it takes is one careless double-charge and your hands, gun, and very often vision could be in grave danger.
Sometimes, seemingly new ammunition is simply defective. This is more common with rimfire ammo and is usually the sign of a bad primer. This ammo isn’t dangerous unless you’re really counting on it in a moment of need. It’s also not a problem that’s exclusive to cheap ammo brands and can theoretically happen to anyone. Therefore, the first step of any malfunction check, after pointing the weapon in a safe direction, is to remove the round in the chamber and chamber a new one.
Ammo that has been improperly stored, especially if moisture can get to it, will end up corroded. This can allow moisture into the powder charge and completely kill the round, but more often it will just leave you with a round that will hang in the magazine or on the way into the chamber.
If it does chamber, it could easily fail to extract, leaving you with a very difficult-to-clear malfunction that will often see you either prying the round out with a screwdriver or carefully running a cleaning rod down from the bore. This is especially common with steel-cased ammunition, even if it is not a corrosive ammunition type (boxer-primed). Russian ammo surplus and even some new ammo with steel casings will often come with a lacquer coating to prevent this rusting, like Brown Bear ammo.
Brass ammo can corrode as well, but it generally takes longer as brass will often develop a patina before it becomes too terribly corroded. Cheaper ammo with a steel case often uses a corrosive salt (potassium chlorate) as an oxidizer in the primer, but that’s not an issue for the outside of the case. Old surplus M855 cartridges are especially bad about this, particularly if they’re stored in ammo cans with bad seals. If you’re storing ammo yourself, learn about proper storage conditions, learn how to deal with moisture, and get yourself some proper ammo containers that seal correctly.
Ammo should always be stored in a cool dry place away from moisture and extreme heat.
A round that has been double fed, stovepiped, or otherwise caught in between any hard surfaces inside your firearm can easily have the case damaged. The same goes for a round that has been extracted too many times, as some extractors are rough on case rims.Deep scratches, bulges, and any other obvious imperfections in the case should be immediate cause to get rid of a round, and the same goes for any pre-existing firing pin strikes on the primer.
What Can Happen if Your Ammo is Bad
It may seem alarmist, but you can actually lose your life to bad ammo. Famous firearms YouTuber Kentucky Ballistics nearly lost his life to an ammunition malfunction (warning, not for the squeamish). Granted, that was an explosive .50 caliber round, but the point stands.It is not worth risking your life, hands, or vision to use old ammo. If the world has ended and you are scrounging in the apocalypse and fighting off the zombies, feel free to disregard that advice, but otherwise just safely dispose of that ammo and move on.
Now that we’ve talked about the worst-case scenario, let’s talk about the most likely scenario, which is that the round will jam on feeding or extraction. Rusty and corroded ammo isn’t smooth like well-polished new ammo, which causes immense friction on the loading surfaces and chamber of your gun. As any experienced gun owner knows, friction is bad for firearms, that’s why we oil, lube, and polish all the metal-on-metal surfaces we can. Lastly, sometimes if you have a defective primer or other bad round, you’ll just hear a click when you expect a bang. The best-case scenario here is you just tap-rack-bang and continue shooting at the range.
In a more dire scenario, you could find yourself in a life-or-death situation where you really, really don’t want your ammo to fail you. This is especially a problem for inexperienced shooters that may not have practiced their malfunction drills sufficiently to quickly clear a dud round in an emergency.
How to Tell if Ammo is Bad
The first and least likely thing to look for is going to be any kind of obvious damage to the outside of the round. Is the bullet seated properly and straight? Is there a mark on the primer where a firing pin may have struck before and failed to set the round off? The other main thing to look for when you’re examining ammo is going to be any sort of discoloration or corrosion on the outside. If there’s any green-ish gray patina on the outside, then the round is probably past its sell-by date and needs to go.
Steel ammo will rust, so if you see any red or brown residue on these types of rounds, it’s best to dispose of them. For one, they’ll probably stick in the chamber if they feed at all, and for another, they could potentially fail in the chamber and bulge or expand in unpredictable ways.The other thing you can do is get out the calipers and check the overall length of the round as well as the seating depth of the projectile and the length of the projectile. This can tell you if the round has been double-fed (if it’s too short) or potentially over-charged (too long).
Finally, we recommend just trusting your gut and if something seems off, don’t fire the ammo. Ammo is getting more and more expensive, but it’s definitely not so costly that you need to take the risk of a defective round misfiring or failing you when you may need it most. Any signs of damage, or if you aren’t completely sure of the round’s provenance should result in you safely and immediately disposing of the ammo. Don’t leave it lying around where it can get mixed in with your good ammo. Get rid of it immediately. You’ll be happy that you did.