Modern ammunition is amazingly safe. Unlike the ammo of yesteryear that used black powder, it’s technically not explosive. It seems like it is, but that’s only because the propellant inside burns faster than politicians avoiding bar tabs.

Modern ammunition is also very stable. Within reason, it'll resist combustion from moderate levels of heat and is unlikely to corrode into a dangerous state under reasonable storage conditions.

With that said, it’s not uncommon to end up with one or more cartridges of what we might consider “bad” or unsafe ammunition. Let’s take a look at some situations that can lead to dangerous ammunition.

What is "Bad" Ammunition?

Using the broad term "bad" for unsafe ammunition, there are several scenarios to consider:

Old

Modern or “smokeless” ammunition (meaning not black powder-based) has an amazingly long shelf life provided it’s stored properly. You can safely shoot ammo made before World War II, and many people still buy cases of surplus rifle and pistol ammo from that era and every decade in between.

Of course, knowing the source is always important. Shooting ammo made from the Lake City Ammunition Plant a few decades ago is almost certainly going to be safe and reliable, again assuming proper care and storage. Using hand loads concocted in a North Vietnamese cave bunker during the Tet Offensive won't be quite as safe.

old ammunition
Old ammunition is not necessarily “bad” but you need to know its origin, storage history, and current conditionphoto from gunnewsdaily.com

So, old ammunition is not necessarily “bad” but you need to know its origin, storage history, and current condition.

Also, check out the packaging to see if there are signs of previous moisture exposure. Stains or marks on wood or cardboard containers are a hint that something went wrong over the years.

You also want to inspect the cartridges themselves. Are there any signs of corrosion on any of them? Especially ones near the bottom of the case or container? I also like to look for cracks and physical damage.

In fact, you should give all ammunition, even the brand new stuff, a good look before you shoot it.

Improperly Stored Ammunition

Sometimes you’ll run across ammo that has been stored in wet or humid environments. If moisture or oil has worked its way into the cartridge cases, it probably has compromised the propellant or primer.

There’s a chance that it won’t ignite at all or only partially. While that might not sound like a big deal, it can be, and we'll get to that later.

Suspect

If you find or obtain ammo of unknown origin, be careful. If it’s in a factory box in your house that you forgot you purchased a few years back, it’s probably fine.

If a range buddy gives you a Ziplock bag of “special super-hot hand loads,” don’t risk shooting it. You don’t know its pressure or what quality control procedures went into its manufacture, which could yield some seriously dangerous results.

If you're not confident in the ammo's origins, you probably shouldn't shoot it.
If you're not confident in the ammo's origins, you probably shouldn't shoot it.photo from libertytreecollectors.com

Likewise, don't go shooting any leftover rounds you find on the range floor or by your shooting bench in the dirt—simply because you have no idea what they are or where they came from. If you’re not confident that the ammo came from a reputable factory and has been stored properly, it’s not worth the risk to shoot it.

Defective

Sometimes new ammunition that has been stored perfectly just doesn’t go bang when you press the trigger. It happens.

It's possible that the primer is defective and won't ignite the propellant. It's possible that the gun has a weak firing pin strike and can't fully compress the primer to set it off.

Whatever the cause, you might sometimes hear a click instead of a bang. This now qualifies as “bad” ammo that you need to dispose of. Hold this thought; we’ll get to safety procedures in a minute.

Here’s an example of a defective primer. The dent is plenty deep for ignition, it just didn’t go off.
Here’s an example of a defective primer. The dent is plenty deep for ignition, it just didn’t go off.author photo

Damaged

Cartridges can become physically damaged in a variety of ways. They can be crushed in storage or shipping, damaged when feeding into magazines or the chamber, or maybe they just came out of the box with a dent or imperfection.

If you observe a dent or crack in a cartridge, don't shoot it! Again, it's not worth the risk.

Another thing to look out for is bullets that have been compressed back into the case. Called "bullet setback" by gurus, this can happen when you repeatedly chamber the same cartridge, or by an inadvertent impact. When this happens, it reduces the overall volume inside the cartridge.

Cartridge ignition creates a high volume of expanding gas. If the bullet is set back too far into the case, there's less available space for that gas to expand, so the pressure increases—sometimes to dangerous levels. It's possible that increased pressure resulting from bullet setback can blow up a gun.

If a bullet appears to be pushed into the case, that spells danger with a capital D.

Bullet setback
Both of these cartridges have bullets that have been pushed back into the case. Bullet setback like this can lead to dangerously high pressure levels. Don’t shoot it!author photo

If you spot a cartridge that looks like any of the cartridges in the photos above or below, don’t shoot it!

Setback can also occur during a failure to feed malfunction in a semi-auto rifle or handgun if the cartridge is compressed between the chamber by the slide or bolt. If you experience an FTF malfunction, its best to examine the round that does the failing, or simply don't shoot it as a matter of course. Again, it's not worth the risk.

This cartridge shows a small amount of bullet setback. Still don't shoot it.
This cartridge shows a small amount of bullet setback. Still don't shoot it.author photo

Why is "Bad" Ammunition Dangerous?

There are a number of things that can happen when you try to use “bad” ammunition, and none of them are good.

Think about this: pistol ammo generates pressures in the 15,000 to 30,000 pounds per square inch range.

Rifle pressures easily get into the 55,000 pounds per square inch neighborhood.

To put those numbers in perspective, your car tires contain about 32 pounds per square inch of air pressure. Now, remember that you are holding this conflagration in your hands, not far from your face. Do you really want to risk unleashing that kind of power unless you know it’s safely contained?

Case rupture

If a cartridge case is old, weak, or corroded, it may have lost some of its original structural integrity. That's a fancy way of saying the casing isn't as strong as it used to be. When ignited, the brass case may break or rupture and unleash burning hot gasses into the action of the gun and towards your body.

That's not good.

Several of these cartridges show light primer strikes as you can see by the shallow dimples. They would likely fire with a different gun.
Several of these cartridges show light primer strikes as you can see by the shallow dimples. They would likely fire with a different gun.author photo

Misfire

If you hear a click instead of a bang, that's called a misfire. The most likely scenario is that it's a dud round or there is a problem with the gun.

In this situation, keep the gun pointed at the target for a good 30 seconds in case you’ve just experienced the next item on our list, a hang fire.

After giving it 30-40 seconds after a misfire, safely clear the firearm and examine your ammunition.

This batch of .410 shotgun shells was loaded with what turned out to be compromised primers. They’re ready for safe disposal.
This batch of .410 shotgun shells was loaded with what turned out to be compromised primers. They’re ready for safe disposal.author photo

Hang Fire

On rare occasions, it's possible that the "click without a bang" causes some low-level smoldering inside of the cartridge. Rather than immediate ignition, it may take some seconds for the powder charge to ignite. That's why you always keep the gun pointed at the target after hearing a misfire.

You want to give it a chance to fire in a safe direction in the event it's a hang fire situation.

As the video below shows, a hang fire can also be a very brief pause between pulling the trigger and the cartridge ignition. If you experience this, especially more than once, it's time to take a close look at your ammo and probably stop shooting it.

Squib

When a cartridge ignites with insufficient power, it's possible that the bullet will be pushed out of the casing and the chamber, but it won't make it all the way out of the muzzle.

If the bullet gets stuck in the barrel, the very last thing you want to do is fire another shot. Remember all that pressure we talked about earlier? If there's another bullet stuck in the barrel, that pressure has nowhere to go. That means you're about to experience an explosion. Your gun will almost certainly blow up with a serious risk of injury or death.

If you ever fire a shot and it sounds weak or just "off," or feels weak in terms of recoil, STOP SHOOTING. Carefully unload your gun, examine the casing if it's still in the chamber, and check to make sure the barrel is not obstructed.

If a bullet is indeed stuck in the barrel, use a brass cleaning rod to push it out of the muzzle from the chamber and examine your firearm to make sure there hasn't been any damage.

While these bullets are severely damaged, others might just have bends, dents, or scores Don’t shoot any of them.
While these bullets are severely damaged, others might just have bends, dents, or scores Don’t shoot any of them.author photo

What Do You Do With Bad Ammo?

OK, so we’ve determined that ammo that is bad, damaged, or of unknown origin is not wise to shoot. When you run across it, what do you do with it?

First, do not throw it in the trash. Not only are the guys operating that giant compactor on the truck going to be really upset if rounds start going off, but we also don't want old ammo making its way into landfills either.

There are a couple of safe ways to get rid of old or suspect ammunition:

Shooting Ranges and clubs almost always have "amnesty boxes" for just this purpose. Ask the range officer if there is one at your local facility. They don't want bad ammunition in circulation either, and they especially don't want people trying to fire it in their range, so they're usually happy to collect it.

Ranges are a great solution for ammo that you discover as defective when you’re there. If you have a stockpile at home that needs to go, they may not be as keen on taking it, but it's worth asking.

Somehow these rounds made if through the manufacturing process with no primers. Don’t assume that all the powder has leaked out of them.
Somehow these rounds made if through the manufacturing process with no primers. Don’t assume that all the powder has leaked out of them.author photo

Local police departments often have a disposal service for ammunition. As a quick test, I contacted my local town police department by phone. The operator knew exactly what I was talking about and referred me to the county sheriff.

One more quick email to them and I had the solution for my area. Where I live, you can just drop off bad, suspect, old, or damaged ammunition at the main office of the county sheriff. If that sounds like too much work, you can also give your ammunition to any patrolling country sheriff officer. Yes, really.

They’ll take it back to the bomb squad who will eventually blow it up under safe conditions. It’s kind of a win-win. The ammo is disposed of safely, and the bomb squad team gets free supplies for training exercises.

The process will vary from every city or county. The important point is that one, or maybe two, quick phone calls will likely solve the problem for you.

Whatever you do, follow proper procedure for ammunition disposal. While bullets won't launch in the same manner if they're not chambered in a gun, they can still burn, fragment, and cause damage to people and things.