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ammunition safety

A Brief Guide To Burning Questions About Ammunition Safety

Part of gun safety, of course, is ammunition safety, meaning the safe use and storage of ammunition. After all, the gun itself is just a mechanical object and at that a simple one; barely any more complicated than the average toaster.

The part that's dangerous is the stuff that explodes!

And that, of course, is the ammunition, which is why ammunition safety is a critical component of gun safety.

Most people know the basics. Use the right ammunition for the gun, point in a safe direction and all that. Let's dive a little deeper, and answer some of the common questions that many people have about ammunition safety.

Should I Keep Ammo In My Safe?

Should I keep ammo in my safe?

You should absolutely keep ammunition in a safe or at minimum some sort of locking container. The first priority is to keep unwanted access from occurring; no one should be able to get to your ammunition besides you or someone that you feel can be trusted with it.

It's also necessary to store ammunition to keep it in good condition.

Ammunition should also be stored in a dry environment. Cold and heat don't matter so much, but the absence of moisture is the critical element of storing ammunition. The shelf life of ammunition is theoretical if stored in an airtight container.

Manufacturers generally put down an expiration of ten years. If not stored in a vacuum, the powder inside will interact with a bit of oxygen (life and oxygen molecules find a way) which may alter or compromise performance.

However, the other looming question is that of fire.

How Dangerous Is Ammunition In A Fire?

Ammunition will cook off (meaning the case gets so hot it ignites the powder inside) if subjected to enough heat. The ignition point of nitrocellulose, the base compound of most propellants, is around 340 degrees Fahrenheit, not even hot enough to burn paper.

The typical house fire has a temperature between 1000 degrees to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook off will eventuall occur if ammunition is exposed to that temperature level for long enough.

Therefore, a best practice is to store ammunition in a fire-proof container if at all possible.

To safely store ammunition, you need a safe that is fire-protection rated. Typically, what you're looking for is a rating of fire-proofing at X degrees for Y minutes.

So when you select a safe, get the most of both that you can afford. Bear in mind that getting the utmost of protection will cost you.

For instance, the Rhino Kodiak safe is rated for 30 minutes of protection at 1400 degrees. It holds 30 long guns and costs around $1,100.

By contrast, the Liberty Safes Magnum offers 2.5 hours of protection at 1200 degrees, but retails for $4,600.

Again, you want to get the highest protection rating you can afford.

Can Ammo Fire If Dropped?

But what about drop safety? Can ammo fire if dropped?

Centerfire ammo cannot fire if dropped, as the primer has to be struck in order to ignite the propellant charge. Centerfire handgun, rifle or shotgun cartridges are, therefore, drop-safe.

Theoretically, rimfire ammo could be ignited if dropped since the primer powder is more volatile but not realistically. In other words, it is technically possible but it isn't ever going to happen in reality.

Here's why.

Rimfire ammunition is fired by delivering force in a focused area with the firing pin. Generating the same amount of force to the entire rim would require the cartridge to be dropped far enough for the cartridge itself to accelerate to the same amount of energy.

We're talking about one .22 LR cartridge, which weighs 0.007 lbs or slightly more than 0.01 oz. Even if only a few ft-lbs of energy is required, even terminal velocity (9.8 m/s squared, the fastest speed attainable in free-fall) is not enough to do that.

Additionally, the cartridge would have to land flat on the base, which it isn't going to do since the cartridge will, if anything, turn to fall bullet-first due to air drag on the rim.

So, theoretically it's possible for rimfire ammunition to fire if dropped...but not in reality!

Dropping a loaded gun however...is another matter. A drop can cause the hammer to fall or the firing pin to slam the striker into the primer and detonate it. While manufacturers take pains to make guns drop safe, the only way to make a gun completely drop safe is to unload it.

Therefore, take care to never drop a gun. Carry in a proper holster with a proper gun belt, and be careful when handling a loaded gun.

Is Live Ammo Dangerous

No, live ammo isn't dangerous unless it's used improperly. Live ammunition is inert; the primer in the center of the case (or the rim if a rimfire round) has to be struck to detonate the propellant charge.

At the risk of seeming pedantic, if you handle, store and use ammunition safely, risks are minimal. If there's a truth about guns, it's that guns are only dangerous in the hands of dangerous people.

Some people are dangerous because they're violent. Some people are dangerous because they're reckless or stupid. None of the above should have access to firearms.

Should I Carry One In The Chamber?

There is only one instance in which a person shouldn't carry with one in the chamber, which is if carrying a single-action revolver which doesn't have a transfer bar.

A transfer bar is a tilting piece of metal, which lifts up when the trigger is at rest, but drops out of the way when the trigger is pulled, allowing the firing pin and/or the hammer of a revolver to strike the primer of a cartridge.

A transfer bar is installed on almost all modern revolvers, single- or double-action, except for Colt Single Action Army revolvers (meaning the ones actually made by Colt, even today) and many of their reproductions and clones, as well as that of other black powder-era revolver repros.

This is why the practice in the old days was to carry with five cartridges in the gun, and the hammer down over an empty chamber, with the exception of the Remington New Model Army, which had a carry notch in the cylinder allowing for safe carry with all six cylinders loaded.

However, with modern guns...the truth is that a safety risk is only posed when you aren't carrying a gun safely to begin with. Carried in a decent holster, which is not hard to find, and supported by a decent gun belt, which is not hard to find, the risks are incredibly low.

Most people wonder about carrying a gun with a loaded chamber due to a lack of confidence and/or experience.

Can A .357 Shoot .38 Bullets

Yes, a .357 Magnum revolver can shoot .38 Special ammunition. The bore is the same; both calibers use a .357-in diameter projectile, and .38 Special is loaded to far lower pressure than .357 Magnum. Therefore, it's safe in a .357 Magnum revolver.

The reverse, however, is NOT safe at all. You should never attempt to fire a .357 Magnum cartridge through a revolver chambered for .38 Special. Thankfully, the .357 Magnum case is too long to seat in the cylinder, but it should be mentioned.

But can a .38 shoot 9mm?

No, unless you have a revolver that's specifically made to shoot .38 Special AND 9mm.

9x19mm has a rimless case, meaning there isn't a rim to seat on the front face of the cylinder. Therefore, the spent case will not eject after firing unless the revolver is made for use with moon clips.

The projectile is almost the same size; 9x19mm has a .355-in diameter projectile and therefore is safe in that regard...but that's not what could make 9mm unsafe to fire in a .38 Special revolver.

9x19mm is loaded to around 35,000 psi of chamber pressure, the same as .357 Magnum. By comparison, .38 Special is loaded to just shy of 18,000 psi, meaning 9mm is basically double the chamber pressure.

Therefore, while a .38 Special revolver CAN technically fire 9mm ammunition, it's completely unsafe to do so unless your gun is made specifically to do that.

Mixing And Matching Calibers: Some Things To Be Aware Of

There are certain instances of various calibers that may also allow for a different caliber to be chambered due to the vagaries of firearm and cartridge design.

For instance, a .40 S&W will chamber in a 10mm firearm because semi-auto pistols headspace on the mouth of the cartridge case (which are the same dimensions) and the projectile is the same.

However, the longer chamber length will prevent the firing pin from fully striking the primer, so .40 S&W should not be fired in 10mm pistols.

Be very cautious of rifles in calibers that use the same parent case.

This includes examples such as .30-06 and derivatives such as .25-06, .280 Remington and .338-06, .308 Winchester and derivatives such as 7mm-08 and .260 Remington and .223 Remington/5.56mm NATO and the .300 Blackout, which uses 5.56mm as a parent case.

The danger, of course, is chambering the wrong caliber, closing the action and pulling the trigger. When that happens, the cartridge doesn't create a gas seal, allowing expanding gas into the chamber and possibly rupturing the rifle instead of propelling it out of the barrel.

Failures of this sort are catastrophic, fatally damaging the rifle and posing a serious risk to anyone in the immediate vicinity including the shooter.

Therefore, if you happen to own a rifle chambered in 5.56mm AND one in .300 Blackout, take special care to separate ammunition.

Shotguns typically have multiple chamber lengths for each bore diameter. 12-gauge, for instance, is offered in 2-¾", 3-inch and 3-½" chambers, though 2-¾" chambers themselves are rare though shells for them are not.

Take care to only chamber shells for the correct chamber length, though the good news is that a longer shell - say a 3-½" shell - won't allow the bolt to close in a shorter chamber in most instances. However, it must be said not to mix shells of different chamber lengths.

There are some revolver chamberings that allow use of multiple calibers in the same pistol safely, though some may require special modifications such as machining the cylinder face to use moon clips.

For instance, a .357 Magnum revolver - as mentioned - can fire both .38 Special and 9x19mm (and .38 Super) if the cylinder is modified for use with moon clips, as the bore diameter allows for safe use of those projectiles.

.44 Magnum revolvers will also safely fire .44 Special, as the projectile is the same size. The projectile diameter is also the same for .45 Colt, .45 ACP and .454 Casull, meaning a.454 Casull revolver can technically fire all three and a .45 Colt revolver can also shoot .45 ACP.

Contrary to urban myth, a 10mm Auto cartridge will not headspace in a .41 Magnum revolver, so don't attempt it.

Some .22 WMR (aka .22 Magnum) firearms can also fire .22 LR as well, and then you have the Taurus Judge and S&W Governor pistols, which chamber .45 Colt and short .410 gauge shot shells.

Point being, there are some instances in which a firearm can safely shoot multiple calibers, but this should only be done with those specific firearms and in the manner in which it's safe to do so.

Use Ammunition Safely And Store It Safely, And You Won't Have Problems

Ultimately, if you use ammunition safely and store it safely, you almost certainly won't have any problems. Ammunition safety is fairly straightforward.

Correct use of ammunition is pretty simple. Only use the ammunition that your gun is made to use, and you won't likely have a problem.

Storing ammunition is pretty simple. If it's locked up, that's a great start. In a fireproof safe, that's even better.

Ultimately, safe ownership and operation of firearms is not terrifically complicated. All it takes is a little knowledge, respect for guns, ammunition and their destructive potential, and care in their use.