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June 06, 2011
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Richard Fairburn Law Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

Police ammunition: Considerations for storage and use

If you routinely load and unload a weapon, be sure to carefully examine the top rounds which get fed repeatedly from a magazine

Every bit as important as having a reliable firearm in a gunfight, we need reliable ammunition to feed it. Yet, ammunition is sometimes taken for granted. I hope no one is as bad as one old cop I knew from my earliest days. He never carried a gun while on patrol as a Park Police officer — didn’t feel he needed one, I suppose. We shamed him into joining the city PD for a range session one day and when he grabbed his revolver and belt/holster from the trunk of his car the S&W had a light patina of rust and the lead, round-nosed .38 ammo was green with corrosion and nearly “welded” into the cylinder. We cleaned things up enough to get him shooting that day but I have never forgotten the sorry state of maintenance he found acceptable.

Properly cared for, modern ammunition can be viable for decades. I have a WWII vintage M1 Garand battle rifle I obtained in my NRA rifle competition days, and a GI can full of LC57 headstamp M2 Ball rounds in clips and bandoliers, ready to go to war with the rifle. That makes the ammo 54 years old, nearly as old as me, but it is as bright, shiny and powerful as the day it was manufactured, because of proper storage. I am NOT as bright, shiny or powerful as when I was manufactured, no doubt due to improper storage (and too many Krispy Kreme donuts). But, if those damn Commie paratroopers ever drop in (see also: Red Dawn), I’ll stuff an eight-round clip in the M1, sling a few bandoliers over my shoulders and give ‘em hell! Oops, wait a minute... I forgot to grab the bayonet, just in case I run out!

Two Fundamental Issues
That little fantasy points up several important aspects of duty ammunition. First, proper ammunition storage is important, but we still shouldn’t depend on rounds that are several years old when lives are on the line. Secondly, how much ammo is enough — how much is too much? Chief Jeff Chudwin addressed the “how much is too much” issue in his Mumbai preparation talk at the recent ILEETA conference. Jeff and I agree that there really is no such thing as too much ammo, unless you find yourself in water too deep too stand or you find yourself in a fire (more later on ammo and fires).

For your sidearm, the standard load of three full magazines (plus one more in the chamber) seems to make sense. If you’re armed while off duty (and you should be), you should always have at least one reload on your person. For patrol rifles, I feel 200 rounds pre-loaded in magazines in a vest or grab & go bag is not unreasonable. If you find yourself up against multiple active shooters in a school or teams of active terrorist shooters loose in your community you may wish you had more than 200 rounds.

Just the other day I got an email from someone worried about long-term storage of loaded magazines, he was afraid the magazine springs would weaken and “take a set.” Anything is possible, of course, but quality magazines have been kept loaded for many years with no degradation in performance. I would caution you not to store all-polymer M16/M4 magazines loaded for extended periods of time, because the constant spring pressure can spread the feed lips and cause double feed malfunctions. Polymer magazines that have metal feed lip reinforcement will hold up. The new MagPul magazines come with a dust cover that depresses the top round to take the pressure off the feed lips when you snap the cover in place. Factory Glock magazines have metal liners and suffer no ill effects from being loaded all the time.

Does your agency have a ready supply of ammunition that can be moved quickly from the station to an incident site? With a little practice, you can fill a 30 round M16 magazine in less than 30 seconds using stripper clipped ammo and a clip guide, but only with Mil-Spec magazines. Some state-bid ammo contracts allow you to order your 5.56mm ammo in stripper clips for a very minimal increase in price. Pistol ammunition cannot be fed into magazines from stripper clips, but if you’re in that much of a firefight, I sincerely hope you’re not down to fighting strictly with pistols.

Ammunition’s Two Greatest Enemies
Moisture and heat are the two greatest enemies your ammunition can havea. Your storage area should remain cool and dry. What is a reasonable life expectancy for duty loads? I recommend you fire your duty ammunition during a training session each year, drawing fresh duty loads annually. If you work in a very hot, humid climate changing out twice each year is cheap insurance. If you carry spare ammunition in the trunk of a car (or even in the rear of an SUV), try to protect it with some sort of insulation between the ammo and the sun-generated heat. I’ve had good luck carrying ammo in a small, insulated lunch-box type cooler, covered with a folded up wool rescue blanket.

If you routinely load and unload a weapon, say when putting away your sidearm at home after a shift, be sure to carefully examine the top rounds which get fed repeatedly from a magazine. After a few trips up the feed ramp, even quality ammunition can get a deformed hollow-point cavity or, much worse, a deep-seated bullet. If a bullet gets shoved back into the cartridge that round can generate greatly excessive pressure when fired. In rare cases the excessive pressure can be enough to cause a catastrophic barrel failure (blow the sucker up). If the round is noticeably shorter than others, discard it.

Finally, what about the combination of ammunition and fire? I happen to have a little first-hand knowledge of such things from my service as a professional firefighter in a previous life. Ammunition will, indeed, “cook off” when exposed to sufficient heat. The primer that is shock sensitive to the impact of your weapon’s firing pin is also sensitive to heat. Hearing rounds cooking off in a fire is fairly exciting — especially when they are very close you.

However, the “exploding” rounds pose surprisingly little danger. Cartridges only reach full power when they detonate in the chamber of a firearm. When a loose cartridge fires due to heat, the burning powder quickly builds sufficient pressure to split open the cartridge case (or shotgun hull), venting the pressure. If the projectile(s) are “launched” at all, they travel at a very low velocity and pose no significant danger, one possible exception being a “big” round like the .50 BMG. Above is a picture of a .50 BMG round that went off close to me one time in a house fire. Rather than the normal, muted “pop” this big boy went off with a dull “boom” that really got our attention.

We never found the front of the casing or the 750 grain projectile, but it might have left a permanent mark had we been hit. I’m not saying you can’t be injured by a round that cooks off in a fire, sharp fragments of brass can certainly fly around at high speed. But, extensive testing by U.S. Army Ordnance found that “uncontained” detonating ammunition poses a very low risk for injury.

Ammo is Cheap, Life is Precious
So, treat your ammo well and it will serve you well. Carry more than you think you’ll need, and use all you need — anything worth shooting is worth shooting more than once.

I’ll leave you with the farewell shared by warriors since the invention of the “firestick.”

Keep your powder dry!

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

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