Is it Safe to Hunt with Old Ammo?

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With ammunition shortages around the country, many hunters are looking at the old box of cartridges in the gun cabinet, and wondering if they're OK to shoot

The ammunition shortage of 2020 and early 2021 has had a massive impact on shooting and hunting. As early as last June, shelves were becoming bare of popular cartridges like the .223 and 9mm.

By October, when most gun hunters started prepping for deer season, it was difficult if not impossible to find a box of .270, .308, or any other hunting caliber in many parts of the country.

Two main factors led to the shortage: shutdowns and interruptions in supply chains for components and manufacturing, and a surge of new shooters and hunters into our ranks. Eight million new gun owners (that's the estimate) and counting who purchase on average two boxes of cartridges create an instant demand of 16 million units of ammo! That’s on top of what we longtime shooters and hunters need.

The shortage caused many hunters, including me and quite possibly you, to dig around in our stuff and find old cartridges to use last season. So, can you shoot a deer with 5- to 20-year-old cartridges?

If stored properly, centerfire rifle ammunition has a remarkably long shelf life. (Bill Konway photo)

Is It Safe?

Generally, yes. If factory centerfire cartridges are stored in a dry, cool place with low humidity, preferably in an airtight container, they can have an amazingly long shelf life. Many ballistics experts who have shot tens of thousands of rounds over the years report shooting 20- to 50-year-old ammo with no problems.

Factory ammunition is manufactured using premium components and exacting specifications that extend the shelf life of cartridges. I do not advise shooting old reloads.

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If you can’t find new ammo and need to hunt with rounds you have accumulated over the years, chances are those cartridges are just a couple of years to maybe 5 years old, so you should not have any issues at all.

But before shooting any ammo that has been stored for years, check each round in a box carefully. If the cases and bullets are clean, smooth, and not corroded, the rounds should shoot fine. Keep in mind the warning signs of unusable and potentially unsafe cartridges:

  • Split case necks 
  • Bullet rust
  • Corroded brass or primers
  • Difficulty loading / chambering in your rifle

If a cartridge shows any of these signs, don’t shoot it. Discard of it properly. 

Old Ammo Still Works on Whitetails

Last season I planned to hunt with a new CZ 557 rifle chambered for .30-06. The ’06 has long been one of my favorite cartridges, and I’ve killed dozens of bucks and larger animals with it, but for some reason I hadn’t used the iconic round for years.

One day last September I went to my gun shop and asked my friend Steve for a couple of boxes of 165-grain loads.

“Ha, haven’t had those in stock for weeks!” he barked.

I went home, dug into my ammo cache, and pulled out a partial box of Federal Premium .30-06 with the 165-grain Trophy Bonded bullet. That particular bullet does not exist anymore; it was replaced by the Trophy Bonded Tip some time ago. I got to wondering how old the ammo was. Eighteen to 20 years probably, maybe older.

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I went to the range and after a little fine-tuning had the loads grouping less than 1 inch at 100 yards. I went out and shot three good bucks with it. As we embark on 2021, Federal, Hornady, and others are working diligently and around the clock, but it will take months and likely a year or more to fully meet the incredible demand for ammunition. Good to know those old cartridges you’ve got squirreled away will do the job come deer season.

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