Field Review: .50 Caliber Ammo Cans

Stacked Cans

M2A1 ammo cans, like the Military ZAA-095 cans we sell for $14.97, are used extensively by the military to transport ammunition to the troops. Because I shoot a lot of different guns during the same range trip, I use them to “can” my ammo choices by cartridge and mark what’s in which container. When I’m ready to switch firearms, the ammo lots for the next round of guns are already separated, inside and out.

Military ZAA-095 can, $14.97

These M2A1 ammunition cans are 11 inches long, 7 inches tall, and 5.5 inches wide. They’ll hold 840 rounds of boxed 5.56, about 1000 loose 5.56s, or about 1300 rounds of 40 S&W. My notes also say one of these boxes will hold about 10,000 rounds of loose .22 LR. If someone wants to challenge that, I would welcome a correction.

But those are maximums. It usually makes more sense to put about 1000 rounds of 9mm or 40 in one. Those quantities fit comfortably and aren’t too heavy. When I go to the range they may weigh 50 pounds, but they are much lighter when I come home.

The steel M2A1 Ammunition Can/Box (also called Chest Ammunition: M2A1 or Box, Metal, M2A1) was introduced during the 1950s for .50-caliber machine-gun ammunition. The 16-gauge-steel panels have welded seams, and the latch, hinge, and handle are spot-welded to the body. One end opens with a quick-release latch opposite a quick-release hinge on the other end. The lid skirts protect the contents when the lid is partially opened. On early-model boxes, the lid skirts angled down from the hinge end, then ran parallel to the top as the skirt approached they the latch end. Later-model M2A1 boxes have a lid skirt that is shorter and run parallel to the lid for the full length.

The can features a removable, lockable lid with a rubber gasket seal. A rubber gasket under the lid makes a near-waterproof seal when the latched is closed. A metal-bar handle attached to the lid by rectangular wire loops folds flat for stacking or lifts up for easy carry.

Our cans are all military-surplus products in Grade I (used in like new to excellent condition), Grade II (used in good condition, may show minor use), or Grade III (used in fair condition, will show normal wear and tear from daily use.) We have run Christmas specials on boxes in the past @ $6.25 each. Just sayin’.

The boxes I’ve ordered have come in various degrees of quality, and I’ve come up with a few strategies for getting the most out of them:

  • They often have dirt on the exterior and smells in the interiors. If either of those are an issue, I fill one with warm soapy water and wash all of that set. To dry, towel them off and turn them upside down in the sun. Then lightly spray or wipe them with oil.
  • If you want to remove the markings, a little lacquer thinner on a rag takes the white and yellow paint off without damaging the OD green base color. Goof-Off also removes the paint.
  • Good seals are so tight they can make the cans hard to open. Sometimes, the rubber seals can get dry and might have tiny tears in them, which will lose the seal. A judicious coating of petroleum jelly (store brand is fine — no need to pay for a name brand such as Vaseline) can make them watertight again. I recommend keeping a package of desiccant in your long-term ammo-storage boxes to absorb humidity. One can was sealed so well that when I opened it, a puff of air rushed out like I was opening up a soda. That happens when the boxes are closed at a lower elevation and opened at a higher elevation.
  • Besides ammo, I dedicate a box to hold my cleaning and lube kits. Yet another has similar tools and accessories grouped together. They also make great automotive toolboxes that fit behind the backseat of pickup trucks.
  • Generally speaking, cans that have different colors of paint on them were originally used with the intended ammo, then switched to carry another type of ammo, smoke bombs, or something else. If a box has multiple colors of paint on it, I just spray-paint it black.
  • Though these boxes are usually filled with metallic cartridges, they’ll also hold 250 rounds of 12-gauge shotgun ammo.
  • If I get a can that’s rusty, I scrub it with steel wool, then bronze-brush it, then wipe it with a damp sponge. After drying, I spray the entire can inside and out with Rust-Oleum Camouflage spray-paint, either Khaki (#248661) or Olive (#248664). To get a real-life pattern that guarantees I’ll lose the can, I apply a base coat of color then use leaves and twigs as stencils. I lay the leaves and twigs randomly over the can and spray over them using Khaki, Olive, and Black (#248662) or Brown (#248663) tones.
  • Not that I personally bury stuff, but if I were to dig a shallow hole off my property with two sets of permanent intersecting line-up vectors, here’s what I’d do next. Drop in a Backup Bug-Out Box with cash, a spare pistol, and ammo, all packed inside a sealable plastic bag. Then I’d seal them in a 50-cal ammo can, and inter them with confidence.
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Comments (9)

  1. I have only one milspec. can and bought it new so there were no problems with the can.The rest of my cans are either MTM or ones that came with bulk ammo. Of course the metal cans are best overall if seals are in good shape. The plastic ones weather MTM or the bulk cans from Cabelas work just as well if all you use them for is storage. Both have their pros and cons

  2. I was stationed at Ft. Knox for 5+ years in the late ’70s to mid ’80s. One day at Wilcox range in 1982 I was out patrolling for brush fires, I found a sealed 30cal can that was so rusty, it blended in perfectly. Had it not had the foliage burnt off around it, I would never have found it. When I opened it, I found it full of linked 30 cal (30-06) blank ammo for 30cal machine guns. The contents were in perfect shape and still fired fine. The links were not rusty at all and even the brass was still shiny! It was as good as the day it had been sealed at the factory. Since that range hadn’t been used by infantry since right after the Korean Conflict, I’d wager that I found the box after it had been lost over 25 years previously and out in the weather the whole time!

    These boxes are worth a LOT for good ammo and supplies storage. Oh, by the way, when stacked on top of each other, 3 to 4 high – a stack at each corner will easily support the weight of an M35A1 “deuce & a half” (2 1/2 ton) truck that is partially loaded with supplies and weighing over 15,000 pounds! (I saw it done when a truck needed repair out in the field where a lift wasn’t available and had been “jacked-up” and supported by the only means available.)

  3. This blog is very informative; I do not know how to maintain ammo cans. I will follow the steps what you have mentioned in the blog. I am looking for ammo can lock at low price for my 40 cal can. Would you please produce information regarding this.

  4. An inexpensive label maker will help identify contents without opening cans. (Who has just one or two?) Don’t underestimate the value of a few .30 cal. cans. They don’t hold as much, but will be easier for a small person to carry and will fit in a smaller space. Per a previous post, ammunition is not the only thing appropriate for storage in an ammo can. Consider one for road flares and another for batteries.

  5. All great info on the ammo cans! I would NOT recommend Petroleum Jelly or Vaseline on any rubber or latex product as the petroleum distillates will cause any natural rubber to break down. Armor All will protect and preserve your seals better and make the can easier to open. I have some older cans I put in storage in 1986 and the rubber looks new.

  6. To refurbish the seal on the lid, use dielectric silicone lubricant. The manufacturer uses it when they make the cans, and we used it in the military. You apply it once, and your done. Also, when packing ammo, I put a layer of package dessicant on top, then use a thick piece of tar paper on top of that, like we use to get in C-4 crates.

  7. Petroleum based products don’t play nice with latex. It’ll harden and crack. If the seals are latex, I’d use K-Y Jelly instead.

  8. All good ideas! I put my cleaning supplies in one can. It keeps the solvents, oils, patches, guides and tips in one container and protects them when they’re bouncing around in the back of the truck.

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