Ammunition

Shelf Life — How to Store Your Stuff

WIsse food supply container, MTM ammo can, penetrating spray

A few weeks ago, my wife and I saw a report on the recent hoarding in America. The focus was on food and other staples. The reporter had good information on shelf life and storage. After all, most folks have little idea of how to store foodstuffs for the long term or the true meaning of shelf life.

Some of the things that last longest are full of preservatives that we really don’t want in our bodies. I prefer my veins to remain flexible. My thoughts turned to the many other things people are hoarding such as ammunition, chemicals, and batteries. I knew some of the answers but not all when I began looking at the shelf life of common staples for shooters. Let’s look at shelf life and how it affects shooters.

Schrade knife showing storage wear
This old Schrade knife is very useful- but it was stored with a leather sheath with predictable results.

Oils, Lubricants, Grease, and Solvent

When it comes to oils, lubricants, and solvents some of us like to stock up. We purchase gunsmith size containers. I have stored such material with mixed results. I use the lubricant very often. Stock refinishing chemicals and cold blue material stay on the shelf for longer periods.

Many chemicals have an expiration date stamped on the bottle. The expiration or use by date specifies the period of time the chemicals are at their best performance. That said, the expiration date is accelerated once the container is open.

There are a few tips that will help with economy and performance. Use the oldest solvents first. That makes sense, as does use partially used bottles before breaking open another.

Look at the expiration date and discard obviously useless chemicals. On occasion, I have found that material has evaporated or eaten its way out of a container. Remember, shelf life really begins when the chemicals are sealed in the container at the factory.

I have considered my own experience and taken into account manufacturers’ recommendations. Most products have a shelf life of three years. Plenty of problems have occurred with chemicals stored for significantly longer periods. Temperature also affects shelf life. The chemicals should be stored in a dry storage space. Extreme heat affects chemicals and cold may as well. It is common sense but read the directions and storage instructions.

Multiple cans of lubricants and chemical cleaners
Chemicals are generally long-lived. The container means the most in long-term storage.

Once the product is opened, shelf life is immediately affected. Be certain to reseal the can or bottle as soon as possible. Be certain the container is properly sealed. Don’t leave the lip cocked at an angle, seal it properly with each use.

Some material, once used, finds its way into the grooves on the container and the cap and may seal the two together. Don’t be afraid to use plyers and tap the lid on a hard surface before opening. When you reseal the lid, make it hand tight and possibly turn it again with pliers. This makes for a tight effective seal.

Sure, some materials will last much longer. It depends on the quality of the seal and the container. Plastic is the least desirable for long-term storage. Metal is the best choice for long-term storage. Glass bottles are at least as long-lived as metal with a good seal but are more subject to fracture.

Holsters

Kydex holsters are impervious to oil, solvent, and moisture. They are more subject to breakage from wear than storage. Kydex has an indefinite shelf life — as far as I can determine. Leather is another matter. It depends a great deal on the original finish. Many of us like supple leather that, while tightly molded to the handgun, isn’t hard against the body.

Bianchi pancake holster for the CZ 75 pistol
Holsters are best stored in original packaging.

Some leather is waxed much more heavily. Most of us have a box or drawer full of holsters. We may deploy a big gun, and a small gun, and we also carry a backup. We may carry the piece in a shoulder holster during the winter months. Quality leather isn’t inexpensive. A quality shoulder holster rig may run a few hundred dollars.

A strong-side belt scabbard will be $100 or just a little less. These holsters are animal material and may be subject to rot. They should be stored in a dry environment.  In my experience wear takes effect before rot if you care for the leather with an occasional wipe down.

Degraded Lawrence holster left, and Jaypee security holster right
The old Lawrence holster, left, hasn’t fared well. The Jaypee security holster is at least 50 years old and is serviceable.

The problem is most often verdigris attacking brass fixtures and Chicago screws. Be certain to occasionally check holsters, and remove and clean the screws, thoroughly when this occurs. A quality holster may last five years, some last much longer.

Be certain to properly clean and oil these holsters occasionally. Heavily waxed holsters don’t need holster oil, but the natural finish and vegetable-tanned holsters may. The bottom line- if you keep a spare holster stored in the original packing and do not open it, it is good for a decade or more if stored in a dry place.

What hurts leather is extremes of temperature such as cold wet winters and hot dry summers. Storage in the attic is problematic, storage in a basement worse. Never store a firearm in a holster save for a short interval. Chemicals in leather may interact with chemicals used to finish the metal of a handgun.

Ammunition Shelf Life

I have heard more myths concerning ammunition shelf life than any other material. It is also unfortunate that many who hoarded a good supply of ammunition have chosen the worse possible type of ammunition to attempt to keep dry and viable. Modern ammunition was first manufactured about 1873 with the first central fire ammunition. Some were central fire but used an internal primer.

two cartridges soaking in different mediums
The author tests cartridge integrity by soaking individual cartridges in oil, water, and solvent. If the cartridge doesn’t pass, it probably is not well suited to long-term storage.

The advent of the smokeless powder era ushered in tremendous improvements. As an example, during World War I, Winchester was awarded a huge ammunition contract. The contract specified that the acceptable failure rate would be one in 100,000 cartridges. Winchester met the contract specifications, and today, quality control is much higher.

I have fired Winchester, Remington UMC, and Peters ammunition from the 1930s with generally good results. Function and powder burn was good. However, with old brass cartridges, occasionally the cartridge case lips crack or the case splits.

Corrosive primers are not ideal and should be avoided. I have seen these with verdigris leaking out of the primer. Of course, it is all about storage.

left cartridge soaked in solvent compared to a normal cartridge
Soaking in solvent turned the copper jacket on this Hornady bullet. The cartridge fired normally.

Store the ammunition in the original container in a clean, dry environment. Stored in this manner, there is no shelf life as far I can determine. I have fired handloads my son and I put up in the 1980s without any problem. I recently fired the last of a lot of .45 ACP 1967 Federal Match with excellent results.

However, some ammunition is more susceptible to moisture than others. I have found steel-cased ammunition more likely to have misfires and failures than brass-cased domestic ammunition after long storage. While I often see such ammunition at estate sales. I guess that prepper never used his ammunition cache, but I avoid it.

If you do not know how ammunition was stored, avoid the ammunition no matter how much of a bargain it seems. Unless, like the trend in the old USSR at one time, you grind it into fertilizer.

Two .351 Winchester cartridge cases. The case on the right shows a split.
The author successfully fired these loads in a .351 Winchester. While they were over 60 years old, they functioned normally. Some of the cartridge cases did, however, split.

I should mention that perhaps 20 years ago, the Chief and I found 500 rounds or so of .38 Special ammunition in the basement of the PD. The cache was at least 20 years old. The boxes were wet and moldy. Some of the nickel-plated brass had turned that dull gray color that indicates age. Most were round nose lead Winchester but there was also some Remington hollow point ammunition.

Every round cracked off at the range. I used it as range ammunition for months. Always store ammunition in the original container or better yet, MTM Case-Gard plastic shells.

A combination of a sealed tin and modern brass-cased ammunition is a good choice. .22 Rimfire, due to its heel-based construction, is especially likely to be damaged in storage, so take particular care with this ammunition. I have seen .22s stored in old medicine bottles and paper bags. Avoid this.

Four .38 SPL. cartridge case heads.
The ammunition on the left is intended for practice. Service loads from Federal, right, have good primer seal.

Store the ammunition in a clean and dry environment, A moderate temperature with little deviation is the key. Break this rule and you have a problem. As an example, high temperature may cause bullet lubricant to run. Some hollow points have a lubricated core. Almost all lead bullets have some type of grease in the crimping groove. This will contaminate the powder charge.

The best ammunition to store is brass-cased loads with a good primer and case-mouth seal. To sum it up, shelf life is almost indefinite but environmental factors affect ammunition.

Handloading Components

When it comes to handloads, I think we will use and rotate our components at a brisk pace. Handloaders are shooters, not hoarders. Primers must be stored in a dry environment in the original packing. It is dangerous to do otherwise.

4 silver cartridge primers
Primers must be handled carefully. Moisture and solvent can render the priming compound inert.

Powder is a finite resource. Over time, powder will react to its packaging. If left in a plastic hopper, the powder will react with the plastic. This takes a few years. Never purchase older powder, even if sealed. You will have to chase download data for that generation of powder — if you are able to identify the year the powder was made.

A friend purchased a treasure trove of powder and loading gear a few years ago. The powder, in 1970s era cans, was inert and useless. The primers were dead. He wasted a lot of money. Even the loading dies — non-carbide to boot! — were rusted.

box of 100 CCI No. 41 primers
Primers must be stored in the original packaging for safety and longevity.

Be especially careful with loading components. As for myself, I never have enough to worry about storing. I load them and fire them. Once put into handloads, the components should last as long as any other ammunition — given careful storage.

Magazines

Pistol and rifle magazines of sheet metal and plastic should not have a shelf life. Unpackage the magazines, load them, and fire. The rub is always storage. Cool and dry and in original packaging. I have quite a few AR-15 and 1911 magazines, and I use them often. For storage, I have MTM storage cases.

Wilson Combat recoil spring in the packaging atop a couple of AR-15 magazines
Magazines and spare parts are stored in MTM Case-Gard boxes.

I don’t drop them on the feed lips. When the magazines become well-worn, they are discarded. Magazines are a renewable resource. I rotate my magazines.

I normally carry a 1911 and two spare magazines. I keep an AR-15 around with a couple of magazines at ready. Every month or so, I unload a magazine and replace it with one of the proven magazines in storage. The problem comes when you are storing loaded magazines. This is tough on magazine springs and sometimes feed lips as the pressure bears on feed lips.

5 magazine with three in the original plastic packaging
Whatever the gear you have stored, the original packaging is likely the best.

It seems handy to store ammunition and magazines together, but this isn’t a good idea. A tip from a friend who is an engineer. When you load a 30-round AR-15 magazine with only 27 cartridges, you have not reduced spring pressure by 10 percent but much more like 15–20 percent from maximum compression. Keep magazines and ammunition separate.

Batteries

Batteries are not created equal. I use a lot of camera batteries and keep a few on hand for the Chronograph. Combat lights and red dots also demand batteries. Purchasing the cheapest type on sale isn’t the best program. I also have a universal charger with several attachments that work well. Most of us would like to keep spares on hand.

Batteries are another product that is affected by temperature, the chemicals in the battery, and time. Batteries may discharge during storage. Higher temperatures make this more likely. Some of the chemicals have a concentration of ions that will seep through battery seals and dry the battery.

Three packages of batteries of various sizes
Batteries have a well-defined shelf life. The 123A battery is expensive!

As a broad generalization, most camera and flashlight batteries have a shelf life of 1–2 years. Nickel-cadmium batteries will keep a charge for five years. Alkaline batteries may last 5–7 years, with the rechargeable alkaline types holding the charge just a little less. A top-quality Alkaline battery may have a shelf life of 10 years. Lithium batteries are the longest-lived with an expected shelf life of 7–15 years.

Firearms: Metal doesn’t have a shelf life, or does it? Firearms should be properly oiled with some type of protective coating for long-term storage, depending upon the climate and the mode of storage. Springs should be at rest. The action should not be cocked, and magazines should not be at rest.

As a shooter and researcher that may have lived a few years past my own use-by date, I found this research interesting. The bottom line is this, store items properly (in favorable conditions), and you will enjoy long shelf life.

Here are a few tips for storing your components, ammunition, leather gear, and batteries, and improving their shelf life. Do you have a tip for improving the shelf life of your stores? Share it in the comment section.

  • two cartridges soaking in different mediums
  • WIsse food supply container, MTM ammo can, penetrating spray
  • Schrade knife showing storage wear
  • Two .351 Winchester cartridge cases. The case on the right shows a split.
  • Four .38 SPL. cartridge case heads.
  • 5 magazine with three in the original plastic packaging
  • Three packages of batteries of various sizes
  • Artistic graphic rendering of a Hornady cartridge showing a cross section
  • Bianchi pancake holster for the CZ 75 pistol
  • Wilson Combat recoil spring in the packaging atop a couple of AR-15 magazines
  • box of 100 CCI No. 41 primers
  • brass snap on a leather holster showing verdigris
  • 4 silver cartridge primers
  • bottle of Alliant 20/28 powder
  • Degraded Lawrence holster left, and Jaypee security holster right
  • left cartridge soaked in solvent compared to a normal cartridge
  • Multiple cans of lubricants and chemical cleaners

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.


Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns



Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (12)

  1. Hello guys,
    Just got my standard division gun from the gunsmith.
    Function test same and all looks good and working until I’ve filled the mags with 40 cal ammo insert in the magwell rack the slide and started shooting targets.
    After the first shot, each shot I fired the slide lock engages the slide, next round same thing the slide locked up.
    Guys what do you think is happening with my gun? Been shooting in standard division for several years, first time I encounter this problem.

  2. Great Article!

    I wanted to reply to the Comment about using “Snap Caps”- I’ve used plain orange plastic .22LR Snap Caps in Appropriate Circumstances, and the Anodized Aluminum Snap Caps in .22LR-12G Shotgun. I got them at Midway but they’re available lots of places.

    Also, while I am NOT a Gunsmith nor Expert of any kind, i have delved into detail with Gunsmiths while Enlisted in the Service and after and read and learned quite a bit about Lubricants that are multi purpose for not just for Firearms and Parts but also Aircraft Maintenance, or Road Race Bicycles. A very popular Lubricant that is used in those applications is Boeshield T-9 developed by the Boeing Corporation. It has DuPont Teflon in it and it comes as an Aerosol and also as a liquid lubricant which is far more appropriate for Firearms. It has significant improvements over many lubricants and for the purposes of storing Firearms and components is far more effective.

    Thanks for the great content!

  3. Good article; however, a couple of comments:
    1) In 1972 I purchased 7 boxes of 130gr. Remington Bronze Tips in .270 Winchester. From 1980 to 1998 I occasionally shot 2-3 rounds (same rifle) across my chronograph w/out any loss of velocity. Those rounds stored well, plus, remained accurate.
    2)It is completely unnecessary to unload magazines to “rest” the springs. In fact it is the repeated movement of springs that degrade them. Some research will bear this out. This is applicable to properly manufactured springs. There is nothing one can do to help poorly made springs.
    Thanks.

  4. The military spends beau coups bucks on ammo cans. In my opinion they are the best way to store ammo, powder, and primers; of course not in the same can. Find an ammo can that will allow you to keep the components in their original packaging. Toss in some descant if you want and put labels on the cans at the top looking down and on the side where the pull ring is. I find a great place to store the cans is under the bed. I bought some risers and slid the cans under the bed all the way around. I live in a furnace called Texas, but it really never gets hot under the bed. It took several months for my wife to discover the virtual magazine she was sleeping over.

  5. Colonel

    No hard in dropping the firing pin hammer or striker on center fire firearms- provided they are triple checked and to be certain they are unloaded.

    Rimfires- it wont hurt occasionally
    Long term dry fire is harmful.

  6. I take advantage of my FoodSaver vacuum food sealer for a lot of projects! As a Prepper I have a comfortable stockpile of items I hope will sustain our family through any survivable catastrophe.
    1. I have several firearms earmarked for the future. They are vacuum sealed in the long sleeve rolls of a vacuum bag. I included the maintenance manuals, brushes & hard cleaning gear with desiccant. Chemicals are stored separately and rotated.
    Before vacuum sealing I protect the protruding portions of the firearms and any sharp corners from piercing the vacuum bag. I live on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and initially did this because these items would be left behind during a bug-out.
    2. I store our ammunition in inexpensive Plastic Plano ammo boxes after sealing the rounds in their original containers. The ammunition is sealed with desiccant but NOT vacated of air. I believe (correctly or not) that the primer & powder is permeated with sufficient oxygen for ignition to occur and I don’t want to interfere with that engineering. I’d hate to have to air-out my ammo before I can use it! Anyway, now it can be flooded and submerged and remain functional when we return.
    Yeah, I’ve been told that this is overkill, but we feel better for it.

  7. The Colonel raises a good point about rimfires.
    I have a Savage 64F in .22LR that stands ready if needed… over twenty years with every bit of 50k rounds. it’s never failed to deliver. Simple to field strip and no worries of the firing pin breaking. Is it a Model 60 Marlin… not quite.
    Gotta worry about either that the breach face will be damaged upon dry fire. The Marlin 917V bolt action is touchy about that.
    So what do ya do…?
    Who knows? I got some lead .22LR non-plated sub sonic garbage inherited from my Pop… absolute junk. Well below 1000 f/ps.
    Wouldn’t cycle. Projectiles too soft to feed properly from tube mag or detatchable box mag.
    So yeah… I feel the pain.

  8. Dead Primers? Other than a chemical or oil contamination primers don’t just die, not within any reasonable time frame anyways. Had a tornado take off my roof a couple decades ago, All my primers got soaked and I called CCI asking if there was any hope for them. They said to let them dry completely and they will be fine, they use water in the manufacturing of the primers, as long as they are dry when loaded they work just fine.

  9. If you have received or inherited firearms from family that have old oils on them, these old oils can and will breakdown and form a yellowy paste that will not allow the firearm to operate properly. Clean all of the old oils off completely and re-lubricate with 100% synthetic lubricants. Not trying to sell or convince anyone of using another oil or cleaner but Amsoil has some of the best cleaners and lubricants I have ever used. Not only do the cleaners work on powder residue but all of those old oils that have been left on the hand me downs will come right off with their Firearm Cleaner. I passed an old Remington auto .22 to may grandson that came from my father and the old oils gummed up the operation of that old .22 and with a little time, rags and Amsoil Firearm Cleaner we had it as clean as new. Then lubed it up with the 100% synthetic Firearm Lubricant the gun was in as good of operating condition as it was the day I firs shot it over 50 years ago. Then, the time we spent together was the best part of the whole operation. Synthetics are amazing and will not break down over time and cause issues.

  10. The only way to store some firearms uncocked is to pull the trigger and let the firing pin fly forward. This is particularly true with hammerless or concealed hammer firearms such as SxS shotguns and many .22 semi auto pistols. This presents a bit of a quandary. Do I risk damaging the firing pins or the firing pin springs? Which is the greater risk? One solution is to leave plastic snap caps in the gun and pull the trigger, but is this wise for long term storage? I don’t know the answer.

  11. I store ammo in steel and plastic ammo cans. Throw in a couple of bags of dessicant to absorb any moisture. I have no idea how this will work long-term. I put small buckets of Rid in the safes also. I wipe firearms that don’t get shot much with Rig and spray corrosion inhibiter on the inner surfaces.

  12. Not to change anyone’s mind when it comes to firearm lubricant but I have found silicone in a small sqeeze type plastic bottle to be among the best forlong lasting and friction resistant to any that I have ever used on a firearm. Expensive on Amazon and worth every penny of the 6.95 for about two ounces.

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