How to Store Ammo

By Will Dabbs, MD
Posted in #Gear
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How to Store Ammo

January 5th, 2024

7 minute read

Ammunition is not cheap, so its proper storage is an important consideration for many people. Keeling your cartridges in good working condition relies a lot on how you store your ammunition. In this article, Dr. Will Dabbs offers a unique look at how to store ammo safely. His perspective as a firearms enthusiast, veteran and doctor at an ammunition plant all come together for a succinct look at the topic. 

Not just everybody knows this, but there are actually two broad categories of American money in circulation. Regular money goes toward rent, gas, food and diapers. By contrast, gun money buys firearms, ammunition and accessories. These two types of money might look the same, but they are very, very different.

Surplus military ammunition cans like these were designed for ammo stored for a long time. They can protect against humidity, water and other things that can cause corrosion. Military versions will frequently be metal ammo cans, though high quality plastic ones can be purchased from MTM and other companies.
Surplus military ammunition cans were designed and built to store ammo in a safe manner. In addition to protecting them from the elements, they offer an excellent way to organize your ammo.

Similarly, there are also two fundamentally different kinds of ammunition on the market today. Blasting bullets are cheap bulk-packed, no-frills jacketed ball that you use for both recreation and training. Blasting bullets are frequently steel-cased and are built to be burned. 

By contrast, defensive bullets are the good stuff. This is high-end, high-performance ammo that you stash away for use in your defensive firearms. Considering ammo of any sort is really expensive, it behooves us to invest a little forethought into how we maintain it. If you want your ammo stash to last, you need to store it properly. 

Shown is a blank .308 Winchester cartridge that has a substantial amount of metal corrosion. It is clear this round was stored improperly. Your storage method is important be it loose ammo kept handy for dispatching a wild animal or bulk ammo intended for long-term storage.
This .308 blank cartridge shows extreme degradation from corrosion. Keep your ammo dry and cool for maximum shelf life.

I always find it entertaining when news people breathlessly report that some miscreant was discovered to have a “stockpile of ammunition” upon his apprehension. A single brick of .22 shells is 500 rounds. Maintain enough ammo to properly feed a decent defensive handgun, a modern sporting rifle, a rimfire plinking gun, and a defensive shotgun and you will have your own ammo stockpile by any reasonable metric. Just embrace it.

Shelf Life: Chemistry is a Cruel Mistress

We live in a fallen world. The evidence of that is all around us. Leave most anything exposed to the humidity and elements and it will eventually corrode, rot or die. The technical term is entropy. This is the quantifiable state of disorder in any natural system. Everything about life from birth to the grave is actually one big exercise in pushing back against entropy. When it comes to ammunition, your primary enemies are heat and oxidation. 

This photo shows ammunition stored in factory boxes inside of surplus military cans. The author arranged the practice ammo and self defense ammunition so it can be easily identified and accessed when needed. These kinds of storage containers are often the best places to store ammo.
You can store your ammo supply in original boxes or loose in surplus military containers with good seals. Some people like to use vacuum seal bags for additional protection.

I am the plant doctor for a sprawling ammunition plant in my little Southern town. They produce vast quantities of military ammo. I was amazed when first I started working there at the effort that went into designing ammunition for U.S. troops that would operate reliably through a wide range of temperatures and environmental conditions.

However, ammo is innately consumable. It is designed to be stored in a protected environment and then remain weather-resistant for a relatively brief period of time after issue. That makes baseline storage conditions very important.

Ammunition and Extreme Heat

Modern ammunition is quite heat-stable. 150 degrees F is a good safe upper limit for planning purposes. In all of recorded history, it has never gotten that hot on planet earth due to natural forces alone. However, your attic or the trunk of your car can indeed become fairly hellish, particularly in the summer down in the Deep South where I live.

In this photo, the author shows an option for storying ammo in bulk. You can get a lot of ammo — and keep your ammunition dry — by purchasing factory sealed containers. This sealed package contains a lot of ammunition inside: 900 number of rounds. For various types of ammunition, to buy in bulk can save you money up front and ensures the proper ammunition storage.
If you want to store a lot of round of ammunition for your Hellcat or other firearm, consider buying bulk “spam cans” of surplus ammo. These are packaged by the manufacturer for long term storage.

Long term exposure to elevated temperatures can cause your ammunition to degrade. Don’t leave your ammo in such toasty places for long periods unnecessarily. Cool dry areas like a closet, underneath a cabinet, or inside the gun safe are better. 

Moisture and Corrosion

Most metals react with oxygen to form oxides. Oxides can diminish structural strength and just make things nasty. Good old-fashioned rust is the most obvious example. This process requires both oxygen and an electrolyte. Oxygen is obviously a ubiquitous component of air. Water vapor condensing on the substrate is the most common electrolyte. 

The author shows storing green tip 5.56 NATO ammunition on stripper clips. He also recommends making sure you have stripper clip guides for easy magazine loading. The amount of ammo your store should be relative to the kinds of shooting you do. Without ammunition, guns are virtually useless tools. The last thing you want is an expensive club that cannot put food on the table or defend your family against attack. Keep your ammo stored in a safe, dry cool place.
Plan to store the ammo you need. If you shoot a SAINT, a sizable reserve of 5.56 NATO ammo makes sense. Be sure to store guides if that ammo is on 10-round stripper clips.

The goal is simply to store your ammo away from moisture. That requires some kind of physical barrier plus initial desiccation, which is the removal of water.

A dehumidifier will work well in a safe where you expect to rotate through the ammo with some regularity. If you are going to store ammo long-term, you will want to put it in something that is sealed against the elements and make sure it is dry from the outset.

Tools to Store Your Ammo

I do love me some G.I. ammo cans. Those things are just awesome. They are rugged, inexpensive, versatile, and purpose-designed to store ammunition safely. They stack readily, and they look cool. All those pointy square corners combined with that minimalist retractable pressed steel handle make them ghastly to hump long distances, but normal people don’t have to do that very often. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

Here the author shows how to properly store ammo using military-style cans. He has a special storage area and marks each can with the type of ammo being stored. You could also mark how much ammo is stored in each container, though a separate log indicating the amount of ammunition on hand may be easier to maintain.
If you have a large supply of ammunition, metal or plastic ammo cans can help manage everything. You can stack them on shelves and mark them to keep the ammo organized.

The 20mm, 30mm, and 40mm cans are all big, bulky, and voluminous. Cans used to transport 81mm mortars are frankly enormous. They are all made from pressed steel painted OD green and sport the same heavy steel latch and pivoting lid. The lids all have rubber gaskets that keep moisture at bay and are readily removable. If you have big stuff you need to store these are all good options, but they are bulky. Additionally, fill one of those boxes all the way up with small arms ammo and it will be too heavy to carry. The most common and practical ammo cans are the .30 and .50-caliber sort.

The military designation for the smaller .30-caliber can is M19A1. The larger .50-caliber variety is the M2A1. Uncle Sam issues combat-packed 5.56mm on stripper clips in the M2A1 .50-caliber can as well. 

The PA108 is a bit larger than the M2A1 and is designed to carry linked 5.56mm SAW ammo. These are commonly called “Fat Fifties” as they are slightly larger than the .50-caliber cans. They all have their merits for civilians wishing to store their ammo safely.

Here the author shows how he stocks up on ammo. In your ammo storage location, you can use multiple surplus cans to extend the shelf life of your ammo. Plastic cans can work for your ammo needs also. 
A significant amount of factory ammunition can be safely stored and organized using containers like these. While ammo cans have gone up in price over the years, they remain an affordable option.

Actual G.I. surplus ammo cans look cool because they have all that nifty stenciling on the outside. However, you can get essentially the same cans brand new from a variety of civilian sources. As of this writing, Amazon will sell you a fine M2A1 knockoff for twenty bucks. The .30-caliber version is $17. For another couple of dollars each they offer the same cans with lockable hasps. My local Walmart and Harbor Freight Tools offer them as well at comparable prices. Plastic versions are cheaper but not quite as durable. 

Efficiently organizing and packing your ammo in the cans is half the fun. Before you seal them up, give the interior a quick going over with a blow dryer to make sure all the residual moisture is burned away.

Managing Moisture in Your Ammo Storage

If you plan on seriously long-term storage or if you live in a really humid place, you might want to pack a little desiccant in with your stash. These are the annoying little pouches that come stuffed into medicine bottles sporting the handy admonition, “Do Not Eat.”

Demonstrated in this photo is the removal of the lid for metal cans to inspect the rubber gasket that seals and makes the container airtight. For long term storage of ammo you're going to want the gasket to be soft and pliable to help keep moisture out. It's a simple, but important, thing to protect your ammo.
The lid to many ammunition cans can be easily removed. This will allow you to carefully inspect the seal to ensure it will offer an airtight closure.

They include chemicals that naturally absorb moisture and keep the surrounding material dry. These little silica gel packs can be had in the neighborhood of 50 for about $10. In a sealed container, they work great for pulling moisture out of the air to keep ammo dry.

Some chemical desiccants can be rejuvenated, most commonly via a brief stint in the oven. Others are actually electrically powered rechargeable modules that are energized via wall power. If you’re really cheap you can make your own out of kitty litter and socks or even baking soda. The details are available online.

Final Thoughts on How to Store Ammo

There are lots of other ways to store ammunition, but none are so efficient, effective, inexpensive, and cool as are plain old G.I. ammo cans in my opinion. Pack a thousand rounds of 5.56mm away sealed in a steel ammo can with a little desiccant in a cool dry place and that stuff will still run reliably for your great grandchildren.

Just like groceries, rotate your stock so you shoot the old stuff first and your “ammo stockpile” will outlive you.

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Will Dabbs, MD

Will Dabbs, MD

Will was raised in the Mississippi Delta and has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After eight years flying Army helicopters, he left the military as a Major to attend medical school. Will operates an Urgent Care clinic in his small Southern town and works as the plant physician for the local Winchester ammunition plant. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three adult children, and has written for the gun press for a quarter century.

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