Rotate your self-defense ammunition

Many folks — cops included — load up their self-defense sidearms, and from there, those tools silently serve and protect their owners from bad people with evil in their hearts. Unfortunately, too many of us don’t think about rotating out the ammunition we carry on a daily basis. Don’t let that be you.

How long ago did you put the cartridges you’re carrying in your defensive pistol? Six months ago? A year? Two years even?  “I don’t remember” will count as “sub-optimal.” After all, you carry that gun to defend your life. It behooves you to keep up with a little preventative maintenance.

Why do we do this? Here’s but one reason why you should rotate your defensive ammunition.

Years ago, a retired cop at the police union building where I worked knew I taught guns on the weekends.  He asked a favor:  His niece found herself detailed to Darfur, Sudan (or a similar less-than-desirable destination) in her job for the State Department.  Knowing the city’s reputation, she and her hubby both though it wise to seek out some pre-deployment training on the Beretta 92.  They knew the Marines there would have M9s.  If things went badly, they hoped to acquire a Beretta or two from the security contingent.  In their minds, the Beretta surely beat a sharp stick.

So Clyde, a retired University of Illinois police lieutenant, asked if I could spend a day with them.  Clyde himself trained plenty of cops in his day with guns.  Wisely, he sought outside help to teach family members.

He joined the niece and her husband – both novices to shooting for a Saturday at the range.  After an intensive day of training, they felt a lot better.  We started with the gun basics and firing the first shots.  From there, we covered movement off the “X”, communication, learning to shoot around barricades, malfunction drills, and much more.  Clyde pretty much stayed out of the way, but complemented what I taught them nicely with his real-world experiences.  By the end of the day, the pair each fired 250 rounds and laid in a fairly decent foundation in skill sets using my guns for the cost of ammo, lunch and a steak dinner for me.

At the end of the day, we shot recreationally.  The woman asked her uncle about his .357, the same gun he’d carried for a million years at UIPD and later as a part-time security guard at a off-track betting facility.  He pulls out his S&W from his duty belt.  Then he carefully lined up his sights and squeezed the trigger.  “Click!”

Some say there’s nothing louder than a “click” when you expect a bang, or a “bang” when you expect a click.  I’ll never forget that look of abject horror on his face.  “Ho-leee [bleep]!” he said, shaking his head, looking at that old workhorse.

He had fired that gun defensively more than once in his career.  In one instance in the late 60s, while pulling up on a shooting in progress on campus, he came under fire from a carload of Black Panthers.  He returned the favor, emptying a cylinder on them.  He learned about twenty years later he hit a couple of them around the edges.   On this day though, three of his six cartridges failed to fire from that cylinder, including the first two.  His reloads worked fine from his belt.

While he regularly cleaned his revolver, he did not regularly rotate his defensive ammo.  He admitted carrying those particular hollow-points for at least a couple of years.  I have little doubt that excess lubrication spoiled those rounds.  Excess oils in revolver cylinders will work into the cartridges through capillary action and neutered the primers.  Just another reason not to over lubricate the chambers of revolvers or semi-auto pistols.

Oil contamination does not pose the only risk to your ammunition.  Your magazines may acquire all manner of crud and debris, creating an opportunity for Mr. Murphy to appear.  Corrosion may occur on the cartridge cases.  It may be an old wive’s tale, but I’ve always been taught not to tumble loaded ammunition.  Moving through life over long periods of time may replicate those issues.  Thankfully though, Popnfresh at Arfcom has pretty much shown that tumbling for even a couple hundred hours does not cause powder or primer degradation.  At the same time, old wive’s tale or not, why not eliminate that risk by rotating your ammunition?

How often?

For revolvers, check to ensure your loaded cartridges do not feel “oily” 24-hours after cleaning the gun.  If they do feel greasy, pull those rounds out of service.  Run a dry patch or three through the cylinders, then reload with fresh ammo and repeat.  Once the cartridges come out dry that next day, I would recommend rotating them out every three to six months.  Replace them with the brand and style of ammunition proven to run reliably in your handgun.

“Have you seen the price of defensive ammo?” you ask, incredulously.

To which, I reply, “How much is your life worth?  Or the lives of your spouse and kids/grandkids?”

Remember:  ammo is cheap, life is precious.

For semi-autos, perform the “cartridge in chamber” test after each cleaning.  Then rotate out the round in the chamber every three to six months.

For rounds in the magazine carried in the gun or spare magazines carried everyday, rotate that ammunition annually – or after about 12 months of carry.  All of this rotated out ammo should find a home in a box or bag in your range bag.  Test fire the rounds to ensure they fire and function flawlessly.  If they misfire, hangfire or have malfunction issues, investigate further to find and fix the causes.  You may need to clean more often, or use (significantly) less lubrication after cleaning.

By rotating out your defensive ammo regularly, you can eliminate a potential failure of your defensive system.  After all, most defensive gun uses take place at under six feet.  While you can always pull the trigger a second time in a revolver, that’s not the case with a pistol.  A bad guy can cover that six feet far quicker than anyone can perform a malfunction clearing drill on a semi-auto.

47 Responses to Self Defense Tip: Rotate Your Defensive Carry Ammunition

  1. Ok, new actual gun owner here. Learning about carrying (not the current trainer gun, but a real one someday). Have never seen “old” commercial ammunition noted as a problem. Is this an issue in theory only? Are there stories around (I cannot have seen every article/posting, everywhere), lots of stories around, reporting misfiring of “old ammunition” as the proximate cause of a failure to survive a defensive shooting episode? Is this merely a chocolate vs. vanilla discussion?

    • It’s not so much the “age” of the ammo as it is the exposure it gets from daily carry. You can stockpile ammo for decades and it will reliably fire provided its stored in a dry and reasonably temperate area. Now, any ammo you carry in any gun, is going to be exposed to hot and cold weather, and humidity, as well as gun oil and debris. Over time this can have an effect on its performance. That’s why every six months or so, you should shoot your carry ammo, and replace it with new carry ammo. Once every six months for a few rounds won’t break the bank and keep your gun running just fine.

      • Revolver ammo in a house gun is probably safe for extended periods.
        Ammo in a semiauto pistol is more vulnerable, especially if it has been carried or cycled through the action. Best to rotate this more frequently.

      • “Once every six months for a few rounds won’t break the bank and keep your gun running just fine.”

        Glad I got .22

        • Sam, what did you go with, If you don’t mind me asking? I know you have been looking for awhile however, I didn’t see what your picked.

    • When it comes to ammo the simple fact is that there are a multitude of POTENTIAL problems that can turn a good cartridge into a dud but when it comes right down to it most of those issues while from different sources boil down to one basic and most ancient enemy to the firearm and more specifically to powder and primer and that is moisture. When you carry daily, especially if you live in a region where you and your equipment are subject to more extreme temperatures especially on the warmer side of the spectrum many people forget that all that sweat your body pours off of you every day to help keep you cool is equally getting all over your carry piece and into most every nook and cranny of it which yes includes your precious ammo. Truly the simplest solution is that you SHOULD be practicing with your firearm on a fairly regular basis and so on some schedule as often as weekly or monthly but no less often than quarterly you should set aside some time and funds to go to the range and practice shooting your carry gun so every six months or so you should shoot the ammo you’ve been carrying and then when done with that practice session reload your mags/speed loaders, rechamber your carry with fresh new ammo and then reholster and go on with your life, lather rinse repeat.

  2. Seriously, New, high-quality ammo, not coated in oil from over-lubing your pistol after cleaning (how much of an issue can this be with a semi-auto?)

    I have Hornady Critical defense in all of my pistols, Critical Duty in my 686. Realistically, what are the chances that I will pull the trigger on this stuff and get a click? I really don’t want to be popping off six or 10 or 18 rounds of EDC ammo every few months at $1.00 plus per round just because someone on the Internet says they could wear out if I don’t buy new ones every six months or so.

    I get the “How much is your life worth” argument, but it still comes down to “Is this really a thing?”

    • It’s a thing.

      When I practice, the first thing I do is draw and fire the contents of the cylinder or magazine.

      WIthout cleaning or checks.

      Back in the day when most carried revolvers, the oil from the holster could have some effect.

      My carry gun ammo gets rotated every couple of months (when I practice).

      House guns/Truck guns get rotated every six months.

      Your choice…..but it’s a thing.

      • Oil from the holster? What oil from the holster? None of my holsters seep oil, and if you are oiling your holster, please STOP. A well made leather holster is made with vegetable tanned leather and should never ever be oiled. Oil, especially oils made from animal products (like mink oil) causes the leather to break down. I have this advice from multiple sources, including two premium holster makers (one of whom is Karla Van Horne of Purdy Gear) and the boot store that not only sells high end boots but has a shoe repair shop as well. They told me that the warranty on my Lowa boots is voided by using animal oils.

        So if your leather holster is seeping oils onto your gun, go buy a better holster.

  3. I fire my carry ammo every range trip. About 60 days or less. Cant say when Ive used the ammo in my spare mag recently, Its carried in a closed belt case though. Even at a buck a round or more…………..big deal.
    Practice with what you carry. Range ammo isn’t usually anywhere near the same as what most defensive ammo even feels like. I carry +P. Practice with the cheapest I can find. I try to fire at least 20 rounds or a box of my carry ammo every trip> Plus what was in my gun.

  4. I have some WW II era .45 ACP military hardball in the original Win packaging.
    Also some .38 Spl Milsurp with what appears to be nickel jacketed bullets of unknown vintage. I reckon I could research the lot numbers, but these are essentially relics.

    I would not consider these for carry but could not resist some limited testing. They all went bang.

  5. Set back is an issue I’ve watched carefully. I have found that when re-chambering my carry rounds after going shooting I would get set back if I loaded from a magazine multiple times. Now I drop a round in the chamber and slam it back shut. It is still a good idea to cycle the carry ammo.

      • Been doing it for years with no issues. I check my pistols out regularly and the extractors show no abnormal wear. Luck of the draw perhaps.

        • Depends on the gun. My Kahr will not go fully into battery with a round in the chamber. Some guns will actually chip the rim, and that may lead to an extraction problem. Other guns, no issue.

    • Carl, et al.

      I spoke to representatives from Federal, Speer and Winchester about this issue at the 2010 SHOT show. High quality defensive pistol ammo typically includes some kind of sealant around the primers to help reduce primer failures. But did you know that (semi-auto) pistol ammo has a light sealant added around the case mouth just before the bullet is seated? This helps prevent bullet set-back if the bullet nose hits the feed ramp at a less than optimal angle.

      But the caveat from all three companies is the sealant is only good for one or two uses before it weakens and can allow set-back to happen. If you’ve fed a round from your magazine more than twice, it’s probably a good idea to rotate that round into a box for range use.

      Background for newbies:
      While revolver ammo can have the case mouth crimped tightly around the bullet, most pistols rely the case mouth to properly headspace in the chamber. Pistol bullets use a “taper crimp” where the sides of the case grip the base of the bullet. It’s a less secure form of crimp, but with modern sealants helping grip the bullet it works fine. Repeated impacts against the feed ramp can break the sealant’s grip and allow the bullet to be shoved into the case. This can cause higher pressures and/or contribute to poor accuracy when fired.

  6. The bigger problem to my mind is clearing and loading the top two rounds in your pistol. What can happen over time is the bullet can set back in the case and create a compressed charge and the resulting over pressure can cause “issues.” I change out the top two rounds from my defense ammo every three months or so, including comparing them to fresh ammo from the box before dropping the cycled ones in to be shot along with practice ammo on my next range trip. I don’t have a big habit of administrative handling other than clearing the weapon before going to the range to practice; If my pistol is in the holster it is loaded and the pistol stays in the holster going on or coming off my belt. I haven’t seen any setback issues in a few years with quality defensive ammo.

  7. I pretty much always shoot the 6 Double Tap .357s first when I hit the ra nge, then move on to the practice stuff. The ro unds in the speed strip get tarnished in your pocket in the summer, so sometimes I load and shoot them instead. Not all am mo hits in quite the same place, so you need to keep familiarity with the stuff that actually counts.

    All of my am mo gets the year of purchase written on them. Anything 5 years old gets put on the short list to be rotated out.

    Hmm… hadn’t thought about over oiling, but I do the same for the chambers that I do for the barrel – once clean, dry patch, oil patch, dry patch. I’ve yet to have a misfire at the ra nge.

  8. No ammunition should spend decades in storage. If it does, you’re not practicing enough. In full disclosure, I have a lot of ammo that old and I don’t practice enough.

    Last trip, I took some Hornady Frontier .45 acp fm that was probably a decade old when I got it 25 plus years ago. There were about 15 rounds in the box and all except two fired. It was always stored in a cool, dry place and Hornady was top notch ammo back then too. Newer ammo in the same pistol ran fine. I made a mental note to start shooting the older ammo.

    You can never have too much ammo, until it gets old and goes “click”.

    • I get 30, 40, 50 year old ammo from people who want rid of it. All has been in factory boxes and obviously in reasonable storage. All has gone bang. Fall in the creek with the ammo you got yesterday, maybe not.

  9. I shoot my carry ammo every couple of weeks at the range. I practice with equivalent grain ammo so as to not waste all my carry supply. I have left my carry ammo in a pistol for up to a month but never longer than that. As for old ammo I have some 30 caliber for my carbine I bought back in the 80’s. Was able to buy several thousand rounds of military surplus. it still shoots without failure.

  10. “While you can always pull the trigger a second time in a revolver, that’s not the case with a pistol.”

    My P226 and Taurus 24/7 beg to differ.

    • Sure, but with a revolver it’s changing which round is being struck. Not true with a semi-auto, even your P226 or *shudder* Taurus.

  11. Like Carl Saiga, after seeing some occasional set-back I started dropping a round in the chamber then cycled the slide (without a loaded magazine, of course), but I read that that is hard on the extractor. If true, then it is certainly better to toss an occasional set-backed cartridge than risk microfractures in the extractor. Any opinions on whether or not this is true?

  12. Sure it’s possible. But if a round is susceptible, I wonder how long it would take? What I mean is, people tout changing carry ammo every 6-12 months. But if a primer is going to be ruined, would it take 13 months or longer to happen? Or would it happen in the first week or two of being chambered? I honestly don’t know.

    • BC,

      I don’t know for sure.

      Here is what I am thinking:
      (a) Before you fire, your extractor is already “grasping” the casing in your chamber.
      (b) When you fire, your slide begins moving backward with the extractor grasping the casing.
      (c) At some point in that rearward movement, your extractor “retracts” (no longer “grasping” your spent casing) and allows a protrusion in your slide to kick out the spent casing.
      (d) Your extractor is still retracted as the slide moves in position to get a new cartridge from your magazine.
      (e) Your slide moves forward and at some point of that movement your extractor is allowed to “grasp” the cartridge.
      (f) Your slide goes fully forward into battery with the extractor already grasping the casing of your cartridge.

      If that is correct (and I believe it is), your extractor obviously moves back and forth during normal cycling, although there is no impact of the extractor slamming into the rim of a casing.

      So, manually loading a round in the chamber and slamming your slide into battery does cause an impact on your extractor as it pops out and around the cartridge in the chamber. Whether or not this reduces the reliability of any extractor I have no idea.

      • I broke the extractor on a brand new Ruger LCP by putting a cartridge in the chamber by hand and releasing the slide. I will never do that again. Of course I didn’t research it until after I did it, learned that lesson the hard way.

      • Well, actually, you have some technical errors there.
        Extractors do not retract. They are pushed out of the way by the groove of the cartridge case when things go well during feeding, and the case is peeled out of the extractor hook during its exit once the other side of the rim strikes the ejector and levers the case out.
        Dropping the slide on a case in the chamber blasts the extractor out of the way when the hook part slams into the rim of the seated case. There are extractors that are somewhat tolerant of this abuse, but it’s still hard on the hook.
        Yes, some people do it all the time and nothing happens, but it’s not kind to the shallower part of the metal, the hook.
        To review feeding, the case is shoved upwards by the magazine spring and other feeding elements. The rim slides up into the shallow part of the extractor and the bevel there more gently pushes the extractor head outwards.
        There are a couple of exceptions but in general, letting the magazine feed the round in a semi is better.

  13. I try to change out every 3-6 months. We’ve lived in Houston for a while so I try to just make sure it works out of the holster every few months, I’ll completely replace my carry ammo. Course, if I ever have to use it, and they ask what ammo it’ll be “Hornady American Gunner, it was on sale.”

  14. Many years ago I fired a 20 round box of .45ACP marked FA 18. The ammunition was 65 years old and was manufactured by the Frankford Arsenal in 1918. Every round fired and the gun cycled without a problem. I carefully cleaned the barrel after because of the corrosive primers. I still have the box.

  15. Havent most of us heard the story about the LEO on the job forever who only whiped his duty pistol down with WD40……….
    The brass turned green from and when he had to shoot. His gun went “click”.
    I know I did hear that story a 1000 times over the years.

  16. Utter nonsense. If your cartridges come out of the gun with oil on them, you are over oiling. Always run a dry patch through after oiling the cylinder or the barrel of a semi and that problem should cease. If your ammo is getting wet, ok, change it out, but few of us have that issue. Set back is an issue with semi-autos, and yes, I check the ammo against unchambered rounds every single time, as should everyone. If a round is set back, don’t risk it, chuck it. (That said, I’ve never has a 9mm Speer Gold Dot set back, which are what’s in my EDC right now because that’s what they had in the store the last time I went shopping for some, and HSTs were going for $2 a pop.)

    • Target sports USA has GREAT prices on Federal Law Enforcement HST boxes of fifty, I buy all of my HST from them, IMO it’s the best for 45 and 9, it’s all I use for my defensive ammo.

  17. Ammo myths. Box o truth tested and proved that you literally have to soak ammo in heavy oil for extended periods to ruin the primers. I am still shooting surplus ammo from the 1970s that goes bang everytime. Bullet setback, well, dont keep rechambering the same round dozens of times.

    The only thing that hurts ammo is moisture and heat. Other than that, ammo longevity can be measured in decades, not months. Most ammo will outlive its owner if kept relatively cool and dry.

    If your Critical Defense rounds are 6 months old they should be fine for another, oh, 20 years or so, unless you are storing your ammo in a streambed or glovebox in Arizona.

    • Ammo is a lot cheaper than my life. I’ll err on the side of caution, thanks.

      Oils are cause for concern too, especially thinner oils like penetrating oils or fluids that creep well (say, ATF fluid or some chlorine-based oils). Some kinds of solvents are also problematic (acetone for instance can break down the primer sealant).

      Rotating your ammo is a prophylactic measure that’s relatively simple to do and low cost. In the end, we’re betting our lives on the reliability of our tools

  18. Tail end Charlie again. likely no one will read this.
    I often don’t get to the range accept once every 8 to 10 months (bad/sad I know). Once it was 2 years. Each time I go, I’ll shoot off all my carry ammo that’s been exposed to elements to swap it out. After the 2 year dry spell, my Critical Duty fired just fine. (Thank you GT’s in Austin, Tx. and online)
    Other than that, it’s like changing the batteries in your smoke detectors (of course it depends on you financial means).
    If I know or meet someone that can’t afford to change their carry ammo, I’ll buy them a box or two.

  19. Good idea but… I don’t do it. On a related note, I was given a crumpled brown paper bag of a couple hundred rounds of 38special lead round nose all of same mfr. Remington I believe. This ammo could have benn 50+ years old. I shot it in a Ruger GP100 with a tasco red dot, a rig that I took 2nd with in a big PPC match years ago. I had a dud about every 24 shots. The ammo wasn’t accurate worth a damn and it leaded up and sooted up my gun something terrible. I would not in my wildest dreams have depended on the ammo before or after I shot it for self defense. I kinda knew what I was getting and was happy to shoot it up on a day that I had nothing else to do.

  20. I rotated my primary defensive gun ammo after it went swimming this spring. After water poured out the end of the barrel, I went home and shot the ammo out of my river saturated Sig. I was somewhat impressed actually. I really had no idea how well everything would perform after being underwater. It performed flawlessly!

  21. Some will probably say I’m not doing it right, but I keep self defense ammo for a year. then i go to the range and shoot it our of my magazines, and reload them with fresh ammo. All you have to do is look at the color of the brass projectiles to know it’s getting old. Now, I once found two clips of M1 Garand 30-06 ammo from 1942 at a pawn shop and took it out to shoot in my Garand. It shot great, but i was shooting old shovels, not some bad guy shooting back at me.

    Rotate your ammo. The small cost in time and money to rotate will pay dividends if you ever have to defend yourself,

  22. I live in a high humidity area (NC) and rotate my carry ammo every couple of months. I routinely have to dry my holster/pistol every day or two in the summer months. Anytime that I am outside I sweat heavily. Figure it can’t be good for the ammo. Just being careful. Why take the risk? Just use it and buy a new box or two. I keep all of my extra ammo in ziplock bags inside of sealed ammo boxes to reduce the effects of high humidity.

  23. Personal habit is to go to the range every month and shot 50-100 rounds of practice ammo. Every six months I pull my CCL weapon from the holster on my side and empty the mag. Then I pull the mags on my other side and run through them. I need to know my ammo works and my extra mags feed and have no problems. Ten years and not one bad round and I carry everyday on the job. As a General Contractor this means dust, dirt, sweat, heat, cold and a little rain. Critical Defence is my ammo, Springfield Armory my weapon.

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