Old Pistol Ammunition
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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 regularly rotating the personal defense ammunition in our carry gun.

Don’t let that be you.

How long ago did you put the cartridges you’re carrying in your EDC 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.

Ammunition lasts for years, though. Why do we need to 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 that I taught firearms classes 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 would 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.

We started with safety and gun basics and fired their 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 added to what I taught them with his real-world experiences. By the end of the day, the pair had each fired 250 rounds and laid in a fairly decent foundation in skill sets using my guns for the cost of defensive carry ammo, lunch and a steak dinner for me. After an intensive day of training, they felt a lot better about their gun handling and shooting skills.

Toward the end of our time at the range, 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 an off-track betting facility. He pulled out his Smith & Wesson from his duty belt. Then he carefully lined up his sights and squeezed the trigger.


Some say there’s nothing louder than a “click” when you expect a bang, or a bang when you expect to hear 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 from his belt worked fine.

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 can work into the cartridges through capillary action and neuter the primers. Just another reason not to over lubricate the chambers of revolvers or semi-auto pistols.

Oil contamination doesn’t pose the only risk to your CCW carry ammunition. Your magazines may acquire all manner of crud and debris over time, creating an opportunity for Mr. Murphy to make an appearance. Corrosion may occur on the cartridge cases.

Then there’s the issue of bullet setback. If you load and unload your pistol frequently — when you get home, when you put your carry gun in your safe, whatever — bullet setback can be an issue over time. That can lead to over-pressure rounds and a possible kaboom.

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 the 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 self defense 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 every day, 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. 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 self-defense ammunition regularly with fresh rounds, you can eliminate a potential failure point 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 always the case with a semi-automatic. A bad guy can cover that six feet far quicker than anyone can perform a malfunction clearing drill.

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  1. My carry ammo is rarely more than 2-3 months old, tops.

    And what’s in it is shot first at the next range session…

    • How many rounds are you changing out each time? Maybe I’m cheap but I had to switch from HST’s to Critical Defense due to cost, also, bought 100’s of defensive rounds before July 1, 2019, because commifornia. Those value priced Sig defense rounds work well in my guns too.

      • “How many rounds are you changing out each time?”

        It’s a ten-round magazine, so all ten carry rounds are fired first at the range.

        Then a box or two of FMJ for target practice, and a good field-strip cleaning at home, then fresh carry ammo…

    • Geoff,

      Same. I shoot through my carry cartridge each time I go to the range. My backup carry cartridge is, then, the one I insert just before leaving. That way, I am only running through one cartridge of the expensive ammo (Hornady Critical Defense) each trip.

      • I carry my S&W M&P9 M2.0 with 17 round in the magazine and 1 in the chamber. I fire those 18 rounds each month in practice or training. When I reload for the street, I load my pistol with the rounds from my 1st spare mag. Thus, I replace my carry ammo every three months. Federal HST, $19.99 for 50 at GT Distributors.

    • Not sure how old mine is, less than six months I think. I routinely clean my pistol of all the lint and don’t like it being oily. I’ll probably rotate it again before the year is over.

      • It’s a highly individual thing, I rotate out my carry ammo because I’m outdoors a lot, in Florida, in the heat and humidity, and the gun is carried AIWB, so it is literally damp with corrosive sweat at the end of the day.

        Less extreme conditions, cooler weather, etc, one could probably push it 6 months…

  2. What?

    Y’all don’t empty your roscoe in defense situations enough to always have fresh ammo.?

    Dang….I need to move to nicer place. 😬

  3. On my Dept. we had 8 hours of firearms training once a year. At the end of the day it was the annual qualification. For that shoot we had to switch from range ammo and load our duty ammo which was issued annually by the County. When finished the gun had to be cleaned and passed to an armor who disassemble the Glock and change out parts as necessary. As an aside the range was open and staffed most Fridays for ‘open shoot’. All ammo was provided and you could shoot all day.

  4. Hmmmm. You mean I should either dump or shoot my 38 Super Super Vels? I’ve gotten really used to them being in the mags since 1977.

    I’m kidding. I’ve rotated the ammo in the mags at least once every year. I’ve got like 25 boxes of them.

  5. I’m not too certain anyone would keep cartridges in any gun they own – EDC carry or otherwise – if they look like the ones in the photo. Not too sure why this pic was chosen to represent an article talking about EDC ammo.

    The story about the gentlemen with the .357 wheelgun doesn’t clarify the conditions that led to the 50% misfires. That’s a big ratio of FTFs that’s rather suspect. I myself have encountered full “range boxes” (200 cartridges) in which every one fired, and other boxes in which there were several FTFs due to presumably weak primers in the manufacturer’s batch, but even then the highest I’ve ever experienced was perhaps 3% of a particular lot. If that man had 50% fail, and you think it was due to oil seeping in from the chamber, then I think perhaps the bigger issue was that way too much oil was applied during regular cleanings. Instead of focusing on changing out ammo more frequently, maybe focus on better cleaning practices?

    My 2 cents.

    • “…then I think perhaps the bigger issue was that way too much oil was applied during regular cleanings.”

      That’s where synthetics like EEzox really shine, once the volatile carrier evaporates, it’s dry to the touch…

    • Those were John’s two rotated out cartridges after one month in his gun/fish toy. Special conditions require that has to rotate more often than average;-)

    • You’d be super surprised there’s more than a few stories floating around of cops pulling duty ammo out of mags and finding out that it was flat out green.

      • All these stories seem to revolve around rounds left for years, I’d advise considering your environment! In Vietnam, after being at a Forward Operating Location for less than 3 months, I returned to DaNang, where I had to turn in my guns to the squadron armorer. My.38 had not been out of the holster in my survival vest since I left, and I had some difficulty opening the cylinder, whereupon I discovered there was no way the bullets were coming out, if those really were bullets. Not just green but fuzzy! This was rainy season, but really! The armorer, a grizzled old NCO, looked at me like I was an unruly child and said he’d fix it. More than a trifle embarrassing.

        • I’ve heard stories from gunsmiths and range operators about police and security firing the rounds in the revolver’s cylinder and then unable to extract the cases because they had rusted into the cylinder.

      • The only cartridges that I h ave seen that looked that bad–or worse, since they were pretty green–came out of my grandfather’s revolver that had been in a holster in his closet since the mid 1920s, so somewhere at the time of about 60 years. He had a stint as a bank teller and bought a gun. Fired it twice, and only twice. Unfortunately, it was a cheap gun when he bought it, and it didn’t appreciate with age.

  6. I shoot all my carry ammo and rotate to fresh ammo once a year. On hot days i sweat onto the spare mag, but at the end of the day, I disassemble, clean and oil. Ammo gets throughly dried. I need a better solution, but lucky, all old rounds did go bang and were on target. Maybe wear an undershirt or something.

  7. I end up shooting my hunting rounds every year. I have rounds that have been rained on and carried in the stock holder and the brass is corroded. The Beretta and Benelli shoot them anyway. I use them to test the scope zero in the fall.

  8. When you rotate your ammo rotate your magazines too. Spring set you know. What? You only have two mags? Buy more.

    • High quality magazines will be good for at least a decade while loaded unless they are defective. Chinese mags probably won’t last a year.

      Quality Quality Quality.

  9. I had a magazine of 9mm +p HST’s in my center console since 2016. Year round with 90+ degree summers and 10 degree winters. It was never in the rain, but the nickel cases were starting to tarnish. just for fun I took it to the range and loaded it in my PX4 and not only did every round fire but the mag functioned flawlessly after loading and reloading in spite of being max loaded for 4 years! I do try to shoot what’s in my guns once every few months when it’s been carried and sweated on, but that situation made me feel tons better about not rotating my ammo that often, especially if it’s premium loaded with nickel plated cases. YMMV.

  10. I buy a 25 round box of my preferred carry ammo (Hornady Critical Duty 135gr +P)per month. When I go to the range, I also practice drawing and firing my CCW, usually at least one Mag, occasionally two. The three mags I carry, are marked one, two and three. Number one (a 10 round mag) stays in the gun, two and three are 12 round mags. Afterwards, ammo from two gets moved to number one, ammo from three goes to number two and fresh rounds go into number three (this changes if I run two mags). This way, the oldest ammo I’m carrying is only 1 to 2 months old. I’ve followed this cycle for several years now, with no failures to fire.
    For other calibers I shoot (usually just for target), I date the boxes when purchased, and when storing them, rotating the older ammo to be used first forward. Same thing for my reloads, the newer goes to the back of the queue, and the older is rotated forward.

  11. “How much is your life worth” is tiring and you can say that about many things. At a certain point you have to look at the all-in cost of being a gun person and see if it makes sense for you.

    There’s no guarantee that you’ll be in a situation where you need a gun; and if you are there’s no guarantee that the gun will save you.

    Of course better habits, equipment, and training are always better. But you have to look at the opportunity cost and see if you want to put that time and money into other potentially-lifesaving skills, such as:

    * learning CPR or first aid and carrying around kits
    * learning to swim really well
    * disaster preparedness
    * remote outdoors skills
    * radio
    * keeping fit enough to help yourself or others
    * staying well-rested and alert

    It’s fine advice to say “change ammo once in a while” but the “how much is your life worth” rhetoric is wearing thin.

    Maybe someone decides to buy a revolver and practice once a year, and spend the time they save on learning to swim? Does that person value life any less?

    • Last fall I found 5 clips of 30 cal carbine ammo. That had been loaded sometime in the 90’s as best as I can remember. Took them to the range. All fired flawlessly. Were reloaded and went through a couple hundred rounds with no issues. I’ve never had an issue with mags/clips loaded for extended periods of time. Not sure what all the hoopla is about. Carry ammo gets used at the range at least monthly. Be safe out there.

      • Goodness..not trying to start anything. I have often heard that compressed springs lose their springiness over time. I once read a study that pointed out that this is not the case, but cycling the spring..compress..uncompress over and over caused wear and the spring lost it’s springiness. Something about molecules ect ect
        Wish I could remember where I saw the study.

        • It’s something made of thin metal that you put on the edge of papers to hold them together. Or that is what happens when you get a vasectomy.

    • I would say it depends.

      I have three Ruger MkII mags that have been loaded (except when being shot) for over 25 years.

      They have never failed…..more than I can say for Remington Thunderbolts.

      I also remember 1911 mags that would lose tension and start to rattle in a couple of months. (ProMag – just say no).


      • Even the USArmy knows mag springs fully compressed lose tension, springs lose their stiffness over time. That’s why they stopped packing 5.56mm in 20 round mags at the ammo plants. After so many months/years they all became 5 to 10 round mags if they would even feed at all.

  12. I rotate my carry ammo on an irregular basis but usually no more than a year. I have never seen a failure to fire. With a few exceptions, there is little difference between year old ammo in the box and in the magazine unless the box is a climate controlled location.

  13. Given the cheap cost of ammo compared to health insurance claims or death, I change out 2 mags a month. The hard part where I live is getting more ammo….not the price. I am also in the group that believes you should run a few hundred (minimum) of duty ammo through your carry piece AFTER you have shot a lot of rounds through it. YMMV

  14. The results of the tumbler experiment can not be ignored. However; the fact remains that the chamber pressure generated by a cartridge is proportional to the linear deflagration velocity of the propellent multiplied by the total surface area of the propellant grains in the cartridge. If for any reason those propellent grains start breaking or cracking, the chamber pressure will increase. This is a HUGE issue for solid fuel rocket motors that operate essentially on the same physics and chemistry. Saddam Hussein’s bad boys discovered this the hard way in Fallujah. Because the linear deflagration velocity increases with chamber pressure, the chamber pressure will increase even more dramatically.

    A properly developed loading that fills the case to capacity minus the volume occupied by the bullet minimizes this risk. If you can hear the propellent grains rattling around when you shake the case, it should not be your preferred load for everyday carry. Sitting on the shelf isn’t a problem.

    • Another issue is coatings on the granules to retard the burn rates, like the time release coating on a pill. Repeated agitation can wear off the coating or break the granule to expose the inside directly. Both will increase the burn rate and increase the pressure. Besides carry ammo, cycle your vehicle ammo. Ammo in a spare mag, extra box, or truck gun is going to experience vibration, heating, and cooling.

    • “This is a HUGE issue for solid fuel rocket motors that operate essentially on the same physics and chemistry.”

      Rocket motors that go ‘Ka-Boom’ do so because the casting was defective and is no longer a single, uniform ‘grain’. This isn’t a problem in western countries that have learned those lessons and manufacture them properly and cool them slowly. And X-ray them periodically. Fearless Leader Achmed doesn’t do this, and his motors go ‘Boom’ instead of ‘ROAR’…

      • Russia packages their umbiquous RPGs in air tight container s for a reason. When exposed to air for to long, the propellant dries out an cracks. Saddam s bad boys opened the container s prematurely. The rocket motors went boom before they cleared the launch tube.

  15. I have NO “old” carry ammo. Super shiny gleaming Sig 124gr Vcrown. GTG…just how long ago was that ancient old timers ammo manufactured?!?

  16. I have had rounds look like the ones at the beginning of this article but they were from 70 year old Asian surplus!

  17. “Dance with the one you brung.” Is an old wise saying. It also applies to your carry gun! You’ve no doubt heard “Train like you intend to fight.” You also need to “Test your gear as your going to fight”! You always have your CC “ON YOU” right? At a minimum you take it with you in Carry Condition. It doesn’t matter when during the rang session yo do it but shoot your CC gun “as is” (just as you carred it last). Fire till empty or worse case: malfunction! Your reliability results are exactly what you would have experienced if you had to use it in a DGU situation!

    Don’t die because your a cheap ass penny pincher. The gun and mag must work with that ammo from first round till slide lock, empty or until cases are ejected from the cyclinder. All good? After that you can practice with cheap stuff. Reload with CC duty ammo when your done and again after cleaning.

  18. A gunsmith friend told me about a customer that every night would unload his gun and eject the round in the chamber. The next morning, he’d place that loose round in the chamber, release the slide, and insert the magazine. Eventually, he worn the rim off so that it wouldn’t extract.

  19. Another thing that is seldom mentioned: I was carrying a Glock pistol daily. Every morning I would load a round in the chamber – the first one from the magazine and then top off the mag. Those two cartridges wound up getting swapped every day. After a while I found the bullets were coming loose in the cases. When I had a chance I spoke about the problem with a Glock Armorer. He determined that the cases were being scratched by the slide every time it came back across the top cartridge. It only takes a few scratches to loosen the grip a piece of brass has on the bullet. Keep an eye out for it.

  20. Anecdotal uncles aside, the actual testing I’ve seen shows ammo being reliable for decades.

    I guess if you bathe it in fluids that might be a problem. Don’t do that.

    • Kinda tough in outdoors tropical climates worn inside the waistband. So you adapt by changing it out regularly…

  21. When I worked security for the Dallas County (Texas) courts, one of my co-workers was required to re-qualify with his S&W Model 10. He struggled to unholster his gun (The leather was stuck to it). Opening the cylinder, he was unable to eject the rounds. Corrosion had frozen them. The Range Officer literally had to hammer them out.

    Worst case I’ve ever seen.

  22. I recently traded with a friend for his model 19-5 snub. When I fired the ammo he was carrying, only two of six primers ignited.

  23. I used to design software. One day, a mechanical engineer on the project just happened to mention oil migration. Being terminally curious, I asked for more info.

    Oil, being a fluid, will migrate *everywhere*. Any machined steel (or brass) surface is covered with micro-fractures. Capillary action eventually wicks the oil over the entire surface. In warmer environments, the oil vaporizes and re-deposits elsewhere, like when you un-holster at night and the firearm cools off (from 98.6 to ambient).

    Summer is coming. I tend to sweat, so I occasionally put a drop of oil on a patch and wipe down the exterior slide. It doesn’t hurt to wipe down the barrel, just be sure to wipe down the barrel with a dry patch or two.

    I also fire (rotate out) my chambered round every month or so.

    • Get a Hoppe’s Silicone Gun and Reel cloth and wipe down the outside of your gun. Works great, and doesn’t need repeating often at all.

  24. Like Bill Hickock, I shoot my carry mag EVERY DAY at the end of the day and load fresh ammo.

    Daily practice and always fresh ammo.

  25. Ah… what crap brands of ammo are you packing? It’s not the rounds that need changing it’s the mag springs that need a rest from being fully compressed all the time. I rotate all my loaded mags every 30 days, clean the rounds of needed. Ammo don’t go bad from carrying it around, but weak mag springs can not only fail to feed the last rounds, but also be to weak to keep up with action and fail to feed any rounds after the first shot.

    • A compressed spring does not wear out. Springs wear out when they are continuingly tensioned and released.

      That is why I one set of carry mags and one set of range mags.

      • Even the USArmy knows mag springs fully compressed lose tension, springs lose their stiffness over time. That’s why they stopped packing 5.56mm in 20 round mags at the ammo plants. After so many months/years they all became 5 to 10 round mags if they would even feed at all.

  26. Really now, you got those shells in the photo out of the garden, didn’t you?

    I have a “Dust Bunny Check”. If there is debris in the muzzle, the firearm gets cleaned and the ammo exchanged…every time.

    I will say, the bit about the oily shell is a great indicator. The better the lubricant, the better the penetration.
    Dogs love trucks but powder and primers hate oil.

  27. I Change my carry weekly with 147 gr Hornady XTPs, around 21.00 a box of 100. That is why I took up reloading.Manufacturers think defensive ammo is Gold plated with what they charge.


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