By Tom McHale
USA -(Ammoland.com)- Remember when surplus ammunition like 8mm Mauser surplus ammo was more abundant than White House press conference fibs? I do.
Not so very long ago, you could buy as much surplus ammo as you could store for less than 5 cents a round. Now that same round is about 60 cents – if you can find it.
Similar scenarios apply for other common military rounds like .308, .30-06, 7.62×39 and 7.62x54R. While harder to find, and a lot more expensive than it used to be, it can still be cheaper than newly manufactured ammo.
While the glory days of surplus ammo have gone the way of real investigative journalism, there are still some deals to be had. For example, one of the current “bargains” (and I use that word begrudgingly) is 5.45×39 for AK74s. That can still be found in quantity for about $.22 per round. Considering new 5.56mm ammo runs into the $.40 to $.50 range, that’s not too bad, assuming you have one of those micro-bullet AKs or a different 5.45mm bullet eater.
But as they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The “cost” of that dirt cheap surplus ammo is that some of it has corrosive primers or other issues that require extra care when feeding.
There are benefits and drawbacks to using surplus ammunition. Rather than address pros and cons, let’s just make some observations.
Corrosive Surplus Ammo
The real issue here is corrosive primers that use material which leaves a potassium chloride residue in the barrel and gas system – if you use a semi-automatic. You might recognize this dangerous (to guns anyway) chemical as… salt.
The problem with salt is that it likes water and attracts it from humid air. It likes water so much that even if you slather your bore with gun oil after shooting corrosive ammo, the salt will pull moisture through the oil to the bore and rust it underneath the oil layer. Did I mention that it really likes water?
The other problem with salt is that it does not really break down into anything less damaging to guns. It dilutes in water, but it’s still salt. So you can’t just “neutralize” salt residue left by corrosive ammo primers. Oil won’t neutralize it. Gun cleaner won’t neutralize it. Justin Bieber’s Greatest Hits won’t even neutralize it. You have to remove it. On the plus side, the fact that salt dilutes in water makes it easier to remove.
The good news is that all you need to remove salt deposits from your gun is water. The bad news is that you need to perform some kind of a water bath quickly after shooting as salt deposits can rust a bore faster than our President is distancing himself from that Taliban prisoner swap deal.
Here’s what I do when shooting corrosive surplus ammo. I bring a small container of Windex with Ammonia to the range with me. As soon as I’m finished shooting my relic guns, I soak several patches in a row with Windex and scrub the bore, right then and there while the barrel is still warm. The Windex with ammonia does nothing to “neutralize” the salt (nothing neutralizes it remember?) but Windex is made mostly from water, so it does an excellent job of flushing salts out of the bore. The ammonia part just helps clean out normal fouling and starts work on any copper deposits. There’s nothing magic about Windex, it just seems to get more junk out than plain water. After a good Windex flush, I run a number of dry patches through the bore to remove any left over water. When I get home from the range, I then do a “normal” cleaning with my solvents and bore cleaners of choice, always finishing with application of bore protectant or gun oil. Remember, we just used water to scrub out salt, then dried the barrel, so it needs some type of oil or protectant sooner rather than later.
With all that said, I prefer to use corrosive surplus ammo only in bolt action guns. With a gas gun, that salt residue can get all over hard-to-clean places like the inside of gas ports and tubes. Proper cleaning is a much tougher job. It can be done, but be prepared to invest substantial time and energy every time you shoot corrosive ammo through a semi-automatic gun.
The next logical question is, “How do I know if my surplus ammo is corrosive?” Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule. The US stopped making corrosive military ammo in the 50’s, so if you have old WWII bandoleers of .30-06, they’re probably corrosive. Comm block countries continued making corrosive ammo like 7.62x54R, 8mm and 7.62×39 for quite some time. The safe bet for imported stuff like that is to assume it is corrosive and treat it accordingly. Fortunately, capitalism helps you out here. The retailers who want to earn your repeat surplus ammo business do a really good job of communicating in advance whether the surplus ammo they are selling is corrosive or non-corrosive. That guy at the gun show? Not so much.
Steel Core Surplus Ammo Projectiles
Surplus ammo isn’t as good about labeling the product. If you’re shooting ammo left over from the Great Patriotic Mongolian Llama Freedom war, odds are that your ammo can is not clearly labeled with details like expected velocity, projectile type or California cancer warnings.
If you shoot outdoors, it doesn’t matter what type of projectiles you shoot unless you are shooting at steel plates not rated for steel core ammunition.
Or unless you shoot in California, where shooting anything seems to be pretty much illegal anyway.
Indoor ranges can get really upset if you shoot ammo with steel or other penetrating cores as it really trashes their expensive backstops. If you frequent an indoor range, check your ammo first if you can.
If you’re not sure about your ammo, you can hold a magnet to the projectile to see if it sticks. This is not a completely reliable test as some jacket material might have a little bit of magnetic jazz in it. You can also use a pair of metal cutters or a really good Leatherman Tool to cut one of the projectiles in half to see what’s inside. I used to keep a couple of cut bullets in my shooting bag to show my old indoor range that my ammo was lead core even though the jacket was magnetic.
Steel and Other Unknown Material Cartridge Cases
If you care about reloading, do your homework. Cases may be made from steel or melted down Zaporozhets cars. You also will find plenty of Berdan primed cartridge cases, which are a real nuisance to reload.
Varnish and Such
Back in the day, when those crazy communist block countries were making tons of steel case ammo, they used to coat the cartridge cases with varnish. It sounds innocuous, but after a while that varnish coats the inside of chambers. Leave those rifles in a warehouse for a few decades of Glasnost and you’ve got a real mess. This is one of the reasons that extracting cases from old Mosin Nagants gets really hard after a few shots. The varnish softens with heat and gets sticky. If you have this problem, try scrubbing the bejeepers out of your chamber – it might just help.
Supposedly the varnish treatment was to prevent rust and corrosion, but I have a different theory. I think it’s part of the Soviet long-term plan to stick it to us capitalist pigs. You see, they knew we would be buying up their surplus rifles and the varnished ammo to go with them. And they counted on us spending so much time scrubbing varnish out of the chambers that we would not be able to focus on more important things like designing stealth Shake Weights. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
When you scour the internet and gun shows for surplus ammo, you just might find some pretty interesting stuff.
For example, at a Tampa, FL gun show a few years back, I found 7.62x54R practice ammo. 7.62x54R feeds Mosin Nagant rifles among other things. If you own one, then you might also really appreciate how that steel butt plate smashes your shoulder joint to pulp after a long day at the range.
The practice ammo features hollow projectiles. Not hollow points, but bullets that are actually completely hollow inside.
As a result, the projectile weighs only 46 grains. It requires less powder to send it down range and it does that with great vigor at 3,200 feet per second.
4 out of 5 doctors agree that these rounds extend the life of your shoulder.
It makes great ammo for guest and younger shooters to enjoy with your old battle rifle. It’s exceptionally fun to shoot and is pretty accurate out to 100 yards or so. It’s almost like a .22 conversion kit for a Mosin. And this is just one example of a neat surplus ammo find. Scour those gun shows!
As long as you know what you are getting into, there is nothing at all wrong with experiencing the wonders and joys of finding and shooting surplus ammunition.
Do your homework, take care of your guns accordingly and enjoy shooting a little bit of history – literally.
Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon. You can also find him on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.