Are Old Cartridges Safe?
Generally, yes. If factory centerfire cartridges are stored in a dry, cool place with low humidity, preferably in an airtight container, they can have an amazingly long shelf life. Many ballistics experts report shooting 20- to 50-year-old ammo with no problems.
Notice I said factory ammunition, which is manufactured using premium components and exacting specifications that extend the shelf life of cartridges. I do not advise shooting old reloads.
If you can’t find new ammo and need to hunt with rounds you have accumulated over the years, chances are those cartridges are just a few years to maybe 5 years old, so you should not have any issues at all.
Before shooting any ammo that has been stored for years, check each round carefully. If the cases and bullets are clean, smooth and not corroded, the rounds should shoot fine. Keep in mind the warning signs of unusable and potentially unsafe cartridges: split case necks, rusty bullets and/or corroded brass or primers. If a cartridge shows any of these signs, discard it properly and don’t shoot it. Also, if a round looks fine but does not load and chamber easily and smoothly in your bolt-action or lever rifle, do not use it.
Will Old Rounds Kill a Deer?
Last season I planned to hunt with a new CZ 557 rifle chambered for .30-06. The ’06 has long been one of my favorite cartridges, and I’ve killed dozens of bucks and larger animals with it, but for some reason I hadn’t used the iconic round for years.
One day last September I went to my gun shop and asked the guy behind the counter for a couple boxes of 150- or 165-grain loads.
“Ha, haven’t had those in stock for months!” he barked.
I went home, dug into my ammo cache and pulled out a partial box of factory .30-06 with 165-grain bullets. I got to wondering how old the ammo was. 15 to 20 years probably, maybe older.
I went to the range, and after a little fine-tuning had the loads grouping less than one inch at 100 yards. I went out and shot 3 bucks with the CZ and those loads, including the buck pictured here. Look at the perfect bullet mushroom found in the off shoulder of that deer!
Right now, ammunition companies are working diligently and round the clock, but with incredible demand and supply-chain issues, it will take months and likely a year or more to get the shelves restocked to pre-pandemic days. Good to know those old cartridges you’ve squirreled away will do the job this season and maybe next.