Small arms ammunition can be dangerous to responders

CarolinaFireJournal - Lenny Yox
Lenny Yox
10/18/2009 -

During the past year, more people than ever before have been buying larger than normal quantities of ammunition and reloading components. There are many reasons for those purchases -- and I will not try to cover them in this article.

I will, however, try to bring out some of the additional dangers posed to us, the responders on a fire or other emergency.


If a can of black powder is heated to an auto ignition temperature, a significant explosion will occur. Bet on it! Think pipe bomb.

If you are a reloader, shooter or hunter, you are probably already aware that ammunition and reloading components are somewhat hard to get -- and at a premium price when you can get them! Because of this, many people are buying “what they can get, when they can get it” and storing it for the future.

If this is news to you, then read closely. To begin, I am going to discuss black powder and the modern replacements that are available. Black powder (BP) has been used in firearms for hundreds of years and is still in widespread use today. This powder is usually sold in one pound cans or plastic jugs, pre-formed pellets for use in compatible rifles or larger size jugs for the frequent shooter. The new replacement powders act very much like traditional black powder, but are cleaner to use.

The main issue with this class of powder is the fact that it burns very fast and if misused/ mistreated will easily reach an explosive state.

If black powder is being used, the shooter will also have some type of igniter on hand to light the powder. This igniter will normally be in the form of a #11 percussion cap, musket cap or 209 primer. These percussion caps and primers are made to be very stable and safe if used and stored properly. If exposed to high heat, or dropped, then instability and/or ignition can be expected.

If a can of black powder is heated to an auto ignition temperature, a significant explosion will occur. Bet on it! (Think pipe bomb)

If the shooter is reloading modern ammunition (shot gun shells, rifle or pistol cartridges), smokeless powder will probably be the type of powder found near the reloading equipment. This powder is also sold by the one pound container -- and up to an eight pound jug is common.

The one thing that makes this powder somewhat safer is the rate of combustion for smokeless powder - much slower than black powder.

Should smokeless powder be accidentally ignited, an explosion will probably not occur unless the powder is contained within a can, pipe, etc.

There will be lots of sparks and flame, however, and it will NOT be fun! If the smokeless powder is encased, it will react in a fashion similar to black powder.

To ignite the smokeless powder, a device called a primer is used. These can be identical to the 209 primer used for black powder or can be smaller, but still effective. Because these primers are smaller, DO NOT take them for granted. A primer designed for a modern pistol or rifle cartridge is not a toy and should be handled properly. They can be dangerous (and may ignite/explode) if dropped or struck with a tool.

Once the components are put together and the ammunition is ready to be fired, the danger takes a different turn. Should the loaded ammunition be exposed to a significant fire, it will explode-sending shell fragments and the bullet in all directions. This is dangerous and can pierce turnout clothing. The speed of the fragments and bullet will be less than if the round had been fired from a gun -- but still very hazardous.

Even more dangerous is a loaded firearm with a round in the chamber. If this firearm is exposed to a fire, the round will eventually explode, sending the bullet down the barrel just as if the trigger was pulled. This can, and has, happened to responders in the past, with fatal results.

Let me cut to the chase.

Larger amounts of ammunition, powder and primers are being stored by gun owners than ever before, and probably will be for the foreseeable future.

As responders, we need to be watchful for our safety, just as we should be with anything else that has the potential to harm us.

In closing, let me add that I am an avid reloader, hunter and shooter. I am also a life member of the NRA, ATA and several other outdoor groups.

The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with some good information to help them make good fireground decisions and to stay safe.

As always, these comments and thoughts are mine alone. I hope that if you disagree with any of them, you take the time to e-mail me and we’ll have a friendly discourse on the subject.

Remember: Be safe, do good, and play nice. Your family needs you now and when the incident is over! Stay safe.

Lenny Yox resides in Carroll County, MD, and has been a volunteer firefighter in that county since 1974. He has held most positions (both line and administrative) within the volunteer service, and has been the team leader for the Carroll County Technical Rescue Team since it’s inception in 1994. He is also a career Lieutenant with the Baltimore County Fire Department, a member of the NFPA 1006 committee and has taught for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute for 24 years. Yox has an AA degree in Fire Protection, many IFSAC and PRO-Board certifications and is continuing his studies at this time. He can be reached at [email protected]
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