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The Dirt on MilSurp Ammunition - Coming Clean

copyright 1999 Stephen Redgwell

Large quantities of ammunition are sold every week to shooters that own military surplus rifles. The new commercial stuff usually presents no problems - it's reliable, non corrosive and is made using modern quality controls. Older, military surplus cartridges however, can be troublesome.

Since there were so many milsurp ammunition manufacturers, it's difficult to say with absolute certainty that the stuff you just purchased will be free from defects. It's been made in so many different countries, using so many different components and powders. Will every round fire? Is it dangerous to fire? Will it damage my rifle? These are fair questions that anyone considering a purchase should ask.

BUYING SURPLUS CARTRIDGES

The 303 British cartridge has been manufactured continuously for over one hundred years. Despite its long production history, standards in construction and quality varied greatly. It's virtually impossible determine which surplus ammunition is good and which is bad. Stocks are continually changing and/or "new" stuff released for sale. Accuracy and quality depend on age, storage conditions and country of origin. As this is being written, Greek surplus is one of the most commonly available and reliable loads. By the time you read this, it may be in short supply. So how do you know what you're getting? Is the ammunition corrosive? Is it reloadable? Is it safe to fire?

Answers to these questions are difficult to determine just by looking at a box on a gun shop shelf. If you're new to the 303 or the use of surplus cartridges, you're going to have to keep your ears and eyes open for critical reviews from other shooters. It will be necessary to read firearms' magazines or newspapers for clues as to which ammunition is good and what is not. Here are a few things to keep in mind when searching for ammunition.

1. If the price is too good to be true, then it IS too good to be true. The best ammunition is usually fresh, reloadable (Boxer primed) and properly packaged. Consequently, it is the highest priced. For example, if most ammunition sells for $10.00 for 20 and one particular manufacturer's brand sells for significantly less - say, $4.00 for 20 - the alarm bells should start ringing. It looks like a bargain, but is it?

2. Severe discolouration/tarnishing around the edge of the primer. Deteriorated ammunition usually results from improper storage. While slight discolouration or tarnishing on the case is acceptable, crusting or corrosion at the primer bullet/case mouth is not. Ammunition in this condition indicates that it was stored in damp or uncontrolled climatic conditions. Don't bother with this stuff!

3. Buying bags of ammunition. This is a common sight at small gun shows. Loose ammunition packaged in plastic bags can be bad news. Bundling cartridges together this way usually indicates salvaged ammunition from improperly stored or roughly handled stock. Buying this is a 50/50 proposition. The only advantage to this kind of packaging is that you can see through it and examine the cases. Check the headstamps. Are they the same? Salvage can be a good thing provided that the remaining rounds are all the same manufacturer and year, appear undamaged and are cleaned up. The downside is that cleaned cases may no longer exhibit the signs of contamination or ingress of water.

4. Buying mixed lots or manufacturers. If you just like the sound of your rifle going bang, then this stuff is okay. If you want consistency, you'd better look elsewhere. Mixed lots/manufacturers type ammunition can be attributed to salvage or just packaging rounds of the same calibre found lying around. They're no good for reloading. They can be a mix of Berdan and Boxer type cases. The bullets can be different. Try getting a decent group!

5. If you reload, buy UMC (Union Metallic Cartridge Co.) Metal Case rounds. Priced in between surplus military and hunting ammunition, UMC offers freshly made cartridges that you can buy in quantity. This brand is good for reloaders. You can shoot, sight in and fireform for a reasonable price. UMC cases are Remington cases...and that's good.

6. Don't overlook sporting ammunition. Every once in a while you can find a bargain at your local gun store or at a weekend gun show. Good prices can be had between hunting seasons. Sometimes, discontinued ammunition is discounted for quick disposal. Even if you have no plans to buy, keep an eye open for deals.

7. Get together with some friends and buy in bulk. Buying ammunition in 100 packs or cases may be viable for reloaders or factory ammunition users. Some people can't be bothered with reloading. That's okay. Buying in bulk gets you hundreds or thousands of rounds cheaply.

Here's a tip for those of you that reload. Don't ignore those that don't share your hobby. Go in with them on a bulk purchase, shoot your share of the ammunition and get them to save their cases for you. You'll save even more. Just remember to inspect and full length resize the other cases.

COMMON TERMS DESCRIBING AMMUNITION MALFUNCTIONS

These are the most common malfunctions that are relatively easy for most shooters to deal with.

NO FIRE (Dud)
The cartridge does not fire when the trigger is pulled.

Action To Be Taken
Keep the rifle pointed downrange for 30 seconds. Keep a firm hold on it. It may be a hangfire. After 30 seconds, carefully open the action and extract the cartridge. Check the primer for a firing pin indent.

Usual Causes for Not Firing
Degraded Primer Compound
Empty Primer Cup - No Primer Compound
Damp or Degraded Propellant
Bad Firing Pin - inadequate protrusion
Broken Firing Pin - No indent

Remedy
Normally, this will be an intermittent event. If the original round shows an indented firing pin, try subsequent cartridges. If they do not fire but are indented, try the ammunition in another rifle, if available. If they work in another rifle, check your firing pin for protrusion. If they do not work in another rifle, segregate the ammunition.

HANGFIRE
The cartridge does not fire immediately when the trigger is squeezed. A fraction of a second later, the rifle discharges. Also known as the "Click --- Bang"

Action To Be Taken
Open the action and extract the case.

Usual Causes for Hangfires
Damp Powder
Poor Primer Ignition

Remedy
Normally, this will be an intermittent event. Hangfires are annoying, but not usually dangerous. If it occurs in more than 5 % of your ammunition, note not to buy it again. It's part of the gamble of using surplus. You'll just have to live with it.

SQUIBFIRE
An unusually soft, quiet discharge with no (or virtually no) recoil. Also known as a "Tiny or Quiet Bang"

Action To Be Taken
Open the action and extract the case. Immediately check the barrel for an obstruction. There may have been insufficient pressure generated and the bullet may be lodged inside.

Usual Causes for Squibfires
No powder/virtually no powder in the cartridge.
Damp/degraded powder resulting in partial ignition.

Remedy
Normally, this will be an intermittent event. After ensuring that there's no barrel obstruction, keep shooting. If you experience multiple squibfires, stop using the ammunition. You should tell the business where you purchased it, about the amount of squibfires. It's their call whether or not they pull it from their shelves. Hey, it's surplus! Caveat Emptor!

WHY DEFECTS OCCUR

Improper storage and handling is probably the number one reason for inconsistent performance in milsurp ammunition. Warehousing in damp buildings, or any facility without adequate climate controls, hastens deterioration.

Some ammunition was defective at the time of manufacture. Surplus produced under wartime conditions may exhibit more problems. Quality control and materials were not always the best.

Age
Ammunition produced in the early part of the century normally can not stand up to extended periods of storage. Modern propellant mixes and treatment processes have greatly extended the shelf life of today's factory ammunition.

Mishandling
Ammunition that was subject to rough treatment, i.e. dropping or throwing to the floor during shipment, extreme vibration or bouncing during transport, cannot be relied upon to perform flawlessly. Cordite, being long stranded and almost the length of the case, will break, crack or crumble. Just imagine taking your pet load of IMR 4350 (stick propellant), grinding it into a fine powder, loading and firing it. What would the result be?

Other Problems
Poor Quality Control During Manufacture
Incorrect Propellant or Propellant Amounts
Substandard Cartridge Components
Substandard Raw Materials

CLEANING FIREARMS AFTER FIRING CORROSIVE AMMUNITION

The traditional method of dealing with corrosive residue was to use lots of hot water to dissolve the salts in the barrel. You can flush it this way if you want, but there's a much more convenient procedure - GI bore cleaner or Hoppes No 9 Powder Solvent. Either is inexpensive, and gets the job done with less effort.

Immediately after you're done shooting, run a few well soaked patches of cleaner through the bore. Let it sit for about ten minutes and run another soaked patch through the barrel again. Scrub the bore with a bronze brush and soak the bore again.

When you get home, run another patch soaked in solvent through the bore and follow it up with the bronze brush again. Repeat these steps a few times. The final step is to pass a few dry patches through the bore with a jag. Oil and put your rifle away.

Some people like to take the copper deposits off the inside at this time. If you're going to do this, omit the oiling and run some Barnes CR-10 or Sweets solvent through the barrel instead. Scrub it down with a nylon brush soaked in your favourite copper cutter. Remember not to use a bronze brush with the copper cleaner. It will eat the bristles.

After the copper solution has sat for the recommended time, run a wet patch of standard powder solvent through the bore. Follow it up with a dry patch on a jag. You may have to repeat these steps until you get all the jacket material out. When you're happy with the result, oil the bore and put it away.

UNDER THE WOOD

Whether you shoot regularly or not, don't forget the trigger area housed inside the stock! Dirt and other damaging deposits can find their way into the strangest places. Corrosive deposits and grit will attack any part of your gun that's left unprotected. Most shooters ignore what's not visible, and there's a lot of metal under any stock. Clean these areas at least twice a year. If you're using corrosive ammunition, wipe down the inside after each trip to the range.