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Do Shotgun Shells Go Bad?

If new ammunition is hard to find, now might be the time to shoot up some of your older shotshells.

Do Shotgun Shells Go Bad?

Here’s what you need to know about shooting old ammunition. (Photo By: SvetlanaSF/Shutterstock.com)

Ammunition manufacturers have been working overtime for two years to try and meet the increased demand for rifle, shotshell, and handgun ammunition—and thankfully, supply is finally starting to catch up with demand. Perhaps we’re not at the end of the ammo shortage yet, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

See the Author's Complete Guide to Surviving the Ammo Shortage

In the midst of the crisis, hunters and shooters were pretty clever about ferreting out ammunition that had been stowed away and might not have been in such high demand during normal times. Leftover ammunition from the ‘80s and ‘90s, which was once primarily valued for its packaging, suddenly became fair game for the field.

But does shotgun ammunition have a shelf life and, if so, how long is that shelf life?


The Short and Long of It

I contacted Daniel Compton, product line manager at Federal Ammunition, regarding the shelf life of shotgun ammunition. I expected an extensive response with a lot of complicated chemical analysis, but Federal’s stance on aged-out ammunition is simple: in their FAQ section, the company lists ten years as ammunition shelf life.

That’s a rather simple and straightforward answer, and Federal is no doubt using ten years as a conservative estimate of how long a shotshell would last. If you like, you can use that standard yourself, clinging to the decade policy. If that’s your plan, be certain to write the date of purchase in large lettering on the box so that you’ll have a reminder of when you purchased the ammo.

Ten years is not a magic number, and shotgun shells don’t automatically sour after a decade of storage. In truth, shotshells may last considerably longer than that under the right conditions. In bad conditions shells may not even make it to ten years.

Appropriate Ammunition Preservation Conditions

So, what are the right conditions to preserve shotshells? Primarily, you’ll need a cool and a dry environment to preserve ammunition. Heat and moisture are the two most common factors that cause shotshells to fail, so you need to pay close attention to where you store your ammunition for maximum shelf life. Just about any place where the humidity is kept below 50 percent and the temperature is mild and stable (say 70 degrees or colder) and you’ll reduce the odds that moisture or corrosion cause issues.

shotgun shells
Keep an eye out for excessive corrosion and other signs of damage to a shell before loading. (Photo By: Ana Hollan/Shutterstock.com)

You’ll also slow the natural breakdown of smokeless powder that occurs over time. Reactions within the powder itself may eventually cause the load to weaken, but if the powder is kept cool these oxidation reactions occur at a slower pace than in very cold environments. Uncooled buildings, car interiors, basements that aren’t temperature controlled, and other storage sites are terrible for ammunition.

Another factor impacting the shelf life of shotshells is how they’ve spent the years between manufacturing and use. I recently picked up several cases of Winchester AA ammunition that had belonged to a competitive shooter who passed away over a decade ago. That ammunition was stored in boxes inside a gun room where the temperature and humidity were monitored and controlled, so the ammunition shoots perfectly well. That might have been different if the ammo was stored in a vest pocket in a garage where heat and moisture were impacting the powder over the last decade.


The Skinny on Shotshells

Modern plastic shotshells were introduced by Federal Ammunition in the 1960s, and plastic shotshell hulls undoubtedly protect internal components more effectively that paper hulls used previously. That doesn’t mean that paper hull ammunition from the 1960s, and even before, won’t work—but paper absorbs moisture over many decades (which can also cause shells to swell and not fit into your shotgun’s magazine and chamber).

loading a shotgun with shells
If a shell is bulging or has an irregular shape, don’t force it into your magazine or chamber as it may not feed or eject properly. (Photo By: Ashley-Belle Burns/Shutterstock.com)

The most important factor is to use firearms in good working order and ammunition that matches. Obviously, avoid ammunition without discernable markings that indicate gauge and so forth, but also pay close attention for signs of damage. The most obvious visible clues that shotgun ammunition has gone bad are damaged hulls and corroded brass. If either of these problems exist it’s wise not to use the ammunition.

It's difficult to propose an accurate shelf life for ammunition since there are so many factors at play. The universal recommendation is ten years, although there’s no doubt that ammunition can last longer if stored properly. Aside from preserving the life expectancy of your shells, the key is to identify the warning signs that ammunition might have reached the end of its usable life.

loading a shotgun with two shells
Make sure primers are snuggly seated and not loose before using. (Photo By: Brad Fitzpatrick)
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