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Check Your Ammo; Save Your Life

With the benefit of hindsight firmly in my corner, I can say without a doubt that the lead firearms instructor at my police academy was decades ahead of most L.E. trainers.  Though I’m sure he’s been promoted myriad times, Sgt. Doug Hunter gave we young police cadets much more information than was required by the book.  Two decades later while living in southern Mississippi I’d discover a term for this - “lagniappe,” that little something extra. 

Doug gave us several lagniappes during the Ohio Peace Officer’s Training Academy.  One of these was to remove any screws that might be found on our duty guns, clean the threads with alcohol and secure them back in place with some type of thread-locking compound.

Check your Ammo

Another lesson not found in the manual was to visually inspect each and every round of duty ammunition issued to us before we loaded our magazines or speed-loaders (yes, some of us still had revolvers back then).  Doug instructed us to check the primers and the cases and to give each piece a once over.  He even went so far as to explain that when he swapped out old duty ammunition for new that he would sit down and manually drop each round into the chamber to ensure that it would seat properly when needed.  This is readily accomplished by disassembling the pistol and using the barrel sans slide.

I can recall a couple of guys scoffing at that advice.  They commented that they weren’t using basement reloads, but factory fresh ammunition.  Surely the factory ammunition would be unquestionably the best available. While that was for the most part true twenty years ago, nevertheless, mistakes did and do happen.

The Modern Ammo Crunch

Twenty plus years ago, finding a piece of bad or damaged factory ammunition was like finding a four-leafed clover.  You saved it and showed your friends.  You remembered the exact day and circumstances.  It was indeed rare.

In the year 2013, every ammunition manufacturer in the nation is operating at maximum capacity.  They simply cannot make ammo faster or in greater quantities.  What this translates to in the real world is less experienced personnel running the machines and mistakes can and do happen.  

During the last few years there have been several voluntary recalls of ammunition from all the big makers.  The biggest culprit has been the use of the incorrect propellant.  After a maker discovers that a lot of ammo went out with the wrong powder they issue an immediate recall and warning.  But, what about a lot of ammo that might have had an inverted primer or two, does that lot get recalled?  Perhaps one round out of ten thousands has the projectile over-seated?  Will a recall be issued for that lot?  Not likely, nor would it likely be warranted.

During the last couple of months I’ve personally found pieces of factory fresh ammunition that were damaged in the manufacturing process but shipped out.  About two months ago I discovered one round of .45 ACP that had a hole punched in the case wall and the propellant powder had all fallen out.  A week ago as I write this, I encountered a piece of .45 ACP that had the projectile seated too deeply causing the case wall to bulge ever so slightly. This round would not fully chamber.

Just so you don’t think that .45 ACP ammo is the prime culprit I’ll share another experience.  While working as a Small Arms and Tactics instructor for the military I personally found a few rounds of 9mm that, despite being chambered and having their primers dented, failed to ignite.  Not just once, but they failed after being rechambered by an instructor later on.   This was Mil-Spec 9x19mm ammunition from a major ammo maker.

The Solution

First and foremost, if you are loading your personal defense firearm with ammunition you will potentially be using to save your life, I would visually inspect every piece.  Taking each round and dropping it in the chamber is solid advice as well.  If you really want to get serious, use a digital grain scale and weigh each and every round.  If you find a round that is a few grains off that might indicate a low or empty charge. 

Ensure that the ammunition you are using is the premium grade version from your favorite ammo maker.  As a general rule, higher quality control goes into the manufacture of premium personal defense ammo.  You may not have a choice in the matter, but it’s worth considering.

Have a backup plan.  Firearms and ammunition are merely tools made by the hands of men.  While most are extremely reliable, your life is worth having a second option.  Another lagniappe Doug gave us was the “two is one, one is none” rule for critical gear.   Doug always advocated carrying two guns.

In the end, it’s your life.  Live it like you want to.  For my part, I will check all the ammo I load when it might be “for real”.


About the Author

Mr. Markel has been a firearms industry writer for twenty years and currently hosts and produces “Student of the Gun” a television show dedicated to education, experience and the enjoyment of firearms.  Episodes of Student of the Gun can be viewed by simply going to and clicking the “play” icon.