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Are Bullets (ammunition) Dangerous On Their Own?

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While guns can be used for a variety of uses, one thing that transcends use is safety. It’s paramount. If you own or plan to own a firearm, your first concern should be safety.

Beyond basic firearms safety, some who are new to shooting often wonder if they should be concerned about the ammo they load in their firearms? It is not unheard of for someone to ask me if bullets are dangerous on their own. By bullet, they are often referencing the entire round and not just the projectile component of the round.

Modern ammunition is not dangerous on its own unless it is severely mishandled. Rounds are designed not to go off accidentally. They are made to only fire if they are struck in a particular manner. However, there are always exceptions and in addition, a round can cook off if exposed to fire.

This article will go into detail about whether bullets are safe on their own and I will also explore what bullets are and some options in regards to how they can be stored.

What Is A Bullet?

Around the year 900 in China, a group of alchemists discovered gunpowder’s power. Along with the creation of fireworks, the first guns were born.

These first weapons were just barrels, lengths of hollow bamboo. And the first bullets were rocks, launched through the tube at great speed from the gunpowder’s explosive force.

Bullets of today have come a long way. They can fly farther, hit harder, and penetrate deeper than a high-velocity pebble. But they still work with the same basic premise.

A projectile can be shot out at very high speeds by causing a small explosion in a tight space. How do new rounds make this happen?

What Are The Parts Of A Bullet?

Modern bullets are a bit more complicated than their pebble ancestors. They consist of the following parts that are collectively known as a round, and separately they are:

  • The Bullet – The bullet is the solid tip of the round. When you think of a bullet, most people imagine the entire round, but it is actually only the tip, which is meant to detach after firing. The round works almost the same as a space shuttle, where its forward section separates from the body. Early bullets were cast in iron, but today they are made from several metals depending on their intended use.
  • The Powder – The powder is a chemical compound used as a propellant for the bullet and is held inside the casing just under the bullet. Often composed of black powder or smokeless powder, the powder explodes and projects the bullet out of the casing.
  • The Primer – The primer produces a spark when struck, igniting the powder above it and causing the bullet to fire. Often, this is done by the firing pin, a small rod-like mechanism that plunges forward when the trigger is pulled. The primer is a small section at the bottom of the casing (at the rim) and is unlikely to be struck hard enough to cause a “spark” by accident. Rounds can be jostled, thrown, or dropped as individual units, whole cases, or pallets, with little risk of going off. There are always exceptions.
  • The Casing – The casing is the body of the round, which is often made of brass or copper. The casing houses all of the components and acts as a delivery system for the bullet (in conjunction with the barrel), helping to funnel the force of the powder’s explosion in one direction.

What are bullets made of?

There are many kinds of bullets, going back to the cast iron balls of muskets used in the United States’ war for independence. Today the type of bullet you have will depend on the gun you are using and what you intend to do. Some types include:

  • Handguns – Most bullets in handgun rounds are made from a lead and aluminum alloy and wrapped in copper or brass, and steel coating called a jacket.
  • Rifles – Rifle bullets tend to be made of lead with a steel or cupronickel jacket.
  • Armor-Piercing Rounds – The bullets in armor-piercing rounds have hardened steel cores instead of lead, which is much softer.
  • Hollowpoint Rounds – Hollowpoint bullets have literal hollowed-out tips on top of the bullet itself. The tips flatten or spread out on impact and cause the bullet to expand as it crashes into whatever it’s impacting.

Where Should You Store Ammunition?

AC4C Ammo Crate from MTM

Best practices point to the fact that ammunition should be stored in cool and dry areas and should not be kept with oils or chemicals. They should certainly not be kept near an open flame as the fire could ignite the powder in the round and set it off.

Treat bullets as you would flammable household cleaners or firecrackers and store them accordingly.

The main concern with bullets that have not been stored properly is not that they might go off by accident. Instead, the worry is that they may not fire at all because of a breakdown in the propellants.

This can be due to moisture, chemical contamination, or simply heat over time. The failure of a bullet to fire is called a misfire and, while extremely rare with professionally manufactured ammunition, can also be caused by a defective primer.

Whatever the cause, finding out your bullets won’t fire is not the kind of surprise you want if you are attempting to use your weapon in an emergency.

On the other hand, adequately stored bullets can and have been successfully fired decades after being tucked away without a loss in quality or accuracy. However, most gun manufacturers recommend keeping bullets for no more than ten years to ensure you have working ammunition.

The AC4C Ammo Crate from MTM on amazon.com is a great solution to store your ammunition long-term and ensure it is well maintained for when you need it. This is one of the best-sellers on Amazon because of its high quality and great price.

What Are The Safety Standards For Bullets?

The Sports Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute is an organization created nearly a century ago at the United States Federal Government’s request. SAAMI sets strict standards for the safety and reliability of both firearms and ammunition that must be met to be sold commercially.

Bullets are drop tested to ensure they don’t fire if dropped, even if they land on a hard surface or from a great height. This video from Demolition Ranch illustrates how difficult it is to accidentally set off a bullet even in “perfect” conditions.

As we see in the above video, accidentally firing a bullet outside of a gun is very unlikely, but not totally impossible. So, how dangerous is a bullet that goes off without a weapon?

Most of the deadly force that accelerates a bullet comes from the built-up pressure of the powder’s explosion being contained within the gun barrel and having no way to escape except by forcing the bullet out.

In a pistol, that pressure can be upwards of 35,000 pounds per square inch (psi). This propels a bullet to hundreds of miles per hour.

Without a barrel to contain and focus the force of the explosion, a bullet travels much slower. The MythBusters team tested this with very entertaining results, and you can watch a clip of that video right here.

The above video also tackles the problem of bullets exposed to open flames. Needless to say, you should not throw bullets into a fire. SAAMI conducts fire tests on ammunition to help teach firefighters how to handle fires in places that sell and store bullets.

Conclusion

Bullets certainly can be deadly when loaded into the barrel of a firearm. However, out on their own, bullets are not dangerous. Anything can be harmful if misused, but if appropriately handled, bullets are quite safe.

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