Ammunition availability is something that all experienced shooters consider when purchasing a new firearm. For many shooters, choosing a firearm chambered in a caliber identical or nearly identical to a common military caliber is an obvious choice. This is because there is often an abundance of military surplus rounds available on the civilian market, making ammunition cheaper as well as easier to find. The fact that a given caliber had previously been chosen by the military for use in their weapons means that bullets, brass, and other components used to manufacture the round will often be more readily available to the civilian market. What’s more, it is not unusual for firearm manufacturers to release civilian legal versions of their military arms that are chambered in the same caliber, further increasing demand and production of ammunition in that caliber by commercial manufacturers.
What do you need to look for and keep in mind when purchasing military surplus ammunition?
First, be aware that almost all military surplus ammunition will be ball or FMJ (full metal jacket) ammunition. The Hague Convention agreement of July 29 1899 stipulates that signatories to the agreement “agree to abstain from the use of bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body, such as bullets with a hard envelope which does not entirely cover the core, or is pierced with incisions.” For this reason, The United States and all other participants in the treaty agreed not to use any form of hollow point or other expanding ammunition. Military surplus ball ammunition is perfectly fine for target practice and training, but is not particularly effective nor is it recommended for hunting or personal defense.
Military surplus ammunition is very often loaded to different pressures than commercial ammunition in the same caliber. Commercial 9mm (9×19) ammunition is much less powerful than 9mm ammunition loaded to military specifications. By contrast, the 7.62 NATO, often used interchangeably with .308 Winchester, is actually loaded to a lower pressure (12,000 psi less) than the civilian .308 version that has become popular as a hunting round.
Other military calibers are loaded to similar pressures as their commercial counterparts, but critical differences in case dimensions can prove problematic. Take the well known 5.56mm NATO round. This is commonly called a .223 round, but there are critical dimensional differences between the .223 and 5.56mm rounds that can be catastrophic in certain circumstances. Dimensional differences in the two rounds as well as the resulting high pressures in the wrong chamber make the 5.56mm cartridge potentially dangerous to shoot in a rifle chambered in .223. The .223 round on the other hand may be safely fired in any rifle chambered for 5.56mm NATO. The .308 Winchester and 7.62 NATO cartridges also have dimensional differences, primarily with regard to headspacing, but these differences make firing .308 Win in a rifle chambered for 7.62 NATO inadvisable instead of vice versa like the 5.56/.223 situation. Still, modern shooters should be aware of this since their older M1A rifles are not necessarily designed for the higher pressures of the .308 Winchester round. That being said, I’m not aware any of older rifles chambered in 7.62 NATO failing due to the use of modern .308 Winchester cartridges.
Surplus ammunition is often labeled by paint that is applied to the tips of the bullet. Red or orange tipped ammunition generally indicates that the ammunition is loaded with tracer bullets that glow while in flight. Green tipped ammunition, usually found on surplus 5.56mm NATO ammunition, generally indicates that the bullet has a steel penetrator core. Black tipped NATO ammunition usually means that the ammunition is armor piercing. Silver or aluminum tipped ammunition indicates that the round is armor piercing and incendiary when found on the .50 BMG round. This should not be confused with silver tipped surplus 7.62x54R ammunition, which is used to designate light ball ammo. .50 BMG that is blue tipped is incendiary but not armor piercing. There are a number of other paint designations for various specialty rounds, but those listed above are the most common ones found military surplus bullets. Bullets with no paint markings are usually just full metal jacketed lead core ball ammunition.
Some older mil-surp ammo, especially ammunition from old ComBloc states is corrosive. Corrosive ammunition functions fine in modern arms, but care must be taken to clean firearms after shooting corrosive ammunition in order to remove corrosive salts that can quickly damage the bore and action of a gun. For more information on corrosive ammunition and how to clean it, see our article located here. Some people express concern at shooting ammunition that has been stored on a shelf for some 40 years or more. But the fact is, military ammunition is manufactured to last. Provided it is not submerged in water or coated with oil for an extended period of time, 40 year old surplus ammunition will function just as well as the day it rolled out of the factory. With regards to corrosive ammunition, there’s nothing to be concerned about there either. The corrosive salts that can damage your gun have no effect on the actual ammo cartridge itself. The corrosive components are in the primer of the round and are not released until the round is fired. Some military surplus ammunition may have discoloration on the bullet or brass but this is not something to be concerned about either.
Military surplus ammunition is not suitable for all firearms. But if you have a plinker or old surplus rifle that you’re looking for cheap and abundant ammunition for, it’s hard to go wrong with mil-surp ammo.