June 01, 2018
An acquaintance recently called and asked me to dispose of his small collection of firearms. This routine transaction was special because I'd purchased one of the rifles (a no-prefix, four-digit serial number, Ruger Model 77 with the original flat bolt handle) from him 45 years ago. A few years later, he regretted selling it, so I sold it back at the original price. This time I informed him, "There's no return clause in this deal." The deal included an assortment of period factory ammo and an MTM box full of .243 Winchester handloads that I'd assembled in 1981. The handloads appeared to be in good shape; the brass cases showing only some age patina. The load record listed Remington brass, 40 grains of IMR 4320, CCI 200 primers, and Sierra 75-grain JHP bullets.
I wondered if they were still good.
Old But Still Good
On my next trip to the range, I fired a few five-shot groups with the vintage Model 77. Average velocity was 3,150 fps, standard deviation was 29 fps, and the groups averaged 1.5 MOA. Of course, I had to see how the results compared with a "fresh" batch of handloads composed of the same components.
I full-length sized 20 of the original cases, trimmed them to 2.035 inches, deburred the case mouths, and uniformed the primer pockets. I assembled 20 rounds of the original recipe, returned to the range, and fired the handloads. The results were interesting.
The "new" handload groups also averaged 1.5 MOA, but the average velocity increased 80 fps while the standard deviation was only 12 fps. I concluded that the 37-year-old handloads performed just fine- they'd still bust any varmint that got in the crosshairs of my vintage Redfield 2-7X Widefield scope.
I had even more handloads on hand that had been assembled 30+ years ago. In 1985 I prepared 20 boxes of .308 Winchester ammo to test in a preproduction Ruger XGI semiautomatic rifle. (While that model was advertised at the time, Ruger never released it for sale because the gun didn't meet the company's accuracy standards.) Most of that old .308 Win. handloaded ammo was stored in a GI ammo can in my climate-controlled shop. Since the day I put it away, I've rediscovered it several times and, on occasion, fired a few rounds to see if it was still in good shape. I did so once again to support this column.
Ten rounds of Sierra 168-grain HPBT bullets backed by 45 grains of H380 and CCI BR-2 primers reliably fired and functioned a current-production Ruger SR762 AR-10-style rifle, and they averaged 1.31 inches for five-shot groups at 100 yards. I prepped and reloaded the empties with the same "fresh" components and achieved 20 fps more velocity, but the two groups averaged 2 MOA and the standard deviation more than doubled. The old stuff is still pretty good!
I also fired some old 9mm handloads that I prepared in 1985 while function-testing a new semiautomatic pistol. Again, they seemed to perform as if I'd loaded them just a week ago. I assembled additional 9mm test loads using the same recipe but substituting Hornady XTP hollowpoints for the original, plain JHP bullets. Of course, the W231 propellant and CCI 500 primers were not the same old lots I had originally used. But according to the chronograph and targets, you could hardly tell any difference in the results.
Proper Storage Is the Key
I've been reloading for nearly 50 years and, as you might imagine, have accumulated lots of different propellants and primers. I've had a carton of No. 28 VihtaVouri Large Rifle Magnum primers for at least 30 years. I occasionally assemble a few test rounds to compare their performance with other primers. So far they still ignite reliably and provide consistent ballistic results.
I've also acquired sealed cans of long-discontinued propellants and even remnants of stock that one of my hand-loader friends used years ago and stored properly. In each instance of using the old powders, they have produced quite consistent velocities.
In my experience, properly stored in a relatively cool and dry environment, the shelf life of your reloaded ammunition and energetic components should be many, many years.