How to Salvage Military Surplus Ammo
June 29, 2017
In a recent e-mail, reader Dan Peterson asked what he should do with the 800+ rounds of IMI 5.56mm M193 ball ammo that he has. He said he'd never been able to shoot tight groups with them, no matter which rifle he used, and he proposed to tear down and reload the whole batch with Accurate 2230 propellant and Hornady 35-grain NTX bullets.
He asked several questions, including how to remove the old propellant; if the old primers could be used — and, if not, how to remove them. He asked for any advice about how to proceed safely. He said he's been reloading for 50 years, so I'm assuming he's retired like me — i.e., we both enjoy a more flexible daily schedule.
My first impulse: "Don't do it!"
Reworking 800+ rounds of military ball ammo is not an impossible task, but rest assured, it will be a daunting endeavor and unquestionably time-consuming. Pulling the bullets will take at least two or three days. For that, I recommend using a conventional bullet puller — not an inertia device. Hammering 800+ cartridges would wear me out, not to mention increasing the chances that one could accidentally go off.
After the bullets are pulled, the powder should pour out easily, but if some sticks to the case walls or the charge is so compressed it won't pour out, it'll have to be scraped loose with a small plastic probe. Work slowly to avoid crushing any propellant grains. It's not likely to accidentally ignite it, but the unexpected can occur when working with energetic compounds.
Each case should be carefully inspected with a penlight to ensure all of the propellant has been removed. The case shoulders need to be carefully looked at and felt as best they can.
I wouldn't be confident that the salvaged cases all retain consistent neck tension, so to obtain consistent bullet retention, the entire lot must be neck sized. Remove the decamping pin from the neck sizer die so the crimped-in primers are not harmed. If the ammo has been stored properly (in a cool and dry environment) and an adequate sample size — a couple dozen rounds, at least — has been fired without a misfire, we can assume the primers are still okay. If that's not so, the primers will have to be removed and replaced.
That's more work. Perhaps my initial suggestion makes more sense now.
Dan, if you decide to proceed, you could remove the "live" primers with a Lee or Lyman universal decamping tool as I have done with one or two or three cases on occasion. However, you will have 800+ chances for one to go off, so you probably should "kill" them first. Soaking them in water for a few days should be adequate, as long as they are punched out while they're still wet. (I have sprayed WD-40 into a few primed cases before decamping them without mishap. Of course, then the 800+ cases will have to be degreased — another time-consuming task.)
Recondition the Primer Pockets
At this point all 800+ primer pockets must be reconditioned before the cases can be safely primed. As I've written previously in this column, I haven't had much luck using a swage tool to reform the primer pocket, i.e., remove the crimp. There are just too many that don't get "swaged" enough, so when a fresh primer is seated, it can catch on the residual crimp and be damaged or even go off.
RCBS makes both a large and a small three-tooth cutting tool for its powered case prep unit. They work for me every time when I'm deburring large and small crimped primer pockets. Again, even using power equipment, this effort will be time-consuming and tiresome. Each case must be gripped firmly while forcing the cutter into the primer pocket. It's a trial-and-error process. If too much material is cut away, the new primer won't be retained, so expect some wastage.
To achieve optimal bullet retention when seating the rather small NTX bullets, all 800+ cases should be trimmed to uniform length and the case mouths must be deburred. This step can be done before or after priming.
Charge the Cases & Seat the Bullets
Now, finally, all that's left to do are the rest of the "normal" reloading operations: charging each case with a safe amount of Accurate 2230 propellant and seating the Hornady NTX bullets. Don't forget to inspect every round to ensure they're ready for the range
After writing all that, I definitely recommend that you should "forget about it!" Sell the surplus ammo to someone who just wants to hoard it or shoot it for fun. Then use the proceeds to buy new or once-fired commercial .223 Remington brass and reload it.
Don't forget that although we retirees do have more free time most days than working folks, we're also operating on a shorter overall schedule. I'd rather be reloading and shooting while I could still enjoy my hobby.