Is it Safe to Shoot Used Shotgun Shells?

MINUTEMAN REVIEW may be compensated for purchases done through links on our site. To learn more about this, you can read through our Affiliate Disclaimer here.

Last Updated on July 30, 2021.

When the subject of old ammunition comes up, it tends to conjure images of discolored, corroded cartridges that will misfire, produce a squib, or even fail to chamber entirely. After all, every box of ammo usually states that their ammunition has a shelf life of 10 years.

Regarding shotgun ammunition, it can be doubly concerning to find out that shells of the past used paper or cardboard hulls instead of plastic.

If you recently came across some old shotgun shells, learn how to identify them and determine if they are safe to shoot, and if not, how to safely dispose of them.


The Shelf Life of Ammo

There are plenty of good reasons to ask about the shelf life of ammunition. Maybe you are a new gun owner doing your best to shop smart, a prepper looking to store ammunition long-term for disasters, or simply a curious shooter who wants to know what to do with old ammo.

Ammo manufacturers usually print a safety advisory message somewhere on the box, guaranteeing the ammunition will perform as expected 10 years from the date of manufacture. However, it doesn’t mean that the ammo will “go bad” after that point.

Unlike food and other perishables, ammunition does not possess an actual expiration date. How long your ammo lasts depends entirely on the storage conditions.

The ten-year advisory is a modern practice designed to shield ammunition manufacturers from liability past a reasonable time frame.


The Effects of Poor Storage

The two most significant contributors to ammo degradation are heat and humidity. These factors are why ammo storage solutions always advise you to keep your ammo in a cool and dry environment.

Excessive heat (over 150°F) rapidly degrades the propellant, reducing its ability to ignite safely. The inside of a car can easily reach these temperatures on a hot day.

Humidity is the other major killer of ammunition. Ammo that has been exposed to moisture for a long time will eventually exhibit signs of damage. On old shotgun shells, the brass case head may show signs of corrosion.

If the hull is made of paper or cardboard, it may appear cracked or damaged. When exposed to moisture for a prolonged period, the propellant or the primer compound may lose its power, significantly increasing the risk of a malfunction, such as a failure to fire, a hang-fire, or a squib.

If your used shotgun shells contain birdshot or buckshot, the potential risks of a squib are much lower than usual; the pellets may simply roll out of the barrel harmlessly.

However, if your shells contain a slug, squibs are as dangerous as they would be with pistol or rifle ammunition.


How to Dispose of Used Shotgun Shells

There are multiple disposal methods at your disposal, depending on your used shells’ quality and storage methods.

Just shoot it

Properly stored old ammo should be perfectly usable and performs just as well as it would have on the day it left the factory. As long as the storage conditions were adequate, there shouldn’t be any appreciable loss in performance.

If your used shotgun shells do not display any obvious signs of damage and you are confident about their past storage conditions, you may simply shoot them. This method is the simplest and perhaps the most enjoyable; it’s not every day you get to shoot old ammunition.

Before you shoot it, make sure you have suitable guns. Old shotgun shells may be in rare, obsolete, or otherwise esoteric calibers, such as 8 gauge, 14 gauge, 16 gauge, 18 gauge, or 24 gauge. Even if you possess firearms of the correct gauge, you should also check the shell length and make sure your chamber is long enough to accept it.

How to Choose the Right Shotgun Slugs

If you also have access to the original boxes, not only should they tell you what gauge and shell length they are, but you can also do some research on the brand and vintage of your ammo and get a reasonable idea of its manufacturing date.

For example, the first plastic shotgun shells appeared on the market in 1960. If your shells came in a vintage box advertising “new” plastic hulls, you can make an educated guess and estimate they were made in the early to mid-1960s.

If you experience frequent malfunctions while firing the old shells, remain vigilant and be prepared to clear any kind of malfunctions, especially with slug rounds.

What to do if it’s too unsafe to shoot

If the storage conditions are unknown, or if you know for a fact that the ammo has been stored improperly (and is therefore unsafe to fire), you must safely dispose of the shells ASAP.

It is best to avoid keeping ammunition you know (or suspect) is bad to prevent logistical accidents, such as accidentally rotating bad ammo back into your reserves.

If you reload your own shotgun ammunition, you may be able to salvage some of the components, such as the hull, wad, and projectiles. If you have access to the right ingredients and load data, it is possible to give these shells a new life.

If you want to ensure the ammunition is destroyed rather than shot or recycled, you can contact your local police department.

Do not call 911; instead, contact your local station’s non-emergency number and ask if they are willing to accept your ammunition for disposal. Most police stations should help you, provided you have a relatively small quantity of shells.

If you have larger quantities of shells to get rid of, or if your station does not accept ammo for disposal, you should try a local gun range or a hazardous waste collection point. These facilities have procedures in place for collecting and safely disposing of bad ammo.

Shotgun Shells Explained What All Those Numbers on the Box Mean

You can also opt to disassemble the shells and dispose of their components safely by following these steps:

  • Cut open the top of the shell with a knife.
  • Remove the projectiles.
  • Extract the wad and any filler material (paper, cardboard, plastic pellets, etc.)
  • Pour out the gunpowder.
  • Use a shotshell de-priming tool (or a screwdriver and a hammer) to remove the primer from the hull.

Once you have disassembled the shell, you can safely dispose of each element accordingly. You can even use gunpowder as fertilizer for your garden!

What not to do

Do not try to disable old shells by dousing them in water.

Although water can effectively disable the propellant, if you throw the shell away and leave it out to dry, the gunpowder may regain some of its properties, potentially allowing it to fire again.

Never throw bad ammo in the trash! Shells may detonate when falling into the garbage truck or crushed in the trash compactor, potentially causing shrapnel to fly and endangering nearby people.

Learn more about shotgun shells, visit this page.


Be Safe, Be Vigilant

Like all old ammunition, used shotgun shells can be perfectly safe to shoot as long as they were stored under adequate conditions. However, it can be challenging to know about a specific shell’s age and storage conditions.

Gather as much information as you can about your old shells, ensure you can ascertain who made them, when they were produced, and where they were stored. 

In the best-case scenario, you should be able to shoot them. But if you have any doubts, don’t take chances and dispose of the shells safely.