Sporting Ammunition in a Fire is Safe for Firefighters if it is NOT Loaded in the Chamber of a Firearm

by Michael D. Robbins
Director, Public Safety Project

February 13, 2013

The video below, SAAMI – Sporting Ammunition and the Fire Fighter, “is recommended as an educational tool for fire departments.” Its length is 25:47. It “explains how firefighters face no danger from sporting ammunition in a fire when protected by standard turn-out gear.” Even hundreds or thousands of rounds of firearm ammunition cartridges stored in boxes or other containers are safe for firefighters fighting a fire. Thus, firefighters are safe fighting a fire even in a gun store or target range with lots of boxed or loose sporting ammunition present.

This result is based on extensive testing. “Nearly one million rounds of sporting ammunition were subjected to ten different tests-from open burn conditions to tightly confined burn conditions-to examine what happens to sporting ammunition exposed to severe impact and fire.” A link to an article on the subject follows the video.

“Sporting ammunition includes shot shells up to 8 gauge and handgun and rifle cartridges up to .50 caliber. This video examines sporting ammunition only. It does not address military or law enforcement ammunition, such as tear gas cartridges, tracers, or incendiary projectiles.”

“Note that ammunition loaded in the chamber of a firearm and exposed to a fire IS dangerous just as if the trigger of the firearm was pulled, and the bullet can shoot out the barrel with full velocity.”

Therefore, all firearms should always be treated as if they are loaded and should be pointed in a safe direction.

“CONCLUSION: Projectiles ignited outside a firearm have significantly lower velocities and energies than when shot from a firearm.”

The reason there is no danger to firefighters from sporting ammunition in a fire is that the ammunition is not contained in the chamber of a firearm and therefore the walls and head of the cartridge casing are not supported by the steel walls of the chamber and the steel bolt face. The cartridge cannot build up enough pressure to propel a bullet out of the shell casing at a dangerous velocity.

The bullet will pop out of its shell casing at an extremely low velocity, and will NOT have sufficient kinetic energy to cause injury to firefighters protected by wearing standard turn-out gear. After the bullet pops out of the shell casing, the gas generated from the burning powder is not contained by a chamber and barrel, and it has little effect in propelling and accelerating the bullet. Furthermore, the shell casing may split open, releasing pressure from the burning powder. Typically, much of the powder in the cartridge is left unburned.

Firearm ammunition is designed to be fired from the confined volume inside the firearm chamber, where the shell casing is supported by the round steel walls of the chamber and by the steel bolt face. This builds up high pressure of substantially more than 10,000 PSI in the shell casing inside the chamber and in the barrel, propelling and accelerating the bullet down the barrel to full muzzle velocity when the trigger is pulled and the firing pin or striker strikes the primer in the head of the cartridge and ignites the powder contained in the cartridge.

This educational video below was provided by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI), an association of the nation’s leading manufacturers of firearms, ammunition and components. SAAMI was founded in 1926 at the request of the federal government and tasked with:

  • Creating and publishing industry standards for safety, interchangeability, reliability and quality;
  • Coordinating technical data; and
  • Promoting safe and responsible firearms use.

SAAMI – Sporting Ammunition and the Fire Fighter

“The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI), the standards-setting organization for the industry, has provided this video to fire departments nationwide to help firefighters better address the realities of fires in which sporting ammunition is present.”

“WARNING: These demonstrations do not apply to a loaded firearm (with a cartridge in the chamber). In a fire, a chambered firearm will shoot as if the trigger was pulled.”

ARTICLE: Facts About Sporting Ammunition Fires

For more information, CLICK HERE to download the following article (PDF file) from the SAAMI web site: Facts About Sporting Ammunition Fires, by Harry Hampton, Fire Journal, January, 1977.

The following are excerpts from the SAAMI leaflet linked below:


Properties & Recommendations for Storage & Handling

These statements and recommendations do not supersede local, state or federal regulations. Local authorities should be consulted regarding regulations on the storage, transportation, sale and handling of sporting ammunition in each specific community.

Properties of Small Arms Ammunition

All ammunition is carefully engineered and manufactured as an article of commerce. It has a specific use; if stored in a proper manner and used as intended in firearms in good condition and designed for the specific cartridge, the safety and satisfaction of the shooter should be assured.

Small arms ammunition is packed in cartons and cases as specified by the US Department of Transportation. These container designs were developed in the interest of safety in transportation, storage and marketing. Therefore, unapproved packaging should never be substituted.

Specific properties or characteristics of small arms ammunition of particular interest to shippers, warehouse operators, dealers and users are as follows:

  • Stocks of small arms ammunition will NOT mass explode. That is to say, if one cartridge or shotshell in a carton or case is caused to fire, it will not cause other adjacent cartridges or shotshells or their packages to explode sympathetically or in a simultaneous manner. There are no limits imposed on packaged quantities of ammunition which may be shipped, warehoused or displayed in commercial establishments.

This fact recognizes the inherently safe, non-hazardous characteristics of such ammunition in public or private storage.

  • Small arms ammunition is not a super-sensitive item. Packages of ammunition may be dropped from any height which the packages will physically withstand, and cartridges or shotshells therein will not fire due to the shock. Properly packaged small arms ammunition will withstand all the rough handling tests of commerce such as drop test, vibration tests, and rotating drum tests without individual cartridges or shotshells firing.
  • Small arms ammunition, if discharged in the open without the support provided by a firearm’s chamber or other close confinement, discharges inefficiently. The flights – more accurately “movement” – of projectiles or debris particles from such incidents are extremely limited in velocity, range and energy. The small primer cups or rimfire case fragments are the missiles of highest velocity in such occurrences. Specifically, bullets and shot charges, being heavier than shell or cartridge cases in most instances, are rarely projected away from the location at which the unchambered round of ammunition was caused to ignite and discharge. However, small particles of metal or plastic from the burst case and primer cups may be propelled for short distances (usually not over 50 feet) at velocities sufficient in some instances to cause injury or discomfort.

Insofar as the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute has been able to determine, there have been no substantiated reports of serious or fatal injuries caused by the discharge of packaged or loose ammunition in handling or in fires, regardless of the quantity or type of cartridges or shotshells involved. SAAMI has no verified report of any fire fighter hurt by flying bullets or shot pellets in fires involving a sportsman’s in-the-home personal supply of ammunition, a retail sporting goods store’s stock, wholesaler’s or distributor’s sizable inventory, or an in-transit cargo of this product.

Small Arms Ammunition in a Fire

Although much has been written and rumored about the 4th-of-July characteristics and so-called havoc of ammunition in fires, it just isn’t so. Members of fire fighting units are understandably uneasy when confronted by fires where ammunition is involved.

Several members of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute have undertaken extensive experiments to show what can be expected when ammunition is involved in a fire. These companies have also made careful investigations after such fires, which show that the missiles do not have sufficient energy to penetrate the garments and protective gear worn by fire fighters.

Tests also show that the whizzing sound heard in the vicinity of ammunition fires are caused by primers expelled from the burning cartridges. The “pops” and “bangs” are exploding primers; the propellant powders burn inefficiently and make little noise.

Metallic cartridges in a fire are difficult to sustain in a burning condition once the packing materials have been consumed due to the cooling effects of the metal parts and the relatively high ratio of metal weight to smokeless powder. Only a vigorous fire around metallic ammunition stocks will cause all cartridges to burn. Shotshell ammunition is difficult to ignite, but once ignited it will sustain its own burning due to the plastic or paper tubes (hulls).

NOTE: SAAMI is the source for all quoted material above.

“SAAMI – Sporting Ammunition and the Fire Fighter” video

Facts About Sporting Ammunition Fires, by Harry Hampton, Fire Journal, January, 1977. (PDF file)

SAAMI leaflet, “SMALL ARMS AMMUNITION: Properties & Recommendations for Storage & Handling” (PDF file)

Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute – Who We Are

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