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Smokeless Powder & Primer Storage
Marshall Stanton on 2005-08-27

Handloading, while rewarding and economical also brings responsibility.  Perhaps one that is most overlooked, neglected or simply ignored is safe storage of propellant powders. 

It’s surprising how even the novice handloader can, over just a short period of time, accumulate quite an array of powders, and as such, while a person doesn’t think about it, also a  volume of smokeless propellants that rather sneaks up in quantity!  While pursuing the “perfect load” we often purchase several assorted types of powders, trying different manufacturer’s powders and those of different burning rates for a given application.  It is this tinkering nature that causes the influx of powder inventory for even the casual handloader.

This on-hand smokeless powder inventory is the focus of our attention in this short article.  Proper storage of canister powders involves not only the temperature and humidity at which powders are stored, but to insure that those powders are maintained in their original DOT approved packaging and shipping containers.  These containers are specifically designed to reduce the hazards of violent explosion in the event that these canisters are exposed to either fire or high temperatures.  Too, so long as the powders are in their original packaging, labeling and identifying powders doesn’t become and issue.

In addition to the fire-related issues regarding smokeless powder storage, are the safety issues with children.  Today’s society is a different community than it was even twenty years ago, and as such, the liability issues, and child-endangerment laws can be both confusing and intimidating.  With the growing anti-gun sentiment of large protectionist type groups, it is essential that we, as handloaders both preserve and protect our hobbie and heritage by learning and heeding safe powder storage practices. Unfortunately, depending upon the state, improper powder storage can be considered child endangerment, and result in some really ugly legal issues if the wrong governmental agencies become involved.

So, not only to avert any potential legal issues, but for the common-sense safety standpoint, it becomes essential to learn the proper storage methods and practices of modern smokeless powders.

In the event of a fire, this proper storage of powders can become a literal life and death issue, not only for the occupants of the structure, but for those emergency personnel who come to assist during the event.  Below is the text submitted to by one of our members there, Markkw, who is a professional fire-fighter.  In the narration below, Mark describes an on-the-job fire experience with canister powders. 

“I had the displeasure of fighting a fire at a gun shop once, really bad situation because I was friends with the family who owned it and had their whole lives wrapped up in that business.

The smokeless powder in 1# metal cans popped and produced a pretty good fireball but was not all that bad unless you were very close to it. The paper 1# containers were the first to go barely doing anything but making a noticeable fireball. The metal 1# cans of black powder were impressive to say the least. When these let loose, the pop was more of a dull boom and the flash fire was quite intense. The pressure released was enough to be felt even in the ears like dropping a lot of altitude quickly. The 8# and bigger smokeless shotgun powder in cardboard drums was the most intense I think more so from the serious volume of heat released so quickly than anything.

The fire was well established when we pulled in with the engine and the store was not real large. Fearing scattering the stock of powder cans, I used a medium spray pattern rather than the normal knockdown strait stream sweep. The fire quelled with the first shot of water and the truck crew took out the two large windows on either side of the door that allowed rapid venting and entry for interior attack. There was still a lot of fire inside but it could not be readily hit from the doorway position. Once inside several feet is when the first of the smokeless decided to let loose which started the chain reaction to the black powder. I don't know if it was only one or two cans of the BP that went right away but it caused the rest of it and some of the 1# smokeless cans to be scattered about. Not having the best visibility conditions it was hard to see what was happening at the time, much of it was sorted out after the fire had been completely extinguished. We got a majority of the fire out rather quickly despite the powder cans lighting off here and there as we made our way through. It sounded like being in a giant size popcorn popper with the small arms ammo cooking off and both me and the guy behind me got pelted with flying debris, mostly primers from what we gathered afterward but nothing to cause any injury. He said one got him in the ear which was only covered by his Nomex hood and it stung a little but didn't leave anything but a slight red mark on the skin.

This happened several years ago and the powders were stored on wooden shelves and the larger kegs on the floor behind the counter. Most all the ammo was also on shelves and or the floor and most of the stuff on the floor was not seriously affected by the fire itself. Talking with the owner days after the fire, he said most all the rifle ammo simply popped the primers except for some military-surplus that popped the bullets out and some split the cases. He, nor us, found any signs of projectiles other than the primers which didn't seem to cause any damage to anything else, I assume their low mass played an important roll in this. Now, we're talking a store that stocked upwards of 200 pounds of powder and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammo and no major problems. Some ammo that cooked off that I noted was Remington CF rifle stored in the factory cardboard boxes and styrofoam inserts. Only those right near the fire cooked off and while the styrofoam melted to a blob, other rounds in the same box did nothing. The shotgun ammo seemed to the worst for popping primers and is likely what pegged my back-up man in the ear. The primers tore through the factory boxes but I found some that laid next to other cardboard boxes a few inches away where they hit and didn't penetrate.”

My take is that if you store more than a few pounds of powder, it should be protected from fire with thick drywall or better yet actual fire board to keep the heat and direct flame contact off it as much as possible. I'd also suggest designing the storage unit with a large vent routed upwards and outside away from other exposures to safely direct cook-offs out and away from anything or anyone. First and foremost, I would not suggest storing in metal ammo cans or any other non-OEM powder can. The seams peel open on these cans and while they do "pop" they don't explode which is what you'll get with any type of heavy walled the comment was made about large frag grenades.

Location is another thing to consider. Store powder as far away from living and sleeping areas; and especially stairways or other escape routes if possible. If this means walking to the other side of the house to get the powder, it's a small thing to do when compared to what you can loose.Common sense goes a long way especially if you add some thought to it and think about all the things that could possibly go wrong. How many times have you heard of major incidents where the ending comment made was, "...well, we never thought all these things could happen at once..." They can happen and will if you don't allow for them and plan ahead.

Coming from a professional, and real-life experience, the above scenario underlines the importance of proper powder storage, and the importance of avoiding tightly sealed secondary powder containment practices.

Below is listed the synopsis of the National Fire Protection Association powder storage and transportation guidelines.  These guidelines are self-explanatory, and should be followed closely, not only for compliance with the law, but to enhance the safety we enjoy pursuing our sport.


13-3.1 Quantities of smokeless propellants not exceeding 25 lb (11.3 kg), in shipping containers approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, shall be permitted to be transported in a private vehicle.

13-3.2 Quantities of smokeless propellants exceeding 25 lb (11.3 kg) but not exceeding 50 lb (22.7 kg), transported in a private vehicle, shall be transported in a portable magazine having wood walls of at least 1 in. (25.4 mm) nominal thickness.

13-3.3 Transportation of more than 50 lb (22.7 kg) of smokeless propellants in a private vehicle shall be prohibited.

13-3.4 Commercial shipments of smokeless powder for small arms which has been classed in Division 1.3 shall be permitted to be reclassed as Division 4.1 Flammable Solid for transportation purposes for shipment by motor vehicle, rail car, vessel, or cargo-only aircraft, subject to the conditions stated in the U.S. Department of Transportation "Hazardous Materials Regulations," 49 CFR 173.171.

13-3.5 Commercial shipments of smokeless propellants exceeding 100 lb (45.4 kg) or not packaged in accordance with the regulations cited in 13-3.4 shall be transported in accordance with the U.S. Department of Transportation regulations for Class B propellant explosives.

13-3.6 Smokeless propellants shall be stored in shipping containers specified by U.S. Department of Transportation Hazardous Materials Regulations.

13-3.7 Smokeless propellants intended for personal use in quantities not exceeding 20 lb (9.1 kg) shall be permitted to be stored in original containers in residences. Quantities exceeding 20 lb (9.1 kg), but not exceeding 50 lb (22.7 kg), shall be permitted to be stored in residences where kept in a wooden box or cabinet having walls of at least 1 in. (25.4 mm) nominal thickness.

13-3.8 Not more than 50 lb (22.7 kg) of smokeless propellants, in containers of 1 lb (0.45 kg) maximum capacity, shall be displayed in commercial establishments.

13-3.9 Commercial stocks of smokeless propellants shall be stored as follows:

(1) Quantities exceeding 50 lb (22.7 kg), but not exceeding 100 lb (45.4 kg), shall be stored in portable wooden boxes having walls of at least 1 in. (25.4 mm) thickness.

(2) Quantities exceeding 100 lb (45.4 kg), but not exceeding 800 lb (363 kg), shall be stored in nonportable storage cabinets having walls of at least 1 in (25.4 mm) thickness. Not more than 400 lb (181 kg) shall be permitted to be stored in any one cabinet, and cabinets shall be separated by a distance of at least 25 ft (7.63 m) or by a fire partition having a fire resistance of at least 1 hour.

(3) Quantities exceeding 800 lb (363 kg), but not exceeding 5,000 lb (2268 kg), shall be permitted to be stored in a building, provided the following requirements are met:

(a). The warehouse or storage room shall not be accessible to unauthorized personnel.

(b). Smokeless propellant shall be stored in nonportable storage cabinets having wood walls at least 1 in. (25.4 mm) thickness and having shelves with no more than 3 ft. (0.92 m) of separation between shelves.

(c). No more than 400 lb. (181 kg) shall be stored in any one cabinet..

(d). Cabinets shall be located against the walls of the storage room or warehouse with at least 40 ft (12.2 m) between cabinets.

(e).  The separation between cabinets shall be permitted to be reduced to 20 ft (6.1 m) where barricades twice the height of the cabinets are attached to the wall, midway between each cabinet. The barricades shall extend at least 10 ft. (3 m) outward, shall be firmly attached to the wall, and shall be constructed of 1/4 in. (6.4 mm) boiler plate, 2 in. (51 mm) thick wood, brick, or concrete block.

(f). Smokeless propellant shall be separated from materials classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation as flammable liquids, flammable solids, and oxidizing materials by a distance of 25 ft. (7.63 m) or by a fire partition having a fire resistance of at least 1 hour.

(g). The building shall be protected by an automatic sprinkler system installed in accordance with NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems.

(4) Smokeless propellants not stored in accordance with 13.3.9 (1), (2), and (3) shall be stored in a Type 4 magazine constructed and located in accordance with Chapter 8.

Reprinted from NFPA495-85, Standard for the Manufacture, Transportation, Storage and Use of Explosive Materials, © 2001, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy , MA 02269 . This reprinted material is not the complete and official position of the NFPA on the referenced subject, which is represented by the Standard in its entirety.

Along with the responsibilities of proper storage and handling of smokeless propellants, comes an equal consideration, and that is the storage and handling of modern sporting ammunition primers.  While these guidelines are available several places on the web, we have chosen to include them here as well for your reference, and your safety. 

Sporting Ammunition Primers
Properties, Handling & Storage for Handloading

Prepared by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute based upon information currently available to it, this information is furnished to interested persons as a courtesy and in the interests of safety. It is not intended to be comprehensive; it does not modify or replace safety suggestions, standards, or regulations made by designated authorities, public or private. It is subject to revisions as additional knowledge and experience are gained. SAAMI expressly disclaims any warranty, obligation, or liability whatsoever in connection with the information contained herein or its use.

Ammunition handloading has become increasingly popular in recent years. This information summarizes information that is generally known by an experienced handloader, and provides general information to persons interested in handloading. It discusses the properties of sporting ammunition primers and offers recommendations for their safe use, handling and storage.

This information is intended only to increase the knowledge of all concerned individuals and groups regarding sporting ammunition primers. The statements made do not supersede local, state or Federal regulations. Proper authorities should be consulted on regulations for storage, transportation, and use of sporting ammunition primers in each specific community. Other information on smokeless powder and sporting ammunition are available.

Properties of Primers

Sporting ammunition primers contain carefully engineered mixtures of chemical ingredients. Primers are designed to explode and produce the heat, gas and hot particles necessary to ignite the propellant powders in sporting ammunition when the firing pin of a firearm strikes them properly.

Properties of particular importance to the dealer and user of primers are as follows:

1.         Primers may explode if subjected to mishandling. Explosions may be caused by friction and by percussion, such as hammering, pounding, dropping or bullet impact. Heating by fire, static electricity, sparks, hot tobacco ashes, or other unspecified abuses may also cause primers to explode.

2.         If primers are loose or in bulk, having contact one with another, one primer exploding can, and usually will, cause a violent, sympathetic explosion of all primers so situated. In other words, one primer exploding for any reason under these circumstances will normally cause all of the primers to explode in one violent blast.

3.         Primers may "dust." Small particles of priming compound may separate from the primers in the form of dust, especially when they are subjected to shaking or jolting. Accumulation of this dust in primer feed tubes, loading machines, and loading areas is extremely hazardous as it might cause explosions or fires.

4.         Primers exposed to water or any organic solvent, such as paint thinner, gasoline, kerosene, oil, grease, etc. may deteriorate, resulting in misfires or poor ignition.

5.         Modern sporting ammunition primers will not absorb moisture under normal or even severe conditions of atmospheric humidity. There is no advantage to be gained from air-tight containers. The factory containers in which they are packaged need only normal conditions of storage. They should be kept dry and not exposed to high temperatures (in excess of 150( F). If exposed to wet conditions or high temperatures, they may deteriorate, yielding misfires or poor ignition of the propellant powder.

Handling of Primers

Primers do explode. This is the purpose for which they have been designed. They demand the respect and careful handling due any device containing explosives.

Sporting Ammunition and the Firefighter, a video produced by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute, analyzes the characteristics associated with small arms ammunition when it is subjected to severe impact and fire. When a primer ignites, it causes the propellant to burn, which creates gases which, when under pressure in a firearm, send the bullet down the barrel. Pressure created by the propellant being burned is what discharges a bullet. As such, loose ammunition in a fire does not result in bullets being discharged because the propellant is not burning under pressure. The video, which has been widely circulated to fire departments, concludes that while ammunition produces a popping sound when it burns, there is no mass detonation of the ammunition, any projectiles are of low velocity, and there is no threat to firefighters in their standard turn-out gear.

Primers should never be handled, used, or stored in bulk, since primers in bulk can explode simultaneously. The placing of primers in tubes or columns, or using other bulk systems in which the explosion of any one primer may cause the explosion of all others, is a potentially hazardous condition. The manufacturers of primers do not recommend the use of primer feeds for reloading unless adequate protection from the hazard of explosion is provided. It is the responsibility of the manufacturers of primer handling systems to provide safety and protective features for their equipment. It is recommended that primers be handled individually unless adequate safeguards are provided and used.

Care must always be exercised in any handloading operation to avoid rough handling and undue force where a primer is involved, since the primer may fire. Any malfunction of equipment must be cleared with extreme caution. The decapping of shells or cases containing live primers is to be avoided.

Precautions should be taken to avoid buildup of static electricity on the person when handling primers or conducting handloading procedures. Loading equipment should be electrically grounded.

All loading equipment and adjacent areas must be kept scrupulously clean and free of primer dust and powder accumulations. Work areas and loading equipment must be cleaned by wiping with a damp cloth or sponge which should be thoroughly rinsed after each use. Fired primers, primer cups, anvils, or other bits of hard, abrasive material are a hazard during loading operation as contact with them may cause primers to fire.

Accidentally spilled primers should be picked up immediately as they may explode when stepped upon.

An absolute minimum of primers should be maintained at the loading operation. Only one packing tray at a time should be removed from the primer storage.

When a priming operation is completed, any remaining primers should be returned to the package in which they were originally contained. These packages have been specifically designed to protect primers during shipment and storage and also to protect the consumer.

Primers available to children, household pets, or persons not recognizing them as potentially hazardous, are an unnecessary risk to all concerned.

Never have an open flame, source of sparks, or hot particles in the vicinity of primers or any ammunition loading operation.

Do not smoke near primers.

Safety glasses must be worn when performing any and all handloading operations. Additional protection such as face shields or machine guards are strongly recommended.

Recommended Storage of Primers

Storage cabinets containing only primers are recommended. These cabinets should be ruggedly constructed of lumber at least 1" nominal thickness to delay or minimize the transmission of heat in the event of fire. SAAMI recommends against storing primers in sealed or pressurized containers.

Keep your storage and use area clean. Make sure the surrounding area is free of trash or other readily combustible materials.

Be sure your storage area is free from any possible sources of excessive heat and is isolated from open flame, furnaces, water heaters, etc. Do not store primers where they can be exposed to direct sunlight. Avoid storage in areas where mechanical or electrical equipment is in operation.

Do not store primers in the same area with solvents, flammable gases, or highly combustible materials. Store primers only in their original factory containers. Do not transfer the primers from this approved container into one which is not approved. The use of glass bottles, fruit jars, plastic or metal containers, or other bulk containers for primer storage is extremely hazardous.

Do not smoke in areas where primers are stored. Place appropriate "No Smoking" signs in these areas.

Do not store primers in any area where they might be exposed to gun fire, bullet impact, or ricochets.

Do not store primers with propellant powders or any other highly combustible materials so as to avoid involving primers in a fire as much as possible.

Observe all regulations regarding quantity and methods of storing primers.

The Following Recommendations on Storage and Handling of Sporting Ammunition Primers are Issued by the National Fire Protection Association Battery March Park, Quincy, MA 02269 and reprinted with their permission:

NFPA 495

Explosive Materials Code

This edition of NFPA 495, Explosive Materials Code, was prepared by the Technical Committee on Explosives and acted on by the National Fire Protection Association, Inc. at its Annual Meeting held May 20-23, 1996, in Boston , MA . It was issued by the Standards Council on July 18, 1996, with an effective date of August 9, 1996, and supersedes all previous editions.

The 1996 edition of this document has been approved by the American National Standards Institute.

Origin and Development of NFPA 495

This code was originally issued in 1912 as the Suggested State Law to Regulate the Manufacture, Storage, Sale and Use of Explosives. The second edition was issued in 1941 by the Committee on laws and Ordinance and retitled Suggested Explosives Ordinance for Cities. Later, the document number NFPA 495L was designated.

After being assigned to the Committee on Chemicals and Explosives, a new edition was issued in 1959. This was retitled as the Code for the Manufacture, Transportation, Storage, and Use of Explosives and Blasting Agents and redesigned as NFPA 495.

Following reorganization of the committee in 1960, the responsibility for amendments to NFPA 495 was assigned to the Sectional Committee on Explosives. This committee reported to the Correlating Committee on Chemicals and Explosives. Revised editions were issued in 1962, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1970. A new edition was issued in 1972 with the document title revised to code for the Manufacture, Transportation, Storage, and Use of Explosive Materials. A subsequent edition followed in 1973.

Following the issuance of the 1973 edition, the Sectional Committee on Explosives was redesignated as a Technical Committee. In 1976, the committee began a detailed review intended to amend requirements so that there were no conflicts with the regulations promulgated by the various federal agencies concerned with explosive materials (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, US Mine Safety and Health Administration, US Department of Transportation, etc.) This effort resulted in the 1982 edition, which was subsequently followed by a new edition in 1985. In 1990, the document was again revised and included the title being changed to the Explosive Materials Code. The latest edition, issued in 1996, incorporates change in the classification of explosives to conform with recent U.S. Department of Transportation ÒHazardous Materials RegulationsÓ which in turn are based on United Nations Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods. The 1996 edition also includes technical and editorial amendments.

Chapter 11

Small Arms Ammunition and Primers, Smokeless Propellants, and Black Powder Propellants

11-1     Basic Requirements.

11-1.1  In addition to all other applicable requirements of this code, intrastate transportation of small arms ammunition, small arms primers, smokeless propellants, and black powder shall comply with US Department of Transportation Hazardous Materials Regulations, 49 CFR, Parts 100-199.

11-1.2  This chapter applies to the channels of distribution of and to the users of small arms ammunition, small arms primers, smokeless propellants, and black powder.

11-1.3  This chapter does not apply to in-process storage and intra-plant transportation during manufacture.

11-1.4  This chapter applies to the transportation and storage of small arms ammunition and components.

11-1.5  This chapter does not apply to safety procedures in the use of small arms ammunition and components.

11-5     Small Arms Primers

11-5.1  Small arms primers shall be transported or stored in containers approved by the US Department of Transportation.

11-5.2  Transportation of small arms primers shall comply with US Department of Transportation Regulations.

11-5.3  No more than 25,000 small arms primers may be transported in a private vehicle.

11-5.4  No more than 10,000 small arms primers may be stored in residences.

11-5.5  No more than 10,000 small arms primers may be displayed in commercial establishments.

11-5.6  Commercial stocks of small arms primers shall be stored as follows:

(a)        Quantities not exceeding 750,000 may be stored in a building if not more than 100,000 are stored in any one pile and piles are at least 15 ft (4.6 m) apart.

(b)        Quantities exceeding 750,000 may be stored in a building if the following conditions are met:

1.         The warehouse or storage room shall not be accessible to unauthorized personnel.

2.         Primers shall be stored in cabinets. No more than 200,000 primers shall be stored in any one cabinet.

3.         Shelves in cabinets shall have vertical separation of at least 2 ft (0.6 m).

4.         Cabinets shall be located against walls of the warehouse or storage room with at least 40 ft (12.2 m) between cabinets.

5.         Separation between cabinets may be reduced to 20 ft (6.1 m) if barricades twice the height of the cabinets are attached to the wall, midway between each cabinet. The barricades shall extend at least 10 ft (3 m) outward, shall be firmly attached to the wall, and shall be constructed of 1/4 in. (6.4 mm) boiler plate, 2 in. (51 mm) thick wood, brick or concrete block.

6.         Primers shall be separated from materials classified by the US Department of Transportation as flammable liquids, flammable solids, and oxidizing materials by a distance of 25 ft (7.63 m) or by a fire partition having a fire resistance of at least 1 hour.

Reprinted with permission from NFPA 495: Explosive Material Code, Copyright ©1992, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy , MA 02269 . This reprinted material is not the complete and official position of the National Fire Protection Association on the referenced subject which is represented only by the standard in its entirety.

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