Do Shotgun Shells Get Old And Dangerous?

do shotgun shells get old and dangerous

Shotguns are quite popular for both hunting and vermin control and even for self-defense, so it is quite possible that many households may have old shotgun shells somewhere in the house. Most gun owners know that ammunition has a shelf life, including shotgun shells. But if you have some old shells in your possession, do they get dangerous when they get old and past their usefulness in the gun?

Old shotgun shells do not pose a danger for storage unless they are exposed to heat or stored inappropriately. Old shotgun shells may be dangerous to shoot and could result in misfires, hang fires, or squibs. Old shells should be fired with extreme caution to prevent accidents from these mishaps.

All ammunition has a limited shelf life, but it is a fairly long shelf life that can be years, or even decades, depending on the conditions the ammunition is kept in. However, if you do not shoot often, you may find yourself in possession of a box of shotgun shells that are quite old, or someone may give you a box of old ammo. Are these shells dangerous to have in your house, and what is the possibility of using them in your gun?

Are Old Shotgun Shells Dangerous?

Old shotgun shells, like any other ammunition, can be dangerous. There is usually very little danger or risk of the ammunition exploding or going off for no reason, so there is little to fear in that regard. The biggest danger around old ammunition is using it in your gun.

If you inherited the shotgun shells, or they were given to you, you may not be sure how to tell the age of the cartridge or to estimate whether it will be usable or not.

Early shells made for the shotgun were made from brass cases, much the same as other rifle cartridges. The brass shells were replaced by cardboard, only retaining brass in the lower portion of the shell that contained the percussion cap.

Shotgun shell manufacturers no longer make shells with a complete brass hull, and they no longer make shells out with a cardboard hull. However, because the cardboard shells were discontinued only several decades ago, you may still come across these shells from time to time.

So, if you happen to be in possession of some cardboard shells, they will be very old shells, and they would need closer inspection to determine if they are safe to shoot or not.

Most modern shotgun shells are made with a brass base and with plastic hulls rather than cardboard. The reason that plastic was adopted for the hull casing is that it is more durable than cardboard and lends itself to reloads better than the cardboard shells do.

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Can You Fire Old Shotgun Shells?

We have established that shotgun shells that are cardboard are very old and that you can get plastic-cased shotgun shells that can be decades old. But can these old shells safely be fired in your shotgun?

If the old shells that you have are of the cardboard variety, you will need to examine each shell carefully to check for obvious signs of aging or degradation to the structure of the shell. If the brass section of the shell is cracked or shows evidence of deep corrosion, then the shell is not safe to be fired in your gun.

If the cardboard shows signs of having become wet at some point in its existence, then the condition of the powder in the shell may be dubious. You could try to fire this shell in your shotgun, but only in a single-shot or double-barrel shotgun. Do not fire it in any pump-action or semi-auto shotgun which both have a lot of moving parts that could be damaged.

If the old shells are of the plastic-type, they will be younger than the cardboard variety but should still be inspected carefully before being used in your shotgun. The plastic shells are more durable than the cardboard ones and should last much longer. However, if the shells have been poorly stored, they could deteriorate at a faster rate.

Any obvious damage to the casing, signs of significant corrosion, or signs of the cartridge having been reloaded should all be warning signs of potential problems with the cartridge.

If the old shells are factory rounds and have been stored correctly, and do not show any obvious signs of deterioration or damage on the outside, then they are generally fine to be fired from your shotgun. You should, however, only use old rounds for practice shooting; never rely on them for hunting, self-defense, or competition shooting. There is simply no telling on how well they will perform, given their age.

Never Use Reloaded Shotgun Shells From An Unknown Source

If you have been given a box of old shotgun shells, you may welcome the unexpected gift, but you need to proceed with caution and check the shells out before using them.

If there are any shells that show signs of possibly being a reload, you should not fire these shells in your shotgun. You do not know how well the reload was done if it was loaded under or over spec, and even what type of shot is in the cartridge.

A shell that is loaded with an under-spec quantity or quality of propellant can cause the shot or the slug to not have enough momentum to exit the barrel of the gun, known as a squib shot, and the follow-up shot can result in tragedy.

If the shell is overloaded during the reload, it could explode in the gun when fired, which can ruin your gun and cause significant injury to the shooter’s hands, arms, or face.

It is dangerous to use reloads of unknown origin in your gun, and they should rather be discarded. Even if the reload looks to be safe on the outside, it’s better not to take any chances; rather, dispose of it safely instead!

You can donate them to someone who does reloading, and they can dismantle the shell and use the component parts.

Signs that the cartridge could be a reload are scratches on the cartridge that could indicate it has been in a gun before, non-factory crimping of the end of the cartridge, and different color percussion caps to the brass cartridge base. 

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What Can Go Wrong With Using Old Shotgun Shells?

There are some undesirable outcomes that could result from firing old shotgun shells in your gun, which is why you should not use old ammunition for hunting, self-defense, or competition shoots. They are just too unpredictable to rely on them for these situations.

The following are some of the things that can go wrong when firing old shells in your shotgun. 

  • Misfires. A misfire occurs when you fire your shotgun, and the percussion cap fails to fire and ignite the propellant, or the propellant is too degraded and does not ignite at all, even if the percussion cap worked. A misfire in itself is not dangerous to the gun or the shooter, but the danger is that a misfire is a hang fire instead.
  • Hang fires. A hang fire is best described as a delayed reaction. When the firing pin strikes the percussion cap, it detonates, but the propellant does not ignite right away. The first portion of the propellant may slow-burn and then ignite the healthy propellant ahead of it in a delayed reaction, which will fire the projectile from the shell. A hang fire is dangerous because you think the shell has misfired, and when you try to examine the problem or are not pointing the gun in a safe direction, the shot goes off.
  • Squibs. A squib occurs when there is not enough propellant, or the propellant does not burn vigorously enough to propel the projectile all the way out of the barrel of the gun. The shooter is unaware of this and reloads a fresh shell into the chamber and fires. The new round and the pressure of it being discharged will impact the blockage in the barrel with disastrous effects. This type of problem can blow a gun apart and seriously injure the shooter or any bystanders.


Most factory-loaded shells will be fine to fire in your shotgun, even if they are old. However, it is best to always be on the safe side when dealing with guns and ammunition, so it is best to examine these old shells carefully to determine if any of them show signs of being a potential problem.

If there is any doubt about the integrity of the shells, it would be a better option to not use them but rather give them to a reloader who can recycle them for their component parts or take them to your local gun shop for disposal.

Never use old shotgun shells that are reloads, especially if you do not know who performed the reload. The risks of shooting unknown reloads are simply not worth the benefit of saving a little money.