Shoot more and pay less with surplus ammo

Feeding the milsurps: shoot more and pay less with surplus ammo

Holt Bodinson

One of the fun aspects of collecting and shooting surplus arms is the never ending search for good, cheap ammo–with an emphasis on cheap. The challenge is that good, cheap, surplus ammo comes and goes. Sometimes it’s gone forever.

Seen any major sources for reasonably priced surplus 6.5×55 Swede recently? Or for .303 British or 7.5×55 Swiss?

On the flip side of the coin, the market is currently awash with surplus 7.62×39, 7.62x54R, .30-06, 7.62 NATO, 5.56 NATO, 8×57, 7.62×25, 5.54×39, 9×18 and 7.65×53 Argentine.

What’s even more interesting is a trend in which major military ammunition contractors, east and west, continue to produce milspec ammo that now appears in pretty little commercial boxes at reasonable prices like the numerous Wolf labels, Winchester USA, IMI, FNM, Silver Bear, S&B, PMC, Armscor and others.

And most importantly of all, Graf & Sons has stepped up to the plate and contracted with Hornady to make brass, bullets, and loaded ammunition for many of the surplus calibers that have not been blessed with boatloads of shooting ammo.

In short, the market is divided into real surplus, ersatz surplus, and newly manufactured ammunition and components.

Looking at real surplus, one of the comments I bear more often than not is, “Is it corrosive?” Like being corrosive is a sin. Well, it isn’t. If it were that bad, does anyone believe that nations throughout the world would have loaded it in the very ammunition made to defend their turf or to take someone else’s away?

The German firm of RWS developed the first non-corrosive primer 1901, followed by the Swiss in 1911. Remington introduced the Kleanbore primer in 1927, and Winchester, the Staynless, shortly thereafter. Yet, the U.S. and other national military establishments stuck with the corrosive primer. They found it was more stable and had a longer shelf life than the non-corrosive primer of the day.

In fact, it was not until 1947 that the U.S. military itself made a significant transition to non-corrosive primers in small arms ammunition–the exception being Ml carbine ammunition that was loaded with noncorrosive sparkplugs from the get go.

So assume that most surplus amino is corrosive. Don’t fall for the “mildly corrosive” line. “Mildly corrosive” is mildly misleading. It’s corrosive period! Shoot it. Enjoy it. Clean it. Go for those great bargains.

After shooting just clean your bore, chamber, bolt, pistol frames and slides and any action parts exposed to combustion residues, and the gas system if it has one. I use any of the black powder solvents or Ballistol mixed with a bit of water to do the initial clean-up to remove those corrosive primer salts. Then I follow standard cleaning procedures using a commercial solvent and a brush followed by a preservative like Shooter’s Choice Rust Prevent, Break Free Collector, Birchwood Casey’s Sheath or Outer’s Metal Seal. It’s that simple.

Gun shows and most gun shops today are a great source for true surplus ammunition. For example, I just stopped in at Murphy’s and West of the Pecos gun shops in Tucson and found real surplus 7.62 NATO, .30-06, 7.62x54R, 7.62×45, 7.62×25, 5.56 NATO, 7.65×53 Argentine, 8x56R, 8×57, 5.45×39 and 5.7×28 for sale

When buying surplus, use some common sense and be critical. Pass over stained, disintegrating cartons and corroded or discolored cases and bullets. If the boxes are sealed, ask the vendor to open one for your inspection. If there are case lots available at a bargain price and the condition of the ammo looks good, consider buying a lifetime’s supply. If you don’t use it all, you can always sell it to your local gun shop or at an upcoming gun show.

In the mail order department, the best surplus ammunition ads seem to appear in the “Shotgun News” and in the Sportsman’s Guide “Hunting” and “Shooter’s” catalogs. On the web, Century Arms, Buffalo Arms, Huntington’s, and the Ammo Man are a few of the more interesting sites. You just never know who’s going to turn up with what ammo. I was amazed recently when the Sportsman’s Guide catalogued sealed 250 round cans of Austrian 8x56R for those beautiful Steyr M95 rifles and carbines.

In terms of quality and accuracy, you just have to run a personal test. Some of the most accurate ammunition, surplus or otherwise, that I have ever tested is Bulgarian surplus made in the 1950s. Available in 7.62×25 and 7.62x54R, the cases are made of real brass and the storage conditions in Bulgaria must have been perfect. It was produced at factory 10, so look at the headstamp. If there is a * at 12 o’clock, a 10 at 3 o’clock, a ’50s date at 6 o’clock and a 3 at 9 o’clock, you really got your hands on some truly match-grade ammo. J&G Sales in Prescott, AZ has been a major supplier. Another match-grade ammo is Swiss surplus 7.5×55.

Actually, most surplus shoots exceedingly well. Unless you really have a need for it and know its effect downrange, I would pass on tracer, armor piercing and incendiary rounds.

When the surplus pipeline dries up, and it will, we are indebted to companies like Graf & Sons to keep our surplus arms shooting. Contracting with Hornady, Graf already offers loaded ammunition for the 9mm Steyr, .455 Webley, 6.5×50 and 7.7×58 Japanese, 6.5×52 Carcano, 7.5×55 Swiss, 7.65×53 Argentine and 8x56R Hungarian. In addition to these calibers, Graf offers brass and bullets as components for the 7.5×54 and 7.62x54R. In the works are 7.62 Nagant, 7.9×33 Kurz and 8x50R Lebel. I mean where can you find 160-grain .268″ bullets for the 6.5 Carcano, 205-grain .330″ bullets for the M95 Steyr, or 123-grain .300″ bullets for the 7.35 Carcano? At Graf, that’s where.

The other good side to this story is Lee Precision, which offers relatively inexpensive dies and bullet moulds for almost every surplus cartridge imaginable. My latest Lee buys were a set of dies and a bullet mould for the 8x56R. Ordered from Midway, the dies cost me the princely sum of $20.53 and the mould $14.29. Reloading doesn’t get much cheaper.

In closing, be an opportunist in the surplus ammo market. When it’s there, looks good and it’s cheap, buy it. It won’t be there tomorrow. Don’t be afraid of corrosive ammunition. It is corrosive for very sound military reasons. When real supplies eventually dry up, there will still be a steady stream of ersatz surplus ammunition to feed our guns. In fact, before buying real surplus, compare the price to new ersatz. Often newly manufactured military ammo is cheaper than real surplus. Thankfully, there will still be entrepreneurial firms like Graf & Sons and Lee Precision to keep our great, old warhorses smoking.

For more information: Ammo Man, (609) 828-7647,, Buffalo Arms, (208) 263-6953,, Century Arms International, (561) 998-1997,, Graf & Sons, Inc., (800) 531-2666,, Hi-Tech Ammunition, (800) 468-8617,, Huntington Die Specialties, (866) 735-6237,, J&G Sales, (928) 445-9650,, KY Imports, (800) 7183643, Lee Precision, (262) 673-3075,, Midway, (573) 445-6363,, Shotgun News, www. shotgunnews, com, Sportsman’s Guide, (800) 888-3006,

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