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Handling, Storing, and Displaying Ammunition in Museums

Category: Collections Stewardship

The following information was developed with the assistance of David Kennedy, Curator of Collections and Exhibits, United States Marshals Museum

There are many museums and historic houses and sites that hold weapons and the corresponding ammunition, many of which have intrinsic historical value, within their permanent collections. If the ammunition is live, it’s important to handle it with care to avoid accidents. If your institution has ammunition you know or think is live, immediately consult with an expert in historic military artifacts. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) Military History Committee can help.

Ammunition should be stored in separate locked cabinets apart from corresponding firearms. If museum staff cannot easily determine whether ammunition is live by observation and related museum documentation, contact law enforcement officials to review the questionable artifacts. Experts should always be called to disarm live ammunition. Note that law enforcement officials cannot assess the historical value of the artifacts, and in most cases will destroy the ammunition.

General museum handling of ammunition

  • Never load ammunition into a firearm.
  • Keep ammunition and firearms separate from each other in storage. Once separated, treat the materials according to their type (metal, wood, etc.).
  • If your institution wants to display ammunition in an exhibit, either separate ammunition from firearms by way of case design or produce dummy (non-firing) ammunition.Methods to produce dummy ammunition:
    • A wide variety of dummy ammunition is available on the internet (e.g.:
    • Local gunsmiths or volunteers may be able to make custom dummy cartridges by “loading” cartridges with only the case and the projectile. Doing this without a primer or propellant renders the case inert. An optional step could be to drill a small (1/8”) hole in the side of the cartridge case.
    • If there is a desire to simulate the weight of ammunition, custom dummy cartridges can be made using primers which have already been fired and sand or other materials in place of propellant.
  • There is no need to mark ammunition as “hazardous.” So long as it not loaded into a firearm, cased ammunition is safe on a shelf or cabinet. Treat it like you would any other object.
  • Ammunition is not an inherent fire hazard. With no gun to control the expansion of the gasses, there is no means to direct/accelerate the projectile. Ammunition ignited in this manner cannot penetrate standard emergency response/fire protective clothing.

Muzzleloading arms and powder horns

Muzzleloaders (percussion or flint ignition) and other firearms manufactured before 1899 are not legally firearms as defined by federal law. To check whether a muzzleloading gun is loaded, run a rod down the barrel. If you are not comfortable doing this, there are muzzleloading groups all over the country who are often willing to show you how to do it safely. Do this to all muzzleloaders in the collection—especially guns that have been there for years. Several well-established museums have found loaded guns (and cannons) in this manner.

For powder horns and powder tins, carefully shake to determine if there is anything in them. (If so, it should feel and sound like sand shifting.) If something is in them, bring them outside and do the following:

  1. Fill a five-gallon bucket halfway with water.
  2. Pour the contents of the container into the bucket.
  3. Stir.
  4. Pour out on the grass. If what comes out is “black powder,” you have just created a type of fertilizer—potassium nitrate, sulfur, and carbon. If it is any other type of propellent, this should disable it into its components as well.

Conducting a risk assessment about rendering arms inoperable

Although it is rare that there is a need to do so, there are several options for rendering arms inoperable, if needed. You could have a risk assessment conversation regarding this activity—not unlike the thought process which should go into the handling/exhibition of any other object:

  • What is the risk of something bad happening given appropriate storage/exhibit methods?
  • What is the method being used to safeguard/deactivate a firing mechanism?
  • What is the risk of permanent damage to the object?

If the decision is made to render arms inoperable, there are a wide variety of methods which can be used. They vary widely from firearm to firearm and by time, labor, and cost depending on the method. Generally, it will only involve removing a firing pin (requiring additional record-keeping and storage). Some firearms, by their very design, are unable to be modified without physically altering the object in a way that is not permanent or does not adversely affect its presentation within an exhibit. Consulting with a subject matter expert in the fields of museums and firearms will be helpful in this process.

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