After loading several hundred rounds of ammunition not too long ago, I then discovered that two primers had been seated sideways and one upside down. I removed the bullets and recovered the powder but decided to discard the shells with their damaged primers.

But since the primers were still live, I wondered what should I do to deactivate them?

I was a bit surprised when several individuals I consulted basically said it can’t be
done: you can’t deactivate primers.

“Surely this cannot be,” I thought. “What do Winchester, CCI and Federal do if they mess up a batch? Surely they have a way to render the material harmless?”

Doubting Thomas that I am, I decided to do some research.

Web searches turned up authoritative and lay answers in three categories: oil, water and “it can’t be done.”

Both RCBS and Dillon who manufacture ammunition reloading equipment state, in their instruction and/or on-line help files, that damaged primers should be soaked in oil or, similarly, that contact with oil will deactivate primers.

For example, Dillon says (at, “If a primer should become lodged in a primer magazine or pick-up tube, deactivate the primers that are in the tube. Do this by filling the tube with oil, WD-40 or CRC lubricating solution.”

And RCBS, in describing how to lubricate one of their presses warns (at TurretPressInstructions.pdf), “Care should be taken not to apply oil where it could come in contact with primer pockets or primers. Oil will deactivate primers.”

But in spite of those, one lay shooter reported (at that, after a short soak in various oil-based substances (incl. Hoppes #9 and WD-40), his primers would all still go “Bang!”

Confirming this, a different web site ( killprimers.shtml) reports on methodical experiments that were conducted. The experimenter found that, even when soaked in water or oil, some brands of primers will re-activate once they’ve dried out.

“Ok,” I said to myself, “let’s go straight to the horse’s mouth. Let’s ask Winchester, CCI and Federal, all of whom make primers.”

I visited their websites, found the place to submit a question and asked each one the same question, “How can I safely deactivate primers?”

Federal responded:

> RE: Ammo Inquiry from Federal Web Site
> Date: Mon, 18 Sep 2006 16:20:39 -0500
> From: "Prodserv" 
> To: "Ed Skinner" 
> Soak them in penetrating oil.

Winchester, after a couple of phone calls, responded by telephone:

"Soak them in oil for a couple of days."

And Linda at CCI responded by email:

> I suggest taking them to your local HAZMAT folks for
> disposal. The regulations for 'proper' disposal may
> vary, depending on where you live.

Good idea!

I Googled-up the state of Arizona web pages and, therein, found the government department in charge of hazardous material regulations.
In two minutes I had them on the phone.

“Uhm, that’s not on our list. Try the Police Department.”

The Police connected me to the bomb squad — am I now on their “Watch” list? — who, after considerable discussion amongst themselves (several of whom were reloaders) said if the quantity was small, I should soak them in water and then put them in the trash. I could swear there were heads nodding in the background as they added, by the time the primers dry-out and re-activate, they should be safely buried at the city dump.

I relayed this somewhat surprising answer back to Linda at CCI. She responded, “They are correct that the primers will be active again once they dry out and I am a bit surprised they will eventually be buried at the dump but I am sure they know what is best.”

After all this, I conclude that the only effective way to make a primer inert is to fire it.

In all cases, of course, you should wear suitable eye and ear protection.

Then, if the primer is intact and already in an otherwise empty shell, fire it (in a safe direction).

If it is loose, one person said they hit them with a hammer (one at a time). But note that one primer is comparable to an M-80 firecracker which can do considerable damage: one primer is decidedly more powerful than hitting toy gun caps one at a time, or even a whole role of caps all at once. Fun maybe but safe?

I also found a report that primers can also be “cooked off” on a hot plate with a cover or as another person reported, in a pressure cooker with a loose lid on the kitchen stove. [Oh yeah, my wife would like that, all right.]

Burning them in a fire where they go “Bang” and scatter live sparks is another questionable but occasionally reported approach to “deactivating” primers.

Regardless, the bottom line is that primers can’t be deactivated.
One way or another, you gotta make them go “Bang!”

Anything short of that and they are still dangerous, now and in the future.

3 thoughts on “Deactivating Primers?

  1. You researched better than anyone I found. I say, don’t try to get it out of the cartridge unless it wont come out of the shell holder. Destroy it by using a hammer and anvil where sparks wont hurt anything. Of course safety equipment, goggles, shield, hearing protection, etc. I hit it with a hammer 7 times and it actually fired three times and that’s after an all night soaking in soapy water of an already mangled primer. It was a large Winchester pistol primer for magnums and was not much stronger than a cap gun though if it all would have popped at once instead of three times it should have been louder. Weird huh? I actually removed it from the cartridge but now I see I shouldn’t have. Why have it spark where you don’t want sparks? A blast furnace would be a good way. A propane torch might spread the sparks around. Anyway, it’s interesting how much information there is on this problem and no real solution. You have nailed it! (and I hammered) It was my first experience reloading and I appreciate the well documented information. Thanks!

  2. I volunteered to destroy damaged ammo for a large public range. Originally there were several five gallon buckets of ammo soaking in oil. I pulled down several hundred rounds to discover that oil’s viscosity prevents it from making it past the primer/projo. I decided to cook it off and due to the large number of board members who believed themselves to be EOD experts because they reload I had to track down an official method. Surprise, surprise, surprise I found the UN policy for destroying ammo and I was right from the get-go. I made a miniature ammo cooker and burned off hundreds of pounds of ammo over the years. They pissed me off so I quit. Since the fire department’s HAZMAT guidelines say powder, primers, ammo, and fireworks are of no real concern during residential fires, small quantities of primers, & ammo (onsies, twosies, and tensies are probably inconsequential in a landfill when one considers the actual net explosive weight in primers v propellent. Yes the other experts won’t commit, but they have a legal department to answer to.

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