By Jan Haluska
It won’t be long before all this fine World War II ammo is gone, and no wonder. Not only does it shoot well, but it’s inexpensive. Best of all, it allows us to participate with honor in the last act of a drama that changed the world.
Where does it come from?
In 1942 America was newly in a war we still weren’t sure how to fight. But one job was clear–we had to support our allies with a steady stream of cargo ships. In response Nazi Germany spread submarines across the Atlantic shipping lanes, ready to pick off lone freighters like ducks in a shooting gallery. Oddly, our Chief of Naval Operations rejected the idea of assembling convoys shepherded by patrol planes and destroyers until later in the war.
The “Murmansk Run” was one of the most terrible assignments. Since the Soviet Union was our ally, we sent civilian ships through the U-boats and icebergs in order to supply them with all sorts of war materiel. The merchant marine sailors who did the job knew that at any moment a torpedo might sink them without hope of rescue. Even if they did manage to get into the freezing lifeboats, no later ship would dare stop and pick them up.
Carrying a cargo of ammunition must have been pure horror. A freighter loaded with something else might survive a single torpedo and limp into port, but a boatload of explosives would instantly turn into a fireball visible for 100 miles on a clear night. How America found civilians willing to take such an awful gamble is a mystery to this later, softer generation. But they went.
The irony was that some of that ammunition was unusable when it got there. For instance, the Soviet Army had very little need for .45 ACP ball, having only a few Russian Contract M1911 pistols which were sold to the Czar between 1914 and 1918. In a classic example of F.U.B.A.R., we sent them tons of it which wound up sitting in warehouses. Finally, unwilling to let anything of value spoil, the Soviets repackaged it in big cans where it remained through the Cold War. Now that the U.S.S.R. is on the trash heap of history and most everything in the new Russia is for sale, we have been able to buy it back at bargain prices.
Should we purchase it when we gave it to them in the first place?
Absolutely. Americans help fallen enemies as an act of honor. Many objected to our buying cheap goods from postwar Germany and Japan, but the cash flow to those countries helped stabilize and turn them into allies. Although Russia’s situation is muddier, we do no good for them or ourselves by adding to their poverty. The men who died to supply them that ammunition did so in an effort to produce a peace which would bless the world. This purchase can help make that hope a little more possible.
Is it really honorable to take ammunition with such a history to the range instead of a museum?
It is. But let us remember and tell others where it has been, what the journey has cost, and why. At a time when our Second Amendment rights are under attack, using this particular ammunition is doubly meaningful. In that spirit we should honor these rounds like so many ageing American flags, with a fitting disposal of fire.
Is it safe to shoot?
Yes, for anyone willing to clean his or her weapon carefully and without delay. Like most pre-1950s military ammunition (with the notable exception of the M1 .30 Cal. Carbine ammo), its primers produce a substance that attracts moisture. This makes it “corrosive,” because those little beads of water start to cause rust within a day or so. During World War Two, all military services used cleaning solvent that would neutralize the problem. It is still available at gun shows and even some shops, but no more is being produced because it has been labeled as carcinogenic.
Many gun-wise people recommend heated, soapy water followed by normal cleaning with solvent and oil, but there is something odd about fighting moisture in a gun’s barrel, firing pin, hammer action, etc., by spraying it with hot Mean Green. Still, it is true that G.I.s used to take their weapons into the shower with them. One thing NOT to do, though, is follow a recommendation I saw at a website to put the gun in the oven for drying afterward. I did this only to discover rusty residue on the hot metal. A chemist friend told me that baking it just speeded up the oxidation as the water evaporated..
The best method avoids all water-related solutions. Go to your gun shop and find an oil-based solvent that smells strongly of ammonia, a chemical which dissolves mercury salts very effectively. (Actually, Windex does the same job, but there’s that water again.) Like all cleaners it should be removed promptly with an oil wipe-down, for the ammonia is unfriendly to blueing if left alone for a few days. I have used this method (Butch’s Bore Cleaner, actually) for about 500 G.I. rounds over several months with no ill effects on my 1911A1 whatever.
Some additional usage tips from Jason Baker:
The 1969 edition NRA Handloaders’ Guide has a chapter on corrosive primers and why and how to clean up afterwards. It says that commercial powder solvents do not remove potassium chloride residue very well. It does say that the old GI bore cleaner works great. According to the NRA guide, hot water is good for cleaning because the potassium chloride has an affinity for water (which is why it would rust if left in the barrel), but also allows it to be cleaned out. The reason for the hot water is that it makes for easier cleaning and the barrel dries faster. It also mentions cold water or saliva can be used if necessary.
I bought some of the 1942 ball about a year ago and posted requests for helpful hints to several firearms lists. There were mixed reviews on using oil based cleaners for washing out the corrosive residue. Two that come to mind are Ballistol oil and Guardian Corrosive Ammo Neutralizer that are marketed by their manufacturers as being suitable for corrosive ammo and both seem to work in my Mausers and 1911. I was also told that any cleaner that was being marketed to black powder shooters would work also. The answers I received on using ammonia containing cleaners was to dissolve the jacket fouling to get down to any residue trapped below the alternating layers of propellant and jacket fouling.
One problem that came up was light hits on the primers. Before I fired the first round of this ammo one of the people that replied to my request stated that the ammo he bought would have about 5 failures to ignite out of every box (I think he was using a Wilson Combat pistol). When I started shooting this stuff in my Springfield (that I had installed a 19lb. hammer spring in) I had about the same number of failures to ignite that the responder had. A friend of mine was shooting this stuff in his 1911 with stock springs and not having any problems so I installed the Springfield factory spring (23 lbs. I think?) and have not had a problem since.
Editor’s Note: This ammunition is no longer available.