Deactivating Primers?

The Problem

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?


In my researches that followed, I was surprised when several individuals basically said it can’t be done: you can’t deactivate primers.

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

Reloading Manufacturers

From ammunition and reloading companies, I got these answers.

Both RCBS and Dillon (reloading equipment manufacturers) state in their instruction and/or on-line help files that damaged primers should be soaked in oil, or simply that contact with oil deactivates primers.

"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:

"Care should be taken not to apply oil where it could come in contact with primer pockets or primers. Oil will deactivate primers."

Lay Opinion

But in spite of those, one lay shooter reported 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 their methodical experiments. They found that, even when soaked in water or oil, some brands of primers will re-activate once they’ve dried out.

Primer Manufacturers

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

I visited their websites, found the place to submit questions, and asked each one the same: “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!

Local Government

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.”

Bottom Line

Make them go “Bang!”

That’s the only effective way to make a primer inert. You have to fire it. Wear suitable eye and ear protection is, of course, mandatory.


If the primer is in an otherwise empty shell, load it into your gun and pull the trigger after aiming in a safe direction. (If someone phones in a complaint and the Police peer over the fence at what you’re doing, things are going to get dicey when they see you with a firearm making loud shoot-y noises!)

If the primer is loose, one person said they hit them with a hammer (one at a time). The bang is comparable to an M-80 firecracker which can do considerable damage. Safety equipment is, as always, mandatory.

Cooking Off

I also found a report that primers can be “cooked off” on a hot plate with a cover, or as another person reported, in a pressure cooker vessel but with a loose lid. Supposedly they do this on their kitchen stove but I doubt my wife would cotton to any such practice.

Burning them in a fire where they go “Bang” and scatter live sparks is another hightly questionable, but nonetheless occasionally reported approach.

Regardless, testing proves that primers can’t be deactivated. If you soak them in oil, they will resurrect their powers once the oil dries out.

You gotta make them do what they were intended to do: make noise!

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