While out hiking today, I came across a spot where someone had fired off a couple dozen shotgun shells, then left the spent cartridges lying around. Dealing with those was simple (put them in my trash bag for later disposal), but there were also four discarded live shells.

What's the best way of dealing with live ammunition while out hiking? I don't like the idea of having it just rattling around in my pack, and once I get it home, I don't know how or where I'd dispose of it.

  • Country is important, the law around this will differ dramatically from UK to Us for example. Which country is this?
    – user2766
    Oct 10, 2016 at 13:25
  • This particular incident was in the United States.
    – Mark
    Oct 10, 2016 at 18:06

1 Answer 1


Most gun ranges will accept live ammunition for disposal in my area. I would check there, and if not there, a police department would be my next stop. This answer probably only works in the United States, I am not sure about abroad, and as a commenter pointed out, outside the United States, and especially in Europe, you may be finding military unexploded ordinance left over from the war. Don't try to pick up ordinance like unexploded artillery shells.

Additionally, shotgun shells and other ammunition often contain lead. If you are handling shotgun shells, expended or unexpended, be sure to wear gloves, or wash your hands thoroughly before you eat. Separate the shells from other items in your pack so you don't contaminate anything. I never allow my children to handle expended shells because lead is particularly hard on children. In reality, picking up a few shells here and there probably isn't going to materially change your lead load, but best practices are certainly to be cautious and if you routinely encounter spent shells, make sure you have good lead abatement habits.

Shotgun shell specific: I have dealt with plastic hulled shotgun shells by using my pocket knife to score the outer shell so that I can remove the end. Then I dump out the pellets (remember they are likely lead), remove the wad, and then you are left with the two most dangerous parts of the shell, the powder and the primer. You can dispose of the powder in any number of ways. My favorite is to make a pile and light it on fire. Without containment, the powder just burns, it doesn't explode. You can also just scatter it and it won't be likely to pose a threat to anyone, however you haven't removed it from the environment at that point. As for the primer, don't try to do anything with it. It will explode if hit with a concussive force. A primer can kill a person if it is up close even without any sort of containment. Just take the leftover primer and shell to your local shooting range for disposal. Now you are hiking back much less AND if a shell happens to detonate in your pack (extremely unlikely), it is only the primer with no powder to ignite, so the damage will likely be nothing or close to nothing.

  • +1 The same is also true in Canada. Used shotgun shells that are in good condition can be reloaded by many amateur (private) shotgun shell loaders. Once again the local police or folks of a local gun range can help out.
    – Ken Graham
    Oct 9, 2016 at 13:49
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    While this is good advice I would also advice anyone that is not entirely sure what kind of ammunition he finds, that he does not touch them at all, simply mark the position and contact authorities. In Switzerland it is quite common in certain regions to find bigger shells and while most are not live, you certainly should not find out about that yourself.
    – imsodin
    Oct 9, 2016 at 14:35
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    Even a completely intact a shotgun shell isn't particularly dangerous if it's not tightly contained in a chamber. It won't eject the shot with enough force to do anyone harm. When I was a kid out camping with my buddies, tossing a shotgun shell or bullet in the campfire while others weren't looking and then walking away was our idea of a funny prank. It would pop (nothing more), throw a few burning embers (funny to a 13-year old), and that was about it. Unless a bullet/shell has an exploding warhead, it's fairly benign outside of a weapon that can fire it. (Not counting the lead issue.) Oct 11, 2016 at 2:00
  • 3
    @David wrote "A primer can kill a person if it is up close even without any sort of containment." Are you sure about that!? If you do it while holding it tight against your eyeball, then maybe. But if you are just holding an empty shell with unused primer and you strike the primer, setting it off, do you really think it could cause a fatal wound? The primer itself does not contain the explosive force. As Carey points out, even an entire intact shell is unlikely to cause significant harm, though I think Carey does underestimate it slightly.
    – Loduwijk
    Sep 30, 2017 at 1:32
  • @CareyGregory You should make note that, in the situation you describe, the shell usually won't eject with enough force to do anyone harm. Occasionally they come out harder, though still not as bad as if shot through a barrel. Myth busters did a thing on that before, and they dumped a bunch of shells into a fire. Most of them would not have hurt anyone nearby, but a few did come out with enough force to probably hurt someone; but again, probably not enough to kill anyone.
    – Loduwijk
    Sep 30, 2017 at 1:35

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