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How To Handle Ammunition Primers Safely: Guidelines For Protecting Life, Limb And Property

Reloading ammunition is a popular hobby in the United States, especially since some popular cartridge sizes have become difficult to find and others are prohibitively expensive. Reloading centerfire cartridges involves assembling a collection of varying components: bullets, cases, and powder are all necessary. However, an assembled cartridge is useless without a primer to start the detonation. No other gun reloading supplies, save powder, are as potentially hazardous as primers; in fact, careless handling of primers can be deadly and destructive. Here is what you should know about primers and reloading safety:

What is a primer?

A primer, sometimes called a primer cap, is a small, round cylinder that contains an explosive compound. The explosives inside a primer are designed to ignite when struck by the firing pin of a firearm, and this small explosion ignites the power load contained in the attached case.

There are a bewildering number and types of primers in existence, but most hobbyist reloaders in the United States use Boxer primers. This type of primer was developed by an Englishman in the 1800s, and it is almost exclusively used in American-manufactured centerfire ammunition. Cartridges primed with a Boxer cap are much easier to reload than those primed with Berdan primers, the competing primer design found in small arms ammunition throughout the rest of the world.

Primers contain a number of different explosive compounds: potassium chlorate, mercury fulminate, and lead styphnate are a few of the more popular agents that have been used. However, regardless of specific content, all primers contain sensitive explosive compounds that can be dangerous to reloaders. Below are some specific guidelines you should follow when handling primers:

Keep primers in their original containers

Centerfire cartridge primers are typically arranged in a single layer inside their factory packaging. This is designed to limit the possibility of an accidental chain-reaction should one primer detonate. These containers are designed for safety, and that's why you should keep your primers in them until you are ready to reload a cartridge.

Never empty multiple packages into a single container; though this may be convenient, it is unsafe due to a greatly increased risk of accidental detonation. A mass detonation of several hundred primers could prove to be devastating to both your property and your health.

Keep your reloading work area clean

Reloading ammunition can be messy due to handling powder, bullet press lubricants and other materials that leave residues. Primers typically leak a small amount of their compounds as they are handled, and this "dust" can coat components over time. Unlike powder, which requires a heat source to detonate, primer explosives are detonated by physical shock; accumulated primer dust can actually detonate and cause secondary explosions of powder and other caps.

That's why you should always thoroughly wipe down your reloading equipment and other materials with a clean cloth after every use. If necessary, wash components in warm, soapy water to remove stubborn remnants.

Wear eye and hearing protection while handling primers

While wearing eye and ear protection is important during any phase of reloading, perhaps the most critical time to do so is while you are handling primers. If one should accidentally detonate, the small fragments could be blown into your eyes. In addition, hearing protection can save your ears from short-term tinnitus or possibly permanent damage should a primer detonate in close proximity.

Be cautious when seating primers

Primers are seated in their cases using a reloading press or special tool. While presses are designed to be safe, it is possible to accidentally compress a primer and cause it to detonate. That's why you should be careful when using a press or other tool when inserting primers into cases, and always work slowly and deliberately. Don't seat primers when you are tired or distracted.

In addition, keep all other primers and powder away from the immediate area while seating primers. The detonation of one primer cap is startling, but provided you are wearing eye and ear protection, it is unlikely to cause harm unless it ignites powder or detonates other primers.