Ammo Cans: The Metal Military Monsters Are Great For Storage

Several of the dusty, cobwebbed ammo cans that protection ammunition from dirt and moisture in the author’s garage. Photo by author.

I’d be willing to bet that at least half of our readership has one sitting in the garage, shed, barn or storage unit right now. It’s probably sitting there forlornly gathering cobwebs, waiting patiently for the day it is hauled out to take center stage in a grand and glorious adventure.

Or, it might be sitting there like a ticking time bomb, full of stink bait or a forgotten, badly-tanned squirrel tail, waiting for the unfortunate soul who happens to open its airtight lid, accidentally releasing the horrors within. In either case, the nondescript rectangle box might be one of the most overlooked outdoor accessories in spite of being one of the most useful.

I’m talking about the humble ammo can.

I never really stopped to think about the somewhat ungainly but supremely useful containers until I recently ran across a webpage that explained the history behind these olive-drab metal military monsters. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the history isn’t all that fascinating unless you are interested in the evolution of metal forming technology or the history of the U.S. Quartermaster’s Corps. Yet the page did spark a deeper appreciation for this unsung hero of the outdoor world.

If you’re still not quite clear on these marvelous storage units, I refer to the heavy steel boxes used by the U.S. Military for storage of rifle rounds and other things that go “Boom!” The rectangular metal body of the “ammo can” has considerable strength and is topped off with a heavy, latched lid that comes complete with a rubber gasket to make the container air- and moisture-tight. They also incorporate a stout metal folding handle.

Strong enough to stack higher than common sense would allow, even when loaded with lead bullets, ammo containers are ubiquitous to shooters and hunters while many other outdoors enthusiasts find them supremely useful.

The boxes are commonly found at gun stores, gun shows, surplus dealers and online. Some commercial ammo suppliers use them to ship case lots of cartridges but the original source for the vast majority of these containers is good ol’ Uncle Sam.

Ammo cans come in dozens of sizes ranging from those designed to hold small arms ammunition to much larger containers that hold mines, rockets and high explosive artillery rounds. I’ve even got a couple of weird tall plastic ones with lids at both ends that were made to ship 20mm rockets in the field. Mine now hold a stash of mismatched shotgun shells.

The most commonly-seen cans come in two flavors: a smaller container intended for shipment and storage of 5.56×45 rifle (M16) ammo and a larger unit meant to hold 7.65mm (.308) rifle and machine gun ammo.

Even if you don’t own a single firearm, the ammo can is easily one of the best outdoor containers ever devised for storing everything from tent pegs to spare bicycle parts. They are stout enough that they’ll safely hold more weight than you could lift and they stack neatly almost to the sky. With the removable, vapor-tight lid, you don’t have to worry about moisture getting to the contents and truly there is nothing short of explosives that can damage them beyond function. A big added bonus is that they’re inexpensive, usually under $10 dollars apiece.

I have dozens and they hold everything under the sun. Aside from ammunition of every kind, I have ammo cans that hold gun cleaning supplies, parachute cord, retired knives and one that protects duck and turkey calls in the off-season. I’ve got another rocket box that holds delicate archery items such as bow sights and broadheads while another contains what is essentially fishing garbage.

A personal favorite is the ammo can containing my collection of ancient cartridges and ammunition boxes. I’ve got shotgun shells from the early 1900’s and pistol ammunition where the lead bullets have turned white from oxidation. They all make great photo props and someday I might actually use some of them for that purpose.

In other words, I keep too much junk lying around but at least it is safely stored and protected in a more-or-less organized fashion.

Of course, there are downsides to using ammo cans. First, since most contained ammunition at some point in their lifespan, they are not safe for food, medicine or cosmetics storage unless properly decontaminated. They are certainly too heavy to carry long distances and will gouge the dickens out of a backpack, painted surfaces or fiberglass unless padded. Finally, an ammo can will smash the heck out of your toes if accidentally dropped.

But these drawbacks are minor compared to the utility of these wonderful containers. As an outdoors enthusiast, you’ve missed the boat if you aren’t using ammo cans to store all those ‘treasures’ that make our hobbies so enjoyable.

Even the stink bait.

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