50 cal can, all cleaned up

An Imperfect Investigation of U.S. Military Ammo Cans

I spent a little time trying to educate myself about ammo cans, so here it goes. If I’m wrong on anything, let me know in the comments.

What a used U.S. Military Surplus Ammo Can typically looks like.

Basic Definitions

First off, technically these are ammo boxes. Let’s get that out of the way.
Popular convention compels me to refer to them as “cans,” as this is what they are mostly called on the Internet.

But a can, by most definitions, is disposable.

And the fact these cans are instead fully reusable has allowed them to become one of the most popular, indeed one of the most stable, reliable products available for purchase in the military surplus world.

Structure of an Ammo Can

The modern ammo can was perfected at the beginning of the Cold War, as NATO forces looked for better ways to protect and transport large amounts of ammo in case of conventional war with the looming Soviet Empire.

Today’s modern overall design eliminates many of the problems encountered with the older riveted steel cans used previously during WWII, and makes each can into a practical redoubt against wear and tear in the storehouse or on the battlefield.

The inside of the lid, showing the rubber gasket

The top is flat and relatively featureless, to prevent build up of moisture which could eventually cause corrosion over years of storage.

All seams are spot-welded to provide a strong water and air-tight seal.

No matter the model of Can, most identical models can be stacked on top of each other thanks to indentations on the top and bottom.

Finally, the lid of the can latches shut securely, with a rubber gasket to prevent movement of air and moisture in or out.

The Use and Abuse of Military Ammo Cans

Most true Military Surplus Ammo Cans are used. And they are really used.

These probably were full of ammo, and may have been packed full of other things, and then retired in a dusty, dirty storehouse for a decade or more.

Starting at top left, we have the .30 Cal (M19A1), the Fat 50 (PA108), the 40mm (PA120), and finally the standard .50 Cal (M2A1) cans.

All are coated in a thick layer of mummy dust from sitting around in less-than-ideal storage conditions.

I should also note that all are just as dirty on the inside.

While each has a rubber gasket to keep out water and dust, ammo cans are often stored for long periods with the lids disassembled, exposing the interior of the can to whatever conditions are present overall.

Once we get the cans, they are re-assembled into their present condition. But the dirt often remains.

How Durable is an Ammo Can?

In your daily life, an ammo can should be relatively indestructible. You can knock them together. Drop them. Stand on them. They are designed to hold up to regular stuff.

The .30 cal can I found had a mild cosmetic ding that had unfortunately allowed a little rust to form. But not that big of a deal.

Typical imperfections

You will also usually find lots of spray paint.

This can once stored explosives

Especially with larger cans such as the 40mm show above, ammo cans are often repurposed even in the military for the storage of tools and equipment.

The covered-over orange diamond indicates there were once explosives in this box, most probably 40mm grenades. But since that time, it was used to store something else.

It’s anyone’s guess what, as the 40mm can is an exceptionally handy size for the storage of shop materials. Perhaps welding rods.

Cleaning Ammo Cans

For getting the dirt and grime off most ammo cans, the only thing you really need is some soapy water.

And because ammo cans are watertight, you can actually use a dirty can as its own cleaning bucket. How’s that for value?

In the parking lot, washing out ammo cans. A perfectly normal activity. It should be noted I forgot to take the lid off. Most lids are fully removable.

This also illustrates one of the many practical uses for an ammo can in an emergency: in an environment without a lot of easy water storage solutions, an ammo can can hold water for washing (but not for drinking).

Once you’ve got your can all toweled off, you should have a dirt-free can, ready to use for all sorts of storage tasks.

.50 cal can, all cleaned up

A good ammo can has 1,001 uses. It’s a favorite of survivalists and preppers (and other smart people) for the storage of not just ammo but also emergency supplies, fire-starting equipment and medical gear.

All that’s left for me is to start tossing in stuff and see what kind of kit I can put together. The best part of these cans is you can use them over and over again.

How much stuff can I throw in here?

Good luck with all of your own custom projects.

Some further ideas on what to do with ammo cans:

Sensible Prepper’s Youtube Video

For storage of supplies

instructables ammo can projects

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15 Responses to “An Imperfect Investigation of U.S. Military Ammo Cans”

  1. Avatar

    Ron Jenkins

    Very interesting read.

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    Dave Helmick

    I don’t know what the specifications are, but “spot welding” would not provide a water nor airtight seal. A “full seam” weld would.

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    Good quick read. Rust spots, I typically sandblast and then all of the used boxes are repainted with an appliance epoxy grade paint, usually in Olive Drab. I do both the inside and outside of the box. I cure the painted boxed in the oven at 200°F for an hour to two depending upon the number of coats of paint. Make sure you remove the O-Ring if you’re going to cure your paint job. A dental hook pick works great for pulling the rings. The majority of my ammo boxes contain ammo, since I’m OCD enough to want a 5,000 round stockpile for the heavy use calibers, and a 500 round minimum for my seldom shot calibers. One Fat 50 contains most of my field tools for gun maintenance, another .30cal has all of my field cleaning supplies. I’ve several PA154 81mm boxes that were treated as the others but each has 1/2 closed cell foam lining all of the interior. They’re my in case the Government goes nuttier insurance. An AR 15 Carbine will fit in one with room for mags and ammo. I’ve one test box that’s been buried going on 6 years now. Digging it up this summer, the paint’s still holding and the integrity of the interior still at 100% No moisture or critters inside. The PA154’s can make a great cache box if prepped right.

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      Do you have the buried can “camouflaged”? In other words some metal trash buried over the can but shallow enough that the can won’t be exposed when the “camouflage” is found and dug up.

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      I’m not impressed… You really don’t have enough time for all that. REALLY?

  4. Avatar


    I use my ammo “cans” (I like how the snowflake that wrote this is so anal about getting terms right, yet he still calls trump a “christian”, as if republicans are anything but fake-christian traitors) to hide my stockpiled ammo and small arms. I feel the need to keep them hidden because the pussy liberals want a nanny state, and the fake-christian fascist republicans want a police state; in either case, sooner or later, they’ll send their jackboot thugs (police/military) to come and take it by force. The founding fathers gave us the 2nd amendment to deal with the greedy scum that try to subvert the Constitution of this once-great country (and the majority of them are un-elected, hold no office, and hide in the dark; they just have all the money). And as anyone with a shred of common sense knows, greed is the american political class’ way of getting the rest of you sheep to do their bidding.

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      Joe gunner

      Only snowflake here is the liberal commie lover being you.all you crybaby democrats scream foul but you don’t admit trump is 10 times the president Obama was and 1000 times better then any of the babykilling,take guns away you Sissy liberals root formy advice to you,turn in your man cards and store lots of manpons in your ammo boxes.you are gonna need a mountain of them after 2020 election

  5. Avatar

    William A Kenworthey

    I ordered 2 50 cal. with two free… When I got them I noticed how ruff looking and dirty and sprayed with black spelling empty… Will I opened first and found sand in one… WOW real war time dirt, rust, grime
    Hard to open GREAT STUFF for me…
    I used WD40 to clean off can and made ammo boxes out of them .22 .223 12 gauge, 9mm and 30 end mag for AR. I enjoyed the h*’ll out of them thanks Bill

  6. Avatar

    T.L. DePew

    Ammo “can” addict. First time I saw one that had a hasp & staple welded on, and padlocked shut, I went nuts and knew I had to have MORE. They are great for storing ammo of course, but make great little tool boxes, parts boxes, anything you can think of. The old timers told us that they filled them with dirt and lined their “hooches” in Vietnam, real deep. World’s most versatile “dunnage.”
    Also, for nearly 25 years in uniform, we all called them ammo cans. ‘Not hurtin anybody.

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    Jim McDonald

    Great read! Thanks for the ideas.

    I have purchased a few for ammo storage but now want to buy more for other uses.

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    here;s the scoop………when troops go to the range…..whatever range that might be…….ammo is picked up by the range cadre at the ASP…….ammo supply point……and then when they are done at the range…..the cadre has to take every piece of dunnage or unused ammo is returned to the ASP where every round, can, crate, spent case is inventoried and accounted for……..then when the time comes for them to clean up they take the dunnage to the drmo where it is auctioned of and where people like sportsmans guide buy them and sell them to the public

  9. Avatar

    William A Kenworthey

    I received 4-50 cal cans and was pleasantly surprised to find sand(from who knows where) inside. Sprayed painted black empty on outside and mild rust. Hinges and seals were in very good shape. I sat and wonder where they had been. Hot soapy water and dried out they hold 9mm, .22 lr, .223, 12 gauge shells and 22lr and .223 magazines
    They stack well and are very durable. I have 12 cans in 50 cal and put bolts and locks on all. Great ideas theWAKco

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    Joseph Morgan Sr

    I have used this type of “can” for years, Easy to stack for minimum space.

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    Great article as usual, still have my first can from 1968! [there’s some real scary Rambo type comments on this article-lighten up Francis!!!]

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    Ed Leidy

    YESSIR! Been using ammo cans to store stuff since the late 1950’s. (I remember having the old, embossed .30 & .50 cal cans) You are right on point.
    As the internet meme says : “Sort of like Tupperware, but for men!”
    Good Job! Semper Fi – “Doc”