Cold War, News

Why did Soviet Soldiers in Afghanistan BOIL Their Ammo?

  • During the Afghan War, Russian soldiers were often seen boiling their bullets.
  • The soldiers sold boiled USSR bullets to Afghan merchants to feed themselves. However, the seemingly clever trick was not as effective as they had imagined.

According to an infamous army tale, ammo must be boiled for 5 hours to make it useless. How is that possible?

A Russian army rumour started to make the rounds during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The word was that if you boil ammo, it does not fire. As a result, soldiers were seen boiling ammo in a pot over an open fire.

Tales of this practice came as a shock to many people. However, there was a logic behind it.

The Soviet/Afghan war lasted from 1978 to 1989 when the Soviets invaded the Afghani borders. Then, they supported the Afghan communist government to fight against the anti-communist Muslim guerrillas (Mujahideen).

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The Mujahideens claimed victory while the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. The end of the Russian war marked the beginning of the Afghanistan civil war.

The War Business

Russians in Afghanistan 1986
Soviet troops moving ammunition on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, during the Soviet–Afghan War.

While some say the Soviet invasion was a tragedy, others saw it as a business opportunity. The Soviet government spent millions to maintain and supply its army, and many profited from embezzlement and misappropriation as a result.

Corrupt officers, who controlled the flow of Soviet goods to Afghanistan, saw everything of value as a business. While these officers earned corrupt money, the Soviet army suffered because they were under supplied and often underfed.

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In a book, war historian Mikhail Zhirokov wrote: “A bacchanalia reigned in the city. Army men sold everything they could at the [bazaars], from military ammunition and food to blankets and sheets.”

Afghan Merchants

Russian Spetsnaz in Afghanistan
A Soviet Spetsnaz group readies for a mission in Afghanistan, 1988.

The discrepancy led soldiers to fend for themselves. They required money to buy food, clothes, and other items from local Afghan merchants.

Hence, the soldiers only had ammunition to trade since it was in abundance. Besides, during wartime, it was impossible to keep track of bullets. Therefore, no one could tell if missing ammo was used in combat or misappropriated.

For many soldiers, ammo trading was a lifesaver.

However, the Soviets realized that the ammo sold off to Afghan merchants would find its way to the Mujahideen. Every cartridge sold could potentially kill a fellow Soviet, and that was a problem. To address this, soldiers came up with a rather odd solution.

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Before they sold ammo, the Russian soldiers ensured the bullets were damaged beyond repair. Following an infamous army tale, the soldiers started boiling their bullets for hours. But how effective was this trick?

Soviet Boiled Ammo

“Goodbye, Afghanistan”
Russian grenades, magazines and ammunition spell out “Goodbye, Afghanistan”

Soviet soldiers believed that prolonged boiling of ammo made it impotent and unusable. A rifle would then either fire a neutralized cartridge or fail to shoot at all.

It was simple. Make a fire, boil water in a container, put the ammo in boiling water, and cook it for four to five hours. Water prevented accidental detonation. Moreover, prolonged exposure to high temperatures deactivated the bullets without visually altering them.

Well, that is at least what the soldiers thought would happen.

Unbeknownst to the soldiers, there was a problem with their seemingly ingenious scheme. The Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan had two Kalashnikov rifles: the AMK, which used 7.62 caliber bullets, and the AK-74, which used 5.45 caliber bullets. These were advanced bullets.

Meaning: boiling did nothing. The soldiers sold viable bullets.

Previously in the 19th and early 20th centuries,  bullet primers had mercury fulminate to ignite the fuel. These bullets underwent decomposition at temperatures higher than 100°C. In summary, only old shots failed to shoot after exposure to high temperatures.

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As a result, modern ammunition with advanced compounds was introduced later in the 20th century. These compounds substituted the toxic and unstable mercury fulminate. New bullets became highly stable and resistant to temperatures well above 100°C.

The Russian AMK and AK-74 bullets fired perfectly, even if boiled for hours. Hence, the Soviets’ effort to cook ammo was all in vain. In any case, the Soviet soldiers did all they had to do to survive. Practicing a widespread army myth was one of them.