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Friday, March 17, 2017

Guest Post: Creating .50 Caliber Ammo Can Shelves

by Jonathan S.
Regardless of whether you shoot or not, .50 caliber cans are a great way of storing materials. However, they have a tendency to get a little unstable if you stack them too tall, so I built myself a set of shelves to hold mine.

I am going to start by spelling out exactly what I did, and then tell you what I should have done, so you might want to read all the way through to the end if you are really interested in building one of your own. 

Disclaimer: I offer no guarantee that these instructions are complete, or that following them will not result in disaster. Proceed at your own risk. Measure twice, cut once.

What You Need
  • 1x Power Screwdriver/Drill. I used an older-model Ryobi 18V One+ Power Drill from a combo kit, but there are newer versions too.
  • 1x Power Saw. I used the other half of the above kit. I suppose you could also use a handsaw if you were a real masochist, or a table saw, or have whatever lumber yard you buy this stuff from do the cutting for you (I had Home Depot do a few of the cuts so the wood would fit in my car, for instance).
  • 2x Appropriate Batteries (if your screwdriver/drill is cordless). This is something of a “lesson learned”, but it fits in here – I only had one battery, and thus construction had to happen in fits and starts.
  • 1x Level. Really, any kind could work – I have a 4-footer and 6-incher, and it seems to be a good combination.
  • 1x Tape Measure. Minimum 12′ in length.
  • 1x Pencil. Duh.
  • 1x Pound of 2.5″ wood screws. I am a big fan of Grip-Rite products (their heads do not generally strip, and the coating not only prevents corrosion, but also makes the actual screwing easier), but just about any “wood”-type screw will do.
  • 1x Pound of 3″ wood screws. You can use another pound of 2.5″s if you want.
  • 1x Philips-Head Bit.
  • 1x Flexible Bit. If you build the shelves another way, you may not need this.
  • 4x 2″x4″x12′ boards. Straighter is better. The wood I purchased seemed to be pressure-treated, but you do not need to go for full-bore exterior wood if you do not need to – I paid about $4 a stud.
  • 3x 2″x4″x104″ boards. These are typically called “stud boards” or something similar, and that is exactly what they are, but they work. They are also generally of a lower quality than the above boards, so you might have to hunt and pick a little more carefully. Ran about $2.50 a board for me.
  • 1x Sheet of 0.75″ plywood. I suppose 0.5″ could work too, as could MDF and the like – I just happened to have half a sheet laying in my garage, and I know this stuff would have to be fairly durable. I want to say the whole sheet cost me about $25 (but the other half got absorbed into another project).
  • .50 caliber ammo cans. These are currently $24 apiece with Prime shipping from Amazon
Total cost to me, not including tools, was about $50 in my best estimation. Many preppers probably have most of that laying about already.

What You Do
Well, you build it like this picture (which is definitely not to scale, nor straight, nor anything else):


But more specifically…

1. Take the four 2″x4″x12’s and cut them down to 4’6″ x 4’6″ x 3′ lengths.

2. Cut those 3′ boards you made into four 9″ lengths.

3. Take the three 2″x4″x104″s and cut them exactly in half, giving you two 4’4″ lengths.

4. Go back to the 4’6″ lumber (all eight of them) and cut off 1.5″ from one end, making all eight of them 52.5″ long.

5. Cut the plywood sheet you have exactly in half the long way (giving you two sheets, each 24″x96″), and then cut one of those halves into 12″ lengths (giving you eight 12″x24″ pieces).

You now have six legs (the 4’4″ lumber and the pink on the diagram), eight front/backs of shelves (the 52.5″ lumber – green), 16 sides of shelves (the 9″ lumber marked yellow (faintly)), and eight actual shelves (the 24″x12″ sheets in blue). Oh, and eight 2″x4″x1.5″ things, which do not necessarily have to be waste (more on that later).

6. Lay out your 4’4″ lumber, and mark all of them at 9″, 9.5″, 9.5″, and 9.5″. That will be the bottom of each of your shelves.

7. Take two of those 4’4″ studs, lay them out with their bottoms (the end with the 9″ mark) against wall or other known-flat surface, and get them even with and parallel to each other exactly two inches apart.

8. Take four 9″ boards, lay them flat across the two 4’4″ studs, with their bottom edges even with the lines you drew, and screw (2.5″, this time) those guys into place – I used two screws through the 9″ into each leg board, in a diagonal pattern. The 9″ crossmembers give you an easy way to ensure your leg boards are spaced properly, since the outside edges of the legs should be even with the ends of the 9″ boards. This assembly becomes one of your outside legs.

9. Repeat, to make the other outside legs.

10. Repeat again, but then flip that one over, and put 9″ boards on the other side too – just make sure the screws do not clash. That will be your inside/middle legs.

So you should now have three things looking more-or-less like ladders. Short ones. Without much space for you to put your feet. And this is where I got even more silly.

11. Take one of the outside leg assemblies, and lean it flush against something known to be roughly perpendicular with the floor. Have someone hold it, or temporarily attach it in place (i.e. lean something against it). Situate the middle legs 2 feet away, and set one of the 12″x24″ shelves on the bottom 9″ rungs of both the outside legs and the middle legs. Have someone hold the middle legs in place (or put the top shelf where it belongs, and lean a board against this entire rickety contraption to hold it upright like I did), and situate the bottom shelf such that it has a 1.5 inch overhang on the front and back of both the outside and middle legs. Attach shelf to both 9″ rungs (I used one screw each) – this is where the flexible bit comes in.

12. Repeat the essential elements for the three remaining shelves.

13. Repeat the essential elements for the four shelves that go from the other side of the middle legs to the other outside legs.

You should now have a rickety-assed shelf-looking monstrosity.

14. Gently lay it down on the floor.

15. Take four of the 52.5″ studs, and attach one under each of the twinned shelves – this is where you can use the 3″ screws if you want, and you probably should. No need to attach the shelves to the boards, given that gravity and weight will take care of that. Important: At all three attachment points of both the top and bottom boards (outside legs, middle legs, outside legs), use at least two screws, displaced both horizontally and vertically (read: “diagonally”) – that arrangement will give your shelves the rigidity they need to stay upright. If you have the screws, go ahead and do it for all the boards.

16. Flip the whole assembly over, and do the same thing on the other side.

17. Get the shelves upright again, examine just how far out-of-square/level you are, and realize you do not care, since you are about to drop a few hundred pounds of metal on the shelves and they will settle out.


Thanks to .50 caliber ammo cans being just a hair over 6.5 inches in width, these shelves’ capacity is “only” 30 (including the floor), but something tells me that will be sufficient for the time being, and the extra space on each shelf is convenient for boxes and whatnot else. If you are willing to deal with awkward dimensions and more waste, bumping those shelves to four cans is not hard; I just had half a sheet of plywood left over from another project, and it was easier this way. Alternately, .30 caliber cans will fit nicely in the leftover space on the shelf. 

What I Should Have Done

1. Looking back, I am not sure those 9″ rungs are necessary. They simplified the building process, but since the ammo cans are almost exactly 12 inches deep, they can rest their weight on the front and back boards, and it is not like the 0.75″ plywood is going to care that much, given that only 9″ of it would be unsupported.

2. By the same token, those middle legs may or may not be necessary. Given that a nearly-full can of .45 Long Colt weight just around 50 pounds, though, I was not going to risk putting seven of them on a four foot length without some kind of support in the middle. 

3. .50 caliber ammo cans are, annoyingly, about 6.5″ wide, so you are only going to be able to fit three per shelf. The remaining space can be used for other junk, or you can custom-fit your shelves better. I was just looking to minimize costs (through minimizing waste), and this arrangement did it.

4. Those 2″x4″x1.5″ things from step 4? If you are concerned about the narrow front-to-back footprint of the shelves, once you have them where you want them, just attach those little blocks to the fronts and backs of the legs. However, I will admit that I have not done so with mine, yet – with just the ammo cans I have, those shelves are going nowhere (and I should not have to remind you, but load from the bottom).

5. Pine can split pretty badly, so stay away from the cut ends and proceed slowly when inserting screws.

6. If you are really concerned about rigidity, get some eyehole hooks, screw them into the back corners of the shelves, and run wire tightly between them diagonally. But, really, if just doing the backs of my shelves the way I described them above was enough to make the shelves as stable as they are now, doing both sides should make them rock solid.

The Fine Print


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Creative Commons License


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