What are these soldiers doing?

This photo is form a set of Life Magazine never seen before Korean War photos. Does anyone know what they are doing? It looks like they are loading a case, but that can’t be right … can it?

“Bullets and gunpowder”, November, 1952.

Larger version and other Korean War photos at Life Magazine.

[ Many thanks to Mik for emailing me the pic. ]

Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • Sven Ortmann

    Loading propellant makes sense. Dedicated match ammo was rare if available at all until few decades ago. Normal cartridges had varying loads.

    Another possible explanation is linked with what would be called mini IED today; booby traps, improvised AP mines and such.

  • Caleb

    Agreed with Sven on first thoughts,
    Also after a bit of reading; The powder or propellants used back then were highly correosive, and not easy to stop, they could be reloading? Although it does seem strage! And a lot of time & effort!
    There is a pile under his hand, possibibly disregarded powder?

  • MikeJ

    I’m guessing, of course… what I see is a man who appears to be pouring powder of some sort into a spent cartridge case; the mouth of the casing seems irregular, not what I would expect from brass that was being prepared for reuse. I can’t imagine ammunition could be reloaded like this with any degree of precision.

    My guess is that the casing is simply being used to measure the powder, whatever it is, for some other purpose. Is he building an IED, dividing medicine into doses, cooking? It might be anything.

  • C No

    He probably is loading propellant into the casing.
    He’s using the propaganda flier as the funnel (the flier says “Comrades, come look at the facts).

    If you take a closer look on the upper left, someone is holding the bullet for this soldier.

  • Don

    They’re packing a charge of high explosive from a mine or a grenade into the cartridge. They will assemble it and then put it in a box of ammo they intend to leave behind with other equipment they don’t have room to carry out of wherever they are. That way when the enemy comes and scavenges the equipment they blow a few of them up and make them afraid of using scavenged equipment.


    • Don, that makes sense!

  • Geof Ross

    Might be using the powder to get a fire going. Is that a pile of kindling on the ground?

    Or…making a blank to fire off a rifle grenade.

  • Rusty Ray

    Maybe he’s using the powder to start a cooking fire.

    Cheers – Rusty

  • 6677

    old booby trap. Push a stick into the ground to make a hole. Place a nail point side up carefully in the bottom of the hole and then a live round ontop of that. Next person to step on it gets a nasty foot injury. Thats based off of what appears to be light foliage or hay round the picture. On the other hand he may just be loading ammo

  • Jonathan

    Looks like they are pulling the bullet to get to the powder in order to get a fire started. Look under the cartridge – tinder and kindling or just the ground?

  • john

    maybe he’s getting ready to cauterize a wound with the powder from a shell.

  • HerbG

    I think they pulled the bullet from a case and are going to use the powder as an aid in starting a fire.

  • f-stop

    Another possibility is something we in the muzzle-loading community sometimes do to start a fire. Don’t know if it would work as well with smokeless powder as it does with blackpowder, though.

  • DippyPower

    I think they are getting ready to start a fire.

  • Dom

    It looks to me like some sort of insane field hand-loading. Maybe they are reusing brass in their chambering with components from another ammo type? I dunno how in the world you would handle primers in the field though. Or maybe they’re loading match, as Sven suggested. You can see somebody is handing the guy a bullet from the upper left, so he probably just finished pouring in powder with his improvised funnel.

  • Tahoe

    I can’t imagine loading ammunition, let alone match ammo, in the field by hand (literally)! Unless this is supposed to be propaganda to gain support for the war effort, as in “Look at our poor troops, forced to load ammo by hand! Buy war bonds and help them out!”

    I am very curious what the real story is.

  • Martin

    I agree with Don’s assessment that they are making overcharged rounds. As much as the lines moved back and forth in the Korean conflict, coupled with how desperate the Communists were for better equipment, that makes complete sense.

  • RevolverRob

    The picture is dated November of 1952. Korea is a cold, wet, place in the winter and it starts somewhere around Nov. 1. My guess is they are using the gun powder to help them start a fire.


  • TOM

    using it to make gun cotton???

  • jdun1911

    Reloading is a little more complicated. While it can be done in the field with proper equipments it is not the best use of your time.

    Fired case must be timed and resize. New primer must be installed. The new bullet must be seated and crimp and properly. On the bright note rifle caliber can’t be double charged. It can go KB! if the wrong powder is used.

    I doubt they are making match ammo. Were there match bullets for sell back then? You also need a precision scale to produce reloading match ammo. All the bullets needs to weight the same, use the same primer, use the same powder, use the same case, and the powder must weigh the same in each cartridge. That’s not going to happen by the looks of the picture.

    My best bet is they are making a fire so they won’t freeze to death.

  • JeffinNZ

    Are they making booby trap ammo? A friend served in South East Asia and tells of how 7.62×39 ammo was found in caches, FMJ’s pulled, powder emptied, plastic explosive loaded into the case and the FMJ put back on. Ammo replaced and left for the VC. He said it worked as they found a VC with an AK bolt in his forehead! Nasty.

  • longwatch

    Operation Eldest Son.