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A Glossary of Ammunition Terms

A Glossary of Ammunition Terms

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Published by: USFirearmsTraining on Feb 19, 2009
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12/21/2010

 
A Glossary of Ammunition Terms
ARMOR-PIERCING:
A type of bullet designed to penetrate hard or soft body armor,and/or tough objects like automobile bodies. The term is actually very imprecise and hardto define, as there are many variables involved. Virtually any centerfire rifle bullet can penetrate soft body armor (especially when firing full metal jacketed bullets) and socould be considered "armor piercing," even if the intended purpose of the bullet ishunting or target use. There are many types of true AP ammunition in both handgun andrifle calibers, most of which are unimportant for sporting or defensive use, and some of which are illegal to sell to the general public.
BALL:
Once almost exclusively a military term, this is now frequently used in a civiliancontext as well; it means a bullet that is solid or non-expanding in nature. In earlyfirearms, projectiles were round lead balls, and the usage has persisted. "Ballammunition" in rifle cartridges usually means full metal jacket bullets, but in handguncartridges the term may also include solid lead bullets. The French word "balle" is theorigin of this term (and also of the word "bullet," from "boulet," a little ball.)
BOAT-TAIL:
A bullet that's tapered at the base, to reduce wind cavitation in the back iscalled a "boat-tail" from its resemblance to the stern of a ship. These bullets are almostexclusively used in rifles, and tend to have flatter trajectories and higher retainedvelocities at long range than conventional flat-based bullets.
BULLET:
This is what comes
out 
of the muzzle of the gun when you pull the trigger; asingle projectile fired from a handgun or rifle. Bullets may be made solely of lead alloy,or they may be composite structures with a lead core and a surrounding "jacket" of copper/nickel alloy. Different styles and shapes of bullets are used for different purposes,
e.g.
, defensive shooting, targets, hunting, etc. Although virtually all handgun and riflecartridges are designed to shoot single bullets, sometimes special multi-projectile loadsare seen.
CALIBER:
A means for designating the size of the bullet fired by a particular gun. Intheory, there are two methods of measuring caliber: hundredths of an inch, andmillimeters. To speak of a gun as being ".22 caliber" means that the bullet fired by it isapproximately twenty-two hundredths of an inch in diameter. A "9 mm" pistol fires a bullet nine millimeters in diameter. Unfortunately, over the years, standardization of  bullet diameters has led to a nomenclature that doesn't quite correspond to physical fact,and there are many instances in which the nominal bullet diameter and the
actual 
bulletdiameter don't coincide. For example, in a perfect world, all ".38 caliber" handgunswould fire a bullet of that size; but in this imperfect world, none of them do: in fact, the"typical" .38 caliber bullet is somewhat smaller than its nominal diameter. The situation ismuch better with metric-designated bullets, and a "9 mm" or "10 mm" is really nine or ten millimeters in diameter.
 
Caliber designation is very confusing, and it's best to think of the numbers as expressingrelative sizes, not absolute ones. Thus a .38 is smaller than a .44 or .45; and a .32 issmaller than a .38. The actual bullet diameter is unimportant in this sense. The termcaliber is also frequently used as a synonym for "cartridge" and you will often see gunsinscribed with something like this: "CALIBER .38 S&W SPECIAL" or "CALIBER .45AUTOMATIC" as a means to designated exactly which cartridge they are chambered for.
CARTRIDGE:
A complete "unitized" round of ammunition,
i.e.
, one case containing a powder charge, a primer, and a projectile (or projectiles). The term "bullet" is oftenmisused (especially in the news media) to mean "cartridge". Of course, all unfiredcartridges have bullets in them, but the two terms aren't synonymous, and shouldn't beconfused.
CASE:
The brass, steel, or aluminum cylinder that enclosed the powder charge, and intowhich the primer and bullet are seated. Shotgun cases are usually made of plastic, andsometimes of heavy paper. Whatever the material, the function of the case is to expandupon firing, sealing off the chamber of the gun and preventing gas leakage (a processcalled "obturation"). Since the bullet is movable, and the case isn't, the bullet comes outof the end of the barrel driven by the gasses behind it. Needless to say, a case failure or rupture (a very rare occurrence, but it does sometimes happen) will leak hot high-pressuregas into places where it isn't supposed to be, and it may do some damage to the gun or shooter.
CAST BULLET:
A bullet made by pouring molten lead alloy into a mold, and allowingit to harden. Cast bullets are inexpensive, and the fired ones, if recovered, can be re-melted and the metal used again. Factory ammunition rarely uses cast bullets; if thecartridge is loaded with a lead bullet, that bullet is usually produced by an extrusion process. Cast bullets are mostly used by people who load their own ammunition.
CENTERFIRE:
A cartridge is said to be centerfire if its primer is located in the center of the case head, usually as a removable unit. Most calibers of ammunition are of this type.See
RIMFIRE
.
FULL METAL JACKET:
Some bullets are composed of a lead core and an overlying jacket of copper-nickel alloy. If the nose of the bullet is completely covered by the metal jacket, so that no lead is exposed, this is a full-metal-jacketed bullet. The core has densityand weight, and the hard jacket reduces fouling of the gun and increases penetration power of the bullet. Since they don't expand at all, FMJ bullets tend to make neat holes,and (all other things being equal) they will penetrate more deeply than other types.
 
Military bullets are usually full-jacketed, but hunting bullets never are. Military bulletsare designed to kill cleanly or to produce a clean wound, in accordance with the GenevaConventions and Hague Protocols on warfare. Hunting bullets (which are usually hollow point or soft point styles) are designed to do the maximum damage possible, and to kill asrapidly and effectively as possible. Many pistols (especially military-style autoloaders)function best with FMJ ammunition.
FULL METAL JACKET
is synonymous with
BALL
in speaking of military ammunition. A variant is the
TOTAL METAL JACKET
 bullet, in which the base is enclosed as well as the rest of the core.
GAS CHECK:
A thin disc of hard metal crimped onto the base of a lead bullet. Gaschecks are made to fit the exact groove diameter of the gun, and their function is to prevent gas leakage past the base of the moving bullet. Leaking gas is hot enough to partially melt a lead bullet, and the higher the velocity the more the problem. The gascheck permits a cast bullet to be shot at somewhat higher velocity than would otherwise be possible. It is a design intermediate between the simple lead bullet and the jacketedtypes.
HOLLOW POINT:
A hollow-point bullet has a cavity formed in the tip, as a means toinitiate expansion when it contacts a target. This increases the diameter and the killing power of the bullet. Hollow point bullets may be made solely of lead, or they may be jacketed; and they may have the hollow cavity formed as part of a
SOFT POINT
, see below.
JACKET:
A thin copper-nickel sheath formed around the core of a bullet. The jacket ishard and slick, compared to the lead of the core; and so the bullet is more resistant tomechanical deformation by the action of the gun. Another reason for jacketing a bullet isto prevent it from breaking up on impact with the target, and dissipating its effect. The jacket may completely cover the core except at the base (full jacket) or it may be closedat the base and open at the tip or nose (as in a soft point bullet). Some bullets have jacketsthat cover only the base, and the lead portion forms the bearing surface that grips therifling of the barrel. This type is called a
HALF-JACKET
. Jacketed bullets have certainadvantages: they can be fired at higher velocities than lead bullets, and they usuallyfunction more reliably in autoloaders. To offset these, they have disadvantages of comparatively high cost, a tendency to wear out rifling faster than lead, and to depositstubborn fouling in the bore of the gun which requires a lot of effort to remove.
MAGNUM:
In 1935, when Smith and Wesson introduced their new handgun cartridgeaimed at police and hunters, they wanted a jazzy name to indicate that it was much larger than anything else available; and so their marketing department decided that ".357
Magnum
" would be a clever and catchy name. The ploy worked, and since then manyother companies have hitched their wagon to this particular horse, and so we have ".44Magnum," ".32 Magnum," and even ".22 Magnum" calibers, as well as many others. Theterm has come to mean any cartridge that's significantly more powerful than others firing bullets of similar size.

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