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The Wide World of Ammunition

In the shooting world, choosing ammunition can be just as complex and confusing as choosing a gun. You can pick from a variety of bullet types, bullet weights, and velocities - there are a myriad of possible combinations. The shooter must be able to decide which type of ammo is best for the job. I'm going to start with the basics of bullet physics, and continue on to cover defensive handgun ammo choices, shotgun ammo, rifle ammo (excluding the .50 BMG cartridge), and some types of more exotic military ammo. I'm aiming this article at people who have one or more firearms and at least minimal experience shooting them, but haven't put much thought into the varieties of ammunition.

Ammunition Basics

A complete round of ammunition (a cartridge) consists of four components: a case (to hold everything together), a primer, powder, and a bullet. The primer, located in the rear of the cartridge (opposite the bullet) is a small amount of volatile explosive that detonates when crushed by a gun's firing pin. The primer's spark then ignites the gunpowder propellant. The powder does not explode, but rather burns quickly and creates a large volume of hot gas inside the cartridge case. The gas creates a massive amount of pressure, which has two effects. The first is to expand the cartridge case slightly and thus seal the rear end of the barrel. The other effect is to shove the bullet out the barrel at a speed of several thousand feet per second.

Once that bullet is flying downrange, there are two factors that we need to be concerned with:

    Velocity: The faster a bullet is going, the farther it will go before dropping very far. This is important both for maximum rage and sight alignment. A bullet that goes slowly must be aimed above its target, so that it will be at the correct height when it reaches that target.

    Mass: A heavy bullet confers several advantages. First, a heavy bullet will retain its kinetic energy better at long range. This allows it to perforate things (trees, steel plates, game animals, bad guys, etc), and allows it to strike an incapacitating blow at longer ranges. A heavy bullet is also able to go through light obstacles like leaves, twigs, and brush without being deflected much away from its initial flight path.

Unfortunately, we can't have both velocity and mass. The strength of the gun gives us an upper limit of how much pressure we have to work with in our cartridges. We can choose light bullets going very fast, heavy bullet moving slowly, or medium-sized bullets with medium velocities. Each choice has certain advantages and disadvantages, and which one is best depends on what it's going to be used for. We will look at these choices more in a moment.

There are a couple other characteristics of bullets, such as sectional density and ballistic coefficients, but those are beyond the scope of this introductory article. We'll stick to just mass and velocity for now.


I imagine that most DF! readers aren't reading the magazine to get advice for precision shooting competitions. What we are more concerned about is the eventuality of using our rifle, pistol, or shotgun on a Bad Guy intent on hurting us…so we ought to know a thing or two about wounds.

A bullet wound is simply a hole punched through a person, and as anyone who has had an ear or other body part pierced knows, holes alone aren't harmful. A bullet hole only becomes seriously damaging when the bullet goes through a vital bit of biology on its way through, such as a bone, organ, blood vessel, etc. In addition, high-velocity bullets can create a shock wave upon hitting, which can damage tissue surrounding the wound. So, a bullet's chances of causing a serious wound go up as the bullet gets larger and faster.

Bullet-designers, being capitalists, have devised several creative ways to make bullets effectively larger without the side effect of making them weigh more. The most common of these methods is the expanding bullet. When the bullet hits a target, it expands into a mushroom-like shape, which greatly expands its diameter. This is done by giving the bullet either a soft or hollow tip, so that the force of impact will splay open the bullet's copper jacket. Another method for increasing bullet effectiveness is to design a bullet to fragment upon hitting. The bullet fragments spread out in the target and each one creates its own wound channel, increasing the likelihood of hitting a vital organ. This is the idea behind the NATO .223 caliber cartridge. With their 5.45x45mm cartridge, the Russians have chosen instead to use bullets designed to tumble upon impact. Thus instead of making a 5.45mm hole right through a target, they fall head-over- tail and create a much larger wound. Finally, there is also the possibility of firing multiple projectiles, so that each one will make a separate wound channel (this how almost all shotgun ammunition works). The specific types of ammunition utilizing these techniques will be explained in more detail later on.

Pistol Ammunition

The handgun is the most common defensive firearm, because it is small enough to carry daily without much inconvenience, and can be easily concealed. However, the handgun is also the weakest type of firearm, so anyone planning to keep one around for protection has a good reason to use the most effective ammo available. There are many choices to pick from:

    Ball (FMJ): The term "ball" is used to describe full metal jacketed pistol ammunition (a reference to standard musket ammunition being a plain lead ball). Such ammo consists of a lead core surrounded by a copper jacket, which prevents lead from building up in the barrel. Ball ammo is the most reliable ammunition to use in a semi-auto pistol, because its rounded or pointed shape is unlikely to hang up on the feed ramp during loading. Furthermore, many military pistols were designed around ball ammunition, and the geometry of their parts may not allow flat-tipped bullets or hollow points ammunition to feed. Aside from reliability, ball ammo's only advantage is cost - it is the cheapest type of ammunition to buy, often with bulk discounts.

    Expanding: In an effort to increase the effectiveness of ball ammunition, bullets have been developed which will expand and increase its diameter upon hitting a target. This is done by carving out the tip of the bullet to leave a conical cavity in place of a pointed tip. The bullet's jacket is also usually scored lengthwise as well. The end result is that upon impact, the tip of the bullet will mushroom out, greatly increasing the bullet's diameter. These types of bullets make very impressive wounds and are quite a bit more effective than plain ball. They have two major side effects, though: they are less likely to feed reliably, and they have less penetration. They are less reliable because they have a flat face which can catch on surfaces in the gun during feeding. The lack of penetration is a direct result of the increased diameter - the more surface area a bullet has in contact with the target, the more rapidly it will slow down. When properly designed, expanding ammunition can have perfectly adequate penetration, though. It also gives the added safety factor of being unlikely to go clear through a target and hit something beyond.

    Frangible: Frangible ammunition is designed to disintegrate completely after hitting a target. This has several side effects. First of all, frangible bullets are generally much lighter than more conventional bullets, and attain very high velocities. The light weight means that they won't get much penetration and they will tend to lose energy rapidly past 25-50 yards. However, their disintegration makes it almost impossible for them to perforate a target and hit something behind. Frangibles will tend to make a large but fairly shallow wound.

My Conclusions: When using a pistol defensively, both you and you pistol have a job to do. The pistol must function as designed, and you must accurately deliver fire with it. If both of these jobs aren't done, you and your pistol will not be effective, no matter what kind of bullets you're using. Since the type of ammunition does not effect your raw shooting ability, the primary condition you should have for your ammunition is reliability. Anything that fires will serve you better than a round that your pistol won't function with. Lethality is a secondary concern - once you know what types of ammunition will function flawlessly in your pistol, then pick then pick an expanding round to use. What do I mean by flawless functioning? Several hundred rounds fired without any malfunctions (this standard applies to your magazines as well).

Frangible ammo is cool stuff, but simply not as effective as expanding ammo. It is very well suited for use in crowded areas like apartments and airliners where a shot that went through a bad guy could easily harm a bystander, but it's not the best choice for most peoples' every-day use (did I mention that frangible rounds cost about $3 apiece? It'll cost you about $1000 just to make sure the stuff is reliable…).

In general, the best choice for a defensive pistol is a flawlessly functioning expanding bullet. Why? Simply because they are more effective stoppers than ball ammunition, especially in smaller calibers like 9mm. What the best defensive pistol caliber and ammunition are is a very hotly debated topic in gun circles, and you will likely find that nearly every serious shooter has a different favorite. The truth of the matter is that there is no magic bullet - the most important factor is whether of not you can make fast and accurate shots with your pistol. Until you can do that, the kind of ammunition you use won't help you at all. Once you can shoot well, then your choice of ammunition becomes a way to maximize your effectiveness independent of your skill.

Good brands and sources: There is not much surplus pistol ammunition available on the market, and since reliability is so essential for pistol ammunition, I recommend only new factory ammo for serious use. Ammunition from any of the major manufacturers (Remington, Federal, Winchester, Sellier & Bellot) is a good choice, but stay away from "factory reloads". These are once-fired cases reloaded and resold - while fine for practice, their quality just isn't quite as good as new factory cartridges. If you do run across surplus military pistol ammo, I wouldn't suggest using it for anything but practice, and I would make sure that it's not corrosive before using it at all. I would also avoid Russian ammo, sold under the Wolf, Silver Bear, and Brown Bear labels. It's dirty steel-cased stuff that can be pretty hard on your pistols.

The major brands of expanding pistol ammunition are Speer Gold Dots, Remington Golden Sabers, Federal Hydra-Shoks, Winchester Silvertips, and Black Hills hollowpoints. I would suggest getting the second-heaviest bullet weight (generally 124gr for 9mm, 155gr or 165gr for .40 S&W, and 185gr for .45). The second-lightest weight will have a higher velocity than the heaviest, and it will increase the effectiveness of an expanding bullet. For frangible ammunition, Magsafe and Glaser Safety Slugs are the standard of quality. Factory pistol ammo can be found at any decent gun shop, but it will likely be more expensive there than anywhere else. Buying online or at gun shows is a better choice, as you can find some very good deals. Reputable sites include:

Shotgun Ammunition

Shotguns are the simplest type of firearm. With their large diameter smoothbore barrels, they are superb weapons for close ranges, but totally unsuited for precision shooting. The shotgun is also capable of handling a much wider range of projectiles than any other class of weapon short of a cannon. Old muzzleloading shotguns are quite happy firing anything from rock salt to broken glass to lead balls. With modern cartridge shotguns, our choices are basically limited to metal balls, known (not surprisingly) as shot. Commonly manufactured shot ranges in size from #9 (0.08" in diameter) to #000 (0.36" in diameter), plus the slug (as large as the bore diameter). Because the amount of space available to hold shot in a shell is limited, the number of balls in a shell will vary tremendously depending on the size of the shot. Factory loaded shotshells generally contain 1-1½ ounces of shot, which translates to 600 or 700 #9 pellets down to 6 #000 balls or a single slug. So, which is better? Lots of little pellets or a few really big ones? Or even a single really big slug? Each choice has its own advantages and disadvantages, so let's look more closely at each possibility.

Shotguns are commonly available in 12 gauge (.73 caliber), 20 gauge (.62 caliber), and .410 caliber. The 12 gauge is the largest, but at close ranges the 20 gauge is nearly as effective. A .410 caliber shotgun is certainly better than nothing, but not nearly as effective as one of the larger shotguns.

    Birdshot: Birdshot is the term for shotshells using pellets between #9 and #5 in size, although #7, #7.5, and #8 are the most common sizes. Because it uses such small pellets, birdshot has poor penetration. This makes it ideal for defensive use in populated areas such as family houses and apartment buildings, as the pellets will usually not go through walls to hurt bystanders in nearby rooms. (Note: don't assume that this will hold true for your individual walls; build a mock wall and test it before making any assumptions about your ammo.) However, it does produce shallower wounds than buckshot. There is really no reason to use anything but the largest shot that you know won't penetrate your walls.

    Buckshot: Buckshot is the generic term for shot between #4 and #000 in size (.20" - .36" in diameter). The advantage buckshot has over birdshot is penetration - the larger shot is able to penetrate deeper into a target before slowing down and stopping. This gives it the capability to hit vital organs deep in the body, as well as make stopping hits from poor angles and through light cover. Buckshot is the most effective combat ammunition for a shotgun (not surprisingly, it's also what national military forces use in their shotguns).

    Slugs: The shotgun slug is simply a single lead projectile the same diameter as the shotgun bore. The slug's main advantage is penetration - it will go through much more material than shot of any size. Most slugs are also rifled, giving them tolerable accuracy, despite being fired from a smoothbore shotgun. For the average person, slugs are most useful for shooting through obstacles (for example, a burglary victim barricaded in a room can shoot through the door at an intruder trying to break it down). Slugs are also the best choice for hunting large game with a shotgun.

Availability: As of September 2002, there are no serious restrictions on any of the afore-mentioned shotgun ammunition, and I think we have a while before any restrictions will be seen. For now, the number of people owning shotguns for hunting, competition, and recreation is simply too high for politicians to pass major restrictions and still stay in office. Furthermore, the shotgun is the least frightening type of firearm for a politician - shotguns are neither concealable nor capable of medium- or long-range accuracy. Any of these types of ammunition are readily available at gun shops, gun shows, and even Wal-Mart.

Less-than-lethal (usually - such ammunition can cause fatal wounds if used improperly) ammunition is also made for shotguns, although it may be more difficult for a civilian to purchase. Most such ammunition simply fires a beanbag which will not penetrate skin, just hurt like hell. I've never bothered to try to get my hands on any, though. I am of the opinion that a firearm should never be considered anything but a lethal tool, to be treated with great respect. If you're not willing to kill your target, you should find some tool other than a gun to resolve your problem. Getting a tool's purpose mixed up invites misuse of that tool.

There are a number of more exotic types of shotgun ammo which I think it is worth spending a moment on. The most orthodox type is the flechette shell. A flechette is a small nail-like dart, with a sharpened tip and several fins for stability - a handful of these darts can be packed into a shell in place of the normal payload of shot. They may look mean, but they tend to exit the barrel at odd angles and really have no advantage over shot, especially when you consider how much they cost. Other types of exotic shotgun ammo include "bolo" shot (two balls connected by a wire), shells firing tacks instead of pellets, "flamethrower" shells, and the like. These sorts of ammunition are at best no more effective than a load of standard shot and at worst a hazard to the user. Furthermore, it shouldn't be surprising that many such shells with icky, violent-sounding names (like "Dragon's Breath" ammo and "Piranha" shells) are restricted at the state and local level in many areas.

My Conclusions: For home defense, use the largest shot you can without risking shooting through into occupied adjacent rooms. The larger the pellets, the more effective of a wound can be inflicted. Also, I would recommend keeping a handful of slugs handy in case a situation requires them (though I wouldn't use them as my main ammunition).

Good brands and sources: As with pistol ammunition, most shotgun ammo can be found at any decent gun shop, but may be expensive. Gun shows and online dealers (see the above list of good sites, though not all of them carry shotgun shells) are just as reliable, and cheaper. Good brands include Federal, Sellier & Bellot, Winchester, and Remington. Brenneke slugs are some of the best. For practice, a bulk package of 100 or 250 birdshot shells is the cheapest way to go.

Rifle Ammunition

The more common types of rifle ammunition include:

    Ball (FMJ): The most common ammunition for a rifle is plain full metal jacket. Like FMJ pistol ammo, rifle ball is simply a lead bullet covered in a copper jacket. While the jacket serves to keep the barrel clean in a pistol, it is needed in a rifle to hold the bullet together. Because of barrel rifling and high velocity, rifle bullets are spinning so fast that an unjacketed bullet would simply disintegrate upon exiting the barrel. The jacket allows the bullet to remain intact. In doing so, it also prevents the bullet from expanding when it hits a target, which has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that retaining its shape allows the bullet to perforate objects (like logs, walls, and light armor) and continue through to hit a target behind. The disadvantage is that it does not have the capability to deliver as serious a wound as an expanding bullet could. This is a relatively unimportant problem, though, as most rifle bullets are more than powerful enough to begin with.

    Softpoint (SP): Softpoint rifle ammunition is analogous to expanding pistol ammunition. A softpoint bullet has an exposed lead tip, which will mushroom out when it hits a target. As with expanding pistol bullets, this creates a significantly wider wound channel. The downsides to this ammunition in rifles are its lessened capacity to perforate cover and its higher cost. Softpoints are the standard ammunition of choice for most hunters, as their greater wounding potential makes a 1-shot kill more assured, and because game is unlikely to take cover when shot at. Because of its popularity among hunters, most commercial rifle ammunition is softpoint.

    Armor Piercing (AP): Armor-piercing ammunition looks like ball from the outside, but it replaces part of the lead core with a hardened steel penetrator. When it hits a hard target, the jacket and lead will flatten out against it, while the steel core (being harder and less malleable) will continue through. Unfortunately, there are a number of restrictions on AP ammo in the US today at the state and local levels. Federally, importation and manufacture of AP ammo is prohibited (except for military and police sales). The AP already in the country can be bought and sold, but there's no new stuff coming in. The only fairly common AP bullets are from surplus .30-06 ammunition. They can be found as complete cartridges or just as pulled bullets suitable for handloading. Fortunately for the handloader, these .30-06 bullets have an actual diameter of .308", making them usable in a several different calibers, including 7.62x51 (.308) and all the .300 Magnums. AP can be found in other calibers, but it is generally collectible, and sells for several dollars per round (and can't be found in bulk). Having some of this neat stuff around is definitely worthwhile - you never know when you might have a use for it, and it probably won't be too long before what's left is banned.

      One special type of AP ammo is NATO SS109/M855 designated .223 ammunition, which can be identified by a green-painted tip. It has a steel core and behaves like AP ammo, but the ATF had ruled that it is not legally armor piercing. As a result, it is easily available and unregulated (at least at the federal level). SS109 ammunition has better penetration and long range capability than normal M193 (NATO- spec) ball, but lacks the latter's fragmenting properties. I consider a .223 rifle to be a short-range weapon and don't expect any long-range capability from mine, so I use 55gr normal ball. Someone relying more heavily on a .223 should have a lot of SS109 on hand.

    Tracer: Tracer ammunition is like regular ball, but the base of the bullet contains small flammable compound. This compound burns brightly after the bullet is fired, allowing the shooter (as well as anyone else watching) to see where the bullet is going. The main purpose of these rounds is to facilitate aiming of machine guns - many national militaries use tracers at regular intervals in ammo belts, so that a machine gun may be roughly aimed just by watching the tracers. Another use that has been devised is to load two or three tracers as the last rounds in a large rifle magazine. Thus when you see tracers, you know that it's time to reload. As most of us don't have belt-fed machine guns, our only practical use for tracers is that magazine tactic. Personally, I think that any speed advantage gained would be overshadowed by the disadvantage of those tracers allowing other people to see your position, although it might be worthwhile in very large mags, such as Beta-C 100 round drums.

    Exotic ammo: There are several other types of unusual ammunition that can be found for some rifles, usually as collector'' items. During the Second World War, many types of specialty ammunition were developed, including incendiary, a combination armor-piercing/incendiary, explosive, and smoke (like a tracer, but trailing smoke for easier daytime visibility). While these are really neat, they are quite uncommon to find and expensive. The most common caliber will be .30-06, and will be found only as complete cartridges (not many people want to mess around with trying to extract explosive or incendiary bullets). I don't recommend trying to use any of these exotic rounds for serious work, for even if you can find more than a handful of them, they are decades-old surplus and may have become either dangerously volatile or complete duds. Use them at your own risk.

Availability: Most rifle ammunition can be bought in bulk through dealers at gun shows or online. This is a great way to get good deals on quality ammunition. Most bulk ammo is military surplus ball ammo, which means that sooner or later all that was imported will be bought up and no longer available. When a good deal appears, don't hesitate to take advantage of it. As I mentioned in my previous article, anyone who wants to be able to use their battle rifle for defense of life and liberty should stock several thousand rounds of ammunition for it. The common surplus ball ammo is a fine choice for a battle rifle, as its penetration advantages over softpoints are a valuable characteristic. However, premium hunting and match ammunition is more accurate than surplus ball, so it would be a good idea to have a couple hundred rounds of premium- grade rifle chow in case the need for very long range work appears.

Once you buy any sort of ammunition, take your rifle out with it and find out where it hits at various ranges. Two different types of ammunition will likely have slightly different trajectories, and you should know exactly where to aim for the desired effect with any ammunition you stock (this is another good argument for buying one type in bulk).

Good brands and sources: For softpoints, new factory ammunition is the way to go. National militaries don't use softpoints (as required by the Hague Conferences) so there is no surplus market. All the major commercial brands are good quality, though - Remington, Winchester, Sellier & Bellot, and Federal. For ball ammunition, surplus is definitely the best choice. There isn't much new factory FMJ, and what is being made costs 2-4 times as much as surplus. Buying surplus is the best way to get thousands of rounds of quality ammunition without breaking the bank. The only reasons to buy factory rifle ammo are to get softpoints and to get better accuracy. Keep in mind, though, that military ball is easily accurate enough for battlefield use - only dedicated snipers have a need for something better, and ammunition for such roles should really be hand-loaded anyway.

One important thing to beware of when buying surplus military ammunition is the possibility of it being corrosive. Let me explain - until about 50 years ago, the explosive compound in primers left behind hygroscopic salts after firing. These salts attract water from the air, and are not removed by normal cleaning solutions. The result is that your rifle barrel will corrode rapidly if not cleaned correctly promptly after shooting. Modern primer compounds leave no such salts, fortunately (those capitalist ammo manufacturers at it again). The exact year of change from corrosive to non-corrosive (modern) depends on the manufacturer. Anything from World War II or earlier should be assumed to be corrosive. Anything produced in the 1970s or later should be non-corrosive. I would suggest avoiding corrosive ammo altogether. Why should you deal with extra rifle maintenance when you can almost always get non- corrosive ammo?

Also, ammunition varies in quality depending on where it was manufactured. Before buying anything odd, make sure to do some research on it to make sure you're not buying cruddy ammo. In .308, the good buys at the moment are German (Hirtenberger), Portuguese, British (Radway Green), US (Lake City), Israeli (IMI), and South African. Of those, all are non-corrosive but only the German is reloadable (for you reloaders out there). In .223, good (and also non-corrosive) choices are South African (PMP) and US (Lake City). Russian Wolf-brand ammunition is available in a handful of rifle calibers, but it is nasty lacquered steel-cased stuff that can cause excessive wear and malfunctions. Your rifle deserves better.

Final Thoughts

The biggest factor determining how well you shoot is how much you've trained and practiced. The best ammo won't make a poor shooter any better. However, the experienced and skilled shooter can improve his or her accuracy and effectiveness significantly by choosing the right ammunition. Finally, remember that the government could decide to limit our access to ammunition at any time. Find what works best for you and your firearms, and stock up now while you have access to good ammunition.


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