An Introduction To Rifle And Pistol Ammunition

I’ve written a good many firearms articles for Return Of Kings, and I’ve gotten a couple comments regarding ammunition selection. As a gun is useless without proper skills, so it is without proper ammunition, and that implies having some knowledge of the ammunition itself. As there are many subjects under the umbrella of “ammo,” we’ll start this series of articles today with talking about rifle and pistol ammunition.

The cartridge

Modern centerfire rifle ammo (and centerfire pistol ammo, as well) are composed of four separate components which we will discuss in turn. The term “cartridge” or “round” refers to the assembly of the primer, the case, the powder charge, and the projectile (the bullet itself). It is colloquial, though not correct, to refer to the whole cartridge as a bullet, i.e. “I only have ten bullets left for my AR!” which is an erroneous statement, as an AR-15 can do nothing with a bullet by itself. Don’t bother correcting people on it, lest you be considered a “well, technically…..” dweeb, but simply know what’s up.

The bullet

Although each component is critical to accurate, reliable shooting (not to mention the gun itself), the bullet has many attributes that affect its performance of which you should be informed. Weight, shape, material, and composition or construction are the important ones to know.

Bullet weight is measured in grains, just like powder weight is. The first thing to understand is that a given rifle is chambered for a given caliber, and that means the width of the bullet is fixed for that gun. A rifle chambered in 7mm Remington needs to shoot bullets that are 7mm in diameter, otherwise it will blow up or not shoot accurately, depending on whether the bullet is too wide or too narrow.

A bullet that is a heavier grain weight than another, in the same caliber, will be longer in a proportional amount. Likewise, due to caliber restrictions, one can see that a range of weights is available for each caliber.

The upshot of bullet weight is twofold. Firstly, a heavier bullet will fly slower with the same amount of powder behind it as a lighter bullet, but it will be deflected and slowed down less by wind. Secondly, a longer bullet takes up more room, so you can run into chambering problems if the bullet sits out too far from the mouth of the case, or space problems with the amount of powder if it is set too far back into the case.

Bullet shape is primarily concerned with how long the bullet is (see the weight discussion above) and the shape of the tail of the bullet. Most of the front ends of bullets of a given caliber are exactly the same shape. You’re looking for accuracy here in your given weapon.

Material is usually lead, with some pure copper bullets out there. What you will usually run into is copper jacketed lead bullets. Communist surplus ammo is often cheaper copper-washed steel jacketed bullets, and these trade cost of manufacturer for increased wear on the barrel. Western manufactured ammo is better for your rifle, but costs more because of better components; your call.

Lastly is tip construction. A solid lead round is simply that. Enclose it in a complete copper jacket, and you have “Full Metal Jacket” or “ball” ammo. Leave a bit of lead showing at the end, and you have a “soft point.” Put a hole in the end, and you have “hollow point.” Put a plastic tip on it to aid flight stabilization and expansion upon impact, and you have “ballistic tip” bullets.

You have FMJ on the left three, then soft points, then hollow points, and lastly the red and green are polymer tips, while the metal one one the far right is a steel core armor piercer.

“Bonded” bullets have the copper jacket better attached to the lead core so that the round expands well (doing damage) but also retains mass for better penetration to vital areas. “Monolithic” bullets are one material only, usually copper. “Armor piercing” rounds have a steel core inside them designed to punch through armor and metal, instead of going splat and deforming like a lead only bullet does when hitting plate.

Lastly, “incendiary” rounds have some phosphorous inside them to burn on impact, and “tracers” have a coating of it on the round just to make a light so you can “trace” your bullet’s path and bring the stream of fire onto target (think a machine gun or anti-aircraft.)

The case

The case, commonly called “the brass,” is a usually brass, metal can with a hole on the back for the primer and a hole on the front for the bullet. One seats a primer, fills the case with a predetermined amount of powder, then seats, and often crimps, the bullet into place so it does not move until fired.

The case is the only reusable component in ammunition as the powder is burned, the primer is spent, and the bullet, in addition to being gone, is usually deformed due to hitting the target wherever it is stopped. Many folks will melt down and recast salvaged bullets from target backstops, but the primary collectable is to save your brass. Always save it in case you want to reload, or you can sell it. Mind “brass whores” at ranges; don’t let them take your brass, and don’t tolerate them picking around for other brass while you are shooting; they can do their shameful whoring later when the range is empty. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with YOU picking up other good brass, just be discreet.

Save your brass, even if you don’t reload, as it can be sold to those that do.

Steel cases, on the other hand, like found in Communist surplus ammo, are not reloadable, and can be discarded. Rimfire cases, like in .22s, are very hard and cost prohibitive to reload, so you probably shouldn’t bother with them either.

Finally, cases are sometimes externally the same, but different on the inside. A civilian .223 case will look the same as a military 5.56×45 case, and will often shoot just as well as the other in a rifle, but the military brass is thicker, with less volume on the inside, which results in higher pressure for the same powder load. This is important to reloaders; the average shooter simply needs to make sure he gets the right ammo for his gun (read the headstamp on the back of the case, it needs to say the same thing as the gun does.)

The powder

Modern smokeless powder comes from a variety of manufacturers and has a variety of things it can do. Powder used in pistol bullets burns faster than powder meant for bullets in rifle barrels since the barrels are shorter. This is also why short barreled pistols make a fireball and a louder report than longer barrels; all that flash and fury was meant to be done in the last bit of the barrel.

Without getting too much into reloading science, ammo manufacturers and reloaders pick a powder that will make the bullet fly the fastest and most stably in an anticipated barrel length and will physically fill the case to an acceptable degree (over half.) It’s ok to have some airspace in a cartridge, but you want to minimize that as long as you can fully seat your bullet. You absolutely want to have powder loads that cannot be double filled inside the case’s volume so you don’t blow up the gun and you.

Different powders.

From a factory ammo purchaser’s viewpoint, powder loads in a given brand and a given line are usually standard. I have run into budget ammo by major manufacturers that differs from one brand to another on how hot it is loaded; some brands will not cycle a semi-auto that requires a lot of recoil to run, although that is usually more pistol ammo.

Black powder, which is rare to see in a cartridge, is corrosive once fired. Black powder substitutes, and modern smokeless powder is not. If you shoot corrosive powder, flush your rifle out with ammonia solution, like Windex, as soon as possible, then clean normally.

The primer

Lastly, we have primers. Primers are one use only, typically come in magnum and regular varieties, pistol and rifle sizes, and some are harder than others. Military rifles typically like harder primers as a lot of them have floating firing pins that will ding the primer with their inertia upon chambering, which can cause a slam fire (the rifle goes off upon chambering.)

Boxer pistol primers, seen in cartridges, and loose. The trefoil looking thing is the anvil, and it is what the primer compound is smooshed against by the firing pin, and the blast goes out around it into the powder

For reloading purposes, primers are either of the Boxer variety, or the Berdan variety, and that has to do with the firing channels in the case, and whether or not you can push the primer out with a reloading tool. Most US ammo is Boxer, and reloadable, and you see Berdan primers, which are harder to reload, more in European ammo.

Surplus Soviet ammo, like 7.62x54R, have primers that let loose corrosive salts. See the above note about Windex.


Ammo selection is an important tool to use in maximizing a gun’s potential. Many people will only own one or two guns, and it is a good thing to be able to do as much as you can with what you’ve got. We’ll reference this article in future discussions about reloading. Be safe.

Overloaded ammo can do this.

Read More: What To Do In An Ammo Panic

89 thoughts on “An Introduction To Rifle And Pistol Ammunition”

  1. Uggh, know your ammo and gun. I just got back from a caribou hunt and had a fucking misfire with an animal in my sights. Think my ammo in -10 degree snowy weather failed me. Either that or fuck Ruger Americans. Have to go to the gun range and see if I can replicate the problem.
    Edit: Still got her down with the next round.

    1. same conditions, and you could shoot 1000 more times before you have a repeat. Sometimes there are just anomalies that can’t be explained

      1. Doing some internet research today, I realize it was probably the magazine misfeeding. In the adrenaline blur of trying to get a shot, I think the bullet didn’t load, not a misfire. Seems to be a problem with Ruger Americans. They will be getting a phone call today.

        1. Try to shoot a caribou in the morning, talk about it on the web in the afternoon…the modern world is sooooooo bizarre

        2. Haha. Not quite that fast. Got home last night. And still morning here. Time zones and all that.

        3. I guess what Im gettin at: If I was you and lived the way you do, I’d want your neighbor from 2 miles away come by to inform you “WW3 is over” to which you respond “When did it start?”

        4. And it’s not just caribou. All manner of things can be shot in the morning and discussed on the web in the afternoon.

        5. Heck, if you are anywhere near a cell tower, you can do it while you are still out in the field.

        6. I like a mix of that type of living with “city” life (our city still has moose and bear throughout it). I have soft hands and still need culture and science. Overall though, its pretty true that things that affect the lower 48 don’t really cross my mind.

        7. You gotta work the mag to break it in.
          If you’ve had it for a while, then something else is wrong

        8. Yeah, I’ve been reading forums and the way the magazine is designed is crap. Too much plastic tilts the bullet and misfeeds. Can be fixed with some gingerly shaving of plastic.

        9. I would probably leave the phone for emergencies. Part of my joy in hunting is leaving all the techno gadgets off and “getting back to nature” as the cliche goes.
          I wonder if there are Vegan Disqus channels where you can post pics of your kills though. That would be entertaining.

    2. What happened in the misfire? The round not actually fire? My biggest concern is slamfire.

  2. Thank you! Great stuff, I’ve been wanting to learn more about ammo and this article was exactly what I needed.

  3. Luke Stranahan, what I like about your articles, outside of the clarity of writing and knowledgeable expertise, is that I never feel like I have to assume errors. Your series would make a great eBook when you get done with it, for new shooters across the manosphere.

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  4. Make your own ammos. It’ not difficult, it’s cheaper, you got less malfunction and they are more accurate.

    1. It’s really not cheaper. Used to be. Ammo prices are plummeting though. In 2012 though, yeah, you were golden if you had a press. Today though? Not really. I do it for being able to tailor my rounds (more accurate, as you mention). Malfunctions, eh, most factory stuff is pretty reliable as long as you’re not buying Bud And Lou’s Rip Roaring .45 ACP brand.

        1. Just a regular RCBS single stage and carbide dies.

      1. GOJ – I’ve said for years that hand-loading won’t save you any money. If you have $100 to spend on ammo you’ll spend that same $100 on components. That will let you shoot more for the same money. Now that I’m loading for a S&W 500 that’s not quite true for me anymore. Commercial ammo for that monster averages around $2.35 up a round. I can hand load with my own hard cast gas checked bullets for about a buck each even with Hornady virgin brass. For the high volume stuff (.223, .45 ACP, 9mm, etc.) I picked up a Dillon 550 a couple of years ago. It doesn’t auto index, but you can still crank out the rounds. After years of a single stage o-frame and a Lee turret press, it’s like night and day.

    2. Depending on what you’re loading for, it is cheaper. If you’re loading for something like a .458 Win Mag, you’ll save some money. If you’re loading for 9mm or something common, you’re going through need to load at least a few thousand rounds before you see any savings. I load for 9mm, 45ACP, 10mm, .38/.357, .44 Magnum, 45-70, and soon .45Colt. Whatever saving I get from one caliber gets spent on the next one.
      As far as less malfunctions, one really just needs to pay attention. The blown up Marlin 1895 in the article looks like someone double charged the case or used pistol/shotgun in place of rifle powder.

    1. This site has been a hot spot for Bernie fans recently, if that’s what you mean.

  5. I just want to let all of you know that the only answer is to buy foreign made ammo, or better yet move out of the U.S. The state of ammo here is too far gone so it’s best to either withdraw from the ammo scene completely at the risk of being taken for all you’ve got or to go abroad and only pursue SEA or EE ammo. That’s where it’s at.
    But don’t buy your ammo, just rent it. Otherwise it could cost you more than you realized. As soon as one round misfires drop every round of that type and never look back because all the other rounds are just like it.

    1. Dude. Shhhhhh. Let them revel in whatever it is that they revel in. This is a man topic here. Enjoy.

      1. It just irks me. Claim to be an alpha then whine about how awful life is. I was raised to make the best out of every situation and suck it up and deal with it

        1. If you can just copy this and paste it on every future ROK article that would be great. Thanks.

  6. Speaking of bullet tip shapes, I am a big fan of practicing with wadcutters and/or semi-wadcutters. They are flat-nosed rounds designed to cut crisp, clean, round, circular holes in paper targets, instead of punching ragged ones through them. I thought I was a pretty good shot until using wadcutters revealed how sloppy I really was. Seeing all those perfect circular punches reveals a lot of bad habits and skill deficiencies. They are a very helpful learning tool.

  7. I remember when I was 12 when I shot my first gun. I was at my grandpa’s yard and he showed me some basic shit. We put up some cans, at my first try I didn’t succeeded of course. The neigbours kid (who was 18 years old at that time) was also there and laughed at me. Then my grandpa gave him the gun to give him a try…
    Well, he didn’t managed the recoil and broke his nose.
    I laughed my ass off while my grandpa brought him to hospital. Good memories.

        1. i shot my first gun at 7. Single shot 20 gauge with buckshot. I remember the stinging in my shoulder….
          The first deer I shot at we were sitting in a ground blind and a doe came out about 75 yards away. No way I’m hitting that with buckshot but it was getting dark so Dad told me to shoot.
          I stood up, pointed down range and pulled the trigger. Wasn’t braced at all. Recoil knocked me on my butt and the barrel popped Dad on his noggin. Obviously I didn’t hit the doe.

    1. I was around 6 or so for my first time. I honestly don’t remember how I did, but I do recall my father, grandfather and two uncles standing out in a field, it was a mid autumn day, the sun was shining and it was kind of cool, and the noise it made. So while the actual “how I did” no longer exists, I have a firm memory of all of the highly masculine men in my life standing around teaching me something that men used to teach, which is worth the price of admission alone, to me.

      1. Same. I’m lucky that I was able to meet my great-grandfather. My brother hated to spend time with him, because he always squeezed his cheeks haha. But I enjoyed listening to his stories. He told me his war-stories. How they survived. What tactics they’ve used.
        How then swallowed as much gold as possible, so they wouldnt be robbed on the way home..etc.
        I was around 9 or 10. I just imagined these stories like action movies. Only years after (when he passed away already) I’ve really realized what he has been through.

        1. Your post really put that image back in my mind, my two uncles had to have been in their mid to late 20’s, maybe early 30’s, my grandfather would have been either late 40’s or 50’s and my dad same age as my uncles. Standing around talking about God knows what, getting instructions, having one of the uncles rip a fart and blame it on the “wolf spider”, etc. Same group that later taught me how to make what would today be considered an IED (used, of course, to blow up cinder blocks in the field). Then afterward, apple pie from the apple trees in my grandfathers yard, fresh baked, which is how I knew it was autumn because we were “poor” and grandma had to use fresh fruit and not the expensive canned/store stuff, so it was post harvest.
          It was really good to see them again. So, well, thank you.

        2. You’re welcome hehe. I like to think back sometimes.
          My great-grandfather was always one of my biggest male role-models. And still is. Even today, when I ask myself if I am working hard enough, if I am disciplined enough etc. , I’m not comparing myself to the bitches in my surrounding. I compare myself to him, to be as much like him, as alpha like he was. To be as strong as him, physically and even more important; mentally.
          If I just imagine what kind of real PTSD (not like today, where being catcalled, causes “PTSD”) he went through with 0 help. The flashbacks he had from war. The pictures in his head, how he lost his best friend. dying in his arms.
          And with all this shit, he was always able to put a smile on and to make us laugh everytime we met.

    2. Almost knocked myself in the head with a .357 when I was 10 or so while my brother and dad laughed hysterically.
      When I was 27 I scoped myself and had to get my forehead superglued closed.

      1. Scoped eh? Man, I’d try really hard not to laugh, because that had to have hurt and could have potentially caused a lot more damage, but truth be told, I’d still laugh. And get you some super glue of course. Heh.

        1. I was 6 when my dad had me fire a 12 gauge shotgun. He wanted me to gain a healthy respect of firearms. It worked. It wasn’t until I was 12 or so before I started monkeying around with a .22.

        2. Nice… My dad had me fire a 50 cal. muzzleloader at that age. That rifle is currently hanging on the wall in my den. 🙂

      2. Gundog – real men have “mag marks”. I was out shooting deer off crops on a state kill permit one night with a 300 Win Mag Browning Stainless Stalker (it’s fairly lightweight). I was in the back of pickup shooting off the cab as a rest and had to lean into the rifle. I tagged and bagged three of the varmints before they could get out of the peanuts and into the woods. When I got in the truck my son looked at me and said “Dad, you’re bleeding!” I looked in the rearview and sure enough I got tagged pretty good. I just looked at him and said “Yeah, I was in the groove.”

  8. The greatest thing about ammunition is….being able to afford to shoot it again!

    1. you sure they are not the guns ol’ Barry the Baptist wants those “northern monkeys” to get on Lock stock and two smoking barrels?
      “people want a bit of range these days”

    2. I could never own something like that, just like a supercar, I’d be just too damn worried about marring the finish/getting a scratch on them vice using them to their full capability.

      1. That’s true but I actually bought one. Can’t wait to go shooting with it.

  9. I fired my first gun when I was around seven, my father took my brothers and me to a shooting range after he purchased his brand new twenty gauge shotgun. He gave me first crack at shooting it much to my mother’s outrage, I fired it, recoil almost kicked me out of the chair I was sitting in and left my shoulder bruised. He later purchased a .38 police revolver and let us shoot it on several occasions.

  10. I used to reload and cast my own bullets. Then the government decided we shouldn’t be allowed to own guns any more and collected all my guns, ammo and reloading equipment. That’s England for you.

    1. and why did you not violently kill the officials?
      You could have started an uprising.

    2. And you let them, thus relinquishing your common law rights as Englishmen, which has existed since the Saxons were a tribe on the mainland of Germany, with nary a peep.
      There’s a reason my family left the U.K. mid 20th century and settled in Ohio.

    3. I suggest you emigrate here. Missouri now has Constitutional Carry (I can carry concealed or in the open without a permit of any kind). And we have good land you can raise stock and a garden on. Screw any country that will deprive you of your Creator endowed right to self defense. Come on over the pond and regain your rights as an “Englishman.” 😉

    4. What about the Netherlands. Every criminal who wants a gun owns one. The police has guns, the military. The normal people are sitting ducks when SHTF over here. You can own a gun, but you’ll have to go trough a belittling training with .22’s for a year before shooting a 9mm and face a mountain of bureaucracy and accept harassment from police. Then there is the mandatory training to keep your license and the police visits to your house to check your storage. They can check on you 24/7 in order to take or let you keep the license. I have a buddy who was checked for such a thing on a sunday at 8p.m. Police car before his house, police entering his house and everything. That’s how it goes in the Netherlands. Better to just buy one from a streetdealer if one really wants to use it as a way to protect himself.
      Why such laws? Scared government.

    1. Heaven, that’s a picture of heaven– other than what should be unnecessary locks on the display cases…

  11. “It’s ok to have some airspace in a cartridge, but you want to minimize that as long as you can fully seat your bullet.”
    I don’t agree, you select your powder to give a consistent burn during the time the bullet travels down the gun barrel. Airspace in the casing is irrelevant, powder is compressible. Progressive press the problem shouldn’t arise, hand press look in before you press in the lead.
    The photo you show is just as likely a squib load (or blocked barrel). Only the primer fires (or no powder in the cartridge), you don’t notice then fire another bullet into the back of the first bullet already jammed in the barrel.

    1. I was taught to throw a full tray, then visually compare all the casings as a difference in powder level is readily apparent if you’ve done a double throw. That along with checking the powder charge after the last throw to ensure it is still the same as the first.

    2. NOT SO; air space can be very important. With Winchester 296 an under loaded case can result in detonation destroying the firearm and possibly you with it. W296 must be loaded within 10% of max load which will result in a full case and often a compressed load. Lighter isn’t necessarily safer when it comes to powder.

  12. Every red-blooded American man that doesn’t own at least 3 guns (e.g. accurate rifle, reliable shotgun, trusty pistol, etc.) is insulting the roots of his country and tempting the loss of this freedom.
    Those rights that are not exercised are soon lost.
    The 2nd Amend to the US Constitution ensures the survival of the other 9. Other countries have disarmed their citizens for a reason….an armed citizen is sovereign. A disarmed citizen is a subject, pure and simple.
    If you live in America and don’t own, train with and cherish your rights to own a weapon…you don’t deserve the hard fought freedom that generations of men fought, bled and died to give you.
    Use this gift and pass it on to your children. It is sacrosanct and truly separates you from all other nations on this earth.
    Whenever someone asks me, “Are you one of those gun nuts?”
    I say, “No. More like a fanatic.” Then smile at ’em.
    Liberal kryptonite.

    1. My on the side job is selling firearms from an FFL. There are 300 million firearms in private hands in the USA, and I want to do my part to make it 600 million.

    2. “When the people fear the government, it is tyranny. When the government fears the people, its is liberty”

  13. Does anyone have advice on a good .308 AR? I’m looking for compatability with PMAGs. Not sure on DPMS Recon and SASS. Don’t want an Armalite or Noveske for those reasons. The HK G28 and KAC SR25 are way out of my $ range.

    1. Have you considered buying a lower receiver and building your own?
      Geiselle NM trigger’s are very nice. Then you could look at places like Compass Lake Engineering or White Oak Aramament for an upper (ETA- sorry, just looked at WOA and don’t see any AR10 stuff..) . I like the Magpul PRS stock I have on an AR15, pretty sure they make one for an AR10.

    2. Look at Palmetto State Armory. They offer pretty decent prices on kits and complete rifles. Keep in mind that AR-10 / SR-25 rifles were never mil spec so parts from one style / manufacturer are not necessarily compatible with other rifles seemingly in the same genre.

    3. I believe herstal fn scar variants are chambered in .308 option. I know you asked about ar, but scar is a modular design

  14. If you shoot corrosive powder, flush your rifle out with ammonia
    solution, like Windex, as soon as possible, then clean normally.

    Good advise, Ammonia is a great cleaner; but make sure to get ALL of the Ammonia OUT of the barrel when you follow up with a normal cleaning.
    Ammonia will corrode copper and brass. If your barrel has trace amounts of ammonia it will corrode your cartridge casings, leading to a number of potential problems, ranging from misfire and accidental discharge to simple inaccuracy.

  15. -“Monolithic” bullets are one material only, usually copper.
    No, it’s usually lead.
    -“tracers” have a coating of it on the round just to make a light so you can “trace” your bullet’s path
    No, usually a hollow base so the powder charge also ignites the compound, and NATO (red) tracer rounds are strontium/magnesium compounds, not phosphorous. Russian/Chinese (green) use barium salts.
    Otherwise a well-done “primer” on cartridges, Mr Stranahan! 😉

  16. Per the picture at the end, there really is no need for this to happen. Use the loads printed in the loading books, which every reloader should have one or two of, as well as from reliable online sources like the powder manufacturers such as Alliant or Hodgdon, not the dude in the chat room with the “screw the loading manuals” attitude. He will get you injured or killed.
    Unless you are hunting out west where 300-400 yard shots are the norm, you don’t need to have every last bit of fps of velocity out of the pipe. If you DO need such things make sure you are shooting a strong modern rifle, or better yet go up a caliber (.308 or aught six to 300 winnie mag, for example)
    A PA whitetail (which is my mine quarry) wouldn’t react much differently if shot with a 150 grain or 165 grain .30-06 flying at a slower 2700 fps, since most shots I have made on deer over the years have been south of 100 yards. Many deer are harvested every season with a bow, crossbow or slug gun, and even a light for caliber load is moving faster than those weapons. You also get more loads out of a pound of powder and you don’t get beat up with recoil as much.

  17. One thing that wasn’t discussed was Caliber.
    For example, if bigger is more powerful, why does a .45 stop a man, while a .44 stops an engine and at one time was the world’s most powerful handgun? And that’s just one example of a lower caliber being the more powerful gun. Even the .50 (rifle) is not the biggest rifle cartridge, yet it’s the most powerful.
    Then there’s the “cannons” (20mm, etc.). Don’t even get me started! 🙂
    An explanation of this would have been nice.

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