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Derived from the French word "la munition" that referred to all materials used for war, ammunition has come to refer specifically to gunpowder and artillery. The collective term for all types of ammunition is "munitions" and in its widest sense, covers anything used in combat from bombs to land mines. Modern firearm ammunition is composed of brass, steel or aluminum.

The size of the ammo is determined by the "caliber" of the round. For every reduction in caliber size, there is an increase in the number of rounds carried.

The History of Firearm Ammunition

For as long as there have been hand-held firearms, there has been ammunition (dating back to the 14th century). Early cartridges were comprised of a charge of powder and a bullet in a paper tube. Around the American Civil War, solders were using tubes of paper, with the bullet and powder inside, twisted at both ends. The discarded paper was often used as a wad to ignite the charge.

The paper cartridge evolved into the more rapid-firing flintlock design where the pan was covered with furrowed steel and was struck by the flint, thus firing the gun. The next evolution was the invention of the copper percussion cap: a small cylinder with one closed end with a small amount of shock-sensitive explosive material inside. The cap is placed over a hollow metal "nipple" at the rear end of the gun barrel and when the trigger is pulled a hammer is released, striking the cap and igniting the explosive primer. The flame travels through the hollow "nipple" to ignite the main powder charge.

The percussion cap lead to the idea of breech-loading charges, and ultimately to modern cartridges, but this left ammo manufacturers with a dilemma. What do you do with the metal cartridge casing? Gun manufacturers were forced to evolve and adopt an extraction and ejection mechanism into their designs.

Ammunition Styles

  • Anti-personnel ammo is designed to break up and tumble inside a target to cause the most damage. These may also contain shrapnel that, when exploded over the target, rains down crude projectiles over a large area.
  • Armor-piercing ammunition tends to be hard, sharp, narrow and often has lubrication to help penetrate war vehicles.
  • Incendiary projectiles include explosive components and chemicals like white phosphorus which burns fiercely on contact.
  • Tracer rounds emit light as they travel allowing the gunner to see the flight path of the bullet for signaling or targeting when firing multiple rounds, like a machine gun.

Common Ammo Terms

  • Cartridge – A single unit of ammunition, commonly called a round; a combination of bullet, propellant, primer and cartridge casing.
  • Shells – Large caliber projectiles filled with explosives or multiple small projectiles, like a shotgun shell.
  • Duds – Fully loaded cartridges that fail to function as intended.
  • Hang Fire - A partially functioning round.

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