Ammunition – a word filled with mystery. When I began my journey into firearms, this subject and the overwhelming confusion that it created was almost enough to stop me in my tracks! I am one of those people that just dives in and consumes information relentlessly until I capture from it what I need, and I was beyond confused.
What I have come to understand is that it IS confusing! As a woman, I am not incapable, in any sense of the word, of figuring it out, (which was what I started thinking when I began researching ammunition!) what I am however is practical. I want to know what I need to know and what it means for me, for my firearms and for my safety. I will try here to demystify and bring into clarity, the basics of what you need to know in regard to defensive ammunition, .380, 9mm, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .40, .45 calibers.
Let’s start with some basics
Ammunition: the projectiles with their fuses, propelling charges, or primers fired from firearms
The basic components of ammunition are the case, primer, powder, and projectile(s). Shotshells have an additional component called wad.
Round or Cartridge: The correct and accurate name(s) for the “entire package”. It is not accurate to use the word bullet, as the bullet is one of the multiple components.
Bullet: The bullet is actually just the pointed top or tip that you typically think of when you picture a round. A shotgun round does not have an actual “bullet” inside. It has either buckshot, a lot of little round pieces or a “slug” which is shaped like a bullet.
Caliber: 1) The diameter of a bullet or other projectile, 2) the diameter of a bore of a firearm usually expressed in hundredths or thousandths of an inch and typically written as a decimal fraction, i.e. .380 caliber, .45 caliber, sometimes in the metric scale i.e.. 9mm. It is important to performance that a bullet should closely match the diameter of a barrel to ensure a good seal.
Gauge: The term “gauge” describes the bore diameter of a shotgun, but unlike “caliber” used for handguns and rifles, the larger the number, the smaller the bore.
Centerfire Ammunition: Ammunition in which the primer is located in a small cup in the bottom center of the case.
Rimfire Ammunition: Ammunition in which the primer is located in the bottom rim of the case. Typically, rimfire rounds are smaller calibers than centerfire rounds.
Hollowpoint: A metal jacketed cartridge design with a concavity in its nose to increase expansion on its penetration of a solid target. Some hollow-points are also designed to fragment as they expand. They are least likely to over-penetrate the target and harm an innocent bystander. Commonly used for self-defense
Softpoint: A metal jacketed cartridge design in which the nose of the core of the bullet is exposed to ensure the expansion of the bullet upon impact. Often abbreviated “JSP” or “SP.” They expand more slowly than a Hollow Point bullet and are used where deeper penetration and expansion are needed.
“Plus P” or “Plus P Plus” mean that the cartridge is loaded with a higher pressure than standard ammunition. This gives your round more firing power and a greater impact on your target. You can see whether or not your ammo is +P or +P+ on the cartridge box, or sometimes it’s stamped on the base of the cartridge. +P or +P+ cartridges are usually center-fire cartridges.
Grain is the actual weight measurement of the bullet component of a cartridge, not the entire cartridge. The more it weighs, the more grain it has. Standard weight for .45 ACP ball ammunition (full metal jacket – FMJ) is 230 grain. The standard for 9mm is around 115 grain.
Note: There are many inconsistencies in ammunition manufacturing so this number does not always reflect the actual diameter of the bullet and in some cases, the metric scale is used. In some cases, a second number is given representing the length of the bullet. Letters (abbreviations or words) will then follow to complete the name of the cartridge. This entire “name” is important and you will need to know the entire description, including the letters.A
Yes, sometimes letters are added to the name to differentiate and describe rounds. These letters describe how the round is “packaged”. Every minute detail of a round effects how it performs. How a round is packaged matters in how it will perform. I did tell you it was complicated but not too complicated. I promise you will get it and will be able to approach a shelf of ammunition with confidence!
FMJ is “Full Metal Jacket” and is used to describe rounds that are entirely encased (except for the bullet base, typically) in a metal jacket. Usually, copper alloy called gilding metal. FMJ rounds are considered standard and sometimes referred to as “ball”. These rounds are designed with little to no expansion in mind. Which means that the bullet will maintain its circumference during and after penetrating the target. They are comparatively inexpensive, feed well and give good penetration in most materials.
JSP is “Jacketed Soft Point” and is used to describe rounds that are encased in a metal jacket, again, usually a copper alloy called gilding metal, but leave the soft lead core exposed at the tip of the bullet. The soft nose deforms upon striking dense mediums, and these rounds are designed to expand rapidly at the nose and mushroom. This ensures that the center of gravity stays in front, and causing the bullet to continue traveling forward through the target. The larger frontal surface area causes more tissue disruption compared to most non-expanding bullets.
JHP is “Jacketed Hollow Point” and is used to describe rounds that are encased in a metal jacket, usually copper alloy called gilding metal, but have a small cavity in the nose along with a round opening in the jacket in the nose. JHP rounds are also designed for expansion and have faster “mushrooming” effects because the hollow point is filled with high-pressure material when the bullet impacts, peeling back the jacket and making a “mushroom” shaped projectile.
Let’s look at the anatomy of a round and what happens when it is fired. Killeen Bishop describes it in her article “Ammunition 101.”
“Looking at a cartridge from top to bottom, your first layer is the bullet. That’s what leaves the gun towards your target when you pull the trigger (assuming all goes well). The next layer is your powder charge. This is the part that is quickly ignited by the next layer of the bullet. The very bottom of your cartridge, usually the round shape at the base, is your primer. Primers are ignited by striking the outside of that round shape or right on the inside of the round base, depending on whether or not it’s rim-fire or center-fire ammo.
What happens when you fire a gun is that the firing pin inside the gun hits the rim or centerfire. This causes an ignition of the powder inside the casing, which causes the bullet to propel forward towards your target and the casing to expel out the ejection port. This is how the casings end up landing all around, and sometimes even down your shirt. Since the casings have housed the fiery dance between the primer and the powder, they are inevitably hot, thus, you don’t want them to land down the front of your shirt and nest. 😉 Don’t worry ladies. I’ve even seen some men do the “hot casing dance”, too. It does happen and for the most part, you don’t have any control over them with the exception of what kind of clothing, hat, and eye protection you wear to inhibit the rogue piece of hot brass.”
Using the wrong ammunition in your firearm is extremely dangerous. You must know the proper ammunition for your firearm. The owners manual that comes with your firearm will tell you exactly which ammunition is safe for your firearm to shoot and many manufacturers make the manuals available online as well. The caliber is stamped on the barrel of your gun. Check the bottom of the round where it is stamped to verify the caliber of our ammunition. You will also find the caliber noted on the ammunition box.
Here is a great video by NRA Women covering ammunition