What Are the Different Types of Ammo | Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bullets

The general public presumes all law enforcement officers are weapons and ammunition experts. In reality, few law enforcement officers are versed on the subject of self-contained small-arms ammunition. The purpose of this article is not to belittle anyone, but rather enlighten those who have an interest in understanding the ambiguous phraseology, or “system,” of naming small arms self-contained cartridges.

The truth of the matter is that the “system” of cartridge terminology and caliber designation of self-contained ammunition is not really a system, but a code, and can only be learned through extensive reading and experience.

Cartridge Types

There are two major self-contained cartridge classifications today: centerfire and rimfire. Centerfire cartridges have a replaceable primer located in the center of the case head. Striking the center of the replaceable primer will fire the cartridge.  Rimfire cartridges have the priming compound distributed around the entire inner diameter of the cartridge’s rim. Striking any point around the rim will fire the cartridge.  Rimfire cartridges of today are the .22 Short, Long, Long Rifle and .22 Magnum types.


There are four component parts of a self-contained cartridge: the cartridge case, the bullet, the propellant powder and the primer. There are literally thousands of types and designs of cartridge cases and bullets with research and design changes still going strong today. The following bullet types are a small sampling of the designs currently available:

· AP – Armor-Piercing
· BALL – Military Jacketed Bullets
· EP – Expanding Point
· FMJ – Full Metal Jacket
· FMJHP – Full Metal Jacket Hollow Point
· GDHP – Gold Dot Hollow Point
· HP – Hollow Point
· HSP – Hollow Soft Point
· JFP – Jacketed Flat Point
· JHP – Jacketed Hollow Point
· JSP – Jacketed Soft Point
· LRN – Lead Round Nose
· LSWC – Lead Semi-Wad Cutter
· LWC – Lead Wad Cutter
· PG – Partition Gold
· STHP – Silvertip Hollow Point
· SWC – Semi-Wad Cutter
· SWCHP – Semi-Wad Cutter Hollow Point
· SXT – Supreme Expansion Technologic
· TC – Truncated Cone
· WC – Wad Cutter


There are two classifications of centerfire primers: Boxer and Berdan. The Boxer primer is used in the United States and is completely self-contained with the anvil as part of the primer. The Boxer primer was invented by Col. Edward Boxer of the British Army in 1867 and is preferred by American ammunition manufacturers and reloaders.

The Berdan primer does not contain an anvil; this function is provided by a small projection in the bottom of the primer pocket. It is also the easiest and cheapest to manufacture. The Berdan primer is used throughout Europe, Asia, and England and was invented by Col. Hiram Berdan of the United States Army in 1866.


There are also two types of gunpowder: black powder and smokeless. Black powder is the original propellant and was developed in China as early as 700 AD. Black powder is a mechanical mixture of potassium nitrate (saltpeter), charcoal, and sulfur. Various proportions have been used, but a 75-15-10 mixture is standard for modern black powder.

Smokeless powder is a chemical compound based on nitrated cellulose. Smokeless powder is made by the chemical reaction of concentrated nitric and sulfuric acid on cotton or other cellulose fiber. Smokeless powder was developed a little over a hundred years ago and its adaptation as a universal propellant for all types of firearms was somewhat less than that.

Sorting It All Out

It is difficult or impossible for the novice to understand the terminology of self-contained ammunition without some knowledge of how the caliber of a cartridge is designated. The subject of caliber, regrettably, is full of inconsistencies and confusion. With the majority of American, British, or European cartridges, the caliber is the first figure given; however, there are exceptions to this rule. Caliber may be given in terms of bullet or bore diameter – inches in America and millimeters in Europe. Bore diameter may be characterized either by land or groove diameter, but neither is accurate, nor consistent.

The second figure (if there is one) is usually some distinguishing feature, such as the case length, powder charge, date of origin, or muzzle velocity. As an example, the current United States military rifle cartridge is the 5.56 x 45mm, (.223 Remington®). The first figure (5.56) is the caliber in millimeters and the second figure (45) is the length of the cartridge case in millimeters. The U.S. military adopted the .45-70 along with the “trap door” Springfield rifle in 1873. The first figure of this cartridge (.45) is the caliber in inches and the second figure (70) is the black powder charge weight in grains. The .30-06 rifle cartridge was adopted in 1906 by the U.S. military for the Model 1903 Springfield service rifle. The first figure of this cartridge (.30) is the caliber in inches and the second figure (06) is the date of origin. The .250/3000 Improved was originated by P.O. Ackley sometime in the late 1940s. The first figure of this cartridge (.250) is the caliber in inches and the second figure (3000) is the muzzle velocity in feet per second.

European cartridges are, almost without exception, designated by caliber first (in millimeters) and then case length (in millimeters), such as the 9 x 19mm, or 9mm Luger and/or Parabellum. The .380 Automatic, designed by John Browning and introduced in Europe by FN Herstal of Belgium in 1912 as the 9mm Browning Short, is often confused with the 9mm Luger. The 9mm Kurz (.380 Short) case is approximately 74 thousands of an inch shorter than the 9mm Luger cartridge case. The 9mm Kurz will chamber and fire in most 9 x 19 pistols.

Obsolete American cartridges, or any which had a black powder origin, are normally designated by caliber, powder charge, and bullet weight (the last two figures in grains). The .44-40-200 Winchester was the original cartridge for the famous Winchester Model 1873 lever action repeating rifle, and chambered in the 1873 Colt Single-Action Army (SAA) revolver shortly thereafter. The .44-40 Winchester cartridge is acclaimed to have killed more game (large and small) and more people (good and bad) than any other commercial cartridge ever developed. In its original black powder loading, it was the first effective combination cartridge which could be used interchangeably in a rifle or a revolver, and was favored by both good guys and bad guys in the early days of the West. The first figure (.44) is the cartridge caliber in inches; the second figure (40) is the black powder charge weight in grains; and the third figure (200) is the lead bullet weight in grains.

However, again there are exceptions since the second figure may represent the original smokeless powder charge such as the .30-30 Winchester. The .30-30 or .30 W.C.F. (Winchester Center Fire) was the first American small bore, smokeless powder sporting cartridge. It was designed by Winchester and first marketed in early 1895 as one of the caliber’s available for the Model 94 lever action rifle. The first figure of this cartridge (.30) is the caliber in inches and the second figure (30) is the smokeless powder charge in grains. In Europe, the .30-30 is known as the 7.62 x 51R and is still popular, both in America and Europe. In Europe, the first figure (7.62) is the caliber in millimeters; the second figure (51) is the case length in millimeters; and the last figure (R) means a rimmed cartridge case.

There is yet another exception to the meaning of the second figure as in the .38-40 Winchester. The .38-40-180 W.C.F. was developed by Winchester as a companion cartridge and was introduced in 1874 for the Winchester Model 73 lever action rifle and chambered in the Colt SAA revolver shortly thereafter. The first figure of this cartridge (.38) is the original black powder charge weight in grains; the second figure (40) is the actual caliber; and the third figure (180) is the lead bullet weight in grains. In its original black powder loading, it is a ballistic equivalent to today’s .40 Smith and Wesson.

Common Law Enforcement Cartridges

Semiautomatic Pistol:

  • 9 x 19, 9mm Luger, 9mm Parabellum – Introduced with the Model 1902 Luger automatic pistol, it was adopted by the German Navy in 1904 and then by the German Army in 1908. Parabellum is German meaning “made for war.” In 1985, the 9mm replaced the .45 ACP as the official United States military pistol cartridge.
  • 9mm Kurz (.380 Automatic) – This cartridge was designed by John Browning and introduced in Europe by FN Herstal of Belgium in 1912 as the 9mm Browning Short. The .380 Automatic was added to the Colt Pocket Automatic line in 1908.
  • .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) – This cartridge was developed by John Browning in 1905 and adopted by the United States Ordnance Department (along with the Colt Automatic Pistol) in 1911. The .45 ACP is the most powerful military handgun cartridge in use today. The .45 ACP has been proven in combat all over the world. The .45 ACP was replaced in 1985 as the official U.S. military handgun cartridge by the 9mm Parabellum.
  • 10mm Auto (Bren Ten) – This cartridge was introduced in 1983 for the Bren Ten semiautomatic pistol, manufactured by Dornaus & Dixon Enterprises, Inc. of Huntington Beach, California. The 10mm Auto was loaded by Norma with a 200-grain full jacketed bullet with a truncated cone shape. Muzzle velocity was listed as 1200 fps and energy at the muzzle as 635 ft lbs. The gun and cartridge are the brainchild of Jeff Cooper and associates. The 10mm Auto was intended primarily for law enforcement and self-defense use.
  • .40 Smith & Wesson – It was introduced in 1990 by Smith & Wesson for their new 4006 semiauto pistol. This cartridge was developed by Winchester in cooperation with Smith & Wesson. It is probably the most popular law enforcement handgun cartridge in the United States for police work.
  • .357 SIG – Introduced in late 1997 by Federal for the Secret Service, the .357 SIG is based on the .40 S&W cartridge necked down to accept a 125-grain, .355″ diameter bullet with a muzzle velocity of 1350 fps, with 40,000 psi chamber pressure.


  • .357 Magnum – Introduced in 1935 by Smith & Wesson for their heavy frame revolver, this ammunition was developed by Winchester in cooperation with Smith & Wesson. The .357 Magnum is based on the .38 Special case lengthened about 1/10 of an inch so it will not chamber in standard .38 Special revolvers. The .357 Magnum was the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world until the .44 Magnum was introduced in 1955.
  • .38Smith & Wesson Special (.38 Special) – This cartridge was developed by Smith & Wesson and introduced with their Military and Police Model revolver in 1902. It was originally a military cartridge and is considered one of the best balanced, all-around handgun cartridges ever designed. It is also one of the most accurate and widely used for match shooting. For many years, the .38 Special was the standard police cartridge in the United States.  It has about all the power required for police work and, at the same time, is usable in lightweight pocket revolvers. Because of its moderate recoil, the average person can learn to shoot well with it in a fairly short time, something not true of the larger and more powerful calibers.
  • .41 Smith & Wesson Magnum – Introduced in June1964, along with the Smith & Wesson Model 57 Revolver, there has been much argument as to the need for a police revolver cartridge of greater power than the .357 Magnum.
  • .44 Smith & Wesson Magnum – This cartridge was developed by Smith & Wesson and Remington and introduced in 1955. In addition to being the world’s most powerful commercial handgun cartridge, the .44 Magnum also has a reputation for superb accuracy and is favored by a few police officers because of its ability to penetrate. It takes a seasoned handgunner to shoot it well because both recoil and muzzle blast are considerable.
  • .44 Smith & Wesson Special – This cartridge was introduced about 1907 and, for many years, has been one of the most accurate and powerful big bore revolver cartridges. The .44 Special is still popular for target or field use.
  • .45 Colt – Introduced in 1873 by Colt as one of the cartridges for their famous “Peacemaker” SAA revolver, both the cartridge and the revolver were adopted by the U.S. Army in 1875. The .45 Colt served as our official handgun caliber until 1892. It was originally a black powder load with 40 grains of FFg powder and a 255-grain lead bullet, with a muzzle velocity of 810 fps. It is one of the most famous American handgun cartridges and still a favorite with many law enforcement officers. The .45 Colt is extremely accurate and has as much effect on a target as any handgun cartridge except the .44 Magnum.


  • 5.56mm/.223 Remington North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – The 5.56 x 45mm U.S. and NATO was originally developed for the Armalite AR-15 rifle and first tested by the U.S. Air Force as a possible replacement for the M1 Carbine in 1960-1961. The AR-15 later became the selective fire M-16 adopted by the U.S. military in 1964, replacing the M-14 and 7.62 x 51mm cartridge. The M-16 rifle and the 5.56 x 45mm cartridge were first combat-tested in Vietnam.
  • .30 M1 Carbine – In 1940, the U.S. Ordnance Department concluded that a light carbine might have certain advantages over the .45 ACP in many combat situations. The semiautomatic .30 M1 Carbine was officially adopted in 1941. The .30 Carbine cartridge is not very powerful, but it can be a very useful cartridge within its limitation. Its use and popularity in law enforcement has increased considerably in the past few years.
  • 7.62 x 39mm (M43) Russian – This cartridge was the USSR’s principal infantry small arms cartridge which was developed originally for the SKS semiautomatic carbine. Adopted by Russia in 1943, it did not come into general use until after WWII.The SKS was replaced by the AK selective fire assault rifle. This cartridge was adopted as the result of Russian military experience against German assault rifles and the 7.92mm Kurz.
  • 7.62 x 51/.308 Winchester NATO – This cartridge was introduced by Winchester in 1952 and adopted as the official U.S. military rifle cartridge in 1954. The M14 semiautomatic rifle and the 7.62 x 51 NATO cartridge first saw combat service in the early years of the Vietnam War. The 7.62 x 51 NATO cartridge is extremely popular with law enforcement and military snipers.
  • .30-06 Springfield – Adopted by the United States military in 1906 for the Model 1903 Springfield service rifle, the .30-06 cartridge is undoubtedly the most flexible, useful, all-around big game cartridge available to the American hunter. The .30-06 is extremely accurate and still favored by military and law enforcement snipers. For many years, it has been the standard by which all other high-powered rifle cartridges have been judged. To say that a cartridge is in the .30-06 class means it is suitable for any game in North America.

Falling Bullets

I am often asked questions about falling bullets; i.e., “How dangerous can a falling bullet be?” The model I use to answer any falling bullet question is as follows: Will a bullet, such as a 5.56 x 45mm (.223 Remington), if fired at a very high angle (straight up), return to Earth with enough velocity and striking energy to inflict a significant wound?

The military standard for disabling energy, or the amount of energy necessary to produce a casualty, is 58 ft lbs, at a striking velocity of 400 fps. Bullets returning from being fired upward, whether they start their return trip from 2,000 feet, 10,000 feet, or ten miles, will all come back to Earth with the same speed (terminal velocity). Terminal velocity depends on the weight of the bullet and, to a certain extent, on its shape. A 55-grain 5.56 x 45mm bullet leaves the muzzle at roughly 3200 fps and, if fired straight up, will slow down until it finally stops about 9,000 feet above the Earth; then it starts to fall. If it falls point down (not likely) it will return to Earth with a striking velocity of approximately 290 fps, and a striking energy of nine foot pounds or less. If it fell any other way than point down, its fall would be slower and its striking energy less.

The U.S. Army has conducted exhaustive experiments on the subject of falling bullets and has concluded that falling bullets cannot be relied upon to produce dangerous wounds. Guns are usually fired at only moderate elevation – 30º would be considered a high angle by most people. The bullet will then strike with some speed with which it was fired, with a much higher velocity than that of merely a falling bullet. Falling bullets do not kill, only those fired at moderate degrees of elevation will produce significant wounds.

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