Ammo 101

By Kellene Bishop

Photo c/o

Photo c/o

While men roaming the earth seem to possess an innate understanding about the various types of ammo to use for this and that, my female friends tend to be more focused on how to convert a quart into cups, which jeans make us look fat, the pursuit of career and education, and how to whip up a mean dish of something or another.   So, forgive me, my gentlemen readers, for taking time to give a little tutelage to our sisters in arms on the various merits of ammo—Ammo 101.

Ladies, have you ever giggled at a person who refers to a truffle dish as a salad bowl?  Or perhaps you’ve seen that blank look when it comes time to change a diaper.  Or have you wondered how anyone in their right mind could put the toilet paper “under” instead of “over”?  You know what I’m talking about.  We women are walking dictionaries and encyclopedias of everyday information, but when it comes to understanding rounds of ammo, well, we usually fall short.  So here’s some education in what may not only save you some embarrassment in the future, but may very well save your life through making educated decisions. 

Ammo 101: It’s not a “bullet”—it’s a “round” or a “cartridge”

First of all ladies, let’s be sure that you never commit the gaff of calling any part of the ammo something it’s not.  For example, the “bullet” isn’t usually what you think it is.  Usually what you see lying on the ground after someone else has been shooting is called a casing, though many newbies call it a bullet.  The casing is the part of the round that has housed the primer and the bullet tip and has been expelled from the gun when it was shot.  If you really want to be knowledgeable, you may want to test yourself as you go to the shooting range and see if you can identify the types of rounds used simply by looking at the leftover casings.  For example, a Shotgun round, 9mm, 357 magnum, .22, etc.  A lot of folks refer to these casings lying around as “brass.”  In fact, you may see signs at the practice facilities which instruct you to “clean up your brass.”  It’s the casings that are being referred to.  Bottom line, the case/casing is what holds all of the components of the ammunition round in place.

The bullet is actually the pointed top or tip that you typically think of when you picture a round.  A shotgun round does not have an actual “bullet” housed inside.  It has either buckshot, a lot of little round pieces or a “slug” which is shaped like a bullet.

Ammo 101: Powder is not the same as primer

ammo-101-bullet-partsLooking 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 J).  The next layer is your powder charge.  This is the part that actually 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 can be 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 center fire.  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 line 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.

Ammo 101: Self-defense roundsThe best type of self-defense rounds are much more expensive than what I would use to practice with.  The ideal self-defense rounds are known as hollow-point bullet.  The reason why they are ideal for self-defense is because of their stopping power.  Perhaps you’ve heard the expression of the “bullet went clean through.”  If a bullet does not expand once it hits mass, then it can indeed go clean through and thus not have the efficacy of stopping the threat that you need in a self-defense scenario.  However, a hollow-point bullet head will actually expand outwards, like a well-rounded claw, once it hits mass.  Some describe this as mushrooming as well.  This is ideal for a couple of reasons.  


1)     When you’re using hollow-point bullets for self-defense and it does hit your target, it will actually expand and do sizeable damage within the body cavity as it passes through.  Most times a hollow-point bullet will not actually exit the cavity, or if it does, there will definitely be a significantly larger exit wound than the entrance wound.  

2)     If you were to miss your target, say, while you’re defending your home, the bullet will expand as it hits the wall, and thus stop traveling sooner.  This means you’re less likely to shoot through your walls or doors and harm bystanders or neighboring property. 

Now, in terms of hollow-point ammo, many shooters swear by the use of Hydra-Shok™ ammo.  Reason being is it has been found to reliably mushroom upon impact, whereas some of the hollow points mushroom simply by hitting clothing fiber.  The good news is a hollow-point round will also give even a 9mm more stopping power, and as such I still recommend it as a self-defensive round.  (FYI, Hydra-Shok bullets will expand at any velocity much over 800 feet per second, and perhaps even less.  Ordinary hollow-points generally require 1,000 feet per second of velocity to reliably expand.)

Ammo 101: It’s grain, not grains.

Grain is the actual weight measurement of a bullet—not the cartridge.  Newbies often call it “grains”—plural.  If you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, refer to it as grain—singular.  The more a cartridge weighs, the more grain it has.  Standard weight for .45 ACP ball ammunition (full metal jacket – FMJ) is 230 grain.  Standard for 9mm is around 115 grain.  Generally the heavier bullet moves slower than a lighter bullet.  There is quite the battle raging among shooters as to which is better for defense.  Some say to use a big, heavy, slow bullet for target penetration and some say to use a lighter bullet at higher velocity for expansion.  Personally, I’m in favor of a heavy bullet with a good hollow point.  After all, a heavy bullet still moves “at the speed of a bullet,” right?

Ammo 101: +P or +P+ ammo

“Plus P” or “Plus P Plus” designations simply mean that a cartridge is loaded with a higher pressure than standard ammunition.  Essentially what this does is give your round more firing power and a greater impact on your target.  It’s one of the variations of ammo that I recommend for women to use who are more comfortable with shooting a 9mm for self-defense.  Be sure that your gun is designed for such ammo use though.  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.

That’s all for Ammo 101 today!  Tune in for more later on. 

Copyright 2009 Kellene Bishop. All rights reserved.  You are welcome to repost this information so long as it is credited to Kellene Bishop.


21 Responses

  1. Good post. I am bad and regularly call cartridges bullets.

  2. Good write up as a basic introduction to ammo. Keeps it simple.

    – While hollow-points are what you’d use for self-defense, for normal practice, use “practice/target” ammo (you implied this but didn’t explain it). Often this is designated as FMJ (full metal jacket), TMJ (total metal jacket), “ball”, etc.. It’s also usually cheaper, e.g. you’ll get a box of 50 target rounds for the same price or less than a box of 20 self-defense rounds.

    Also, there’s another class of bullets called “EFMJ”, Expanding Full Metal Jacket.

    these aren’t as ideal as HP rounds, but for folks that live in places where you cannot use legally HP rounds, EFMJ are something to consider.

    Of course, there are many other bullet shapes out there, but for most folks the FMJ and HP are enough, in the spirit of keeping this simple.

    – You did mention key things about ammo such as caliber (e.g. 9mm, .45), bullet weight (grain), and bullet shape (hollow point, FMJ, etc.), but one important thing is the “name”, e.g. ACP, Parabellum, Colt, etc.

    Someone might say “give me a box of .45”, but .45 what? Colt? ACP? GAP? Super? Or when they say “9mm” 9mm what? Luger/Parabellum (same thing), 9mm NATO (which is slightly different), 9x19mm? 9x18mm Makarov? It’s important to know the name to ensure you are using exactly the right ammo. While .45 typically implies “.45 ACP” and “9mm” typically implies “9×19 Parabellum”, well.. it’s always good to know exactly what you need so no mistakes are made.


    To add to the confusion:

    – while most cases are made of brass and “brass” often gets used as the slang for “case” (e.g. “clean up your brass”) it should be noted that not all ammo comes in brass cases. Some ammo (e.g. Wolf) uses steel cases, and some ammo (e.g. Blazer) uses aluminum. And some may come in brass but doesn’t look “yellow” (e.g. Speer Gold Dot uses nickel-plated brass cases).

    I mention this because some ranges do differentiate, and the use of the term “brass” as a synonym for “case” can lead to confusion. Some ranges prohibit non-brass cased ammo, some don’t; some may want brass-cased in one collection tub and steel in another. It’s worth knowing that “brass” may not always mean brass (metal). When in doubt, especially about some range policy, ask.

    – in terms of a hollow-point bullet stopping because of expansion when it hits a wall, that’s not necessarily so. Hollow-points can get their tips clogged with the drywall material which essentially turns them into ball rounds and those bullets can keep going. This is why in a lot of respects, rifle rounds (e.g. XM193 which is a 5.56x45mm NATO round designed to fragment upon impact) can actually be a better home-defense round. I’ve got details on my blog for those curious.

    Nevertheless, in my self-defense handgun it’s Speer Gold Dot 9mm 124 grain +P.

  3. […] Ammo 101 […]

  4. Actually, grain or grains works fine. A grain is 1/7000 of a pound, thus a 230 grain projectile weighs just a bit over a half-ounce (avoirdupois).

    • Actually, it depends on the sentence structure. You would say “the weight of this bullet is 115 grainS.” Or you would say “this is a 115 grain bullet.”

  5. Nice piece. It must be kept in mind though, that typical house walls are shockingly transparent to small arms fire, even with hollowpoints. HP handgun bullets rarely if ever expand when hitting wood or drywall.

    • We can’t win all the time. Even if such is the case, it should not preclude someone from protecting themselves. But then again, practicing regularly will usually enable a person to not have to worry about the thickness of thier walls. 🙂

  6. I know some men who should read this as well. If you don’t mind I am going to re post this on my site.

  7. I am a guy and a gunwriter. Excellent post.

    I noted this because Google picked up a blog entry that I did on muzzleloading bullets. Muzzleloading is like building a cartridge one component at the time. In fact, the first cartridges were for muzzleloading guns. These were very often combustable (more or less) and contained pre-measured charges of powder and a bullet. These cartridges were commonly carried in a wooden-cored leather cartridge box slung from the shoulder.

    For those who might be interested, I do muzzleloading hunting, crossbows, wild-game cooking, general hunting, at My most recent book is “Backyard Deer Hunting: Converting deer to dinner for pennies per pound. ” Yes, I do have a number of women in it – kids and dogs too. For me hunting is about a family putting food on the table.

    Again, Excellent Post. WOOF!

    Hovey Smith

  8. As you are obviously very serious about this gun business, if you want to come here to Whitehall, my home, in Central Georgia, I will give you as much on muzzleloading and muzzleloading hunting as you can stand.

    I have been shooting muzzleloading guns almost exclusively since the 1980s. I have hunted the U.S., Europe and Africa with them. My book is progress is “X-Treme Muzzleloading: Fur, fowl and dangerous game with muzzleloading rifles, smoothbores and pistols.” It is being designed at the moment. I am the Corresponding Editor for Gun Digest on the subject of black-powder guns and hunting. I commonly write about the subject in Muzzle Blasts and other publications, and have a short section on the subject in “Backyard Deer Hunting.”

    If you want to fly into Atlanta, I will snag you there. You need to spend two days with me to get through the instructional material. The longer you can hunt the greater your chances of success – about five days is optimal.

    I have other hunters invited this year. One is from Canada and another from Germany. Both of these happen to be guys: family men who want to learn about guns and crossbows.


  9. Great article. I would say that the standard 9mm size is 124 grain, not 115. The three typical sizes of 9mm are 115, 124 and 147 grain. I’d say 124 grain is by far the most common.

    For the record, the best proven 1-shot manstopper is the 357 magnum (which has a .357 caliber bullet). I say this because a 9mm bullet is .355 caliber. Almost the exact same size. It shows that small and fast does indeed trump big and slow. If you take big and slow to the extreme (REALLY big and REALLY slow) you could just throw a softball really hard at someone.

    The 9mm is a fine all-around round and is not the bottom-end of decent self-defense rounds that most gun-shop guys would have you believe. That honor goes to to the .380 auto. Anything less than a .380 auto and you are asking for trouble.

    One other thing- you didn’t mention the difference between revolver and auto ammunition. Ladies, as a general rule of thumb, revolver ammo has a wide lip at the bottom so it won’t fall through the cylinder of a revolver. Auto ammo looks like the ammo pictured in the article, with the lip being the same diameter as the body of the cartridge.

    Generally speaking, you cannot use a revolver round in an auto pistol and you can’t use auto pistol rounds in a revolver. There are exceptions (moon clips let you shoot some auto rounds in a revolver) and the Desert Eagle was designed to allow you to shoot powerful revolver rounds in an auto pistol. What is an auto pistol? No, they are not all full-auto like an uzi. Most autos fire as fast as you can pull the trigger and have the ammo stored in magazines that are inserted into the grip of the weapon. An example would be the Glock. Anyway. I hope this helps you out.

    If you want my personal recommendation for a nice little weapon for the ladies out there, I’d recommend a Ruger LCP. It’s a revolver that you can buy with a laser site built into the grip. It’s very light, very reliable, very safe and easy to aim. It shoots a 38 special cartridge. You would want to use .38 +P ammo in it. This is an effective cartridge that ranks somewhere between a .380 and 9mm for stopping power. You get five shots and that should be plenty.

    • CORRECTION: I meant Ruger LCR (Lightweight Compact Revolver). I own an LCP (Lightweight Compact Pistol) which is smaller and lighter than an LCR, but it it shoots a .380 and is not as easy to aim or as fool-proof as the LCR.
      Check them out at

    • My quickdraw method doesn’t require laser sites whatsoever. In fact, laser sites will only mess you up. And I’m sure you’re aware that the use of a laser site serves to tell your opponent where you are–not always the best line of defense.

      Ladies, while this gentleman is providing input that he believes is necessary, I would also recommend that you read other articles I’ve written on this matter that you can easily find in the search mode.

    • I’m not sure why a tiny gun like an LCP or LCR would be recommended.

      I’ve taught many a beginner, many ladies, and many lady beginners, and generally speaking most of them do NOT like little guns. Why? Because they hurt. They are generally very small, hard to control, lightweight and thus absorb less recoil… they just hurt to shoot. Granted, these little guns have their place, but they are more of an advanced gun than a gun for a first-timer.

      Most ladies I’m come across do better with larger guns, because they have a longer sight radius, they are heavier and thus can absorb the recoil, and generally are just more pleasant to shoot. The key is making sure the gun fits their hands, but gun fit is orthogonal to the other issues here (i.e. gun fit isn’t a gender thing, gun fit isn’t one of large or small guns).

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