There are a plethora of bullets available in the market. No doubt that choosing the right bullet types to use can be intimidating — especially if you’re a beginner. As a firearms enthusiast owning more than 170 firearms, I can still be a bit confused about the different kinds of bullets. However, as I encounter them daily, I can finally distinguish one bullet type from the other — even those that look similar. This is the ultimate guide to bullets and everything you need to know about them.
You already have an idea what a bullet is, but let’s delve into it deeper. In this article, we’ll talk about bullet types, shapes, and calibers.
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What is A Bullet?
The word “bullet” came from the Middle French word “boulle,” which means “small ball.” It is the kinetic projectile of the ammunition shot from a gun barrel. In short, it’s the only part of the cartridge that leaves the gun barrel.
Many people refer to the cartridge as the bullet. However, the bullet is only the projectile of the cartridge. It is the component that gets pushed down the barrel towards the target. Below is a photo of the parts of a cartridge, showing that the bullet is only a part of it.
Always remember that the bullet is only a component of the cartridge. It’s not the ammunition itself.
Bullets are usually made from copper, lead, steel, polymer, rubber, and wax. Additionally, some manufacturers have designed tapered bullets to add more aerodynamics. Bullets also come in different shapes and sizes, depending on their purposes. There are bullets made for hunting, target shooting, training, and combat.
Did you know that the first bullets are cast-lead balls? The bullet also underwent a lot of development before coming up with its modern design today. To further understand this, let’s have a quick history.
History of the Bullet
The projectile of a bullet is similar to a cannon. The principle of modern guns came from the early firearms such as hand cannons. It has a metal tube where you add the explosives, load a ball of lead, light the fuse — then boom! Cannons are the oldest type of firearms with simple functions. However, unlike modern guns today, early firearms needed a reload of the barrel after every shot. Plus, adding gunpowder to every reload was a big hassle.
The earliest projectiles were stones. However, stones couldn’t penetrate barriers and armor. So, early people developed using metal balls or cast iron. As a result, these were more effective in penetrating barriers.
The modern bullet is a series of innovations. Even the use of firearms stretches back to millennia. We can trace it back to China where alchemists combined chemicals and discovered their explosive effects. They used these explosives initially for fireworks. Afterward, they soon discovered its military applications.
The First Firearms
People first used fire lances made of bamboo filled with gunpowder. They attached the lances to spears that spew flame after lighting the fuse.
In the 14th century, during the Middle Ages in Europe, people shaped molten metal like iron into a round shape. Later, they began to use lead.
Lead balls were the first bullets shot from firearms. They are usually preferred for small firearm use because of their light weight. Additionally, it is cheap and easier to produce.
Development of the Modern Bullet
In the 1830s, French infantry captain Henri-Gustave Delvigne designed cylindro-conical bullets rather than spherical ones. His design has a cylinder-shaped body with a pointed head. After some time, French artillery captain François Tamisier added grooves to improve the bullet’s stability.
In the 1840s, French army officer Claude-Étienne Minié designed the Minié ball. It had a hollow base and three grooves to fit easily in rifles. Thus, it became the first modern bullet.
In the 1880s, Swiss engineer Eduard Rubin encased a soft lead core within a copper alloy, creating the first full metal jacket bullet. These bullets fly out faster with no deformation on the metal. They also have higher speeds than bullets made of only lead.
Then, in the 1890s, Captain Georges Raymond Desaleux of France wanted to minimize the bullet’s air resistance. As a result, he designed an elongated bullet and added a thin cylinder on top of a thicker one. His design allowed accuracy for long distances than previous designs. This design is the “Spitzer” bullet, which was enhanced further by adding a boat tail base.
Bullets took the Spitzer shape until the 19th century. It developed further into different types until we have the design of our bullets today.
Now let’s discuss the different bullet types.
Types of Bullets
Bullets differ in materials, design, and shapes of their tips, nose, and heels. Let’s first talk about the common bullet types.
These are bullets entirely made of lead. Cast bullets are heavy yet soft and they easily deform. Most manufacturers produce cast bullets made of lead and tin or antimony. It can also be a mix of metals which can add hardness to the bullet. At times, some use zinc when there is a shortage of lead material or if there’s a concern about lead toxicity.
In addition, you can find cast bullets in a variety of shapes. Some are hollow points or conical, depending on the bullet’s purpose. Moreover, lead is cheap and easy to produce. No wonder it’s still the material used in making bullets today. You can use cast bullets for target shooting, hunting, and self-defense.
Full Metal Jacket
A full metal jacket (FMJ) is a bullet with a jacket of hard metal covering the softer core. In addition, the jacket is encased with any metal other than lead. The jacket surrounds the front and sides of the bullet or the entire core of the bullet. Usually, the jacket material is copper or a nickel alloy and covers the lead core to prevent deformation. Even their shapes vary and come in pointed, round, or flat.
The FMJ is the traditional choice for the firing range since it is cheap to produce. Moreover, the added jacket allows higher muzzle velocities and preserve aerodynamics than bare lead. Another benefit of its jacket is that it can prevent depositing amounts of metal in the bore and prevent damage to gun bores. The wound channels from this type of bullet are small, and they often go through the target. Therefore, FMJs are ideal for training and not for self-defense. Lastly, most firearms companies mass-produce full metal jacket bullets because they’re cheaper and easy to produce.
Also called a “soft-nosed bullet,” a soft point is encased in a partial jacket that leaves the exposed lead core at the tip. In addition, the exposed lead expands when it hits a soft tissue. Soft tip bullets offer some of the benefits of hollow-point bullets despite not being hollow-point bullets. The tip of the bullet reacts by squashing inward and expanding wider than its original bullet diameter, causing a large wound hole. This type of bullet is ideal to use for hunting and self-defense.
Hollowpoint (HP) bullets are noted for their ability to expand once it hits soft tissue. These types can either have a concave tip or a hole at the tip designed to expand. It also expands by “mushrooming”, wherein a bullet peels backward.
In addition, hollow points are often banned as getting hit by this bullet results in a large wound cavity. Hollowpoint bullets are also the go-to round for police officers and other law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, it’s also an excellent round for concealed weapons (CCWs) and home defense because of its renowned stopping power.
A jacketed hollow point (JHP) is a bullet with a hollowed-out cavity in the tip. It’s designed to expand upon impact. Additionally, the jacket initially offers better penetration before opening a wide wound cavity. The tip usually turns into a mushroom shape or flower bloom shape.
This type of bullet is ideal for hunting and self-defense. It’s also more on the expensive end.
Open Tip Match
Open tip match (OTM) bullets may appear like hollow points because of their small opening on top. OTMs have a tiny opening at the top because of their manufacturing process. However, these openings don’t expand like the hollow points as their openings are too small to expand.
If you enjoy long-range shooting, then an OTM bullet might be a great option. OTMs are preferred by long-distance shooters. It’s an excellent round for shooting up to a distance of 100 yards. Because of this, most target shooters use the OTM bullets as well.
Sierra Bullets introduced the OTM bullets in the 1950s. They have an open tip design to maximize their accuracy. In comparison with the FMJ, both perform similarly when it comes to the projectile. Lastly, the OTM’s design gives it an advantage in control and consistency over FMJs.
Ballistic Tip/ Boat Tail
Ballistic tip bullets are the combined aerodynamics of an FMJ with the stopping power of a hollow point. It is a long bullet with a boat tail rear.
A boat tail (BT) bullet has its bottom part more streamlined. This design helps hold weight well when shooting. Additionally, it helps stabilize the projectile while in the air. Ballistic tip bullets are ideal for hunting and precision shooting.
Boat Tail Hollow Point
The boat tail hollow point (BTHP) is a combination of the boat tail and hollow-point features. These bullets usually have a hollow point covered with red plastic to mimic the profile of an FMJ bullet.
Now, let’s talk about different bullet types according to their shape.
Round nose bullets are the simplest of all the available bullet types. The materials vary from lead and steel to jacketed types. Aside from being the simplest, it’s also the most widely available. Its nose is rounded, resembling a half-sphere. Moreover, it doesn’t have hollow points, edges, or any other additional features.
The shape of this bullet type is flat. Sometimes, it has a nearly flat front that is typically as wide as the caliber size. It’s a special-purpose bullet designed specifically for paper target shooting at close ranges.
In addition, the shape helps reduce errors in scoring. You won’t see wadcutter bullets in ranges very often as wadcutter bullets are more for use in handgun and air gun competitions.
The semiwadcutter type is a bullet for various purposes that are commonly used in revolvers. It has a conical shape with a flat tip sitting on the cylinder. Additionally, semiwadcutter types punch a clean hole in the target. The sharp shoulder then enlarges the hole, allowing easy and accurate scoring. Aside from competition, you can also use semiwadcutters for hunting using handguns.
Other Bullet Types
Below is a photo of the different types of bullets, including ones not mentioned above.
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Upon opening a box of ammunition, the first things you see are the cartridges. Most people call them bullets. However, the correct term for this is cartridge — it’s the whole component of the ammunition. The bullet is only a part of the cartridge. So, if that’s the case, then what makes up a cartridge?
Parts of a Cartridge
The primer is the ignition for the propellant. You can find it as a round dimple found on the base of the cartridge. Additionally, it’s always placed in the rear of the case.
Also called the shell, the case is usually made from brass, nickel, and steel. This is also the part of the cartridge that holds all components together.
Powder or propellant is basically gunpowder. Once ignited, the bullet is pushed down into the barrel.
The bullet is the kinetic projectile of the cartridge that leaves the barrel.
Types of Cartridges
The rimfire is a type of cartridge where the priming compound is built into the rim. These types are cheap. A great example of a rimfire cartridge is the .22 LR.
Centerfire is what most cartridges have. Centerfire types have the primer in the center of the rear of the case. It’s easy to know if it’s centerfire. Look at the rear of the cartridge, and you’ll see that it has a round center in the middle.
Shotshells come from the combined words “shotgun” and “shells.” Shotshells are cartridges that contain the projectiles in shotguns.
Calibers are the diameter of the barrel and the bullet that will go through it. It is the number, simultaneously the measurement that goes with the name of the ammo. It is often measured in inches or millimeters.
Typically, bullet calibers have a mixture of measurements in inches and millimeters. Now, let’s go through the common bullet calibers.
The .22 long rifle is one of the most common cartridges available. You can find it almost anywhere as it’s a great starter round for beginners. Its recoil is also almost nonexistent, and it’s available at a low price. Therefore, it’s an excellent beginner round. Additionally, the bullet weight of this caliber varies from 30 to 40 grains. It’s also excellent for mild shooting, but you can still use it for small game like rodents, snakes, and birds.
Next is the .380 ACP, which is also called the 9mm short. This caliber boosted popularity because of the “pocket pistols” introduced in the market. It’s a low-power round that has low recoil. Moreover, it’s compact and light and offers good penetration at close ranges.
The 9mm bullet has other names like 9mm Luger, 9x19mm Parabellum, and nine millimeter. The 9mm is one of the most popular pistol cartridges worldwide and is reliable for self-defense use.
In addition, it has the same diameter as the .380 and .38 Special with a weight varying from 115 to 147 grains. The 9mm Luger is also an excellent round you can use for self-defense. It’s the standard round used for NATO countries. Additionally, it’s used by the majority of police forces worldwide.
It is ideal for concealed carry guns and offers an excellent ammo capacity of 15 to 17 rounds.
This next round is the .40 S&W cartridge developed by Smith & Wesson and Winchester. These companies gave birth to this round for law enforcement and the FBI. It was the attempt to have a bullet with greater velocity than the 10mm Auto, which can also fit in 9mm caliber guns.
In addition, this round typically weighs from 155 to 165 grains. It has more kick than the 9mm and is common with law enforcement agencies.
Next is John Browning’s famous cartridge, the .45 Auto or Automatic Colt Pistol. He developed this cartridge due to the lack of stopping power of earlier cartridge designs. In addition, the .45 ACP offers immense stopping power. It has also been the choice of many police officers and military personnel for years. Additionally, its weight can be up to 230 grains. It’s a reliable round for self-defense. However, it’s not recommended for beginners as it has moderate recoil. Furthermore, using this cartridge requires lots of practice.
The next round, the .38 Special, is common in revolvers. The .38 Special is a longer cartridge that’s slower and heavier in contrast to the 9mm.
In addition, the FBI used the .38 Special as a standard cartridge for a long time. Moreover, this cartridge has manageable recoil. However, if you are using a small gun, it may be hard to manage its recoil.
Firearms manufacturers Smith & Wesson and Winchester created the smokeless .357 Magnum cartridge. It is longer than the .38 Special. Its only difference with the .38 special is the case length. The manufacturers made the difference in purpose to prevent accidentally loading a .357 Magnum into a .38 Special revolver. Additionally, the bullet weights of this cartridge are between 100 to 200 grains. The .357 Magnum cartridge is an excellent round for hunting and self-defense.
The .223 Remington is a rimless bottlenecked cartridge rifle made by Remington Arms and Fairchild Industries for the United States army. They developed this cartridge to create a small caliber with a high velocity. It also has light recoil. Moreover, you can use the .223 Remington rounds in rifles and handguns such as the M16, M4, and AR-15.
The 5.56 NATO is also known as the 5.56 x 45mm. Similar to the .223 Remington, the 5.56 NATO is also a rimless bottlenecked cartridge rifle. This cartridge is made by FN Herstal and has almost the same dimensions as the .223 Remington. Additionally, you can also use the 5.56 NATO in the AR-15, M16, and M4 rifles.
In contrast to the .223 round, the 5.56 has higher pressures. Moreover, you can fire the .223 Remington in a 5.56 rifle, but you can’t fire a 5.56 using a .223 rifle.
This next bullet cartridge, 7.62x39mm, is a Soviet round used in the legendary AK-47 rifles. It has moderate recoil and excellent knockdown power.
The .308 Winchester is a cartridge that contains a smokeless powder. It is popular in the U.S. and is ideal for hunting medium to large game.
The 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge is a standard for small arms among NATO countries. It’s first introduced in the U.S. service for the M14 and M60 machine gun. In addition, the military used the 7.62x51mm NATO while mounted to vehicles, aircraft, and ships.
Now let’s talk about shotguns.
We all know what shotguns are — they are immense firearms that are great for home defense and survival weapons. Additionally, their bullets are different from pistols and rifles. This article won’t be complete without talking about their ammo.
Typically, shotguns are loaded with many small, pellet-like round projectiles. We call the ammo shotshells or shells. As mentioned earlier, shotshells are cartridges that contain projectiles in the shells. In addition, shotguns are famous for their spreading ability when shot. However, shells may also contain only a single large projectile called slugs. In addition, the recoil of a shotgun varies on its ammo.
Before discussing the types of shotgun shells, let’s first learn about the parts of a shotgun cartridge.
Parts of a Shotgun Cartridge
The case is also called the hull. It’s commonly made of plastic and paper with a steel or brass head and rim. It contains all the internal parts of a shotshell. In addition, it comes in a variety of lengths such as 2 1/2-, 2 3/4-, 3- and 3 1/2-inch. The measurement refers to the overall length of the shotgun shell.
As the ignition for the gunpowder, the primer is made up of the anvil, primer cup, and priming compound. Moreover, you can see it as a small circle on the base of the shotshell.
The powder is the chemical compound that is ignited when struck by a primer.
The wad is a small disk or a cup placed inside the shotshell to separate the gunpowder and the shots. But it does more than that. The wad also seals the propellant gases behind the shot, preventing it from escaping. It also holds the shot together once it passes through the barrel.
Shot are the small pellets, or in the case of slugs, a large single pellet, that acts as the projectile. The projectile of a shotgun is usually made of lead. However, due to some restrictions on lead material, other metals like steel, tungsten, and bismuth are also used.
The crimp is the part of the shotgun shell that seals the end to prevent its components from falling out. It also helps keep the dirt from entering.
Shotguns have different types of ammo. Additionally, the ammo contains bullets, which are different from the cartridges used in pistols and rifles. We have a photo below that will show each type’s differences before discussing them one by one.
Birdshot consists of small pellets in about a dozen contained in each shell. As the name implies, shooters used birdshot for hunting birds. It has high recoil, and it’s not ideal to use for self-defense.
Of all the shotgun shells, buckshot is the best round for home defense. This shell contains nine solid 9mm-diameter balls. Additionally, the go-to load for these types of shots is the 00 or double-aught. Lastly, it also has more recoil.
Finally, the last one on our list is slugs. A slug is around a pound of solid metal in a single projectile. Unlike the first two types of shells, this shot doesn’t offer a spread of projectiles. However, getting hit by 1 pound of metal is going to hurt. If you’re an experienced shooter, shooting a slug accurately is a piece of cake at up to 100 yards.
Like handgun and rifle calibers, shotguns also have their classification. We can classify shotgun ammo using gauge. Gauge is a measure of the diameter of the shotgun bore and the size of the shotshell designed for that particular bore. In addition, you can find the gauge of the shotgun marked on the rear of the barrel. It’s also important to note that each gauge of shotgun only shoots shells of the same gauge. For instance, you can only fire 12-gauge shells using 12-gauge guns.
Below is a photo of the different shotgun gauges and their measurements in inches.
From handguns to shotguns, we’ve covered the things you need to know to learn more about bullets. Not all bullets are the same, and each has its purpose. They vary in shapes, material, and dimensions. I hope this article helped you understand more about the different bullet types, calibers, and a few key firearms terminologies.