Ammunition > Handgun

How to Read Center-Fire Ammunition Boxes

Reading an ammunition label can seem like an exercise in code breaking. Here are a few tips to help you wade through what you see on the dealer's shelf.



I was just a couple of years into my handgun shooting career when a family member was kind enough to buy a couple of boxes of ammunition for my birthday. They had driven all the way across town to find what I wanted. When the present was unwrapped, there was an unfortunate sense of disappointment. The handgun in need of ammunition was a .38 Spl. revolver. The not-so-cheap ammunition in the package was .38 Super, a semi-automatic pistol cartridge that wouldn’t fit.


When it was pointed out that I could just exchange the semi-auto cartridges for revolver cartridges, I had to explain that most stores have policies in place preventing the return or exchange of ammunition. This is because firearm cartridges are explosive devices that can be tampered with, altered, or exchanged for an inferior product. If a cartridge malfunctions and causes damage to a gun, or the person shooting it, then liability issues come into play. Since there is no way for a store clerk to verify that the exact same cartridges that walked out of their location are walking back in to it, they stick with the simple and safe policy of no returns.


So what should you do if you need to buy ammunition, but shooting is not your forte? The best way to avoid the expense and frustration of buying the wrong ammunition is to know what you are looking for before heading out to the sporting goods store. Most modern firearms have the ammunition type stamped on them in a visible location. Usually it's somewhere on the barrel or the frame. If you have a gun that doesn’t have clear ammunition markings, then take it to an experienced gunsmith to properly identify the right ammunition.


The same caliber and cartridge information stamped on the gun will be included on an ammunition box label, even if it is a bit cryptic. The following tips will help you determine what information a label provides, and how to identify differences in cartridges of the same caliber. This is not an exhaustive ammunition guide, but it should be enough information to get you through a trip to the store.


The following photo shows an ammunition label and the major categories of information included on a center-fire ammunition box (we'll save rimfire ammunition and shotgun shells for another day):


Ammunition Brand:
Ammunition is a branded product made by several different companies. This means the name of the manufacturer is often, but not always, a dominant feature of the label. Many shooters develop a brand preference once they learn which ammunition functions best in their particular firearm, so which brand you buy can be important if you are purchasing a gift for someone else.


Bullet Diameter & Cartridge Name:
The diameter of a bullet, or how wide it is across its circular base, is used as a defining feature of the cartridge name to make quick ammo identification easy. Similar calibers are usually grouped together on dealers’ shelves. Bullet diameter is usually represented on a box using one of two measurement systems: Caliber or Millimeters.


Caliber, the more common measurement for ammunition developed in the United States, is a decimal point representation of hundredths of an inch. In the example photo, the bullet has a 0.38-inch diameter, so it would be said to be a .38-caliber bullet. When saying the name out loud, the decimal is left out, “ I would like a box of thirty-eight Special ammo, please.” Sometimes bullet caliber is displayed to two decimal points (.38 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 ACP) or to three decimal points (.223 Remington, .357 Ruger, .327 Federal).


The other measurement system used for bullet width is Millimeters. This tends to be applied to cartridges developed overseas. Bullet diameter in Millimeters can be displayed as a whole number (9 mm, 10 mm) or as a decimal point (7.62 Tokarev, 6.5 Creedmoor).


Most of the modern ammunition available today will be loaded with bullets ranging from the very small .17 Caliber bullets to large .50 Caliber projectiles. Why is the bullet diameter so important? A cartridge with a bullet that is too large for the gun will not fit into its chamber, while a cartridge with a bullet that's too small will rattle around the barrel as it flies down the barrel and produce rotten accuracy. More importantly, loading the wrong cartridge into a gun may cause it to literally explode. There are no approximations when it comes to ammunition. The caliber numbers on the box must match the numbers on the gun exactly.


The full name of the cartridge may, or may not, have more to it than the bullet caliber. For example, the 9 mm Luger cartridge is often shortened to just 9 mm, or the word following the caliber is abbreviated to conserve space on the label. Cartridge names often include the name of the individual who invented it (.475 Linebaugh), the gun company that developed it (.30-.30 Winchester), or a descriptive term (.221 Fireball).


Bullet Weight:
In most cases, bullet weight is represented in Grains. This is an archaic unit of measurement that's not commonly used any more. It takes 437.5 Grains to equal an Ounce, and the larger the number of Grains listed on the box, the heavier the bullet will be. Grains can be spelled out completely on a label, or abbreviated (Grain, Gr, gr, gr.). However it's represented, the letters G and R will be in there somewhere. Shooters pay attention to how light or heavy a bullet is because the weight changes the performance down range.


Bullet Style:How a bullet is shaped, and what it's made of, will affect how it behaves when striking an intended target. Far too many bullet style abbreviations are available to list here, especially since manufacturers keep developing new ones. But here are a few common abbreviations used for handgun and rifle ammunition:


- FMJ (Full-Metal Jacket): A lead bullet wrapped, or "jacketed," in a thin covering of copper or brass along the top and sides, leaving the base exposed. Jacketed bullets can have a rounded or flat-nose shape. Copper is soft, but it doesn't melt like lead does at high velocity, so the jacket makes the bullet much stronger and allows it to travel much faster. These bullets are commonly used in practice grade ammunition.


- TMJ (Total-Metal Jacket): The same idea as a Full-Metal Jacket, but the base of the bullet is covered in copper as well.


- JSP (Jacketed-Soft Point): A bullet with the sides jacketed in copper, but the lead nose of the core is left exposed in order to allow the bullet to expand when it hits the target. These tend to be used for hunting.


- SJHP (Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point): The same design as the Jacketed Soft Point, but a cavity, or "hollow" is cut or molded into the nose of the bullet. The combination of the exposed lead and the hollow point cause the bullet to expand more rapidly. These bullets are commonly used for self defense and hunting.


- JHP (Jacketed Hollow Point): This is the most popular type of self defense and hunting bullet on the market. Imagine a Full Metal Jacket bullet that has a hole drilled in the nose, so that the jacket covers the whole bullet, but there is a cavity in the nose. Several designs are available, all of which are intended to allow the bullet to expand rapidly.


- FRAN (Frangible): A relatively recent addition, these bullets are made of compressed metallic dust. They look like Full Metal Jacket bullets, but they are supposed to disintegrate back into dust when they hit a solid target. This disintegration is intended to reduce the chances of ricochet or over penetration. These are popular for use at indoor ranges and as training rounds.

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43 Responses to How to Read Center-Fire Ammunition Boxes

john wrote:
October 08, 2013

too basic, though good for beginer

mark t wrote:
August 27, 2013

Very helpful article. I've been a handgun owner for about 5 yrs. I bought a book called 'cartridges of the world' , here I learned most of what I needed to know. That and talking with friends and other shooters. good article to get you started and pique your interest for more info.

Frank Dury wrote:
August 26, 2013

What ever happened to OP (Oil Proof) 22's are not oil proof. A little to much oil in the chamber will kill a 22 over time. I guess most center fire ammo is OP today. Just curious...

Tim wrote:
August 21, 2013

There appears to be little standard about the second number following the dash. Wikipedia is often a good source for resolving the confusion. For example, the second '30' in 30-30 refers to the original (in 1893) standard load of 30 grains of powder. 45-70 is similar. But the '06' in 30-06 refers to the fact that the 30-06 cartridge was adopted by the military in 1906.

John wrote:
August 20, 2013

Take the case of, let's say, 45-70. 45 is the diameter. What does the 70 designate. 30-30? 30-06?

Bill wrote:
July 22, 2013

Jim, you are definitely not stupid. Of all the comments here, yours is my favorite. The word 'unlearned' is the key. This is now, and has been for too long, the issue missing from most conversations. With gun ownership and use comes the responsibility to get educated correctly and completely about firearm safety, shooting skills, etc. I won't call myself an expert, because that sounds arragant, but I'm quite knowledgeable. I had great teachers. I strongly urge everyone to make this priority #1, be responsible! Of course, all of you seasoned gun enthusiasts like myself already know this, but you need to join the conversation.

Jim Faber wrote:
July 20, 2013

Dennis; you are totally off the mark. Advanced shooters are not going to bother reading this stuff, while beginners such as myself will find it MOST informative. Reading this simple article has answered many of my questions. I thank the author for taking the time to explain all this stuff in simple terms, without talking down to me as if I'm stupid. I'm not stupid, I am unlearned but I am not stupid.

Dennis Griffin wrote:
July 14, 2013

Nice try Mr. Horman, but... since most folks reading this, probably know this stuff already, how about the person being asked, just respond, "How about just buying a me gift certificate?" Some folks feel this is a lazy man's way of getting someone a gift, but, in this instance, if you know the person offering to buy you some ammo doesn't know what they're doing, the gift certificate makes sense.

kurtis wrote:
July 13, 2013

One thing i want to add is that Weatherby has some of their guns that shoot only Weatherby ammo. You have to be very careful because if you put a winchester shell in a Weatherby you got a will see shells that say 270 Weatherby, do not put these in a reg 270 rifle. Back in the old days Weatherby only made their guns to shoot Weatherby ammo. Then they started making Weatherby guns for regular ammo's Please be very careful with Weatherby guns and there ammo.

Zeke wrote:
July 12, 2013

Good primer, but the issue can be much more complex and full of pitfalls. Special, magnum, ACP, and other designations complicate matters. .32 Colt, .32 ACP, .32 H&R magnum, .32 Long Colt, it gets confusing for anyone who is not an expert. Ammo companies should work on revising designations, so the common person can figure them out, someday.

Harry wrote:
July 12, 2013

I disagree with your use of Archaic to describe the weight measurement used. No other measurement system exists that will work even remotely as well. You also failed to mention Grains is a measurement of Powder charge weight. Nothing Archaic about grains, until something is developed to surpass it.

Gary wrote:
July 12, 2013

I would have just used it as an excuse to go shopping for a .38 super.

Ken wrote:
July 12, 2013

Chuck, You can also put the mouse pointer in front of the first word you want to copy, press and hold the left mouse button and drag the pointer down to the end of the article just behind the last word. Release the left mouse button, place the pointer in the highlighted area and press the left button. Select and click "copy" with the left mouse button. Then open a word document, click the right mouse button, then select "paste" and click the left mouse button. Everything you copied will past into the word document. Easier than it sounds here.

Russell wrote:
July 11, 2013

Chuck, Use the control key+ print screen. You can then open a word document and save the article that way.

Chuck wrote:
July 11, 2013

Now, if I could add a criticism which I hope is helpful. Can you have your web designer add a print feature to your articles? An article such as this one about cartridges would make a great reference article. I would like to print it out and give it to my grandkids so that they can review a well-written article and so I don't have to reinvent round wheels and try to instruct them on my own. If it were in printed form, I could trot it out any time they needed a review. I realize there is a kluge work-around that I can use to print the article, but it would be helpful to just hit a "print" button and have the article formatted for easy, economical printing. Keep up the good work.

Chuck wrote:
July 11, 2013

Clearly written and should be a great help to many neophyte shooters — and perhaps some more experienced ones too. As for criticisms about not giving correct bullet diameter information, that is another article for more advanced shooters and perhaps reloaders. No need to make the article too complex and inject some confusion.

Charles Murphy wrote:
July 11, 2013

Good basic information. One thing I would like to know how to identify the lot number.

Dave wrote:
July 11, 2013

An important thoughtful reminder @ this time esp - scarcities, innovations, age & aging products & novices/new users - indeed,in gratitude such forethought! Anon.

Larry wrote:
July 11, 2013

@ Tim, If the gun is marked 357 Mag, it will shoot both. If it's a 38, DO NOT try to put 357's in it.

Brian wrote:
July 10, 2013

Any "standard" on where to find lot numbers?

NevadaChuck wrote:
July 10, 2013

Ammo??? There's actually ammo out there???

Gordon wrote:
July 10, 2013

.38 bullets are actually .357 -.358 in diameter. The .38 caliber comes from the approximate diameter of the loaded case in this situation. .

Tim wrote:
July 10, 2013

So my Colt Python shoots 357 Magnum or 38 Special? Different diameters?

Ephraim wrote:
July 05, 2013

Great article, especially for the new or non shooter. It should have come out just before Father's Day.

Jose Garcia wrote:
July 05, 2013

Nice article ,novice or not is very instructive .

Girios wrote:
July 05, 2013

Excellent article for beginners like me! Thanks!

Kevin Oxley wrote:
July 04, 2013

Responsible Gun Nuts like me! :)

Doyle wrote:
July 03, 2013

Very good information. Thank you.

Cymond wrote:
July 03, 2013

ok, be careful, some cartridges have multiple names like 9mm Luger aka 9mm Parabellum aka 9x19mm. Also, just because you ASK for the right ammo does not mean you will GET the right ammo. I asked a gun shop employee for some 32 S&W ammo (a rimmed revolver cartridge similar to 38 Special) and he tried to sell me 32 ACP (a semi-auto cartridge without a rim)! Other rare cartridges include 9mm Makarov and 38 Super. Be careful you get the right stuff! Also, 7.62 Mauser is NOT the same as 7.62 Tokarev, even though they are the exact same size & shape! The Tokarev is a super-high-pressure version of the Mauser, and will damage old 7.62 Mauser pistols. 38 Super is also a super-high-pressure version of the old 38ACP, so don't put 38 Super in a 38 ACP gun!

Johno wrote:
July 03, 2013

@srsanbo, you are only partially correct. FMJ bullets can be fired at much higher velocities that Lead or JHP's since they don't lead the barrel. Also, the 38 special uses the same bullet as the 357mag adn they both are .357 caliber. And. . . the 44 Special and the 44 Mag are both .429 caliber not 44.

Courtney wrote:
July 02, 2013

So much information to learn. This was good for complete newbie like me and doesn't even know where to start to learn about guns and ammo.

John Elms wrote:
July 02, 2013

You could just get a gift card or certificate for the ammo shop.

Lewis M wrote:
July 02, 2013

I would have just graciously accepted the ammo and dealt with it and not embarrassed the gift-giver!

Keith M wrote:
July 02, 2013

Thanks for all the useful info. I am going to save this page to look back on from time to time.... Thanks again

William M. (Marc) Smith wrote:
July 02, 2013

Great info for a beginner or anyone who isn't knowledgeable of the many variations of cartridges. I really liked the take a picture with your cell phone comment. Also the advice to try several different brands and styles of ammo to see which shoots the best out of your firearm, the difference in shot groups between the same brand but different weights and bullet types can be surprising. That's not even getting into some semi-autos feeding issues with the assorted types of hollow points available.

ray wrote:
July 02, 2013

I hate to nit pick, but a 38 special doesnt measure .38 diameter....

NoTo986 wrote:
July 02, 2013

Very informative. Thank you.

Gary Tomsic wrote:
July 02, 2013

Fine and informative article. Thank you.

Onnotice wrote:
July 02, 2013

I can't thank-you enough for this infor, I won't sound so stupid when I start buy my ammo for my 1911 glock. I am a newby, but still remember my military training and BSA Gun Safety classes. Just never study ammo. TY, again

Jack P wrote:
July 02, 2013

Thanks for the overview! I am relatively new to shooting so I always glean new from NRA publications!

Wendy Sue Love wrote:
July 02, 2013

Thank you. I have a .38 special snib nose taurus! This is very helpful. Thanks again.

srsanbo wrote:
July 02, 2013

FMJ bullets do not travel faster than other types as asserted in the article. Other than that, nice read for the novice.

Chas wrote:
July 02, 2013

Who is the intended audience for this story?