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):
Bullet Diameter & Cartridge Name:
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 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.