Bullets and Cartridges

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posted on May 25, 2011
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There appears to be a modern misuse of gun terms in magazine articles, on the web and even conversationally that is causing some problems. In some quarters, it has become popular to describe certain objects incorrectly, because some folks regard this as kind of cute. It's akin to saying “ain't” when you really mean “am not.” What do you load into a modern handgun? Is it a bullet or a cartridge? It is probably a cartridge, but if that's true, the cartridge contains a bullet. Confused?

For terminology questions, I prefer the “NRA Firearms Sourcebook.” This outstanding effort on the part of the American Rifleman Technical staff tells us that a bullet is a “non-spherical projectile for use in a rifled barrel...” and a cartridge is “a single round of ammunition consisting of case, primer and propellant with one or more projectiles.” In other words, a bullet is the part of a cartridge that goes sailing downrange to do its work. The terms are not interchangeable and should be used for their specific and individual meanings.

But the goofs continue. After I wrote the first part of this blog, I had occasion to begin a new—and long awaited—thriller novel. Hardly a hundred pages down and—you guessed it—the author had one of his characters open the action of a villain's pistol and a “bullet” comes tumbling out. Now this is possible, but I am dead-bang certain that he meant to have a cartridge in play. The author is well-known for his extreme attention to detail, particularly technical details. That doesn't mean that it isn't an error that can tend to confuse. Bullets are bullets, cartridges are cartridges and they need to be referred to as such.

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