Lead soft-point, boat-tailed, copper-jacketed bullets

A bullet is a projectile propelled by a firearm, sling, or air gun. Bullets do not normally contain explosives,[1] but damage the intended target by impact and penetration. The word "bullet" is sometimes erroneously used to refer to ammunition generally, or to a cartridge, which is a combination of the bullet, case/shell, powder, and primer.



Lead sling bullets with a winged thunderbolt engraved on one side and the inscription "Take that" on the other side. 4th century BC. From Athens.
Matchlock musket balls, alleged to have been discovered at Naseby battlefield. From the collection of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.

The history of bullets far predates the history of firearms. Originally, bullets were metallic or stone balls used in a sling as a weapon and for hunting.

Eventually as firearms were developed, these same items were placed in front of an explosive charge of gun powder at the end of a closed tube. As firearms became more technologically advanced, from 1500 to 1800, bullets changed very little. They remained simple round (spherical) lead balls, called rounds, differing only in their diameter.

The development of the hand culverin and matchlock arquebus brought about the use of cast lead balls as projectiles. "Bullet" is derived from the French word boulette which roughly means little ball. The original musket bullet was a spherical lead ball smaller than the bore, wrapped in a loosely-fitted paper patch which served to hold the bullet in the barrel firmly upon the powder. (Bullets that were not firmly upon the powder upon firing risked causing the barrel to explode, with the condition known as a short start.) The loading of muskets was, therefore, easy with the old smooth-bore Brown Bess and similar military muskets. The original muzzle-loading rifle, on the other hand, with a more closely fitting ball to take the rifling grooves, was more difficult to load, particularly when the bore of the barrel was fouled from previous firings. For this reason, early rifles were not generally used for military purposes.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw a distinct change in the shape and function of the bullet. In 1826, Delvigne, a French infantry officer, invented a breech with abrupt shoulders on which a spherical bullet was rammed down until it caught the rifling grooves. Delvigne's method, however, deformed the bullet and was inaccurate.

Square bullets were used in one version of the Puckle gun.

Pointed bullets

Among the first pointed or "conical" bullets were those designed by Captain John Norton of the British Army in 1823. Norton's bullet had a hollow base which upon firing expanded under pressure to engage with a barrel's rifling. The British Board of Ordnance rejected it because spherical bullets had been in use for the previous 300 years.[citation needed]

Renowned English gunsmith William Greener invented the Greener bullet in 1836. It was very similar to Norton's bullet except that the hollow base of the bullet was fitted with a wooden plug which more reliably forced the base of the bullet to expand and catch the rifling. Tests proved that Greener's bullet was extremely effective but it too was rejected for military use because, being two parts, it was judged as being too complicated to produce.

Minié ball ammunition

The soft lead Minié ball was first introduced in 1847 by Claude-Étienne Minié, a captain in the French Army. It was nearly identical to the Greener bullet. As designed by Minié, the bullet was conical in shape with a hollow cavity in the rear, which was fitted with a little iron cap instead of a wooden plug. When fired, the iron cap would force itself into the hollow cavity at the rear of the bullet, thereby expanding the sides of the bullet to grip and engage the rifling. In 1855, the British adopted the Minié ball for their Enfield rifles.

The Minié ball first saw widespread use in the American Civil War. Roughly 90% of the battlefield casualties in this war were caused by Minié balls fired from rifles.

Between 1854 and 1857, Sir Joseph Whitworth conducted a long series of rifle experiments, and proved, among other points, the advantages of a smaller bore and, in particular, of an elongated bullet. The Whitworth bullet was made to fit the grooves of the rifle mechanically. The Whitworth rifle was never adopted by the government, although it was used extensively for match purposes and target practice between 1857 and 1866, when it was gradually superseded by Metford's.

About 1862 and later, W. E. Metford carried out an exhaustive series of experiments on bullets and rifling, and invented the important system of light rifling with increasing spiral, and a hardened bullet. The combined result was that in December 1888 the Lee-Metford small-bore (0.303", 7.70 mm) rifle, Mark I, (photo of cartridge on right) was finally adopted for the British army. The Lee-Metford was the predecessor of the Lee-Enfield.

The modern bullet

.270 ammunition. Left to right:
100-grain (6.5 g) – hollow point
115-grain (7.5 g) – FMJBT
130-grain (8.4 g) – soft point
150-grain (9.7 g) – round nose
.303 inch (7.7 mm) centrefire, FMJ rimmed ammunition

The next important change in the history of the rifle bullet occurred in 1882, when Major Eduard Rubin, director of the Swiss Army Laboratory at Thun, invented the copper jacketed bullet — an elongated bullet with a lead core in a copper jacket. It was also small bore (7.5mm and 8mm) and it is the precursor of the 8mm "Lebel bullet" which was adopted for the smokeless powder ammunition of the Mle 1886 Lebel rifle.

The surface of lead bullets fired at high velocity may melt due to hot gases behind and friction with the bore. Because copper has a higher melting point, and greater specific heat capacity and hardness, copper jacketed bullets allow greater muzzle velocities.

European advances in aerodynamics led to the pointed spitzer bullet. By the beginning of the twentieth century, most world armies had begun to transition to spitzer bullets. These bullets flew for greater distances more accurately and carried more energy with them. Spitzer bullets combined with machine guns greatly increased the lethality of the battlefield.

The latest advancement in bullet shape was the boat tail, a streamlined base for spitzer bullets. The vacuum created as air moves at high speed passes over the end of a bullet slows the projectile. The streamlined boat tail design reduces this form drag by allowing the air to flow along the surface of the tapering end. The resulting aerodynamic advantage is currently seen as the optimum shape for rifle technology. The first combination spitzer and boat-tail bullet, named Balle "D" from its inventor (a lieutenant-colonel Desaleux) , was introduced as standard military ammunition in 1901, for the French Lebel Model 1886 rifle .


A modern cartridge consists of the following:
1. the bullet, which serves as the projectile;
2. the case, which holds all parts together;
3. the propellant, for example gunpowder or cordite;
4. part of the casing used for loading;
5. the primer, which ignites the propellant.

Bullet designs have to solve two primary problems. They must first form a seal with the gun's bore. If a strong seal is not achieved, gas from the propellant charge leaks past the bullet, reducing efficiency. The bullet must also engage the rifling without damaging the gun's bore. Bullets must have a surface which will form this seal without causing excessive friction. These interactions between bullet and bore are termed internal ballistics. Bullets must be produced to a high standard, as surface imperfections can affect firing accuracy.

The physics affecting the bullet once it leaves the barrel, is termed external ballistics. The primary factors affecting the aerodynamics of a bullet in flight are the bullet's shape and the rotation imparted by the rifling of the gun barrel. Rotational forces stabilize the bullet gyroscopically as well as aerodynamically. Any asymmetry in the bullet is largely canceled as it spins. With smooth-bore firearms, a spherical shape was optimum because no matter how it was oriented, it presented a uniform front. These unstable bullets tumbled erratically and provided only moderate accuracy, however the aerodynamic shape changed little for centuries. Generally, bullet shapes are a compromise between aerodynamics, interior ballistic necessities, and terminal ballistics requirements. Another method of stabilization is for the center of mass of the bullet to be as far forward as is practical, which is how the Minié ball and the shuttlecock are designed. This allows the bullet to fly front-forward by means of aerodynamics.

See Terminal ballistics and/or Stopping power for an overview of how bullet design affects what happens when a bullet impacts with an object. The outcome of the impact is determined by the composition and density of the target material, the angle of incidence, and the velocity and physical characteristics of the bullet itself. Bullets are generally designed to penetrate, deform, and/or break apart. For a given material and bullet, the strike velocity is the primary factor determining which outcome is achieved.

Bullet shapes are many and varied, and an array of them can be found in any reloading manual that sells bullet moulds. Mould manufacturers such as RCBS,[2] Paul Jones Moulds, and David Mos offer many different calibers and designs. With a mould, bullets can be made at home for reloading one's own ammunition, where local laws allow. Hand-casting, however, is only time- and cost-effective for solid lead bullets. Cast and jacketed bullets are also commercially available from numerous manufacturers for hand loading and are much more convenient than casting bullets from bulk lead.


Propulsion of the ball can happen via several methods:

  • by using only gunpowder (ie as in flintlock weapons)
  • by using a percussion cap and gunpower (ie as in percussion weapons)
  • by using a cartridge (which contains primer, gunpowder and ball in a single package)


Expanding bullet loaded in a 6.5x55mm before and after expanding. The long base and small expanded diameter show that this is a bullet designed for deep penetration on large game. The bullet in the photo traveled more than halfway through a moose before coming to rest, performing as designed.

Bullets for black powder, or muzzle loading firearms, were classically molded from pure lead. This worked well for low speed bullets, fired at velocities of less than 450 m/s (1475 ft/s). For slightly higher speed bullets fired in modern firearms, a harder alloy of lead and tin or typesetter's lead (used to mold Linotype) works very well. For even higher speed bullet use, jacketed coated lead bullets are used. The common element in all of these, lead, is widely used because it is very dense, thereby providing a high amount of mass—and thus, kinetic energy—for a given volume. Lead is also cheap, easy to obtain, easy to work, and melts at a low temperature, which results in comparatively easy fabrication of bullets.

  • Lead: Simple cast, extruded, swaged, or otherwise fabricated lead slugs are the simplest form of bullets. At speeds of greater than 300 m/s (1000 ft/s) (common in most handguns), lead is deposited in rifled bores at an ever-increasing rate. Alloying the lead with a small percentage of tin and/or antimony serves to reduce this effect, but grows less effective as velocities are increased. A cup made of harder metal, such as copper, placed at the base of the bullet and called a gas check, is often used to decrease lead deposits by protecting the rear of the bullet against melting when fired at higher pressures, but this too does not solve the problem at higher velocities.
  • Jacketed lead: Bullets intended for even higher-velocity applications generally have a lead core that is jacketed or plated with gilding metal, cupronickel, copper alloys, or steel; a thin layer of harder metal protects the softer lead core when the bullet is passing through the barrel and during flight, which allows delivering the bullet intact to the target. There, the heavy lead core delivers its kinetic energy to the target. Full metal jacket bullets or Ball bullet have the front and sides of the bullet completely encased in the harder metal jacket. Some bullet jackets do not extend to the front of the bullet to aid in expansion and increase lethality. These are called soft points or hollow point bullets. Steel bullets are often plated with copper or other metals for additional corrosion resistance during long periods of storage. Synthetic jacket materials such as nylon and Teflon have been used with limited success.
  • Blanks: Wax, paper, plastic, and other materials are used to simulate live gunfire and are intended only to hold the powder in a blank cartridge and to produce noise. The "bullet" may be captured in a purpose-designed device or it may be allowed to expend what little energy it has in the air. Some blank cartridges are crimped or closed at the end and do not contain any bullet.
  • Practice: Made from lightweight materials like rubber, Wax, wood, plastic, or lightweight metal, practice bullets are intended for short-range target work, only. Because of their weight and low velocity, they have limited range.
  • Less lethal, or Less than Lethal: Rubber bullets, plastic bullets, and beanbags are designed to be non-lethal, for example for use in riot control. They are generally low velocity and are fired from shotguns, grenade launchers, paint ball guns, or specially-designed firearms and air gun devices.
  • Incendiary: These bullets are made with an explosive or flammable mixture in the tip that is designed to ignite on contact with a target. The intent is to ignite fuel or munitions in the target area, thereby adding to the destructive power of the bullet itself.
Lead alloy bullets as cast (left), with gas check (center) and lubricated (right).
  • Exploding: Similar to the incendiary bullet, this type of projectile is designed to explode upon hitting a hard surface, preferably the bone of the intended target. Not to be mistaken for cannon shells or grenades with fuse devices, these bullets have only a cavity filled with a small amount of low explosive depending on the velocity and deformation upon impact to detonate.
  • Tracer: These have a hollow back, filled with a flare material. Usually this is a mixture of magnesium metal, a perchlorate, and strontium salts to yield a bright red color, although other materials providing other colors have also sometimes been used. Tracer material burns out after a certain amount of time. Such ammunition is useful to the shooter as a means of verifying how close the point of aim is to the actual point of impact, and for learning how to point shoot moving targets with rifles. This type of round is also used by all branches of the United States military in combat environments as a signaling device to friendly forces. Normally it is loaded at a four to one ratio with ball ammunition and is intended to show where you are firing so friendly forces can engage the target as well. The flight characteristics of tracer rounds differ from normal bullets, decreasing in altitude sooner than other bullets, because of increased aerodynamic drag.
  • Armor piercing: Jacketed designs where the core material is a very hard, high-density metal such as tungsten, tungsten carbide, depleted uranium, or steel. A pointed tip is often used, but a flat tip on the penetrator portion is generally more effective.[3]
  • Non toxic shot: Steel, bismuth, tungsten, and other exotic bullet alloys prevent release of toxic lead into the environment. Regulations in several countries mandate the use of non-toxic projectiles especially when hunting waterfowl. It has been found that birds swallow small lead shot for their gizzards to grind food (as they would swallow pebbles of similar size), and the effects of lead poisoning by constant grinding of lead pellets against food means lead poisoning effects are magnified. Such concerns apply primarily to shotguns, firing pellets (shot) and not bullets, but reduction of hazardous substances (RoHS) legislation has also been applied to bullets on occasion to reduce the impact of lead on the environment at shooting ranges. United States Environmental Protection Agency announced that the agency does not have the legal authority to regulate this type of product (lead bullets) under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), nor is the agency seeking such authority. NRA-ILA :: EPA Denies Ammo Ban Petition
  • Blended-metal: Bullets made using cores from powdered metals other than lead with binder or sometimes sintered.
  • Frangible: Designed to disintegrate into tiny particles upon impact to minimize their penetration for reasons of range safety, to limit environmental impact, or to limit the shoot-through danger behind the intended target. An example is the Glaser Safety Slug.
  • Solid or Monolithic Solid: mono-metal bullets intended for deep penetration in big game animals and slender shaped very-low-drag projectiles for long range shooting are produced out of metals like oxygen free copper and alloys like copper nickel, tellurium copper and brass like highly machinable UNS C36000 Free-Cutting Brass. Often these projectiles are turned on precision CNC lathes.

Treaties and prohibitions

The St. Petersburg Declaration of 1868 prohibited the use of explosive projectiles weighing less than 400 grams.[4]

The Hague Convention prohibits certain kinds of ammunition for use by uniformed military personnel against the uniformed military personnel of opposing forces. These include projectiles which explode within an individual, poisoned and expanding bullets.

Protocol III of the 1983 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, an annexe to the Geneva Conventions, prohibits the use of incendiary munitions against civilians.

Nothing in these treaties prohibits tracers or the use of prohibited bullets on military equipment.

These treaties apply even to .22 LR bullets used in pistols, rifles and machine guns. Hence, the High Standard HDM pistol, a .22 LR suppressed pistol, had special bullets developed for it during World War II that were full metal jacketed, in place of the soft-point and hollow-point bullets that are otherwise ubiquitous for .22 LR rounds.

Some jurisdictions are acting on environmental concerns and banning hunting with lead shotgun pellets. This creates issues for shooters because stainless steel pellets are considered to behave sub-optimally in flight compared to lead. The element bismuth is a safe alternative whose atomic mass is closer to lead than steel, and ammunition made from it is becoming ever more widely available.

Bullet abbreviations

2F – 2-part Controlled Fragmenting
ACCRemington Accelerator [5] (see sabot)
ACP – Automatic Colt Pistol
AE – Action Express
AGS – African Grand Slam (Speer)
APArmor Piercing (has a steel or other hard metal core)
APT – Armor-piercing tracer
API – Armor-piercing incendiary
APFSDS – Armor-piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot round
B – Ball
B2F – Brass 2-part Fragmenting [6]
BBWC – Bevel Base Wadcutter
BEB – Brass Enclosed Base
BJHP – Brass Jacketed Hollow Point
BlitzSierra BlitzKing
BMGBrowning Machine Gun
BrPT – Bronze Point
Bt – Boat-tail
BtHP – Boat-tail Hollow Point
C2F – Civilian 2-part Fragmenting [7]
CBCast Bullet
CL, C-LRemington Core-Lokt
CN – Cupronicknel
CNCS – Cupronickel-Clad Steel
CTFB – Closed Tip Flat Base
DBBWC – Double bevel based wadcutter
DEWC – Double Ended Wadcutter
DGS – Dangerous Game Solid (Hornady)
DGX – Dangerous Game Expanding (Hornady)
DUDepleted Uranium
EVO, FTXHornady LEVERevolution Flex Tip eXpanding
EVORWS Evolution bullet [8]
FMC – Full Metal Case
FMJFull Metal Jacket
FMJBT – Full Metal Jacket Boat-Tail
FNDangerous Game Solid Bullets Flat Nose
FP – Flat Point
FP – Full Patch
FSTWinchester Fail Safe Talon
GC – Gas Check
GDSpeer Gold Dot
GDHPSpeer Gold Dot Hollow Point
GM – Gilding Metal
GMCS – Gilding Metal-Clad Steel
GSRemington Golden Saber
GSCGS Custom Turned Copper Bullets
HBWC – Hollow Base Wadcutter
HC – Hard Cast
HE-IT – High Explosive Incendiary Tracer
HP – Hollow Point
HPBT – Hollow Point Boat Tail
HPJ – High Performance Jacketed
HSFederal Hydra-Shok
HSTFederal Hi-Shok Two
HVLow friction Drive Band Bullets High Velocity
ID-ClassicRWS fragmentation bullet, ex-TIG after Brenneke-license was not renewed.[9]
I-T – Incendiary-Tracer
'IB – Interbond (Hornady)
J – Jacketed
JAP – Jacketed Aluminium Point
JFP – Jacketed Flat Point
JHC – Jacketed Hollow Cavity
JHP – Jacketed Hollow Point
JHP/sabot – Jacketed Hollow Point/sabot
JSP – Jacketed Soft Point
L – Lead
L-C – Lead Combat
L-T – Lead Target
LFN – Long Flat Nose
LFP – Lead Flat Point
LHP – Lead Hollow Point
LRN – Lead Round Nose
LSWC – Lead Semiwadcutter
LSWC-GC – Lead Semiwadcutter Gas Checked
LWC – Lead Wadcutter
LTC – Lead Truncated Cone
MC – Metal Cased
MHP – Match Hollow Point
MKSierra MatchKing
MRWC – Mid-Range Wadcutter
MP – Metal Point (only the tip of the bullet is covered)
NP – Nosler Partition
OTM – Open Tip Match
OWCOgival Wadcutter [10]
P – Pracitce, proof
PB – Lead Bullet
PLRemington Power-Lokt
PnPT – Pneumatic Point
PPL – Paper patched lead
PSP – Plated Soft Point
PSP, PTDSP – Pointed Soft Point
RN – Round Nose
RNFP – Round Nose Flat Point
RNL – Round Nosed Lead
SJ – Semi-Jacketed
SJHP – Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point
SJSP – Semi-Jacketed Soft Point
SP – Soft Point
SP – Spire Point
Sp, SPTZSpitzer
SPC – Special Purpose Cartridge
SpHPSpitzer Hollow Point
SSTHornady Super Shock Tip
SSp – Semi-Spitzer
ST – Silver Tip
STHP – Silver Tip Hollow Point
SX – Super Explosive
SXTWinchester Ranger Supreme Expansion Technology
T – Tracer
TAG – Brenneke lead-free bullet (German: Torpedo Alternativ-Geschoß)[11]
TBBC – Carter/Speer Trophy Bonded Bear Claw soft point
TBSS – Carter/Speer Trophy Bonded Sledgehammer Solid
TC – Truncated Cone
THV – Terminal High Velocity
TIG – Brenneke fragmentation bullet (German: Torpedo Ideal-Geschoß)[12]
TMJ – Total Metal Jacket
TNT – Speer TNT
TUG – Brenneke deformation bullet (German: Torpedo Universal-Geschoß)[13]
TOG – Brenneke deformation bullet (German: Torpedo Optimal-Geschoß)[14]
UmbPT – Umbrella Point
UNI-ClassicRWS deformation bullet, ex-TUG after Brenneke-license was not renewed.[15]
VMAXHornady V-Max
VLDVery Low Drag
WFN – Wide Flat Nose
WFNGC – Wide Flat Nose Gas Check
WLN – Wide Long Nose
X – Barnes X-Bullet
XTPHornady Extreme Terminal Performance

Figurative uses

The word for the bullet, usually because of its speed, is sometimes used figuratively, e.g.:

  • The Japanese Bullet Trains.
  • The 350cc Royal Enfield motorcycle marketed in India is called Bullet
  • The expression "bullet-headed" for a dolichocephalic shape of an animal's head.
  • The term silver bullet, an extremely effective solution to a problem, comes from the modern addition to werewolf folklore that the monster is highly vulnerable to firearms using silver ammunition.
  • The phrase "biting the bullet", meaning (usually mental) preparation for an unpleasant task or experience, refers to a patient biting on a lead bullet put between his back teeth to brace himself for a painful medical procedure (such as the removal of a bullet or amputation of a limb) before the advent of anesthesia. This was frequently done on or behind a battlefield, where bullets would be readily available. Also comes from the process of loading rifles from paper cartridges, where a rifleman would bite the bullet to rip the paper to load their rifle.
  • In horse racing, each track marks its fastest training session each day with a bullet in that horse's past performances.
  • In motion pictures (including television, narrative film and motion pictures and gameplay within videogames), bullet time is a digitally enhanced shot in which, first, the film's speed is reduced to extreme slow motion or, sometimes, to a static frame, and then, second, the camera rotates around the scene at normal speed, providing the viewer with a glimpse of the action from many different angles. Bullet time allows the viewer to capture action s/he would not be able to see in detail at normal speeds. It also allows the viewer to see this action from many angles that would be otherwise hidden from view. Under normal filming conditions, the person shooting the scene would have to choose one angle from which to shoot the action. Camera rotations in bullet time may vary from a relatively small angle, such as 90°, to a full 360°. The bullet time technique is often used in videogames as a convention that allows the player special abilities, such as the ability to slow down time and gain the advantage from this. The term, "bullet time," was first used in reference to the film, The Matrix, that used this technique to create a slow motion shot of a series of fired bullets in which the camera circled around the bullets and their intended target.
  • The expression "catching a bullet in his teeth" comes from reports of sleight-of-hand magician Benjamin Perry Covington, who was said to have caught three bullets in his teeth fired from three different guns fired by volunteers in a New York magic act in the early 1920s.
  • The expression "shooting blanks" is used idiomatically to refer to male sterility. A blank round contains no projectile (and thus very little lethality), much like the semen of an infertile man contains no viable sperm.
  • In no limit holdem poker, "bullets" are the name give to the starting hand of AA, other names are "American Airlines" and "Pocket Rockets"

See also


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

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