A Guide to Ammo Types & Calibers

🕒 10 mins

Many shooting enthusiasts find ammo to be a complicated topic, and it’s understandable. There’s a vast selection of ammunition, and yet, picking the correct one is a very important decision. Apart from determining your weapon’s effectiveness, using the right ammo guarantees a safe shooting experience. 

Introduction to Ammunition Types 

As an avid shooter, in-depth knowledge of ammunition types and calibers is essential for refining your shooting skills. The choice of suitable ammo is an essential factor that can determine accuracy, security, and efficiency.

What is Ammunition? 

Ammunition refers to any projectile that can be shot from a firearm. It consists of several elements, including the cartridge, bullet, primer, and powder.

The Role of Ammunition in Firearm Function 

Different types of ammunition affect a gun’s behavior in several ways, including:

  • Performance: Various kinds of ammunition have different levels of power as well as accuracy. Some types either focus on precise shots, stopping power/range capabilities, or both.
  • Compatibility: Each gun is designed for a specific caliber of bullet ammunition. The incorrect type will jam the weapon, sometimes even ruining it.
  • Functionality: Each ammo type generates varying recoil levels, determining the ease or difficulty with which one can shoot.
  • Purpose: Selecting the right kind of ammunition ensures that the gun functions effectively for whatever purpose, be it target practice, hunting, or self-defense.

Defining ‘Caliber’ 

Caliber is the diameter of a bullet and the internal diameter of a firearm. This is among the essential measurements that determine the type of bullet that can be used with a certain gun. To illustrate, a .45 caliber bullet simply means it has a thickness of about 0.45 inches.

Metric vs. Imperial Caliber Measurements 

Caliber measurements can be expressed in two main systems: metric and imperial. While the imperials use inches, the metric system uses millimeters to denote the diameter of a bullet.

Take, for instance, a 9mm, which will be equivalent to .35 inches. Understanding both systems is vital as it aids in opting for the most suitable type of ammunition according to your weapon’s compatibility.

Anatomy of a Cartridge 

A cartridge consists of various components working together to make the firearm function.

Components: Case, Primer, Powder, and Bullet 

Below are the components that constitute a cartridge:

  • Case: All the parts of the cartridge are held together by the outer container or case, which is usually made with brass, steel, or metals.
  • Primer: A small explosive, popularly called the “Primer”, located at the base of the case that ignites the powder when struck.
  • Powder: It is the catalyst for the well-controlled explosion and produces the force needed to drive the bullet out of the barrel.
  • Bullet: It is the projectile that’released out of the gun’s tube to the aimed object target.

How a Cartridge Fires 

The cartridge and the combination of powder, primer, and bullet all take part in the action. The primer is struck by the firing pin when the trigger is pulled, setting off the powder inside. The bullet shoots out of the barrel as a result of that ignition, creating a tiny explosion. This entire process occurs within milliseconds.

Handgun Ammunition Types 

Handguns are multi-purpose, and their bullets exist in different forms, depending on intended use or personal preference.

Most Common Handgun Ammunition Types 

If you own a handgun or look forward to purchasing one, here are some ammo types you might use: 

  • 9mm Luger: This is one of the common gun varieties that is easy to handle and affordable. It’s popular in self-defense, target shooting, and for use by the police force.
  • .45 ACP: The .45 ACP has superior stopping power and thus bigger bullets. It’s widely used for self-defense.
  • .380 ACP: The .380 ACP is compact and works for smaller handguns offering a trade-off between manageable recoil and stopping power, and it is an ideal choice as a personal defense weapon.
  • .38 Special: This traditional revolver is known for its precision and flexibility and is adaptable for bullseye shooting, personal defense use, and policing.
  • .357 Magnum: The .357 Magnum is famous for its fast motion and strength; it also has great stopping power, rendering it appropriate for self-protection and hunting
  • .40 S&W: The .40 S&W was designed specifically for law enforcement purposes; it is capable of delivering satisfactory stopping force with reduced recoil.
  • .22 LR: Used mostly for plinking and target practice, .22 LR remains an incredibly affordable option that almost anyone can easily obtain.

Rifle Ammunition Explained

When it comes to rifle ammunition, there are various options catering to different shooting positions, ranges, and objectives.

Most Common Rifle Ammunition Types 

Rifle owners have a vast selection of ammo to choose from, and here are the most popular:

  • .223 Remington / 5.56 NATO: These cartridges are versatile and widely used for both civilian and military purposes, mainly for their accuracy and low recoil.
  • .308 Winchester: This is a reliable, practical, and potent round that is employed mostly for game shooting, target and long-range accuracy.
  • 7.62×39mm: This is a popular cartridge because it provides medium power. It is mostly used for both civil and military purposes, including hunting or simple sport shooting.
  • .30-06 Springfield: This is popular with hunting guns and offers versatile energy powerful enough for different animals as well as distant targets.
  • .300 Winchester Magnum: The . 300 Winchester Magnum has an impressive range of up to 275 yards and is used mostly in long-range shooting and big game hunting because it has high caliber and accuracy.
  • 6.5 Creedmoor: This is a growing favorite for those who wish to engage in long-range precision shooting or hunting. It has excellent ballistics with mild kick-back.
  • .22 LR: The 22 long rifle (LR) is known as a handgun round; however, it is more applicable in rifles, especially for plunking and range target shootings, small game hunts, and for economic reasons.

Shotgun Shells and Gauges 

Shotguns use shells rather than cartridges, and their ammunition is classified by gauge, determining the size of the shotgun bore.

Most Common Shotgun Shell Types 

Here are the most popular shotgun shells in use today:

  • 12 Gauge: This is the most popular and widely used shotgun shell, offering a balance between power and recoil. It’s versatile and used for hunting, sport shooting, and self-defense.
  • 20 Gauge: Slightly smaller than the 12 gauge, the 20 gauge shell is favored for its lighter recoil, making it suitable for smaller shooters, beginners, and hunting various game.
  • .410 Bore: Notably smaller in diameter than other shotgun shells, the .410 bore is often used in small, lightweight firearms and is popular for hunting small game and for sport shooting.
  • 10 Gauge: This is a larger shell with substantial power, primarily used for hunting large game and waterfowl due to its heavy payloads.
  • 16 Gauge: Less common but offering a balance between the 12 and 20 gauges, the 16 gauge provides moderate power with less recoil, ideal for upland bird hunting and sport shooting.
  • 28 Gauge: Smaller and with less recoil, the 28 gauge is favored for its versatility in hunting smaller birds and for skeet shooting.

Specialty and Historical Ammunition 

Historical ammunition holds stories of innovation and development in firearms technology. Some calibers were groundbreaking in their time, paving the way for modern ammunition. Exploring these less common rounds sheds light on the evolution of firearms and the engineering marvels of the past.

Exploring Less-Common Ammunition 

Beyond the standard calibers, numerous rare ammunition types exist, all designed for specific applications. Here’s a glimpse into some of them:

  • Tracer Rounds: These are filled with a tracer element that bursts bright as it flies thus making it possible visually to confirm a bullet trajectory line. They are generally meant for training soldiers and identifying targets.
  • Armor-Piercing Rounds: These are specially constructed to pierce tough materials like body armor. 
  • Subsonic Rounds: As these bullets travel slowly than the speed of sound, they cause less noise and are ideal where stealth is needed.
  • Frangible Rounds: These are fragmenting bullets where each bullet splits into pieces upon impact, minimizing collateral damage as well as chances for ricochets. They serve as weapons used for point shootings in small areas during training.

Collectible and Obsolete Calibers 

For firearms enthusiasts and collectors, obsolete calibers hold a particular fascination. These cartridges were once widely used but have since been replaced by more modern counterparts. However, their historical significance and unique characteristics continue to attract collectors and shooters who appreciate their legacy.

Here are a few examples of calibers no longer in circulation: 

  1. .38 Long Colt: Used in early Colt revolvers, this caliber was replaced by more powerful options and is no longer in mainstream use.
  2. .50-90 Sharps: A black powder cartridge used in Sharps rifles during the late 1800s, now considered obsolete due to advancements in firearms technology.
  3. 50-90 Sharps: A black powder cartridge used in Sharps rifles during the late 1800s, now considered obsolete due to advancements in firearms technology.

The Importance of Choosing the Right Caliber 

Selecting the appropriate caliber for your firearm is essential, impacting performance, accuracy, and safety. The right choice ensures optimal functionality and desired outcomes when shooting.

Matching Caliber to Firearm and Purpose 

Different firearms are designed to accommodate specific calibers. Using the correct caliber ensures the gun functions safely and effectively. Attempting to fire an incompatible caliber can damage the firearm or pose serious safety hazards.

For instance, a caliber suitable for hunting large game might not be ideal for target shooting or personal defense. Matching the caliber to the purpose ensures the desired performance,

Ammunition for Hunting vs. Self-Defense 

It’s important to understand why hunting ammo differs from self- defense ammo. Hunting ammunition is crafted to efficiently harvest game, while self-defense ammunition is engineered to swiftly stop a threat. The differences stem from the specific objectives in each scenario—hunting for ethical, effective game takedown and self-defense for immediate personal safety.

Factors to Consider for Hunting Ammo 

Hunting is an activity many shooters look forward to. Here are some factors to look into when selecting hunting ammo. 

  • Game Type and Size: Select ammunition based on the size and type of game you’re hunting. Larger animals may require more powerful rounds to ensure an ethical and humane kill, while smaller game may need lighter, more precise ammunition.
  • Projectile Design and Energy: Consider the projectile design and energy of the round. Some hunting situations benefit from bullets designed to expand upon impact, delivering greater stopping power.
  • Accuracy and Range: Hunting often requires shots at different distances, so ammunition with consistent ballistics and performance across distances is crucial.
  • Local Regulations: Be aware of local hunting regulations that may specify the type or caliber of ammunition allowed for hunting certain game species.

Selecting Ammo for Personal Protection 

Defending yourself from perceived threats requires special considerations, and here are some pointers to getting effective ammo. 

  • Stopping Power and Reliability: For personal defense, prioritize ammunition with proven stopping power and reliable performance. Look for rounds designed to penetrate clothing barriers while minimizing the risk of over-penetration.
  • Manageable Recoil and Control: Choose ammunition that allows for comfortable and controlled shooting. In self-defense situations, being able to handle and accurately place shots under stress is crucial.
  • Legal Considerations: Familiarize yourself with local laws governing the use of ammunition for personal defense. Some areas have specific regulations on the type of ammunition permitted for self-defense purposes.

Ballistics: The Science Behind the Shot 

The study of ballistics delves into the mechanics and behavior of projectiles, examining their movement, impact, and effects.

Internal, External, and Terminal Ballistics 

Internal ballistics scrutinizes the behavior of the bullet inside the firearm. It covers the ignition of the primer, the ignition of the powder, and the subsequent propulsion of the bullet down the barrel. Factors such as bullet weight, powder load, and barrel length influence the internal ballistics of a shot.

On the other hand, external ballistics explores the bullet’s flight path once it exits the barrel. Variables like air resistance, gravity, and wind affect the trajectory, accuracy, and eventual impact point of the bullet. Understanding external ballistics aids in predicting where a bullet will strike over different distances.

Finally, terminal ballistics examines the bullet’s behavior upon impact with the target. This includes how the bullet deforms, penetrates, and transfers energy to the target. Factors such as bullet design, velocity upon impact, and target composition influence terminal ballistics.

Safety and Legal Considerations in Ammo Use 

Ensuring safety and abiding by the law are crucial aspects of handling ammunition responsibly.

Staying Within the Law 

Understanding and adhering to local, state, and federal laws governing ammunition possession, transportation, and use is important. Regulations may encompass restrictions on certain types of ammunition, magazine capacities, and where firearms can be discharged.

Safety Best Practices with Ammunition 

Possessing the necessary licenses or permits for firearms and ammunition, where applicable, is essential. Compliance with background checks and permit requirements supports legal and responsible ammunition use.

Storing and Handling Ammunition 

Safe and responsible storage and handling of ammunition are crucial for preventing accidents and maintaining its effectiveness.

Proper Storage Solutions 

Storing ammunition in sturdy, lockable containers or safes prevents unauthorized access and safeguards against theft or mishandling.

Ammunition also needs to be stored in a dry and cool environment, away from moisture, extreme heat, or direct sunlight. These conditions help preserve its quality and prevent deterioration.

Don’t forget to label containers with the type, caliber, and quantity of ammunition. This makes identification easier and helps in maintaining an organized storage system.

Transporting Ammunition Safely 

Transport ammunition in its original packaging or in containers to minimize the risk of damage or exposure to external elements.

Also, ensure ammunition is securely stored and kept separate from firearms. Preventing accidental contact between loaded firearms and loose ammunition is essential for safety.

Again, adhere to local regulations regarding the transportation of ammunition. Some areas have specific guidelines on how ammunition should be transported, including quantity limits or container requirements.

Making an Informed Purchase: Ammo Buying Guide 

Understanding ammunition labels and packaging is crucial for making informed and appropriate purchases.

Understanding Ammo Labels and Packaging 

Ammo labels display essential details like the caliber and cartridge type. Grasping these specifics ensures compatibility with your firearm and intended use.

Information regarding bullet weight and type—such as full metal jacket (FMJ), hollow point (HP), or soft point (SP)—is often included. This information informs of the round’s performance and intended application.

Additionally, details like the quantity per box, manufacturer information, and lot number aid in tracking and identifying specific batches or brands.

Finally, ammo packaging also includes safety instructions and legal warnings. It’s crucial to read and understand these to ensure safe handling and compliance with regulations.


These guidelines are important for professional gun owners and those new to the world of shooting. From internal ballistics to selecting the appropriate caliber for particular cases, you have all the information you need for a rewarding experience.

Summary and Final Words 

The right ammunition ensures the optimal performance of your firearm while contributing to safety and ethical shooting practices. Whether it’s strolling down the aisles of a gun shop or anticipating shooting day, you will be able to make informed decisions throughout your firearm experience. You can now try out different types of ammunition and handle firearms with more certainty.

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