Ammunition Explained 

Now that you have joined the ranks of the shooting world and have decided that gun ownership is for you, it is time to address ammunition, otherwise known as the the 800 lb. gorilla in the room!  Like you,  I have stood at the ammo counter of the gun range or big box store with that “wow” look of confusion on my face while thinking to myself… how on earth am I ever going to learn about all of the different types of ammo that are out there.

What do the numbers on the boxes mean… like caliber,  and how many grains for handgun or rifle, or terms like bird shot, buck shot referring to shotgun ammo, and not to mention the different brands like Federal, PFC, Remington, and Winchester to name a few.

Ladies, grab your coffee and get comfy while we trudge through ammo trench together.  Hopefully everyone will learn a thing or two in the process as we cover the basics of ammunition together, and hopefully it will help you feel more at ease when next visiting the ammo aisle/counter of your local gun store.

Types of Modern Ammunition


Basically there are two types of ammunition the cartridge and shotshell, each of these are made up of 4 basic components.  The components of both types of ammunition are very similar in that they each  have the same basic parts; which include the case, primer, gun powder, and projectile.  

The cartridge though comes with one of either two types of primer, one being centerfire the other rimfire.  You can see the difference between the two in the second and third images below.

Handguns and rifles use a projectile, commonly know as the bullet.  Shotguns use a shotshell which contains a number of projectiles referred to as shot, or a single projectile known as a slug.

Below we have included images of both types with the components of each clearly marked so that you can see the similarities of the components along with a basic breakdown of each.


4 Basic Components of a Cartridge & Shotshell

Before we get started on our journey into ammo land, lets take a moment to go over the 4 basic components that make up the cartridge.   See image on left.

  • Case – generally made of brass, nickel or steel
  • Primer – when struck by the firing pin reacts chemically to produce heat to ignite the propellant charge which fires the projectile.
  • Powder – also known as propellant, gun powder
  • Bullet – also know as a projectile (is the only part of the cartridge that is a bullet)


Select Correct Ammunition For Firearm

It’s critical to your safety, those around you and to the operation of your firearm that you select the correct cartridge for your rifle or handgun.  If you are unsure you can check the data stamp on your firearm, this will give you the information needed to ensure you choose the correct ammunition. The following should also be followed concerning ammunition use and your firearm.

  • Make certain that your gun and ammunition are compatible, by not doing so could cause the firearm to become damaged or cause a more severe malfunction.
  • Always use ammunition that is recommended for your firearm by the manufacturer, don’t use ammo that exceeds industry standard pressure specifications.
  • If you are still unsure of the correct ammo for your firearm take it to a local gunsmith and ask.
  • Don’t use or rely on ammunition that doesn’t feed reliably in your firearm, especially for self defense as it may cause your firearm to malfunction.
  • When trying out new ammo that you have not used before especially for self defense you should purchase extra to practice with to learn how it “behaves” in your firearm along with it’s overall accuracy.
  • Beware that if you use reloaded ammunition that the manufacturer of your firearm may forbid in it’s products, that they will void the warranty on your product. Refer to the owners manual that came with your firearm for more information on this subject.
  • Never use hand-loaded or re-loaded ammo as your self defense ammunition. Only use factory cartridges, your life or the life of a loved one is worth it more than saving a few pennies.

We have lightly touched on why it’s important that you select the correct ammo here.  Your safety and the safety of others around you at the range target shooting or sighting in your favorite rifle, out hunting etc. is why this discussion is so important.  If you carry more than one firearm chambered in different calibers and you are now carrying 2 or more kinds of ammo in your gear and yes, people do get them mixed up and loaded into the wrong rifle, shotgun or handgun and then it gets nasty.  Once the trigger is pulled, you could find yourself severely injured real quick!  Be cautious out there and check and re-check.  Better to go home with everything you arrived with on your person than not!





Common Handgun Ammunition 

Two types of ammunition a defensive shooter will use.  “Ball” ammunition used primarily for practice or target rounds and expanding ammunition used for self defense such as a hollow point.







Ball or solid lead core bullet – expanding hollow point for self defense

“Ball” ammunition has a solid lead core bullet sometimes covered by a copper jacket referred to as full metal jacket (fmj) and is primarily used for target practice and training.    Expanding ammunition is a lead bullet with a hollowed center that expands after firing, this also helps with over penetration and helps keep the bullet in its intended target.

The image below shows several of the most common handgun calibers.

Screenshot 2015-09-07 20.47.26










Popular Surplus Ammo Cans

Ammunition Storage DOs and Dont’s


How to Store Your Ammunition

Just like with firearms ALL ammunition should be stored in a safe manner so that children or any unauthorized persons will not have access to it.  Ideally this would be in a locked closet or cabinet out of sight and out of reach of children and those not allowed to have it.

The best way to store your ammunition is in a air-tight, water-tight container in a safe cool dry area.  These containers can be found at any sporting goods store or at your local Army/Navy Surplus stores. If purchasing used ammo cans from your local surplus store, please check that the seals on the cans are too worn or broken, you want your ammo dry! When storing in ammo cans it is recommended that you also toss in a few silica packets, these will help in removing any condensation that may form.

If you have a good fireproof safe this is of course a great option because you can also have your ammo locked up tight and unavailable to those that shouldn’t have access to it.  This is great option if you are talking about storing smaller amounts of ammunition, but for those that purchase in bulk and reload a better option would be to store it in an ammo can or box inside a closet with a lock on it.  Just make sure that no matter where or how you choose to store your ammo that you store it in a cool, dry space.

Now bear in mind ammo is HEAVY and if you choose to store your ammo in bulk in cans, make sure that you can still carry it out should you need to.  A popular surplus ammo can is the one marked for .50 cal, this can hold between 500 to 1000 rounds of Centerfire depending of course upon caliber and if it is boxed or loose.  The weight of these can be anywhere from around 25-35lbs each, you can see that this could turn into quiet the chore if you had several cans filled to capacity. The weights mentioned were calculated using a metal ammo can.  Plastic cans are a little cheaper and will weigh a little less than the metal can.

Don’t store  ammo where the temperatures vary from extreme heat and cold or in damp conditions, all of which can take a toll over time, such as corrosion.  You should never store your ammo in these conditions without proper storage containers.

Ammo does have a shelf life, how long that is depends largely on you and your choice of handling and storing your ammo.  Here are some things to check for if you feel your ammo might not be up to par and needs to be replaced.

Things to look out for:

  • Rust or discoloration on the shell casing
  • On full metal jacket bullets – are there signs of rust and corrosion
  • Is there rust and corrosion present in and around the primer pocket or on the primer itself?

If you see any of the above mentioned issues developing on your ammo it may be time to look at your storage habits and
start replacing your stash. Ammo rotation is a good habit to get into and could in the long run save you money in doing so.  A good rule to follow is too use your oldest ammo first as long as there are no signs of breakdown like those mentioned previously.

Keeping good inventory of your ammo stocks by labeling your stores with caliber and date of purchase on the outside of the ammo can will help you in with not only how much you have on hand but in keeping your rotation on a schedule of use from oldest to newest.

By practicing responsible safe ammunition storage and practices you are ensuring that your ammo will be ready to use when needed, and that those not authorized to access it will be kept from it.  Firearms safety and storage along with safe ammo storage should be your top priority whether you live alone or not.  Be smart and be safe!



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