Ammo can be quite confusing to understand, especially if you are just starting out as a new shooter. Even the limited selection at Wal Mart can make your head spin! For even more confusion, visit the ammo sections at huge sporting goods stores like Bass Pro or Cabelas. They have aisles and aisles of ammo to choose from!
So how do you know where to start, and if you are getting a good deal? We will begin with the basics, which is knowing and understanding common ammo terminology.
One of the biggest gaffes you can commit is referring to ammo as bullets. The correct terminology for them is actually “rounds” or “cartridges.” The bullet is just the projectile that comes out of the end of the round, and is the component that is supposed to hit what you were aiming at when you pulled the trigger.
There are 4 basic parts to a round of ammo: the casing, the primer, the powder, and the projectile. For the purpose of this article, we will refer to the projectile as the bullet. Most handguns use ammo that contain bullets, but there are exceptions. I use 22 caliber shot shells for my barn revolver. Instead of releasing a single bullet, the round release tons of tiny shot pellets! Shot shells are great for killing snakes, but should not be used with semi auto pistols.
Let’s take a brief look at each component of a round of ammo:
The casing is also sometimes referred to as “brass.” It’s function is to hold all of the components of a round tightly and safely together. Casings are the only part of a round that can be recycled, reloaded, and used again.
The primer acts as the charge that ignites the gunpowder. When you pull the trigger, the firing pin (or striker) hits the primer and causes it to spark. The spark lights the gunpowder.
When the gunpowder burns, the casing fills with pressurized gas. This gas is what expels the bullet out of its casing, down the barrel of the gun, and out towards whatever you were aiming at.
As stated before, the bullet is the projectile that leaves the gun when you pull the trigger. There are many different kinds of bullets, but the majority of them are made from lead. We will go into to most common ones next, but before we do there is one more thing you need to know. Bullets are measured by calibers and grain. The caliber refers to its size, and the grain to its weight. Another gaffe would be to says “grains” instead of grain. The term is singular. Just trying to make you look impressive at the store!
Common Ammo Types
Nearly all handgun ammo can be classified into one of three types: Lead, Full Metal Jacket (FMJ), or Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP). However, within each category are several sub categories. I’m not going to bore you with long, drawn out man speak explanations. We are just going to take a look at the basics. If you find that you need to know more than what you read here, please feel free to contact me!
To be fair, nearly all handgun ammo consists of lead bullets. The distinguishing factor here is that the lead is bare and not covered with anything. Standard, plain lead bullet ammo was the common standard for hundreds of years. While nothing is technically wrong with this type, it does tend to foul up the barrel of your handgun in a hurry. Also, nowadays folks have become very concerned about lead poisoning.
While this type of ammo is very cheap to shoot, it does have a good set of headaches that comes with it. To see lead and brass residue in a firearm, read my post on gun cleaning. I remember as a kid reloading thousands of rounds of pistol ammo with plain lead bullets. Now, however, I have graduated to FMJ and JHP reloads.
Full Metal Jacket (FMJ)
By definition, FMJ is lead bullet ammo coated with either copper or steel. The purpose of the coating is to reduce the amount of lead in the gun’s barrel. The tips of FMJ pistol ammo are either rounded, slightly pointed, or flat. Pros include less mess and easier cleaning. Cons include bullets that go clean through the target.
Why is a bullet that goes clean through a target a con? In a self defense situation, you want a bullet that will expand when it hits. Expansion causes more damage. Also, a bullet that goes through a target has a greater chance of hitting something else that you did not intend for it to hit. Remember, you are responsible for every bullet that leaves your gun.
So what purpose do FMJ loads serve? Target practice! These rounds are cheap. Always use FMJ’s for target practice, but never use them as your critical defense ammo.
On a side note, the most common FMJ bullet weights for a round of 9mm ammo are 115 g, 124 g, and 147 g. The cost for a box of 50 rounds ranges from $9- $15. Everyone has their own reasons for the weight and brand they like, so it is pointless to get into a discussion about it. I shoot a lot, so I buy in bulk, 1000 rounds at a time, nearly always 115 g.
Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP)
Jacketed Hollow Point ammunition is just what it sounds like; the centers of each bullet are hollowed out! When a hollow point bullet hits its target, it mushrooms out almost flat and leaves a devastating trail through soft tissue. Pros of JHP are big, messy holes and the fact that is doesn’t usually exit its target. Cons include less deep penetration, which is a problem when shooting at steel, concrete, or hunting very large animals like moose and bears.
JHP ammo has similar bullet weights compared to FMJ ammo, but is much pricier. It can be as much as $1 per round or more! Especially if you get bonded or +P JHP ammo. The price alone should discourage you from using JHP for target practice!
Bonded and +P Ammo
These are the two most common additions made to critical defense ammo. Again, there are many opinions out there on why you may or may not want to carry your self defense pistol loaded with this type of ammo. I am just going to give you my personal opinion on each one.
Bonded ammo goes through an extra step in processing to keep the jacket and core of the bullet from separating on impact. For self defense purposes this is important, because the bullets will keep their integrity when shot through glass (like a car windshield), walls, and bone. Non bonded jacketed hollow point ammo mushrooms on impact; if you are forced to shoot through your car windshield the bullet will have mushroomed before it even hits the bad guy. Not good.
The same thing goes when hunting or defending your life from very large animals with thick skin like moose or grizzly bears. Bonded ammo creates deeper wound channels, thereby increasing your chances of a quick kill.
Take note that that the bonding process is complicated and expensive. Some rounds of bonded rifle ammo can be as much as $3 or more per round! That said, I still keep a mixed magazine of bonded and non bonded rounds in my carry pistol.
Plus P ammunition is high pressure ammunition. What exactly does that mean any why would you want this? I will attempt to explain this using 9mm ammo as my example. Standard 9mm ammo is 115 g. Earlier we learned that is also comes in 124g and 147g; these are the +P rounds. Anything higher than the standard g round is considered +P.
Plus P ammunition is used to increase the stopping power of smaller rounds. A 9mm +P round has the stopping power of a .40 caliber, and is much cheaper to shoot. Most police officers are issued 9mm pistols with either +P ammo or even +P+, which even pushes the limit for me. I do use +P ammo in my Smith & Wesson Shield 380 EZ, and also in every other gun I choose to conceal carry. Just my preference and my opinion.
You have to be really careful using +P ammunition. Read your owners manual to see if it is safe for your gun to use. Generally, low end firearms cannot use it safely, and the manuals tell you that. You do not want your gun to malfunction at the worst possible time!
Ammo Types Are Personal Preference
You are going to have to just choose a few different kinds and get out and shoot them! For target practice, I usually buy in bulk from my local gun store, and 50 round boxes average $9 a box. I never know what brand they will have, and I honestly am not concerned. I just buy their least expensive target ammo.
For my critical defense ammo, however, I do care. I like Buffalo Bore bonded +P for my 380 EZ and Speer Gold Dot bonded +P for my 9mm guns. Again, just my preference. You may like something completely different, and that’s ok! Just do your homework regarding the +P compatibility for your gun.
Stay safe my friends!