Whether you’re interested in handguns for home defense, concealed carry, hunting, or participating in competitive shooting sports, the ammunition you select is essential — the gun is simply the launching mechanism.
A handgun is necessarily a compromise between portability and power. As a result, the ammunition that a handgun fires is generally not as powerful or as penetrative as a rifle can achieve.
A cartridge or round is a single unit of ammunition typically comprising four components:
- Bullet: Sometimes, the entire cartridge is referred to erroneously as the bullet, but the bullet is simply the projectile — the only component, except for solid and gaseous combustion products — to leave the barrel. In the United States, manufacturers measure bullet weights in grains (1/7,000th of a pound), while in many other countries, measurements are in grams.
- Powder: The propellant charge that drives the bullet through the barrel. It burns slowly rather than detonating when ignited, causing a buildup of high-pressure gas in the cartridge case. This pressure expands the cartridge case inside the chamber, obturating (sealing) the breach.
- Primer: This is the primary explosive charge contained inside a centrally located metallic cup (centerfire) or in a section along the rim (rimfire) that contains the primary explosive charge (primer). When struck by the hammer or striker, the primer detonates, sending burning particles into the propellant charge. This action ignites it, firing the round.
- Case: Also called the shell, the cartridge case or casing holds the other three components together in a self-contained, environmentally sealed, and durable package. In automatic and semi-automatic firearms, the cartridge case absorbs heat from the burning propellant, removing it from the weapon. The case also has an extractor flange, or rim, to enable extraction from the firing chamber.
Common Bullet Types
The bullet is ultimately the part that determines the effectiveness of a particular type of ammunition. It’s the component that strikes the target, delivering its kinetic energy. Manufacturers design different bullet types to achieve different results — these include:
- Full Metal Jacket (FMJ): Also called ball ammunition, a full metal jacket is typically a round-nosed bullet consisting of a lead core enclosed in a jacket composed of copper, cupro-nickel, brass, or mild steel. In handgun calibers, target shooters typically use FMJ bullets.
- Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP): For self-defense or anti-personnel applications, the hollow point is the default bullet type. The hollow point is available in exposed lead or jacketed varieties, a conical bullet with a cavity in its nose. As target material enters the nose cavity, it causes the bullet to expand, increasing its diameter and frontal surface area. In tissue, this causes the bullet to transfer its kinetic energy more efficiently and cause a more voluminous permanent wound cavity.
- Jacketed Soft Point (JSP): These bullets are also known as soft-nosed and consist of a jacketed lead-cored projectile with an exposed tip. The JSP preserves some of the JHP bullet’s expansion potential for increasing tissue disruption while increasing relative penetration (all else being equal).
- Wadcutter (WC): Also called a full wadcutter, this is a cylindrical bullet with a flat nose the same diameter as its shank. Combining a flat nose and sharp-edged shoulder allows the wadcutter to punch clean round holes in paper targets, which increases scoring accuracy in competitive shooting sports. It’s also more efficient at disrupting tissue than jacketed hollow-points that cannot achieve reliable expansion.
- Semi-wadcutter (SWC): Jacketed or unjacketed, the semi-wadcutter bullet can take several forms. However, the most common consists of a cylindrical bullet with a tapered or truncated cone and a wide shoulder.
Common Cartridge Case Types
Handgun cartridges are manufactured with various case heads depending on the firearm action used. The case head is the end of the cartridge where the primer is located, and the headstamp information is written.
- Rimless: The cartridge case head has a rim the same diameter as the case body and an extractor groove. This congruency allows reliable cycling in semi- and fully automatic actions and feeding in staggered-feed or double-column magazines. Common examples include 9×19mm Parabellum and .45 ACP.
- Rimmed: The rim’s diameter exceeds the diameter of the case body. This type is common in revolver cartridges where the cylinder’s extractor star can press against it during unloading. Examples include the .38 Special and .357 Magnum.
- Semi-rimmed: A compromise between rimless and rimmed where the cartridge’s headspace point is the rim rather than the case mouth. Examples include the .32 ACP and .38 Super.
Most Popular Handgun Calibers
Manufacturers design revolver and pistol calibers for a wide variety of purposes, from recreation to military service. Some of the most popular cartridges include:
- .22 Long Rifle: Developed in 1887, the 22 LR is the most popular rimfire cartridge used in handguns and rifles. The .22 Long Rifle is lightweight, compact, inexpensive, and is commonly used for recreational target shooting, including plinking, range practice and familiarization firing, and varmint hunting.
- .380 ACP: Introduced in 1908 and designed by John Browning, the .380 ACP — also known as the 9mm Short and 9×17mm — is a rimless centerfire cartridge popular in compact handguns for concealed carry.
- .38 Special: An improvement over the .38 Long Colt cartridge, the .38 Smith & Wesson Special was unveiled in 1898 for the Smith & Wesson Hand Ejector — one of the earliest modern double- and single-action revolvers.
- .357 Magnum: Derived from the .38 Special cartridge, the .357 Magnum, introduced in 1935, is considerably more powerful. While revolvers chambered in .357 Magnum can chamber .38 Special ammunition, the reverse is not true.
- 9mm Luger (9×19mm Parabellum): Introduced by Georg Luger in 1902, today, the 9mm Luger is the world’s most popular centerfire pistol cartridge. The 9mm Luger is the standard for submachine guns in the West. Lightweight, sufficiently powerful for most practical applications, this relatively inexpensive 9mm ammo rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s because of the emergence of the Smith & Wesson 59, CZ 75, SIG Sauer P220, and Beretta 92.
- 10mm Auto: Co-designed by Col. Jeff Cooper and Swedish ammunition manufacturer Norma, the 10mm Auto cartridge made its debut in 1983 in the Dornaus & Dixon Bren Ten. TV shows such as Miami Vice popularized the round. In 1990, the FBI adopted the 10mm Auto.
- .40 S&W: Smith & Wesson and Winchester designed the .40 S&W to duplicate the service ballistics of the 10mm Auto FBI load in a cartridge that could be chambered in 9mm pistol frames. Introduced in 1990, the .40 S&W has become a popular choice among law enforcement.
- .45 ACP: Most famously associated with the M1911 semi-automatic pistol, the .45 ACP or .45 Auto was developed to address the demand for increased stopping power relative to the .38 Long Colt cartridge in the Philippines. Available in both compact and full-sized handguns, the .45 ACP is prized for its effectiveness as a defensive caliber.
- .44 Magnum: Once considered the most powerful production handgun cartridge globally, the .44 Remington Magnum was designed in 1955 and announced the following year to consumers. While primarily a revolver cartridge, the .44 Magnum is also available in semi-automatic pistols, most famously the Desert Eagle. Powerful but heavy recoiling, the .44 Magnum is often used for hunting medium and big game.
At IFA Tactical, we understand the importance of ammunition to the effectiveness of firearms. Call us at (586) 275-2176, and we’ll help you find the caliber and load that’s right for you.