The History of Ammo
In the last 700 years, the projectile weapon of choice has switched from slingshots, bows and spears to firearms. To maximize the efficiency of firearms, immense research and development has gone into the creation of purpose built bullets. The evolution from actual pebbles to high tech cartridges required numerous transformations of the bullet shape and configuration. An in-depth exploration of the rich history of firearm ammunition reveals just how much time and effort people have put into developing this highly effective projectile.
The creation of bullets actually precedes the development of firearms, as these projectiles were initially used for sling based weapons. Round and oval stones worked well as projectiles for the sling weapons, so they were also widely embraced for use in the earliest firearms. One of the earliest firearms, the hand cannon, developed in the 1200s, accommodated the stone projectiles.
Although lead sling bullets were created as early as the 4th century BC in Athens, they were not embraced as the firearm projectile of choice until the creation of the matchlock. Lead musket balls for the Matchlock were quickly adopted as the standard due to their convenience over earlier options.
Original round musket balls suffered from a lack of range and accuracy. As muzzleloaders gained in popularity, bullet manufacturers started experimenting with new shapes and designs to solve these problems. The two main types of muzzle loading bullets developed and adopted in the mid-1800s were the Minie’ ball and Nessler ball. Other versions were developed, but they were overshadowed by these two popular bullet choices.
The Minie’ ball was conical in shape with a hollow section at the bottom and three grooves running around the skirt. A combination of iron and lead materials allowed the bullet to expand as the firearm propelled it out of the barrel to increase its velocity. The deformation action along with the grooves gave the bullets a precise spin for improved accuracy and damage. The lead Nessler ball was similar in construction, but it only had one wide groove running around the skirt. The result was similar to the Minie’ ball: increased accuracy, range and damage.
Despite the improvements achieved by changing the bullet shape and design, the guns still suffered from lag, as users added the powder, primer and bullet by hand. The creation of the self-contained cartridge for lever action firearms solved this problem. The cartridge contains the powder propellant, primer and bullet in a neat case. The development of the cartridge and repeating firearms allow for quick loading of multiple bullets at one time.
Cartridge design improvements also maximized the performance of the bullets of the time. The rimfire cartridge was the first design development. This design holds the primer at the very bottom rim of the base. The firing pin has to crush this rim to fire the bullet. The bullets were ill-suited for larger caliber firearms due to their necessarily flimsy metals and construction. To accommodate these large caliber firearms, the centerfire cartridge was developed with the primer in a circular space at the center of the base.
Ballistics Design Improvements
As cartridge and gunpowder designs improved over time, the bullet saw more and more abuse as it traveled through the barrel and towards the target. So, bullet designers tried fixing both flight ballistics, and the wear the projectile receives while passing through the barrel.
Since high velocity firearms deformed the cast bullets, a hard metal jacket was often added to protect the soft lead core. The steel alloy plating also keeps the bullets from leaving metal in the bore to prevent damage to the barrel. For those who craved further protection, relatively softer, yet still deformation resistant copper jacketed bullets were developed. When full metal jacketed bullets were combined with the use of smokeless powder, gun enthusiasts began to notice a decrease in damage through its intended pathway and an increase in full or partial ricochet risk.
As the jacketed bullet progressed, ballistics design did as well. Creating a conical bullet helps with flight accuracy and aerodynamics. The spitzer bullet was the first iteration of this type of small arms projectile. To further improve accuracy and range, the bullet shape was redefined into the spire point and featuring a boat tail for improved aerodynamics.
Sophisticated gun designs demanded the development of modern ammunition variants. Many of the ammunition created today is highly specialized for a particular purpose.
With the prevalence of warships in the mid-1800s, bullet manufacturers focused on creating armor piercing bullets. In the early 1920s, these bullets became a vital part of ground force battles against tanks and other heavily armored vehicles. The size, shape, velocity and material of the rounds determines their ability to go through different thicknesses of armor. Traditionally, rounds of less than 20 millimeters, for example, will only penetrate body armor and bulletproof glass. With modern advancements such as depleted uranium cores and Armor Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot (APFSDS), projectile makeup and kinetic energy of even very small rounds are utilized to defeat very thick armor.
The Glaser safety slug, on the other hand, was designed in 1975 to eliminate threats in highly sensitive environments. The innovative slug design drastically minimizes its chance at going through the target and nearby walls or dangerous ricochets. US Federal Air Marshals, while protecting the public from hijackers, use this slug due to the low risk of it tearing through the sides of the aircraft.
The creation of incendiary bullets during World War I had the opposite effect; the full scale decimation of an area or vehicle. These bullets contain phosphorus which instantly ignites chemical gases or liquids on contact. During World War II, however, the bullets were not just used to create large explosions, but to also puncture armor on enemy aircraft. If the bullets made their way into the fuel tank or lines, the entire plane would go up in flames nearly instantly.
Hollow point bullets were designed for maximum damage as well, but for soft targets, not armored ones. The hollow point expands on impact, creating a larger surface area that increases damage as its moves through the target. Hollow point bullets were widely used in the late 19th century in various caliber rifles. Firearm enthusiasts soon adopted this highly effective bullet type for their handguns as well. The bullet design was so effective, however, it was deemed too barbaric to use in warfare through The Hague Convention of 1899. Today, hunters use the expansion rounds to quickly dispatch large game, and still maintain large use in the area of personal defense ammunition.
Chaos on the battlefield inspired the creation of tracer rounds for machine guns of all kinds. The tracer bullets have a charge in the base that ignites as the powder burns. The charge burns throughout the bullet’s flight, allowing the machine gun operator to adjust the trajectory on the fly. Tracer rounds are also used as a way to indicate a target to squad mates while moving through a high risk area. Today, tracer rounds such as the PolyCase Inceptor Firefly maintain popularity in recreational shooting, allowing for a fun interactive way for shooters to view the bullet’s trajectory.
As the needs of the military, hunters and gun enthusiasts evolve, so will bullet designs and functions. Future advancements will likely improve the efficiency of the bullets while minimizing negative aspects, such as recoil and muzzle flash. Additional materials and polymers will change and evolve beyond the traditional metal projectile. As demand continues to grow for more technologically advanced ammo, companies like Clark Armory continue to evolve and adapt to the demands of the consumer. Only time will tell how bullets will continue to change over the years.