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May 27

A Brief History of Ammunition, Part II

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The Snider Rifle was developed by an American, adopted by the British, and copied by the Nepalese. It was ultimately a stop-gap measure that had a short service life.

Contained Cartridges and Breechloaders

The Dreyse Needle Gun was invented in Prussia in 1836. It was adopted for Prussian military service in 1848, and first saw action at the Dresden Uprising of 1849. It toppled the Minie design after coming into contact with it in 1866. The Dreyse was a bolt-action breechloader: the first of its kind. A breechloader is a firearm which loads from the receiver, typically near and above the trigger. This concept is still in use today. A bolt-action firearm uses a sliding bolt to open the breech so that a paper or metallic cartridge can be placed inside. The bolt is then pushed forward and locked into place. After firing, the bolt is unlocked and moved rearward, extracting the spent case if using a metallic cartridge, and allowing itself to be loaded with another charge.

The two major benefits of the bolt-action Dreyse were that it could be loaded much, much faster than anything that had come before it, and that it could be done while lying down. A muzzleloader, such as the minie-styled rifles, required the user to stand while manually loading the charge from the end of the barrel. This exposed the soldier to fire for a lengthy amount of time.

The Dreyse used a wrapped paper cartridge that contained the bullet, powder, and a fulminate primer. The bolt was equipped with an early type of firing pin, called a needle, that pierced the paper and struck the primer when the trigger was pulled. The primer sparked, igniting the powder and paper, firing the bullet.

IMG_4567An open bolt on a French Chassepot/Gras. The bolt slides forward to push the cartridge into the chamber, then locks to the side for firing.

The French quickly adopted this technology in 1866 with their Chassepot rifle, making several improvements over the Dreyse. The British converted their 1853 Enfield muzzleloading rifles into Snider Rifles, and the Americans converted their 1861 Springfield rifles into Trapdoors. All of these designs took advantage of an enclosed cartridge. At first, these cartridges were made of paper; however as time went on, copper and brass began to see greater use due to their increased durability and general malleability. Brass would eventually replace copper shells completely. Needles would be replaced with rounded firing pins, which dented the primer rather than piercing it. This technology was only possible with metallic cartridges.

Check out our video on an actual Snider rifle made by the Nepalese allies of Britain!

Metallic cartridges were originally rolled by hand (Britain had orphans do it), but in time came to be machine-made. This allowed for standardization of chamber sizes, creating better feeding and cutting down significantly on jams from incorrectly-rolled brass. Perhaps the most famous firearm associated with this is the British Martini-Henry, adopted in 1871 to replace the Snider rifle. However, we’ll just focus on the ammunition in this article.

The French Pull Ahead!

The next real innovation came around 1884, when the French discovered smokeless powder. This discovery immediately rendered every firearm on the planet obsolete. Smokeless powder was cleaner, much more powerful per grain, less volatile, and didn’t produce a humongous cloud of smoke when burned. The French would adopt the Lebel Rifle in 1886, combining bolt-action firearms with smokeless powder, and giving themselves a tremendous advantage over every other nation on earth for a few years. Naturally, the rest of the world caught up before long.

Side note: Ever wonder why a .38 Special cartridge is so long? Because it was invented during the days of black powder! As a black powder round, the case was filled nearly to the brim with powder. However, smokeless powder gives the same oomph with much less, and so the cartridge is oversized for the charge. However, changing the diameter would have been a problem back then, much as it would be today, since all .38 special firearms are designed for the now-oversized dimensions. This “problem” (that really isn’t a problem) has been going on for over 100 years!

As an aside, NEVER fire smokeless powder inside of a firearm designed for black powder! Black powder guns have much softer steel barrels than modern smokeless ones do, and will explode if fired with smokeless powder! Many people discovered this in the late 1880’s. Yes, SOME firearms can handle a smokeless charge (such as the 1886 Kropatschek rifles), but please don’t do it unless you’ve done your research.

Hollow Points

In keeping with the tradition of the Minie Ball, the next advancement in ammunition came from the development of hollow points, or “express ammunition” as it was first called. Though the concept can be traced back to the tail end of the 18th Century, it wasn’t until the end of the 19th Century that this type of ammunition became a reality. Though it’s uncertain exactly when hollow points first came onto the scene, we do know that they were used in the Boer War (1899-1902). The international community of the day had an uproar about it, and the Hague Convention banned the use of “expanding ammunition” in 1899. So, we can determine that they existed some time before then, but didn’t seem to exist before the 1890’s.

With the advent of smokeless powder, bullets could afford to become smaller and still retain plenty of power. Smokeless also meant greater velocities, which is primarily how bullets do their damage. Though early ammunition (round ball) was devastating, it quickly lost its momentum and therefore its lethality due to its tremendous mass. Smaller, faster bullets were made into a practicality, though they didn’t have the man-stopping capabilities of a larger caliber. Enter the hollow point.

This type of ammunition has an empty chamber throughout the middle of the cartridge, often revealed as an open circle, rather than a point, at the tip of the bullet. Some hollow point ammunition will have grooves cut down to the base to aid in performance. When this type of bullet strikes a hard surface, it expands or “blooms” much like a flower. The result is a larger wound cavity that can more effectively disable an enemy. Since the Hague Convention, however, this ammunition has been strictly prohibited in most conflicts. Though the United States was not a signatory to this law, it has chosen to respect and abide by it. The U.S. did, however, sign in the 1907 convention not to use any ammunition considered to cause “undue suffering”.

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From left to right: A .357 Magnum hollow point, a 7.62x54r FMJ steel core, and a .357 Magnum soft point.

On a modern-day note, many anti-firearms advocates like to call hollow point ammunition “cop killer bullets”. This is mere sensationalism, as hollow points do NOT effectively penetrate body armor, which most police wear. Hollow points are the best kind of ammunition to load your firearm with to stop an attacker. Don’t believe the propaganda!

So why were hollow points even needed at all? Why not continue to use pure lead, which flattens and expands upon high-speed contact anyway? That’s a good question, you intelligent person, you.

Smokeless powder allowed for velocities too high for pure lead. As far as I am aware, once you approach speeds nearing 2,000 feet per second, pure lead begins to deform, contributing to “leading” in the barrel, keyholing, and just not performing the way its supposed to. Rather than go back to smoothbore muskets, people began to mix their lead with harder elements, such as tin or antimony. These alloys produced a much harder bullet that was able to withstand the rigors of smokeless velocity, but wasn’t soft enough to flatten and expand effectively upon impact. Therefore, hollow points came into being.

Most modern hollow points, and most modern ammunition period, is “jacketed” with a thin copper shell around it. This prevents hollow points from expanding too rapidly, and ensures that full metal jacket (FMJ) ammunition (a solid bullet) does not expand.

Now, there were other kinds of ammunition developed along the way, such as “soft point” ammunition. This type of bullet does use pure lead, but only on the tip for expansion. Typically, these cartridges are used for hunting, rather than self-defense.

To Infinity and Beyond

Though most of the technological achievements of the 20th Century were based around new types of firearms, the ammunition did advance some along the way, as we have seen. Today’s shooter has a wide variety of ammunition at his fingertips, such as hollow points (which various companies have experimented with to improve, some successfully, others not so much), FMJ, Wadcutters, frangible ammunition (designed to break apart when hitting walls), explosive ammunition, tracers, armor-piercing (usually just ammunition with a steel core), Dragon’s Breath (check it out, it’s like a flamethrower!), and on and on. Most of these types of ammunition are not for everyday use, and haven’t changed the game in any major way. The two most common kinds of ammunition are Full Metal Jacket and Hollow Points, with perhaps Soft Points coming in third.

Much of your ammunition technology has been about finding the right powder charge to deliver what you’re looking for. Are you wanting something to shoot long range without losing much power? Wanting something for a short-barreled revolver? Maybe just some standard FMJ to plink with? Hollow points for self-defense? Sub-sonic ammunition that’s quieter than normal? The list is endless. To top it off, many calibers have been developed by individuals, but never mass-produced. These are called “wildcat” calibers, and they do have some loyal followers. Many other calibers (such as .25 ACP) that used to be common for small self defense pistols have fallen out of favor, regarded as underpowered by today’s standards.

Many cartridges are loaded in +P and +P+, which means that they have some extra power to them. Most modern firearms can handle these overloaded cartridges, but many older guns cannot. Know what ammunition you’re using! Pay attention to what’s on the box!

Some cartridges are loaded in brass cases (most common), some are loaded in steel (common for Soviet-designed firearms). There is an almost infinite variety of ammunition, with new calibers frequently introduced (though most do not catch on). Since we’ve had metallic cartridges essentially perfected for nearly a century, the common caliber list is pretty much set in stone, though changes do occasionally occur. Regardless of calibers, however, they all still use the same technology: a bullet and charge contained within a brass (sometimes steel) case. What will come next? I have no idea. But I’ll be there to do a review on it when it happens.

Some Bullet Points and Data

To help you understand the differences between ammunition, below is a starting point of some data I’ve collected over time. Most of this comes from my own chronographing.

.69 Caliber round ball, fired from an 1847 EIC Musket, using a paper cartridge and 75 grains of FF black powder.
Average Velocity: 800 FPS.
Bullet Weight: 480 grains.
Foot Pounds: 682.

.595 Caliber round ball, fired from an 1864 Snider Rifle, using 55 grains of FF black powder.
Average Velocity: 1150 FPS.
Bullet Weight: 317 grains.
Foot Pounds: 931.

.38 Special, fired from a revolver with a 4-inch barrel.
Average Velocity: 780 FPS.
Bullet Weight: 158 grains.
Foot Pounds: 214.

.357 Magnum, fired from the same 4-inch barrel revolver.
Average Velocity: 1240 FPS.
Bullet Weight: 158 grains.
Foot Pounds: 539.

9mm, fired from a CZ-75 Compact.
Average Velocity: 1126 FPS.
Bullet Weight: 124 grains.
Foot Pounds: 349.

.303 British, fired from a 1943 Mark IV Enfield rifle.
Average Velocity: 2600 FPS.
Bullet Weight: 180 grains.
Foot Pounds: 2,703.

7.62x39mm, fired from a N-PAP AKM.
Average Velocity: 2339 FPS.
Bullet Weight: 124 grains.
Foot Pounds: 1,495.

.223 Remington, fired from an AR-15.
Average Velocity: 3020 FPS.
Bullet Weight: 62 grains.
Foot Pounds: 1,256.

As you can see, modern rifle cartridges (the last three) are several orders of magnitude more powerful than handguns. I also hope that you can see the ratios between weight and velocity (velocity is usually more important, but not always). It’s interesting to see just how outclassed the EIC musket is when compared to modern ammunition, despite having a much larger bullet.

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