A Brief History of Small Arms Ammunition

Planning a range trip today is pretty straight forward.  Grab some Red Hound steel targets, a couple of favorite firearms, and 50, or maybe 1,000 rounds of ammunition depending on your mood.  It wasn’t always that easy though.  We’ve come a long way to get to today’s convenient cartridges.  Here’s a history of how far ammunition has come.

First, what is ammunition?  Today we likely think of a typically brass casing filled with powder on top of which sits a projectile.  At the rear of the case is a more volatile powder mixture - either in a primer cap, or in the rim of the case - that is ignited by a quick strike.  These ‘rounds’ are fired from a gun.  However ammunition spans quite a bit more than that.  It’s any expendable material fired from any weapon.

StonesSo the earliest ammunition encompassed things like rocks and other natural items that were thrown.   Someone with a really good arm could reach about 140 feet per second (fps) with their throw (think a pitcher’s fast ball).  That would certainly leave a mark.  The latest archaeological information points towards thrown spears being used around 460,000 years ago.  In these cases, the entire weapon was the ammunition.  The first use of a tool to send the object on its way was the bow and arrow.  With this development the ammunition got smaller, yet could produce significant damage on impact due to the energy imparted by the delivery method (the bow).  The earliest bows could send arrows screaming at up to 170 fps (not all that fast, really), while more modern recurve bows could reach as much as 400 fps.

The real transition towards the ammunition we know today starts in China around 100 B.C. during the rule of Emperor Wu Di.  He liked ruling, and decided he wanted to live forever, so he ordered his alchemists to find an elixir for eternal life.  Early experiments involved Saltpeter (which we now know as potassium nitrate), and sulfur.  Many years of experimentation culminated in the addition of charcoal in the 8th century.  It was initially used to treat skin diseases, and kill insects, but it was eventually found that with the addition of heat, it had explosive properties, and it could be used to propel objects.  Fresh bamboo shoots were filled with the powder to propel the shoots skywards, creating early fireworks.  These were used in festivals and were thought to ward off evil spirits, and bring good fortune.  It was quickly realized that working this technology into a weapon would give a huge advantage in battle, so the bamboo tubes with propellant were tied to arrows, and used to great effect in the early 900s, creating the first rockets. 

By the mid-1100s the Chinese Song dynasty was using what is known as a fire lance.  This was an early mash up of a flame thrower and cannon, and was followed by full-blown cannons by the 13th century.  Cannons changed warfare forever, making siege equipment, and long range projectiles even longer range, and more accurate than ever.  The first ammunition for cannon were rounded stones.  A powder charge was first loaded into the cannon, followed by the projectile of choice.  To fire, an ignition source such as a ‘slow match’ was touched to a small open hole at the rear of the bore which directly ignited the powder, propelling the ammunition out of the barrel.  This early black powder created a great deal of smoke which obscured vision and fouled equipment.

From here cannons were shrunk to be used by hand, and the weapon technology used to fire the projectile saw many advancements, and began to be recognizable as what we think of as firearms today.  The ignition method evolved from a touch hole to an integral burning wick, to a spark from a struck flint, to percussion caps and so on.  The ammunition itself evolved around these arms.  As a continuation from the cannon, early purpose-made balls for firearms were made of cast iron.  This required high temperatures and special equipment, and they were relatively expensive to make.  Iron being a relatively hard material compared to barrels of the times, this ammunition would wear down barrels quickly.  To get around these difficulties, lead began to be used since it was softer so didn’t damage barrels as much.   It also has a much lower melting point so balls could be cast over a cooking fire by anyone with a mold.  These early balls of ammunition were called “Bullets” after the French boulette, meaning “little ball.”

Paper CartridgeEarly bullets were sized smaller than the firearm barrel, and were simply dropped on top of the powder charge.  This was later advanced to include wadding around the bullet to keep it firmly in place.  Once rifling was invented, wrapping the ball helped the ball engage the grooves and spin for better accuracy and travel distance.  As early as the 14th century, paper ‘cartridges’ saw use.  This incorporated the powder charge and the bullet inside a paper wrapping.  The end of the paper would be cut or bitten off, and the powder and bullet poured down the barrel.  Typical ‘musket balls’ would travel anywhere from about 390 feet per second (fps) to as much as 1,200 fps.

In 1808 the first fully self-contained cartridge was invented by Jean Samuel Pauly.  It had a copper base with primer powder.  The remainder of the case was either brass or paper, and contained powder, and a round bullet.  In 1826 a cylindrical bullet was developed by Henri-Gustave Delvigne.  It was tightly fitting and was rammed into the barrel, catching the grooves on it’s way.  This however deformed the bullet which hurt accuracy.  Once non-spherical bullets became a thing, many types were tested, even including square shaped bullets.

By the 1830s bullets began to take shape similar to that of modern day projectiles.  Delvigne came up with a cylindrical bullet with a conical point.  This was further developed to include grooves known as cannelures which altered the center of gravity of the bullet forward for improved flight characteristics.  Minie BallAdvancements then led to a hollow section in the rear of the bullet which would be fitted with a material such as wood which would expand under pressure and force the lead of the bullet into the rifling.  The famous Minie Ball was developed by Claude-Edienne Minie and had an iron plug in the rear cavity which would be forced forward and expand the bullet.  This was the first of this bullet type to be used by a military – the British army. 

Furthering the self-contained cartridge was the ‘pinfire cartridge’ developed by Casimir Lefaucheux in 1836.  It used a thin brass and paper shell with a percussion cap at the rear.  This incorporated a brass pin which was struck by the firearm’s hammer to ignite the round.  The case then expanded forming an effective seal.  This was the first modern self-contained cartridge.  1846 saw the first fully metallic self-contained cartridge developed by Benjamin Houllier.  In 1867 the Eley-Boxer metallic centerfire cartridge was developed.  This had a case made of tightly coiled brass with a primer cap in the rear, and powder and bullet forward of this.  These would occasionally come unwound and jam the firearm they were used in, and led finally to the drawn brass cartridge case we know and love today.

The next great leap in bullet technology was the jacketed bullet.  Lt. Colonel Eduard Rubin designed the first copper jacketed lead bullet in 1882.  The surface of a lead bullet could melt due to the heat from friction and gasses.  Copper’s higher melting point allowed for higher velocities without the bullet deforming during flight.  In 1886 the first smokeless powder was invented by Paul Vielle and was dubbed “Poudre B”.  It reduced smoke on the battlefield which helped commanders relay orders.

Belter understanding of aerodynamics finally led to the development of the Spitzer bullet which has a spire shaped point.  This is the shape most commonly used for modern day bullets.  Spitzer Boat TailThe tail end of the bullet saw some change with the ‘boat tail.’  This altered the airflow around the back of the bullet, creating an area of low pressure behind it, allowing for increased travel distance.  The combination of the Spitzer, and boat-tail technologies allow modern small-arms rounds to reach over 4,000 fps.  Feel the sizzle!  Other developments include a ballistic tip bullet which has a plastic tip to keep the shape similar to a classic Spitzer, but the metallic portion of the bullet has a cavity in the tip allowing for terminal ballistics similar to a hollow point.  Other purpose-made bullets have come along through the years including steel core for deeper penetration (don't use these on steel targets); tracers which have a cavity filled with a slow burning pyrotechnic charge which allow the  bullet’s path to be seen by the naked eye.

Ammunition has come a long way since sticks and stones, and new developments are continuously made.  Advancements have taken us from thrown rocks, to projectiles propelled by a separate mechanical or chemical force, to self contained, all-in-one cartridges which are mass produced.  The future of ammunition and the arms that use them is wide open.  The next great leap in ammunition may come in the form of an electrical battery powering lasers, a miniature nuclear reaction, or perhaps some yet undiscovered technology.

End note: I learned quite a bit myself in researching and writing this post.  There’s far too much history for it all to be stuffed into one blog post, so I included the parts I thought had the greatest impact.  Now take advantage of the age we're in and go out and make use of the abundantly available ammunition!

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