Miscellaneous Questions #1

This section contains brief discussions of various ballistics and shooting related topics as requested by correspondents. If you have a question you have been trying to find an answer to (keep 'em ballistics and shooting related--see your minister for the mysteries of life) email me by clicking here and I'll do my best to find the answer for you and if it is of general interest, publish it here. If you can contribute additional input to one of the answers I'd would appreciate hearing from you too.

Check back frequently as new topics are always being added.

On this page:

What happens when a bullet is fired straight up?
What is the most powerful handgun?
Shouldn't I always use boat tailed bullets so I get a flatter trajectory?
What is the maximum range of my (user supplied caliber)?

Why do some guns of the same caliber seem to kick harder than others?
What about muzzle brakes? (In relation to recoil.)
Is blank ammunition really dangerous?
What do the various bullet tip colors on military ammunition mean?

What are some common conversion factors for shooting related measurements?

Q. What happens when a bullet is fired straight up?

A. A lot of shooters have wondered what happens when a bullet is fired vertically. Popular lore includes such mis-ideas as the bullet burns up falling back down, it comes down at the same velocity as its original muzzle velocity, and probably one that says it disappears in a time warp.

The two best references on the subject are "Hatcher's Notebook", (by Julian S. Hatcher, 3rd edition, June 1962, Stackpole Books, ISBN: 0811707954) which includes a chapter on bullets fired vertically, and an article titled "Terminal Velocity and Penetration Studies," by Lucien C. Haag, which appeared in Vol 2, No. 1 of Wound Ballistics Review. This information is excerpted from both.

First, it must be understood that recovering vertically fired bullets is difficult because wind causes them to drift from the expected vertical line. (This probably accounts for many of the myths.)

Hatcher's tests indicated that on the average, vertically fired rifle bullets reach about 9000 feet in altitude (slowed from their muzzle velocity by air drag and gravity to zero velocity), taking about 20 seconds to reach maximum height. Then, pulled by gravity, and slowed by air drag they take about 40 or so seconds to return. Bullets fired vertically come back base first. Why? Read on!

Hatcher describes one experiment with the 150gr M2 Ball bullet fired vertically. When it came back from vertical (round trip time was about 42.9 seconds) it left only a 1/16 inch dent in a soft pine board that it happened to hit. (Not exactly what it would do at 2700f/s, eh?) Based upon this and similar tests Hatcher concluded that the impact velocity was about 300 f/s, which from additional testing appears to be the terminal velocity (the maximum free fall velocity which is limited by air drag on the body in question) of that bullet falling from any height in the atmosphere. (If I remember correctly from my limited parachuting experience the terminal velocity of a falling person is somewhere around 130 mph or about 200 f/s.)

What does not substantially change, even at extreme range, is the rotational speed of the bullet that was imparted by the rifling (around 300k rpm) since the effect of air drag on the rotational velocity in negligible. Thus the gyroscopic action, once the projectile is stabilized, tends to keep the bullet oriented in the same direction, thus the base first (well ok, original position trailing end) return. It is interesting that this was not commonly known until just before WWII. The British had lots of dud antiaircraft rounds that all came back base down, or more correctly oriented to the same elevation as shot from the gun. BTW, this is what raises hob with traditional long range small arms ballistics. With lots of elevation on the bore (past 2,000+ or so yards) at the far end many bullet are actually falling sideways and all frontal air drag algorithms are out the window.

Interestingly, Hatcher describes an experiment that shows the gyroscopic stability at work. They loaded the 150gr M2 flat based bullet backwards and found that the round trip time was a bit shorter (about 30.4 seconds) due to the bullet being "streamlined (point down) on the return trip. The drag on the upward trip was not as greatly effected due to the high muzzle velocity. No estimated impact velocity was given but it probably would have been somewhat higher due to the lower air drag on the bullet since it was coming down point first.

The Haag article used a ballistics computation program to calculate vertically fired bullet performance and came up with results comparable with Hatcher's work. Using bullets ranging from the .22 rim fire to the 180gr .30 caliber spitzer in the .30-06 the time of flight (up & back) ranged from a low of 25 seconds for the .25ACP to a long of 77 seconds for the M193 ball. Maximum altitudes ranged from a low of 2288 feet for the .25ACP to a high of 10,103 feet for the 180gr .30-06. Terminal velocities ranged from 134 f/s for a tumbling .22 Short to a high of 323 f/s for the 180gr .30-06.

Haag calculated the performance of the .30cal 150gr M2 ball round fired by Hatcher as a maximum altitude of 9330 feet and a round trip time of 57 seconds which is, for all intents and purposes, the same as Hatcher's observations.

As a point of interest, a velocity of about between 180 and 360 f/s (±) is needed to penetrate skin. The wide range comes from the non-uniform strength of normal skin tissue.  Projectile shape has no statistically significant effect on the penetration. However, one could still be seriously injured if struck by a falling bullet even if it doesn't break the skin.

Those interested in learning more about vertically fired bullets may want to obtain a copies of Hatcher's Notebook and the Haag article.

Q. What is the most powerful handgun?

A. That can be a sticky question. For production handgun cartridges the winner used to be the .44 Magnum which can throw a 240gr bullet at over 1400 f/s from a seven to eight inch barrel. Recently the .454 Casull, the .475 Linebaugh, the .460 S&W, and the .50 S&W became production rounds.  The .454 throws a 300gr bullet at 1650. The .475 will boost a 400 gr bullet to 1300 f/s, the .460 a 300 gr to about 2000, and the .50 S&W will get a 350 gr bullet to 1900 f/s.  Any of these will give you your recoil "jollies."  (I've fired all of these and the .460 S&W is by far the worst in my opinion.)

In the custom field, the all time winners are probably  the Triple-Action "Thunderer" and Maadi-Griffin bolt action pistols in .50 BMG(!!!) and some similar crew served "pistols" from other manufacturers. These "pistols" have barrels of about 12" -15" in length,  weigh between 10 and 17 pounds, and depending on barrel length are about 2 feet long. The barrels are fitted with massive muzzle brakes, not only to help control the recoil but to also prevent the shooter from being singed by the muzzle flash. Recoil is described as "manageable."  I have viewed a video of a .50 BMG Thunderer "pistol" being fired and the muzzle flash is best described as "interesting."  If you are within 5 feet of the sides or front of the muzzle you are a fire risk!  Chronograph data suggests that with that the M33 Ball cartridge which is listed as firing a bullet with a nominal weight of about 660 gr at a nominal 2910 f/s from a 36" barrel. one will get velocities between 2200-2300 f/s from these pistols. If we discount the effect of the muzzle brake, the free recoil energy of this pistol (assuming 15 pounds weight and 2300 f/s muzzle velocity) would be about 167 ft lb, and it would generate about 7700 ft lb of muzzle energy. At last! A pistol for elephant hunting!

Thunderer .50 cal pistol (12k jpg)

Thunderer .50 BMG pistol by Triple Action, LLC.

There is at least one handgun made in both .458 Win and .600 NE (that's a 900 gr bullet at about 1900 f/s from a rifle) by Pfeifer Waffen in Austria.  It is a 5 shot single action design that weighs 13.2 pounds with a 13" barrel.  In .600 it gives 1515 f/s and 4600  ft lb.

.600 Nitro Pfeifer revolver.

The .45-70 cartridge has also been chambered in some handguns. A correspondent recently informed me that from a 14" .45-70 Contender he gets almost 2000f/s and 2600 ft lb with a 300gr bullet and about 1600f/s and 2000 ft lb with a 350gr bullet. (He didn't indicate if he still has any feeling in his shooting hand.)

My other choice for a "big" pistol would be the British "Howdah" pistols which were basically a .577 Snyder double rifle with the barrel cut off to seven inches and a pistolgrip stock. They were designed to shoot a attacking tiger off the back of the elephant you were riding through the jungle. Legend has it that the way you employed it was to hand it to the tiger and let him fire it! (Consider that the .577 launches a 480gr bullet on top of 70+ gr of black powder for probably about 1000 f/s in the short barrel--in a three pound pistol, and with its tendency to "double" it was truly a pistol for the "manly man.")

Q. Shouldn't I always use boat tailed bullets so I get a flatter trajectory?

A. Yes, boat tailed bullets do help you to get a flatter trajectory. However, the effect is only really meaningful at very long ranges. (Since 95% of all shooters--some gun-rag writers excepted--have trouble seeing, let alone hitting, anything past about 300 yards BT bullets have little practical effect.) The chart below shows the trajectory of two commercial 165gr bullets from the same manufacturer. They are identical except for the fact that one is flat based and the other has a boat tail. The chart is based upon a 225 yard zero, a 1.5" sight height, and a muzzle velocity of 2700 f/s. Something else to keep in mind--while boat tail bullets tend (as a generalization, mainly in large bore rifles, i.e.: .30 cal) to be capable of better accuracy than flat based bullets many rifles do not handle them well and you may get your best accuracy with a flat based bullet. Especially in small calibers flat base bullets tend to give lower velocity standard deviation than boat tails.  Use the bullet style that gives you the best accuracy and don't worry about little differences in trajectory.

Path in inches at range indicated
Bullet Type 0 100 200 300 400 500 600 700 800 900 1000
Flat based -1.5 2.8 1.4 -6.8 -23 -50 -88 -140 -210 -310 -430
Boat tail -1.5 2.7 1.3 -6.6 -22 -47 -82 -130 -190 -280 -380
Difference for BT (inches) 0 0.1 0.1 0.2 1 3 6 10 20 30 50

Q. What is the maximum range of my (user supplied caliber)?

A. First we have to determine just what we mean by "maximum" range. "Absolute maximum range" or the farthest distance a given bullet will travel is one thing. "Maximum effective range" or the distance a given weapon system can be effectively employed by a user under most conditions to provide the desired results is another thing all together.

Maximum Range
Maximum range is defined as the maximum distance a projectile will travel over level ground.  The distance depends upon muzzle velocity, barrel elevation, distance of the muzzle above ground level, and bullet design.   For computational purposes the  distance is computed at the line of sight as at the typical distances of a barrel above ground level the difference at the actual ground would be  slight.

In a vacuum a firearm would achieve its absolute maximum range at an elevation of 45°.  However, with typical small arms projectiles the effect of air resistance is so great that maximum range is usually obtained at a departure angle of between 29° and 35°. The table below gives the calculated approximate absolute maximum ranges for some common rounds  using modern drag modeling techniques at standard sea level conditions, and a not so common projectile.  It may differ from some previously published data based on older methods of computation.  The data indicated by "#" is from government firing tables.  

Note that all this data assumes point forward flight during the entire trajectory and is based upon "standard" conditions.  However, this may in fact not be the case--see the article on vertically fired projectiles, above--except for the M829 "dart" which is fin stabilized.  While this data is sound one should not consider the data to hold for all cases and conditions--especially when considering range safety implications.  Changes in projectile stability, elevation above sea level, temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, and wind speed and direction at both ground level and at altitude can contribute to wide variances (15% or more).  

Cartridge Max Range (yds) Cartridge Max Range (yds)
.22 RF (40gr) 1530# .300W Mag (200gr) 5930
.223 (M193) 3390# 9 mm M882 1970#
.223 (M855) 3760# .38SPL +P (158gr) 1780
243 (100gr) 4750 .357 (158gr) 1950
.264 Win (140) 5130 .45ACP M1911 (230gr) 1850#
7mm Mag (175gr) 5420 .40S&W 
(180 gr)
.30-30 (170gr) 2490 375H&H
.308 (M80) 4480# .45-70 (500gr) 3220
.308W (M118) 5780# .458W 
30-06 (180gr) 5320 .50 BMG AP M2 6670#
30 M2 Ball 3500# M903 SLAP 8700#
12 ga Slug 1200 120mm M829 APDS 113,000 @ 55 degrees#
# From government firing tables

For round shot pellets, the maximum range in yards as stated by Journee's Rule is approximately 2200 times diameter of the shot in inches for typical shotgun velocities.  Velocity is not considered in this formula because at typical shotgun velocities the drag is fairly consistent.  The rule holds fairly well when compared to actual firing tests giving shorter ranges for small shot sizes and longer ranges for buck shot.

Shot Size Maximum range
12 110
71/2 209
4 286
BB 396
4 Buck 528
00 Buck 726

Absolute Maximum Range
There is also another "maximum distance" which is the range at which the bullet is falling straight down, as if fired from a tall mountain or an aircraft.  While pretty much an impractical solution, this is the absolute maximum range that is possible for the projectile to achieve.

In the graphic below the projectile has a level ground maximum rage of 5084 yards.  However, if fired from an aircraft flying at some 27,000 feet the bullet would reach vertical free fall after traveling 6180 yards, dropping 321316 inches (8925 yards) below the line of sight.

Effective Range
Maximum effective range is based upon the intrinsic accuracy of the firearm and ammunition, the size of the target, the marksmanship ability of the shooter, the ability to discern the target, knowledge of the ballistic characteristics of the ammunition, and the level of power needed to be delivered to the target. 

The amount of  power needed to be "effective" on a given target is a difficult thing to quantify.  Kinetic energy is not a good indicator of target "effect" for soft targets--the actual damage being done to tissue is more important.  However, for the want of something better military statistics call for the delivery of between 35 to about 270 ft/lbs of energy to the target to be "effective.  The wide range is indicative of the difference in specifications and ideas of the subject.  For the purpose of further discussion lets simply ignore the power question, whose discussion belongs in the terminal ballistics area,  and look at the firearm/shooter equation.

First let's assume a target size of 18" width.  For that we need a maximum mechanical accuracy that will guarantee that a bullet will stay within that zone. For a rifle/ammunition combination that could deliver every shot inside of 1.5 moa (minutes of angle) the maximum mechanical effective rage would be 1200 yards on that 18" target. (A minute of angle being effectively 1" per 100 yards of range.)

However, that is just the gun. We now have to consider the shooter. Most individuals can just barely discern an 18" target at 600 yard with the naked eye and if they know where the target is maybe about 900 yards with an optical sight of moderate power (3x - 6x). (I am avoiding specialized high power target type optics since we are talking field use here.) Ok, now we're down to somewhere between 600 and 900 yards. That's still pretty impressive, eh?

We also have to bring the shooter's skill into play. Most decent shooters can, on a good day under field conditions, keep all their shots from a 1.5 moa rifle in a 4 to 6 moa group. (We are exempting the long range target shooters and specialists, whose shooting skills are far above the general population, from this discussion.) Some can do better; many do much worse. With an 18" target that means an maximum range of between 300 and 450 yards (6 moa @ 300 yards = 18"; 4 moa @ 450 yards = 18")

Another concern is the trajectory of the bullet being used. Once the bullet's trajectory begins to curve steeply downward (normally after about 300yards or so) estimation of drop can get tricky and can make hitting a target difficult unless one knows the bullet's trajectory well--which most people don't. This also puts a 300-400 yard damper on things. (We are assuming--boy I hate that word--a proper field zero of around 225 yards or so here. See the external ballistics page for an in depth discussion.) Interestingly, the US Military manual for the M14 rifle gives the "effective" range as 460 meters and the absolute maximum as 3720 meters so it looks like we are in the ball park. Note that they define "effective range" as "the greatest distance at which a weapon may be expected to fire accurately enough to inflict casualties or damage." (Italics mine and they are simply expecting to hit a humanoid sized target anywhere.) However, there is still another fly in the ointment.

We have been talking about hitting any where on an 18" target. The kill zone of most game animals runs between 6 and 12" in diameter. Uh oh! Let's see now, if we split the difference and say a 9" kill zone: 6moa @ 150 yards = 9" and 4moa @ 225 yards = 9" which puts the average good shot's effective range at between 150 and 225 yards. Gee! Those gun writers routinely pop 'em at 500 and 600 yards, don't they?  Tests conduct by the military have shown that the average rifleman armed with either the M14 or M16 has about a 10% chance of securing a first round hit on a target 300 yards away.

And there is still another fly in the ointment.  Tests conducted  by the US military showed just how difficult it is to even see targets in the field, and if you can't see them how can you hit them.  The chart below shows the likelihood of seeing a standing humanoid target as a function of range under field conditions.  It is based upon data developed  by the Army Operations Research Office during project SALVO.

Likelihood of seeing standing humanoid target vs. range
 for field conditions (location not previously known)

As a good friend once said, shooters are surpassed only by fisherman in statistics. I have been present when a lot of so-called expert shots were given the chance to hit a target way out there under field conditions and very, very, very few could actually do it let alone see the target.. I've seen many shooters who couldn't even make 75 yard field shots consistently with their razzle-dazzle magnums--even from a bench! Few people have any idea of just how far away 400 - 500 yards is.

Try this. Find a BIG clear field or a long straight road. Have someone stand somewhere and then measure or pace off an honest 400 - 500 yards. Turn around and see just how far away they are. Or on a long straight road set your odometer to 0 and then drive.  Every 1/10 mile is 176 yards so drive 4/10 or 5/10 of a mile and then look behind you.

Fr. Frog's Rule of the Field

1. Shooters are exceeded in their bragging about distant shots only by fisherman and the size of the fish that got
2. For any shot that you did not actually witness quarter the range stated by the shooter.
3. If you can't see it, you can't hit it.
4. Equipment cannot replace skill.

Now I'm sure that this is going to ruffle some feathers but that's tough. Maybe you can do it every time, and if you can congratulations--but I'd have to see it to believe it. When you can hit a 10" target at 300 yards with your first shot (no sighters--no warm ups) and four following shots from a field position then you have arrived. Until then, don't deceive yourself.

For the rest of us, what can we do to improve our effective range? Practice! Go to a good shooting school that teaches practical field riflery and the use of the sling. Learn your rifle and its ammunition, stay away from the shooting bench, and practice, practice, practice. And, should you ever take a game animal at greater than 300 yards you should write yourself a letter explaining why you had to do so at such a range.

Note that the 120mm M829 "dart" round in the table above has a stated maximum effective range in the M1A2 Abrams tank gun system of 3200 yards, although kills have been recorded at out to 6500 yards (where the typical group size is about 5 ft in diameter).

Now, as an historical foot, note the table below lists the effective ranges and maximum ranges of some common weapons from history.

Weapon or cartridge Period of Use Effective Range
Maximum Range
Sling 300 BC - 1500 AD 50 300
Short Bow 300 BC - 1800 AD 100 200
Crossbow 1100 - 1800 AD 200  350
Long Bow 1100 - 1500 AD 250 400
Hand Cannon 1500s AD 10 250
Turkish Bow 1400 - 1700 AD 300 800
Matchlock 1600s AD 25 350
Harquebus 1700s AD 40 500
Flintlock Musket 1600 - 1800 AD 60 800
Flintlock Rifle 1700s AD 100 1000
Percussion Musket 1805 - 1865 AD 75 1000
Prussian Needle Gun 1840 - 1870 AD 300 2000
Springfield .45-70 Rifle 1873 - 1892 500 2800
Krag .30-40 Rifle 1892 - 1905 500 3300
M1903 Springfield .30 cal 1903 - 1950 600 3500
M1 Garand .30 cal 1941 - 1965 600 3500
M14 7.62 mm 1965 - current 500 4300
M16 5.56 mm 1969 - current 500 3600
M1911 .45 ACP 1911 - current 50 1900
M9 9 mm 1908 - current 50 1800
.38Spl Revolver 1890 - current 50 1700
.357 Magnum Revolver 1935 - current 100 2400
AK47 7.62x39 mm 1947 - current 350 3500
AK74 5.4x39 mm 1980 - current 350 3700
M40A3 .308 rifle 2000 -current 1200 4300
M82 .50 Cal Rifle 1999 -current 2500 7500
12 ga 1 oz Foster Slug current 125 1200

Q. Why do some guns of the same caliber seem to kick harder than others?

A. The perception of recoil is a very personal thing. While the "statistical" recoil of a firearm can be calculated mathematically fairly easily, and is the same for a given gun weight, bullet weight, powder charge, and velocity, the shooter's perceived recoil is effected by several things:

Tightness with which the firearm is held.
Height of the bore above the center of the stock line or wrist for pistols.
Shape and design of the butt plate or the pistol's grip.
Weight of the firearm.
Physical and mental condition of the shooter.

If the firearm is not tightly held the firearm gets a "running start" and smacks the shooter harder. Anyone who has had a bad mount with a rifle or shotgun probably has had the black and blue mark to prove this. With a firm grip the shooter's body mass dampens the firearm's motion and the perceived recoil is less.

If a rifle's stock has a lot of drop or if a pistol's barrel is high above the line of the arm the torque effect is much more pronounced and the firearm rises more, increasing the perceived recoil. This effect is often commented upon by people who have shot both the Browning P35 and a SIG 9mm side by side. The SIG's higher bore axis gives the perception of greater recoil.

Narrow, or sharp edged butt plates or pistol grips concentrate the recoil energy in a smaller area thus magnifying the effect to the shooter.

Lighter firearms, having less mass, have a higher recoil velocity which accentuates the perceived recoil due to the sharpness of the blow. With two rifles of the same recoil energy but having different weights, the lighter one will have a higher recoil velocity and will feel as if it kicks harder or at least kicks "differently."

A very slightly built shooter may experience more perceived recoil since they have less body mass to act as a damper. If the shooter is afraid of or worried about recoil then they may in fact have more of an "experience" than someone whose mind is on other things.

There is a story told about the great African hunter Selous who once had his 8 bore double rifle "double" on him. (We're talking about two 1250 gr bullets backed by up to 14 drams (350gr !!!!) of black powder for about 1500 f/s, from a 16 pound or so rifle!) When asked what the recoil was like he remarked that he hadn't noticed it! I've often wondered just what it was that he was facing at the time or if he had simply had his brain scrambled by the recoil. One of the above rounds would generate over 130 ft lb of recoil in that rifle! (As a comparison, the .458 Winchester generates about 55 ft lb of recoil in a 9½ pound rifle.)  With both barrels fired at the same time the combined effect  of a 2500 gr bullet at 1500 f/s would generate some 500(!!) foot pounds of recoil energy in that rifle

As a further corroboration of the mental effects of recoil I have on occasion, during training former non-shooters with standard or reduced loads, snuck in a full house load once the shooter has stopped worrying about recoil. After the "bang" the comment is generally "That one seemed louder than the rest," and so far I've have never had anyone complain about the increased recoil.

If you would like to calculate recoil energy or velocity the following formulas will be of interest.

WG = Weight of gun in pounds
WB = Weight of bullet in grains
WP = Weight of powder charge in grains
VB = Muzzle velocity of bullet in f/s
I = Interim number (Recoil Impulse in lb/sec)
VG = Recoil velocity of gun (f/s)
EG = Recoil energy of gun (ft lb)

I = [(WB * VB) + (WP * 4000)] / 225218

VG = 32.2 * (I / WG)

EG = (WG * VG * VG) / 64.4

Notes: The "4000" is the nominal velocity of the powder gases at the muzzle for commercial smokeless powder and the observed range is between 3700 and 4300 f/s.  It is sometimes stated as 4700 in some sources but this is based on observations of artillery, not small arms. You can try it with both values to see the effect of the different numbers. If you are doing these calculations for a black powder load use 2000.

Q. What about muzzle brakes? (In relation to recoil.)

A. A properly designed muzzle brake can have a noticeable effect on recoil and muzzle climb. However, note that most "muzzle brakes" are designed to help control muzzle climb rather than rearward recoil. Some designs attach to the barrel and others are actually part of the barrel.  There are some very efficient designs available that do have a fairly dramatic effect on recoil, but they won't turn your "super-magnum" into a .22 recoil wise.

Muzzle brakes work diverting some of the energy of the expanding powder gases to the side and rear rather than letting it just blast forward thus reducing the gases rearward "thrust" and many designs divert some of the gas upward to counteract the natural muzzle rise.  The big disadvantage of such recoil reducing muzzle brakes is that they tend to dramatically increase muzzle blast to the rear and side of the firearm. When shot from a bench at the range you may blow your neighbor's ammo and accessories right off of his bench and in the field they can damage the hearing of anyone next to you. 

A friend's short-barreled Barrett .50 BMG "CQB" rifle has a massive muzzle brake and recoils like a heavy 12 ga.  However, he has cracked the windows of a truck parked 15 feet away with the muzzle blast.

While it is possible to design a muzzle brake that will not increase blast such a design is very tricky, not to mention that the BATF considers anything that reduces muzzle blast more than 2 dB from a bare muzzle a "silencer" which gets you into all kinds of trouble. You should also be aware of the fact that muzzle brakes work most efficiently on high intensity rounds in which the muzzle pressure levels are high and are much less efficient on moderate rounds (which don't need them anyway), and of the fact that an improperly installed muzzle brake can adversely affect accuracy.

Generally, unless you are very sensitive to recoil or are shooting a very powerful and light weight firearm you should probably not waste your money on them for manually operated firearms. (I'm sure some muzzle brake manufacturers will disagree with me on this point.) However, I will gladly admit that a well designed one can be handy on semi-auto and full-auto rifles as they can reduce muzzle climb significantly during rapid fire. Note that many "muzzle brakes" also function as a flash reducer and many "flash hiders" also do double duty as a muzzle brake.

Q. Is blank ammunition really dangerous?

A. Absolutely! First, let's reiterate the second rule of firearm safety. Never point a firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy. Now say it again: Never point a firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy. Blank ammunition, while it contains no bullet in the usual sense does project bits of wadding material (some of which are fairly thick) and powder, as well as a blast of high pressure and very hot gases which can penetrate skin at a fairly great distance. Common smokeless powders have an energy potential of around 180 ft lb per grain weight of powder.

Using GI .30-06 blanks I was able to punch holes in a cardboard target at 7 feet quite regularly and at near contact distances I could easily break a 1" board with the muzzle blast. Using .38SPL blanks I could shatter a watermelon at 2 feet and pepper its skin at 5 feet. Note that some military ammunition sold as blank ammunition and which is totally made of plastic with a metallic base is actually short range practice ammunition that fires a hollow plastic "bullet" at very high velocity. Nuff said! Remember, Never point a firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy.

Also, keep in mind that the muzzle blast from a blank (just as with live ammunition) can damage your hearing.

Q. What do the various bullet tip colors on military ammunition mean?

A. Different countries have utilized different color codes for different ammo types. Current US color codes and identification markings for small arms ammunition are as follows.  The data below is as of 2013, courtesy Lake City Army Ammunition Plant and others, and includes some limited issue and experimental ammunition.  If you know of any others please contact me by clicking here.

5.56 x 45 mm

Number Type Identification
M193 Ball None
M195 Grenade Rosette crimp w/ red lacquer
M196 Tracer Red tip
M197 High Press Test Nickel plated or tinned case
M199 Dummy Fluted case, no primer
M200 Blank Rosette crimp w/ purple lacquer, knurled ring on case.  Early versions omitted the knurl.
M200A1 Blank Extended neck for improved feeding like the 7.62 NATO M82.  Seen with both black and red paint on crimp.
M202 Green tip(?) 58 grain FMJ "tri-metal" penetrator."
M232 Function test dummy Black oxide case with deep case mouth cannelure. Same balance as live round.
(X)M297/779 Heavy ball 68 gr bullet Made by IVI c.63. 779 designation c. '76
(x)M288/780 Tracer (matches m287) Made by IVI c.'63  780 designation c. '76
M755 Sting Ring Airfoil Launcher Blank for use with the M234 launcher system Rosette crimp w/ yellow lacquer
M777 Ball Black tip
M778 Tracer, Long Range Orange tip
M855 Ball, NATO Green tip, NATO head stamp
M855A1 Ball, NATO, Enhanced performance Dark gray/bronze metallic tip, NATO head stamp, US Army only
M856 Tracer, NATO Orange tip, NATO head stamp
M857 Dummy, NATO Black oxide case, heavy knurl on case, NATO head stamp, no primer
M862 (AA68) Practice, Short Range 3.6 gr blue plastic bullet in either a brass or composite case.  MV = 4525. Requires a special light weight bolt designated M2.  Case rim is smaller than standard  case.  Also available as a tracer with a red tips bullet.
"M889" Commercial Incendiary  Blue tip.  Made by a commercial outfit called Wolf River Ammunition Plant
M995 AP .25" Black tip with sharper shaped bullet than normal.  Berdan prime.  53 gr bullet with tungsten core.
M996 Tracer, Dim Violet tip.  IR trace. Visible only with night vision equipment
Mk 262 Mod 1(AA53) Navy Heavy Ball (77 gr OTM) Small hole in bullet tip. Mod o has no cannelure & Mod1 variant has cannelure on bullet
Mk 362 Mod 0 Limited production 75 gr OTM  
MK 318 Mod 0 Enhanced Ball, Carbine 62 gr copper with lead core and open nose  OTM projectile USMC
Experimental Ball, Duplex Yellow bullet tip.  Contains a 33 gr front bullet and a 34 GR rear bullet.  MV 2760. Made by Frankford Arsenal in '63 only
Experimental API Silver tip with LC91 Nato headstamp.   Bullet is based on the M856 tracer but with a pointed steel core and incendiary filler in tip. Not LC production.
Experimental Incendiary Violet tip.  Made in limited quantities c. 60 by Remington for APG's BRL
Mk 255 Mod 0 Reduced Ricochet Limited Penetration (RRLP)  White tip, 62 gr jacketed copper polymer core frangible projectile
AA40 Reduced Ricochet Limited Penetration (Federal Ctg L2RP) Flat tipped with purplish color tip 50 gr frangible projectile.
FX SimunitionTM
    AA91 - Blue
     AA92 - Red
Non lethal training round Combination brass base and aluminum neck area with a colored plastic projectile.  Generally with IVI headstamp
Hirtenberger SRTA Limited range training ammunition
Flat nosed black plastic bullet with bottom visible third jacketed. 21 gr @ 3380 f/s
UTM MMR (Man Marking Round) Commercially procured CQB chalk filled training round 2-piece silver case with with 6 stab-crimps near base.  Large "primer" and a cruciform plastic projectile
"Optimum Brown Tip 70 gr OTM bullet possible with a brown tip 70 gr TSX bullet

Thanks to Ed Lay for the info on the 5.56 mm API and Dan Watters for info on other limited production 5.56 mm rounds.


6.8 x 43 mm SPC

No known designation Ball 115 gr OTM Small hole in tip
" Ball 110 gr OTM Small hole in tip
" Tracer Orange tip
" AP 97gr full copper bullet with either a steel or tungsten penetrator insert. No tip hole, black tip
" Blank Rosette crimp
The 6.8 SPC is currently a non-standard round undergoing advanced testing.  The rounds above are the ones I am currently aware of that are in use.  Ammo is currently manufactured by commercial vendors for the gov't.


Carbine, Caliber 30

Number Type Identification
M1 Ball None
T79 Blank Rosette crimp painted red
M6 Grenade Rosette crimp
M7 Grenade, Auxiliary Short rimmed straight case w/ mouth wad (not for use in firearms)
M13 Dummy Holes drilled in case, no primer
M18 High Pressure Test Tinned case, long pointed bullet
(the 152 gr M2 ball bullet)
M16 Tracer Red tip
M27 Tracer Orange tip
T62, T62E1 AP Black pointed tip.  Limited experimental production only


Caliber .30

Number Type Identification
M1 Tracer Red tip
M1 High Pressure Test Tinned case
M1* Incendiary Blue tip
M2 Ball None
M2 AP Black tip
M2* Dummy Holes drilled in case, no primer
M3 Grenade Rosette crimp
M8* API White tip
M14 API Silver tip
M22 Frangible Green & white tip
M25 Tracer Orange tip
M40 Dummy Fluted case, no primer
M72 Match MATCH or NM head stamp
M1909 Blank Roll crimped case mouth with red wad
Blank, .30 Caliber Blank Rosette crimp with purple lacquer
* Obsolete, WW II era


7.62 x 51 mm

Number Type Identification
M59 Ball None (Mild steel core)
M60 High pressure test Tinned case
M61 AP Black tip
M62 Tracer Orange tip
M62 OHF Tracer, Overhead fire Red tip
M62A1 Tracer, lead free Orange tip
M63 Dummy Fluted case, no primer
M64 Grenade Rosette crimp
M80 & M80OHF Ball, Ball, Overhead fire None
M80A1 Ball, lead free Sharply pointed gray/bronze  tip
M82 Blank Long extruded case mouth.  Seen with both a rounded nose and a star crimped nose with red or purple lacquer tip.
M118 Special Ball No bullet cannelure or crimp, some may have MATCH head stamp
M118LR Long Range Ball No bullet cannelure or crimp, LR head stamp, open tipped bullet
M160 Frangible Green & white tip or green tip with white primer annulus
M172 Dummy Black case, heavily crimped bullet
M192 Blank Standard neck case with rolled or star crimp with red wad or purple lacquer
M198 Ball, Duplex Green tip
XM256 & XM192E1 Light Weight Ball White tip with 82 or 90 gr copper plated steel bullet
M276 Tracer, Dim Violet tip (green tip with pink primer annulus pre 10/94)
M852 Match MATCH head stamp open tipped bullet, and knurling near case base
M973 Short Range Training Ammunition Black or blue non-toxic fluted bullet
M974 Short Range Training Ammunition-Tracer Black or blue non-toxic fluted bullet, red tip
M984 Saboted Light Armor Penetrator Sharply pointed tungsten bullet in plastic sabot
M959 SLAP-Tracer M196 5.56 mm tracer bullet in plastic sabot
M993 AP .32" Black tip, Berdan primer. 128 gr bullet with tungsten core.
Hirtenberger SRTA Limited range training ammunition
Flat nosed black plastic bullet with visible 1/3  jacketed.  Similar in appearance to M973 but bullet not fluted. 67 gr @ 2960 f/s
MK 316 Mod 0 Special Ball, Long Range Special enhanced performance loading with 175 gr Sierra MK OTM projectile
MK 319 Mod 0 Enhanced Ball, Carbine 130 gr copper with lead core OTM projectile


Caliber .38

Number Type Identification
PGU-12/B Ball (Light - 132 gr- high velocity) Deep seated bullet with heavy cannelure 1/4" below mouth
M41 Ball (Light - 132 gr - low velocity)  None
XM142 Ball (Heavy - 158 gr) None
FX SimunitionTM Non-lethal training round Shortened brass case with a colored plastic projectile.


9 x 19 mm

Number Type Identification
M1 Ball (115 gr) None
M882 NATO Ball (124 gr) NATO head stamp
M917 Dummy Variously identified with black or drilled case and no primer
M905 High Pressure Test Tinned case
M939 Tracer Red Tip (used as a sub-caliber trainer with the AT-4)
Mk 144 Mod 0 Heavy Ball Subsonic load with 158 gr bullet at 965 f/s for use in the Mk 22 silenced pistol (S&W M39)
FX SimunitionTM Non-lethal training round Shortened brass case with a plastic extension and colored projectile.


.40 S&W

Number Type Identification
Mk 309 Mod 0 Ball 155 gr Flattened nose FMJ
Mk308 Mod 0 JHP 155 gr JHP


.45 ACP

Number Type Identification
M1 High Pressure Test Tinned case
M9 Blank Tapered case mouth with red wad
M12* Shot Long red paper bullet
M15* Shot Elongated case with wad
M26 Tracer Red tip
XM261 Shot Plastic sabot (16 high density shot)
M1911 Ball None
M1911 Match MATCH head stamp
M1921 Dummy Drilled case
Experimental FMJ semiwadcutter target bullet High velocity 185 gr commercial target bullet.  Bullet loaded on top of standard ball charge.  Boxes mark "Cartridge, Ball, High Velocity, Cal. 45."  Used in Vietnam.  Velocity = 975 - 1000 f/s
* Obsolete, WW II era


.300 Win Magnum

Number Type Identification
MK 248 Mod 0 Special Ball 190 gr Sierra Match King OTM
MK 248 Mod 1 Special Ball 220 gr Sierra Match King OTM
This round is loaded to slightly above normal SAAMI pressure standards and to a longer than standard OAL.


12.7 x 99 (.50 BMG)

M1 Tracer Red
M1 Blank  Crimped red wad
M1A1 Blank  Rosette crimp
M1 Incendiary Light Blue
HPT M1 Tinned case High Pressure Test
M2 Ball None  709 gr steel core
M2 Armor-Piercing Black
M2 Dummy Drilled case, no primer
M8 Armor-Piercing-Incendiary Silver
M10 Tracer, Subdued Orange
M17 Tracer Brown.  Can be fired from the M82/M107 series of rifles.
M20 Armor-Piercing-Incendiary-Tracer Red with silver primer annulus.  Can be fired from the M82/M107 series of rifles.
M21 Tracer, Headlight (WWII) Dark red.  For aerial use. Very bright trace to about 550 yards and standard trace to about 1800 yards.
M22 Frangible Green/white
M23 Incendiary Blue.  Can be fired from the M82/M107 series of rifles.
M33 Ball  None  661 gr steel core
M176 Dummy Function test dummy.  Black Oxide finish of cartridge.  Same balance and weight as loaded round.
M858 Short Range Training Ammunition Blue plastic case and bullet
M860 Short Range Training Ammunition-Tracer Blue plastic case and bullet with red tip
M903 Saboted Light Armor Penetrator Amber sabot  For use in M2 only
M962 Saboted Light Armor Penetrator-Tracer Red sabot For use in M2 only
M975 Limited Range Training Ammunition Light blue with groves on bullet
M976 Limited Range Training Ammunition - Tracer Red with groves on bullet
Mk 211 Mod 0 High-Explosive-Incendiary-Armor-Piercing
(a.k.a. ROFUS round)
Green tip with silver primer annulus  (HEIAP) cartridge contains a .30 caliber tungsten penetrator, zirconium powder, and Composition A explosive.  Not for use in M85 MG
Mk 257 API-T (Dim) Dim tracer version of M20
Mk 300 Mod 0 Armor-Piercing-Incendiary-Tracer Red/Green.  Tracer version of above.  Not for use in M85 MG
Ball XM1022 LR Ball Long range accuracy ball round. Matches ballistics of Mk 211  


Q. What are some common conversion factors for shooting related measurements?

A. See table below.

Multiply By To Get   Multiply By To Get
Atmospheres 1.013 Bar Bar .9869 Atmospheres
Inches of Hg 3.922 Kilopascals Bar 100 Kilopacals
Inches of Hg .5686 Pounds per square inch Kilopascals .255 Inches of Hg
Pounds per square inch 6.896 Kilopascals Pounds per square inch 1.786 Inches of Hg
Pounds per square inch .068 Atmospheres Kilopascals .145 Pounds per square inch
Pounds per square inch .0703 Kilograms per square centimeter Atmospheres 14.70 Pounds per square inch
      Kilograms per square centimeter 14.22 Pounds per square inch
Inch pound .113 Newton meters      
Inch pound


Foot pound Newton meters 8.85 Inch pounds
Foot pound




Foot pound


Inch pound Joules .73756 Foot pounds
Drams * 1.772 Grams Grams .564 Drams *
Drams * .0625 Ounces Ounces 16 Drams *
Drams * 27.34 Grains Grains .0365 Drams *
Grains .0648 Grams Grams 15.43 Grains
Grains .00228 Ounces Ounces 437.5 Grains
Pounds .4535 Kilograms Kilograms 2.205 Pounds
Inches 2.54 Centimeters Centimeters .3937 Inches
Inches 25.4 Millimeters Millimeters .03937 Inches
Feet .3047 Meters Meters 3.281 Feet
Yards .914 Meters Meters 1.094 Yards
Feet per Second .3048 Meters per Second Meters per Second 3.281 Feet per Second
Square Inches 6.452 Square Centimeters Square Centimeters .155 Square Inches
Mils 3.375 MOA   MOA .2963 Mils

* NOTE: You should be aware of the fact that the "dram equivalent" measurement used with shotgun shells relates the performance of the load to an equivalent dram weight charge of black powder. It does not relate to the actual weight of the smokeless powder charge so don't develop loads based on these conversions.


There seems to be a random use of abbreviations.  The following are the correct usage.

Correct Abbreviations
Term Abbreviation   Term Abbreviation
Atmospheres atm Kilopascals KPa
Centimeters cm Meters m
Drams dr Meters per second m/s or ms
Feet ft Millimeters mm
Feet per second f/s or fs  Ounces oz
Grains gr Pounds lb
Grams g Pounds per square inch psi or
Inches in Yards yd
Kilograms kg Joules J
Kilometers km Newton meter Nm

Note: The "fps" designation for feet per second has been replaced by "fs" to conform with the international abbreviation standards. For area or volume measurements simply use the "squared" or "cubed" superscript with the abbreviation as in 15 ft² or 25.2 cm³. By the way, when you abbreviate a measurement, the grammatically correct way to use an abbreviation is to use lower case for all units except those named for a person (V = volt, Pa = Pascal) and to have a space between the number and the abbreviation as if you wrote the units out, as in 20 mm (20 millimeter) and not 20mm.  Do not add an "s" to pluralize.

However, if  decimal units quantifiers greater than 1.0 are used (in particular like deca-, centa-, kilo-, mega-, etc) they always have uppercase abbreviations, with the exception of  "kilo" units where the "k' is lower case. Quantifiers less than 1.0 (deci-, centi-, milli-, micro-, etc) all have lowercase abbreviations. 

Multiples Name   deca- hecto- kilo- mega- giga- tera- peta- exa- zetta- yotta-
Prefix   da h k M G T P E Z Y
Factor 100 101 102 103 106 109 1012 1015 1018 1021 1024
Fractions Name   deci- centi- milli- micro- nano- pico- femto- atto- zepto- yocto-
Prefix   d c m μ n p f a z y
Factor 100 10−1 10−2 10−3 10−6 10−9 10−12 10−15 10−18 10−21 10−24


Proper Abbreviation Use
Note the lowercase letters (neither "meters" nor "seconds" were named after people), the space between the value and the units, and the superscript "2" to denote "squared".

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As far as I know all the information presented above is correct and I have attempted to ensure that it is. However, I am not responsible for any errors, omissions, or damages resulting from the use or misuse of this information, nor for you doing something stupid with it. (Don't you hate these disclaimers? So do I, but there are people out there who refuse to be responsible for their own actions and who will sue anybody to make a buck.)

Updated 2013-11-17