How the ‘Tech’ Behind Ammunition Works – or Why Blowing Stuff Up Is Fun

Shooting Range

I know that guns are a taboo subject for many people, but you don’t have to be a ‘Second Amendment person’ to enjoy going to the range and blowing stuff up. Heck, in many parts of the country it is something of a pastime and if you haven’t tried it yet, then you should.

On a serious note, guns and ammunition are to be respected and one potential cause of the issues we face in the gun debate today might be because very few people know and respect firearms. I suppose, that is a subject to discuss some other time and as such let’s take a deeper look at how the ‘tech’ behind ammunition works.

The Cartridge

Some people call this the bullet, but the proper term for a single round of ammunition is a cartridge. This consists of four components – the case (save your brass boys and girls), the primer, the powder, and lastly the bullet. Guess what? Each one of these requires a bit of precision manufacturing to make sure they go off every time without a hitch. If not, then you might be in for a world of hurt.

Now cartridge come in all shapes and sizes, though many hunters and sport shooters will use 45 70 ammo. However, this will depend on what they are shooting. Also, note that while this caliber cartridge can be used in both handguns and rifles, the impact, and the effective range, will differ. If you are new to guns, then you might want to talk to your instructor about the best ammunition to use.

A Primer on the Primer

What is the primer? It’s a small metal object that can be found at the base of the cartridge. Similar to the caps in the cap guns that we played with when we were children, the primer has a small charge that will explode when it is struck by the firing pin.

This explosion will ignite the powder (more on that in a moment) and this give the cartridge the kinetic energy it needs to start its journey downrange. How does this happen? Well, this small, controlled explosion send a significant amount of pressure towards the main body of the cartridge, which ignites the powder.

As you can see the primer is extremely important to ensuring each round if ‘fired’ properly.

The All-Important Case

This is the metal or plastic container which holds the powder and is sometimes called ‘brass’. The reason that some people will ‘save their brass’ is that they have a reloading press at home and this allows them to reload their cases for use later.

As mentioned, the primer will fit into the base of the case and as you might have guessed, the case is then filled powder. All of this is capped off by the bullet.

In semi-automatic guns, the case is usually discharged to make way for the next cartridge in the clip. While a revolver will simply rotate to the next cartridge.

Powder – the stuff that goes boom

Have you ever noticed how a cartridge will make a sound when you shake it? Well, this is the sound of the powder inside the case. Also, called a ‘propellant’, the powder is specially formulated to burn quickly and this helps to get the bullet moving fast.

While many people think that the sound of the powder burning sounds like an explosion, and I suppose this is technically correct as the bullet will travel faster than the speed of sound, what it really does is to build up gas and creates pressure inside the cartridge.

As this pressure needs to go somewhere, the path of least resistance is to dislodge the bullet from the cartridge. So, the pop you hear when firing a gun is not exactly from the powder exploding, but from the bullet breaking the sound barrier.

A quick note on the pressure, it is somewhere on the order of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds per square inch and this is the reason why bullets, which are very small, have so much stopping power. By the way, this is just for handguns. In an AR-type gun, the pressure can increase to more than 55,000 pounds per square inch.

Bullet the Blue Sky

Last but not least, is the bullet. While some will call this a projectile and I don’t want to get into the differences between cartridges and shells, this is the only part of the cartridge that is delivered to the target.

Most handgun bullets are made from a combination of copper (for the jacket, or outer layer) and a lead core. Bullets can come in different shapes and sizes – even for the same gun. The reason for the difference will depend on what the bullet is being used for. Long-range bullets for rifles will be long and slim, while bullets for self-defense will be constructed to expand on contact.

I could probably keep going, but as you can see there is quite a bit of tech that goes into the ammunition. But instead of keep reading the best way to find out is to go down to your local range and blow some stuff up yourself. It’s safe and it’s fun, and you will learn how to respect guns.