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A belt of 0.50 caliber ammunition loaded into an M2 Browning. Every fifth round (red tip) is an M20 (armor piercing incendiary tracer). A close up of 0.50 Caliber (12.7 mm) Browning Ball M33 Ammunition loaded onto a Browning M2 HB 0.50 caliber heavy machine.JPEG
A belt of 0.50 caliber ammunition loaded into an M2 Browning. Every fifth round (red tip) is an M20 (armor piercing incendiary tracer).

Ammunition is the material fired, scattered, dropped, or detonated from any weapon or weapon system. [1] Ammunition is both expendable weapons (e.g., bombs, missiles, grenades, land mines) and the component parts of other weapons that create the effect on a target (e.g., bullets and warheads).


The purpose of ammunition is to project a force against a selected target to have an effect (usually, but not always, lethal). An example of ammunition is the firearm cartridge, which includes all components required to deliver the weapon effect in a single package. Until the 20th century, black powder was the most common propellant used but has now been replaced in nearly all cases by modern compounds.

Ammunition comes in a great range of sizes and types and is often designed to work only in specific weapons systems. However, there are internationally recognized standards for certain ammunition types (e.g., 5.56×45mm NATO) that enable their use across different weapons and by different users. There are also specific types of ammunition that are designed to have a specialized effect on a target, such as armor-piercing shells and tracer ammunition, used only in certain circumstances. Ammunition is commonly labeled or colored in a specific manner to assist in its identification and to prevent the wrong ammunition types from being used accidentally or inappropriately.



The term ammunition can be traced back to the mid-17th century. [1] The word comes from the French la munition, for the material used for war. Ammunition and munition are often used interchangeably, although munition now usually refers to the actual weapons system with the ammunition required to operate it. [3] In some languages other than English ammunition is still referred to as munition, such as French ("munitions"), German ("Munition"), Italian ("munizione") and Portuguese ("munição").


Cannonballs from the American Civil War Battery Rodgers magazine.jpg
Cannonballs from the American Civil War

Ammunition design has evolved throughout history as different weapons have been developed and different effects required. Historically, ammunition was of relatively simple design and build (e.g., sling-shot, stones hurled by catapults), but as weapon designs developed (e.g., rifling) and became more refined, the need for more specialized ammunition increased. Modern ammunition can vary significantly in quality but is usually manufactured to very high standards.

For example, ammunition for hunting can be designed to expand inside a target, maximizing the damage inflicted by one round. Anti-personnel shells are designed to fragment into many pieces and can affect a large area. Armor-piercing rounds are specially hardened to penetrate armor, while smoke ammunition covers an area with a fog that screens people from view. More generic ammunition (e.g., 5.56×45mm NATO) can often be altered slightly to give it a more specific effect (e.g., tracer, incendiary), whilst larger explosive rounds can be altered by using different fuzes.


Preparing 105 mm M119 howitzer ammunition: powder propellant, cartridge, and shell with fuze US Army 53437 091014-A-8267F-221.jpg
Preparing 105 mm M119 howitzer ammunition: powder propellant, cartridge, and shell with fuze

The components of ammunition intended for rifles and munitions may be divided into these categories:


The term fuze refers to the detonator of an explosive round or shell. The spelling is different in British English and American English (fuse/fuze respectively) and they are unrelated to a fuse (electrical). A fuse was earlier used to ignite the propellant (e.g., such as on a firework) until the advent of more reliable systems such as the primer or igniter that is used in most modern ammunition.

The fuze of a weapon can be used to alter how the ammunition works. For example, a common artillery shell fuze can be set to "point detonation" (detonation when it hits a target), delay (detonate after it has hit and penetrated a target), time-delay (explode a specified time after firing or impact) and proximity (explode above or next to a target without hitting it, such as for airburst effects or anti-aircraft shells). These allow a single ammunition type to be altered to suit the situation it is required for. There are many designs of a fuze, ranging from simple mechanical to complex radar and barometric systems.

Fuzes are usually armed by the acceleration force of firing the projectile, and usually arm several meters after clearing the bore of the weapon. This helps to ensure the ammunition is safer to handle when loading into the weapon and reduces the chance of the detonator firing before the ammunition has cleared the weapon.

The inside of a modern 12.7 mm "anti-materiel" rifle bullet Mk211 Raufoss.jpg
The inside of a modern 12.7 mm "anti-materiel" rifle bullet

Propellant or explosive

The propellant is the component of ammunition that is activated inside the weapon and provides the kinetic energy required to move the projectile from the weapon to the target. Before the use of gunpowder, this energy would have been produced mechanically by the weapons system (e.g., a catapult or crossbow); in modern times, it is usually a form of chemical energy that rapidly burns to create kinetic force, and an appropriate amount of chemical propellant is packaged with each round of ammunition. In recent years, compressed gas, magnetic energy and electrical energy have been used as propellants.

Until the 20th-century, gunpowder was the most common propellant in ammunition. However, it has since been replaced by a wide range of fast-burning compounds that are more reliable and efficient.

The propellant charge is distinct from the projectile charge which is activated by the fuze, which causes the ammunition effect (e.g., the exploding of an artillery round).

Cartridge case or container

Ordnance workers inspecting cartridge cases in Los Angeles, 1943 Inspecting Cases.jpg
Ordnance workers inspecting cartridge cases in Los Angeles, 1943

The cartridge is the container that holds the projectile and propellant. Not all ammunition types have a cartridge case. In its place, a wide range of materials can be used to contain the explosives and parts. With some large weapons, the ammunition components are stored separately until loaded into the weapon system for firing. With small arms, caseless ammunition can reduce the weight and cost of ammunition, and simplify the firing process for increased firing rate, but the maturing technology has functionality issues.


The projectile is the part of the ammunition that leaves the weapon and has the effect on the target. This effect is usually either kinetic (e.g., as with a standard bullet) or through the delivery of explosives.


An ammunition dump is a military facility for the storage of live ammunition and explosives that will be distributed and used at a later date. Such a storage facility is extremely hazardous, with the potential for accidents when unloading, packing, and transferring the ammunition. In the event of a fire or explosion, the site and its surrounding area is immediately evacuated and the stored ammunition is left to detonate itself completely with limited attempts at firefighting from a safe distance. In large facilities, there may be a flooding system to automatically extinguish a fire or prevent an explosion. Typically, an ammunition dump will have a large buffer zone surrounding it, to avoid casualties in the event of an accident. There will also be perimeter security measures in place to prevent access by unauthorized personnel and to guard against the potential threat from enemy forces.

A magazine is a place where a quantity of ammunition or other explosive material is stored temporarily prior to being used. The term may be used for a facility where large quantities of ammunition are stored, although this would normally be referred to as an ammunition dump. Magazines are typically located in the field for quick access when engaging the enemy. The ammunition storage area on a warship is referred to as the "ship's magazine". On a smaller scale, magazine is also the name given to the ammunition storage and feeding device of a repeating firearm.

Gunpowder must be stored in a dry place (stable room temperature) to keep it usable, as long as for 10 years. It is also recommended to avoid hot places, because friction or heat might ignite a spark and cause an explosion. [4]

Common types

Various rifle cartridges compared to the height of a US$1 bill. Rifle cartridge comparison.jpg
Various rifle cartridges compared to the height of a US$1 bill.

Small arms

The standard weapon of a modern soldier is an assault rifle, which, like other small arms, uses cartridge ammunition in a size specific to the weapon. Ammunition is carried on the person in box magazines specific to the weapon, ammunition boxes, pouches or bandoliers. The amount of ammunition carried is dependent on the strength of the soldier, the expected action required, and the ability of ammunition to move forward through the logistical chain to replenish the supply. A soldier may also carry a smaller amount of specialized ammunition for heavier weapons such as machine guns and mortars, spreading the burden for squad weapons over many people. Too little ammunition poses a threat to the mission, while too much limits the soldier's mobility also being a threat to the mission.


A shell is a payload-carrying projectile which, as opposed to a shot, contains explosives or other fillings, in use since the 19th century.


M107 shells M107 Shells.JPEG
M107 shells

Artillery shells are ammunition that is designed to be fired from artillery which has an effect over long distances, usually indirectly (i.e., out of sight of the target). There are many different types of artillery ammunition, but they are usually high-explosive and designed to shatter into fragments on impact to maximize damage. The fuze used on an artillery shell can alter how it explodes or behaves so it has a more specialized effect. Common types of artillery ammunition include high explosive, smoke, illumination, and practice rounds. Some artillery rounds are designed as cluster munitions. Artillery ammunition will almost always include a projectile (the only exception being demonstration or blank rounds), fuze and propellant of some form. When a cartridge case is not used, there will be some other method of containing the propellant bags, usually a breech-loading weapon; see Breechloader.


Modern 120 mm tank gun cartridges with different projectiles IMI120shells.jpg
Modern 120 mm tank gun cartridges with different projectiles

Tank ammunition was developed in WWI as tanks first appeared on the battlefield. However, as tank-on-tank warfare developed (including the development of anti-tank warfare artillery), more specialized forms of ammunition were developed such as high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) warheads and armour-piercing discarding sabot (APDS), including armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) rounds. The development of shaped charges has had a significant impact on anti-tank ammunition design, now common in both tank-fired ammunition and in anti-tank missiles, including anti-tank guided missiles.

Fourteen-inch ammunition on the deck of a battleship in 1944. 14in shells on deck of USS New Mexico (BB-40) in 1944.jpg
Fourteen-inch ammunition on the deck of a battleship in 1944.

Naval weapons were originally the same as many land-based weapons, but the ammunition was designed for specific use, such as a solid shot designed to hole an enemy ship and chain-shot to cut rigging and sails. Modern naval engagements have occurred over far longer distances than historic battles, so as ship armor has increased in strength and thickness, the ammunition to defeat it has also changed. Naval ammunition is now designed to reach very high velocities (to improve its armor-piercing abilities) and may have specialized fuzes to defeat specific types of vessels. However, due to the extended ranges at which modern naval combat may occur, guided missiles have largely supplanted guns and shells.

Aircraft and anti-aircraft


With every successive improvement in military arms, a corresponding modification has occurred in the method of supplying ammunition in the quantity required. As soon as projectiles were required (such as javelins and arrows), there needed to be a method of replenishment. When non-specialized, interchangeable or recoverable ammunition was used (e.g., arrows), it was possible to pick up spent arrows (both friendly and enemy) and reuse them. However, with the advent of explosive or non-recoverable ammunition, this was no longer possible and new supplies of ammunition would be needed.

The weight of ammunition required, particularly for artillery shells, can be considerable, causing a need for extra time to replenish supplies. In modern times, there has been an increase in the standardization of many ammunition types between allies (e.g., the NATO Standardization Agreement) that has allowed for shared ammunition types (e.g., 5.56×45mm NATO).

Environmental problems

As of 2013, lead-based ammunition production is the second-largest annual use of lead in the US, accounting for over 60,000 metric tons consumed in 2012. [5] In contrast to the closed-loop nature of the largest annual use of lead (i.e. for lead-acid batteries, nearly all of which are, at the end of their lives, collected and recycled into new lead-acid batteries), the lead in ammunition ends up being almost entirely dispersed into the natural environment. For example, lead bullets that miss their target or remain in a carcass or body that was never retrieved can very easily enter environmental systems and become toxic to wildlife. [6] [7] The US military has experimented with replacing lead with copper as a slug in their green bullets which reduces the dangers posed by lead in the environment as a result of artillery. Since 2010, this has eliminated over 2000 tons of lead in waste streams. [8]

Hunters are also encouraged to use monolithic bullets, which exclude any lead content.

Unexploded ordnance

Unexploded ammunition can remain active for a very long time and poses a significant threat to both humans and the environment.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Artillery</span> Long-ranged guns for land warfare

Artillery is a class of heavy military ranged weapons that launch munitions far beyond the range and power of infantry firearms. Early artillery development focused on the ability to breach defensive walls and fortifications during sieges, and led to heavy, fairly immobile siege engines. As technology improved, lighter, more mobile field artillery cannons developed for battlefield use. This development continues today; modern self-propelled artillery vehicles are highly mobile weapons of great versatility generally providing the largest share of an army's total firepower.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shrapnel shell</span> Anti-personnel artillery munitions

Shrapnel shells were anti-personnel artillery munitions which carried many individual bullets close to a target area and then ejected them to allow them to continue along the shell's trajectory and strike targets individually. They relied almost entirely on the shell's velocity for their lethality. The munition has been obsolete since the end of World War I for anti-personnel use; high-explosive shells superseded it for that role. The functioning and principles behind Shrapnel shells are fundamentally different from high-explosive shell fragmentation. Shrapnel is named after Lieutenant-General Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842), a British artillery officer, whose experiments, initially conducted on his own time and at his own expense, culminated in the design and development of a new type of artillery shell.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kinetic energy penetrator</span> High density non-explosive projectile

A kinetic energy penetrator (KEP), also known as long-rod penetrator (LRP) and colloquially referred sometimes as crowbar, is a type of ammunition designed to penetrate vehicle armour using a flechette-like, high-sectional density projectile. Like a bullet or kinetic energy weapon, this type of ammunition does not contain explosive payloads and uses purely kinetic energy to penetrate the target. Modern KEP munitions are typically of the armour-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) type.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bullet</span> Projectile propelled by a firearm, sling, or air gun

A bullet is a kinetic projectile, a component of firearm ammunition that is shot from a gun barrel. They are made of a variety of materials, such as copper, lead, steel, polymer, rubber and even wax; and are made in various shapes and constructions, including specialized functions such as hunting, target shooting, training and combat. Bullets are often tapered, making them more aerodynamic. Bullet size is expressed by weight and diameter in both imperial and metric measurement systems. Bullets do not normally contain explosives but strike or damage the intended target by transferring kinetic energy upon impact and penetration.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Armour-piercing ammunition</span> Ammunition type designed to penetrate armour

Armour-piercing ammunition (AP) is a type of projectile designed to penetrate either body armour or vehicle armour.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Terminal ballistics</span> Projectiles behavior after reaching their targets

Terminal ballistics is a sub-field of ballistics concerned with the behavior and effects of a projectile when it hits and transfers its energy to a target.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">8.8 cm KwK 36</span> 88 mm tank gun used by the German Army during World War II

The 8.8 cm KwK 36 was an 88-millimetre (3.5 in) tank gun used by the German Army during World War II. This was the primary armament of the PzKpfw VI Tiger I tank. It was developed and built by Krupp.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">8.8 cm KwK 43</span> German tank gun

The 8.8 cm KwK 43 was an 88 mm 71 calibre length tank gun designed by Krupp and used by the German Wehrmacht during the Second World War. It was mounted as the primary armament on the Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausf. B Tiger II. The 8.8 cm Pak 43, an anti-tank gun, was very similar in design but mounted on tank destroyers or deployed stand-alone on the field.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">High-explosive squash head</span> Ammunition type

A high-explosive squash head (HESH), in British terminology, or a high-explosive plastic/plasticized (HEP), in American terminology, is a type of explosive projectile with plastic explosive that conforms to the surface of a target before detonating, which improves the transfer of explosive energy to the target. Squash head projectiles are similar to high-explosive projectiles and are well suited to many of the same targets. However, while HESH projectiles are not armour-piercing, they can defeat armored targets by causing spall, which can injure or kill a vehicle's occupants or detonate some types of ammunition.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">High-explosive anti-tank</span> Type of shaped charge explosive

High-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) is the effect of a shaped charge explosive that uses the Munroe effect to penetrate heavy armor. The warhead functions by having an explosive charge collapse a metal liner inside the warhead into a high-velocity explosively formed penetrator (EFP) jet; this is capable of penetrating armor steel to a depth of seven or more times the diameter of the charge. The EFPs jet effect is purely kinetic in nature; the round has no explosive or incendiary effect on the target.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shell (projectile)</span> Payload-carrying projectile

A shell, in a military context, is a projectile whose payload contains an explosive, incendiary, or other chemical filling. Originally it was called a bombshell, but "shell" has come to be unambiguous in a military context. Modern usage sometimes includes large solid kinetic projectiles that is properly termed shot. Solid shot may contain a pyrotechnic compound if a tracer or spotting charge is used.

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An anti-materiel rifle (AMR) is a rifle designed for use against military equipment, structures, and other hardware (materiel). Anti-materiel rifles are chambered in significantly larger calibers than conventional rifles and are employed to eliminate equipment such as engines and unarmored or lightly armored targets. While modern armored vehicles are resistant to anti-materiel rifles, the extended range and penetration still has many modern applications. While not intended for use against human targets, the bullet weight and velocity of anti-materiel rifles gives them exceptional long-range capability even when compared with designated sniper rifles. Anti-materiel rifles are made in both bolt-action as well as semi-automatic designs.

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This article explains terms used for the British Armed Forces' ordnance (weapons) and ammunition. The terms may have slightly different meanings in the military of other countries.

20 mm caliber is a specific size of popular autocannon ammunition. It is typically used to distinguish smaller-caliber weapons, commonly called "guns", from larger-caliber "cannons". All 20 mm cartridges have an outside projectile (bullet) diameter and barrel bore diameter of 0.787 inches (20.0 mm). These projectiles are typically 75 to 127 mm (3–5 in) long, cartridge cases are typically 75 to 152 mm (3–6 in) long, and most are shells, with an explosive payload and detonating fuze.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Panzergranate 39</span>

The Panzergranate 39 or Pzgr. 39 was a German armor-piercing shell used during World War II. It was manufactured in various calibers and was the most common anti-tank shell used in German tank and anti-tank guns of 37 to 88 mm caliber.

The following are terms related to firearms and ammunition topics.

In military munitions, a fuze is the part of the device that initiates function. In some applications, such as torpedoes, a fuze may be identified by function as the exploder. The relative complexity of even the earliest fuze designs can be seen in cutaway diagrams.

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A precision-guided munition is a guided munition intended to precisely hit a specific target, to minimize collateral damage and increase lethality against intended targets. During the First Gulf War guided munitions accounted for only 9% of weapons fired, but accounted for 75% of all successful hits. Despite guided weapons generally being used on more difficult targets, they were still 35 times more likely to destroy their targets per weapon dropped.


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  5. USGS (January 2013). "Mineral Industry Surveys, Lead". United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 30 December 2014.[ permanent dead link ]
  6. Dr. Göttlein Axel. "Eco-toxicological assessment of hunting rifle ammunition". Bavarian Ministry of Nutrition, Agriculture and Forestry upon an initiative of the Bavarian Hunting Association. Archived from the original on 18 October 2017. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  7. MacBride, Elizabeth. "A Small Entrepreneur Stands Up to the Trump Administration on Lead Ammunition". Forbes. Retrieved 31 March 2019.
  8. Audra Calloway (1 July 2013). "Picatinny ammo goes from regular to unleaded". United States Army. Retrieved 30 December 2014.