“Flummoxing.” It’s a great word, and it perfectly describes the situation a lot of new gun owners find themselves in. “What kind of ammo should I buy?” they might ask themselves. “What’s the difference between FMJ and JHP? And what the heck is a TCFN bullet?”
The sheer variety of available bullets can make buying ammo daunting. Looking up each type of bullet takes a lot of time (and it’s certainly something you don’t want to do on your work computer). But that’s okay! This is your beginner’s guide to bullets. Just consult this page whenever you encounter a bullet you haven’t heard of, and you’ll learn enough to decide if it’s worth your range time.
Lead Round Nose (LRN)
The LRN is the most basic type of bullet (the spherical musket ball not withstanding). The name pretty much says it all: this is a solid lead projectile, with a rounded nose profile to make it more aerodynamic (or “ballistically efficient”).
Lead is a relatively soft metal, and the LRN is just as soft a bullet. This makes it a poor choice for cartridges intended for use in semi-automatic firearms like the 9mm and 223 Rem, as the LRN is likely to get dented as it feeds into the chamber and possibly jam. The LRN is therefore commonly loaded in revolver cartridges, which don’t have to quickly feed into the chamber. The LRN’s lack of a metal jacket also causes more lead fouling within the barrel, which gradually weakens accuracy.
The LRN is popular for target shooting and plinking. Its softness may also help it deform as it penetrates soft tissue to inflict a greater injury, but better self-defense bullets are available.
- Lead Flat Nose (LFN) – A solid lead bullet with a flat tip instead of a rounded one, the LFN is good for target shooting because it punches a cleaner hole through paper. It also helps prevent an accidental discharge in a lever-action rifle’s tubular magazine.
- Copper-Plated Round Nose (CPRN) – The CPRN is only loaded in rimfire cartridges like the 22 LR and 22 WMR. Its lead plating helps to reduce barrel fouling, but is too thin to affect the bullet’s terminal performance.
Lead Hollow Point (LHP)
Like the LRN, the LHP is only suitable for revolvers and certain types of rifles. This bullet’s additional hollow point nose cavity suits it well for hunting and self-defense applications, as it enables terminal expansion. When the LHP’s nose cavity fills with soft tissue, the pressure forces its nose to spread outward and inflict a more injurious wound channel.
The LHP’s terminal expansion doesn’t merely produce a wider wound channel than the bullet’s original diameter alone could account for. It lets the bullet transfer more energy outward where it can damage soft tissues. It also helps the bullet avoid passing through its target, which reduces the threat of injuring an innocent bystander. Although hollow point bullets are often demonized by a media which has an ulterior agenda to fulfill, the fact that they neutralize a threat faster and with less risk of collateral damage makes them invaluable to police and civilians alike.
Full Metal Jacket (FMJ)
The FMJ was developed to meet the needs of automatic and semi-automatic firearms. The FMJ’s lead core is surrounded by a gilding metal jacket (usually copper alloy). This strengthens the bullet so it can resist deformation during feeding and ignition, as well as reduce the rate of barrel fouling. The FMJ’s economical design makes it perfect for target shooting, although its inability to expand during penetration makes it less than ideal for self-defense.
- Total Metal Jacket (TMJ) – The FMJ has a shortcoming: Its jacket does not encapsulate the bullet’s base, which exposes its lead core to hot propellant gasses during ignition. The TMJ, on the other hand, features a jacket which fully encapsulates the bullet. It therefore produces much less vaporized lead when fired, which is of especial value in poorly ventilated indoor ranges.
- Full Metal Jacket Flat Nose (FMJ FN) – FMJ bullets typically have round noses, a profile which promotes efficient feeding in a semi-auto. But they may also have flat noses, which suits them better for shooting paper. That blunt nose profile also gouges a wider hole through soft tissue, but still prohibits expansion.
- Truncated Cone Flat Nose (TCFN) – The TCFN has a conic profile, like a traffic cone, which ends in a flat tip. Like the FMJ FN, the TCFN is optimal for shooting paper targets and stamps even cleaner holes through them.
- M193 – This is the military’s classification for a 5.56×45 cartridge with a 55 grain FMJ bullet. Good for target shooting, and may fragment inside soft tissue.
- M855 – Also a military classification, this time for a 5.56×45 cartridge with a 62 grain FMJ “penetrator” bullet. The M855 bullet’s lead core includes a steel tip which helps the bullet penetrate urban barriers (but also makes it magnetic and accordingly unwelcome at many commercial ranges).
Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP)
The JHP is just like the LHP; it is designed to expand inside of soft tissue so it can inflict a more serious injury to its target. But because the JHP also has a gilding metal jacket, it is able to function more reliably in a self-loading firearm and decelerates the rate of barrel fouling. A JHP’s jacket also strengthens the bullet so it can penetrate its target deeper, and may also help control the rate and width of terminal expansion.
- Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point (SJHP) – This bullet is identical to a JHP with one difference: Its jacket doesn’t extend all the way to the nose cavity, thus revealing part of the bullet’s lead core around the rim. This bullet’s softer nose may complicate feeding in a semi-auto, but also promotes more reliable expansion at lower velocities.
- Solid Copper Hollow Point (SCHP) – Unlike a JHP, the monolithic SCHP is made entirely out of copper. Copper is an extremely resilient metal. It resists fragmenting apart during penetration, so it can retain more of the mass and momentum it needs to penetrate deeply. California requires non-toxic bullets like the SCHP for hunting.
- Copper-Plated Hollow Point (CPHP) – Like the CPRN, the CPHP is exclusively found in rimfire cartridges. It offers all the same benefits as the CPRN, but is better suited for varmint hunting because it can expand inside soft tissue.
Boat Tail Hollow Point (BTHP)
Contrary to what you might assume, the BTHP is designed solely for accuracy. It does not expand inside soft tissue, and accordingly makes a poor choice for hunting. (Although military snipers do fire the BTHP in the field, you would have a hard time convincing anyone you were practicing self-defense against a threat standing several hundred yards away.)
The BTHP possesses a boat tail (or tapered base) which helps it generate less drag in flight. This allows the bullet to retain more velocity, which in turn flattens its trajectory for greater accuracy. Its boat tail also grants the BTHP some resistance against wind drift.
The BTHP’s nose cavity is not there to enable terminal expansion. It is the aperture through which the lead core was poured while it was still molten. This allowed the BTHP’s core to perfectly mold itself to its jacket’s contours, which in turn gives the bullet superior in-flight rotational stability.
You will never find a BTHP pistol cartridge. The advantages to accuracy it provides would not become evident over the shorter distances which handgun cartridges are designed to cover.
- Hollow Point Boat Tail (HPBT) – The same exact thing as a BTHP – some people just prefer a different order for the initials.
- Open Tip Match (OTM) – Essentially a BTHP, but manufactured according to even stricter specifications to provide match grade accuracy.
The wadcutter is a cylindrical bullet, shaped similar to a small battery. The solid lead, unjacketed bullet is often used for target shooting because its flat nose profile and sharp edge let it act like a hole punch when it meets paper. The wadcutter’s profile makes it unsuitable for semi-auto handguns (unless they have been modified), but it works perfectly in revolvers.
The wadcutter’s broad nose profile also suits it for self-defense with short-barreled revolvers. A very short barrel may fail to give a hollow point bullet adequate velocity for terminal expansion. A wadcutter avoids this problem because it does not need to expand in order to gouge a wide wound channel into soft tissue.
- Semi-Wadcutter (SWC) – A wadcutter, with a tapered, semi-conic profile that makes it more aerodynamic.
- Semi-Wadcutter Hollow Point (SWCHP) – A wadcutter, with an additional nose cavity that permits terminal expansion.
A polymer tip bullet looks like an FMJ, but with one obvious addition. The polymer tip may promote better accuracy by creating a more streamlined and centered meplat (aka tip), or it may facilitate more reliable terminal expansion by forcing itself into the lead core’s concealed nose cavity during penetration. Some bullets, such as Hornady’s ELD-X, have polymer tips that serve both of these purposes.
A polymer tip is generally very rigid, although Hornady’s Flex Tip bullet is supple. A Hornady LEVERevolution cartridge’s Flex Tip is safe for lever-action rifles because it is too soft to ignite the primer it butts up against in a tubular magazine.
Soft Point (SP)
An SP bullet looks like an FMJ, except its jacket does not cover its nose. This leaves the soft lead core exposed, which enables it to deform and mushroom outward during penetration of soft tissue. SP bullets are not quite as high-tech as the leading manufacturers’ polymer tip bullets, although they have remained on the market for decades because they are affordable and still extremely effective. Many rifle cartridges designed for self-defense have SP bullets, although they are more commonly used for hunting applications.
- Soft Point Round Nose (SPRN) – While the typical SP has a pointed tip, SP bullets with round nose profiles are also common.
- Soft Point Flat Nose (SPFN) – The SPFN’s flat meplat makes it safe to load in lever-action rifles. For example, if a 30-30 cartridge is loaded with an SP bullet, that bullet must have a flat nose profile to prevent accidental discharge in the event the rifle is dropped or jostled.
A frangible bullet is made of compressed metal powders like tin and copper. When it hits a solid surface, a frangible bullet reacts by instantly disintegrating into crumbs and powder. This nearly eliminates the chance of a piece of hard metal ricocheting back toward the firing line to injure the shooter.
Frangible bullets are mostly used for safer close-range training with steel targets, but they are also utilized for self-defense applications when penetration of walls must be avoided at all costs. (But just to be sure, a frangible bullet may still punch through multiple walls – it’s just less likely to than a bullet made of solid lead and copper.)
A hard cast bullet often looks like an LFN or a wadcutter. But instead of pure lead, a hard cast bullet is made of an extremely tough alloy of metals including antimony, tin, and silver (although it may still contain some lead).
Hard cast bullets are too tough to expand or deform in any way. They are designed for one single purpose: deep penetration. As such they’re favored for defense against dangerous game like grizzly bears, which have well-protected vital organs, as well as hunting hogs with handguns.
The HoneyBadger (as well as other bullets like the ARX) is designed for self-defense, but it does not expand inside its target. Instead, it utilizes the grooves in its shank to scoop up soft tissues, pressurize them, and jet them outward in lateral directions. The HoneyBadger thus creates a massive wound cavity inside its target, and it does so without the need for a nose cavity that could fail after filling up with debris or cause a feeding jam in a semi-auto.
Some cartridges are actually loaded with birdshot! These small shot pellets are unsuitable for self-defense or bird hunting, but they’re called “rat shot” for good reason. Many desert folks also use birdshot cartridges for protection against scorpions and snakes.
A blank cartridge doesn’t have a bullet. Blank ammo is commonly to film movie scenes, simulate real gunfire during tactical training, train hunting dogs, and start footraces.
You must know two things before you purchase blank ammo. First, it is still extremely dangerous. While a blank round lacks a bullet, it still expels hot propellant gasses at high velocity that can injure or even kill someone. Second, blank ammo will probably fail to cycle a semi-auto unless the firearm has been appropriately modified.
- Dummy – Unlike a blank, a dummy round contains no primer or propellant. It cannot fire and is commonly used to safely practice loading and unloading firearms.
A Final Note
When you are shopping for ammo, you may see bullets with brand names like XTP, HST, TSX, and so on. These are nearly always variations of one of the basic bullets detailed above, with one or more proprietary performance-enhancing features. A quick search will reveal which type of bullet one of these brand names stands for!