Consultant for writers on crime, police, & court procedures.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

ABCs of AMMO, BULLETS and CARTRIDGES

Firearms terminology confuses many writers.  Sue Grafton, a superstar in the world of crime fiction, was blasted by many readers when she equipped her private eye Kinsey Millhone with a measly .32 caliber pistol when any self-respecting ex-cop would carry a .357, 9mm, .40 cal—anything but never a .32.

Confusing “revolver” and “pistol” is a classic mistake. Pistol usually refers to any handgun not a revolver, primarily large capacity, semi-automatic handguns.  Having a revolver eject spent shells onto the ground will prompt snorts of derision from educated readers.

The revolver vs. pistol issue was covered in an earlier blog post, so I’ll move on to some terms related to ammunition that could be used in your story:

Caliber – the dimension of the bullet. Sometimes measured in hundredths of an inch like .38 caliber, sometimes in millimeters (9mm).

Cartridge – complete unfired ammunition consisting of a cartridge case, powder charge, bullet and primer. This is what you load in your firearm. 
common pistol cartridges
Bullet – the projectile attached to the front of a cartridge.  This is what is fired from your firearm.
The bullet is the projectile that is fired at the target. The exterior is often a copper or      
brass jacket covering lead and other metals.

Bullet jacket – the copper or brass outer skin of a jacketed bullet. Sometimes portions of the jacket will fragment off when the bullet strikes an object.






Case - the portion of a cartridge containing the gunpowder. A pistol ejects the case when it is fired. For a revolver, you must physically remove the fired cases from the cylinder to reload. Cases are informally referred to as "hulls" or "brass."

Slug – while sometimes used to refer to a bullet, a slug is a lead projectile fired from a shotgun. Some shotgun shells contain numerous pellets. A slug shell contains only the large lead projectile.
comparison of 00 shotgun shell with slug

“00-buck” shell – shotgun shell referred to as “double ought buck” or “double ought buckshot.” The shotgun shell most commonly used by law enforcement. The shell contains nine .32 caliber lead pellets.

Wad or wadding – plastic, paper, or fiber disk that separates the powder from the shot in a shotgun shell. It is propelled out of the gun along with the pellets, sometimes into the target. The wad only travels a few yards, so drawing a line from the victim back to the wad and extending it will indicate the direction from which the shot was fired.

stippling around entry wound

Stippling – abrasions or ‘tattooing’ produced on the skin by gunpowder when the gun is fired from a short distance.  

GSR – a general term for gunshot (gunpowder) residue. A test for residue is abbreviated GSR.



Powder particles – sometimes visible, unburned gunpowder can be found on the clothing or body of a wounded person.


Magazine – a device for holding cartridges which is inserted into the grip of a pistol.  It is NOT a “clip.”
This is a magazine, not a 'clip.'

5 comments:

  1. Thanks Wesley. This is helpful information. I always thought a pistol and a revolver were the same thing.

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  2. Tammy, if you were writing about the 1800s, calling a 'revolver' a 'pistol' would be fine. But today, pistol usually refers to a semi-auto as opposed to a revolver.

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  3. No, this is a contemporary novel. Thanks again.

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