Ammunition “Basics” Part I
CAVEAT (Warning) ABOUT THIS POST
This post has been one of the more difficult to write. Typically in talking about ammunition, there is TMI (too much information) presented way too soon, and loaded with technical information, for the novice to find a foothold. However, there are good reasons to delve deeply into the subject. Buying, handling, storing and shooting ammunition used in shooting is a VERY serious topic.
An unloaded gun has negligible potential to harm or injure (unless it is used like a club or hammer). Once a cartridge is placed in front of a firing pin the gun is “HOT” or “LIVE.”
Please be aware that in this introductory post I will draw some comparisons between everyday experiences and learning about ammunition for your gun. The intent is to point out you CAN learn the basics of ammunition. That is where the similarity ends. Period.
You can’t substitute, skip steps, guess, experiment or “learn by doing” without the potential for serious and possibly deadly consequences. To approach shooting in any other way is dangerous. Realize you need to become educated and pursue that. In the case of ammunition, it is vital to know exactly what you are loading into a gun.
Girls of the Baby Boomer Era
This introduction is directed mostly to those ladies of the “baby boomer” generation, those born during a long period spanning from World War II 40’s to the late 60’s and into the early 70’s. About halfway through most of our childhoods, the world changed drastically and we bridged a gap in feminine upbringing. During our early childhood there was a clear divide between what was expected or acceptable for a GIRL or a BOY in behavior and participation: in the home, school, sports, and limits to occupation. That day where girls were to play with dolls, couldn’t wear pants to school, played separate “gentle” sports sans serious competition, and took home economics instead of wood shop is thankfully gone.
But like any major societal shifts, the barriers did not just melt away overnight. It took a generation (ours) to really build up steam. For some boomers it skipped right past, for others it happened gradually, and for a few the barrier between what was accessible for MALE and FEMALE crashed down abruptly.
I am of that generation, born at the tail end of the 40’s in post WWII times, and I well remember the “switch.” I made it easily and gladly, and was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I embraced science and math during the “space race” of the Kennedy era and had the good fortune to be raised along with two brothers by a career military father who had in some respects helped those barriers come down. Sports was still sharply divided for male and female, and I am athletic by nature and pushed myself hard in the “GAA” (Girls Athletic Association) but sometimes am saddened I missed that opportunity. In an earlier generation I would have been labeled “tomboy” but because of the timing, instead was fortunate enough to be able to step out confidently -with limits- but without a challenge to my “femininity.”
During my four decade long work career I have been training mostly women to work in the electronics, computer programming, and more recently financial industries. There remains- in mostly boomers and in quite a few of their daughters – a residual and self imposed barrier to working with math and technology. That self made image usually includes “being bad at math,” not wanting to even try understanding mechanics, and a generalized reluctance or fear of engaging in and exploring “MALE” dominated pursuits.
I typically work with these women to gain self confidence first. I share my view of their capabilities, and extend encouragement (and sometimes “permission”) to step into their perceived “male” or “difficult” territory. Then, and for the vast majority ONLY then, is it possible for training to begin for the task at hand. It is to these women still struggling with the fading societal myth of what a “girl” can and should engage in that I am writing PART I: a word of encouragement. Part II will begin an actual introduction into the basics of ammunition.
Introduction to the Mountain of Ammunition Information
It is important to find information geared toward the beginner when just starting out. Something that provides the basics. Too much tech-talk, or looking into too many variations, can leave the “newbie” hopelessly lost and discouraged.
Approaching the Mountain
My goal is to provide encouragement to the new shooter. As a starting point, I am going to compare what you need to learn about ammunition to something the average mature person has dabbled in or mastered to some degree: Arts and Crafts, including what used to be called Home Economics back in the “old days.”
Remember, to learn any craft, you have to start SOMEWHERE and build on what you learn and practice for the next step to make sense and build on your success. You’ve done that throughout your life, and have achieved great results. You can do this!
The good news is you don’t have to learn everything there is to know about all types ammunition. In the beginning, all you need to learn, and pay extremely close and diligent attention to, is the basics and what you need for your specific handgun(s).
The need to learn ammunition basics can’t be overstated. You need to learn the “what and why” of dealing with volatile materials and interactions so you can handle them safely, attain reliability and gain the peace of mind that comes from knowing your gun will function properly and effectively when you need it to.
Avoid Information Overload
It is very common, if not close to universal, for the serious shooter to load their own rounds to meet individual shooting needs. They “tailor” their rounds to get the results they need from each shot.
And these are the people who populate the internet with highly technical and valuable discussions, charts and tables.
This information is very useful to those who have been engaged in the art long enough to become more advanced, and in many cases expert in the field.
The vast majority of this very mathematical based data about cartridges is akin to a master chef or baker sharing “from scratch” tips, tricks and recipes. It will make more sense as you learn the basics and gain experience in shooting.
For the new shooter, trying to read through some of this indepth information and glean an understanding on ammunition for your new gun is like a first time baker trying to make a souffle and bake an angel food cake from scratch for a dinner party.
It is very reasonable to go to a really nice restaurant when you want souffle, or buy angel food cake from the bakery… or buy a box of cake mix in the baking aisle! At least until you have the time to dig deeper, gain experience and grow into a more advanced shooter.
What you need to keep in mind is there is an art and craft to shooting that grows step by step, not much different than baking, or sewing, or any of the crafts.
A different language has evolved, filled with abbreviations and acronyms and that particular type of shorthand and tech-speak has to be learned.
At the end of Part II I’ll give a couple of links to websites that help provide a solid entry level approach.
Your First Visit to the Ammunition Aisles
I recommend learning as much as you can about ammunition basics by reading, taking classes and talking with instructors and knowledgeable shooters before taking your first shopping solo trip to the ammo counter or visiting gun show ammunition tables.
The sheer quantity, quality, and variations in cartridges can be overwhelming. The shorthand on the box labels is very difficult to decipher for the unprepared.
Again, you already have shopping experience. The aisle in a craft store is full of a wide variety and quality of products. You just have to learn what you are looking at for the apparent jumble to make more sense.
Likewise, the salesperson may (or may not) have an incentive to sell the highest price products rather than help you meet your needs. Depending on your intended use – for instance ammunition purchased for self defense in the home vs. practice rounds. Buying the more expensive may (or may not) be reasonable. Price is not the only difference, there is more “bang” to self defense rounds, and if used for practice may be more painful (and expensive) than necessary. Come prepared to tell the salesperson not only the maker and model of your gun, but also your intended use.
Making things worse these days, we are in the early stages of recovery from an ammunition shortage. Looking on the shelves and tables for something still not being stocked is frustrating. While many of the larger stores are keeping their prices reasonable, horders and would-be-resellers have in a lot of cases snapped up the more popular self defense and practice rounds and frequently prices they resell at are higher than reasonable, and stocks quickly become depleted at major suppliers due to this practice.
Finally, you need to realize the topic of ammunition is complex and some parts discussed may be DIFFICULT for you to understand or grasp at first. It does require some study, and of course experience, and as you learn it will get easier.
As in any craft, prepare yourself to learn, spend the time necessary to understand, and you will be rewarded with an enjoyable and potentially life saving skill !
Here is a short quote from a blog by ” slhuang ” (there will be a link to in Part II) discussing the difficulty faced in just understanding the different types of cartridges available today. It underscores you are not alone in being challenged at the enormous amount of information and types of cartridges:
“And this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of all different ammunition types ever, it’s a mess. Cartridges have evolved from each other over history and spread into a massive variety; different countries have come up with their own types of ammo; some cartridges have used casings inherited from others; old weapons end up re-chambered for modern ammo . . . it reminds me of language, the way cartridges have grown and crossed borders and evolved in a historical tree that’s almost impossible to follow. I don’t know even a thimble-full of all the cartridge types in the world, and I do this for a living.”
Part II of this topic will be a basic introduction to the modern cartridge. How it works, some basic sizes, and basic types you may encounter.
Happy and Safe shooting – Peggy