The Life of a Bullet

 From fabrication to firing, what is entailed for the making of ammunition? 

If you’ve watched Lord of War, you probably remember the iconic opening scene: viewers see a bullet (aka cartridge) being made, transported, and used from the point of view of the bullet itself. There’s a bit more involved in the process, and the first thing to understand is that “bullet” actually only refers to a part of what is loaded into and fired out of a gun.

The Life of a Bullet

The First Ammunition

Thousands of years ago, the first bullets were made of lead and were launched via a sling. Similar to a slingshot, a sling has a cradle to hold a projectile. The cradle has a cord on either end, so the user can swing the sling like a lasso before releasing a tab that allows the projective to fly. Ammunition has come a long way since then when bullets were more than likely just small stones. Eventually, ammunition was likely formed using molds and lead. It’s believed that small indentations were made in sand, and hot lead was poured into the mold to cool. Since lead is very dense when cooled, it made for an effective bullet because it was small but mighty.

Sling ammo wasn’t usually round, and historians aren’t sure if the almond shape used was intentional, or simply a matter of convenience. Oblong bullets were probably easier to remove from molds (giving an easy point of contact to grab onto when cooled), and they were less likely to fall out of a sling cradle. While it may not have been understood, almond-shaped sling ammo did travel farther thanks to aerodynamics.

The Use of Gunpowder

Even before the Industrial Revolution, people realized the benefits of gunpowder. Canons used gunpowder to project cannonballs across land and sea, and eventually, gunpowder was used to give more power to smaller firearms. By the 14th century, it was more common to have personal firearms with uniform lead bullets made to specific calibers and backed with gunpowder power. In this case, cartridges became more like tiny fireworks- housed in a cartridge was a bullet, a propellant, and a primer. All of this is housed in a casing, which is discarded when a gun is fired.

Bullet Calibers

Caliber refers to the diameter of a bullet, which varies depending on the type of firearm in which it is used. Gun barrels are also measured in calibers, so the bullet matches the barrel. In the United States calibers are measured in millimeters, and some of the most popular (as well as the gun they’re for) are as follows:

  • 22 Long Rifle
  • 22 Magnum
  • .223 Remington
  • .357 Magnum
  • .375 H&H Magnum
  • .45mm
  • 9mm Luger
  • 12 Gauge

Ammunition Shortage

Since 2020, demand for ammunition has increased, while supply hasn’t been able to keep up. It’s a common problem for many manufacturers right now, regardless of the product. If you’re interested in finding ways to cut manufacturing costs to meet demand, Guide Technologies has a helpful article HERE. Some of the more elusive types of ammo include:

  • 9mm
  • 30-30 Winchester
  • .308 Winchester
  • .40 Smith & Wesson
  • .223 Remington
  • 5.56mm

How Modern Bullets are Made

A variety of metals are used in the making of modern cartridges. Once primarily made from lead, they are now often a lead alloy (lead mixed with other metals), with bullet jackets that range from copper, brass (aka gilding metal), or a combination of copper and zinc. Other raw materials used:

  • Aluminum
  • Bismuth
  • Bronze
  • Copper
  • Plastic
  • Rubber
  • Steel
  • Tin 
  • Tungsten

After careful data analysis, bullets are designed with different features to maximize performance in a designated firearm. Shape, size, weight, and material can affect accuracy, even when used by well-practiced marksmen and women.

Thanks to a variety of factors that help achieve a satisfactory bullet, there’s no one right method for manufacturing. You can get a good box of ammo from a small operation, or from refilling your own spent casings at home. But let’s take a look at the manufacturing process for ammunition and what it involves.

Bullet Cores

Bullets can have solid or hollow cores. They can be formed via a process called casting or another called swaging.

Casting Bullets

The process today is similar to what it once was when people may have made a mold in the sand with the finger. Only now, the molds for casting bullets are uniform and have a top that can close over the bottom. For cast bullets, molten metal is poured into a mold and the top is lowered down to meet the bottom. 

After the metal has cooled, the formed bullet can be removed from the mold and it can be cleaned up; sharp edges will be filed.

If more than one raw material is going to be used to cast a bullet, it’s kind of like layer jello in a mold. The first molten metal will be poured into a mold and allowed to cool before the second molten metal is added.

Swaging Bullets

The opposite of casting, swaging bullet formation is a cold process. The metal is shaped without being melted first. Instead, the desired bullet shape will be cut out of the metal using a die (die-cut).

The metal that is punched out is formed into the shape of a bullet, and its edges are refined by filing or cutting.

Bullet Jackets

Whether a bullet is solid or hollow, it’s wrapped in a jacket. Like the core, the jacket can be formed via a hot or cold process. The jackets and bullets can be combined into a single form the same way the individual components were created - via casting or swaging. Bullets and jackets can also be joined by soldering, gluing, or welding them together. Additional customizations can be made to the newly formed bullet, such as grooves.

Oiling Bullets

The film on the outside of a bullet is a lubricant, and it can be made from wax, oil, or molybdenum disulfide (aka moly). Lubricant helps bullets travel through a gun bore, especially since the soft metal of a bullet can be hindered by the hard metal of the bore. 

Firing a Bullet

After manufacturing, the next step in the life of a bullet is to be fired. There will be different results depending on the type of cartridge used:

  • Soft bullets (such as those made of lead) expand on impact. This includes soft-tip and hollow-point bullets as well.
  • Hard bullets will not expand but will go deeper into a target. 

When the trigger of a firearm is pulled, a spring activates the metal firing pin at the back of the firearm. This creates combustion, which ignites the primer at the back of the cartridge. The primer ignition continues to the propellant (gunpowder), which generates gas. The pressure from the gas forces the bullet (tip of the cartridge) to separate from the casing (rear of the cartridge), and the bullet is propelled out of the gun. The casing is discarded manually or automatically afterward.

Spent casing can be reused, with better quality casings having up to five refills in them. It’s a great way to save on ammo costs, and become more knowledgeable when it comes to how your firearm works.

So while it’s neat to watch the first few minutes of Lord of War, now you know there’s more to manufacturing a cartridge than is depicted in the film.

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