Ammo: simple slang for ammunition. In a perfect world, ammunition would be easy to figure out. If you had a .38, you’d feed it .38 ammo. But that’s way too simple. The type of ammo you use depends heavily on your needs, and then there are options within those options. Knowing what type of ammunition is best for your needs can help you whether you’re plinking, shooting competitively, hunting, or carrying for self-defense.

Because there are so many different types of ammunition even within the same caliber, we’ve gone ahead and broken it down to help you pick the best ammo for your needs.

Table of Contents:

Basic Ammunition Types
Basic Bullet Types
Shotgun-Specific Ammo

Basic Ammunition Types

Remington Core-Lokt Tipped Ammo
Ammo comes in a wide variety of options, varying in shape, size, and purpose. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/

Centerfire: Centerfire ammunition’s priming compound is ignited when the striking mechanism hits the primer located in the center of the base of the cartridge. Brass centerfire cartridges are often reloaded. Most pistol and rifle calibers use centerfire ammunition.  

Rimfire: Rimfire ammunition’s priming compound is ignited when the striking mechanism hits the rim of the cartridge, where the primer material is located. Because of the design, rimfire rounds cannot be reloaded. Rimfire rounds are generally only used in small-caliber guns these days, such as .22 LR, .22 WMR, or .17 HMR. They’re great for target shooting, plinking, and hunting small game.

Rimfire Ammo
Rimfire ammo has the primer component stored in the rim of the case. (Photo:

+P/+P+: This type of ammo uses higher pressure than traditional ammunition and fires with greater velocity. This raises the velocity of the round. But you must make sure that your firearm is rated for +P or +P+ rounds prior to firing this ammunition because the increased pressure could be catastrophic for your gun if it was not designed for it. The main use of +P/+P+ ammunition is for self-defense applications.

Straight-Walled/Necked Cartridges: As the names imply, these two types of cartridges feature different shapes to their casings. Straight-walled cartridges have a case that is even across its entire length. Such ammunition includes .350 Legend, the new .360 Buckhammer, and the classic big-bore .45-70 Gov’t. They’re also popular among hunters in states that limit hunting with “bottlenecked” rounds. 

Conversely, necked cartridges feature a narrower neck at the top of the casing that then expands at the shoulders of the case. Such rounds include everything from common rifle ammo, such as the .30-06 Springfield and 5.56 NATO, to more pistol-oriented rounds like the 5.7x28 NATO. 

Basic Bullet Types

Full Metal Jacket (FMJ): It’s not just the name of a classic movie. FMJ rounds feature a full jacket of metal that retains its shape more when it impacts a target. FMJ rounds are popular for target shooting and range practice, and they’re normally standard in military ammunition. They do pose a risk of overpenetration, so they’re generally not considered ideal for use as a self-defense round.

Hollow Point (HP): Designed for self-defense, hollow-point ammunition is made with a hollowed-out tip that expands on impact. This design is meant to impart more energy to the target by preventing excessive penetration. Hollow points are the go-to choice for most self-defense rounds because they transfer energy efficiently with less risk of the projectile passing through the target and hitting something (or someone) in the background. 

Hollow Point Ammo
Hollow-point ammo isn't exclusively for handguns, but the bullet design allows for expansion and helps prevent overpenetration for self-defense. (Photo:

Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP): Like hollow points, jacketed hollow points are designed for self-defense with a hollowed-out tip, but with a hard metal jacket around it. Extremely popular, JHPs are widely available in almost any caliber. The harder metal jacket can also help with feeding from the magazine and into the chamber for semi-auto pistols, which may be less reliable with softer non-jacketed hollow-point bullets. 

Wadcutter (WC): A wadcutter round manufactured with a flat or nearly flat face. This helps with scoring paper targets because it helps cut the paper cleaner than a non-wadcutter round designed to penetrate instead of cut the target. Because of the way they’re made, the sharp edge of a wadcutter can catch and fail to feed properly in some semiautomatic pistols. 

Semi-Wadcutter (SWC): Similar to a wadcutter, semi-wadcutters are manufactured with semiautomatic pistols and revolvers used for competition in mind. They feature a partially rounded nose. This can make them easier to load into revolvers, but it also helps with semi-auto pistols. The semi-rounded nose helps the rounds feed cleanly from magazines and into the gun’s chamber without causing misfeeds, which are a problem with regular wadcutter rounds. SWCs are often used in USPSA, IPSC, and cowboy action shooting, and make great target rounds.

Frangible: Frangible ammunition is designed to break up into very small pieces upon impact with a hard surface. They are often used for training purposes, on an aircraft, or in crowded areas because of the lower risk of overpenetration. Because of the design, they’re also less likely to ricochet or rebound off of hard surfaces, causing collateral damage beyond the target. 

Federal .223 Ammo
Here you can see a .223 ​​​​​​ FMJ round next to a bullet with a red ballistic tip. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

Ballistic Tip (BT): A type of polymer-tipped ammunition, ballistic-tipped bullets are normally a form of a jacketed hollow point with a polymer tip. They’re primarily designed for hunting rifle cartridges. The ballistic tip keeps the bullet intact and aerodynamic as it travels toward the target. It then allows for the expansion of the bullet upon impact.

Bonded Bullet (BB): A bonded bullet is a jacketed bullet that has been chemically bonded to a lead-alloy core. BB ammunition is designed for deep penetration and remains intact as it penetrates the target. They can be had as self-defense hollow-point rounds or as hunting rounds, particularly for medium to large game. 

Truncated Cone Bullet (TC): These bullets feature a cone-shaped projectile with a flat nose. The shape helps with reliable feeding in semiautomatic pistols, which makes them a solid choice for some competition shooting, and the fully jacketed bullet also helps reduce lead exposure and fowling.

Flat Nose (FN): As implied by its name, flat-nose bullets have a (you guessed it) flat nose. They are accurate and preferred by many in competition. They make it easy to see where you are hitting the target, so a shooter can make any adjustments prior to the next shot. 

Soft-Point Ammo
Soft-point ammo lends itself to things like hunting because of its ability to expand. (Photo: Kristin Alberts/

Soft Point (SP): Soft-point ammo, also known as soft-nosed ammunition, offers a harder metal outer jacket with an exposed soft nose. The soft nose is designed to allow for expansion of the bullet to the hole created with it impacts a target when compared to a round that has a full metal jacket. These are popular for hunting because of the increased expansion and better penetration, and they work well on both large, medium, and smaller game.

Boat Tail (BT): With a rounded or pointed shape on one end and a tapered flat end on the other, a boat tail strongly resembles the shape of a boat. The tapered end is hidden in the cartridge itself so it isn’t visible to the naked eye. This design gives greater stability as the bullet is propelled through the air. Boat-tail ammunition is preferred by many rifle shooters as it has greater accuracy and range when compared to other types of rifle rounds. 

Green Tip: The common name for U.S. M855 5.56 ball ammo, so called due to its green-painted tip. 

Steel Core (SC): Sometimes referred to as “armor-piercing” steel-core bullets feature a steel rod, partially steel core, or small steel bullet surrounded by a jacketed lead cover. 

Shotgun-Specific Ammunition

As if all of that wasn’t enough to digest, we can dive further into the types of ammo by including a brief rundown of shotshells and their types. Shotgun shells contain pellets or slugs. The size (or shot size) of the pellets determines whether it’s considered birdshot, buckshot, etc. The type of shotshell you select depends on your intended use.

Shotgun Ammo
There's no shortage of options when it comes to shotgun ammo either. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

Another consideration is the type of metal in the shell. Metals vary in density, which can affect the accuracy and velocity of the load and how they impact a target. There are also restrictions on what types of materials and shot sizes can be used for different types of hunting.

While shotgun loads made from lead are cheap, accurate, and effective, they’re not legal for hunting some birds because of lead concerns. Due to this, you’ll see many birdshot shells made from bismuth, a heavier metal, and steel instead. 

But wait, there’s more. I’ll try to break it down by type.

Birdshot Shotgun Ammo
Birdshot comes in a variety of sizes, depending on what you intend to hunt. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

Birdshot: Intended for bird hunting and other small game, birdshot pellets (i.e. shot) are relatively small. Because they’re small, a great number of pellets can be loaded into the shell. As indicated by the name, birdshot is perfect for hunting birds and small game. The size of the pellets makes them inappropriate for hunting larger game because of the lack of penetration.

Depending on the type of birdshot, a shell could contain upwards of 200 or more tiny pellets. When fired, these pellets spread out as they fly downrange, increasing the likelihood of hitting a bird flying through the air. 

Federal 12-Gauge Shell
The size of the shot will determine how many pellets a shell can hold, but the size of the shell will also impact the final count. This mini shell is a great example and hosts only a fraction that a 3-inch shell would hold. (Photo: Paul Peterson/

Buckshot: Very popular for home defense, buckshot was originally intended for hunting deer and similar-sized game. Buckshot pellets are much larger than birdshot. Buckshot is classified by the size of the pellets and usually designated by a number.

The larger the pellet, the fewer that will fit within the shotshell. Sizes and numbers of pellets range from 21 pellets in a #4 buckshot shell to only eight or nine in a 00 buckshot shell (based on a standard 2.75-inch 12-gauge shell). The size of the game you are hunting will aid in selecting the proper buckshot for your needs. 

Slug: A slug contains just one projectile per shell. They generally fire with a high velocity that works well when hunting game, such as hogs and deer, with a shotgun. While quite capable for home defense use, slugs can have a tendency to overpenetrate the target. So, use care if you’re thinking of picking up some slugs to have on hand for home-defense purposes, especially if you live in an urban area. 

Trap/Skeet/Target: If you're buying shotgun shells for trap/skeet/target shooting, there are shells for that, too. Most contain between #7 and #9 shots and are made from lead, steel, or even dense plastics. Why can you use lead, you might be asking? Because lead is dense, accurate, effective, and inexpensive. The density also helps for the small pellet sizes, and these rounds are not intended for hunting. 

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