Types Of Bullets – Ammunition Basics Explained

Even if you aren’t new to firearms, you may be wondering why there are so many ammunition choices when stocking up on bullets. Keeping track of your options can get confusing, and if you are new to shooting, you might be quite confused when making an ammunition purchase. 

Bullets are made to provide various shooting experiences depending on what you are shooting. Simply spending a day at the range plinking isn’t going to require an expensive bullet created for maximum terminal accuracy, but how do you know what to buy for your various needs? This article explains the different types of bullets you can pick and choose from, and explains what they are best for. 

Factors to Consider When Choosing Caliber Size

Before getting started, it is REALLY important to point out that when determining the type of ammunition you prefer, you are NOT choosing which bullet caliber to shoot. Rather, you are choosing the bullet you desire for the size caliber firearm you already own.

Loaded Cartridges.

Let me reiterate that: bullet size is determined by the weapon you already own.

The choice of caliber is made when you choose your weapon, not when you choose your ammunition. For example, if you own a 9mm handgun, you will purchase ONLY 9mm bullet cartridges to fire out of it. 

Caliber is defined by the diameter of the barrel, and thus the diameter of the bullet you will be shooting through it. Very few guns can handle a caliber not designed for it, and in the few cases a person has tried, they have put themselves into a very dangerous situation. Trying to feed a caliber that is not the same as your firearm can result in, at best, jamming or damage to your gun; or at worst, could kill you. 

Unless you have complete knowledge of what other calibers your firearm can accept (for example, AR-style weapons may be able to accept various caliber options), you should never load an unknown bullet.  

Parts of a Cartridge

First off, what we call a ‘bullet’ is pretty inaccurate overall. The cartridge is, in short, the entire pre-assembled firearm packaging we call a bullet. Technically, the bullet is only one part of what is included in the cartridge, and understanding what you are buying is part of choosing what is best for your shooting needs. 


Close-up top macro view of soldier hands load rifle machine gun bullets into cartridge clip

The case is what holds your cartridge all together. This is what you hold and see when you load your weapon


The primer is what ignites the propellant within the cartridge. In a centerfire round, it is located in the center of the base of the case. In a rimfire round, it is located around the rim of the base. This is explained in more detail below. 


Black gun powder isolated in white background.

The powder, or propellent, is what is ignited by the primer spark to help eject the projectile down the barrel of your firearm. 


The projectile, or bullet, is what is expelled from the barrel to hit the object you are aiming at. 

Types of Cartridges

It is important to understand the identification of different kinds of pistol and rifle cartridges you can pick from as well. The types of cartridges available can be the difference between a dependable, terminal round for hunting and self-defense, or an enjoyable day on the range without going broke due to the cost of ammunition.  

Centerfire Cartridge

Bullets and a gun laying on a whitesheet.

A centerfire cartridge is exactly how it sounds. The ignition system of the cartridge holds the powder and primer, and is located in the center of the base. You can visually recognize these as they set in the center of the base with a space between them and the cartridge rim. 

These include a wide range of options, as well as your high-pressure loads for hunting and self-defense. Centerfire options are typically more expensive and are reserved for sighting in firearms and use for when you need to make the bullet count. 

Rimfire Cartridge

Scattering of small caliber cartridges on a wooden background. Other cartridges cartridges lies in capsules up. The picture from the top point.

A rimfire cartridge is not as popular as they once were, mainly because that have slowly been replaced by the more accurate, and easier to make centerfire option. However, they are not obsolete and are still widely used. 

These differ from the centerfire cartridges as they do not have the primer located in the base and simply puts the priming compound inside the sealed cartridge around the edges of the rim. Because of this, the base of the cartridge is flat and smooth. These are typically limited to low-pressure loads, but are perfect for small game, and plinking. Plus, they are less expensive. 

Types of Bullets   

The following list of bullets are defined by how they are used. They each have specific stylistic designs that lend themselves well to the various shooting needs you may have. Some are more lethal than others, for example, when deadly accuracy is important while hunting. Others are designed for distance and target acquisition, and are preferred for competitive shooting. This serves as a basic comparison ammo guide to help you determine which is best for your shooting scenarios, and can give you a chart like a picture of what you need. 

1. Full Metal Jacket (FMJ)

Full metal jacket bullet on wooden background with copy space

The FMJ is one of the most common ammunition and most popular you can buy. It has a soft metal center with a harder protective casing, or ‘jacket’, hence the name. They can be round, pointy, or flat in shape to cut small channels through a target. Good for short-range shooting, they are not always the best for distance or self-defense. 


  • Great target practice bullet
  • Shoots clean


  • Not good at distance or for self-defense

2. Soft Point (SP)

.44 magnum bullets *** Local Caption *** .44 magnum revolver bullets on reflective black surface

Soft point bullets are a jacketed bullet that expands upon impact. The soft metal core is enclosed by a metal jacket left open at the tip. It is a popular choice for hunting and self-defense purposes as it is created to expand wider than its bullet diameter to cause a larger wound. 


  • Excellent accuracy at distances
  • Designed for deadly use in hunting and self-defense 


  • Not the best for target practice, and can be pricey

3. Hollow-Point (HP)

.45 Caliber hollow point bullets near handgun and magazine on leather furniture

Hollow-point bullets are called such as they have a hollow looking center. Designed to expand upon hitting a target, they are an excellent choice for unparalleled stopping power. Because of this, they are a popular self-defense choice. 


  • Amazing stopping power
  • Dependable and damaging


  • Not a good bullet to practice with

4. Boat Tail (BT)

Image Source : wikimedia.org

A boat tailed bullet has a streamlined design with a slightly curved base that supports the aerodynamics for a better range accuracy. They retain velocity over distance, making them a popular choice for match competitions. 


  • Great accuracy
  • Very little loss of velocity over long distances


  • May not shoot as well as a flat based bullet

5. Boat Tail Hollow Point (BTHP)

Placer copper bullets on a dark wooden background, shot in the studio.

This elongated, streamlined design combined with a hollow point makes for an incredibly deadly round. Preferred for hunting long distances, you are promised a large expansion upon hitting the target, and an accurate shot. 


  • Long-distance hunting accuracy
  • Deadly expansion


  • Not a close range choice

6. Lead Round Nose (LRN)

The 9mm caliber cartridge on wooden background

Popular for their affordability, LRN bullets are a simple design made entirely of lead with a rounded nose. They are a popular choice for target practice and keep their shape as well as, or better than other bullet choices. 


  • Affordable and dependable
  • Great for target practice


  • May leave residue in the barrel

7. WadCutter (WC)

Bullets and gun on gray table

Fairly uncommon, the wadcutter was designed for competitive shooting and is not often used outside that experience. It is an all lead bullet with a flat front and no jacket and leaves behind a tell-tale ‘cookie cutter’ hole in a target


  • Good for beginning shooters
  • Perfect for target practice


  • Poor aerodynamics

8. Semi WadCutter (SWC)

Semi wadcutter bullet with smoke isolated on black

A semi-wadcutter has a more conical shape with a flat tip. It is considered more reliable and aerodynamic compared to a full wadcutter- making it a more popular cartridge. 


  • Great for target practice
  • Affordable and common for semi-auto shooting


  • Not a good choice for self-defense

9. Semi-Jacketed Soft Point (SJSP)

Copper bullet with blue smoke behind on a black background

This is a popular all around option that has an exposed lead point for reliable expansion upon impact. The partial jacket provides excellent accuracy and makes it a good choice for hunting, home defense, and target practice. 


  • Versatile for a wide range of uses
  • Dependable with excellent expansion


  • Lead isn’t allowed in all areas due to toxicity

10. Jacketed Soft Point (JSP)

Cartridges silver with copper large-caliber bullets in a gray textural composition on wooden background.

Similar to the SJSP, the JSP has a thin copper or steel coating over the soft lead point. This allows it to leave less residue in the barrel, have a slightly better velocity, and provides reliable expansion. 


  • Versatile for a wide range of uses
  • Dependable with excellent expansion


  • Lead isn’t allowed in all areas due to toxicity

11. Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point (SJHP)

Hollow point semi jacketed bullets on a wooden table

The partial jacket of a hollow point bullet helps increase accuracy while leaving the tip exposed for quick expansion upon impact. This is especially useful in hunting when distances are long, but expansion upon impact is needed. 


  • Great choice for distance shots when hunting
  • Good accuracy and dependable


  • Not a good target shooting option

12. Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP)

Jacket Hollow Point bullets

The hollowed-out center of the jacketed hollow point is covered in a thin coat of copper or steel, requiring less powder inside the barrel. It makes for a clean shot that leaves a big expansion area in the intended target. 


  • Great for hunting and self-defense as a lethal option
  • Less residue in the barrel after shooting


  • Poor choice for targets and hard surfaces

13. Open Tip (OTM)

Open Tip Bullet

Open tip bullets are called such due to the very small opening at the top due to how they are manufactured. However, unlike the hollow points, they do not expand on impact.  They are very popular with long-distance shooters due to their consistent accuracy, making them a popular pick for target shooting and match rounds. However, they are not allowed to be used for hunting purposes as the small opening is considered a hollow point design. 


  • Incredibly accurate
  • Consistent in target acquisition


  • Not allowed for hunting

14. Very Low Drag (VLD)

Macro shot of silver bullet caught in flight

This is a small arms ballistics option that is supposed to provide higher degrees of accuracy and velocity, especially for long-range shooting. They can be a combination of FMJ and BT options, as well as many others, and are good for distance shooting. Various brands incorporate them into their bullet design. 


  • Low drag and excellent velocity
  • Very accurate


  • May not be worth the hype and cost

15. Armor Piercing (AP)

Cartridges silver with copper large-caliber bullets in a gray textural composition on wooden background.

These are generally an FMJ design with a spiral tip to provide the strength and core to pierce hard metal surfaces and armor. The core is often steel or tungsten.


  • Incredible piercing power
  • Accurate at long distances 


  • Not a common round

16. Ballistic Tip

Cartridges ranked with red tip on a dark wooden background

A ballistic tip provides excellent aerodynamics and excellent stopping power. It is more or less a hollow point that has been encased in plastic to provide the look and feel of an FMJ. Popular for hunting, the weight is towards the rear and has a long boat tail. 


  • Excellent expansion for stopping power
  • Very accurate for hunting


  • Does not often exit

17. Frangible

Busted frangible bullet.

A frangible bullet is made to break upon impact to avoid over-penetration and ricochet when target shooting. They have less energy overall and rarely exit a target. This makes them an ideal choice for self-defense in small spaces. 


  • Great for target shooting
  • Inexpensive round overall


  • Lightweight and not dependable in self-defense

18. Tracer

Ammunition cartridges on white background

Tracer bullets have a small amount of pyrotechnics or luminescence built into them that leaves a visual trail when fired. They are made to highlight the trajectory of fired rounds. They can be used to highlight that you are close to running out of ammo as well. They are considered explosive materials under federal law and therefore are not legal to own unless you are jumping through hoops. 


  • Highlights bullet trajectory
  • Super cool to see


  • Not entirely legal

19. Bonded

Bullets. On a dark background. 3d render.

Bonded ammo is a jacketed ammo that has undergone a process to bond the lead core to the jacket into one piece. It is made to maintain velocity and energy even after hitting a target, and is designed to avoid breaking into pieces. It was created for large game hunting.


  • Can drop large game at long distances
  • Also great for self-defense


  • A more expensive round than most


If you had any questions pertaining to the types of ammo you might want to consider for your various shooting experiences, hopefully this has more than answered them. The various bullet options that exist are designed for specific uses, and almost all come in the caliber you are seeking. 

Make sure you always choose a caliber that matches your firearm, as shooting mismatched bullets almost never ends well, and at the very least may ruin your gun for good. Choose an affordable ammunition for your needs, and save the pricier stuff for sighting in to get a good feel of how it fires, and for when it counts. 

Let us know below if you have any questions, and, as always, please share!

Firearm Bullet Types Explained-Infographic

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