Ball Ammunition: What Is It and What Is It Good For?

1895 nagant and m91/30 Mosin Nagant
June 2, 2023  
Categories: Guns

The most common type of rifle and pistol ammunition is called full metal jacket, or ball, ammunition. But if you look at one of these rounds, it does not look spherical at all. What is ball ammunition, where did it come from, and what is it used for? In this overview, we will have a look its history and use to answer these questions.

What’s In a Name?

The first handheld firearms are as simple as one can get. The first hand cannons were little more than a pipe with one large end for loading loose black powder and projectiles. The other end has a small hole that flame would be introduced to set the gun off. Firing mechanisms evolved in tandem with projectile development. Early on, rocks were used. But rocks could not retain their energy downrange. Compared to metal, rocks have less mass and are not of a uniform size. Chiseled stone balls were a better solution but were labor intensive to make. Steel balls were a better solution than that, but high heat was required to melt the steel to shape.

Two .54 caliber lead balls next to two .223 full metal jacket projectiles.

The ball round [right] is a nonexpanding projectile that originated with lead musket balls [left], which were simple spheres of lead.

From the fifteenth century onward, lead shot was the preferred ammunition of choice. Lead is denser and hold onto its downrange energy better than the alternatives. Lead also has a low melting point and is easy to work with over a campfire. Despite its pliability, lead balls were surprisingly resistant to deformation unless it struck heavy bone. Ball ammunition became the common nomenclature to use for standard non-expanding as the world moved away from muzzleloaders to firearms that fired fixed cartridge ammunition.

When the United States Army adopted the .45 S&W Schofield cartridge that was compatible with the S&W Schofield and Colt Single Action revolvers in the 1870s, the ammunition was designated as the M1877 Ball Revolver cartridge. The .45 round does not use a spherical lead ball. It used an elongated bullet, but it is of solid lead construction.

Lead to Copper

Thus far, the description of ball ammo has pertained to exposed lead projectiles. Today’s ball ammunition has a copper or brass jacket, such is the name full metal jacket. In the 1880s smokeless powder came on the scene, and with it, firearms that fired projectiles at might higher velocities than existing black powder rounds. Lead bullets could now be driven so quickly that the projectile could partially melt in the bore. The deformed bullet created more fouling in the bore and led to decreased accuracy downrange. In 1882, a Swiss Army commission headed by Eduard Rubin came up with a lead core copper jacketed bullet. Copper is harder and more resistant to friction. Thus, the full metal jacket bullet was born.

To Humanize War

In the 1890s, the United States and Britain experimented extensively with expanding or dum-dum ammunition for military use. These types of projectiles were attempts to increase stopping power of existing cartridges. The drag of an expanding projectile allows for the dumping of energy into a target. Existing full metal jacket and lead round nosed bullets might pass completely through a target and keep going, requiring more holes in the target for the desired effect. However, the idea of using expanding projectiles provoked ethical concerns that were remedied by the 1902 Hague Accords, which banned their use among the signers.

The United States did not sign the Hague Accords but did follow its guidelines. Until very recently, the US Armed Forces used ball ammunition exclusively. The same type of ammunition was not particularly popular on the commercial market. Full metal jacket and lead round nosed ammunition was a common handgun loading until the modern hollow-point was developed in the 1970s. Jacketed soft-point bullets continue to be the standard of choice in rifle cartridges designed for hunting. Full metal jacket rifle rounds came to be associated with military calibers that finally gained commercial acceptance, although it is now common to find ball ammunition in conventional rifle and pistol ammunition today.

Loaded AR magazines next to a pair of unloaded pistol magazines.

Most ammunition you will find will be ball, or full metal jacket, ammunition.

Buy it and back the bang

Where to Find Ball Ammunition for Sale


Today’s Applications

We have seen full metal jacket ammunition develop from a martial background, but it is the most common ammunition available on the civilian market. We are not bound by the Hague Accords and generally have our pick of ammunition that we can tailor to any given purpose. But ball ammunition has its uses.

Most current and ex-military rounds are full metal jacket, or at least started that way from their inception. This ammunition is produced on a large scale at low cost. These factors inevitably trickled into the civilian market. Most practice and target ammunition in any given caliber of choice is full metal jacket. Compared to defensive hollow-point ammunition, full metal jacket ammunition is less expensive and more available. As a rule, full metal jacket ammunition is best left as a practice round and is a poor choice for personal protection for the same reason the dum-dum loads of yesteryear were invented—too much penetration.

However, no rule is absolute. There are compelling reasons one might select full metal jacket ammunition for purposes outside the square range. You may be in a state or locality where full metal jacket is the only viable round that can be legally used. You may own an older firearm that is designed to function with ball ammunition. For example, the Colt 1911 and its many copies were designed for ball ammunition. Firearms like these may not cycle flat-pointed hollow-point ammunition. Some hollow-point rounds are markedly shorter than ball ammunition. This can lead to more movement inside the magazine that cause cycling problems.

Ball ammunition is a viable defense load in small calibers.

Ball ammunition is sometimes recommended as a self-defense round in small caliber, low velocity rounds. Case in point is the .25 ACP, where penetration is paramount.

Sometimes ball ammunition is best because it is more reliable and sometimes you might need what it does best—more penetration. Ball ammunition can be advantageous when shooting through targets with thick bone and fur like those on large animals. On the streets, ball ammunition has better chance of penetrating through barriers while retaining enough energy to do damage to the intended target. In small, low velocity handgun cartridges like .25 ACP and .380 ACP, ball ammo assures adequate penetration.

Stack It Deep

While ball ammunition might best be described as generic, boring, and common. If we look at a ball round against modern open-tip hollow-points, the ball round certainly looks less scary. But appearances can be deceiving. Ball ammo is a must if you want to shoot and not go broke. Likewise, having a stash of full metal jacket ammunition gives you more options where the latest and greatest rounds might miss the mark.

Terril Hebert

Terril Hebert

About the Author


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Popular Articles

Official Rules

Can Cooker Trailblazer gif. Reads: Turn up the heat. Trailblazer bundle. Only $80.  Order bundle. back Breach-Bang-Clear

Find what’s in stock, and where, and compare prices. 

⚠️ Some hyperlinks in this article may contain affiliate links. If you use them to make a purchase, we will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. It’s just one way to Back the Bang. #backthebang 

Get Patched In

Wretched Minion Patch