A common mistake made by non and new Gunnies alike is to call their ammunition bullets. However, a bullet is only one of the parts that make up an ammunition cartridge. What are the other components, and what makes it go bang? Here is the anatomy of a pew.

The “bullet” points:

The essential elements of ammunition that together form a cartridge are:

  • Casing
  • Primer
  • Gunpowder
  • Projectile
  • Wad (For certain ammunition)


The casing or case is what holds all the parts of the ammunition together. The casing is usually made out of brass, steel, or copper. Certain firearms like shotguns, use plastic casings. 


The primer is an explosive chemical compound that ignites when struck by the firing pin. Located at the base of the cartridge, the primer is placed in either the casing rim or center. This is where the rimfire and centerfire categories come from.


Also called the propellant, gunpowder is what provides the BANG and sends the projectile down range. Ignited by the primer, gunpowder is made from a chemical mixture that rapidly burns. The expanding gasses propel the projectile down the gun’s barrel. Invented in China during the 9th century, black powder was a mixture of sulphur, carbon, and potassium nitrate. Modern firearm propellants are smokeless powders based on nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin.


Often referred to as the bullet, slug, or shot; the projectile is the object expelled from the barrel. Usually made from lead, bullets come in various shapes, tips, and jackets. A slug is a solid lead projectile fired from a shotgun. A shot is a group of lead, steel, tungsten alloy, or bismuth pellets fired from a shotgun.


Shotgun shells contain one extra part known as the wad. The wad separates the projectile(s) from the powder. Made from paper or plastic, the wad prevents the gas from escaping through the shot and keeps it together as it passes down the barrel.

Fun Fact:

Guns like the blunderbuss used a black powder charge to propel any item its user packed into its barrel. Everything from traditional lead balls to sand and rocks.

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