Ammunition

Throwback Thursday: All About Bullet Grain

Various kind of bullets with different bullet grain on dark stone table.

If you’re a new gun owner, you probably don’t really know what bullet grain means. You may look at a box of ammo, see “115-grain” written on the side, shrug, and flip it over to look at what you really care about: the price tag. Before you do that, take some advice from a few seasoned firearm aficionados and consider the grain for the ammunition you’re purchasing.

Why think about bullet grain, you may ask? Well, actually, the size, shape, and material your ammo is made out of affects factors such as accuracy, recoil, and terminal ballistics. Let’s check out what bullet grain really means and how it can make you a better overall marksman.

Editor’s note: this is an article for a new gun owner to explain the basic concepts of bullet grain and how weight may or may not impact the shooting experience. It does not imply there is a direct relationship between bullet grain and a shooter’s ability.

What Does ‘Bullet Grain’ Mean?

A grain (“gr” for short) is a basic unit of weight measurement. One grain is equal to 1/7,000 of a pound or 1/437.5 of an ounce. If you’re like me and have a hard time imagining realistically how much things weigh, here are some common household items I use as a guide to put things in perspective:

  • A new dime weighs about 34.5 grains
  • A dollar bill weighs about 15.4 grains
  • A sheet of printer paper weighs about 77 grains
  • A “AA” battery weighs roughly 385 grains

All bullets are classified based on their weight in grains. For example, the most common 9mm Luger cartridges have bullet weights of 115 grains, 124 grains, or 147 grains.

The range of bullet weights is actually much wider than what you might think, with the lightest being 17 grains such as in a .17 HMR round and the heaviest being upward of 700 grains such as the .50 BMG cartridges. Most rounds have a shorter standard range than that, though. One example is the classic AR-15 .223 cartridge, which ranges from 40–77+ grains with the standard being 55 grains. If you’re more of a 9mm Luger type, those usually come in options ranging between 60–160 grains.

A common misconception when it comes to the term “grain” is that the number on the ammo box is a reference to the amount of gunpowder in the cartridge (which, to be fair, gunpowder is also measured in grains if you’re into handloading). The label, however, is strictly speaking about the weight of the bullet (projectile that exits the barrel). Now that we’ve covered the basics of what “grain” refers to, let’s take a look at how you can use that knowledge to improve your shooting.

.22 LR Ammo Pile

Advantages of a Lighter Bullet

There are so many great options out there for ammunition. When choosing which type of cartridge to use, you’ll want to consider several factors such as the type of shooting you’ll be doing (hunting, plinking, self-defense, etc.) and which rounds feed better through your firearm. We’ll take those factors into account when comparing lighter-weight bullets to heavier weights, and also discuss how the grain of the bullet affects accuracy, recoil, and terminal ballistics.

Accuracy

With a lighter bullet, you generate more overall speed, which means a flatter trajectory. This makes lighter rounds excellent for longer-distance shooting. The lower-grain cartridges are also great for hunting if you plan on making longer shots at smaller game animals such as coyotes or prairie dogs.

One thing to watch out for, though, is wind. Because of the lighter weight, these bullets can be blown off course more easily.

Recoil

You may equate lighter bullets to lighter recoil, which may or may not be true based on the type of recoil management your gun has. Theoretically, though, a lighter bullet should have more recoil because of Newton’s “equal, but opposite reaction” theory. We already talked about lighter rounds having more energy and that energy must go somewhere…

So, instead of arguing the differences in recoil between light and heavy bullets, let’s leave it at this: firing lighter bullets usually feels “snappier,” while firing heavy bullets feels more like a “roll” or “pull.”

Bullets ammunition on stone table wide banner or panorama. Bullet background copy space. Rounds and ammo into 9mm hand gun.

Terminal Ballistics

Though you’ll get more speed with a lighter bullet, you do give up a certain amount of energy when talking terminal ballistics (aka how the bullet strikes the target). Less mass means your shot generally won’t carry as far into the target as a heavier round would, so you’ll want to be shooting at non-living targets or smaller game animals in order to keep things more humane.

To recap, lighter grain bullets will give you the advantage of speed and distance, making them perfect for competition or long-range shooting, but have snappier recoil and less penetrating energy when they hit the target.

Advantages of a Heavier Bullet

When you get into the higher-grain cartridges, you gain a lot in terms of effectiveness. Here’s how our heavier contenders stack up in terms of accuracy, recoil, and terminal ballistics.

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Accuracy

A heavier bullet is not going to go as far. So, if you take a 400-grain Buffalo Bore Dangerous Game round and try to hit a pig that’s 300 yards away, you’re probably going to miss what you were aiming at. But, on the flip side, the extra weight gives the bullet more stabilization against wind gusts. So, if you get within 100 yards of the pig, you’ll probably have a nice trophy to mount.

Realistically, if you’re just taking your firearm out to the range for some fun plinking, bullet weight won’t matter much. It will really just depend on what you can afford, and what your weapon likes best.

Recoil

Since recoil is calculated based on several factors including bullet weight, velocity, type of propellant, and design of the weapon, the bullet grain you choose will affect how much your shots will kick. How the shooter feels the recoil, though, is totally subjective, so even though a heavier round may technically generate recoil, it’s still a matter of how you personally perceive the blast.

One thing about heavier rounds that definitely reduces heavier recoil, is using subsonic rounds with a good suppressor. Subsonics are basically all heavier in weight and, with the aid of a suppressor, generate a small enough amount of energy to be absorbed very effectively.

Terminal Ballistics

Here’s where the heavier rounds really shine. If you want effectiveness for defensive situations, larger game, or combat, then higher-grain cartridges will get the job done. The heavier the bullet, the better expansion and penetration you’ll get on impact. This means quicker and more humane kills.

A pile of .223 ammunition

Conclusion: Bullet Grain

Many law-enforcement agencies are starting to choose rounds on the heavier side. The FBI, who landed on the Hornady Critical Duty 175-grain .40 S&W as its go-to. So, as you begin to think about how your choice in bullet weight will affect your shooting, keep these things in mind:

  • Lighter weight generally means more speed and distance, but also more recoil and less power at the target. Lighter bullets are good for competition and long-range shooting.
  • Heavier weight generally means more effectiveness, making them excellent for defense, large game, and combat.

No matter what ammo you choose, remember to experiment a bit to see what weights work best in your gun and don’t forget to have fun as you get to shooting.

What are your preferred bullet grain weights for different applications? Let us know in the comments section.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in August of 2020. It has been revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

About the Author:

Richard Douglas

Richard Douglas is a firearms expert and educator. His work has appeared on large publications like The National Interest, Daily Caller, American Shooting Journal, and more. In his free time, he reviews optics on his Scopes Field blog.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (29)

  1. Today I was shooting my 300 Win Mag, at 112 yards, using 150 gr Federal bullets, I was hitting the target very inconsistent. However, at the same distance using 180 gr Remington Core-Lokt bullets, my pattern was tight and consistent. Would anyone be able to explain why this might be?

  2. Today I was shooting my 300 Win Mag, at 112 yards, using 150 gr Federal bullets, I was hitting the target very inconsistent. However, at the same distance using 180 gr Core-Lokt bullets, my pattern was tight and consistent. Would anyone be able to explain why this might be?

  3. A) People stated a longer barrel creates less recoil…there are 2 primary reasons for this…1) a longer barrel weighs more thus less transference of energy…2) a longer barrel has more “rifling” and creates more spin on the bullet tranfering some of the kinetic energy to spin instead,

  4. There are some really smart people on this site. I paid a lot of money for a college education which included physics. I could have saved it by simply reading all these comments…at least to the degree of the physics presented.

  5. @larry
    I think you should know that you are also slightly mistaken. Energy does not equal mass x velocity, momentum = mass x velocity. Kinetic energy = 1/2mv^2.

    Secondly kinetic energy is not a good measurement to use when talking about firing a gun because firing a round is an explosive collision and kinetic energy in not conserved in explosive collisions. Instead we should momentum, because it is conserved.

    So you are actually correct in your conclusion that by simply having a lighter round will not effect the recoil.

    For anyone else reading this, it is because the firearm and round make what in physics we call a system, the firearm-round system has an initial momentum of 0 because both objects are at rest. Since momentum is conserved during explosive collisions, the momentum of the system will remain 0 after the bullet has been fired. this is because the forward momentum of the bullet is offset by the momentum of the firearm moving in the opposite direction (the velocity of the firearm is recoil). If you increase the mass of the bullet you will proportionally decrease its velocity and the bullets momentum (as well as the firearms) will remain the same, not effecting recoil.

    But ammo manufactures generally increase the force of the gunpowder that is used in higher grain bullets, meaning that the momentum of the higher grain bullet, and therefore the recoil of the gun, will be higher than its lower grain counterpart because of the gunpowder used in the rounds, not the bullets themselves.

  6. Richard,
    You need to go back to HS and re-learn basic physics. A simple study of Mass x Velocity = Energy would probably open yours eyes to how wrong you are.

    “This makes lighter rounds excellent for longer-distance shooting. ”
    Really? Ask any sniper shooting 308 if he would use a 168 gr bullet or a 172 gr bullet to hit something beyond 700yds.

    “Theoretically, though, a lighter bullet should have more recoil because of Newton’s “equal, but opposite reaction” theory. We already talked about lighter rounds having more energy and that energy must go somewhere…”
    OMG! See above MxV=energy

  7. I have to agree with Martin. The author has a very faulty understanding of basic physics. Galileo proved that gravity exerts the same force to all objects by his demonstration of dropping two balls of differing weights from high up on the leaning tower of Pisa, I believe. The two balls landed at the same time, much to the consternation of the onlookers. He had some other radical ideas that got him excommunicated, but later, the church revoked that cancellation when it turned out he was right.
    As far as the bullet weight and gravity, if a 200 gr bullet is travelling at 2,000 fps and is perfectly level, it will hit the ground at the same time that a 300 grain bullet will, if they are fired simultaneously, even if the heavier bullet is only moving at 800 fps. The distance each bullet travels is based on who long they were in the air before gravity caught up to them. It is reasonable to expect that the faster bullet will reach out about 2½ times the distance than the slower bullet. I say about because there are variables that must be accounted for, such as cross sectional density, wind resistance, etc. But, all things, meaning gravitational attraction on each bullet, being equal, both bullets will hit the ground at the same time if they are fired at the same time.
    As far as recoil, again, the author has a very faulty understanding of basic physics. I used to reload and I can tell you that he is not correct in saying a lighter bullet has more recoil. If one uploads a lighter bullet to a higher velocity, there will be more felt recoil in the higher velocity round over the slower. Just consider this, a Hornady 200 grain cartridge fired from a .460 S&W at 2200 fps will have a ME of 2149 ft/lbs and will give much more felt recoil than a Hornady 200 grain .454 Casull round fired from the same gun, but the .454 will only have a MV of 1950 fps and a ME of 1689. The felt recoil will be much less, which is why many shooters will practice with the .454 ammo. It is not as rigorous, and it is cheaper.
    Now, if you move up the chart to a heavier cartridge using the same weapon but, say a 300 grain Buffalo Bore that is “ONLY” pushing that slug at 1900 fps, your muzzle energy moves up to 2860 ft/lbs. No matter how you slice it, that recoil will be daunting to all be very seasoned and inured shooters. More shooters than not will be unable to tolerate that difference. Slower bullet, but more mass equals significant more felt recoil.
    I handloaded and shot .44 Mag for decades and there is a marked difference in recoil between a 200 grain cartridge and a 300 grain round fired from the same gun. Even loaded for a faster MV, the 200 grain cartridge, though it is daunting to many, is much less, let’s we say, rigorous when it comes to felt recoil. Anyone who disputes that probably has never fired either one.

  8. Very well put together piece. Quite impressed with the way in which it was presented in a concise practical manner summing up at each section what you really need to know and for what purpose ( and what shooter.

    KUDOS

  9. A point about the Physics: “For instance, the heavier bullets will drop more simply due to gravity”
    Not true. Weight has no effect on the drop due to gravitational force. The only effect is how long the object is subject to the force. The slower the bullet, the longer it takes to reach the same distance, the greater the gravity drop.
    Kick in Newton’s rules is the reaction to the applied force. Lighter bullets will not have more kick, it depends upon the propellant load as well. Momentum is Mass times Velocity and Kinetic Energy is 1/2 MV 2. If the Mass goes up and the same velocity is achieved the recoil will go up. If the Mass goes down and the same velocity is achieved the recoil will drop,. Increase the velocity due to greater propellant then the recoil of course will increase.
    Lastly numerous studies have now been done by the military and smaller diameter bullets have been found to cause greater internal damage often due to higher velocity but also because more of their energy is absorbed into the tissue- tumbling causing cavitation and greater tissue disruption is also a result.
    NATO adopted the5.56mm round years ago partly because of this effect (and because the ighter bullet is easier to carry in greater volumes plus less risk of collateral damage should a round hit a wall-it is less likely to penetrate).

  10. Andrew – I read your Aug 24 posting where you talked about the various bullet weight ammo you have been firing in your Kel Tec PF-9. Based on the weights you mentioned, I have to assume you are talking about 9mm ammo. I wish to point out that most calibers vary in their ammo greatly, both in power and velocity (MV although the 9mm is not one of those that varies ‘greatly’, but it does vary. So, when you are comparing ammo that you shoot, you also need to know what is power rating each is, or at very least, the muzzle velocity (MV). Some 124 gr 9mm ammo has a very low MV, and some MV are up there with the fast 115 gr ammo, and this is also the case for the 147 gr 9mm ammo as well.

    In my ballistics file, I show that some of the 124 gr 9mm ammo has a MV of only 1050 fps, which produces only 304 ft. lbs. of Muzzle Energy (ME – the power rating). Some 147 gr 9mm bullets have a MV of only 970 fps, which produces only 307 ft. lbs. of ME. These are weak loads. Then there are more powerful rounds in the 124 and 147 gr cartridges. Some 124 gr loads shoot at 1213 fps and 1283 fps, delivering 405 and 454 ft lbs. of ME! Whereas, a lot of the 115 gr 9mm ammo shoots at a MV of 1135-1246 fps, producing 329-396 ft. lbs. of ME. So, the point here is that the 9mm varies enough to make a fairly big impact on the kick you experience, depending on exactly type of round you are shooting, especially since you have a light gun! So, look more closely at the ammo you are shooting.

    Vincent (09-03-2020)

  11. I think that your statement: “Theoretically, though, a lighter bullet should have more recoil because of Newton’s old “equal and opposite reaction” theory.” can be misleading. If you shoot 3 cartridges through the same gun, each with progressively heavier bullets, I’m sure that the perceived, and felt recoil will also be progressively greater.

    1. Ken W – you are partially correct as the bullet gets heavier with the same power in the cartridge, the overall force goes up. In general, that means so does the kick. But the real story here is that a discussion just about the bullet and its weight (measured in grains) without discussing what the power charge is, is quite misleading. With most ammo manufacturers, especially in the handgun department, the more powerful rounds are either the heaviest grain bullets, or the second heaviest. This is because they load these cartridges with a powerful amount of powder. They are often looking for and offering power and knock down ability. Also, in most calibers and with most ammo manufacturers, the lighter grain bullets are aligned with mush less powerful cartridge loads. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but in general, this is the real world situation – the most powerful rounds per caliber (with the most kick, most accurate, most power) are with the heavier bullets.

      I shoot .357 Mag, .38 Spec (same gun), and in my other other Ruger single action revolver I shoot .45 ACP and .45 LC (with a cylinder swap). After looking at my extensive ballistics file, some of the exceptions I mentioned above the higher power with lighter bullets are with the small case calibers, like the 9MM and the .45 ACP. It is hard to get enough power into these smaller casings, so the trick to get ‘more power’ out of these calibers is to lower the bullet weight (less grains), and then the speed (MV) goes way up. Speed is far more important when calculating power than weight, so this works for these types of calibers. But when the casing size goes up (.357 Mag, 38 Spec, .45 Long Colt), then there is plenty of room to put enough powder into the casing and get the larger bullets to move really fast, and thus produce more power, more kick, and more accuracy.

      So, if you can get the smaller bullets to move really fast, then there is less kick, and more accuracy, but only up to a point accuracy wise, because the smaller grain bullets are impacted a lot more by the wind. Other things that can reduce kick are the weight of the gun, and the barrel length, where longer is less kick. This reduction in kick is true for any size bullet. And accuracy is a bit misleading as well. For instance, the heavier bullets will drop more simply due to gravity. So, when shooting at a long distance, this amount of drop needs to be known either mathematically, or by trial and error (empirical proof). One of the longest sniper shots was with a 50 cal shooting 660 grain bullets a distance of about 2 miles! He had to know how much this very heavy bullet would drop in that distance. So, accuracy then becomes how small a groping will the gun do time after time at any given distance. Hence, the length of the barrel has a direct impact on this, as well as the type and make of the gun. Some guns have greater distances between the cylinder and barrel, and some have less rifling.

      Vincent (09-03-2020)

  12. At the moment, my only handgun is a Kel Tec PF-9. It has a very slim profile and no padding or ergonomic benefit in the grip. I find that 115-grain is the most comfortable bullet to shoot with it consistently. 124-grain can be shot, but the is much more fatiguing for the hand after a couple magazines. The 147-grain shells were not an option, because the barrel flip was too strong for me hit a soda can that was only 7 yards or so away. I couldn’t keep the gun on target with the 147-grain.

    I look forward to getting another handgun that has a bit more weight to it and a more comfortable grip so that I can use a higher grain for self-defense and improve the chances of me hitting my target.

  13. I didn’t know that the grain in commercial ammo didn’t have anything to do with the amount of powder in it. How about that! Thanks for the info, learn something new all the time!

  14. Good information, I would add that accuracy can suffer with very light bullets(40-45 gr) in cartridges like 223 Rem and 22-250. The high velocity can cause the bullet to destabilize. Likewise a heavy bullet may not be suited for some rifles or pistols, the rifle may not be set up for heavier bullets(due to twist). A 10 mm pistol will do better with 180 gr than 155 grain, a 40 S&W usually does better with 150-165 he. A 38 special will be more accurate with bullets 110 -158 gr, a 357 Mag with 158 to 180 gr.

  15. Great bullet information.
    Can you send me the same type of information on shotgun shell choice for duck and goose hunting. I typically use a 12 gauge 870 Pump or one of several semi-autos chambered for 2 3/4- 3”.
    Thank you and take care.
    Lehrue
    08/22/2020

  16. My favorite bullet for EOD shooting (end of day) is the 17HMR. I have 3 different scope bearing rifle models chambered in that round. (It was 2 as I buy two guns of the same caliber but usually two different manufacturers that shoot the same round so both my wife and I can shoot (usually by EOD at the table with bean bag rests), at the same time which is always fun shooting at the same 4 or 5 metal targets that we set starting at around 25yds and end up with the last being around 150yds.
    (We use Hornady’s “V-Max” 17 grain and 20 grain bullets (weights)).
    This is our “cool down” period after practicing for as much as 200rds each with her 9mm and my 45ACP for our newly found love of USPSA/IPSC Steel Challenge open/major and minor classes. The 17HMR’s are relief as we get to sit now and use our table/bag rests for a little bolt action-no felt recoil and much flatter trajectory USUALLY:

    As far as grains go (skipping all my opinionated grain comments with the pistols as I just get myself into a lump of troubling responses when I put my opinions regarding the larger spread of grain weight with the 9 and 45 spread and type of brand/powder used vs my take on it all which I assume is more shooter shortcoming(s) than grain facts for my experiences)

    So back to the 17hmr fun or NO fun as I will explain and perhaps endorse Mr. Jack Wilson’s excellent article that I couldn’t improve upon so rather I am going to give my experience shooting these “smallest” rimfire bullets.
    (I just added the Ruger bolt action Precision Rifle also chambered in 17hmr to my Marlin model 17V, and my Savage Model 93R17 all with heavy at least semi floating barrels. They’ve all been garnished with Vortex Diamondback scopes but I still have the original scopes that came with the older two rifles.
    Here is the Fun/No fun EOD “cool down” which is a metaphor when you live in a city that was 116 last week and had not dipped lower than 112 for about a month lol. We end up using our 17’s just before dusk starts to settle in which is USUALLY the other CALM no wind part of day other than early morn (up to but not usually past 7am). At 100yds+ with winds only at 5-8 mph the 17 grain projectiles will kill your attempts at sub or MOA groupings or actually keeping the clusters inside a 2” margin. In fact, in the beginning I actually cursed the Hornadys as being a round check at the factory at the rate of one pallet! (But of course it wasn’t meee). Good part was it was NOT me or the wife but also not Hornady’s either as they are very nice and consistent rounds.
    What was it? (At only 100yds?!). The small gusts of wind. (I am only guessing the cross winds to be under 10mph and may have been a little more but the fact of the matter was that at 17grains, these wonderfully performing rounds were being thrown all over the place by the wind because of their light weight. When using the 20 grand Rounds also by Hornady Vmax, And in that same wind condition 10 minutes later when I switched Ammo I was able to keep the hits at least on the 8 inch target at 100 yards but beyond that, worthless.
    So my points or actually Mr. Wilson’s point is solid as can be because on a small scale you see the effects of the wind greatly affecting your accuracy. This can be found in the same matter using the light weight maybe 80 grain 9 mm when attempting 50 yard plus shots. I love 17 HMR for planking and they are such a flat shooting bullet up to 150 and sometimes 200 for me anyway. But I just wanted to point out the fact that this one element of grain weight is something 1 should pay particular a close attention to when trying to shoot with any accuracy in windy conditions. Of course it takes more when to veer a nine or a 45 but it is not something to take lightly when choosing your weight and or versus a windy day. Much more than that as the article explains but that is my personal experience With light weights or low green count bullets. Hope this helps in some small way the way sort of piggybacked off of Mr. Jack Wilson’s already told story of the facts of grain weight. I shoot by the way, from 17 HMR to my just sold (partially because of the hike in ammo cost and the fact I don’t have any reloading equipment today) 338 Lapua.
    Thanks for reading this long Winded explanation of my personal experience

  17. I personally CC a Glock 23. I do my own reloading also. In my reloading experience, I have settled on a 180 grain Hornady HAP round for practice and the XTP for CC. Both are identical with the exception that the HAP does not have cannulars. I’ve always heard that it’s best to practice with what you are going to shoot. This gives me the best way to do so with a lower cost of not having to actually shoot all up my carry ammo. Just something to think about.

  18. Nice intro. Mayne the firmula for kinetic energy would help illustrate the point you are trying make. Also, does anyone use the Hornady HITS scale to illustrate relative effect of the round?

  19. I use my GLOCK as a defensive weapon. My range will not be 50 yards. Most conflicts are within 20-30 feet and that is why I prefer HST 147 HP +P. And I practice with 147 Federal. This allows me to be as accurate as possible. When dealing with self-defense, penetration and having control of your back ground is critical. God forbid the day we have to use our weapons, but I will be ready to defend and protect my family.

  20. I really enjoy the Shooter’s Log information that is in your emails. This helps me understand more about shooting. Thanks.

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