Grains do not Refer to Gunpowder?

Gunpowder outside a cartridge

This may seem basic to some of you shooters out there, however the number of calls we get referring to this little misnomer may surprise you. When buying factory ammunition, referring to grains has nothing to do with how much gunpowder the cartridge has. The term grains refers to the projectile’s mass or weight.

A grain is a very small unit of measurement where there are 437.5 grains in an ounce. Therefore, if you were to purchase a box of .223 Brown Bear 55 Grain FMJ, the 55 refers to the mass of the bullet itself, not the entire cartridge—just the projectile.

Gunpowder outside a cartridge
Bullet, Powder, and Cartridge

Some of the confusion comes from the manufacturing and loading of cartridges. Many use grains as a unit of measurement when loading propellants in ammunition, so technically, those who say that grains refer to the propellant are partially correct. However, on a box of ammunition intended for purchase, the grains advertised almost always refer to the projectile’s mass. The term grains drew from the approximate unit of mass in one seed of cereal such as wheat or barley. Although no longer recommended, medical practitioners still use grains occasionally as part of the apothecaries’ system, especially in prescriptions for older medicines such as aspirin or Phenobarbital.

Sale ends July 28, 2019

Sale ends July 28, 2019

So why should you care how many grains your projectile weighs? Bullet weight affects the way it flies and how it performs when it hits its target. A heavier bullet travels slower but hits with more momentum, while a lighter bullet has a flatter trajectory and greater velocity. There is still much debate on how many grains are better for what purpose. For defensive ammunition, some people go with a heavy grain hollow point, while others prefer a lighter, faster bullet. I would encourage you to keep in mind that putting a round on target is far more important than how many grains it carries with it. Unless you are precision target shooting, hunting animals from great distances, or you are a career military or law enforcement sniper, then just go with the manufacturer’s recommended use for the round in question—it usually says it right on the box! For defensive purposes, my .45 ACP bullet of choice is Speer Gold Dot 230 grain ammunition. I like other brands too, but this has been my choice for years and I trust it as reliable ammunition. Shameless plug aside, I practice and train often with this load, and consequently, I know exactly how it shoots in my gun. Remember that besides using plinking ammunition, try to practice the way you fight. If you spend months becoming a proficient shooter with inexpensive target ammunition, you may find your gun performs differently with self-defense ammunition in play. This is not something you want to learn while trying to defend yourself.

Here is a quick ammunition acronym guide. Most of this information applies to pistol and rifle ammunition, shotgun shells are going to have to wait for another post!

  • FMJ – Stands for full metal jacket, which means the manufacturer encased the projectile in a hard metal exterior. The jacket allows for higher muzzle velocities than bare lead without depositing significant amounts of metal in the inside of the barrel. FMJ bullets do have some disadvantages. Soft tip or hollow point bullets expand upon impact, where FMJ ammunition does not. This lack of expansion causes less damage to soft targets such as animals and people. However, since FMJ bullets tend to penetrate hard targets more efficiently, the FMJ bullet is better suited for military applications, where shooting through armor and barriers is more likely. I should note that some gun ranges do not allow FMJ ammunition, so make sure you ask.
  • FPS – This refers to how many feet per second the bullet travels at its fastest velocity, usually at or near the muzzle. Lighter bullets usually have higher velocities.
  • JHP – Stands for jacketed hollow point. Manufacturers designed hollow points to expand in size once within the target. This maximizes tissue damage, blood loss, and shock. This also allows the bullet to remain inside the target, thereby transferring all of its kinetic energy to that target. Jacketed hollow points or plated hollow points contain a coating of harder metal to increase bullet strength and to prevent fouling the barrel with lead stripped from the bullet.
  • +P+ or +P – Refers to overpressure ammunition. This means that the manufacturer loaded the cartridge with a higher pressure than standard for the caliber. This typically produces rounds with higher muzzle velocities. Because of this, +P ammunition is typically found in handgun calibers which might be used for defensive purposes. Always find out first if your gun can handle a +P cartridge. Some firearms have injured shooters when the chambers failed to handle the blast.

I hope that we cleared up some of the ammo buying jargon you may run into. Buying ammunition can be a little daunting at first. Do your research before you arrive at the checkout counter, but remember that a well placed round, no matter what kind, is the right round for the job. The best-suited cartridge in the world does you no good if you miss your shot.

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 decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (29)

  1. I hate to admit it, I always thought grain was gun powder. I guess I should of known it referred to weight because the grain measurement also is commonly used extremely small amounts of gold, silver, etc. usually in coins.

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