Bullets fly through the pages of westerns, mysteries, thrillers, and war stories. They can pose editing problems when writing isn’t from actual experience. Often the worst sources are movies and television, although books are also fraught with misinformation.

For one thing, bullets are projectiles. Originally they were separate lead balls loaded down the muzzles of flintlock and cap ’n’ ball rifles and pistols. As self-contained ammunition evolved, the lead bullet changed shape and was incorporated into a brass casing with gunpowder and primer to form a cartridge. It’s okay for the average character to refer to cartridges as “bullets,” but a seasoned detective dictating details to her uniformed assistant probably would use more exact terms, as would the thoughts of an assassin choosing exactly the right cartridge for the job.

A few cartridges:


  • A .30-’06 shoots a copper jacketed bullet 30/100ths of an inch in diameter from a long, narrow-necked brass case designed in 1906.
  • Adopted by the military in 1954, a 7.62mm NATO is a shorter version of the .30-’06.
  • A .45-70 Government is a forty-five lead slug powered with seventy grains of black powder.
  • A .257 Roberts has a bullet measuring almost 26/100ths of an inch across. The cartridge was designed for medium game hunting by Ned Roberts.


  • A .22 Long Rifle is a forty-grain lead bullet used for hunting and target shooting in smallbore rifles and handguns.
  • A .38 Special was a popular military, police, and civilian cartridge for many decades.
  • A .357 Magnum is a hopped-up .38 Special. You can shoot .38s in a .357 revolver, but not vice versa.
  • Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum is no longer “the most powerful handgun in the world.” Even when it was, it could never literally “blow your head clean off.”


  • The 9mm Luger cartridge (9X19mm Parabellum) has been a mainstay of military semi-automatic pistols since 1908.
  • The .40S&W (Smith and Wesson) came out in 1990 and quickly became favored law enforcement tool.
  • The .45ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) is a cartridge adopted by the U.S. Army in 1911. It saw action in both world wars, Korea, and Vietnam until replaced by the 9mm. It’s now back in service.


  • The .410 is the only shotgun shell measured in calibers. The open bore of the “four-ten” is 41/100ths of an inch.
  • Popular gauges are 20, 20, and 12. The smaller the number, the bigger the bore. A 12 gauge bore is as large as twelve equal balls cast from one pound of lead.

Enough to numb our brains, right? At age 10, I began .22 competition in Moose Club postal matches and joined junior NRA. I served as an army instructor for ten years, Montana hunter educator 36 years, and NRA certified instructor from 1962 to the present. I still struggle to keep abreast of historical discoveries and new developments in firearms and ammo, so if you have a question, let me help. If I don’t know the answer, I know who does.