Ammunition Advances  An In-Depth Review

Ammunition Advances An In-Depth Review


Computer-aided design, advanced metallurgy, polymer composites, material forming technology and propellant formulation enable today’s ammunition advances, and that subsequently drives weapon design, not the reverse. That said, it is important to remember that claims associated with ammunition performance are almost always subjective or exaggerated.


True Velocity’s composite-cased ammo is far less expensive to manufacture, significantly lighter to carry and can replace brass-cased ammunition in every application. Linked 7.62 NATO shown above.

Manufacturers are zealous to recover their research, development and manufacturing investments. Firearms manufacturing and retailer sales are all about profit, while government program managers who make the big number buys are eager to score a win for their particular program as a matter of job security. In the end, it comes down to a hit or miss for the consumer and even that depends upon how technically savvy the individual consumer may be. How then is one supposed to decide?


Textron’s newest cased-telescoped 6.8mm ammunition linked for their CTSAS machine gun. This ammo is approximately 40% lighter and takes up only 12% of the volume of conventional bottleneck metallic cartridges.

Ammunition performance testing takes many forms as does its data analysis. Formal operational testing (OT), based on a formal operational test plan (search OPTEVFOR), is an objective means by which operational testing performance can be achieved. Its resulting data can be validated and analyzed without subjective bias. OT requires that a formal operational test plan is strictly followed, and that presents both a problematic and expensive process for ammunition and firearms developers. The default is to provide a selected military or law enforcement unit(s) the opportunity to “shoot” a particular new weapon and/or ammunition. Based upon their subjective feedback of that particular experience, the product is deemed “tested.” Thus, glowing product praise is routinely assigned, no matter how objectively unqualified it might be, and everyone in the consumer community largely accepts the product as tried, tested and proven.


But history offers more insight. The Cold War led to small arms procurement primarily focused on NATO interoperability, and the 5.56 NATO-firing AR platform became the assault rifle mainstay. As a result of our wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East spanning the past 60 years, attention has been given to the war-fighting adequacy of the U.S. military’s current in-service arsenal of small arms and ammunition.


Much of today’s ammunition hype revolves around “new” rounds like the 6.5mm Creedmoor and the 6.8mm Remington SPC (Special Purpose Cartridge). In reality, there is nothing new about either except for the substitution of caliber designation with a millimeter designation and a slightly altered cartridge case and load. For example, the 6.5mm uses the same bullet as the .264 Winchester Magnum (.264 WinMag), and the 6.8mm uses the same bullet as the .270 Winchester. Both the.264 WinMag and the .270 Winchester have been available off-the-shelf for half a century.


What is the difference between the comparable legacy calibers and the “new” rounds? The answer is not a whole lot that matters. Felt recoil between the same caliber and corresponding millimeter cartridges is comparable and so is the projectile’s delivered energy on target using comparable loads. Accuracy claims are always an amalgamation consisting of a number of factors contributing to operational performance, but there are two fundamental elements that can be used to interpolate a round’s effectiveness—projectile weight (mass) and velocity. Projectile shape is also a contributing factor to ballistic flight characteristics. For example, each bullet diameter (caliber) has an individual “ideal” length to diameter, to shape, to weight ratio that provides its best ballistic trajectory (stable flight and range) at a given velocity (faster is not necessarily more accurate). That “ideal” formula is well understood and generally followed by ammunition manufacturers; although there is some really ridiculous ammunition available that has absolutely zero operational purpose other than it’s “cool looking.”


Another accuracy factor is barrel quality (material construction and machining accuracy) and barrel life expectancy. For the purpose of comparative example, a rifle or machine gun chambered in 7.62 NATO has an average barrel life of between 5,000 and 8,000 rounds. The same rifle or machine gun chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor has an average barrel life of only 1,200 to 1,500 rounds. The Creedmoor’s significantly reduced lifespan is the result of its higher velocity’s wear and tear on the gun’s bore. And the answer is “YES” to the question you’re probably thinking: Can’t the gun barrel be manufactured from a stronger alloy that resists wear? The problem is the cost of using exotic materials.


Comparatively, the combat-proven 7.62 NATO round (.308 Winchester) generally performs better all around than either the .264 or the .270, with recognition that the counterargument to this falls into niche categories outside general use. Additionally, the 7.62 NATO cartridge is available in a wider range of bullet weights, shapes and off-the-shelf loads. Therefore, replacing the 7.62 NATO round with either the 6.5mm or 6.8mm round for general service use has questionable operational advantage or a clear return on investment (ROI).


In a weight reduction effort, the feasibility of caseless ammunition, polymer-cased ammunition and a hybrid metal-based with polymer-cased upper cartridge was explored as a weight and cost reduction solution several decades ago. None of these were proven to be operationally suitable, combat reliable or cost-effective, and, therefore, none were adopted.


Caseless ammunition made its way into the U.S. Army’s Advanced Combat Rifle Program, but caseless ammunition was little more than a flash in the ammunition pan when the Army cancelled the program because of reliability issues and the ammo’s lack of interoperability with all other conventional rifles and pistols. However, it did help pave the way to Textron’s development of Cased-Telescoped Ammunition (CTA) for use in uniquely designed small arms that fire it.


Caseless ammunition components included a solid propellant charge, primed at the base, with the bullet encased inside a cavity in the propellant. A protective plastic cap was placed on its front end to both help secure the bullet inside the propellant cavity and protect the nose of the round from chipping during feeding. The round has inherent reliability flaws and was discontinued.

With that as the segue, we will briefly examine new ammunition offerings available today and on the horizon. Some make sense, and some are plainly pushing the envelope of sound operational logic, not to mention return on investment—you be the judge.


Cased-Telescoped Ammunition (CTA)

In partnership with Heckler and Koch (HK) and Winchester, Textron has developed the next generation of CTA (with a focus on the 6.8mm projectile). Winchester–Olin is manufacturing the CTA while HK has designed the special magazine and belt-fed, gas-operated CTA weapons suite and will produce these specialized guns in conjunction with Textron. This has become known as the Cased-Telescoped Small Arms Systems (CTSAS) program.


What exactly is CTA? It’s a very curious-looking ammunition design that doesn’t track with any conventional ammunition shape. The CTA cartridge looks like a polymer tube about 1 ½ inches long and ½ inch in diameter. On the breech end it has a conventional primer in its center. On the muzzle end it has what looks like a second smaller tube inserted inside the larger outer tube. The smaller tube carries a 6.8mm bullet inside (by the way, this cartridge is fully scalable to larger calibers).


Here’s how it works. The gun’s firing pin strikes the primer, igniting the compacted smokeless powder propellant contained in the main tube body. As the gas pressure increases, the inside tube, holding the conventional 6.8mm round, extends forward, telescoping into the gun’s chamber, creating the necessary gas check (seal). As combustion pressure rapidly develops inside the cartridge case, the round (6.8mm bullet) releases from its telescoped tube (similar to the bullet leaving a conventional metallic cartridge case’s neck) and begins its transit down the gun’s rifled bore spinning into stable ballistic flight, just like any other conventionally fired bullet. The important point here is that a comparable conventional load with comparable bullet will perform the same throughout its ballistic flight downrange.


There are some advantages to cased-telescoped ammunition. Round for round, CTA is about 40% lighter than metallic cased ammunition. In addition, the CTA rounds use compacted propellant, which has better burn characteristics so it requires less case volume compared to conventional, loosely filled cartridge case propellant. This means CTA is approximately 12% the volume of similar caliber metallic cased ammunition, so it’s lighter and takes less overall space.


CTA ballistics, as mentioned previously, are comparable to conventional ammunition of the same caliber and bullet weight. CTA advertises improved accuracy, but that is scientifically questionable. Accuracy is the sum total of multiple variables such as the gun barrel quality, twist, caliber, bullet weight, balance and aerodynamic shape, velocity, gun sights being used, environmental conditions, shooter’s ability and so on, not the ammunition and/or gun alone.


CTSAS guns are about 20% lighter overall. For example, the 6.8mm CTA-firing machine gun variant weighs in at 14.5 pounds, compared to the Army’s current 21.8-pound M240L lightweight (7.62 NATO) machine gun. Additionally, because CTA ammunition telescopes, the CTSAS machine gun’s chamber is separated from the barrel; therefore lowering the risk of “cook off” during periods of sustained automatic fire. This claim may be true, but there is questionable thermodynamics involved for heat dissipation.


Conventional metallic ammunition extracts about 60% of the combustion-generated heat with each spent cartridge. The remaining 40% sinks into the gun barrel and receiver. That’s why guns get hot when they’re fired rapidly. Polymer (CTA) ammunition doesn’t carry (sink) heat; so how is the heat from propellant combustion managed and dissipated from the gun? Unquestionably, there is heat generated by propellant combustion, and that heat must go somewhere. Textron claims less heat is generated by its compacted propellant, but currently provides no clear explanation within the known Law of Thermodynamics that accounts for the dissipation of heat from sustained automatic fire.


There are additional legal and treaty issues needing resolution by Textron and (mostly) Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier, before CTSAS can be adopted into general service use by U.S. forces. CTA requires a special family of cased-telescoped weapons to fire it. Conventional weapons cannot be converted to fire CTA and vice versa. That means neither the ammunition nor the CTSAS weapons are NATO-interoperable and therefore fall outside the NATO STANAG requiring ammunition interoperability.


Further, U.S. law dictates U.S. forces interoperability with our NATO allies. This leaves cased-telescoped weapons and ammunition in the “special use” category, and that in itself is a legal show stopper for its replacement as DoD’s main battle rifle and light machine gun dedicated to CTA. Nonetheless, cased-telescoped ammunition and the special weapons that fire it are a step forward in the world of firearms technology, and Textron is leading that charge. For more information see


SIG SAUER’s Hybrid Bi-metal Cartridge

On September 3, 2019, SIG SAUER, Inc., Newington, NH, announced the official award of a U.S. Army contract for the Next Generation Squad Weapons (NGSW). The primary objectives set forth by the U.S. Army for the NGSW-AR was a weapon with the firepower and range of a machine gun, coupled with the precision and ergonomics of a rifle. The award encompassed the complete SIG SAUER system consisting of SIG’s hybrid ammunition, a lightweight machine gun and rifle that includes suppressors. Utilized in both weapons, SIG’s 6.8mm (.27 caliber) hybrid ammunition is an interesting advance in ammunition, design, manufacturing and material metallurgy, not because of the 6.8mm round it fires, but rather the bi-metal cartridge.


Caseless ammunition components included a solid propellant charge, primed at the base, with the bullet encased inside a cavity in the propellant. A protective plastic cap was placed on its front end to both help secure the bullet inside the propellant cavity and protect the nose of the round from chipping during feeding. The round has inherent reliability flaws and was discontinued.

SIG’s newly developed, high-pressure, 6.8x51mm hybrid ammunition is designed for increased penetration at greater range. SIG’s hybrid ammunition also achieves an important 20% reduction in cartridge weight by attaching a brass cartridge case (body) to a proprietary metallic alloy base. That’s right—a bi-metal cartridge case using dissimilar ferrous and non-ferrous metals that somewhat resembles an off-the-shelf 7.62x51mm NATO bottleneck rimless metallic cartridge.

In order to prevent metal seam separation between the alloy cartridge base and brass case upper, a lock washer (of sorts) is used between the two metals as a means to prevent case and base separation from dissimilar expansion coefficients when fired. The method SIG is using to manufacture their hybrid ammunition is otherwise proprietary, and their engineering department is not returning calls.

As outlined in the recent award, SIG SAUER will deliver a complete SIG SAUER system inclusive of the SIG SAUER 6.8x51mm hybrid ammunition, lightweight machine gun, rifle and accompanying suppressors. SIG has historically manufactured quality firearms, and no doubt their superb track record will continue. Visit


DSG Technology’s CAV-X bi-metal dual core super cavitation bullets fly a straight path in air or water and through the transition from one to the other (

Polymer Composite Cartridge Case

It’s being manufactured and it’s available now. True Velocity, headquartered in Garland, TX, currently offers 5.56 NATO, 7.62 NATO, .338 NORMA, .50 BMG and 12.7×108 ammunition in its proprietary polymer composite case design. True Velocity’s composite case manufacturing utilizes scalable technology from 5.56 NATO through 14.5mm. This production technology allows rapid design modifications. True Velocity can also meet your packaging needs, including linked belts and individual rounds. Because they’re using composite munitions, they can offer the casing in multiple colors to match the operating environment, thereby lowering the battle signature. They can further color-code the composite casing to match a projectile type and load, making it distinctive and readily distinguishable from other ammunition. Remarkably, True Velocity loads all projectiles and powders with match-grade accuracy.


Unlike metallic-cased ammunition, the composite casing does not carry heat. True Velocity claims the weapon remains cooler, and the spent casing is cool to the touch. They also claim their ammunition provides substantial flash reduction because the gases exiting the bore are not superheated and therefore are below the flash point. These claims are made without the benefit of formal OT (as previously discussed).


True Velocity’s composite case ammo is easier to carry because it’s 30% lighter than brass casing ammunition of the same quantity and caliber. With casings that are 100% recyclable, the reduction in heavy metal byproducts also translates to reduced environmental impact. True Velocity’s “Lean is Our Culture” slogan is indeed a fact. True Velocity’s agile production technology reduces the required manufacturing footprint by 80% when compared to a traditional brass casing manufacturing facility. See

Tracer Ammunition

Traditional tracer rounds have a bullet base filled with a magnesium-based pyrotechnic incendiary compound that‘s ignited when the round is fired, leaving a bright glowing trail (usually red or orange in color) behind the bullet as it streaks downrange. This allows the shooter to visually track (trace) the rounds’ actual flight path. Tracer ammo is most often linked into machine-gun-belted ammunition to provide the gunner immediate visual feedback of his bullet string’s trajectory and target hit proximity. This is especially useful when using fully automatic fire against moving targets and suppressing enemy fire.


However, this bright inflight glowing tracer tail comes at a price. It marks the bullet’s entire flight path from beginning to end, making the firing source location easily identifiable from both the sending and receiving ends. Additionally, because tracer rounds are incendiary and burn until their pyrotechnic is fully consumed, they will usually set fire to anything flammable where they come to rest downrange. For this reason, tracers are prohibited at nearly every indoor and outdoor range in the U.S. with the exception of specially designated military ranges. Another shortcoming of tracer rounds is that they are traditionally only available in NATO calibers, e.g., 5.56, 7.62 and .50 caliber, and this misses a huge consumer market of sportsmen shooters who shoot a variety of rifle and pistol calibers.


Can tracer ammunition be made non-incendiary, safe for indoor and outdoor range use, cost-effective and available across multiple popular calibers? Headquartered in Scottsdale, AZ, with its manufacturing facility in Payson, AZ, AMMO, Inc. ( has developed a cool non-incendiary tracer solution they named “Streak Ammunition.”


Streak Ammunition is a non-incendiary “cool tracer.” They achieve this by replacing the incendiary magnesium-based pyrotechnic with a non-flammable eco-friendly strontium aluminate (glow-in-the-dark) powder mixed with clear enamel. These new phosphorescent tracer rounds achieve a similar visual nighttime effect by using the same glow-in-the-dark ingredient used in many watch faces, gauge faces and kids’ glow-in-the-dark toys. When exposed (charged) to a light source, strontium aluminate compound glows brightly for a limited time after that light source exposure is removed. Streak Ammunition uses the flash from firing the gunpowder propellant as the light source to activate (charge) the strontium aluminate compound coating the rear cavity of the tracer bullet.


At night, the visual effect is nearly identical to a conventional tracer round as it streaks downrange. Another very important advantage is that Streak Ammunition tracers offer a restricted 30-degree rear-viewing angle. This means these tracers can only be viewed from the shooter’s end, not the receiving end, thus keeping the shooter’s position unmarked. Streak Ammunition’s disadvantage is that it simply does not glow bright enough to see in bright daylight. This ammunition is now in full production and will soon be available off-the-shelf in several colors for most popular calibers.


Saboted Light Armor Penetrator (SLAP)

SLAP ammunition is uniquely designed to penetrate lightly armored vehicles and aircraft and barrier armor more efficiently than conventional steel-core, or tungsten-core, armor-piercing ammunition. Designed for use in small arms, SLAP rounds can be safely fired through a conventional gun’s rifled bore without damage or any special gun modification.


Think of a shotgun shell as an analogy. In the same manner a shotgun shell uses a plastic shot cup (wad) to carry the shot down the bore, SLAP design incorporates a polymer sabot (sabot is a French word meaning wooden shoe) that carries a lesser diameter tungsten penetrator projectile down the gun’s bore. So—the sabot’s outside diameter matches the bore diameter and carries within it a smaller diameter, lightweight, high-density, sub-caliber projectile down the gun’s bore. As the sabot leaves the gun barrel, the sabot “undergoes” immediate and profound aerodynamic lift that instantaneously strips it away from the sub-caliber projectile it’s carrying. In this manner, the sabot comes to an almost immediate halt, and it “slingshots” the SLAP projectile (it’s carrying) to extreme velocity. By design, the spin-stabilized, sub-caliber SLAP projectile has greatly increased sectional density (mass), especially if it employs a heavy metal tungsten or depleted uranium core.


SLAP ammunition has been in production since 1985 by the Winchester Cartridge Company and Olin Corporation ( The sabot that contains the sub-caliber SLAP round is manufactured by Cytec Industries. SLAP ammunition is produced in two NATO calibers, 7.62×51mm NATO (.308 Winchester) and 12.7×99mm NATO (.50 BMG). The 7.62×51mm round is designated as the M948 (standard) and M959 (tracer). The 12.7×99mm (.50 BMG) round is designated as the M903 (standard) and M962 (tracer). SLAP, by nature of its design, cannot be efficiently scaled down below 7.62mm. However, it is easily scaled-up to larger bore guns and renamed “APDS” (armor-piercing discarding sabot).


Armor-piercing discarding sabot (APDS)

APDS is a form of kinetic energy projectile fired from a rifled-barrel gun to attack armored targets. APDS rounds are sabot rounds, firing a spin-stabilized armor-penetrating sub-projectile. Like SLAP ammunition, its small arms equivalent, APDS ammunition can nearly double the armor penetration of a small caliber gun, compared to armor-piercing (AP), armor-piercing—capped (APC), or armor-piercing, capped, ballistic-capped (APCBC) projectiles.


APDS technology is not new, and it actually preceded SLAP ammunition. In fact, its development began in France prior to the 1940 Franco-German Armistice. Resulting from the project engineers fleeing France to escape the Nazi’s occupation, APDS projectile technology was honed in the United Kingdom from 1941 to 1944. In mid-1944, the UK was first to operationally field the APDS projectile for use in their QF 6-pounder anti-tank gun.


However, these early APDSs had low sectional density and high aerodynamic drag, resulting in poor “carrying power” (meaning the round rapidly lost velocity and penetration over distance). As a means to eliminate these negative factors, the engineers designed a flowerpot-shaped outer sheath (sabot) that was immediately discarded upon leaving the bore.


Today, the front end of the pot (sabot) has 3 to 4 petals, depending on the bore diameter, that are covered with a bore-centering band (usually made from a sacrificial nylon derivative material). This design provides the high-density APDS core / projectile with unencumbered bore acceleration, high muzzle velocity and downrange carrying power while eliminating the consequences of high drag in flight.


Newer medium-caliber APDS cores are constructed from a frangible high-density alloy. These projectiles are called Frangible Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot, or FAPDS, when employed as APDS types. When they’re used as full-caliber projectiles they’re called FRAP rounds (Frangible Armor Piercing) because during target penetration, the projectile’s frangible core fragments into numerous high-velocity pieces. On a lightly armored target, the effect is akin to a high explosive incendiary round, but with the addition of a lethal cloud of dense high-velocity fragments penetrating deep into the target’s interior—it’s not survivable for those inside. When striking heavy armor, the FAPDS’s effect is more akin to a standard APDS, only with higher fragmentation of the core and subsequently, higher lethality if the armor is penetrated.


Penetrator with Enhanced Lateral Effect (PELE)

In case you’re not sufficiently mind-boggled by now, the FAPDS is also known as a Penetrator with Enhanced Lateral Effect (PELE). But PELE has some very subtle design modifications. It is fuzeless ammunition without any explosives that leverages its material design composition to get an explosive-like physical effect upon impact with a hard armored surface. PELE’s effectiveness derives from its design and material construction using the combination of two dissimilar density materials.


The projectile’s outer body is constructed from high-density steel or tungsten material. The inner core consists of a low-density aluminum or plastic material. When the PELE projectile impacts a target, the high-density outer component penetrates the target material. However, the low-density inner component, which has a much lower penetration performance, is dramatically slowed upon target impact. This inertia-to-mass mismatch causes a tremendous instantaneous pressure build-up inside the projectile that easily reaches values in the region of gigabars and mimics the effects of a high-explosive-shaped charge against the target.


The result is the projectile disintegrates (explodes) into a large number of highly lethal, high-velocity fragments that will punch through nearly most material like light armor, block walls, frame, body armor, etc. Better, the number and size of the fragments is adjustable as a function of the projectile‘s physical dimensions and material construction. Even better, the PELE effect is scalable to larger calibers and can be achieved by using non-exotic standard ammunition construction materials.


Reduced Range Cartridge

Nammo, headquartered in Raufoss, Norway, has developed and qualified a new .50-caliber, Reduced Range (RR) cartridge for training on smaller ranges where the normal 5-mile downrange danger area must be radically reduced. While not designed as a training round, it absolutely provides affordable training options never before available. The downrange safety template of the cartridge is the same as standard 7.62mm NATO rounds, so warfighters and law enforcement snipers can train with .50-caliber weapons at ranges previously approved for 7.62mm and below, or by carving up an existing .50-caliber range into several smaller sites. Some users are also interested in the RR cartridge for combat in urban operations where line-of-sight is limited, and there is high concern about collateral damage. The Nammo round has the same ballistics as NATO standard .50-caliber ammo to about 800m (875 yards), and accuracy has been demonstrated to be better than standard .50-caliber Ball/AP ammo within this range. The Nammo .50-caliber Reduced Range ammunition is qualified in accordance with NATO specifications and already fielded by several countries for use in both machine guns and rifles. Visit


EXACTO—Command-Guided Ammunition

EXACTO (Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance) is the research and development (R&D) program headed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) for round guidance technology, involving a combination of “fire and forget” technologies currently applied to guided .50-caliber rounds. EXACTO .50-caliber rounds can make course corrections in mid-flight. As part of a DARPA-funded project, Teledyne and Orbital ATK’s Armament Systems Division developed this round and its guidance system. While the program officially ended in 2017, the EXACTO program developed new approaches and advanced capabilities to improve the range and accuracy of sniper systems beyond the current state of the art.


EXACTO—.50-caliber command guided projectile can make course corrections in mid-flight. As part of a DARPA-funded project, Teledyne and Orbital ATK’s Armament Systems Division developed this round and its guidance system.

DARPA’s program manager, Jerome Dunn, described it like this: “EXACTO’s specially designed ammunition [employs] a real-time optical guidance system to track and direct the [.50-caliber] projectiles to their targets by compensating for weather, wind, target movement and other factors that can otherwise impede successful hits. True to DARPA’s mission, EXACTO demonstrated what was once thought impossible: the continuous guidance of a small-caliber bullet to target. Live-fire demonstration from a standard rifle showed that EXACTO is able to hit moving and evading targets with extreme accuracy at sniper ranges unachievable with traditional rounds. Fitting EXACTO’s guidance capabilities into a small .50-caliber size [round] is a major breakthrough and opens the door to what could be possible in future guided projectiles across all calibers.”


Exactly how they’ve achieved this quantum advancement in bullet guidance can only be imagined. It is believed they use a spin-stabilized projectile with internal and/or external aero-actuation control methods equipped with projectile guidance technologies, tamper proofing and macro-power supplies. The round’s guidance system consisting of advanced sighting, optical resolution and clarity technology components remains classified, as does the bullet’s guidance technology. It is likely that this program has been moved into DARPA’s “black” program side. Perhaps one day guided bullet technology will emerge and become available, but as of today that is only wishful thinking. For more information see


12-Ga. Shotgun Special Purpose Ammo

The 12-gauge shotgun is perhaps the most versatile, most widely used gun for sporting purposes, home defense and law enforcement. As such, 12-gauge shotgun ammunition offers the widest selection of loads available for any off-the-shelf gauge or caliber gun. Shot-filled shells are most commonly used for across-the-broad applications, but there are other far more exotic loads available designed for special purpose use. While most of these shells aren’t cheap ($5 dollars or more per round), they generally perform as advertised. Here are some examples.


The 12-gauge shotgun offers the widest variety of conventional and exotic loads than any other firearm in existence. This picture depicts a sampling of both.

Triple Threat Round. This home defense specialty shotgun round is available in a variety of different names. It’s loaded in three layers consisting of a half-length slug, No. 8 birdshot and No.4 buckshot. Its effectiveness is limited by the range / distance / proximity to the target. The advantage a slug + birdshot + buckshot combo offers in a single shot is debatable, but the marketing concept sounds lethal.

Flechette Round. Flechette is a French word that means little arrow. Flechettes resemble miniature steel arrows. Like arrows, they have arrow-style points and stabilizing fins on the trailing end. The 1-inch long, 12-gauge versions are bundled inside the 12-gauge shot cup (wad) which acts as a sabot to carry the flechette bundle down the shotgun’s bore, releasing them into ballistic flight as the shot cup strips off from aerodynamic drag. The flechettes continue downrange and pierce through (like a straw in an apple) nearly anything they encounter with the exception of hard armor, stone, steel, thick wood and bone. They can penetrate soft body armor with little effort, and they will completely pass through soft body tissue, leaving little visible surface damage. The maximum effective range is about 30 to 40 yards. U.S. Navy SEALs first used 12-gauge flechette rounds during the Vietnam War, but found later in the war that 00 buckshot had far more immediate stopping power.


Metal Piercing Discarding Sabot (MPDS). Much like a rifled slug used for hunting, this round uses a sabot-carried, 500-grain, heat-treated proprietary-alloy, heavy metal slug designed for metal penetration. The slug rides in a sabot and makes no direct contact with the bore. Leaving the muzzle-end at a velocity of around 1,700 ft/sec, the sabot is discarded as it is subjected to aerodynamic lift. The slug has a bottom heavy hourglass shape that helps stabilize its in-flight ballistic trajectory. This projectile will easily break an engine block or penetrate through both sides of a car and continue on. These 12-gauge rounds perform as advertised and should not be taken trivially.


.50-cal. BMG Shotgun. This 12-gauge round actually contains a .50 BMG / M17 Tracer round that is carried by two sabot sleeves to maintain straight alignment throughout its travel down the bore. The incendiary tracer lights when the round is fired and burns about 3 to 4 seconds, offering about a 400m tracer burnout. It is inherently inaccurate because the .50-caliber round is not spin- or fin-stabilized. For example, at 400m a typical elevation hold of about 30 feet above the target is necessary. This round has little practical value other than its “nasty” unfired look.


Bolo Round. Like a hand-thrown bolo that whirls during flight to entangle its target, this 12-gauge shotgun round is constructed by using a short length of flexible steel wire to connect two lead slugs together. Coiled into a shot cup to carry it down the bore, the miniature bolo is released as the shot cup strips away as it leaves the muzzle. The bolo round then swirls its way downrange to mash and entwine a live target at ranges of 30 to 40 yards. The effectiveness of this round against dog-size animals and/or large goose-size birds is marginal. The round sounds interesting, but it’s no substitute for a shot-carrying shell or a rifled slug that possesses unarguable effectiveness and reliability against a given target.


Dragon’s Breath (Incendiary Round). Dragon’s Breath is a unique type of 12-gauge incendiary round loaded with magnesium shards. When the round is fired, it resembles a huge torch of white-hot sparks and scorching flames that reaches out to about 100 feet. This searing hot flame only lasts a few seconds, but it will ignite anything flammable in its path—a human’s clothing—or cause serious burns otherwise. While prohibited on all civilian ranges except for specifically designated government ranges, it must only be used outdoors with extreme caution and target discretion.

Flashbang Round. These rounds don’t fire a projectile. Rather, they produce an intensely bright muzzle flash accompanied by an instantaneous 182dB report that will disorient anyone without ear protection. The gun must be pointed down and away from a human target to prevent severe injury. If fired in rapid volley from a semiauto-loading shotgun they can immobilize a hostile within close proximity. While it’s hard to say whether they’re actually effective in a tactical situation, these rounds do exactly what they’re advertised to do; they cause an obnoxiously loud bang.

Rubber Bullet Rounds. These rounds are often used by law enforcement for riot control. They are used much like regular shotgun ammo except they must never be aimed at a person’s face or chest. They’re loaded with nothing more than rubber 00 buckshot as replacement for lead or steel shot. They are still lethal at close range and can easily knock out an eye at 40 yards.

Beanbag Rounds. Used by law enforcement as a less-than-lethal solution, this round is many times loaded with small teabag-size cloth bags filled with bismuth powder. Bismuth is close to lead in mass (weight), but unlike lead it is non-toxic and eco-friendly. There are some beanbag rounds available that are loaded with lighter materials for specific less-than-lethal use at very close range. Stick with the heavy bags and aim for the legs and lower body.

What the Future Holds

Soldier-carried Directed Energy (Laser) Weapons are well within current technical grasp. Prototypes have been built and fielded for nearly 2 decades. Miniaturizing high-power-directed energy technology has not been the limiting factor for the adoption of such weapons for battlefield use. The limiting factors really only involve two issues: one technical and one political.


Lasers of sufficient power to damage material objects like vehicles and aircraft or burn holes in other soldiers consume large amounts of power. That requires a large portable power source that can be sustained. Reducing power-source size so it can easily be soldier-carried also reduces its capacity to recharge the laser(s) it powers. So power sustainability is a major showstopper when it comes to soldier-carried offensive laser systems.


A second show stopper are the Geneva Conventions and their follow-on addendums that dictate what can and can’t be used to kill one’s enemy. While it’s acceptable to shoot holes in one’s enemy, lasers are only acceptable when used for target designation but not to blind or burn holes into the enemy. As ridiculous as this might sound, it is a recognized measure in the Rules of War. This playbook will likely change as robotic warfighting systems (drones of all types) technically mature and are fielded against similar adversary systems, both terrestrially and celestially. They will surely rely upon some form of directed energy because killing robots with robots using directed energy isn’t covered by any Convention.


Achieving an army of robotic combatants is still a decade or more in the future, but it is coming. Until then, and perhaps well into the next several decades, kinetic weapons consisting of bullet firing guns will remain the cost-effective mainstay for warfare, law enforcement and sporting purposes. As a result, ammunition will continue to evolve and so will the weapons that fire it.