Ball Ammo: One of the Oldest Bullets in the Book

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Last Updated on July 30, 2021.

Writer for Minuteman Review, handgun aficionado and artisan firearms reviewer. 

Although it originates from military terminology, the term “ball ammo” is now commonly employed by shooters of all categories. But what exactly is it?

Ball Ammo One of the Oldest Bullets in the Book

Find out about the definition of ball ammo, the origin of the term, how to recognize and differentiate ball ammo from other ammo types, and what is so special about it.


Basic Definition

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, you may be asking yourself, “What is ball ammo exactly?”

According to the U.S. military definition, “ball” ammo refers to ammunition featuring jacketed bullets. Most modern jacketed bullets manufactured today are full metal jacketed (FMJ).

A related but less-used term is “hardball,” used in the specific context of handgun ammunition (in particular, .45 ACP) to denote a hard, copper-jacketed, or copper-plated bullet. The term is meant to emphasize the difference with softer, unjacketed lead bullets.

In informal contexts, most shooters use “ball,” “hardball,” and “FMJ” interchangeably.


History of the Term

Contrary to popular belief, today’s ball ammo does not contain actual balls or spherical objects.

The term originates from the 19th century; at the time, early blackpowder firearms of the era, such as muskets and the first rifles (muskets with rifled barrels), primarily employed spherical lead projectiles. These projectiles were highly inaccurate, in large part due to the poor aerodynamics of spherical objects.

In 1849, French Army officer Claude-Étienne Minié developed a cylindrical projectile with a pointed nose to solve these accuracy problems. This projectile became known as the Balle Minié, the original French term for Minié Ball

A few years later, Captain James H. Burton, an armorer working for the Harpers Ferry Armory, studied the French projectile, improving it and making it less expensive to manufacture.

This new projectile, used extensively by both sides of the Civil War, was referred to as the minie ball, codifying the use of “ball ammo” as a synonym for standard-issue small arms ammunition.

It wasn’t until 1882 that the term “ball ammo” gained its modern meaning when Swiss Colonel Eduard Rubin designed the first jacketed bullet, creating the first full metal jacketed (FMJ) projectile.

As firearms technology progressed, single-shot, hand-fed rifles were being increasingly replaced with rifles featuring internal magazines. With this new technology arose feeding issues; the soft lead employed in unjacketed projectiles tended to deform inside the action, causing jams.

Jacketed bullets solved this issue by increasing the projectile’s hardness, making it less likely to deform and offering improved feeding reliability. However, these new projectiles kept the name “ball ammo” as a holdover from the Minié Ball era, remaining in use ever since.


Characteristics of Ball Ammo

Now that you can answer the question “What is ball ammo,” you might be wondering how to recognize it.

You can easily distinguish ball ammunition from other types by observing the shape and color of the bullet.

  • Ball ammo does not possess a nose cavity of any kind, like hollow points or open-tip match.
  • Loaded ball ammo does not feature exposed lead, like soft points, unjacketed or semi-jacketed ammo.
  • Pistol ball ammo generally possesses a round nose, whereas rifle ball ammo features a pointed (spitzer) nose.

FMJ ball ammo

Most of today’s ball ammunition is Full Metal Jacketed. FMJ ammunition consists of a lead core and a jacket composed of a harder metal. Jacketing metal is typically cupronickel (often referred to as just “copper jacket”). But it may also be gilding metal or mild steel.

FMJ ammunition is the standard projectile of most cartridges, serving as the yardstick for measuring cartridge performance.

The hard metal jacket of an FMJ bullet presents multiple advantages:

  • It protects the lead core from deforming at high velocities, allowing FMJ bullets to reach higher muzzle velocities than unjacketed projectiles.
  • It protects the barrel from fouling with lead. Although FMJ ammo does expose the barrel to jacketing metal deposits, barrels regularly fed with FMJ ammunition are easier to clean and will function optimally for longer.
  • It feeds more reliably than other projectile types, especially in older firearms.

Potential disadvantages include the following:

  • FMJ bullets are harder and penetrate deeper than unjacketed or expanding projectiles, significantly increasing the risk of overpenetration.
  • As a byproduct of the overpenetration risk, FMJ bullets may fail to stop inside a target, causing a shallow wound and reducing stopping power.

Ball ammo that isn’t truly FMJ

Not all ammunition labeled as “ball ammo” necessarily uses true FMJ projectiles

For instance, the three most common service rifle cartridges today - 5.56x45mm NATO, 5.45x39mm, and 7.62x39mm - all use projectiles that possess more than a lead core and a copper jacket.

  • The standard NATO service rifle cartridge, 5.56x45mm NATO, uses the M855 / SS109 bullet. This projectile consists of a lead core, a steel penetrator tip, and a copper jacket. The penetrator tip was designed to ensure the bullet can fully penetrate a steel helmet at 600 meters. Although it is not hard enough to be considered armor-piercing, it will penetrate deeper than a standard .223 Remington FMJ bullet.
  • The current Russian service rifle cartridge is the 5.45x39mm PS (7N6). Like 5.56 NATO M855, the 7N6 bullet possesses a steel penetrator designed to improve penetration into helmets and light cover. Although this cartridge design is often referred to by US shooters as “steel core,” it is effectively Russian military ball ammunition.
  • Most surplus 7.62x39mm ammunition available for purchase in the US civilian market is patterned or inspired from the original Soviet PS (57-N-131) projectile, consisting of a lead core, mild steel penetrator, and a copper jacket.

These projectiles and many others possess steel cores, which your local shooting range has likely banned due to the risk of damaging the backstop or causing excessive wear to steel targets.

You can use the pin probing method to identify whether your ammunition possesses a steel core. The process is as follows:

  • Pull the projectile out of the casing using a bullet puller.
  • Check the underside and verify whether the projectile has an exposed base.
  • If it does, use a sufficiently thin steel punch (or a similar thin and hard object) and probe the open base with it. If the punch leaves a dent in the metal, it’s likely to be a lead core; otherwise, it’s most likely a steel core.

The Takeaway on Ball Ammo

It is essential to understand the difference between ball ammunition and FMJ ammunition. Using both terms synonymously is a misnomer. It is true that some FMJ ammunition may be ball ammo. Not all ball ammo is FMJ.

If you must remember only one thing, it’s that “ball” means “standard, particularly in a military context. The standard ammunition of most military forces in the world does not use traditional copper-jacketed lead projectiles.

You must always be aware of the materials and constructions used by your bullets, as they determine their capabilities, and in turn, their intended purposes.

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