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"Check the top round in the magazine.
Engage the magazine.
Pull back the cocking handle and release, allowing the working parts to go forwards, chambering a round"…

(from) loading drill for the L85 rifle1

Basic Information

A bullet is the active part of a round of ammunition for a sub-ordnance calibre firearm - the part that is actually fired from the weapon at the target.

Depending on the era and its state of firearms technology the bullet will either be the "shot" element of powder and shot or the business end of a cartridge.

Bullets come in a variety of different shapes and sizes (known as calibres, but varying by length as well as diameter), not to mention compositions. A basic round, not designed to deform, fragment or do anything else interesting, is termed ball - despite not having been ball shaped for over a century.

Other types of bullet include:

  • Self fragmenting rounds - designed to deform or break up inside the target to increase the size and complexity of the wound.
  • Armour piercing rounds - generally harder and denser and often fired with a more powerful charge to penetrate armour on the target.
  • Explosive rounds - designed to detonate inside the target to inflict increased damage. Mostly a subset of self-fragmenting rounds in small arms calibres.
  • Incendiary rounds - designed to generate ignition on impact. Often conflated with explosive/self-fragmenting in small arms but sometimes popular for anti-vehicle use in the form of armour piercing incendiary rounds.
  • Tracer rounds - bullets with an incendiary element in the tail that generates a visible streak of light in flight. Used for tracing the fall of shot when firing.

More complicated forms tend only to appear in larger calibre weapons, although depleted phlebotinum shells are popular in RPGs and speculative fiction (silver bullets being the obvious examples). Specialist ammunition types are often charged with causing reliability problems in self loading or automatic weapons and/or being bad for the weapon2 and will generally have a different ballistic performance.

Bullets fired from an electromagnetic launcher seem to be popularly referred to as "slugs" - which used to be a popular slang term for conventional bullets but seems to have been re-purposed.



Game and Story Use

  • Some game systems have rules to describe the differences between various special types of bullets.
  • Some players may want exotic bullets to go after exotic threats
    • Such as the above-mentioned silver bullets
    • Or bullets carved out of wood to kill a vampire
    • In the movie Hellboy, the title character's BFG shoots a variety of custom-made anti-supernatural bullets
    • Perhaps the most imaginative are the bullets used in the anime series Silent Möbeus: depleted uranium slugs inscribed with magic spells that when fired crush the slug into a micro-black hole, sucking the target into it's singularity. About the only way you can get rid of a Cthuloid Horror.
    • In the John Carter of Mars stories, the Martians use guns that shoot "radium bullets" which explode in contact with light. They have an opaque ablative coating to make them safe for handling which ruptures when they hit their target.
      • It makes surgery rolls on wounded characters interesting.
    • Then there are also the Sapphire Bullets of pure Love
  • One of the clichés of mystery fiction is the bullet made of ice which melts and leaves no evidence.
    • Which will probably cause at least one of your players to howl "THAT wouldn't work!!!"
  • In a campaign emphasizing criminal investigation, you'll need to have an NPC ballistics expert to provide information that the fired bullets reveal.
    • In a CSI-based campaign, one of the players might be the ballistics expert
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