Friday, November 25, 2011

3 Firearms 4 Life, Part VI: Bullets for My Valentine ...Reloaded

File Under: With Both Barrels

Without ammunition, you've got a firearm safe full of pretty paperweights and fancy clubs.

Editor's Note: When I first wrote and published this post I was suffering from sleep deprivation and some sort of respiratory infection, so my writing was not quite cogent.  This post is, I hope, a much more coherent and understandable, reloaded version...

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV  | Part V | Part VI | Part VII

You have traveled far and learned much on your continual journey: you know which firearms will fulfill which roles in your comprehensive defense strategy and you know what to have on your person or in reach for every situation. You are ready to begin building your Battery of Arms. Before you do so however two critical components separate your BoA from being an useful combination of life-saving tools and a worthless cabinet full of plastic, wood, and metal. The first one of these is ammunition; without it, the most well-crafted, accurate, and rock-solid firearm can only be used to bludgeon a threat. If your firearm does not have quality ammunition in the chamber when it is time for you to squeeze the trigger, your chances of being successful in a defensive situation begin to diminish rapidly and drastically. Moreover, to become proficient in using these tools you are going to have to expend plenty of rounds honing your defensive shooting skills to a fine edge. The choices of commercially available ammunition are plentiful and can be quite confusing. To know what will be of the most significant benefit inside your BoA, we will need to first demystify the murky waters surrounding the plethora of ammunition choices.

What Does It All Mean

Whether we are talking about centerfire and rimfire cartridges for your rifles, revolvers, and pistols or shells for your shotgun, all ammunition has the same main components (from rear to nose):
  • Primer – a tiny metal cup that holds an explosive charge. The charge detonates when the the firing-pin of the firearm strikes the primer. In a centerfire cartridge the primer is located in the center of the case head, whereas in a rimfire the primer is located in the rim.
  • Casing – the case holds the propellant, payload (bullet or shot), and other components (shotgun shells).
  • Propellant – once the primer detonates the explosion ignites the propellant which creates hot gases and massive pressures as it burns. Propellants have many intricate design features allowing ammunition manufacturers to fine-tune internal ballistics, however, the two main kinds of propellant in commercial small arms are black powder and nitrocellulose (smokeless powder) based compounds.
  • Payload  – the payload will be a bullet, a load of shot, a slug or some other projectile. The expanding gases created from burning the propellant forces the payload out of the casing, out the chamber, down the barrel, and out of the muzzle.
Shotgun (Left), Centerfire (Center), and Rimfire (Right)
Once you have made certain you are not using black powder cartridges in smokeless cartridge firearms and vice versa, the payload is the next largest consideration when choosing commercial ammunition. The purpose for which you will use the cartridge will largely determine what ammunition you buy and what payload you will choose. Centerfire and rimfire ammunition will fall into one the following 7 categories. Price and availability vary depending upon region, manufacturer, and quality but generally speaking they escalate in price as you go down the list:

Types of Commercial Ammunition
Purpose Features Optimal” Bullet
Training Designed for economical, high-volume shooting rather than for any terminal characteristics. This ammunition, with certain exceptions, if of generally inferior quality and should not be used for defensive purposes if avoidable. FMJ, TMJ
Military International law prevents a bullet that expands, fragments, or otherwise deforms in anyway from being used against troops in warfare. Therefore, military ammunition achieves incapacitation by deep penetration and tumbling in soft tissue. Military style cartridges, particularly cartridges designated as “penetrators,” are especially effective against hard targets; however, due to the possibility of overpenetration and the potential lack of significant terminal wounding this style of ammunition is less preferable for personal/home defense and hunting. FMJ
Personal and Home Defense Civilians and law enforcement agencies are not bound by restrictions against expanding ammunition. Therefore, ammunition targeted towards personal/home defense expands significantly in soft tissue to achieve incapacitation. This ammunition also is less likely to pass-through the target or overpenetrate. Cartridges marketed for this purpose generally have reduced recoil, to assist with accurate shooting, and reduced muzzle blast, to decrease the impact to the shooter's night vision. These cartridges have been specially designed to achieve optimal performance in short-barreled firearms, which are prevalent on the personal defense and concealed carry markets. JHP
Duty Duty ammunition distinguishes itself from personal/home defense ammunition in that it has slightly reduced expansion and significantly improved barrier penetration. These features would be ideal to a shooter, such as a law enforcement officer, who must defend his or herself from an attacker wearing heavy clothing or shooting from a vehicle. This ammunition is generally “standard” recoil and achieves optimal performance in standard barrel length, full-size firearms typically issued by law enforcement agencies. JHP, Bonded
Varmint Hunting Varmints or “pests,” and small predators are generally relatively small and are engaged from very long distances. Therefore, you will require a round capable of reaching out and connecting accurately from very far away. These cartridges are usually high-velocity, flat-shooting with very good ballistic qualities. Additionally, to be certain the target is killed quickly and humanely, varmint bullets penetrate shallowly and expand explosively into many fragments. BTHP
General Hunting For larger animals, the qualities of all other styles of ammunition are undesirable. You do not want the bullet to expand before it has a chance to reach the vitals and secure a clean kill, nor do you want it to expand so much that it destroys valuable edible meat. Moreover, with larger game you have fur, hide, dense muscle, and thick bone to contend with which could turn a regular bullet to shrapnel and cause suffering for the animal. Hunting ammunition gives you a happy medium between controlled expansion and deep penetration. JSP, Bonded
Match Grade Consider this “custom” ammunition, manufactured to tighter tolerances with higher quality control to achieve extreme long-range accuracy and consistency between rounds in the same batch. This ammunition is preferable in competition for its superior external ballistics but is less than preferable for personal/home defense for its generally poor terminal wounding. BTHP

Those terms are a general guideline, you will still want to do your own research and testing to be certain that ammunition adequately fulfills the role the manufacturer claims that it should. Once you have determined the caliber of cartridge you need and the role you are trying to fulfill, next you will want to determine what bullet style will fulfill that purpose best. The majority of the information on a box of cartridges has more to do with the bullet than any other component of the cartridge. This information describes: nose construction, bullet shape, bullet architecture, bullet composition, bullet weight, and of course bullet diameter. There are numerous bullet naming schemes, which vary by manufacturer and region. Some of this information is mere marketing terminology while other information is important to external (how the bullet performs in flight) and terminal ballistics (how it performs in the target or “wounding”). The following are the primary bullet types commonly used in commercially available small arms ammunition:

Full Metal Jacket Bullet
Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) – the most common and widely produced bullet also referred to as “ball.” The name refers to the thin layer of metal, usually copper, which encompasses the nose or tip. A non-jacketed bullet would not only deform on impact or inside the target making it illegal for military use, but would also leave lead deposits (lead fouling) in the lands and grooves of a rifle barrel as that rifling cuts into the soft lead. Cartridges employing standard FMJ bullets are the least expensive ammunition in this group, making it a suitable ammunition for practice and training. Military organizations use this ammunition because the copper jacket increases the penetration capability versus hard targets. Moreover, the jacket prevents the soft lead bullet from expanding in soft tissue and reduces the likelihood of the target expiring from infection or lead poisoning. Due to sketchy terminal wounding and the chance of overpenetration, FMJ is however an inferior bullet in personal/home defense or hunting applications and using them in that role should be avoided if at all possible. That does not mean FMJ cannot be used defensively. With perfect shot placement a FMJ is as effective as a an expanding bullet if you put that bullet through something vital (sternum, heart, and spinal column, etc.). In this case it is all the same. In the end, it may come down to a matter of price. You need to stretch your purchasing dollar when building a supply for a POST-collapse scenario. For you current carry ammunition though – do not use FMJ. Expanding bullets are not guaranteed to expand in every circumstance. In case your shot placement is less than perfect a quality, well-designed expanding bullet can perform just like an FMJ with reduced likelihood of overpenetration and exposure to potential civil and/or criminal liability.
Jacketed Hollow Point Cartridge (Left), Full Metal Jacket Cartridge (Right)
Jacketed Soft Point (JSP) – This bullet is similar to FMJ, however the nose of the bullet is left exposed. This is the preferable hunting, wilderness sidearm, and defensive (rifle) bullet because it penetrates deeply and does not expand explosively offering superior terminal wounding capabilities versus FMJ and hollow-point (rifle) bullets. This simplifies the logistics of purchasing, carrying, and using one rifle for hunting and defense. A JSP can defeat fur, hide, muscle and bone to reach vital organs without destroying excessive amounts of precious meat. The soft nose will deform like lead normally does; if the bullet impacts anything hard, like bone, the bullet will expand even more but the copper jacket will help keep the bullet together longer.
Jacketed Soft Point
Jacketed Soft Point: Cross-section and Expanded
Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP) – this bullet is similar to JSP except that instead of the nose coming to a point, the nose is concave meaning it has a cavity carved into it. This is largely irrelevant to terminal wounding in a rifle bullet for defensive purposes. However, this is not the case in pistol or revolver cartridges. The human body is mostly liquid. When that aqueous mass fills the hollow-point cavity, it forces the bullet to expand because water cannot be compressed. The bullet mushrooms or flowers under pressure increasing the permanent wound cavity, A secondary benefit of expansion is that the bullet relinquishes its remaining energy rapidly inside the target decreasing the chances of overpenetration. Some bullets have polymer tips, balls, or plugs in their hollow-point cavity to give it a more ballistic shape, better feeding in semi-automatics, better terminal performance versus heavy clothing, and/or allegedly more reliable expansion; regardless of what the manufacturer calls these, they are still hollow-point bullets.

Boat Tail Hollow Point (BTHP) – this is a rifle bullet used in competition, long-range shooting, and varmint hunting. This bullet, recognizable by its tapered tail, will have very low drag and high ballistic co-efficiency. The bullet's architecture allows it to fly farther, faster, and with greater accuracy before being negatively effected by gravity, air resistance or wind drift. The bullet expands explosively and fragments in soft tissue, leading to grievous but shallow wounds. These are not generally suitable for hunting larger animals or defense.
Bonded (B) – manufacturer's call their bonded bullets by many names, but they all essentially feature a bullet with the core fused to its copper jacket. Without its jacket, soft lead bullets expand and fragment more readily reducing penetration and the ability to defeat hard barriers. Bonding the bullet to the core decreases the risk of jacket separation when penetrating barriers. Bonded bullets are preferred in duty and hunting ammunition for its ability to defeat barriers (organic or artificial) with enough mass and energy to reach vital organs of the target.
Total Metal Jacket (TMJ) – also called brass-enclosed based or brass-encapsulated base (BEB) these are FMJ bullets where the brass covers the base of the bullet as well. This added coverage is beneficial because the hot gases propelling the bullet will atomize the soft lead in the base of the bullet, leaving lead deposits in your barrel and creating lead vapor in the air. The primer in most ammunition uses a lead-based compound in the charge, many cartridges employing TMJ bullets will also have toxic metal-free or “clean” primers which make use of no lead compounds in their composition thus eliminating all sources of lead at the point of ignition. This is better for high-volume shooters, the barrel of your firearm, and the environment. TMJ cartridges are generally used exclusively as target/training ammunition, especially if required by range rules or government regulation. This ammunition unfortunately is generally more expensive and less available depending on brand and region. Like full metal jacket, TMJ is less desirable bullet in personal/home defense or hunting applications.

Most bullets come in a variety of weights for the same caliber. This weight is measured in grains (grains of water), the more grains the heavier the bullet. As a general rule when choosing defensive ammunition, particularly in pistol and revolver cartridges, select a bullet that is heavier-for-caliber as these bullets will exhibit better weight retention and penetration than lighter offerings. An exception would be rounds that produce a high degree of penetration, bordering upon or well into the range of overpenetration, such as .357 Magnum and 9mm. Many manufacturers or independent reviewers provide information regarding the depth of penetration of various loads when fired into a medium called ballistic gelatin. According to standards set forth by the FBI, bullets should penetrate into ballistic gelatin at least 12 – 18 inches to be considered effective in defensive situations. Ammunition that achieves or exceeds 18” can cause overpenetration in personal/home defense situations. Overpenetration is something that is considerably less important in reality than we make it out to be, due to the fact that many more bullets simply miss their target than do actually hit the intended target and pass through it. You are more likely to injure or kill an innocent bystander through sheer poor marksmanship than by getting a two-for; however, we live in society where we must protect ourselves from criminals and the litigious alike.  

Ammunition selection for your rifles, revolvers, and pistols is a fairly straightforward process. If you believe deciphering the myriad choices of pistol, revolver, and rifle ammunition is a daunting task, you will find (at the beginning) making sense of shotgun ammunition is truly a mind-boggling proposition. Go to any sporting goods store or firearms dealer and you are likely to encounter a wide selection of shotgun ammunition, each with a considerable amount of information on their boxes. Let us analyze the information you are likely to see and determine what it means:

Gauge – an antiquated measurement which describes the diameter of a smoothbore (shotgun) barrel; gauge is to smoothbore barrels what caliber is to rifled barrels – the diameter of the bore. In days of yore you would take a solid pound of lead and divide it into identical spheres with each sphere the same diameter of your cannon or firearm. However many of those lead spheres you could make from a pound of lead, that would be the gauge of your bore. Thus a 12-bore (12-gauge) is 1/12th of a pound because you can make 12 spheres of lead the diameter of the bore from 1 pound of lead. With the exception of .410 bore, which is a caliber designation rather than a gauge and the smallest bore diameter, the smaller the number the larger the nominal bore diameter among common, commercial ammunition. Individual tolerances aside, larger gauge shotguns recoil harder. Numerous gauges have been chambered historically; the most common commercially available, mass-produced shotguns and ammunition are (in order of increasing diameter): .410 bore, 20 gauge, 16 gauge, 12 gauge, and 10 gauge. By far the most common of these is the 12 gauge. The 12 gauge has ammunition adopted for a wide variety of purposes from sporting to tactical. The other calibers, with probably the exception of defensive ammunition designed for .410 bore revolvers, are used almost solely for sporting purposes like turkey hunting (10 gauge) and trap/skeet shooting (20 gauge). There is a special safety consideration if you own and shoot different gauges of shotgun: a smaller gauge shell will fit into a larger gauge shotgun and become lodged in the barrel. If you load another (appropriately sized) shell behind it then fire the shotgun, you will now have a massive, violent explosion in your hands a few inches from your face.

Shell Length – this is the overall length of the shotshell cartridge and the length of the chamber it fits into within your shotgun. In order of decreasing commonness, the most popular commercial sizes are: 2-¾”, 3”, and 3-½” shotshells. The reason for longer shells is to allow for a larger charge, a larger payload, or both. This allows the operator to use the shotgun in a wide range of applications and at longer effective distances. The 3” and 3-½” shells offer increased velocity over 2-¾” shells, which translates to increased range and/or penetration. A 3-½” shell offers twice the same payload as its 2-¾” counterpart at the cost of added recoil and reduced magazine capacity. For safety of you, longer firearm life, and reliable ballistic performance, the ammunition used in your shotgun must be within the minimum and maximum length.

Brass Height – in firearm parlance a magnum round/cartridge is one that is of the same diameter but loaded with a heavier charge and possibly at a higher pressure. To accommodate the additional powder charge, visually differentiate it from a standard cartridge, and prevent it from being loaded in a firearm not chambered for it magnum cartridges are usually longer than standard cartridges of the same diameter. A similar ideology is true of shotshells. However, despite the use of the term “magnum” in reference to shells longer than 2-¾” these shells may have the same pressure or powder charge as the shorter shell. In fact, it is possible for shorter shells to have greater power than longer shells. It is all a matter of cartridge purpose and design. The longer cartridge might simply serve the purpose of firing more shot or a heavier slug without changing the charge or pressure. In addition to markings on the case like “magnum” and “high velocity” a key visual indicator of cartridge power is what is known as brass height. The “brass” on a shotgun shell is the metal portion of a (paper or plastic) shotgun shell that contains the primer and powder charge. Shells will either be High Brass or Low Brass and this is sometimes actually written on the packaging. A shell with a larger powder charge will normally have brass that is higher (taller when standing on end) than the brass of a normal shell, informing you this is a more powerful cartridge. Not all manufacturers whether intentionally or unintentionally will necessarily follow this convention, especially those with lower QC or non-commercial handloaders. Familiarizing yourself with common ballistic performance of the types of ammunition you will use frequently will alert you when a particular loading could be too “hot.” Shotgun shells are relatively low pressure and most quality modern shotgun receivers are durable hunks of metal. Nevertheless, before using high power cartridges be certain your firearm is in good condition and can handle their forces.

Rifled Slug (Left), Sabot (Center), Sabot Slug (Right)
Payload – The list of objects fired from shotguns over the centuries has ranged from the mundane to exotic to downright bizarre. However, the most popular commercially available loads today are: lead birdshot, lead buckshot, steel birdshot, rifled lead slugs, and sabot slugs. Sabot (suh-bow) slugs are non-rifled, solid projectiles held in a plastic shoe (the sabot), used in rifled-barrel shotguns (an oddity created to circumnavigate legislation banning rifles in hunting). The rifling applies spin to the sabot (and in turn the slug), stabilizing the slug in flight – just like rifling applies spin to a rifle bullet. The slug separates from the sabot after they exit the muzzle and the slug travels on to the target. The sabot slug is capable of much greater range and accuracy than other common commercial shotgun ammunition making it ideal for long-range hunting when hunting with a rifle is not possible. Lead slugs are like sabot slugs except they do not have the shoe. Lead slugs are meant to be shot from a smoothbore barrel and the rifling required to stabilize it in flight are actually built into the slug itself. Although more accurate than shot, leads slugs shot from a smoothbore barrel have less accuracy and range than sabots shot from a rifled barrel.

As the name implies, birdshot are smaller pellets primarily used to hunt birds (quail, pheasant, turkeys, etc.) and other small game (rabbit, squirrel, etc.). Some individuals use birdshot of a larger size for home defense because of its lack of penetration. Lead birdshot is approved for small game, turkeys, and other birds while regulations mandate steel shot (due to its non-toxicity) must be used when hunting waterfowl to prevent contamination of the environment and poisoning of animals. Though steel shot is the cheapest way to be compliant with these regulations, the hard steel shot damages the bore and chokes of a shotgun and also has inferior ballistics compared to lead because steel is less dense than lead. Non-toxic shot may also be made of bismuth or tungsten allows. Tungsten alloy is the most expensive and is as damaging to a barrel as steel but has a density greater than lead. Bismuth is of intermediate price and is less damaging than either of the other two alloys. Buckshot like birdshot is so named because it is primarily used when hunting medium-to-large game such as deer (a young male deer is a buck). Buckshot is also used in military and home defense ammunition. Whether it is lead shot, steel shot, or buckshot all shot are spheres of metal which increase in diameter as the number designation descends. In addition to creating larger wholes in the target, larger pellets have increased range and penetration compared to smaller pellets. In the realm of birdshot, #6 shot pellets are larger than #7 birdshot which are larger than #9 birdshot. The largest common birdshot pellets are designated by one or more “Bs” (i.e. B, BB, or BBB). Buckshot follows a similar structure #4 buckshot, often used for home defense, is the smallest pellet size and the largest pellets are designated by one or more “0s,” pronounced “aught.” Among commercially available ammunition 00 (double aught) buckshot is the most common shot size followed by 000 (triple aught) buckshot.

Recoil – Manufacturers will advertise some shotgun loads as “reduced recoil” or “tactical,” targeting the home defense and law enforcement buyers. These shells have an optimized powder charge resulting in reduced recoil, muzzle blast, range, and penetration. A reduced recoil load facilitates faster follow-up shots and reduced chance of overpenetration. Reduced recoil loads are not preferable for hunting as you want the maximum range and penetration to insure a clean, one-shot kill.

Pattern and Spread – The final bit of information you will find on a box of shotgun ammunition describes how the shot performs once it exits the muzzle. Shot will naturally spread out (move farther away from each other) the farther away from the muzzle it travels. This can be problematic, especially if the target is far away, moving quickly/erratically, and/or is moving away from you. A mechanical way of altering this effect is using a choke tube, which are barrel attachments that constrict the load of shot as it exits the muzzle. There are numerous types of chokes and differing definitions of how much they constrict the shot, however the most commonly recognized (in order of least to most constriction) are: cylinder bore, improved cylinder, modified, improved modified, and full choke. A good general-use hunting shotgun will have adjustable chokes, or an improved cylinder choke if it has a fixed choke to allow use at all ranges and to safely fire slugs (due to increased pressure inherent to constriction a solid chunk of lead). Most defensive shotguns unfortunately will have a cylinder bore choke (little to no constriction). You can moderate pattern and spread without changing barrels or chokes by using ammunition with distinct pattern and spread characteristics. For targets when you need the shot to stay together as long as possible (if the target is far away) and put more pellets on the target, buffered and/or copper plated shot can help achieve this goal. Buffered shot employs granules of plastic or some other agent to fill gaps between shot thus preventing deformation of the soft lead shot and allowing it to fly in a straighter fashion. Copper plated shot decreases deformation even further with the secondary effects of improved penetration on the target and being potentially less toxic than exposed lead. Other times, like hunting small game at close range, you need the shot to spread quickly to increase your chance of hitting the target without obliterating it with a concentrated blast of shot. Here a softer, less-alloyed shot is preferable. Bird specific designations, such as turkey, quail, or pheasant, alert you to the fact that these are probably long-range, tight patterning loads which do not spread quickly; these will “kick” harder than comparable rounds and may be inappropriate for other game.

Never Enough Ammunition

Now that we are ammunition aficionados, just how much of this stuff do we need? While you can never have too much ammunition (assuming you have met all other needs), there is definitely a minimum level which is largely restricted by your budget and storage space. When buying, storing, packing, and bugging out follow a 3-2-1 approach to ammunition: for every 3 reloads of your rifle or 2 reloads your shotgun have 1 reload for your sidearm. Some adhere to a 4:1 rifle/sidearm ratio, do what is logistically feasible for you, the point is that in an SHTF/WROL situation your long arm's ammunition is going to be of a greater value to you. Even though a pistol or revolver forms the foundation of your BoA, you will receive greater logistical economy per round and per pound from your rifle ammunition – especially the .22 LR. Back to our question, how much ammunition do you need to have on hand? To answer that, I developed the following guideline. Of course, if one firearm serves multiple roles (defense and hunting) it requires the minimum ammunition count for each role. For your shotguns 1 reload includes any ammunition in the magazine tube and shell-carriers attached to the firearm. Reported magazine capacity is base on standard 2-¾” shells; using 3” and 3-½” shells will reduce your magazine tube capacity by 1 or 2 rounds respectively.

Inventory Guidelines

Defensive Ammunition Hunting Ammunition
Rifles Minimum: 27 reloads
Target: 2000 rounds
1000 rounds
18 reloads
Pistols and Revolvers
9 reloads

Sample Centerfire/Rimfire Ammunition Inventory

Firearm Ammunition (Load) Total Rounds
Glock G17 9x19mm Parabellum 147 grain JHP 200
Taurus Tracker 627 .357 Magnum 100
Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan .454 Casull 285 grain JSP
.45 Colt 225 grain JHP
Springfield Armory XDm 40 3.8 .40 S&W 180 grain JHP 150
Para USA 14-45 Long Slide Limited .45 ACP 230 grain JHP 140
Ruger 10/22 Carbine .22 Long Rifle 30 to 40 grain high-velocity plated hollow-point
.22 Long Rifle 40 to 60 grain subsonic plated hollow-point
CIA GP WASR-10 7.62x39mm Soviet 123 grain JSP 840
Browning BAR Safari .30-06 Springfield 180 grain JSP 120

Gauging Your Needs

A general rule of thumb with shotgun shells: consider where you will be and what is in the environment. Close-range? Faster spread, wider patterns. Long-range (50+ yards)? Less spread, tighter patterns. Is it small and not so dangerous? Smaller shot. Is it big (moose/elk, etc.) and/or nasty (brown bear, cougar, etc.)? Larger shot. You must accommodate the size of the target, the speed of the target, and the distance from you to it; large, fast, and/or distant targets require larger diameter pellets, payloads of increased size, and faster muzzle velocity. In shotguns, do not try to mix cartridges and do not invest in less-lethal ammunition. You do not want to be surprised by the effect your shot will have on the target – i.e., you do not want to unintentionally pepper a human or bear with birdshot and you don't want to obliterate your dinner of squirrel with 000 buckshot when you meant to do the exact opposite. Be mindful of what is in the tube when topping-off; be sure to use topped-off shells or eject them before you forget they are inside the magazine. If you are strapped for space and weight keep in mind a larger diameter shot size can accomplish the task of a smaller shot and still serve its original role. On the other hand a smaller shot size probably will not be able to fill the shoes of a larger shot size, especially for defense and protection. For instance: if you are not likely to be in a metropolitan area or otherwise encounter many human threats but you are likely to encounter large and dangerous animals you can omit #4 buckshot using 00 buckshot or 000 buckshot instead. A dedicated self-defense shell is not strictly necessary because any shell you have on hand could take down a human attacker. Tailor your individual ammunition choice to your environment so that with minimal logistical complexity you can put food in your stomach and keep threats off your ace.

Sample 12 Gauge Ammunition Inventory

Firearm Shell Payload Total Rounds Uses
Mossberg 835 Ulti-Mag 2-¾” #6 birdshot These shells contain up to about 1-¼ ounces or more of lead shot. 100
  • pests, varmints, small game, birds of all sizes
  • for regulatory compliance an equivalency of #2 steel shot can be used for waterfowl and turkey/pheasant
  • home defense

2-¾” 1-¼ oz slugs A solid, rifled lead slug sometimes with a hollow-point 90
  • long-range shots
  • medium-to-large game
  • dangerous game and predators

2-¾” #4 buckshot These shells contain up to 27 lead pellets, roughly the diameter of a .25 caliber bullet. 60
  • self and home defense
  • small-to-medium game
  • small predators

2-¾” 00 buckshot
3-½” 00 buckshot
These shells contain either 9 (2-¾” shells) or 18 (3-½” shells) lead pellets, roughly the diameter of a .32 caliber bullet. 160
  • long-range shots
  • medium-to-large game (close-range)
  • dangerous game and predators (close-range)
  • tracking/finishing wounded animals
Kel-Tec KSG 3” 1-3/8 oz slugs A solid, rifled lead slug sometimes with a hollow-point 80
  • long-range shots
  • large, heavy game
  • dangerous game and predators

3” 000 buckshot These shells contain up to 10 lead pellets, roughly the diameter of a 9mm bullet. 160
  • Large, heavy game (close-range)
  • dangerous game and predators (close-range)
  • tracking/finishing wounded animals

Loading Your Shotgun

It is important to note that while it is easy to make a good hunting shotgun more tactical, it is more difficult to make a tactical shotgun a better hunter. To make the Mossberg 835 in this BoA an all-round or general purpose shotgun, in the above example the shotgun has three semi-permanent modifications: a 3-round magazine tube extension, an 8-round receiver-mounted shell-carrier, and a removable 8-round buttstock side-saddle. Before carrying a similarly modified shotgun out into the wilderness, verify if laws where you live limits the magazine capacity of your shotgun – in most areas that do it is 2 rounds. The above-mentioned modifications give you: 7 rounds in the magazine, 1 in the chamber, and 16 on hand to manually feed. If hunting is your primary concern and your area is predator-light, you can keep your shells of #6 birdshot in the magazine tube leaving room for 2 or 3 additional shells. In this way you are always ready for a shot of opportunity on small game and you are able to manually load more powerful shells for encounters with larger game or dangerous predators. Some will advise the exact opposite, have the more powerful shells in the tube and have the less powerful shells at the ready. This is particularly prudent if an encounter with a large or dangerous animal is a more likely scenario. Have your slugs and #4 buckshot (ratio 2:1) ready in the receiver mounted shell-carrier for chance encounters with dangerous predators, longer range shots, and human aggressors. Keep 00 or 000 buckshot in the buttstock side-saddle for larger game such as deer or smaller predators likes wolves. You will also want to use the buckshot should you have to track down a wounded animal because you might come upon it (or it upon you) very quickly; you may not have time for a well-aimed shot and you cannot afford to miss. Being less-suitable as a hunting shotgun, load a firearm like the KSG for defense and protection against dangerous threats because it has the ability to quickly and continuously throw a large amount of lead downrange in tight spaces. In this instance, have the magazine fully loaded (plus one in the chamber) with the first 2 or 3 rounds (last loaded into the magazine tube/chamber) being slugs and the remainder of the shells being 00 or 000 buckshot. This is an exception to the “no mix” rule because your level of firepower is equitable or escalating from the first shot to the last.

What NOT to Buy

Before you purchase a single round of ammunition, familiarize yourself with laws regarding what ammunition is lawful to own, hunt with, and carry. You might find fairly enticing deals on surplus, corrosive, Berdan-primed, non-brass case, or imported ammunition – avoid this ammunition for shooting in your carry and go-to firearms. Quality control on this ammunition may be exceptionally low increasing the likelihood of duds, bad primers, or problematic cases. This ammunition has a propensity to leave considerable fouling and residue in the action/barrel of your firearm, and in the case of corrosive ammunition harmful deposits that eat the metal and necessitate thorough (and complicated) cleaning after each shooting session. Therefore, gravitate towards ammunition manufactured in the USA or First-World NATO countries. Do not buy aluminum, steel or bi-metal cased ammunition or ammunition that uses a non-Boxer type primer for your own firearms. Non-brass cases are non-reloadable and berdan primed cases are a pain to reload to say the least. Reloading is not a concern at the moment, but it will be later on so you want to collect all your fired brass cases. Buy new production or surplus ammunition that is non-corrosive, boxer-primed, and in reloadable brass cases for use in your own personal firearms. Nickel-plated brass (cases) provides smoother cycling, increased corrosion resistance and better visibility in low light conditions. Being able to shoot economically is important but high quality control, safety, consistency, and long service life of your firearm are of the utmost importance.

Buy from local dealers when possible or at shows to find the lowest prices because shipping costs will frequently eat the savings in price, tax, and gas gained when buying online. You might not be able to find certain premium products readily available locally, so when buying on line, buy in bulk (by the case) so the overall savings exceeds what you would have paid in sales tax/overhead/gas and the increased cost of shipping. Note: With the exception of specially packaged surplus or other bulk ammunition, a box (the smallest retail package in a case) of cartridges generally sells in the following numbers:
  • Pistol/Revolver – 20 or 25 rounds for premium defensive/hunting and 50 rounds for value, training, or “law enforcement” ammunition
  • Rifle – most all rifle ammunition comes in boxes of 20 rounds
  • .22 Long Rifle – a standard box of .22 LR is 50 rounds
  • Shotgun – shotgun shells sell in boxes of 5, 10, and 25
Without moving from premium to value ammunition you can most times reduce the per cartridge cost of ammunition by buying in larger quantities. Additionally, look for deals on factory overruns (when the manufacturer makes too much) of military issue and “law enforcement” ammunition. This ammunition is made for a specific contract and meets the quality standards of that contract, but is in excess of the contracted quantity. The manufacturer makes this ammunition available to the public at a price that is usually less than comparable quality premium defensive ammunition. Make sure training ammunition is of the same weight and muzzle velocity as your carry ammunition, so that the shooting dynamics are as similar as possible. Be certain to test potential carry ammunition for reliable feeding, extraction, and ejection before carrying it on the streets or in the field. The 3-2-1 idea applies not only to how much you buy, but what you store and shoot; if you are buying by the box, buy 3 boxes, store 2 boxes and shoot 1 box. This way you are always preparing, always practicing, and always verifying the reliability of your ammunition.

Our Lids Are Sealed

Now that you've turned your pretty paper weights and fancy clubs into more effective tools, you need to store your ammunition in a safe, secure, and logical manner. Fortunately, when properly taken care-of, quality ammunition lasts for decades – generations even. Like just about anything that can “spoil,” store ammunition in a cool, dry place. Good condition military surplus ammunition cans, which you can find at gun shops, gun shows, and online, are an excellent container to securely hold your ammunition because they are water tight and durable. Some go the extra mile of vacuum sealing ammunition meant for long-term storage. If logistically feasible you should store additional ammunition in popular calibers for found firearms and barter/trade, but this is a concept for much later in your preparedness journey. Fill your ammo cans, bug-out bags, or practical vests with a variety of ammunition (primarily for your 3F), so that if you have to grab a container and go it has ammunition to cover all your firearms. This way your useful tool remains so because you did not, in a hurry, grab one firearm only to get out in the world and realize you have little or no ammunition for it.

Feeding the Need

That sums up most of your considerations on ammunition, so what is that second critical component we spoke of at the outset? The magazine. We are not talking about Forbes or Vanity Fair. The firearm magazine feeds rounds (cartridges) into the action. Unless you wish to load each cartridge one at a time or merely chuck them at your threat all the while getting shot to Swiss cheese or eaten, you will need magazines to effectively feed  rounds into your firearm. Without a quality functional magazine you are right back to pretty paperweights and fancy clubs, especially in semi-automatic firearms. Each firearm that has a detachable box magazine, should have a minimum of 3 magazines – 1 in the firearm and 2 spare – so that you can quickly reload in a hi-stress situation. Some firearms will have the magazine taken care of for you, like internal box magazine rifles or revolvers. Worst case scenario, someone can reload an empty for you while you are emptying the one in the firearm and preparing to swap in the spare. The more magazines you have the merrier you will be. Buy as many magazines and stripper clips (rifles) as your budget will allow without neglecting other critical needs. A good magazine loader for rifles and pistols will take the time, tedium, and thumb pain out of loading cartridges into all those box magazines. Store rifle rounds, for box-fed rifles, in stripper clips ready to go into magazines. If your internal magazine rifle accepts clips, invest in these and if moon clips or speed loaders are available for your revolver get these also; having these items will significantly reduce reload time and could save your life or the life of someone you care about.

Finally, while not an ammunition concern it is a concern regarding the ability to use your BoA effectively and efficiently. Every rifle or shotgun should have its own sling and every revolver or pistol should have its own holster or you should have holsters that can carry all your revolvers or pistols. This may seem simple but it is an often overlooked concern. I'm fairly certain most if not all jurisdictions have a stipulation requiring your firearm to be in a holster when carried on your person and when on the move you will need a way to carry your firearms, in easily accessible locations that keep them out of your way and out of your hands when you are not using them. If carrying more than one longarm a scabbard can better immobilize the unused firearm and cinch it closely to your body improving comfort and mobility. If you are trying to stay ahead of the zombie horde you definitely don't want your pretty zombie-slayer banging off the your legs and rocks, getting its custom paint job scratched and tripping you up as your scrabble across the wasteland.

Now you are truly ready to begin gathering the tools that will become your Battery of Arms. However, how can we protect ourselves without breaking the bank? In our next discussion in this series, 3 Firearms 4 Life, Part VII: More Bang for Your Buck, we will become frugal armorers and take a look at options for building a BoA on a tight budget.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV  | Part V | Part VI | Part VII

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