What Is Ball Ammo?
Sometimes in the gun world, you run across a term so widely used that you become accustomed to it without even knowing where it came from. You might even start using it yourself because it’s such a common phrase that you essentially understand it without even knowing what it truly means. For many people, the term "ball ammunition" is such a phrase.
Whether that's the case for you or you actually have no idea what ball ammo is, there’s precious little solid information about the term. So that’s why we’re going to address it here.
We’ve spoken at length about the need for proper education when it comes to all things firearm related, so leaving a term like ball ammunition hanging out there in the hopes that people pick up its meaning is a non-starter. No aspect of gun culture is too small for proper education.
What Is Ball Ammo?
The term ball ammunition in the common gun vernacular is usually a reference to any non-specialty round. To say it another way, ball ammunition is anything that isn’t a hollow point, a tracer or some other kind of specific use bullet.
To take it a step further, at its most basic level, ball ammunition typically denotes a round with a lead core. The term is often used interchangeably with full metal jacket (FMJ), although there are those who will argue that FMJ is different from genuine ball ammunition. In the interest of fairness, there is truth to this due to the fact that there are FMJ rounds with things other than lead cores. Still, the majority of people in the gun world use the terms interchangeably in normal conversation, even those who nitpick.
What Calibers Use Ball?
All of them. This time that’s not a joke or sarcasm, it’s the genuine serious answer. With the exception of shotguns, you can actually find ball ammunition for any caliber of firearm that you own. Although there are arguments to be made about shotguns not being calibers, you could probably argue that shotgun slugs count as ball ammunition too. But that’s likely deserving of its own blog, so suffice it to say that you can get ball ammunition in every caliber of ammunition.
Perhaps that’s why there’s a bit of confusion as to what exactly it is. When something so vague is also so prevalent, it tends to water down what it actually is because no one wants to be the person to ask. We don’t want to speak up for fear of asking the “dumb” question.
This is actually understandable. Studies have shown that most people’s number one fear is public speaking, and a large part of that is the fear of looking stupid or being perceived dumb by their peers. This is why we’re here — to answer those questions for you without you having to worry about being embarrassed. Plus, there’s really no such thing as a dumb question when it comes to educating yourself about firearms.
History of Ball
As some of you might have guessed, the terminology goes back to the early days of firearms. It’s one of those historical references that hung around and persevered to today. As far as we can tell, this one really does have to do with the shape of the round.
Back in the early stages of firearms usage, the rounds were made by pouring the molten lead into a round, ball-shaped mold. These round balls were then placed into the gun with the powder and wadding. They were pushed by a ramrod from the muzzle opening to the other end of the barrel so the materials could receive the spark to ignite the powder and fire the ball.
In those days, guns were similar to cannons. They were smoothbore firing devices that didn't contain rifling. In that case, the round shape of the ammunition helped ensure that it could travel freely down the barrel and reach its intended target. What they lacked in accuracy they made up for in ease of use.
Also in those days, some firearms would fire shot instead of a single ball, and the ball designation helped to differentiate between the type of ammo you were using. As time wore on and militaries adopted firearms, using ball instead of shot or other types of projectiles became the standard. From there, the term was used for any solid military ammunition. As with many other military items, the term permeated into mainstream culture.
There are actually some really interesting stories out there floating around as to why ball ammunition is called "ball.” In one particularly interesting tale, the reason this ammunition is called ball actually dates back to the Napoleonic wars. Because the nature of combat is stressful, soldiers would sometimes shoot too high when firing. To offset this, their commanders would tell them to aim for the belts of the enemy soldiers. This had the somewhat predictable reverse effect wherein the soldiers inadvertently shot low. This caused the number of “below the belt” injuries to become so massive that the ammunition came to be called ball ammo as a result.
This story is incredibly funny. It’s also incredibly made up. But if you wanted to tell someone who asked what ball ammo means that story first before telling them the truth, we’re not going to hold it against you.
Interestingly, the term “ball” is not specific to the United States — it is also used in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world. This actually helps to explain why it means different things to different people. Much to the dismay of the nitpickers, the term FMJ doesn’t actually exist across the pond, and so those rounds are called ball, further muddying the waters as to what ball ammunition exactly is.
In the UK, ball ammunition is any ammunition that is military style, non-hollow point or specialty. Even though a specific case of ammo, say something like a 7.62x39mm, might be a full metal jacket round, the case would simply be marked ball. So, with that information, and the other historical information surrounding the existence of the ammo, the picture starts to become fairly clear.
Why Is It Called Ball?
When we take a step back and begin to put everything together, the answer starts to emerge. What we can see is that the term ball ammunition has its origins in military usage, and that it is specifically used to denote any solid core ammunition. That ammunition can be full metal jacket as long as the core is solid. Therefore, the term ball ammunition means any solid round of ammunition that isn’t a specialty like a tracer or hollow point.
Whether you’d previously picked up on that or whether this is all news to you, hopefully this clears things up a bit. Sometimes, the longer a term has been around, the vaguer it can be, so it’s good to do a little digging and figure out for sure what exactly it means. If nothing else, it’s an interesting history lesson you can use to impress your friends.