Why Are Bullets Also Known as Rounds?
If there is one thing the gun world is not lacking, it’s terminology. There are numerous ways to describe virtually every part of a gun as well as its ammunition, and that’s not even accounting for misrepresentations of things in the media.
Often, misunderstandings and misinterpretations lead to things being inaccurately described or the correct term being used the incorrect way, like calling a magazine a clip.
Yes, there are things called clips, but they are not the same thing as magazines. Yet, for some reason, these two words are commonly used interchangeably in the media and on television. Actually, not even interchangeably in this case — they just call them by the wrong name and never by the right one.
Why Do We Care?
Clumsy and inaccurate usage can lead to bad communication and things getting lost in translation. If it’s not clear what we’re talking about, then we may not be talking about the same thing.
That’s why it’s important to take the time to actually learn what things are called and why. Some people might roll their eyes and think this is just getting into semantics, and that’s understandable. There’s definitely no reason to constantly go around correcting someone every time they call something a clip when it’s actually a magazine. That can certainly come across condescending or worse.
But as gun owners and enthusiasts, it’s important that we actually understand what we’re talking about. That's true both for our own knowledge and for when the opportunity arises to try to clear the air on misconceptions.
Clearing Up Misconceptions
Not to get too political here, but misunderstandings and misconceptions lead to misguided and bad legislation. So, in that regard, the more we can do to educate ourselves, the better chance we have at educating others so they don’t believe things that aren’t true.
Not knowing what something is called is the first step in not understanding how it works and therefore thinking it’s more dangerous than it is. Then, that misguided fear of something can lead to pointless restrictions that only hurt the law-abiding gun owner. We're looking at you, short-barreled rifles.
You’ve probably noticed that even something as simple as the bullets you fire actually have multiple names. We're not even going into the discussion of shells versus cartridges, and there are multiple ways of referring to the thing that you shoot out of the gun.
The terms cartridge, projectile and even lead are all synonymous with the word bullet, depending on the situation. The one you’ll probably hear used the most interchangeably is round. Referring to bullets as rounds has been common practice almost since their creation.
What Doesn’t "Round" Mean?
Before we get into what the phrasing actually means and how bullets came to be called rounds, let’s first take a look at some interesting yet incorrect reasons for the term.
There are multiple explanations as to why the term round is used interchangeably with bullet. Since you might hear some of these from some people, it’s a good idea to go over them before we get to the real reasons.
The Shape of the Bullet
In the early days of firearms, bullets were small lead balls. Rifling had not yet been invented, and guns worked similar to cannon in that you place the ball down the barrel with the powder and fired it forward out of the smooth barrel. The myth, then, is that because these bullets were in the shape of balls, they were round and that’s how they got the name.
This is a fun and actually somewhat logical story. However, this is not the reason why bullets are called rounds. It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that people would’ve referred to the shot they were loading into their muskets and flintlock pistols as a round. Neither is it crazy to suggest that because of the shape of the early bullets the name just continued to hang around to today. Still, that just simply is not the case.
Before we go any further, this would actually be a good point to stop and take a moment to address something regarding the interchangeability of bullets and rounds. Technically, round and bullet are not interchangeable. It would be more accurate to say that cartridge and round are interchangeable, since the term “round” is actually referring to the entire package of the cartridge. The term "bullet" is used in such a slang fashion, though, that people refer to the cartridge as the bullet often enough that bullet, cartridge and round are now all used interchangeably.
Some of you may have heard that the term “shot of whiskey” traces its roots to firearms. As the story goes, back in the Wild West days, the price of one cartridge of ammunition —usually .45 caliber — was the same as a small glass of whiskey. When a cowboy was low on funds, they could pay for the small drink by exchanging one cartridge, or a shot.
From there, the frequency of buying drinks using ammunition became commonplace to the point where the drink became known as a shot. Then more and more, people started buying a round of shots, meaning they were buying for their group and buying multiples at once. Thus, the round of shots ended up transferring over to the bullets, and voila! Now they’re called rounds, says the story.
That’s an interesting anecdote and would be fun if it were true. But not only is that not why cartridges are called rounds, it’s also not why the drink is called a shot. So, unfortunately, this one’s just bogus on multiple fronts.
What Is a Round?
The word round can mean many things, but the most common usage is either in reference to the shape or to cover a period of time in which actions take place. The latter is more common than it seems at first glance.
Think about it: A round in boxing is typically about three minutes long, and a lot of things happen in a round. Similarly, a round of golf involves playing 18 holes, and that can take all day. As we also discussed, you might buy a round of drinks at a bar, and so round refers to the time in which the action of drinking the drinks takes place.
So how did that come to be a term used to describe bullets?
Why, Truly, Is a Bullet Called a Round?
Time for another history lesson. We mentioned previously that in the early days of guns, bullets were loaded into the gun much in the same way as ammo was loaded into cannon. Soldiers in the Continental Army, for example, would load their powder, their wadding and the ball into the gun using a ramrod. Once finished, they would then replace that ramrod, cock back the hammer, aim and finally fire.
Sometimes, this action was performed step-by-step on command. In those instances, it was usually the first time that the gun was to be fired. Any subsequent reloading would then be done as needed. The passage of time while performing this cycle of action was called a round.
When asking soldiers how many cycles of fire they were prepared for, a commander might ask how many rounds a soldier had. When checking on their supplies, the soldier may look at the amount of ball, powder and wadding they had and determine, “I have enough for five rounds of fire.” Since the English language lends itself to shortening terms for common usage quite well, they referred to it all as a round. The name stuck.
That is how the cartridge got its name. The time it took to perform the action of loading all of that together has now been shortened by the creation of the cartridge containing everything, so the cartridges were referred to as rounds. Each cartridge contains one round of fire. Thus, cartridges are rounds, and because bullets are often shorthand for the cartridge, bullets are now also called rounds.
How's that for a history and linguistics lesson? It can be fun to look back through time and uncover how things got to be called what they’re called, especially when it comes to firearms. Educating yourself about guns and knowing the specifics of what things are can be helpful to you in a variety of ways, including combating misinformation. If nothing else, you’ve at least got a fun story to tell your friends.