FAS | Military | DOD 101 | Systems | Land Warfare |||| Index | Search | Join FAS

Bullets for Beginners

The ultimate goal of all weapons systems is to destroy the target. One of the basic properties by which a weapon's effectiveness is measured is the quantity of energy, and thus damage potential, it delivers to the target. Modern weapons use both kinetic and potential energy systems to achieve maximum lethality. Kinetic energy systems rely on the conversion of kinetic energy (1/2 MV2) into work, while potential energy systems use explosive energy directly in the form of heat and blast or by accelerating the warhead case fragments to increase their kinetic energy and damage volume.

A chemical explosive is a compound or mixture which, upon the application of heat or shock, decomposes or rearranges with extreme rapidity, yielding much gas and heat. Explosives are classified as low or high explosives accord-ing to their rates of decomposition. Low explosives burn rapidly (or deflagrate). High explosives ordinarily deton-ate. There is no sharp line of demarcation between low and high explosives. The chemical decomposition of an explosive may take years, days, hours, or a fraction of a second. The slower forms of decomposition take place in storage and are of interest only from a stability standpoint. Of more in-terest are the two rapid forms of decomposition, burning and detonation. The term "detonation" is used to describe an explosive phenomenon of almost instantaneous decomposition. The properties of the explosive indicate the class into which it falls. In some cases explosives may be made to fall into either class by the conditions under which they are initiated. For convenience, low and high explosives may be differentiated in the following manner.

The basic function of any weapon is to deliver a destructive force on an enemy target. Targets of today include military bases, factories, bridges, ships, tanks, missile launching sites, artillery emplacements, fortifications, and troop concentrations. Since each type of target presents a different physical destruction problem, a variety of general and special-purpose warheads are required, within the bounds of cost and logistical availability, so that each target may be attacked with maximum effectiveness.

The gas that causes the pressure that propels the projectile is generated by the ignition of an explosive train. This explosive train is termed a propellant train and consists primarily of low explosives instead of high explosives and has a primer, an igniter or igniting charge, and a propelling charge. Ignition of a small quantity of sensitive explosive, the primer (lead azide), is initiated by a blow from the firing pin and is transmitted and intensified by the igniter so that the large, relatively insensitive propelling charge burns in the proper manner and launches the projectile.

Gunpowders or smokeless powders are the propellants in use today. This substance is produced by combining nitrocellulose (nitric acid and cotton) with ether and alcohol to produce a low explosive. Although called smokeless powders, they are neither smokeless nor in powder form, but in granule form. Smokeless powders may be considered to be classed as either single or multibase powders.

Case guns which fire fixed ammunition employ propellant encased in a metal shell to which the projectile is attached, while bag guns employ propellant charges packed in silk bags. The use of bags is confined to large guns where the total propellant powder required to attain the required initial projectiles velocity is too great in weight and volume to be placed in a single rigid container. By packing the powder grains in bags, it is possible to divide the total charge into units that can be handled expeditiously by one man.

Storage and compatibility groups (CGs)

In view of ammunition and explosives storage principles and the considerations for mixed storage, ammunition and explosives are assigned to the appropriate one of 13 CGs (A through H, J, K, L, N, and S).

To ease identification of hazard characteristics and thus promote safe storage and transport of ammunition and explosives, the Department of Defense shall use the international system of classification devised by the United Nations Organization (UNO) for transport of dangerous goods. Ammunition and explosives also will be assigned the appropriate Department of Transportation (DOT) class and marking in accordance with 49 CFR 173 (reference (c)).

The UNO classification system consists of nine hazard classes, two of which are applicable to ammunition and explosives as defined in this Standard, Classes 1 and 6, (See ST/SG/AC.10/1/Rev. 9 (reference (d))). Thirteen compatibility groups are included for segregating ammunition and explosives on the basis of similarity of characteristics, properties, and accident effects potential.

Class 1 is divided into divisions that indicate the character and predominance of associated hazards:

This Standard uses the term "Hazard Division" instead of "Division", both to emphasize the correspondence with the previous term "Hazard Class" and to avoid the cumbersome alternatives "Division 1 of Class 1," and so forth. For further refinement of this hazard identification system, a numerical figure (in parenthesis) is used to indicate the minimum separation distance (in hundreds of feet) for protection from debris, fragments, and firebrands when distance alone is relied on for such protection. This number is placed to the left of the Hazard Division designators 1.1 through 1.3, such as (18)1.1, (08)1.2, and (02)1.3.

Articles that contain riot control substance without explosives components are classified as Class 6, Division 1, in the UNO Recommendations for Transport of Dangerous Goods. For DoD purposes, these articles are considered as Hazard Division 1.4 and may be stored in limit quantities with other base defense munitions. Bulk agent is also Hazard Division 6.1 in the UNO recommendations.

Aluminum Al
Ammonium Nitrate NH4NO3
Antimony Sb
Barium Nitrate Ba(NO3)2
Black Powder
74% Potassium Nitrate
11% Sulfur
15% Charcoal
Saltpeter, Niter KNO3
Charcoal Carbon C
Chloroacetophenone CN C6H5COCH2Cl
Composition B
60% RDX
39% TNT
Copper Cu
Diphenylamine stabilizer DPA (C6H5)2NH
Double-Base Powder
60% Nitrocellulose
39% Nitroglcerine
0.75% Diphenylalamine
Ballistite [(C6H8)5(NO2)3]n
E.C. Blank Powder
80.4% Nitrocellulose
8.0% Potassium Nitrate
8.0% Barium Nitrate
3.0% Starch
0.6% Diphenylalamine
Single-Base Powder [(C6H8)5(NO2)3]n

FS Sulfur Trioxide SO3
Hexachlorethane-Zinc mixture HC C2Cl6+Zn
Incendiary Compositions* Incendiary Mixtures
50% Barium Nitrate
50% Magnesium Aluminum Alloy

Mg & Al
50% Potassium Perchlorate
50% Magnesium Aluminum Alloy

Mg & Al
10% Potassium Perchlorate
40% Barium Nitrate
50% Magnesium Aluminum Alloy

Mg & Al
24% Barium Nitrate
50% Magnesium Aluminum Alloy
25% Ammonium Nitrate

Mg & Al
40% Barium Nitrate
50% Magnesium Aluminum Alloy
10% Iron Oxide

Mg & Al
49% Potassium Perchlorate
49% Magnesium Aluminum Alloy

Mg & Al
48% Barium Nitrate
46% Magnesium Aluminum Alloy

Mg & Al
50% Barium Nitrate
50% Red Phosphorus

25% Incendiary Comp IM-23
75% Zirconium

50% Incendiary Comp IM-23
50% Zirconium

Iron Oxide Ferric Oxide Fe3O4
Lead Pb
Lead Azide Azide Pb(N3)2
Magnesium Mg
Nitrocellulose Guncotton; Pyroxylin;
Cellulose Nitrate
Nitroglycerine CH2NO3CHNO3CH2NO3
PETN Pentaerythrite, Tetranitrate C(CH2ONO2)4
Potassium Perchlorate KClO4
Red Phosphorus P
Smokeless Powder
(see nitrocellulose)
Sodium Oxalate Na2C2O4
Sodium Nitrate NaNO3
Strontium Nitrate Sr(NO3)2
Strontium Peroxide SrO2
Sulfur S
Sulfur Trioxide FS SO3
Tetryl Trinitrophenyl- methylnitramine (NO2)3C6H2N(NO2)CH
TNT Trinitrotoluene, Triton, Trotyl, Trilite, Trinol, Tritolo CH3C6H2(NO2)3
Tracer Compositions* Tracer Mixture
8.3% Calcium Resinate
26.7% Strontium Peroxide
26.7% Magnesium Powder
33.3% Strontium Nitrate

17% Polyvinyl Chloride
28% Magnesium Powder
55% Strontium Nitrate

16% Polyvinyl Chloride
26% Magnesium Powder
52% Strontium Nitrate

White Phosphorus P
Zirconium Zr

Sources and Resources

FAS | Military | DOD 101 | Systems | Land Warfare |||| Index | Search | Join FAS

Maintained by Robert Sherman
Originally created by John Pike
Updated Saturday, September 12, 1998 6:35:55 AM