How technologically advanced are today's cartridges/bullets?

Thinking about the fiction plot device “Modern military guy/men are trapped in the past/fantasy world with their guns” or the hypothetical “Could a guy with an M-16 have changed Agincourt?” style question led me to wonder the two-part question:

(1) How far back could you go with a modern firearm before you were screwed once you ran out of bullets? Assume, for sake of discussion, you have access to that era’s metalworkers and the ability to show and explain what you needed (fiction writer’s fiat – the “king” wants to keep you armed). Also assume you have a supply of gunpowder. Actually, I know today’s bullets don’t use “real” gunpowder as the propellant so how big a deal is that?

(2) Would you be better off with one gun over another? A revolver over a semiautomatic pistol? I’m just guessing that a shotgun would be easiest since they still use paper cartridges and the shot would be more forgiving than a bullet. But you’d still need to fashion the striking end. Want to keep it to modern arms though despite knowing it’d be easier to supply a musket.

I did a little reading and saw that the first metal cartridges were produced in the 1840’s and paper cartridges had been used well before that but I don’t know how well a modern firearm would tolerate them. Anyway, sorry if I got any terminology wrong.

Probably depends on the actual round and caliber for exact answers, but here’s my thoughts:

Anything other than bullets specifically intended to expand are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been. Not much innovation there other than lead-free versions for environmental friendliness.

Expanding bullets have gone through a process of improvement since they were introduced- today’s expanding bullets are considerably more effective than those of 20 years ago, mostly due to better design with respect to the velocities and weights of bullets, and better understanding of how they perform.

My gut tells me that fluid dynamics modeling and other computational methods were applied to bullet design to accomplish this, but I don’t know that for sure.

Materials have advanced somewhat as well- lead is still the best performing shot for shotshells, but there are more advanced lead-free shotgun shells now using tungsten matrix pellets (tungsten dust in a polymer matrix), bismuth pellets, and various sorts of advanced steel pellets in different shapes and sizes.

Both Berdan and Boxer primers (the cut and anvil in the rear of a centerfire cartridge which initatates the propellant charge) were patended in 1866, and slowly but steadily adopted after that. Although it might be technically possible to refurbish and reuse the anvil, it woudl require forming technology that would not be readily available prior to that. Similar for the compounds used in the primer; while it might be possible to synthesize them with a knowledge of modern chemistry, it is unlikely that you would be able to obtain sufficient purity without a well-equipped laboratory.

Black power would be insufficiently slow burning and energetic for most modern cartridges as well as leaving a lot of residue which would quickly foul any gas-operated weapon and would require thorough cleaning of recoil operated weapons. The process for quantity production of nitrocellulose (a.k.a. guncotton) was in about the same timeframe as primers, so again, your limits are about mid- to late-19th Century.

You would also not be able to source the high precision swaged copper jacketed bullets which are used in most weapons, and would have ot use lower precision soft lead rounds which will foul gas operating systems, feeding mechanisms, and will generally be enormously inaccurate beyond a few dozen feet when fired from a modern weapon due to both the imbalance in the rounds and the mismatch between propellant speed and the twist rate in the rifling.

Setting aside the issue of primers, a shotgun would be the weapon of choice for reloading in the pre-modern era. The relatively low pressure does not damage the brass shoe, and it would be relatively simple to set up a means to produce a thick paper hull. The lower performance of the powder is relatively inconsequental at shotgun ranges, as would be the use of less-than-precise lead shot. However, you would still have to clean and maintain the action which itself could be challenging without proper tools and materials, especially if is getting gunked up with black powder residue.


This is absolutely not true. You can produce soft and hard cast lead bullets at home by melting lead into molds, but while this is adequate at the pistol distance and energies there is without question great advantages to the swaged and bonded copper jacket on all high power rifle rounds for the accuracy, twist rate, bullet integrity under high temperature and pressure, and bullet shapes such as spitzer and boattail bullets which allowed for faster, flatter shooting bullets with lower effective drag.


So barring extra-technological intervention, Ash in Army of Darkness might keep his boomstick working* but a reality-flung Marine squad is boned once the ammo runs out and they have to fight ogres by hand. Any potential luck with revolvers?
*Gasoline powered chainsaw hand maybe not so much


However,modern Marine would be able to pick off the ogres at 300-500 yards minimum, meaning they would certainly reduce their numbers before they ever get close. The ones that were still brave enough to continue their charge would still have earned the privilege of hand to hand combat.:smiley:

No, revolvers have the same issue with primers as all other centerfire weapons. If you had a supply of primers and powder you could potentially reload with cast lead bullets (many shooters use lead bullets in revolvers) but despite the oft-repeated claim that “revolvers don’t jam” the open frame design renders revolvers quite prone to contamination and damage.


Interesting. I thought the problems would be more about the physical unit but apparently it’s chemistry that’ll do me in. I’m sure there’s a ton of examples of some time-flung traveler saying “let’s collect charcoal and bird shit” and making gunpowder to impress the locals but I guess that won’t get you very far in “reality” either. At least not with any modern weapon.

Could you adapt the technology used to make percussion capsinto something that would work with metallic cartridges? Not having ever been a muzzleloader shooter, I’m unclear about the exact differences between a percussion cap and the Boxer primers I’m familiar with. Besides that one goes on a nipple on the firearm and the other one goes into the rear of the cartridge case.

Also, as I think Stranger mostly pointed out, you’re going to lose a lot of velocity using lead bullets in rifles if you can’t make jacketed bullets. ~2200 fps is about the most I remember reading in references like the Lyman Reloading Manual. (Though the link I have at the bottom of this post, at post #17, mentions a 5.56 load with 1.25 MOA accuracy and 2443 fps velocity, so who knows?) And this is with properly selected bullet composition, bullet lube, and gas checks. There’s a lot of chemistry too in making lead bullets of the proper hardness, as this thread dealing with lead handgun bullet composition and velocity goes into. Too hard, and the bullet won’t obturate—seal the bore from powder gasses leaking past the bullet base. This will increase the amount of lead deposited in the barrel’s grooves. It also will provide poorer expansion within the target than a softer bullet. Too soft will also lead to increased bullet leading. This post from the L.A. Silhouette Club goes into some more detail about matching softness to desired velocity for both revolver and semi-auto pistol shooters.

Finally, if you’ve a firearm with polygonal rifling, like a Glock or some H&K pistols, you aren’t supposed to shoot lead bullets in it at all. Makers of very hard cast lead pistol ammunition, like Buffalo Bore, point out that their bullets shouldn’t cause unacceptable barrel leading, and further mention that it really becomes a problem when the shooter switches from shooting soft lead bullets, with lead accretion in the barrel grooves, to shooting tighter fitting, higher velocity jacket bullets. In those cases, the lead may act as a partial barrel obstruction, increasing chamber pressure, and potentially leading to case and firearm chamber failure. In a higher pressure cartridge like 9mm x 19 Parabellum or .40 S&W, this can lead to the infamous ‘Glock Ka-Boom!’

It is possible to use cast lead bullets with gas-operated semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15. With proper attention to powder load and cartridge composition, the rifle will function for several hundred rounds without unacceptable lead accumulation.

I’ll point out that at least one type of sidearm currently issued to (some) US Military should, in principle, have no problem getting ammunition if transported back a century, as it would have been produced for three years already. M1911
Related, the 1908 Springfield rifle is apparently no longer used by the military (except as a show piece) but is fairly common for hunting. And the current US .50 cal machine gun is a WWI design.

So at least some ‘modern’ weapons could go back close to a century and use off-the-shelf ammo.

This seems like an excellent place to talk about this:

Would anyone care to explain what these all are? The middle one on the top row looks like some sort of dart.

Those bullet photos are very interesting and help display how out of luck my guy at Agincourt is once he runs out of ammo. No early 15th century weapon smith is going to be replicating that. Thanks!

I think those photos include some pretty exotic ammo though - I’m not a gun owner, but I think it would be possible to reload simpler ammunition.

Primers could be a problem, but I daresay they could be reverse engineered for centre fire using something else - a miniaturised flint/steel striker in a little brass cup the size of a conventional primer for example - a jeweller might be able to make this in various times and locations pretty much all the way back to the Bronze Age. OK, Iron age (for the steel part of the striker).

Sure, you could adapt them. Percussion caps were just mercury fulminate and this was used in some early metal cartridges as well. You’ll run into problems trying to ignite smokeless powder with mercury fulminate primers intended for black powder as smokeless powder requires more energy to ignite it, so you’ll have to fiddle with it a lot to reduce the misfires.

Cartridges were in use before the Civil War but (1) they hadn’t proved themselves on the battlefield yet and (2) they were really expensive to produce compared to percussion caps and traditional Minee balls (which despite being called balls are actually bullet shaped). Cartridge rifles really proved themselves during the Civil War but it was only in the decades after the war that improvements in brass production made them practical for your main line troop weapons.

If you are willing to pay for the manufacturing, producing cartridges was possible long before the Civil War.

Be careful when you read about old paper cartridges as not all of them functioned like a modern cartridge. Musket cartridges in particular weren’t actually inserted into the musket. Soldiers would tear the top of the cartridge off with their teeth, pour the powder from the cartridge into the musket, add the round (round ball for most flintlocks, later a bullet shaped round for rifle muskets), and ram the whole thing down with the ramrod (flintlocks also added an extra step of putting powder into the pan under the frizzen before pouring the rest down the barrel). The paper was then tossed aside. The “cartridge” was a big improvement over measuring out the powder for each shot, since you could just pour pre-measured powder down the barrel without taking any time to make sure you had the right amount. But it was nowhere near the same as inserting a cartridge fully into the weapon.

Mercury fulminate was well known back in the 1700s. Folks had experimented with using it as some kind of gunpowder replacement but it wasn’t practical. If you go back and give them the idea to only use the mercury fulminate as a primer, someone from that era could probably make a functional cartridge without too much fiddling using mercury fulminate for the primer and black powder as the propellant. Black powder will foul up your weapon’s barrel (and anything else it can get into) fairly quickly though. A revolver would probably be your best bet as it will tolerate more fouling before it stops working. Your biggest risk with a revolved is that once it gets all fouled up, unburned powder residue in the fouling can ignite causing a chain fire (all of the cylinders fire at once, it’s not pretty) which is something that Civil War era pistol shooters were well aware of but is something that a modern shooter might not be aware of the risk.

An automatic weapon will probably jam fairly frequently if it fires these types of cartridges (someone hacking together mercury fulminate cartridges with black powder) as these types of weapons are much more particular about their ammo and will often fail to cycle properly when using cheap ammo, let alone something that they were not designed to use. They will get even worse when the black powder starts fouling up their mechanisms.

I could go back in time and explain how to make a functional flintlock to anyone who could make steel. Without steel, I could explain how to make a matchlock to anyone who can make a barrel strong enough to withstand the pressure.

It would probably take some trial and error to get the gunpowder mixture correct as well as figuring out how to make it without blowing yourself up.

I could also explain to Mr. Bronze Age Dude how to make steel, but that would also require some fiddling to get the mixtures right.

Good points - the language barrier might be the hardest part.

I’ll take a shot at it. First, here’s an explanation from someone on Reddit that purports to ID each sectioned bullet. Without looking at his/her explanation, here’re my guesses:

Top row. 1, some sort of solid penetrator with a lower jacket. The jacket fulfills the same role as a driving band does for artillery shells: makes contact with the rifling to seal the bore and impart spin to the projectile. Guessing the penetrator is some alloy of tungsten.
2. Flechette round. Flechettes worked great in artillery/recoilless rifle shells, not so much for small arms.
3. Looks like the SALVO concept or Greener’s experiments with 30-'06 triplex rounds. The case has a much longer neck than #2 though, but a similar width, so is it a Russian 5.45 triplex experiment?

Second Row. 1, SectionedGlaser Safety Slug
2. I had thought this was a PPC benchrest cartridge, using a hollow tip FMJ Sierra Matchking bullet, but the lead level doesn’t look even. The PPC cartridges do have a ridiculously necked-down, stubby appearance though.

Third Row. 1, Your basic round nose, FMJ, revolver cartridge. (Rimmed case) Though Berdan primed, not Boxer primed. If I had to guess, I’d say something like .455 Webley. Looks too short to be one of the Magnums.
2. Ditto, but using a monolithic material, like Barnes’s copper bullets, and having a nose cavity to facilitate expansion. Plus Boxer primed.
3. Looks like a frangible cartridge. with the wax/rubber nose, and what looks like a powdered metal interior. Useful in shooting steel or other situation where you want to minimize ricochet. I wonder if it’s a Simunition cartridge?

Fourth Row. 1. Never mind, this is a Simunition cartridge. Looks like 5.56.
2. FMJ boattail, Berdan primed, with a filler and a solid propellant—i.e., non-powder. Military of some sort.
3. Boxer primed, FMJ. Long ass bullet for its diameter. Something in the 6.5 mm category?

Fifth Row. 1. Assuming all of these are to scale, this is huge. Guessing some sort of slug, fired from a Berdan-primed case. Some sort of 37 mm?

  1. I thought 12 gauge, because of the red plastic hull, but the proportions look way off. And there’s no brass near the head of the case. Some sort of flare cartridge?

Be interesting to see what these are. The artist’s website doesn’t have a key, unfortunately.

I think you misunderstood what I meant. I meant that FMJ is FMJ, and cast lead bullets are cast lead bullets, and there hasn’t really been much innovation in them since their development some 100+ years ago, except for newer lead-free versions meant to be more environmentally friendly.

I didn’t mean that somehow bullets hadn’t changed at all, but rather that they were pretty quickly developed to a point where they haven’t changed much, if at all in 100 years.

I mean, what significant differences are there between a .30-06 FMJ cartridge from 1905 vs. 2014?

But as far as the OP’s time period would go; I’d think sometime around 1898 or so, if you were careful with your choice of weapons- there are lots of .303 British rifles still around as well as .38 Special pistols, .22LR pistols and rifles and somewhat older ones that are still useful like .45-70 and the like.