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Frequently Asked Questions...

How do i identify a rifle cartridges caliber? What makes the caliber?

Is it the width of the cartridge?


Best Answer...


What is caliber?

That is a surprisingly complex question. Whole books are written about the subject, some updated annually. The unfortunate fact is, there is no one system and often no sense. You just have to know.

Most simplistically, the caliber of a bullet is its diameter in inches or millimeters ... except when it isn't. For historical reasons, some bullets' actual diameters are different from their nominal calibers. For example, .38 Special is .357" in diameter and .380 is .355".

When describing guns and the cartridges they use, bullet diameter is just the beginning. There are lots of different cartridges that use a nominal .22 bullet. There are a couple of dozen that use a 9mm bullet. So, we have names for them: .22 Long Rifle, .22 Long, .22 Short, etc. or 9mm Parabellum, 9mm Largo, 9mm Short, etc.

Rifle cartridges get even more confusing with all kinds of odd numbers that can designate the equivalent number of grains of black powder the case contains (.30-30) or the year the military adopted the cartridge (.30-06) or the nominal muzzle velocity of the bullet (.30-3000), among other things.

The Europeans have a somewhat more rational system that is beginning to be used here. They designate cartridges by bullet diameter and case length in millimeters. So 9mm Parabellum becomes 9x19mm, .30 Soviet becomes 7.62x39mm, etc.

Then there's the shape and construction of the bullet, which generates its own alphabet soup of designations. Some examples: LSW = Lead SemiWadcutter, SJHP = SemiJacketed Hollow Point, SXT = Supreme eXpansion Talon (Winchester thought that sounded cool), etc.

The same caliber can also use different weight bullets. You usually have to look at the box the cartridges came in to find out what that is.

"Magnum" generally means "bigger and more powerful than the cartridge it was based on." So, the .357 Magnum case is a millimeter or two longer than the .38 Special case it was based on (a safety measure to prevent .357 Magnum cartridges from being loaded into .38 Special guns). .357 Maximum is bigger still.

Then there are the designations "+p" and "+p+" which indicate, respectively, "higher than standard pressure" and "even higher pressure than that," referring to the internal pressure created when the cartridge is fired in the chamber of a gun.

Shotguns mostly use a system of gauges rather than calibers. The gauge of a shotgun is the number of lead balls the same diameter as the bore of the barrel that it would take to make up a pound of lead. That's why lower number gauges are bigger (12 gauge is bigger than 20 gauge). A few shotguns are measured in caliber, e.g., .410 and 9mm (rare in the USA).

Shotshells also come in different lengths, which designate the length of the shell case before the end is folded down over the contents. Typical lengths are 2 3/4", 3" and 3 1/2". Longer shells should not be used in guns designed only for shorter ones, though they may fit in the chamber.

The contents of a shotshell can be just about anything from one solid slug to hundreds or even thousands of tiny balls of #12 shot (aka "dust shot"). Then there are the exotics with all kinds of weird effects that someone thought was useful or cool (everything from beanbags to "dragon's breath").

And we haven't even touched on the subject of headstamps -- the arcane numbers, letters and symbols stamped on the base of the cartridge case. Whole books have been written about them, too.

Et bloomin' cetera, I'm afraid. The whole field is a muddle. The important thing is, for any given gun, to use only the ammunition it was designed for. That's usually stamped on the barrel, chamber or receiver somewhere.