The .30 caliber (7.62 mm) armor-piercing bullet on the right has a copper jacket enclosing a hardened penetrator, but externally resembles the other four lead-core bullets.

Armor-piercing bullets for rifle and handgun cartridges are designed to penetrate ballistic armor and protective shields intended to stop or deflect conventional bullets. Although bullet design is an important factor with regard to armor penetration, the ability of any given projectile to penetrate ballistic armor increases with increasing velocity. Rifle cartridges typically discharge bullets at higher muzzle velocity than handgun cartridges due to larger propellant charge. However, even the same cartridge (one that is interchangeable between specific rifles and handguns) fired from a rifle will, in almost all common cases, have a higher velocity than when fired from a handgun. This is due to the longer period of acceleration available within the longer gun barrel of rifles, which allow adequate time for the propellant to fully ignite before the projectile exits the barrel. For this reason, bullets fired from rifles may be more capable of piercing armor than similar or identical bullets fired from handguns.[1] In addition, a small-caliber bullet has higher sectional density than a larger-caliber bullet of the same weight, and thus is more capable of defeating body armor.


Rifle bullets

Armor-piercing bullets typically contain a hardened steel, tungsten, or tungsten carbide penetrator encased within a copper or cupronickel jacket, similar to the jacket which would surround lead in a conventional projectile. The penetrator is a pointed mass of high-density material designed to retain its shape and carry the maximum possible amount of energy as deeply as possible into the target. The entire projectile is not normally made of the same material as the penetrator because the hard metals of good penetrators would damage the barrel of the gun firing the bullet. Impact velocity of the copper jacket may temporarily soften the face of the armor and cushion the impact to avoid breaking the brittle penetrator. The penetrator then slides out of the jacket to continue forward through the armor.[1]


Round Projectile Weight
M2 .30-06 Springfield 163
M61 7.62×51mm NATO 150.5 [2]
SS190 FN 5.7×28mm 31
M995 5.56×45mm NATO 52 [2]
M993 7.62×51mm NATO 126.6
7N13 7.62×54mmR 145.1
S.m.K. 7.92×57mm Mauser 178.25
AP485 .338 Lapua Magnum 248 [3]
211 Mod 0 .50 BMG 650

Handgun bullets

Handgun bullets made entirely of lead have less penetration ability than jacketed bullets at similar velocity. In the 1930s, Western Cartridge Company introduced .38 Special ammunition capable of firing a 158-grain (10.2 g) copper-tipped lead-alloy bullet at 1,125 feet (343 m) per second to penetrate sheet-metal automobile doors.[4] As higher velocity handgun cartridges became available and jacketed bullets became more common in handgun cartridges, armor penetration was improved with thicker bullet jackets or bullets made entirely of jacket material like copper or brass. Later designs used penetrator cores similar to rifle designs.[1] Some of these bullets were coated with Teflon to reduce their tendency to ricochet off glass or sheet metal.[5]

United States

In 1986 United States law initially defined armor-piercing bullets to exempt rifle ammunition:

Subsequent regulations requiring green bullets encouraged replacing lead core bullets with M855A1 military bullets with a copper jacket over a steel core,[7] or hunting bullets of solid copper or brass.[8]


  1. ^ a b c Fitchett, Bev. "Armor Piercing Bullets". Retrieved 29 June 2019.
  2. ^ a b "Ballistics Chart for Military Ammunition". Gun Shots. Archived from the original on 8 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-04.
  3. ^ "Lapua Special Purpose brochure" (PDF). Lapua. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-09-27. Retrieved 2011-09-11.
  4. ^ Western Ammunition Handbook (3rd ed.). East Alton, Illinois: Western Cartridge Company. pp. 54–63.
  5. ^ Kopsch, Paul. "Interview with an inventor of the KTW bullet". NRAction newsletter, Volume 4, Issue 5 (May 1990). Retrieved 29 June 2019.
  6. ^ 18 United States Code, § 921(a)(17)(B)
  7. ^ Audra Calloway (1 July 2013). "Picatinny ammo goes from regular to unleaded". Retrieved 29 June 2019.
  8. ^ "Certified Nonlead Ammunition". California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Retrieved 27 March 2017.