European Nomenclature
European cartridges are designated by their caliber and by their overall cartridge length. An example is the 9MM Parabellum, which has a European designation of 9X19MM (”Parabellum” is the last part of the saying [in Latin] “If you want peace, prepare for war.” “Parabellum” was the cable address of DWM or Deutsche Waffen-und Munitionsfabriken, the developers of the cartridge). The first number refers to the cartridge’s caliber, and the second refers to the case length. Another example is the 9X21MM. This is an Italian cartridge designed to get around the prohibition against Italian citizens owning military ammunition. It has been pressed into service in an American sporting competition because of the ban on using 9X19MM in that sport. The 9X21MM has almost identical dimensions to the 9X19MM except that its case length is two millimeters longer.

The Soviet military cartridge used in their obsolete SKS and their soon-to-be obsolete AKM-47 is the 7.62X39MM. Here, the cartridge has a bullet with a nominal diameter of 7.62MM and a case length of 39MM. Compare this with the European designation of the NATO military cartridge, 7.62X51MM. Here, the caliber is obstensibly 7.62MM and the case length is 51MM long.

In order to handle some similar but definitely different cartridges, the letter R will sometimes be employed to designate a rimmed cartridge from a rimless one. The Soviets have a cartridge called the 7.62X53RMM. This cartridge has a case length that is 53MM long with a rimmed head.

A special case that comes to mind is the German 7.92X57MM cartridge. It comes in two types, one without an S and another labeled S. The S-type cartridge uses a larger bullet than the non S-type cartridge. Each cartridge, the S and non S, were adopted for different German army rifles in 1888 and 1898 respectively.

1. Failure of European Style
We already know that to say a cartridge has a 9MM bullet can be misleading. Is it exactly 9MM? We also know that caliber in some instances can be determined from the land to land dimension inside a barrel, or the grove-to-grove diameter of a barrel. We also know that in practice bullets of a particular caliber vary quite a deal in size. What is to stop someone from creating a cartridge that has a bullet exactly 9.01MM in diameter, matching it with a 19MM case, and calling that a 9X19MM cartridge?

The European system is neat, and certainly instructive to a point. However, its failure is in that it doesn’t allow for very similar cartridges that are loaded for very different pressures, as well as cartridges that vary wildly in their overall cartridge length. A cartridge that is designed to take a bullet twice as long as a 9X19MM cartridge and operate a three times the pressure would get the designation 9X19MM.

In short, the Europeans have learned to adopt names for their cartridges as well, mixing the names with the numeric nomenclature system. The 9X19MM is often called the 9MMP (P for Parabellum) for one example.

Blackpowder Nomenclature
When self-contained ammunition became common in the later 1800’s, industry naturally attempted to apply a standard to the myriad cartridges it was creating. A three number system developed that hangs on even into today.

Blackpowder cartridge nomenclature is built on three numbers: the first is the caliber of the bullet in thousandths of an inch, the second is the grain weight of the blackpowder charge, and the third is the grain weight of the bullet. A popular round from the blackpowder era that is still used today is the cartridge for the Army’s Model 1873 trapdoor Springfield, the 45-70 Government. The designation originally referred to a .45 caliber bullet propelled by 70 grains of blackpowder.

1. Failure of Blackpowder Nomenclature
The most obvious failure is exampled by the previously-mentioned round. The 45-70 Government is missing its bullet weight. There are two reasons for this: one is that the system is cumbersome, and this opens itself up for creative abbreviations, the second is that even during the blackpowder era, cartridges like the 45-70 were loaded with a variety of bullets. The nomenclature demands that for each loading, that is, for each combination of bullet weight and propellant weight, a new designation is created. Each cartridge, despite the mere difference in loading, becomes unique in this system.

Further, in the era of blackpowder, only one type of blackpowder was widely available. If memory serves, I believe it was a variety close to FG. Today, grain weight of powder hardly is a revealing statistic in itself; there are many different powders on the market with a variety of different burning rates, hence widely different characteristics. Fifty grains of powder X loaded into a .357 Magnum cartridge may be safe and approved by SAAMI, but 50 grains of powder Y may cause unsafe pressures.

American Nomenclature
The first thing obvious to the casual observer about the American nomenclature system is that there is no system at all. For the most part, cartridges in the Twentieth century are simply named. They take a variety of loadings that are not reference in the name because SAAMI specs assure the user that any arm that can fire, say .38 Special can fire all loadings of .38 Special.

Now this is not to say that American ammunition is totally devoid of rules. There are plenty of cartridges named under older or concomitant naming systems that retain their monikers. This is true for many cartridges named in the blackpowder era. There is the previously-mentioned .45-70 Government cartridge. There is the 44-40 and the 38-40, two related blackpowder era cartridges. Also, there is the smokeless powder era catridge the 30-30. The 30-30 was named for a 30 caliber bullet propelled by 30 grains for smokeless powder. Here, the blackpowder nomenclature system is dragged out for smokeless powder shells. Note that the 30-30 can be loaded in any number of combinations that have nothing to do with 30 grains of smokeless powder, rendering its name really meaningless.

American ammunition manufacturers and gun pundits aren’t shy about using the European system, either. One can find ammunition referenced as the 7.62×39MM as easily as 7.62 Soviet. Additoinally, there are some common trends in naming ammunition that we’ll look at.

1. Failure of American Nomenclature
The main failure of the American style “nomenclature” system is that is relies on brute memorization of names. These names rarely, refer to any actual dimension related to the cartridge at hand.

2. Success of American Nomenclature
The successful aspect of simply applying a name to a cartridge and leaving it at that is that there is little confusion generated. A box of .44 Magnum cannot possibly confused with a box of .44 Russian. Further, manufacturers are presented with the opportunity to give their new cartridges snappy names as opposed to dry labels. A great example is the .220 Swift, or the 300 Whisper. It also allows inventors to give their own names to a cartridge, like in the case of the 7MM Shooting Times Easterner. The .41 Action Express may not have done well in the marketplace, but it certainly wasn’t because of a dull name.

3. Common Trends

Magnum Flavored Ammo
We’ve already looked at the term magnum. As previously noted, a magnum cartridge is created when an existing cartridge is loaded to be extra powerful. We already know that SAAMI determines the power limits for a particular cartridge. When a developer steps out of those boundaries, he or she must name the cartridge anew and develope whole new loading stats for it. Additionally, in order to prevent users from inserting this new magnum round into a gun made for the original cartridge, the magnum round is “stretched” so that it is longer than the original cartridge.

Both the .357 Magnum and the .44 Magnum are examples of this. The .44 Magnum is the magnum version of the .44 Special. What made the .44 Special special? It is a smokeless powder, more powerful version of the .44 Russian. All three cartridges can use the exact same bullet, however their cartridge lengths grow from the Russian to the Magnum. And, let’s note that here is also a case of nominal caliber versus actual caliber. The .44 Russian/Special/Magnum bullet is only .429 inches across. It was developed from a still earlier round called the .44 American. When the .44 Russian was developed, the bullet was shrunk from about 44 hundredths of an inch to 429 thousandths of an inch.

The .357 Magnum is a more powerful version of the .38 Special. The .38 Special uses a bullet 357 thousandths of an inch across. For whatever reason, when the magnum version of the .38 Special was finally developed, it was named the .357 Magnum. To make matters more perverse, there is an intermediate development round between the two.

Take a round like the .22 Magnum. It should properly be called the .22 Winchester Rimfire Magnum or WRM. It is the magnum version of the .22 Winchester Rimfire or .22WRF. The .22WRF became obsolete because it could not compete with the ubiquitous .22LR, however, the .22 WRM found a niche and is widely manufactured today. Most people think the .22WRM ,or .22 Magnum, is the magnum version of the .22LR. They further reason that guns built for the .22 Magnum should be able to fire the .22LR, since the .22LR should simply be a shorter version of the .22 Magnum. It is not! In fact, the .22 Magnum’s bullet’s actual caliber is .224, whereas the .22LR measures about .22, or .223. The loads are not interchangeable in any way.

A question that needs to be answered is, what do you call a magnum version of a magnum? Remington came up with .357 Remington Maximum, a more powerful version of the .357 Magnum.

As you can see, even naming a cartridge a magnum version of its predecessor is no insurance that a reasonable nomenclature system will develope.

A previously mentioned, marketing plays a strong role in naming new cartridges. Zippy names give cartridges sex appeal. The 30-30, discussed before, was once named the 30WCF. The name was changed in the hope that shooters would better respond to the instructive name 30-30, since 30 Caliber Winchester Center Fire really doesn’t impart all that much information. Sometimes, perfectly accurate, logical cartridge names are thrown aside for marketing purposes. An example might be the 9MM Federal. This cartridge is essentially a 9X19MM Parabellum cartridge with a rimmed head for use in revolvers. The cartridge should probably have been called, in order to create a cohesive naming policy, the 9MM Parabellum Rimmed, or the 9X19MMR. However, Federal wanted to sell their cartridge based on the association with their name.

Let’s look at that famous powerhouse cartridge, the .454 Casull. The .454 Casull started out in the late 1950’s as essentially a .45 Long Colt loaded past the SAAMI specifications for a .45 Long Colt. In keeping with magnum practices, the Casull was lengthened so it would not chamber in .45 Long Colt guns. This was a good idea since many revolvers chambered for the .45 Long Colt are upwards of 100 years old! Instead of calling the cartridge the .45 Long Colt Magnum, Freedom Arms continued to call it the .454 Casull. One way to look at it is that the .454 caliber chambering is consistant with .45 Long Colts prior to the 1940’s, which is when SAAMI changed the specifications of the bullet from .454 hundredths of an inch to .452 hundredths of an inch and hence is not a magnum version of the modern cartridge. However, it is obvious to the most casual observer that inventor pride played a role here.

Even long ago, shell makers often named their products based on their name. The .45 Long Colt bears the name of the company that introduced the round to go with their new gun, the Model 1873 Peacemaker. Today, we have the relatively new cartridge, the .40 S&W, or .40 Smith and Wesson, named for its inventor. In an effort not to give a rival company too much free publicity, it is my understanding that autoloading pistols manufactured by companies other than Smith and Wesson stamp their guns for the “40 Auto.”

Back to the Past
One of the first things a novice realizes after a few years of reading about guns is that a)nothing is as it seems to be and b)many “new” introductions have their roots somewhere in the past. For instance, the .38 Special was introduced at the turn of the century. It utilizes a true .357 caliber bullet. Why call it a .38 caliber then? Well, the .38 Special has roots that go back to the 1880’s in the .38 Long Colt, which underwent a major redesign (but no name change) from a 375 thousandths of an inch bullet to about a .363 caliber bullet. When Smith redesigned the cartridge, they used an even smaller bullet about .357 caliber. In order to capitalize on the name of the well-known military pistol round they had just redesigned, they kept the “38″ part of the name.

It is also been my contention that the .41 Magnum designation attempts to latch onto the coattails of a famous old West cartridge, the .41 Long Colt. The two are dissimilar, and nowhere related. However, we have a cartrdge called the .41 Magnum with no non-magnum version. Again, back to the past.

One will find that the names of many cartridges and guns have roots that go back a hundred to two hundred years (like the famous Charter Arms .44 Bulldog revolver). The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same in the world of shooting.

Cartridge Variables