Interior Ballistics

Interior ballistics is the study of a projectile's behavior from the time its propellant's igniter is initiated until it exits the gun barrel. The study of internal ballistics is important to designers and users of firearms of all types.

The first step to firing a firearm of any sort is igniting the propellant. The three systems of self-contained metallic cartridge ignition which have survived the test of time are the rimfire, the Berdan centerfire primer, and the Boxer centerfire primer.

The identifying feature of centerfire ammunition is the primer -- a metal cup containing primary explosive inserted into a recess in the center of the base of the cartridge. The firearm firing pin crushes this explosive between the cup and an anvil to produce hot gas and a shower of incandescent particles to ignite the powder charge. Berdan and Boxer cartridge primers are both considered "centerfire".

Single-Base Propellants. Nitrocellulose or "guncotton" is formed by the action of nitric acid on cellulose fibers. It is a highly combustible fibrous material that deflagrates rapidly when heat is applied. It also burns very cleanly, burning almost entirely to gaseous components at high temperatures with little smoke or solid residue. The size and shape of the propellant grains can increase or decrease the relative surface area, and change the burn rate significantly. Additives and coatings can be added to the propellant to further modify the burn rate. Normally, very fast powders are used for light-bullet or low-velocity pistols and shotguns, medium-rate powders for magnum pistols and light rifle rounds, and slow powders for large-bore heavy rifle rounds. These are known as Single-base propellants.

Double-Base Propellants. To further increase the energy of smokeless powder, nitroglycerin can be added in amounts up to 50%. These powders are called "double-base powders", since both their main components actively produce energy, and they have similar basic physical properties to single-base powders. Double-base powders burn faster than single-base powders of the same shape, though not as cleanly, and in general the higher the nitroglycerin content of a powder, the faster the burn rate.

Load density is the percentage of the space in the cartridge case that is filled with powder. In general, loads close to 100% density (or even loads where seating the bullet in the case, compresses the powder) ignite and burn more consistently than lower-density loads. In cartridges surviving from the black-powder era (examples being .45 Colt, .45-70 Government), the case is much larger than is needed to hold the maximum charge of high-density smokeless powder. This extra room allows the powder to shift in the case, piling up near the front or back of the case and potentially causing significant variations in burning rate, as powder near the rear of the case will ignite rapidly but powder near the front of the case will ignite later. This change has less impact with fast powders. Such high-capacity, low-density cartridges generally deliver best accuracy with the fastest appropriate powder, although this keeps the total energy low due to the sharp high-pressure peak.

Magnum pistol cartridges reverse this power/accuracy tradeoff by using lower-density, slower-burning powders that give high load density and a broad pressure curve. The downside is the increased recoil and muzzle blast from the high powder mass, and high muzzle pressure. The advantage is that the magnum pistol rounds can generate accuracy comparable to a good hunting rifle, and energy sufficient to take medium game at ranges out to 100 yards (100 m) and beyond.

Most rifle cartridges have a high load density with the appropriate powders. Rifle cartridges tend to be bottlenecked, with a wide base narrowing down to a smaller diameter, to hold a light, high-velocity bullet. These cases are designed to hold a large charge of low-density powder, for an even broader pressure curve than a magnum pistol cartridge. These cases require the use of a long rifle barrel to extract their full efficiency, although they are also chambered in rifle-like pistols (single-shot or bolt-action) with barrels of 10 to 15 inches (25 to 38 cm).

One unusual phenomenon occurs when dense, low-volume powders are used in large-capacity rifle cases. Small charges of powder, unless held tightly near the rear of the case by wadding, can apparently detonate when ignited, sometimes causing catastrophic failure of the firearm. The mechanism of this phenomenon is not well known, and generally it is not encountered except when loading low recoil or low-velocity subsonic rounds for rifles. These rounds generally have velocities of under 1100 ft/s (320 m/s), and are used for indoor shooting, in conjunction with a suppressor or for pest control, where the power and muzzle blast of a full-power round is not needed or desired.

Since the burning rate of smokeless powder varies directly with the pressure, the initial pressure buildup has a significant effect on the final velocity, especially in cartridges with fast powders. The friction, holding the bullet in the case, determines how soon after ignition the bullet moves, and since the motion of the bullet increases the volume and drops the pressure, a difference in friction can change the slope of the pressure curve. In general, a tight fit is desired, to the extent of crimping the bullet into the case. In straight-walled rimless cases, such as the .45 ACP, an aggressive crimp is not possible, since the case is held in the chamber by the mouth of the case, but sizing the case to allow a tight interference fit with the bullet, can give the desired result.

The bullet must tightly fit the bore to seal the high pressure of the burning gun powder. This tight fit generates a large quantity of friction. The friction of the bullet in the bore does have a slight impact on the final velocity, but that is generally not much of a concern. Of greater concern is the heat that is generated due to the friction. At velocities of about 1,000 ft/s (300 m/s), lead begins to melt, and deposit in the bore. This lead build-up constricts the bore, increasing the pressure and decreasing the accuracy of subsequent rounds, and is difficult to scrub out without damaging the bore. Rounds, used at velocities up to 1,500 ft/s (460 m/s), can use wax lubricants on the bullet to reduce lead build-up. At velocities over 1,500 ft/s (460 m/s), nearly all bullets are jacketed in copper, or a similar alloy that is soft enough not to wear on the barrel, but melts at a high enough temperature to reduce build-up in the bore. Copper build-up does begin to occur in rounds that exceed 2,500 ft/s (760 m/s), and a common solution is to impregnate the surface of the bullet with molybdenum disulfide lubricant. This reduces copper build-up in the bore, and results in better long-term accuracy.

In the first few inches (centimeters) of travel down the bore, the bullet reaches a significant percentage of its final velocity, even for high-capacity rifles, with slow burning powder. The acceleration is on the order of tens of thousands of gravities, so even a projectile as light as 40 grains (2.6 g), can provide hundreds of pounds-force (over 1000 newtons) of resistance, due to inertia. Changes in bullet mass, therefore, have a huge impact on the pressure curves of smokeless powder cartridges, unlike black powder cartridges. The loading or reloading of smokeless cartridges thus requires high-precision equipment, and carefully measured tables of load data for given cartridges, powders, and bullet weights.

The purpose of the barrel is to provide a consistent seal, allowing the bullet to accelerate to a consistent velocity. It must also impart the right spin, and release the bullet consistently, perfectly concentric to the bore. The residual pressure in the bore must be released symmetrically, so that no side of the bullet receives any more or less push than the rest. The muzzle of the barrel is the most critical part, since that is the part that controls the release of the bullet.

To keep a good seal, the bore must be a very precise, constant diameter, or have a slight decrease in diameter from breech to muzzle. Any increase in bore diameter will allow the bullet to shift. This can cause gas to leak past the bullet, affecting the velocity, or cause the bullet to tip, so that it is no longer perfectly coaxial with the bore. High quality barrels are lapped to remove any constrictions in the bore which will cause a change in diameter.

Another issue that has an effect on the barrel's hold on the bullet is the rifling. When the bullet is fired, it is forced into the rifling, which cuts or "engraves" the surface of the bullet. If the rifling is a constant twist, then the rifling rides in the grooves engraved in the bullet, and everything is secure and sealed. If the rifling has a decreasing twist, then the changing angle of the rifling in the engraved grooves of the bullet causes the rifling to become narrower than the grooves. This allows gas to blow by, and loosens the hold of the bullet on the barrel. An increasing twist, however, will make the rifling become wider than the grooves in the bullet, maintaining the seal. When a rifled-barrel blank is selected for a gun, careful measurement of the inevitable variations in manufacture can determine if the rifling twist varies, and put the higher-twist end at the muzzle.

The muzzle of the barrel is the last thing to touch the bullet before it goes into ballistic flight, and as such has the greatest potential to disrupt the bullet's flight. The muzzle must allow the gas to escape the barrel symmetrically; any asymmetry will cause an uneven pressure on the base of the bullet, which will disrupt its flight. The muzzle end of the barrel is called the "crown", and it is usually either beveled or recessed to protect it from bumps or scratches that might affect accuracy. A sign of a good crown will be a symmetric, star-shaped pattern on the muzzle end of the barrel, formed by soot deposited, as the powder gases escape the barrel. If the star is uneven, then it is a sign of an uneven crown, and an inaccurate barrel.

Before the barrel can release the bullet in a consistent manner, it must grip the bullet in a consistent manner. The part of the barrel between where the bullet exits the cartridge, and engages the rifling, is called the "throat", and the length of the throat is the freebore. In some firearms, the freebore is all but nonexistent — the act of chambering the cartridge forces the bullet into the rifling. This is common in low-powered rimfire target rifles. The placement of the bullet in the rifling ensures that the transition between cartridge and rifling is quick and stable. The downside is that the cartridge is firmly held in place, and attempting to extract the unfired round can be difficult, to the point of even pulling the bullet from the cartridge in extreme cases.

With high-powered cartridges, there is an additional disadvantage to a short freebore. A significant amount of force is required to engrave the bullet, and this additional resistance can raise the pressure in the chamber by quite a bit. To mitigate this effect, higher-powered rifles tend to have more freebore, so that the bullet is allowed to gain some momentum, and the chamber pressure is allowed to drop slightly, before the bullet engages the rifling. The downside is that the bullet hits the rifling when already moving, and any slight misalignment can cause the bullet to tip as it engages the rifling. This will, in turn, mean that the bullet does not exit the barrel coaxially. The amount of freebore is a function of both the barrel and the cartridge. The manufacturer or gunsmith who cuts the chamber will determine the amount of space between the cartridge case mouth and the rifling. Setting the bullet further forward or back in the cartridge can decrease or increase the amount of freebore, but only within a small range. Careful testing by the ammunition loader can optimize the amount of freebore to maximize accuracy, while keeping the peak pressure within limits.

Source: ballistics