Ammo malapropism

I was driving and listening to NPR broadcast about Syria … nside-out/ when the announcer said: “And the restaurant offered us an excellent view of what seemed to be tracer shells streaking across the sky”. Well, I made mistakes misspeaking about ammo before. So if a national broadcaster is allowed, so can I.


I’m not too proud to admit it. You made me get out my Webster’s. :-)


Are you suggesting that he should have said “tracer bullets” instead of “tracer shells”?

“Shells” would imply that they are explosive “artillery shells” and many artillery projectiles do have tracer elements attached to them.

If strictly talking about small caliber ammunition “tracer bullets” would be more appropriate.

However, news media reporting on military subjects is often even less accurate than when reporting on other topics, so regard all of it with some suspicion, and an expectation that they may not be telling you everything, or that not everything they are telling you is accurate. The “Public Broadcasting” folks seem to be no more accurate than their commercial competitors, although a cynic would note that the standards are pretty low for most of them.

I believe maybe Ray had to use Webster’s to look up “malapropism”…??


“Tracer shells” would be appropriate when describing ammo for the 23mm ZU AA gun, which is commonly used in the ground fighting.

Matt, yes, I thought “shells” was the thing staying on the ground, not flying in the sky. Is there an official calibre devide after which the flying projectiles are called “shells”? Is it 23mm?

Malapropism and (in)accuracy in reporting? Absolutely!

I remember one event in particular, it was a ‘front line’ news report during the Vietnam war. US troops were on a search and destroy mission in the jungle and they found a cache of ammunition. The reporter held in his hand a 12.7 x 108mm (Soviet) cartridge and a 12.7 x 99mm (US .50 BMG) cartridge and informed the viewers that the Soviets had developed the 12.7 x 108mm cartridge for the Vietcong so when the Vietcong ran out of proper ammo they could use captured US .50 BMG ammo in the same machineguns without any problems. The reporter also pointed to a pile of ‘bullets’ (rifle cartridges) laying on the ground and he said the Vietcong were using local people to reload ‘bullets’ and also they were using hand powered lathes to cut and shape new bullets for the ‘bullets’ from metal rods or US made bullets. I was a young teenager at the time and I realized then that this reporter did not know what he was talking about.


“Shell” is an artillery term which originated in the muzzle loading era, long before metallic cartridge cases were invented.

Solid “shot” (“cannon balls”) were one type of artillery ammunition, useful for battering fortifications, or penetrating ships, or inflicting casualties as they bounced along after initial impact on the ground or water.

“Shells” were hollow spheres filled with an explosive charge and some sort of fuze, and would produce fragments to inflict damage or casualties. Later improvements to the basic shell was to add a number of smaller metallic objects inside the sphere to multiply the number of fragments. These were often called “spherical case shells.”

I would think that the divide would be that vague “machine gun vs. cannon” area around 20mm.

[quote=“30army”]I believe maybe Ray had to use Webster’s to look up “malapropism”…??


Randy, yes, I wasn’t sure exactly what Malapropism meant. It’s one of those words that you think you know but are not quite sure. When Vlad used it, I became even more curious. I bet he had to look it up too. ;-) ;-)


I remember a photo with a caption along the lines of: “An Iraqi woman holds three bullets which hit her house”.

The only problem was that they were three complete 5.56 cartridges…

Those are cartridge cases. However, in popular writing you will often see them called “shells” or “shell cases”. Not to be encouraged!

[quote=“Falcon”]I remember a photo with a caption along the lines of: “An Iraqi woman holds three bullets which hit her house”.

The only problem was that they were three complete 5.56 cartridges…[/quote]

I remember years ago seeing a poster for one of the “Naked Gun” comedy films which showed a revolver being fired and the entire cartridge leaving the muzzle. I would like to think that it was a deliberate joke rather than a mistake, but I wouldn’t bet on it…

That reminds me of this poster. It implies that a complete cartridge had been fired into the glass.

Not all official documents agree on the size limits of Small Arms Ammunition. Early ones define it as anything below .06" in diamter while later publications, such as TM43-0001, include everything thru 30mm. and shotgun shells from .410 thru 10 gauge.

So, I suppose you pay your money and make your own decision.


Political (newspaper) Cartoonists the world over use the “full cartridge” design when showing a “hail of bullets” and Rimmed cases to boot…IN the last 50 years of reading and comprehending Aussie news sheets, I have not seen a cartoon with correct depiction of “a hail of bullets”… it is always a shower of what looks like .44 Henry Rimfire…now that’s going back a tad!!!


Yes, different armies have their own definitions and these do alter over time.

The current division in Jane’s Ammunition Handbook (or, as I should learn to call it now, “IHS Jane’s Weapons: Ammunition”) has the Small Arms Ammunition section as including pistol, PDW, rifle and MG ammo of less than 20mm calibre, with 20-57mm ammo for autoloading HV guns being designated cannon ammunition. Shotgun ammo is also counted within small arms, while grenade launcher ammo has its own section (and less-lethal riot control ammo another).

Come on fellows anyone who has been in the military knows a weapons barrel can wear so that the complete “bullet casing” (sic) can be ejected when fired. Gives a lot of recoil but can possably hit an enemy anyway. How do the movie and TV writers know what we collectors do not that an actor can pick up a bullet and say I found a 9mm when it could be anything 35 caliber? Grin and bear it.