Ammunition packed on links or not?

Maybe this question is a bit of a stretch for this forum, and if so, I apologize. But, I think it is relevant to cartridge collecting and some of the contributors here will have some interesting imput.

The basic question is: Why do/did some countries package ammunition for machineguns on links and some pack it in boxes to be loaded into links later on at the field level? My main examples are US calibers which are generally pre-packed for MG use, but acknowledge that at least .50 BMG was loaded for aircraft use at the bases to allow a “custom” mix of cartridge types. However, it seems that WWII Germany did not pre-pack 7,9 cartridges for the MG-34 and MG-42 for ground use, again knowing that in aircraft use, certain type mixes were called for depending on the mission, day/night, etc…

The primary example though is the Soviet Union/Russia which seems to only pack it’s cartidges in bundles or loose in “spam cans” for loading into belts at a later time, and not using disintegrating belts either.

Logic seems to indicate that prepacked ammunition on disintegrating links in easily opened storage containers is superior in every way. I cannot see the cost being that much greater, nor having the flexibility to custom load belts to be that much of a tactical advantage for general MG use.

However, I have seen at lest one example of Hungarian 7.62x54r ammunition pre-loaded with a mix of ball and tracer on belts in hinge top cans and marked as such on the can in western fashion. I have also heard of accounts of Soviet soldiers being found dead next to half opened spam cans of ammunition in Afghanistan.

Thoughts, comments, theories?


Not much I can say, just:

  • Yes, many Russians died next to their spam cans
  • The Russians are using/have used disintegrating belts in 7.62x54R and 12.7x108 (mainly in aircraft guns)

BY and large, the use of Factory pre-linked or pre-belted MG ammo in rifle/heavy calibres is a Wartime contingency.

nearly all national armies had on issue “belt filling machines”, initially for cloth/canvass belts (as for Maxims, Vickers, and brownings etc) and in WWII, link filling machines, of much more simple construction, were also available.

Many countries, however, continued the practice of supplying from the factory ammo in either clips for rifle use, or Loose pack/bundles/large boxes(50s or 100s), for the Local ordnance depot to “belt up” according to need.

The use of magazine-fed Light machine guns also required the use of NON clipped, but large packs of ammo.

Countries which used Strip-fed Hotchkiss type guns had their ammo pre-packed at the factory, and wrapped in paper (French) or in carboard re-enforced sleeve boxes(Japan).

With the onset of WWI and WW II, the large expenditure of all types of ammo caused the supply services to “push back” the filling of Link belts to the Factories, in the case of Infantry use, and by an large, the USA utilised pre-packing for both Air and Land services, especially by the end of WW II.
(“Functional Lot”)

The RAF and RAAF got in large quantites of ball ammo factory pre-linked, some with 1 in 5 tracer, and added other types of special cartridges as required by hand at the airfield or base.
RAF and RAAF .50 BMG came already pre-linked from the factory, and “aircraft load” belts were assembled as required by the Ground crew armourers at the bases.

The European nations of both sides continued with loading belts as required, the but German war effort did go to pre-filled Belts by the time of the Russian campaign.

The Russians, on the other hand, still handfilled their belts and links right throughout the war, as evidenced by cans of 12,7 and 20mm ammo packed loose in spamcans.

The use of individual disposable metal links made for the “use it and throw it away” mentality, leading to Pre-filling in a factory environment, whilst the European belts, in the main, were flexible metal held togethewr in units of 50 or 100 by inter-link spiral wire connectors…meaning that the belt was not to be thrown away, but refilled when time allowed.

The British still used cotton wover “stripless” belts for Vickers in WW II, but these were considered “expendable”, and since Vickers ammo came prepacked in 250 round belts, there was no need to “refill” as there had been in WW I with the expensive Cotton and Brass strip" Maxim" type belt.

I remember in my days in Mounted Infantry (1972-74) “filling” Browning cloth belts with ammo from US 1943-44 boxes (20 rounders) with a mixture of Ball, AP and FN Tracer ammo.–the FN ammo came in 100 round boxes.

Not a link to be seen then…but by the time more recent (Post Vietnam) .30 cal ammo became available, it was all “Factory Linked” in “Functional Lots” already containing Tracer and AP. (usu. just Tracer. and Ball).

Of course, after 1942, all US ammo belting was considered" expense stores" and not expected to be returned or re-filled. The uses of BMG cloth belts are numerous ( Rifle slings, arm slings, Shell dressing bandages, tourniquets, tying up prisoners, the list goes on.)

Nowadays (2007) all small arms ammo supplied as “Combat ready” is either in Stripper or packet clips ready for large capacity magazines, or already belted up with or without the necessary tracer fraction. And it is all
factory" done. This at l;east is true for almost all Western nations…the ex-Soviet Block still has some “Bulk or Loose” pack ammo supplied, but tactical considerations have forced the use of Factory filled belts to be issued.

As to the use of readily accessible ammo cases, that problem has been around since the Battle of Isandlwana (1879) and the problems opening screwd down and soldered containers of .450MH ammo.

By WWI, ammo was delivered to the front in Boxes with sliding Lids, or hinged and latched lids, where simple tools(Bayonet, clasp knife) could open the outer wooden box, and a soldered “rip top” seal could open the inner tinplate liner. The French and Germans went one better, using a thin zinc metal Liner which could be ripped open by the piano-wire ripper set in place, or simply by using a bayonet. The cases were closed by a leather strap and buckle, a simple “fold over” latch.

Only the Russians/Soviets continued right to the present day with “Spam cans” of thick sheeting, and supplied with a hefty can opener, or the Chinese improvement : a “sardine can” type key, which wound up a strip of side wall, specially scored to weaken it, so the can could be opened more quickly.
The Germans used a “Combat can” specially engineered so the carrying handles were offset, and thus it was easy to carry two such cans in one handgrip. But these cans were also of heavy sheet steel, and more for use with MGs(initially, Maxim, then MG34 and 42.) The common infantryman still got his ammo in 15 round , 3 clip packets (just right to fit his ammo pouches)

As to whether it is a bit of a stretch for this forum, the collection of Cartridges also includes the packets, links, and larger containers they were delivered in, whether they were “permanent” type containers(steel or purpose built wood) or “Disposable” such as zinc tins, plywood outers, simple crates, etc. Sometimes it is only the label on the packet or box which identifies the contents, with regardas to type, manufacturers, lot number etc ( see the Soviet ammo, and of course, Japanese Ammo (which notoriously had not headstamps (except IJN).

IN the heat of battle, all ammo containers become “dispensable”, from the paper wrappers(Eastern Bloc ammo ) being used for sanitary purposes, to the crates being filled with soil to form protection from shellfire, etc, and other items (bandoleers, belts, etc,) being used for a host of non-ammo tasks. German “PatronenKasten” of pressed cardboard, were often used to kindle small fires for that warmed the “Ersatz” coffee in the trenches or the icy ground of the Russian Steppes.

Doc AV
AV Ballistics.

It might be of interest that the Russians also have “new” ammo packings where the rounds are packed in sealed and water proof cardboard (like milk o juice - here in Germany we call it “Tetrapack”). The 5.45x39 pack for example is holding 120 rounds (in four paper wraps as they are in the spam cans).
The cardboard is white and has an “infinitive printing” on it which repeats itself about every 5cm mentioning:

  • the caliber
  • the projectile type and case material
  • the quantity
    This packing has no spam can anymore.

Thank you for that informative reply Doc. Now I know what “functional lot” actually refers to. Very interesting!

What did the WWII German pre-linked MG ammunition look like? Was it issued in a ball-tracer mix? How were the cans marked? I’d like to see a pic of the label!


I’ll have to disagree with Doc AV, at least as far as US WW2 .50 ammo use is concerned. FAR MORE ammunition was produced in bulk, 10 round cardboard boxes, wooden crates, than pre-linked.

The Library of Congress is full of photos of US troops linking up ammo in theatre, Army and Air Corps. The M2 ammo can carried no markings other than “.50 cal Ammunition” stamped in the sheet metal. It wasn’t till some time late in WW2 or even Korea that the contents of the cans were marked. That’s because the cans were treated more like the detachable box “magazine” of a rifle or pistol and constantly refilled, sometimes with different contents as different requirements were made from the front line troops or depending on ammunition availability.

I spoke with a long-time employee of Remington, as an example, who was drafted in WW2, and spent his time as an ordnance officer. One of his main responsibilities was seeing the bulk ammo was delivered where it was needed and getting it linked up for imminent use.

Now some ammo was linked and shipped from the factory, but that was more the exception than the rule. The few examples I’ve been able to actually trace turned out to be .50 ammo destined for the US Navy. So perhaps their ammo issuance policy was different.

There are many examples of US WW2 M2 ammo cans marked with the contents and “Functional Lot,” but these lot numbers trace back to the Korean era and afterwards, not WW2. Many many of the photos published from the collection of Robert Bruce (weapons photograph collector) from the era show the M2 MG being fired, but the cans carry no markings on them.

Keith Pagel
FCSA / VHP Magazine

Thanks for the clarification re: .50BMG ammo.

I do have in my collection, a full tin of .30 cal, pre-packed in a green cotton belt, of 1944 made ammo (AP) and the can marked with lot numbers which match 1944 production (same Factory.)

I aggree that USAAF would have used large quantities of .50 cal in boxed supply, as the ground crew Armourers would have made up belts with the selection of special cartridges required.
But whilst there are large numbers of photos which show this “Linking up” being done at base camps and airfields, there was also late WWII supply of factory linked ammo, already backed in the standard WW II ammo tins ( side hinged lid), and the cans marked with contents…I Picked up several of such marked cans several years ago, from an American emigree to our shores(swapped them for “Modern” .50 cal tins…he used them to pack handmade knives for Gunshows, etc)…and they had Late WW II Lot numbers, and early Korean War.

Be that as it may, I would think that only a thorough search of Ordnance Corps Archives would find reference to “orders” requiring ammo to be “pre-linkled” at the factory for direct delivery to Users.

We regularly supply Belting/Linking machines to Film productions, not only for the Film Armourer’s use, but also occasionally for “on set” (production) use, either actively as part of the story, or as a “set dressing” for field depots, ammunition re-supply etc. as most WW II Browning M1919A4 use
is with cloth belts, such a belting machine is an absolute must for the Film Armourer (We "pre-belt or pre-link .30 ammo as well at manufacture, but you never have “enough”…100,000 .30 cal Blanks for “The Thin Red Line” and 150,000 for “The Great Raid” ( belted, linked and Garand Clipped).

An interesting accessory area of Ammunition History.

regards, Doc AV
AV Ballistics

A very interesting topic. Information i have been after for a long time. Packaging just as important as the ammo people collect, especially for film and historical re-enactment use.

Just the other day, on another Board, I came across a mention of TW 4 (Twin Cities 1944) .50 cal ammo packed in 60 link sections, in Waxed cardboard Boxes, packed Four Boxes to a Crate ( 240 rounds) all ball. A Poster was enquiring re: shootability and actual age of the ammo.

If TW was supplying such ammo (USAAF?, USN, USA?) in early 1944, then the Wartime exigencies of pre-linked ammo supply were already partially sinking through to the supply side…and probably other US GOCO factories were doing the same as well. The next step was the use of the .50 tin pre-pack for Army use, and continued pre-link in easily handling packs for USAAF use (who “re-linked” ammo at Ground sites, using the Hand “linker-delinker Tool” which will handle individual cartridges, for either joining up sections into longer, aircraft box filling, or could introduce “specials” (Tracer, AP, Incendiary…as required.).

regards, Doc AV
AV Ballistics