What does Bullet Tip Color Mean?


Most ammunition looks similar. Most practice ammo is brass- or copper-colored. A hollow point may have a ring of grey around the tip of the bullet, and soft-point ammo may be tipped with grey. Once a while, though, you run across ammunition that has exotic colors like red, green, or black painted tips. What does the bullet tip color mean?

Bullet Types and Purpose Based on U.S. Tip Colors

Bullets with painted tips are typically military ammunition. Tip color allows military users to quickly identify different types of ammunition and select the right bullet for the mission. This can make a huge difference in combat. This is illustrated well by a caliber like .50 BMG where ammunition can range from simple full metal jacket ammo for use against soft targets to armor-piercing/incendiary for use against armored vehicles. Being able to select the right bullet for the right target is very important.

Ballistic Tip Ammo and other Polymer Tip Ammunition 

As we look at the various tip colors, we are considering military ammunition with a painted tip. This means that the bullet is constructed as-is, then dipped in paint to allow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines to sort different types of ammunition. In the civilian world you are unlike to run across many of these, but you are likely to see polymer-tipped bullets.

These bullets are manufactured with a polymer tip that fills a hollow cavity. This polymer tip comes to a sharp point and maintains the aerodynamic properties of the bullet. The tip, being much softer than the metal bullet falls away or is simply crushed as the bullet impacts the target, allowing the bullet to perform like a hollow point and provide rapid expansion on game or human aggressors.

Bullets like the Grizzly Cartridge-loaded TMK-BT (Tipped Match King, Boat Tail) provide the best of both worlds for many hunters, who take game at longer ranges. They offer the best bullet profile for accuracy while sacrificing nothing in terminal performance. Due to the Hague convention’s prohibition on expanding bullets these are not in common usage in the military.

Although in common usage, the term “Ballistic Tip” is registered to Nosler. You will sometimes hear any polymer-tipped bullet called a ballistic tip and most of them function similarly. Nosler ballistic tips usually have a green tip, but bullets of different brand may have black. blue, orange, red, or yellow tips.

Red Tip Ammo Meaning 

Military ammo with a red tip indicates tracer ammunition. Tracer bullets have a hollow base that is filled with magnesium.

red tip ammo

The flash from the propellant ignites this flammable metal which burns and becomes brightly visible in flight. Tracers are most useful in automatic weapons where they are loaded every fifth round in a belt of ammo. The arc of the tracers allows machine gunners to see where their shots are going and adjust accordingly.

It also allows squad leaders to direct fire, “where the tracers are going,” or, alternatively, “where they are coming from.”

Tracers have some other specialized uses like ranging. The Marine Corps’ SMAW (Shoulder-launched, Multi-purpose, Assault Weapon) fires a rocket. Mounted alongside it is a 9×51-caliber spotting rifle that fires tracers. These tracers have the same flight path as the rockets, allowing the SMAW gunner to range his target before expending a rocket, of which he likely has a very limited supply.

A good example of red, polymer-tipped ammo in the civilian world is the .223-caliber, 55-grain VMAX bullet loaded by Grizzly cartridge.

Green Tip Ammunition 

Green tip ammunition is very common in the U.S. And most shooters have probably at least heard of it. Often simply called “green tip,” it is the U.S. military’s M855 cartridge, a 62-grain bullet with a steel penetrator embedded in the tip of the bullet. Green tip ammo was designed to penetrate Soviet-era body armor and steel plate at distances of 500 yards. It is important to note that this is not considered “armor-piercing ammunition.

green tip ammo

Green tip ammo is widely available on the civilian market and makes excellent practice ammo, though it isn’t quite as cheap as most 55-grain FMJ Products marketed as M855 meet military specifications while ammo sold as “XM855” is ammunition that has failed to meet military standards. In practice XM855 is just as good as the real stuff and represents a good savings. Most indoor ranges exclude the use of green tip ammunition and will display signs reading, “NO GREEN TIP ALLOWED.” Due to its effect on steel, it often damages the range’s backstop, target carriages, and other expensive components. Green tip isn’t a true “armor piercing round, but the next one is. Let’s take a look.

Black Tip Ammunition

Small-arms ammunition with a painted black tip is armor-piercing ammunition. This ammo is designed to penetrate through various levels of battlefield armor, depending on the parent cartridge. Usually, these cartridges have a hardened penetrator around which the rest of the bullet is constructed. The penetrator is usually a very hard metal. This could be a hardened steel core or a more exotic metal like tungsten or tungsten carbide. This prevents the bullet from flattening on impact with hard surfaces and instead allows it to penetrate.

Black tip armor piercing (AP) ammunition is not legal for civilian ownership in the United States. While there is some surplus, WWII-era black tip Caliber .30, M1 (.30-06) ammo floating around, you won’t find anything newer than that. Or at least not legally. You may, however, find black, polymer-tipped ammo out there like the Scirocco bullet used in this .243 load from Grizzly Cartridge.

Silver Tip Ammunition

A silver tip on military ammo indicates an armor-piercing/incendiary (API) bullet. This dual-purpose bullet is designed to penetrate armor and ignite fires. It also works well against soft targets making it a decent multi-purpose round for heavy machine guns. This was commonly deployed ammunition for .50 caliber machine guns when I was in Iraq in 2004/05.

Fifty-caliber ammunition is sometimes found on the civilian market but again, AP ammo is illegal for sale to civilians so you’re unlikely to run across API rounds. You may run across bullets marketed as Silver Tip ammunition. Winchester offers an entire line of ammunition from defensive pistol ammo to big game rifle cartridges under the Silver Tip banner.

Yellow and Yellow-Red Tip Ammo 

Yellow tip ammunition indicates an observation bullet. This bullet creates a bright flash and puff of smoke on impact, allowing the shooter to see where the bullet impacted and adjust accordingly. Now that we know what yellow-tip bullets and red-tip bullets are, we should be able to intuit what and yellow-and-red tip means. Yep, it means a observation/tracer bullet. Not only does it create a bright flash and puff of smoke, but its flight path can also be observed via the burning magnesium.

The Big Boys: Cannon Cartridges

There are some cannon-calibers that have interesting color tips. These are usually in the 20- to 40-millimeter class of guns and are found mounted on platforms like the AC-130 gunship, lightly armored vehicles, and ships.

Orange Tip Ammunition 

First, orange-tip ammo: these are also tracers, and are not common to civilian-legal cartridges. The orange tip designates “dark ignition” tracers. These cannon-caliber projectiles are for use at night and have a metal blend that doesn’t burn as brightly as normal tracers. This helps to prevent blinding the gunners at night and makes it more difficult to trace the tracers back to their point of origin.

It is very unlikely that you will run across any painted, military orange tip ammunition. You may, however, run across orange ballistic tips. Like the red, polymer ballistic tips described above this is a polymer tip installed into what is effectively a hollow point. Some Nosler Ballistic Tip® ammunition does feature an orange tip.

Blue Tip Ammunition Meaning

Blue tip cannon ammo indicates incendiary bullets. These cartridges contain a small pyrotechnic charge (it doesn’t seem small if you’re on the receiving end) that isdesigned to set stuff on fire.These cartridges may be deployed against vehicles, wood-framed buildings, fuel, and ammo depots, etc.It is very unlikely that you are going to run across this ammo for sale at your LGS.

It is possible that you will run across some blue-tip ammo in the civilian market.Once again, as with most other bullet colors, some ballistic tips are blue.Barnes’ TSX bullets have a blue ballistic tip. Interestingly some bullets available on the civilian market are entirely blue. Federal’s SynTech] line of lead-encapsulated ammunition comes in a variety of bullet colors (red, blue, purple).In this case, though, the entire bullet is blue and extends into the cartridge case, not just the tip.

green tip ammo

Bullet Tip Colors: Are all Countries the Same?

Not all countries share the exact same bullet tip color. The United States’ military aligns with Canada, the United Kingdom, and other NATO countries for standardization’s sake.

Some other countries like China, Israel, and Russia have their own color-coding system that differs from the U.S./NATO system. This might be important to know if you are purchasing imported military ammo. One visceral distinction to me is the color of tracers. Many of our enemies use green tips to indicate tracers, and their tracers burn green.