Some war movies and even news channel clips of active warzones will show gunfire that lights up in the night. At a glance, it may look like lasers being fired. It’s like something from the Star Wars or Star Trek sagas. The bright “bullets” are called tracer rounds. Even though they look hi-tech or even sci-fi, the technology behind tracer rounds is not revolutionary. However, the benefit of their use can be extraordinary.
When it comes to the military, tracers provide a distinct advantage for those who utilize them with regards to aiming and positioning.
What Are Tracer Rounds?
To start, let’s answer the question of what are tracer rounds. Tracers are a special type of bullet with a small pyrotechnic charge or other luminescent material at the base. When fired, the powder material ignites and burns very brightly. The bullet leaves a trail you can see without the aid of weapon optics and especially at night.
The hollow base of the bullet typically contains a small amount of organic fuel, finely ground metallic fuel, and oxidizer. The oxidizer can include various components to achieve the desired color.
Another common question that comes up is, “How do tracer rounds work?”
When you fire a tracer, the metallic fuel (usually magnesium) ignites and burns the oxidizer (typically a strontium mixture.) The result is a bright, short flash of white light. The organic fuel is added chlorine to reduce the heat of the reaction from the metallic fuel and oxidizer. This ensures the white light doesn’t overpower the desired color of the tracer.
The organic fuel also helps prolong the reaction, which allows the bullet to travel a much farther distance while giving off light.
The History of Tracers
Prior to the introduction of tracer rounds, machine gunners and troops relied on visually seeing their ammunition impact the ground or near the target. They could then adjust their aim accordingly. As the effective distance of weapons and bullets increased, the need to adjust aiming quickly without waiting on the impact became vital for success.
The first iterations of tracers were developed in the early 20th century and were designed as “spotlight” bullets that flashed or created a puff of smoke on impact. However, the two major downsides of this design were that it proved useless when firing into the air at aircraft. It also violated the Hague Convention, which prohibit “exploding bullets.”
The next development involved a bullet with a smoke tail but that ultimately proved ineffective because the mass was lost in order to provide an effective smoke tail and the accuracy and power diminished. The UK was the first developed the contemporary tracer round design in 1915. The United States followed shortly after in 1917.
There are three types of modern tracers shooters use today. They include:
- Bright — These tracers burn immediately when fired, after leaving the muzzle of the weapon. The disadvantage to these tracers is that it gives away the shooters position.
- Subdued — These tracers begin to burn at full brightness usually after traveling at least one hundred yards in order to help protect the shooters’ position.
- Dim — Just as the name indicates, these types of tracers burn dimly but can easily be picked up by night vision optics.
Aside from military use, shooters often use tracers for recreation purposes and some types of hunting.
Are Tracer Rounds Legal?
For most of us, tracer rounds likely aren’t worth the hassle associated with them. Most people don’t realize that tracer rounds are regulated as “explosive materials” under federal law, and that the ATF has many special rules related to the purchase, sale, storage, and transportation of tracer rounds (including the requirement that both the buyer and seller of tracer rounds hold a federal explosives license or permit). This means you’re going to have to jump through a bunch of legal hoops and specialized record keeping in order to legally buy or sell them.
On top of the federal requirements, many individual states and municipal governments have other laws that pertain to tracer ammo too. So, what we’re basically saying is, “yeah, they are legal under certain conditions but if you’re getting your legal advice from an online blog like this, you probably don’t want to mess with them.”
Of course, even if you do have the legal ability to own tracers — Whether or not gun ranges allow them or hunting regulations ban them will vary case by case too. Typically, there are strict restrictions on tracer rounds due to increased fire danger. So, you might have tracers that you don’t have any place to fire them. What’s the point in that?
For all your ammunition needs from self-defense to competition rounds and everything in between, we have just what you need. We carry top brands like Remington, Hornady, Winchester, Federal, and many more, in various calibers to fill your ammunition needs.