What About Tracer Ammunition?

Some M196 and M856 5.56mm tracer ammunition.

It’s no secret that the firearms and ammuntion buying frenzy is on. Things are in short supply or just plain sold out. So, you’re digging deep for that last case of 5.56, and you happen across a cache of tracer ammo for your AR-pattern rifle. “What is it?” you might ask yourself, or “Is it worth it for a regular guy/girl like me?” Well, read on…

Before we debate the utility of tracer ammunition for the regular guy or girl, we should probably learn a little about what it’s for, how it works, and some other esoteric details about tracer ammo.

The Purpose Of Tracer Ammunition

Other than looking pretty damn cool when you fire it off at night, tracer ammunition has a specific purpose, i.e. providing a visible path, i.e. a “trace” to your target. In typical military loadouts where tracers are employed, every fifth round in a belt or magazine was a tracer, enabling the operator to continuously adjust his point of aim throughout the firing sequence. Some gunners would load the last four or five rounds as tracer exclusively, to signify that the magazine or belt was almost depleted. Of course, this could alert the enemy that the opposing operator was coming up on a magazine or belt change, so the practice was discouraged as time went on. One interesting use came about during World War I, where US Army aviators (the Air Force didn’t come into being until 1947) would use tracer ammunition to bring down German airships. Normal ammunition would merely puncture the airship’s skin, whereas a tracer, the tracing compound burning merrily away in the rear of the bullet, would ignite the hydrogen, accelerating the rapid demise of the Kaiser’s flying gasbags.

How Tracer Ammunition Works

A tracer projectile doesn’t contain the glowing/burning part in the tip, as some would think. Instead, the projectile contains the flare material in the base, usually a strontium-magnesium compound as present in the M856 5.56mm tracer projectile, which generates the characteristic red glow. There’s also a delay element present in most modern tracer ammunition, which causes ignition at some distance beyond the operator, as not to betray his position. As The League of Pirates puts it - “tracers work both ways”. An identifying mark on M856 ammunition is the orange tip, by the way. Older M196 tracer ammunition is signified by a red tip, and usually ignites right out of the barrel.

Some tracers are termed “subdued” or “dim” and are explicitly designed to be used with night-vision equipment. A normal tracer’s optical signature will bloom out NVGs, so for this application, dim tracers, signified usually with a purple tip in US military applications, are used.

Should You Acquire Tracer Ammunition?

Tracer ammunition is designed with an explicit use case, to help the operator of a firearm guide his fire onto a target in less-than-ideal lighting situations. This isn’t something that comes up often in a citizen’s use cases, but it should not be a deterrent to acquiring tracer ammunition. There’s a certain training application to the ammunition, allowing the user to see the path of his or her fire to the target, even if the target itself is plainly visible. In addition, those who are studying and enthusiastic about the science of ballistics can derive much benefit from the use of tracer ammunition. The ballistic characteristics of 5.56mm M856 are very similar to the ubiquitous 5.56mm M855 “green tip” ammunition, for example. And yes, what would the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot be without copious amounts of tracer ammunition?

So in a word - yes, get yourself some tracer ammunition. There’s a utility to it, and dang it, it’s fun.

A Few Warnings About Tracer Ammunition

Tracer ammo is basically normal ammunition with a visible signature. Standard gun safety rules apply when utilizing tracers, of course. In addition there’s a few other practical and legal concerns in it’s use.

  • The visible signature of a tracer round is generated by a mild incendiary effect. Something is burning on the back of that bullet. In dry conditions, tracer ammunition has been known to start fires, in some cases, major ones. Don’t ask people in Colorado what they think about that. Utilize tracers with caution. Don’t shoot them into dense foliage. Use only in a controlled environment, and have firefighting equipment handy.

  • Along those lines, most indoor ranges explicitly ban tracer ammunition. Even if not, it’s a waste of money in an indoor range, again, because most modern tracer loads don’t ignite until 25-30 yards out, and most indoor ranges are only about that big. You get a nanosecond of “glow”, if anything.

  • Usually as the result of someone not heeding the above warnings, some jurisdictions ban the citizen use of tracer ammunition. Possession is probably legal, but use may not be. Check your local laws.

  • Older tracer ammunition, such as the 5.56mm M196 load that’s been making the rounds on the surplus circuit lately, ignite immediately in the barrel of your firearm. That superheated burning compound of strontium and magnesium doesn’t do your barrel any favors, and can increase wear and gas port erosion over time. Sure, one magazine won’t hurt, but extended use isn’t recommended.

Lucky Gunner 5.56 Ammunition

Some Tracer Ammunition In Action

What woud an article about tracers be without some fantastic footage of it in action? Check out some of the stellar footage below:

The Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot

Those are all citizen-owned firearms, by the way. Just so you guys know.

Big Sandy 2014 Machine Gun Shoot

More citizens lighting up the night.

7.62 x 39mm Tracer Fire

Sometimes all you need is a quiet place, an AK, and some tracers.

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