Bullets. Infantrymen see them in their sleep. In fact, anybody who has served in the Armed Forces will instinctively recall their sound and feel. Picture them, bouncing around the bottom of a daysack. Or the tell-tale sign of spent brass painstakingly collected off the ground piece by piece at the end of an exercise.
Beyond the cordite smell, beyond the uniformed look of fresh rounds packed tightly into boxes, what is commonly known about this piece of technology so fundamental to soldiering?
Something so universally needed by everyone in the Armed Forces, this everyday piece of kit may have passed into the realm of the taken for granted. And so, BFBS thought it high time we pay tribute to that one thing no soldier can perform his or her operational duties without.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the secret life of the bullet.
What Is A Bullet?
Perhaps if this question was asked to anybody other than BAE Systems' Engineering Manager for Light Munitions, Andrew Batley, the answer would be straightforward and un-complex. However, perhaps that answer would not offer the respect the technology at play deserved.
Andrew provided a neat response:
"A round of ammunition is a system made up of a number of sub-components, namely the case, bullet, primer, propellant and sealants. The bullet is the projectile which leaves the barrel to provide an affect against the target."
That last bit is a technical description of what happens when an enemy target is hit by effective fire. When somebody or something is shot. But does the process ever go differently? How often do the bullets fail to do their job?
"… no issues are expected with our products." Andrew Batley, Engineering Manager for BAE Systems.
During what had been an 'ask us anything' opportunity to look inside their operation, BAE told us that they have 100% assurance in the quality and effectiveness of the ammunition they supply to the Armed Forces. A crystal-clear faith based on several reasons, not least the fact that they have exclusively provided the British Army with munitions for most weapons systems since 1940.
That belief lies in an immaculate engineering process from design through to manufacturing and their testing process. All of which means that when fully bombed-up magazines are clicked into place, the end-user - a soldier - can be absolutely sure the ammo they are using will do its intended purpose at the other end.
What Goes Into Making A Bullet?
Andrew outlined the processes behind the manufacturing of a standard 5.56 mm ball round:
"Throughout the concept generation and design proving process, we follow a systems engineering approach to ensure a 'right first time' mentality. This also incorporates constant feedback loops back to the original user requirements to ensure that the maturing system will achieve its intended operational functionality."
Then the ammunition needs to be tested, and as Andrew detailed, it is not a simple case of firing a rifle on a 25-metre range …
"These trials will test the ammunition through every environmental condition it will face in operational use, from artic conditions, dry desert to the humid rainforest. The ammunition is subjected to the harsh shocks and vibration endured during transport in aircraft and ground vehicles and finally the ammunition is tested through the service weapons to ensure performance is maintained."
Bullet Tech Is Old Tech
BAE pointed out that the essential properties of a bullet and aerodynamics' fundamental laws have not changed since the early 1900s. The earlier work carried out by designers back then remains valid today. Andrew explained those essential properties – "a round must be self-contained, reliable, consistent in performance and safe."
"We can trace the current designs as we know them today, back to over 100 years ago, while advancements in materials have enabled design changes. The most progress has been made in the move to automated manufacturing processes and the use of modelling to aid the design process.
"Generally, you will find a radius on the front of the bullet - the 'Ogive', a parallel section along the centre - the 'Bourrelet' - and the tapered boat tail at the rear.
"The Ogive and Boat Tail are aerodynamic features designed to reduce drag on the bullet, decreasing its velocity decay and increasing the effect range. The Bourrellet diameter must be tightly controlled, firstly to ensure the bullet forms seal in the weapon and all of the propellant energy is focused on accelerating the bullet, and secondly to ensure that the bullet engages sufficiently with the rifling within the barrel to provide gyroscopic stability.
"We must stabilise our bullets as naturally they want to fly backwards due to the overturning moment created by the relative locations of the centre of gravity and centre of pressure."
The Bill And The Bond – Who Else Uses BAE Systems Ammunition?
As we know, the British Army has been firing BAE ammo for more than 80 years. But who else is turning their bullets into brass?
BAE was proud to inform us that their ammunition is classed as the NATO standard in manufacturing. Their 5.56mm ball round has been approved and selected by the NATO Land Capability Group Dismounted Soldier Systems as the benchmark reference ammunition against which other NATO manufacturers' ball rounds are assessed. It is, in effect, the market leader.
In terms of other armies and organisation using the same ammo as British military men and women, Andrew had one or two surprising names to drop into conversation. He said:
"In addition to the UK Ministry of Defence, France has formed a key part of our business strategy over the past decade and continues to purchase British ammunition.
"We also supply small quantities of ammunition to the UK Police and recently supplied blank ammunition for the latest James Bond film, No Time To Die."
Want To Make Bullets?
BAE offers apprenticeships and graduate roles for those looking to enter the munitions design and manufacturing industry. Generally, those interested in a career should have an enthusiasm for mechanical engineering, backed up with the appropriate qualifications.
On an annual basis, and something that allows for further dialogue opportunities between defence supplier and end-user, the MOD arranges for BAE employees to participate in a range day, firing their ammunition through different weapon systems in the company of professional soldiers. In return, BAE welcomes members of the Armed Forces on a twice-annual basis to their state-of-the-art facility at Radway Green in Cheshire – a site so honed-into the task of making the world's best bullets, Andrew told us, that "quality is embedded within all products."
But how many bullets can the site produce? That short answer is … a lot.
Andrew offered a brief overview of the precision process and numbers involved in ammunition production for the Armed Forces. He said:
"Our lines operate at a rate of 250 components per minute with a total output of 90,000 components per hour, so time spent inside a machine is measured in seconds.
"All components are subjected to stringent process control procedures and cutting-edge laser gauging to guarantee that you can rely on every round. Nothing leaves the factory without our seal of approval."
It seems everywhere we look at the moment, conversations about the military are based on the future. How will fighting wars differ in the mid-to-late 21st century compared to the Second World War or more contemporary operations in Afghanistan? And if, as seems to be the considered opinions of many, not least demonstrated in the recent findings of the Integrated Review, fighting will be less face to face and more cyber and distant, where does older technology such as bullets fit into the picture?
Andrew pointed out that there will be a need for effective, dependable ammunition as long as there are soldiers. He said:
"The ammunition we produce in conjunction with the weapon, forms the soldier's first line of defence."
But this does not mean BAE can rest on its technology and not evolve with the times. Elsewhere in the business, weapons technology evolution may be keeping up with the modernity of the twenties, but so are bullets …
"As the users seek a reduction in weight and an increase in performance, the last 10 years has seen a significant amount of R&D activity to meet our users' requirements.
"This has brought about the introduction of our High Performance and Enhanced Performance ammunition natures, as well as the introduction of lead-free rounds. The most significant change has resulted from our Lightweight Development Programme which has replaced the brass case with a multipart stainless-steel alternative, offering a weight saving of 25%."
The saving of 25% in the weight of a single bullet might be marginal in a singular sense, but anybody who has been weighed-down carrying section ammunition on operations or exercise will immediately see the attraction in such a chunk of weight-loss within the kit. But this is yet to reach the men and women on the ground.
However, although BAE Systems was keen to underline that this new, one-quarter lighter ammunition is still in the trial and development stage, the MOD is in line to buy it once it has passed all the quality assurance testing necessary.
It may be just a matter of time.
Many of BAE Systems' employees joined via the apprenticeship programme which provides an opportunity to work on exciting, world-leading engineering and business projects, delivering cutting edge technology. Apprenticeships and Graduate scheme intakes learn on the job under the supervision of skilled and experienced employees. Find out more about BAE opportunities here.