AP Ammunition

AP Ammo – Are armor piercing bullets legal?

Are armor-piercing bullets legal?

A: Yes. Under federal law it is perfectly legal to make, sell and purchase “armor-piercing” ammunition as long as you have the proper licensing. However, there are some nuances to the definition of “armor piercing” ammunition that we’ll explore in this article, along with the licensing requirements for making ammunition for sale.

To explore this topic, we’ll first discuss the federal definition of armor piercing ammo (which actually applies to armor piercing bullets) and then we’ll cover what licensing is needed in order to make ammunition for sale (whether it is AP ammo or regular ammunition).

What is armor-piercing ammunition?

Before we discuss AP ammunition, we first need to look at the federal definition for ammunition:

18 USC 921(a)(17):
(A) The term “ammunition” means ammunition or cartridge cases, primers, bullets, or propellant powder designed for use in any firearm.

As you can see, the legal definition for ammunition includes all the components of ammunition… it isn’t just the completed round of ammunition.

The components of ammunition are:

  • Bullet – this is the projectile that is fired from the firearm – it is not the entire cartridge
  • Primer – this is the part the ignites the powder when it is struck by a firing pin
  • Powder – this is what burns and build gas pressure which propels the bullet down the barrel
  • Case – this is the part of ammunition that holds everything else together. It is usually metallic (most often made of brass, but can be aluminum, steel, or polymer)

Knowing that each component is ammunition by itself is an important distinction here. First, as we’ll discuss next, the bullet alone is what is regulated as “armor piercing ammo.” Second, certain people can not posses ammunition (e.g. felons and other “prohibited persons“) and therefore the possession of an empty case is enough to cause trouble. Third, there are licensing requirements for making ammunition for sale. Often folks think that they don’t need an FFL to make only a component of ammunition, however, you can now see why this thinking is wrong.

Under federal law, “armor piercing ammunition” is:

18 USC 921(a)(17):
(B) The term “armor piercing ammunition” means—
(i) a projectile or projectile core which may be used in a handgun and which is constructed entirely (excluding the presence of traces of other substances) from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium; or
(ii) a full jacketed projectile larger than .22 caliber designed and intended for use in a handgun and whose jacket has a weight of more than 25 percent of the total weight of the projectile.

As you can see, there are two parts to the definition of AP ammo and both apply to the projectile (bullet):

  1. Any bullet, or bullet core, which may be used in a handgun and is made of certain metals (e.g. steel, brass, etc.)
  2. A full-jacketed bullet larger than .22 caliber designed and intended for use in a handgun and whose jacket is more the 25% of the total weight.

Both definitions involve the use of a bullet in a handgun. This is because this law was adopted as part of the Law Enforcement Officer’s Safety Act and was intended to regulate “cop-killer” bullets from easily concealable firearms (handguns).

Note the distinction (emphasis added) between the first and the second definition. One requires a design intent to be used in a handgun, while the other applies if a bullet could possibly be used in a handgun.

The ATF has defined many bullets, that are typically rifle bullets, as able to be used in a handgun. For example, a .223 Remington cartridge, which is what most AR-15s fire, is a rifle cartridge. However, with the popularity of AR-15 pistols, the ATF has cracked down on certain .223 Remington bullets – for example, brass bullets. This is because a brass bullet for a .223 Remington cartridge is now “armor piercing” in the eyes of the ATF because it can be used in a handgun.

There is an exemption for some bullets:

18 USC 921(a)(17):
(C) The term “armor piercing ammunition” does not include shotgun shot required by Federal or State environmental or game regulations for hunting purposes, a frangible projectile designed for target shooting, a projectile which the Attorney General finds is primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes, or any other projectile or projectile core which the Attorney General finds is intended to be used for industrial purposes, including a charge used in an oil and gas well perforating device.

For example, “green tip” 5.56 ammunition (the military/NATO variation of .223 Remington) has been exempted by the ATF even though it has a tungsten steel “armor piercing” core.

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Can you make and sell armor-piercing ammunition?

In order to make any ammunition for sale, you must have a Federal Firearms License (FFL) Specifically, you’d need a Type 6 or 7 FFL. If you’re only making standard ammunition for yourself, no license is needed.

The good news is that an FFL is fairly easy to get, even out of your home!  Also, an FFL doesn’t cost as much as you might think.  If you’re interested, check out our Get Your FFL Course.

If you want to make or sell AP ammo, you’ll need to get a Type 9, 10, or 11 FFL, and you’ll also need to become a Special Occupation Taxpayer (SOT). Don’t worry, we’ve got a course for that too. 🙂 As a manufacturer of AP ammo, you’ll need to accurately track and keep a log of every AP bullet you make, and you’ll only be able to sell to specific customers (typically government/LE) with approval.

If you’d like to learn more about how to make, sell, or even import AP ammo, please check out our ATF compliance course.

Armor Piercing Ammo FAQ

Is Armor Piercing Ammunition Legal?

Yes, under federal law “armor piercing ammunition” is legal to make, sell, and possess if you have the proper licensing.

However, much of the ammo that is considered armor piercing in the common use of the term is not legally “armor piercing” as it does not meet the definition above and is therefore unregulated under federal law (e.g. green tip ammo).

Yes, Green Tip Ammo is Legal. Although it technically can pierce armor, it does not meet the federal definition of “armor piercing ammo” that is highly regulated.

Ryan Cleckner is a former special operations sniper and current attorney specializing in firearms law/ATF compliance and is a firearms industry executive (former govt. relations manager for NSSF, Vice President of Remington Outdoor Company, and a SAAMI voting board member).

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20 thoughts on “AP Ammo – Are armor piercing bullets legal?

  1. martin Keller

    nice piece. Assume that it is possible to get AP for a Walther PK380

    1. Alexander

      As long as the projectile don’t meet the GCAs definition of AP, then yes. But you might want to check and make sure your gun is rated for +P ammunition. .380 ACP is very under powered. You may be lucky to penetrate Low and soft body armor.

  2. John Richard

    Thank you for clarifying several points, but there is still one that eludes me. I hope you can help. It is illegal to manufacture AP ammo without specific licensing; understood. But the definitions section of the ATF’s Federal Firearms Regulations Guidebook states that “manufacture” or “manufacturer” means “any person engaged in the business of manufacturing firearms or ammunition for the purposes of sale or distribution.” I can find nothing that indicates it is illegal on a federal for a private citizen to make their own armor piercing ammunition for their own possession and personal use. Provided a person lives in a state and locale where no laws forbid the possession of armor piercing ammunition, it would seem to be a perfectly legal act. However I meet many people who vehemently disagree. Since I really would rather not go to prison, yet would like to make my own AP ammo for myself without giving it to anyone or selling it, I would be very grateful for your interpretation and ruling on the subject.

    1. Ryan

      We’re wayyyyy into legal opinion territory here. I apologize, but I can’t give you a legal opinion without you being my client.

    2. Jen Farmer

      The reason the issue is vague is that they use manufacture to mean different things.

      Often they cite an explicit exemption, but sometimes it is vague.

      If you make your own ammo, for you t oshoot, it is not manufacturing because you are not in business to sell it. Only to consume yourself.

      If you make your own tannerite explosive target, you have manufactured a bomb, however, which requires a permit to actually do in california, afaik.

      If you make your own gun, at least in california ,that is considered manufacturing. I don’t know if it is in other states or federally. I assume so. But it isn’t the kind of manufacturing required to have an FFL for in other states. In california, you cannot manufacture a gun before getting a serial number and applying it to the solid metal before milling it, and the restrictions are even harsher, as it cannot ever be sold, it cannot have certain features that other guns can have.

      So you see, manufacturing and manufacturing aren’t the same thing.

      It depends on object and specific laws around the object and uses of that object.

      I can translate backwards from this:

      1. California allows people to make their own ammo out of regular ball and brass.

      2. It is illegal in california to manufacture your own ammo, where manufacture means produce for sale and profit, without FFL.

      If it is legal to make your own ammo for yourself from ball type, and it is illegal to manufacture it, where it means for sale and profit, then the same should apply to AP unless otherwise stated.

      Because the law is written almost identically for both cases, and there is nothing saying they are inherently different cases.

      But Im not a lawyer.

  3. thomas acton

    Green tipped 855 LAP uses a mild steel “tip” surrounded by lead. it is not steel cored and NO tungsten is involved.
    black tipped M995 is true AP, 53gr, and contains the tungsten core.

  4. Robert Fusco

    Confused, 3006 Black tip is strictly made for rifles, but, the bullet itself could possible be removed from the 06 case and inserted in a handgun case making it illegal “Armor Piercing ” ammo ?

    1. Ryan

      There are handguns that fire 30-06

      1. Jacob

        But in theory you can cram the black tip bullet in a custom 30cal pistol cartidge or hack down a 30-06 rifle to a pistol. And yes there are 30-06 pistols that are single shot for handgun hunting. it’s not practical but it can be done and it creates a gray area.

      2. Bryan

        “designed and intended for use in a handgun”
        Last I knew nobody made any 30-06 rounds that were designed or intended for handguns. Billy-bob chopping a 30-06 down and firing it one handed doesn’t change that.

        1. Ryan

          Exactly right. That’s why the distinction between the two parts to the definition is important. One is “designed” which the 30-06 wouldn’t apply, however, the other is “may be used” which the 30-06 applies.

  5. Jen Farmer

    Green tip is M855. M855 does not have tungsten core. That is M995, has a black tip in 5.56. Not to be confused with tung-comp core from lead free M855, which is not pure tung and therefore not as hardened to pass through objects.

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