Cartridge case terminology and identification

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Identification of cartridge cases is important for any collector of WW2 ordnance. A basic knowledge of terminology will help a collector identify the calibre, origins and use of a cartridge case.

First off, general terminology.

case terminology

As you can see from the above diagram, there are a number of terms that collectors use when referring to cartridge cases. The most important of these are the neck, shoulder, rim and head. All of these can give vital clues to identifying a cartridge case. The neck can give an approximate calibre, (although the diameter inside the mouth is more accurate), and the slope of the shoulder can differentiate between similar cartridge cases (e.g. 20mm Oerlikon has a much longer more graduated shoulder than 20mm Hispano-Suiza).


As this second diagram shows, the bullet is the projectile that leaves the weapon at high speed when the cartridge is fired. A cartridge case should never be called a bullet! It is simply NOT correct! The bullet itself has a core and a jacket, along with a groove called a cannelure. This can also help ID certain bullets.

Apart from the headstamp itself, (the marking on the base of a cartridge case), the rim is perhaps the most important. There are various types of rim.


This terminology looks, at first glance, to be a little complicated. However, it really isn’t! A rimmed cartridge is called that because the very bottom portion of the head, the ‘rim’, is wider than the main body of the cartridge. With a rimless cartridge case, the rim is exactly the same diameter as the cartridge case, which starts above the extraction groove. Semi-rimmed cartridge cases have an extraction groove and a rim very slightly larger than the diameter of the cartridge case. Belted cartridge cases have a thicker ‘belt’ positioned just above the extraction groove, and rebated cases have a rim that is smaller in diameter than the cartridge case.

As for the headstamps themselves, (the markings on the head of the cartridge case), these can give all sorts of information about calibre, manufacturer, year of manufacture, cartridge fill, cartridge type, (e.g. Armour Piercing (AP), Incendiary (I), Armour Piercing Incendiary (API), Tracer (T)), ‘mark’ of cartridge and even the type of alloy used to make the cartridge case.

You may find it easier to watch a video on this subject instead, so here is one I made a few months back. If not, keep scrolling down…..

To start with, here are the main allied small arms cartridges lined up so you can see the difference in overall shape and size. Take particular note of the difference between a standard 30calibre American cartridge and the British 303. Also note the difference between the standard 30calibre and the M1 Carbine cartridge (this is not live by the way! I remade it from a spent cartridge case and bullet found separately).

allied cartridges

Ok, on to identifying Allied small arms headstamps.

We’ll start with 20mm Hispano-Suiza cannon cartridges. A view of 3 cartridges found on various WW2 airbases.

20mm upright

Ok. Let’s look at the headstamps. You can see they all follow the same pattern. A letter ‘code’ which represents the manufacturer, a date stamp and a calibre. The right hand case therefore is made by RG (Royal Ordnance Factory, Radway Green, UK), in 1942. The middle case was made by I.C.I. , otherwise known as Kynoch in Standish, UK which is represented by the K2, in 1944.

20mm headstamps

Also, you may have noticed the chunks cut into the rim of the cartridge. This is not modern damage but damage caused by the breech block forcing the cartridge into the breech and then extracting it again as the gun cycles.

With American cartridges, the headstamps are usually very short, sharp and sweet ! Take for example these 50 calibre cartridges, again found on various airbases around the UK.

50cal upright
50cal headstamps

The headstamps on these are not as detailed as some. Usually you get the manufacturer ‘code’ and the last two digits of the year, EXCEPT in the case of 1944 which is always represented by a single ‘4’. So on these cartridges you have RA 43, TW 43, LC 43, SL 4 and DM 4. RA is Remington Arms Company, TW is Twin Cities ordnance plant, LC is Lake City Ammunition Plant, SL is St Louis Ordnance Plant and DM is Des Moines Ordnance Plant.

These headstamps are repeated in standard 30 calibre and Carbine rounds. Take for example these 30 calibre cartridges, found on Slapton Sands.The headstamps all follow the same principals as the 50 cal cartridges.

30cal upright
30cal headstamps

British cartridges tended to be a little more verbose. Take for example these cartridges, all found on an old D-Day practice beach.

303 upright
303 headstamps

The headstamps, as you can see, contain a little more information. We still have the manufacturer ‘code’ and the year of manufacture (as either 2 or 4 digit), but we also regularly see ‘VII’ which denotes it is a standard Mark VII cartridge, and in some instances ‘303’ which obviously denotes the calibre. Different Roman numerals denote different ‘marks’ of cartridge. You may also see the marks ‘Z’ or IZ’ which denote the type of cordite/powder used. 303 cartridge cases can also have lettering to show the type of cartridge, for example a B would indicate incendiary.

It is interesting to note that the last three cartridges all have the same ‘odd’ shaped firing pin mark. This elongated mark is made by the firing pin of a Bren gun. A Lee-Enfield makes the ‘dot’ mark in the left hand two cartridges. So not only does the headstamp tell us something, even the firing pin mark can !

Now let’s look at 9mm and .45 calibre cartridges, again found on a D-Day practice beach.

9mm & 45 upright
9mm & 45 headstamp

Now you can see a pattern emerging ! Hopefully you can now determine what the headstamps mean when you look at them. You have the manufacturer code, the year stamp and the calibre………….It’s easy once you know what you’re looking at !

The Germans used a little more complicated system than the Americans and British. Take for example these 7.92 calibre cartridges, all are ‘safe’ and were bought off a guy in an antiques place for 20p each ! He didn’t know what they were but I did because of a basic knowledge of headstamps. The cartridge cases have been married back with a bullet to be made whole, but all are empty and have used percussion caps.

german upright
german headstamps

Ok…..all German 7.92 calibre cartridges carry four stamps. As you look at the picture, at 12 o’clock is the manufacturers code. At 3 o’clock is a code with a combination of a roman numeral (I to XXII) for the steel mill supplying the basic case-metal, a lower-case letter for the plating agency and an arabic numeral (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15 or 17) for the steel-analysis, which all identifies a copper-plated steel case. In some cases you may see a code such as St or St+ or S*. St stands for steel casing either lacquered or phosphated. St+ stands for improved steel casing lacquered or phosphated. * or S* indicates a brass case. At 6 o’clock is a batch number and at 9 o’clock is the year of manufacture represented by the last 2 digits of the year. Of interest is the fact that the Germans changed their manufacturer code system. Between 1937 and 1941 they used the P codes (Patronenfabrik Nummer). Between 1940 and 1945 (there was some overlap between the change of coding) they switched to a letter code and ditched the ‘P’ number. This means all ‘P’ coded cartridges are made prior to 1941, and all letter code cartridges are made from 1940.

So, for example, the far left cartridge was made by cg (Finower Industrie GmbH, Finow/Mark, Brandenburg), the case was made of St+ (steel case, plated), a batch number of ‘6’ (yes….i got it wrong on the picture !!! It’s a 6 not a 9 ), and a year of 1942.

The far right hand case is made by P490 ( Hugo Schneider A.G., Werk Altenburg), the steel mill code IX (August-Thyssen-Hutte A.G., Duisburg-Hamborn), the plating firm code w, (Hugo Schneider A.G. Messingwerke, Taucha-Leipzig), and the steel composition 1. The batch number is 7 and it was made in 1939.
I hope this of use to some of you. I know many will already know it but it’s good to pass on this sort of information !


    • Hi there. Sorry for being so long replying…..been away in Australia. RA is Remington Arms, USA, The 4 is the year stamp making it 1944. Other than that I can tell you know more as it could be any number of different cartridges. I need to see a pic to give a full ID. Send me an email via my contact page and then I’ll reply so you can send a pic.


      • hi i have 2 shell casings 1 is a 20mm stamped A 90 RE and the other is a 12.7 stamped GR1M2 A81 could you please give me some history on them. thanks a lot


  1. My email is ******* I was given 1,000 rounds of 8 mm ammunition. The primers are no good any more and are Bedrem. I cannot read any of the markings on the brass base and need your help. I have a good photo I can send you. I’d really appreciate your help. Jim Hanney, Woodland, CA.


  2. Hi Stephen, I have an old cartridge my father found some years ago in Sandbay near Weston (UK) that he believes is from WWII. I’m struggling to match it with any of your images as it seems due to weathering or for some other reason there is no distinct text to decipher. Would you mind potentially helping identify this for me?


  3. Found a cartridge case in Le Touquet France .. now I know what it is p490 s* 1939 batch 3 cheers brilliant Alan


      • Hi Stephen,
        My GrandFather was in WW2 and when he passed he had his entire uniform in perfect condition, multiple metals and he also had a few bullet casings. I wondered if I might send you a picture to be able to identify them.
        I also wondered if anyone collected the old dress uniforms and metals. We have wondered if donating would be an option or not. I feel like having these items packed away really is wasteful and would like to do something respectful with them.
        My email is

        Thank you, Kam


      • Hi Kim. Please use the contact page to send me an email and when I reply, you can send me pictures of your cartridge cases.


  4. Hello, we have a very old pistol bullet ww2 which we are trying to identify it has K56 9mm zz on it looks like a semirimmed head golden barrel with a brown tip??


    • Hi Scott. Please use the ‘Contact’ page to send me an email. I can then reply and you can then send me some pictures. Thanks!


  5. I found 2 shell casings in the Savannah river and was wondering if you could help me with some info about them, one is corroded and has no markings, the other is a rimmed and has these markings WRA Co
    33 WCF
    It’s very hard to read due to condition but really looking for a date or period of manf.


    • Hi Byron. Please use the contact page to send me and email and, when I reply, you can then send pictures so I can help identify the cartridge case(s).


  6. Hi Stephen, my son in law has found a live rifle round. it would be nice to identify it but i am not sure if it is safe to clean the head to get the details? any advice much appreciated
    Thanks Tom


  7. Hello I have a cartridge with the markings C.R at 12 o’clock and C-90 at 6 o’clock any info will help. Thanks


      • I have an empty shell case that is marked with the numbers 28 over 32 on one side and 176 over 4K on the other side and on the top K over T and letter C with small numbers 637


  8. Yes I thank you for knowledge you share so freely..
    I wish I could send an image with this inquiry…
    I just came from your past on the variety of head stamps on ammunition that is marked into four quadrants…
    And it has a wealth of information one reason why I thank you very much for sharing your knowledge in such a way.
    However I could not locate a portion of my stamps on the head of brass cartridge.
    And the 12:00 position there seems to be an “M” which is partially circled.. which I understand is the manufacturer.. in the 3:00 position there is a 33 in the 6:00 position there is the Roman numeral three and in the 9:00 position there is a 19..
    So what I gathered from your post was the ammunition was made in 1933 the Roman numeral 3 means it was March as the month and the only thing I don’t have information for is the mystery “M”. This is a Mauser round… With a black ring around the primer. The boy itself is not pointed but it’s blunt rounded at the tip the brass is free from corrosion but the bullet is not it is pitted and it still looks like it’s Chrome…
    Thank you for your time reading this email..
    Thank you as well also for making this communication open to the general public thank you.
    Sincerely Mr. Glenn Kohl


    • Hi, Use the Contact page to send me an email and, when I reply, you will be able to send photos. 🙂


  9. Thank you for this information, I found a DM 48 off Ocracoke Island, NC and a smaller one that had no ID on the bottom. Again thank you for all the historic information, regards, Connie Lawrence-Gantert


  10. So useful, thank you! I found a rimless brass German cartridge case on the shore in Kassandra, Halkidiki in Greece, which was occupied by Germany in 1941. The case is marked 41 eel S* 8. Would be interested to learn more about it.


  11. I have 2 letter openers from WWII time period made from bullet casings. If I send you a picture of some of the inscriptions can you please tell me more about them?


  12. Hi Stephen,
    I fossick around old mine sites in the Northern Territory of Australia and came across an old shell casing plus bullet with the markings S&W 38 WR A Co.
    Looks like the number is the calibre, and would be great to get an approximate date for this round.
    Can send pic to your email.
    Cheers Stephen


  13. We find bullets all over our island of Oahu. Not sure if any are from World War II. They don’t have casings. Could I send a photo?


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