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In the field of firearms and airguns, obturation denotes necessary barrel blockage or fitment by a deformed soft projectile[1] (obturation in general is closing up an opening). A bullet or pellet, made of soft material and often with a concave base, will flare under the heat and pressure of firing, filling the bore and engaging the barrel's rifling. The mechanism by which an undersized soft-metal projectile enlarges to fill the barrel is, for hollow-base bullets, expansion from gas pressure within the base cavity and, for solid-base bullets, "upsetting"—the combined shortening and thickening that occurs when a malleable metal object is struck forcibly at one end. For shotgun shells which have multiple pellets much smaller than the barrel bore, obturation is achieved by placing a plastic wad or biodegradable card of the same diameter as the barrel between the propellant powder and the pellets.

Obturation in firearms ammunition[edit]

With reference to firearms and air guns, obturation is the result of a bullet or pellet expanding or upsetting to fit the bore, or, in the case of a firearm, of a brass case expanding to seal against the chamber at the moment of firing. In the first case, this both seals the bullet in the bore, and causes the bullet to engage the barrel's rifling. In the second case, it seals the case in the chamber and prevents backward travel of gases against the bolt. The thin brass case easily seals the chamber, even in low pressure rounds like the .22 CB, but expanding or upsetting the bullet sufficiently for effective obturation requires sufficient pressure to deform the bullet material. The formula used to calculate the pressure required for solid base bullets is:

Bullet's BHN x 9.80665 N/kgf×106 mm²/m² = [N/m²] = pressure in pascals
Bullet's BHN x 1422 = pressure in pounds per square inch[2]

The conversion factor of 1422 is mathematically derived in order to convert the pressure in kgf/mm² (the units used to measure BHN) to lbf/in² (the units used to measure cartridge pressure). That is:

Conversion factor = 25.4 (mm/in) x 25.4 (mm/in) x 2.2046 (lbf/kgf) = 1,422.

Note that this number should only be used with cast lead plain-base bullets. It does not apply to jacketed or gas-check cast bullets. Below is a chart containing various bullet alloys, the BHN, and the PSI required to expand a bullet to the bore:

Material BHN Pressure
(psi) (MPa)
Pure lead 5 7,110 49
1:20 tin/lead 10 14,200 98
1:10 tin/lead 11.5 16,400 113
Pure copper 40 56,900 392

Pure lead is very soft, and can be expanded or upset by most firearm cartridges, but the pressures required are higher than those encountered in most airguns. To allow obturation in airguns, pellets use soft alloys in conjunction with a thin, concave base designed to expand more easily. Some firearms ammunition, such as Foster slugs and hollow base wadcutter bullets, also use a hollow base to allow the bullet to expand and conform to a barrel's irregularities, even as the chamber pressure drops as the bullet travels down the barrel (see internal ballistics). For example, it is not uncommon for revolver barrels to have a slight constriction at the breech end where they thread into the revolver's frame; a hollow base bullet will expand to fill the larger diameter of the barrel after passing through the constriction.

To prevent excessive deformation in high pressure rifle and magnum pistol cartridges, lead bullets are often covered in copper or another harder alloy. These bullets are generally designed to swage to fit upon firing.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Obturate at dictionary.com
  2. ^ Cast Bullet Alloys and Obturation by Glen E. Fryxell on the LASC website