If you’ve ever watched a military movie you will have witnessed glowing streaks of color cut through the darkness of a nighttime firefight. These rounds are called “tracer rounds” or “tracer bullets.” In this article, we’re going to look at five things you probably didn’t know about tracer rounds and their use in the U.S. military.


1) A Tracer Glows When Shot

Tracer Rounds machine gun
Machine gun tracer rounds illuminate the sky during an attack by militants in the Pesh Valley in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. (Photo by Tim Wimborne/Reuters)

Britannica says the following about them: “Tracer bullets have a column of pyrotechnic composition in the base that is ignited by the flame of the propellant; this provides a visible pyrotechnic display during the bullet’s flight.”

Easy enough, right? Courtesy of the above explanation, we know why a tracer glows when shot. But what is the ultimate purpose of using tracer rounds during a firefight?

Firstly, tracer rounds help soldiers illuminate where exactly they are firing.

Secondly, using tracer rounds during a lowlight firefight is that they project the idea that your force has overwhelming firepower in hopes the enemy gives up to fight another day. This isn’t the main reason for using tracer rounds, but in a pinch, seeing tracer rounds exiting machine guns would certainly give the enemy pause to rethink their intentions. Heck, in Afghanistan you may even make the enemy believe that Allah is raining down fire from Hell for their wicked deeds. Probably not, but you never know…

However, when it comes to tracer rounds’ downsides their ability to illuminate can be a double-edged sword. Tracer rounds give up one’s position much more easily than regular rounds. Because a typical tracer round glows so bright, an enemy can better lock in troops’ position during firefights simply by tracing the tracer rounds back to their origin. If the origin is a tank, it isn’t quite as big of a deal since a tank is well-armored. If, nevertheless, the origin of the shot was an individual soldier’s rifle, then giving away one’s position could have dire consequences. This leads us to the next point.


2) Tracer Rounds Are Used Sparingly

Most civilians probably picture tracer rounds as the only type of round that a soldier would fire in the dark. After all, it allows them to see where they’re hitting, which is all but impossible from across a small valley in the dark, right?

However, because of the tracer rounds’ uncanny ability to give away one’s position, they are used sparingly. Tracer rounds are actually only loaded every four-five rounds in a magazine.

Marines from 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, fire M240G medium machine guns at fixed targets in Djibouti. (Photo by Cpl. Jonathan R. Waldman/U.S. Marine Corps)

Another item to consider when firing tracer rounds is the environment in which one is operating. For example, a barren desert with no trees doesn’t scream “fire risk,” while terrain like the hills and woodlands of California can’t seem to stop catching on fire.

When using them, troops have to ensure that there won’t also be unintended consequences like lighting the entire hillside on fire and then trap themselves without a good escape route. Firing 10,000 tracer rounds into a dry California forest isn’t a good idea, however, you look at it. These are obviously somewhat unlikely events, but ones to consider nonetheless.

But this isn’t the only reason tracer rounds are used sparingly during war.


3) Tracer Rounds Aren’t All That Accurate

The biggest thing most people probably just don’t know about tracer rounds is that they just aren’t all that accurate.

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Consider this: every time you fire your weapon the projectile exits the barrel and flies towards the intended target. Then, consider that the projectile changes weight by 50 percent (for example) in mid-flight prior to connecting with the target.

The rounds contain a pyrotechnic feature as part of their build. When the pyrotechnic burns itself up and extinguishes, the weight of the round changes significantly. The mid-flight weight change is usually enough to ensure the round doesn’t greet its mark as intended. The outcome of this is simply that if you shoot three normal rounds and then a tracer round, the tracer round will not impact the same area the normal rounds do. Obviously, this is only magnified as distance increases.

So, the reason why they glow is also why they are inaccurate.


4) There Isn’t Only One Type of Tracer Round

Air Force joint terminal attack controller call-for-fire training tracer rounds
A U.S. Air Force joint terminal attack controller marks a target with tracer rounds during a call-for-fire training event at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan in support of Resolute Support, March 6, 2020. ORS is a NATO-led train, advise, and assist mission seeking reconciliation and peace for Afghanistan. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Joel Pfiester/USAF)

One of the least known facts about tracer rounds is that they aren’t one-size-fits-all in their design. While they all serve a similar purpose, specific tracers are designed for different uses. Consider the analogy of hammers. A sledgehammer, regular hammer, and ball-peen hammer all have similar functions (driving one material into another). You would be unwise, however, to use a sledgehammer to hammer in a 10-penny nail. You’d be using the right type of tool (hammer) but the wrong variant for the job. It is much the same way with tracer rounds.

Currently, there are three types of traditional tracer rounds. These types include bright, subdued, and dim. Gotta love the military and its ability to dumb things down for people. The website ammoforsale.com breaks it down perfectly for us here:

  • Bright — These tracers burn immediately when fired after leaving the muzzle of the weapon.
  • Subdued — These tracers begin to burn at full brightness usually after traveling at least 100 yards in order to help protect the shooters’ position.
  • Dim — Just as the name indicates, these types of tracers burn dimly but can easily be picked up by night vision optics.

A bright tracer round is what most people think of when they hear of tracers. This specific round provides the most illumination of a target area, but it also gives away the shooter’s position more than the other two types.

To equate it to my career in Law Enforcement, I’ll explain it like this:

Let’s consider that I’m clearing a house because it is suspected that a burglar is hiding somewhere inside. Because a police officer (who isn’t on the SWAT team) doesn’t have access to night vision goggles, he/she is forced to use a flashlight to clear the home. The flashlight is necessary for you to see the burglar hiding in a corner or under a bed; you’d be lost without that flashlight. The flashlight, however, is also what the burglar is going to shoot at if he so decided to take that chance because he/she knows that the officer is holding that light. So the burglar will, on occasion, spray-and-pray in the area of the flashlight. Because of that inherent risk, good officers will hold their flashlight away from their body (when appropriate) to ensure that if someone does spray bullets in their direction the bullets hit their hand/arm rather than their forehead.

Choosing a specific type of tracer round is an important consideration and it is also why many soldiers don’t like using tracer rounds in general.

The final item we’ll discuss today is the overall legality of tracer rounds for the general public.


5) Tracer Round Legality

15th Marine Expeditionary Unit desert survival and tactics course
Gunnery Sgt. Dragos Coca, from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, engages targets during a desert survival and tactics course. (Photo by Sgt. Steve H. Lopez/USMC)

Because tracer rounds are combustible, the federal government isn’t thrilled to make them widely available to the general public as a shooting aid (shocker). In fact, the Feds have put tracer rounds firmly in the category of “explosive materials” and therefore the ATF restricts every aspect of owning them, including their purchase, sale, storage, and transportation (again, a shocker).

I do see where the Feds are coming from, though, because the single thing that has never failed to shock me while being a Marine or a cop is the absolute incompetence and general stupidity of many. Many would, no doubt, buy a case of tracer rounds and carry them in the front seat of a pickup truck while smoking a cigarette. So, while I hate federal government overreach on anything, some people are just plain dumb and they ruin it for the rest of us.

Short of Uncle Hank getting an explosives license through the ATF, we don’t have to worry about a highway fireworks show because of the significant regulation of these rounds… and I guess that’s good.

There is also the chance that your particular state has passed laws regulating the rounds. As we’ve seen some of the uber-liberal states illegally (in my opinion) restrict certain types of ammunition or certain magazine capacities, some states also feel it necessary to regulate tracer rounds beyond the way the federal government already restricts them. I’m not going to go into this, because states vary so dramatically in gun and ammunition laws, but it is safe to say that if you have any desire to use tracer rounds as a civilian you might want to look into both Federal and state (and even local) laws to ensure you are fully compliant with each. You don’t want to miss one line of the legal code and have an overzealous young agent want to make a name for himself off of your arrest. Let’s stay away from that.

Depending on who you ask, tracers are either an invaluable tool for soldiers or a dangerous burden. Until the technology has been fully updated, the problems highlighted above will always exist. But hey, they sure do look cool in photos!