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.