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What are Tracer Rounds?

Often in the news and military publications we read about military-grade weaponry but do not have a general understanding of what these weapons are, what they are capable of or why they are of military significance or use.

One common weapon heard about in both conventional news reports as well as military media publications are tracer rounds. Here we will take a look at the development of these weapons, their main purpose and the overall benefit to using them.

What are Tracer Rounds – A brief History

Very simply explained, tracer ammunition are bullets or cannon projectiles that use small phosphorus or magnesium mixtures in their base. When the base is ignited it burns very brightly (much like a glow stick), which then makes the projectile visible during the daytime and very bright during nighttime. Using these rounds can do several things; it enables the shooter or the commander on the ground to make firing adjustments, alerts platoon or squad leaders where to concentrate their fire during battle, marks targets for soldiers to fire on, and can be used to alert when the magazine is almost empty if the round is placed two or three away from the bottom.

Tracer rounds were developed after the “spotlight” bullet (a bullet designed to flash or puff smoke on impact) became a violation of the Hague Convention. The British invented the first tracer round in 1915, with the United States following shortly after in 1917. The rounds were used during WW1 against the German Zeppelins and were quite effective. Since Zeppelin ships were filled with hydrogen gasbags, normal bullets did nothing but cause a slow leak. Tracer rounds, however, would ignite the gas and bring the ships down.

What is a Tracer Round Made Of?

At the base of each tracer round a small component of phosphorus or magnesium is placed. When a projectile is fired, the chemical component is ignited and burns a bright colour that is visible during both day and night. Tracer rounds can be made of different colours using different chemical mixtures. These colours can be red, green, or amber. If the chemical component is burned on the ground without being inserted into a projectile, it works much like a flare and gives off a bright flash of coloured light.

What are the Types of Tracer Rounds?

Tracer rounds can be broken down into three distinct types: normal, subdued, and dim. Each one has a unique aspect to it and is used for various purposes. The normal tracer round is often criticized for being too bright and drawing the attention of enemy fire. It can also overwhelm night vision devices and, as most conflicts are engaged at night, this puts the military members who use them at a disadvantage.

Subdued tracer rounds work slightly differently than normal rounds. They are still visible to the naked eye, but they only begin to burn at roughly 100m after being shot. This limits the enemy’s visibility on the shooters’ position, thus lowering the chance of giving their position away.

Lastly, there are “dim tracer” rounds or armour piercing rounds. Dim tracer ammunition allows sharpshooters to use night-vision rifle sights and not have the muzzle flash blind them. If they were to use standard tracer rounds, the bright flash would blind them through their sites. Dim Tracers are sometimes referred to as IR (infer-red) rounds which means they are invisible to the naked eye (different from normal tracer rounds), but visible with night vision devices (NVD). This makes them extremely useful during nighttime military exercises and operations.

When are Tracer Rounds Used?

Normal tracer rounds are not as commonly used today as they were in WWII. In modern warfare, tracer rounds can be seen in videos from conflict zones around the world as the night sky is lit up with the Subdued or IR/Dim version of the technology. Recent conflicts such as the invasion of Iraq, or the wars between Israel and Palestine often show images of the brightly lit rounds streaking across the night sky.

One thing is for certain: as military capabilities advance, so too will the need for a more modern advancement of this unique ammunition technology. However, it is unknown if the capability will outlast other, more permanent solutions such as aerial reconnaissance from aircraft and drones.

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