Cartridges of the Korean War

By Bob Campbell

The Korean War is very important to the historian in technical terms. While arguably fought with World War Two weapons, it is the last war in which all sides retained and used full power 7.62 to 7.92mm rifles. Full power full size rifles were on the way out. The M 2 carbine and the SKS were harbingers of the future. Vietnam would be fought with the 7.62 x 39mm and largely the 5.56mm round. The differences in the cartridges used are striking. The ancient Mosin Nagant and the equally hoary Lee Enfield each used rimmed cartridges designed for efficient use in bolt action rifles while the SKS used the sole modern medium power round encountered in Korea. Yet, the war was well suited to more powerful cartridges. Chinese troops often wore thick clothing and types of body armor and the ranges encountered were often extreme.

I’ve compiled a list of the most common cartridges used during the war. Most are fine cartridges, still in use in sporting rifles worldwide, as well as some military groups. Each is easily reloadable and readily available to collectors. The basic characteristics of most are similar if not identical.


7.62mm Nagant

Used by communist forces in the Nagant revolver. This cartridge uses an unusually long case which seals gas in the chamber as the cylinder of the gun is pushed forward on firing. The full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet weighs 108 grains and is said to develop 1,100 fps in Soviet military loadings. I have found less velocity is more common. A very weak caliber, probably used very little. Penetration of web gear and heavy clothing would have been minimal, much in 8mm Nambu class.

7.62 x 25mm Tokarev

Adopted largely due to large stocks of 7.63mm Mauser ammunition for the popular Broomhandle pistol, this is a stronger round than the Nagant. Most sources give the military loading as 86 grain .30 caliber FMJ bullet at 1390 fps. It develops as much as 100 fps extra when fired in the ‘burp gun’. Good condition Tokarevs are often surprisingly accurate. This cartridge has excellent penetration.

.38 Smith and Wesson

Standard military revolver cartridge of the commonwealth, used in the Webley revolver. This round jolts a 200 grain lead bullet to about 700 fps or a 176 grain jacketed bullet to a bit more. Its penetration would be sadly lacking against heavily clad Chinese in a winter battle. Worthless as a military round.

9mm Luger

Used in the new French MAC 50 and a number of Browning Hi Powers in both commonwealth and Chinese hands. This cartridge jolts a 9mm (.355 inch) 115 to 124 grain bullet to 1100 to 1300 fps. Used in British Sten and Sterling submachineguns among many others. Accurate and offering plenty of penetration, an adequate battlefield round.

.45 acp

This cartridge saw a great deal of use in American hands in Korea, adding to an already excellent reputation. However, the Marines found that if the enemy was close enough for a pistol it was best to ‘feed him a grenade.’

Rifle cartridges

.30 US Carbine

This is a controversial little round. Those who used it in combat either loved it or hated it. The M 1 carbine is short, light, and handy. The M 2 full auto version came into use in Korea. One authority who used the M 1 carbine stated that reports of the .30 caliber carbine’s ineffectiveness were largely due to misses with the full auto version! The carbine saw great use in Korea. Ballistics are 110 grains at 1975 fps.

7.5 x 54mm French MAS

Manufactured by the Manufacture d’Armes de Saint Etienne, this round is similar to the later 7.62mm NATO round. Functional ballistics are a 140 grain FMJ bullet at 2600 fps. Used in the French M 36.

.30-06 Springfield

Easily the finest full power battle rifle cartridge ever fielded. The .30-06 is the standard by which the others are judged. Known as the 7.62 x 63mm in Europe, the .30-06 offers plenty of powerful and excellent accuracy even in standard military rifles such as the Springfield and M 1 Garand. Capable of extreme penetration against heavily garbed adversaries, the .30-06 is a fine military round. The military standard was a 172 grain FMJ-BT at 2640 fps.

7.62 x 54 mm Russian

Much that is said about the .30-06 could apply to this Soviet round. Dated by its rimmed cartridge case, the 7.62mm Russian as it is often called can be counted on for extreme accuracy. It is about as powerful as the .30-06. Military loads varied but included a 147 grain ball round at 2886 fps.Both the US and Soviet .30 caliber rounds were used in light machineguns as well as both bolt action and semi auto rifles.

.303 British

A powerful round which never showed the accuracy potential inherent in the US and Soviet .30 caliber cartridges. Loaded with Cordite powder, the .303 was clearly powerful enough for battlefield use. Standard ballistics are a 175 grain ball round at 2440 fps. Dated by a revolver like case rim, this cartridge was also used in the Bren light machinegun.

7.7 mm Japanese

Used in great numbers by the Chinese early in the war as thousands were captured from the Japanese. While the description may seem simplistic for practical purposes this is a rimless .303 British. Ballistics are a 175 grain FMJ at 2400 fps. This cartridge is accurate in a rifle with a good bore, and is much in the same class as the .303 British.

7.62 x 39mm

Used in the SKS, this is among the first true medium power battle rounds. A FMJ 122 grain bullet at 2300 fps is standard. I have found that most Soviet ball ammunition does not have bullets that break in half or fragment as US 7.62mm Nato bullets will. As a result, penetration is excellent but wound potential is often low. The 7.62 x 39 is not particularly accurate in military rifles but with proper load practice can be an accurate, powerful round.

The .303 British and .30-06 would soldier on for many years, but the rest of the cartridges listed would soon be gone from front line combat. The newcomer 7.62 x 39mm Soviet, conversely, would become the most popular military cartridge of all time, chambered in the Russian AK 47.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N12 (September 2001)
and was posted online on April 18, 2014


12-24-2014 7:09 PM

no proof exists that the Russian sks or the 7.62x39MM was used during the Korean war

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