A Guide to Powder Actuated Tool Cartridge Color Codes

A powder actuated tool is designed to secure a wide variety of materials to hard surfaces, such as concrete and metal. The design of these tools allows you to install fasteners at a much faster rate than alternate methods such as using a hammer drill. However, these tools can pack quite a punch so it’s important to use the right cartridge for the right job.

Power Actuated Tools

A power actuated tool functions much in the same way that a firearm works in that a small chemical propellant charge fires a piston which drives the fastener home. Most of these tools available in the United States today are considered low velocity, meaning the fastener does not exceed 492 feet per second.

High velocity tools were used primarily in shipyards after World War II and are not available for use today. Low velocity tools work on a variety of different shots, from single shots, to disc cartridge, to automatic feeds. No matter which type of cartridge you use, the color coding which denotes the power of the charge remains the same.

Low Power Cartridges

If you need to install fasteners into a lower strength concrete or concrete masonry unit walls (CMU) then a grey or brown color coded cartridge is your best choice. These low powered cartridges will secure the material to the wall without damaging the adjacent surface. In fact, if you were to use a more powerful cartridge the velocity of the fastener would actually create a “crater” effect in the material rendering the fastener useless. Grey is the least powerful followed by brown, which is used much more frequently than grey cartridges.

Medium Power Cartridges

A powder actuated tool using a medium power cartridge is ideal for all types of concrete as well as softer metals. These cartridges are color coded green and yellow and are ideal for concrete slab floors, which usually have a higher PSI rating. Green cartridges are the next step up from brown while the yellow cartridge is slightly more powerful than the green cartridge. Yellow cartridges can drive a fastener into steel but it will often leave part of the fastener exposed.

High Power Cartridges

The most powerful cartridge you can use with a powder actuated tool is a red color coded cartridge. These cartridges are designed for fastening material into structural steel members such as I-beams and steel joists. The charge contained in these cartridges is powerful enough to drive fasteners through steel plating as well. In fact, these cartridges are often used in shipyards for emergency repairs.

Safety Precautions

As with any power tool, it’s extremely important to take the proper safety precautions when operating a power actuated tool. Hearing protection is necessary given the decibel levels at which these tools operate, especially when fastening into structural steel. You should wear safety glasses at all times as well to protect against any debris that may shoot up when firing the fastener. By taking these precautions, you can ensure safe use of these powerful tools.

Powder Actuated Tool Cartridge Color Codes FAQ

What is the load color of the highest power level?

Powder load colors each have their own power level, with gray ranking as the lowest. The highest power level powder is purple in color.

In order of power load, powder load colors are gray, brown, green, yellow, red, and purple from weakest to strongest.

What is the common caliber for powder-actuated tools?

Powder-actuated tools are powered with firearm cartridges that essentially fire blanks. These cartridges are known as loads, rounds, charges, or boosters.

The cartridges in these tools are essentially firearm cartridges with modified casings and they are typically the same size as a .22 calibur.

Are powder-actuated tools considered firearms?

Powder-actuated tools have firing pins and use blank cartridges that are exactly the same as firearm cartridges. These tools even look a bit like firearms.

However, powder-actuated tools cannot be discharged like firearms. By the legal standards in the U.S., these are tools and not firearms and therefore are not subject to any regulations that firearms may be subject to in some states.

Convicted felons and other individuals who can't legally own firearms due to their particular state laws can own powder-actuated tools in the U.S. However, these tools are regulated in other countries so ownership of the same tools there may be illegal.

What if a powder-actuated tool misfires?

Like any other tool, powder-actuated tools do not always perform perfectly. If your tool misfires, hold the tip firmly against your work surface for about 30 seconds to ensure that if it misfires again it will not do any damage.

Next, you will want to do what is necessary to safeguard the tool and ensure that the tool will not fire at an unexpected time. This often involves removing the cartridge from the tool but you should follow the manufacturer's instructions for how to handle a power-actuated tool that has misfired.

What materials should powder-actuated tools never be used on?

Powder-actuated tools do not work well with very hard materials, such as cast iron, hardened steels, rock, face brick, glazed tile, or glass block.