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Vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) is a bullet-shaped rhabdovirus and a model system of negative-strand RNA viruses. Through direct visualization by means of cryo–electron microscopy, we show that each virion contains two nested, left-handed helices: an outer helix of matrix protein M and an inner helix of nucleoprotein N and RNA. M has a hub domain with four contact sites that link to neighboring M and N subunits, providing rigidity by clamping adjacent turns of the nucleocapsid. Side-by-side interactions between neighboring N subunits are critical for the nucleocapsid to form a bullet shape, and structure-based mutagenesis results support this description. Together, our data suggest a mechanism of VSV assembly in which the nucleocapsid spirals from the tip to become the helical trunk, both subsequently framed and rigidified by the M layer.