Episode 006 – Rethinking Steel Cased Ammo

Play

Welcome to episode 6!  The big 006.  It’s like a secret agent or something.

The other weekend I was doing some plinking with some friends, and the question of steel cased ammo came up.  Do I shoot it?  Is it bad for my gun?  And I gave my usual, mostly-hype-free answer, which is:

Shooting steel cased ammo is generally fine.

But there’s a key word there.  Generally.

But, being the nerd that I am, I needed to do more research.  I need evidence, not just rumors and theories from the gun shop or the internet.

So I researched away, and came up with 6 typed pages of notes.  Way too much for one podcast – unless I was ok with it being two hours long.  But, just for you, I’ve shortened it way down to just the actionable part – the need to know.

I’ll probably re-attack this subject in the future, so that I can make use of all the great evidence and data that I found.  I know some of you will be interested in the specifics.  But for now, it’s just the conclusions.

So here are some of the conclusions I reached – in brief.  If you want my full thoughts, listen to the episode.

Quality

Yes, it’s lower quality.  But no, it won’t ruin/blow up your gun any more than brass cased ammo.  As far as accuracy goes, it may work just as well, or you may see a loss of accuracy.  It depends on the ammo, it depends on the gun.

Wear

All ammo wears out your gun.  20k rounds of any ammo, steel or brass cased, will wear out your gun.  There’s no evidence that the steel casing wears your gun out any faster.

However, the bimetal bullets do wear your barrel faster.  See, the low-cost ammo manufacturers like Tula, Brown Bear, and Wolf use a bimetal jacketed bullet.  It does wear your barrel faster than a copper-jacketed bullet.  However, when you factor in the cost savings vs increased wear, you will almost surely come out ahead and be able to buy multiple new barrels for the amount you’ll save shooting the cheap stuff.

What about extractor wear?  First, the extractor is a cheap part to replace, so even if you do wear it out, you can get like 10 new extractors for amount you’ll save on a case or two of Wolf.  Second, the steel used in the extractor is so hard, and the steel used in the cases is so soft, that it’s doubtful it wears much faster.  Plus, the steel cases are coated, adding an additional layer of “give” and padding your extractor even more.

And no, any new production ammo is not corrosive.  If it’s old, military surplus, or was made when the Communists were in power, you may need to do some research just to be sure.

However, I wouldn’t put steel cased through that family heirloom that grandpappy brought back from the war – steel cased does cause more wear, and you want to keep that thing in its original condition.

Cleanliness

Who cares?  Your gun is going to get dirty if you shoot it.  So smile!  That extra buildup in your gun just means that you got to shoot more, since the ammo was so affordable.

Ok, it’s a little more complicated than that.

You may have to clean more often.  You may have to clean parts that you normally wouldn’t – like the gas key and gas tube of an AR-15.  And you will definitely have to clean the chamber more often.  And no, not because the lacquer/polymer coating is leaving a residue in your chamber.

What?  The guy at the range told me the lacquer/polymer coating melts in my chamber!  Nah, not really.  What’s happening is that you’re getting increased gas blowback around the casing – basically, steel doesn’t expand to fill the chamber as well as brass, so you get some carbon blowing back around the outside of the steel cartridge case.  That gums up the chamber.

So when you start to have cycling problems – specifically failures to extract – it’s time to clean the chamber.  And just to be safe, I give the chamber a quick brushing every time I might switch to brass cased (and better-expanding) ammo, and at the end of every range session.  Because I might switch to brass next time I go shooting and forget to clean, leading to my better-expanding brass cases getting stuck.

Reliability

It all comes down to your gun.  Test it.  Test it from a full magazine.  Test it from a 1-round magazine, just to ensure that there’s sufficient gas pressure to lock the bolt back when the mag goes empty.

Steel cased ammo, due to the above factors, is probably going to result in less reliability.  That’s ok, you shouldn’t be using it for anything that your life depends on anyways.

View malfunctions as a training opportunity.  They’re not a bad thing, they’re a chance for you to hone your skills at clearing malfunctions.  Unless of course it really matters, but you shouldn’t be using steel cased ammo when it really matters anyways.  I’ll do a show on this later, but for now, concentrate on getting your gun up and running again as quickly (and safely) as possible – without taking your brain out of the fight.

Links:

And just in case you wanted to know more, here are some of the sources I referenced during the show.  Enjoy!

1.  Youtube video of Saltyshellback measuring the Rockwell Hardness of brass and steel casings.

2.  AR-15.com Commie ammo FAQ

3. Box of Truth on brittle brass, steel, and polymer/lacquer coatings

4. Accuracy test of Wolf ammo, and some good info on bimetal jacket bullets.

5.  A lab technician looks at bimetal jacket thickness under a microscope.

6.  Military Arms Channel on steel cased ammo.

7. The Luckygunner study of steel vs brass cased ammo in a 10,000 round torture test.