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Debunking Steel-Case Ammo Myths

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by Frank Melloni, Renaissance Firearms Instruction

Oh, I can see the comments now! Yes, I use steel ammunition. Yes, I use it professionally. Yes, I use it personally. Yes, I compete with it … And yes I do well! Steel-cased ammunition has always had a place in my locker. I have used it to develop my skills and still use it today. We use thousands of rounds of this ammo a year, in several different calibers with great results. Allow me to take you through some of the details and concerns of using steel cased ammo and how and where to use it for the best results.

Let’s start with an accurate look at exactly what the role of a cartridge case is. For a cartridge to function properly it needs to do two things: Seal the chamber during firing, and release from the chamber walls quickly after the bullet leaves the barrel. During the firing of a cartridge, the case will swell to the chamber walls, sealing it in the process. This protects the shooter from the burning gasses and back pressure created by the ignited gunpowder. After firing, the case will cool and contract, making extraction easier, or in tight chambers even possible at all. Both of these functions in relative terms so that means several materials will fit the bill. Many ammunition companies and wildcat reloaders realize this and thusly have experimented. Let’s discuss their findings.

Topping the list is brass, the undisputed most widely used metal. Brass is extremely ductile, meaning it can be bent over and over again without snapping. Brass also is very soft and dissipates heat quickly. These features make it perfect for ammunition cases, however at a premium price.

Next down the line is aluminum. As it costs less than brass it certainly is worth examination. Aluminum cools very quickly, faster than brass in many cases. For this reason, it is used in engine blocks and radiators. While cooling quickly, Aluminum suffers from a lack of ductility. Think of a soda can tab, maybe 10 full bends and it snaps. Aluminum ammo users often complain about cracked cases. These cases crack because after their initial sizing and crimping the metal case doesn’t have much life left.

So this leaves steel. It certainly is the least expensive metal. It offers a better lifespan than aluminum. Steel comes in many different grades or hardness ratings. Steel does the job, except it suffers from two issues, corrosion and a reduced rate of heat dispersion. These two factors can lead to issues if not addressed correctly.

The first solution was to simply apply lacquer; this is a cheap and easy way to keep the steel from corroding. The problem with lacquer is that in the past it led to jamming, especially if it melted into chambers. Most steel companies solved this by switching to a polymer coating on their rounds. Polymers are an ingenious solution to the corrosion problem and obviously help with feeding issues. Some brass cases even use a polymer coating to help aid cycling, such as 5.7×28 FN. A myth is that polymer is just another name for lacquer—this is false! There are still a few people from this camp floating around saying that it will melt just the same, also false. Polymers are made to endure the high temperatures barrels and chambers reach, without melting. Remember, most pistol frames are made from polymers!

The other problem is the lack of heat dispersion. Steel doesn’t do as good a job as brass, but remember it only has to be so good. Steel will remain hot longer after firing, but depending on your firearm there is little chance of this being an issue.

The “stuck case” issue that follows certain firearms isn’t an issue of the steel ammo being out of spec. Quick measurements and a cross-check with a reloading manual shows that the ammo meets SAAMI’s specifications. The problem with stuck cases is steel just being steel. Steel just doesn’t do the same job that brass does when it comes to sealing the chamber. While perfectly safe and acceptable, there is some gas seepage. This leads to accelerated carbon fouling. This fouling leads to tighter chambers and eventually stuck cases.

So what do we do?… Clean your gun! You should be doing that anyway! At Renaissance Firearms Instruction we run close to 500 rounds through our guns on any given day. We clean them afterward and enjoy a trouble-free relationship with this ammo. This includes AK47s, AR-15s, Beretta 92fs, M1 Garands, Mosin Nagants, and a plethora of rotating test firearms. Just clean, oil, and enjoy!

One last one before we wrap it up, “steel ammo is going to damage your gun.” This one makes the hair on my neck stand up. When I hear it I not only question the perpetrators’ knowledge of firearms but their general grasp on life. Let me ask this, how can steel be so hard it can damage a gun, and then be formed to gently hold one of the softest metals on earth (lead)?

Steel (again) comes in different grades, just like plastic, brass, and wood! Your chamber, barrel, and extractor are all made from some form of ultra-rigid tool-grade steel, it wouldn’t fire very long if it wasn’t. Steel cases in ammo are made from a very mild form of steel.

Now pick up grandpa’s hammer, you know the one that’s been in the family for fifty years or more, and look at the head. Now how many thousands of nails has it hit? Is it full of a corresponding amount of dings? Firearms and steel cases share the same relationship. Softer materials seldom damage harder materials, period.

I would like to end with my personal recommendation for the use of steel ammo. Interestingly enough it is the same exact advice I give for all ammo… Try a box, if you like it buy a case. Thanks for stopping in and be sure to roast some marshmallows on the dumpster fire below!

 

 

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Tony

    March 19, 2022 at 8:33 am

    As several have said, most indoor ranges won’t allow steel case ammo, due to a risk of fire. I’ve used steel ammo for outdoor competition with no ill effect yet, but I may not replenish my steel supply when I run out this year.

  2. whitewolf

    February 26, 2022 at 7:46 pm

    “Now pick up grandpa’s hammer, you know the one that’s been in the family for fifty years or more, and look at the head. Now how many thousands of nails has it hit? Is it full of a corresponding amount of dings?”

    Depends…

    I started working as a framer in residential construction when I was 15, because I needed the money. Since I DIDN’T HAVE any money, the first hammer I bought was CHEAPCHEAP! (this was so long ago, it was probably JAPANESE! : )

    At the end of the FIRST DAY, the head was MUSHROOMED. It became a running joke for a while. POINT BEING:

    MAYBE don’t use steel in a CHEAPCHEAP gun! : )

  3. DM73

    February 24, 2022 at 8:04 am

    I bought a box of steel 380 ammo to shoot in my s&w bodyguard when chambering the 1st round it jammed. After trying several rounds and looking at what was going on I disassembled my gun and tried to force the rim under the extractor. The rim would not go under the extractor, so if the ammo is in spec I guess my guns extractor must have been out of spec, I guess someone should let s&w know.

  4. Rayfil

    February 21, 2022 at 7:09 pm

    I have shot thousands of 9mm and 45 Wolf steel ammo through my Glocks. Never had a jam or misfire. Only problem I experienced was cleaning the sticky black gook after the usual 300 round range session. Accuracy was just as good as commercial brass rounds.(not match). Sad Biden is cutting off the Russian ammo supply.

    • Flea

      February 23, 2022 at 1:23 am

      Those rounds will find their way to us through different routes. Or other countries will step up their production. Prices may be a bit higher, but it won’t disappear.

  5. Drumma

    February 20, 2022 at 12:20 am

    Over the years I’ve shot thousands of rounds of Brown Bear 308 and thousands of rounds of Wolf in.556 without any real problems. I used to buy in quantity at great prices but those days of inexpensive ammo seem to be over. Ammo Man also sold high quality ammo in bulk. Since leaving Commiefornia for good, my beautiful new range will not allow steel case rifle ammo but steel case handgun ammunition is no problem. I no longer go and spend hours squirting hundreds of rounds of lead down range because of the price and this new world we live in so I also shoot with lasers in my basement range for free!

  6. Bemused Berserker

    February 19, 2022 at 12:41 am

    Most of what I shoot rifle wise, doesn’t have a steel cased counterpart. .300 Windage,.338 Win Mag, .300 Savage, if anyone’s making steel cased for those, I’ve been unaware.
    In n my AR’s, I’ve ran a little bit of steel, but what I noticed was the increased fouling. It’s twice what I get from Stateside ammo or my reloads. So God only knows what those folks in the former ComBloc use for powder and primers. My understanding is a lot of their primers were made with more corrosive compounds than the US uses. With that amount of fouling, I believe they’re corrosive.
    I’m not knocking it. I know a lot of people that use it. Because I reload, I’ve always leaned towards cartridges that I can re-use the brass. So there’s no incentive or plus to running steel as far as I’m concerned.

  7. NRA CRSO

    February 18, 2022 at 9:46 pm

    I do not agree with this articles summary of “Debunking Steel case ammo myths” or the authors general advice that steel cased ammo will not damage your gun. Steel case may work adequately in some firearms without issue. AK / SKS seem to eat it all day long. At the range I have seen failures related to steel case ammo. These failures in firearms are sometime extractor, ejector breakage. Other issues are related to firearm malfunctions from the brittle nature of some of these steel cases. Such as broken, chipped head-stamp rims which cause failure to extract issues, which in turn cause double feeds and malfunctions that often again jamb up the action of the firearm and cause breakage of components due to those malfunctions. Broken, split cases and in the extreme, head case separation. All of these failures cause a down firearm. The exception of the steel cased firearms are usually those that are of looser chambers (AK variants/ not known for bullseye accuracy. Seems Brass case is a better option for most all firearms, as it is a natural lubricant and its other properties make it the most ideal for its purpose.

    • Flea

      February 23, 2022 at 1:29 am

      Exactly. When I think of steel, I think of tolerances. Like you mention, the old-world military rifles simply had/have more play and are far more forgiving, perhaps even by design, but certainly because of the age of their design. But they can suffer in other regards (like accuracy or speed) as a result.

  8. Stacy

    February 18, 2022 at 8:02 pm

    Steel cases have never been the problem for me. It’s the steel jacketed bullets going down the barrel I have a problem with.

  9. Diesel B

    February 18, 2022 at 7:40 pm

    In my Springfield TRP 10mm:

    High quality nickel plated steel: mostly no problem. Some failures to feed.
    Cheap steel cased Russian or Eastern European stuff: frustratingly unreliable. Stovepipes, failure to feed, cartridge stuck in the chamber…and that was just the first half of the box.

    Nope, sorry, I’ll stick with good ol’ brass.

    Most ranges use magnets to look for steel-core AP ammo, which damages indoor ranges and can dangerously ricochet on any range. Thus they will turn away steel cased ammo because it’s harder to tell what the magnet is reacting to.

  10. Mike

    February 18, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    My indoor range (my only outlet) prohibits any ammo that sticks to a magnet. Because of the potential of creating a spark and possibly causing a fire. It’s my understanding this actually happened to an indoor range in Atlanta a couple of years ago.

    • NRA CRSO

      February 18, 2022 at 9:06 pm

      That is an issue, but not the only one. Some ranges have the bullet traps (bullet catch) made of steel, instead of chewed up tire/rubber or otherwise. The steel cased ammunition often has a steel core and that core inside the brass/copper jacketed damages the range traps.Steel hitting steel = NO GOOD! Additionally, ricochets are more frequent with steel core bullets hitting steel traps than lead core bullets.

  11. Steve Mcintire

    February 18, 2022 at 5:23 pm

    I’ve had indoor ranges tell me they don’t allow steel cased ammo. One of them told me it wasn’t that there was something wrong with the ammo, but that it was more likely to leave unburnt powder down range. I can see how that might be an issue for an indoor range. Again, not sure if that is specific to cheap imported stuff? Maybe it was an over-generalization, or maybe just plain wrong. I have and do occasionally shoot steel cased rounds in various 9mm’s. Haven’t had a problem.

    I save and reload all brass cases and have also heard the “rule” that you can’t reload the steel cases. Like the poster above I would like to learn more about that. Would carbide dies or tumbling media remove the polymer coating?

    • lbrac

      February 27, 2022 at 12:16 am

      It seems that most steel cased ammo are Berdan primed, which isn’t conducive to reloading. If you can find boxer primed steel cased ammo, it is possible to reload them. I don’t recall which magazine, or when I saw it, but there was an article about reloading some boxer primed steel cases. While it was possible, the cases become brittle and cracked from expansion/contraction during firing and from reforming, the cases didn’t last long.

  12. Paul

    February 18, 2022 at 3:07 pm

    Been shooting steel in my 5.56, haven’t tried it in any other caliber arms I own because I was buying it when you could have it delivered directly to my house. I reload my own ammo but with brass cases only. I have never had a misfeed, misfire, or failure to eject steel cased ammo! Not a damn thing wrong with steel cased ammo! If it won’t shoot steel, it doesn’t deserve brass!

  13. Vincent

    February 18, 2022 at 2:28 pm

    I’ve had a few feeding and extraction issues with steel case ammo. Some of which is coming from Eastern Europe, Russia, or China. Poor grade, cheap, dirty powders and corrosive primers can, and do cause problems if you are not right on top of cleaning the firearm. Even if you just ran a few rounds to check zero. Clean the dang thing right away. Same with the feed issues. Run a few dozen rounds through a firearm and the fouling can cause failure to completely close the chamber, lock up, failures.
    Basically, use what a gun was designed to use and there should be few if any issues. Most AK type rifles work well with steel. Most AR types do better with brass. Other than a few feed issues, I have not had problems with steel case in a pistol. But, again, powders and primers in some ammo is of lower grade, or corrosive. Which means a bit more cleaning is required.

  14. George Venable

    February 18, 2022 at 1:16 pm

    Never reloaded steel Have reloaded .45 ACP aluminum, got several reloads out of’em with bevel base H&G 68 target loads. Just be gentle belling the mouth ! Personally don’t shoot any steel in AR’s but only problem I’ve witnessed with the stuff was in full auto M16 types. Those guys shoot way more than 500 at a time between cleaning and a broke gun for them is more costly than buying brass .
    The steel has all been surefire though .

  15. Ken

    February 18, 2022 at 12:01 pm

    You say that steel cases have a longer life span, “ It offers a better lifespan than aluminum. ” This sounds like you are implying that steel cases will reload, is it? I have had friends get steel cases stuck in reloading dies, almost permanently.
    Please give me your thoughts on this, as it would make a lot of difference in my families ability to afford more training.
    Thank you for your time.

    • LARRY YAKLICH

      February 18, 2022 at 1:10 pm

      AS a DISABLED USMC VETERAN, I used to shoot a lot more than recently, I do my own reloads, when using the old die’s, that I had to lube each and every case I had problems with not only steel, but brass getting stuck. with the carbide dies, I make sure to size the case first, but have never had a case get stuck on the die, I reload my brass until I physically see a defect, but check each piece of brass every time for cracks, swells etc. SAFETY FIRST, especially since my children and wife shoot with me, I don’t ever want anything to happen to them in the way of an injury. SO VERY VIGILANT.

  16. William Sullivan

    February 18, 2022 at 11:45 am

    I have a Stag 15. First time out, I had a variety of ammo, including steel case. Rifle was hot, and after firing a couple of steel case rounds, I stopped to adjust the sights. Next shot, the rim ripped off of the case. It had been in a hot chamber long enough to glue itself in. I had to knock it out with a cleaning rod. No damage to the rifle. I never bought steel ammo for it again. On the other hand, I have a Chinese AK that loves steel ammo. Never stuck a case in it.

    • ymg200

      February 18, 2022 at 12:57 pm

      There are firearms designed for brass ammo and firearms designed for steel ammo. I wouldn’t put anything but steel into AK or Mosin because they was born to digest steel, and I wouldn’t put anything but brass into AR because it was born for brass. It’s like selecting a motor oil for your car – go with what it was designed for.

  17. G Murray

    February 18, 2022 at 11:21 am

    I’ve found that the polymer coated steel cases aren’t as “slippery” as brass, and for me have caused occasional feeding issues in my 9mm handgun. Also, with my defensive rounds it looks like it’s a chromed steel case – also nice and slippery. The box doesn’t say what it is, but I’m assuming it’s chromed steel – is that correct?

    • Al

      February 18, 2022 at 1:16 pm

      Probably nickle coated brass!

    • Nemo1948

      February 18, 2022 at 1:41 pm

      They have come out with nickel coated steel cases. I’ve shot the 9mm version with no problems.

    • Chaz

      February 19, 2022 at 2:27 pm

      Usually nickle.

  18. H.D.

    February 18, 2022 at 11:16 am

    I can only respond with my experience. I used a box of brass .308 and a box of steel .308, supposedly from same manufacturer. The Brass gave me a 3 rd shot group of 1″ or a little under. Same range, same rifle, same day, same conditions, the steel cased ammo gave me a sot group ranging from 3-5″. Tested same rifle with 3 different experienced shooters. Same results in shot group size. Steel cased IS cheaper and I may use it for plinking or “making noise” but not for serious shooting/hunting. This was not a controlled experiment, just a few curious guys out shooting and decided to see what happened.

  19. Other brother Daryl

    February 18, 2022 at 10:37 am

    Steel is bad because my cousin Daryl said so, and Daryl is the smartest guy I know, so it must be true!

    • ymg200

      February 18, 2022 at 12:59 pm

      You should listen to Daryl.

  20. Robert Lose

    February 18, 2022 at 10:33 am

    I will just add for the revolver shooters out there that my advice is to stay far away from steel cased revolver ammo. The cases expand to seal the chamber but do not shrink back as much as brass, which means that ejecting ranges from very difficult to “get me a punch and a hammer”, particularly since you are ejecting several cases at a time. This causes me to think that there may be some merit to the argument that steel cases put more stress on the extractors in semi automatics. Although I have fired a lot of steel cased .223, 7.62X39, and 9X19 with no problems so far.

    • Kevin

      February 18, 2022 at 12:07 pm

      Yes… steel case is rough on extractors!! … had to replace an extractor on a 9mm due to wear from steel cases… no problem with bolt action guns … bottom line… brass or aluminum is way better especially in semi autos

      • Mike

        February 18, 2022 at 5:46 pm

        My indoor range (my only outlet) prohibits any ammo that sticks to a magnet. Because of the potential of creating a spark and possibly causing a fire. It’s my understanding this actually happened to an indoor range in Atlanta a couple of years ago.

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