Is Steel-Cased Ammunition Really All That Bad? ~ VIDEO

U.S.A. -(AmmoLand.com)- COVID 19 and Joe Biden suck, they have driven the price of ammo through the roof, even previously-affordable steel-cased stuff. This is a huge problem given the recent surge in new gun-owners who are looking to hone their skills on their new guns, but simply can’t. They either can’t afford the rounds or can’t find the rounds at all – and whenever they can, the majority of the rounds are steel-cased.

These rounds are often maligned for performance, reliability, and being generally inferior to brass-cased ammo. But are they really? Let’s take a closer look.

Steel-Cased Ammo

As its name suggests, steel-cased ammo utilizes steel for its shell casings instead of brass (or in the case of older Soviet ammo, bi-metal). Americans first got a taste for steel-cased rounds when China began exporting its arms and ammo to the US in the 1980s.

With a price tag well below the average cost of American-made brass-cased ammo, many American shooters on a budget gobbled up the ammo in droves. But shortly thereafter, many found that the rounds weren’t performing as accurately, or reliably in their American firearms.

The same held true a few years later when Russian Saigas, Mosin Nagants, and SKS carbines hit the market -but not for those guns. Many shooters began to see the value of steel-cased ammo when $299 Saiga carbines were able to chew through the stuff without a single hiccup.  It may not have been match-grade or the cleanliest ammo, but the Soviet calibers ran perfectly in Soviet-designed firearms.

Reliability

What about American guns? Well, it depended on the action and type more than anything. The direct-impingement AR-15 can be ammo sensitive especially when not ran, ‘wet’. This was even more the case a few years ago when most companies made sure their guns were precisely gassed.

Arsenal SGL-21 Russian AKM
Soviet-pattern firearms like this Russian-made Arsenal SGL-21 eat up steel-cased ammo with no problems. IMG Jim Grant

In a world where all ammo is accurately loaded, finely-tuned gas systems are ideal, the gun has less felt recoil, lasts longer, and requires less cleaning. But many companies around the mid-2000s discovered that customers were complaining that their guns weren’t reliable because they wouldn’t run Russian steel-cased ammo very well.

The solution was simple – they over-gassed their guns. This is true of PSA, SIG, Anderson, Colt, and basically everyone today. But don’t get me wrong, they aren’t over-gassed to the point of negatively impacting performance. The guns are just slightly over-gassed to ensure reliable operation with underpowered cheap ammo.

Bottom line: most modern firearms will have no issues whatsoever running with steel-cased ammo, but I would still recommend thorough lubrication and regular cleaning.

Pros vs Cons

Why would shooters pick steel-cased rounds over standard ammo?

Price. That’s it. That’s the only real advantage of the ammo.

As far as downsides, there are a few objective drawbacks to running steel and a few man-made ones.

While the steel used in the ammo’s casings is relatively mild, and thus not terribly hard, it is still harder than brass. This means any component it comes in contact with will wear faster than if a shooter was running brass-cased rounds. The other real downside is that steel’s coefficient of friction is greater than that of brass, so when the spent casing is being extracted from a hot chamber, it requires more force to break the initial bond.

Arsenal SLR-107UR
The author with his Arsenal SLR-107UR Bulgarian AKM blasting through some steel-cased ammo. IMG Jim Grant

This in turn means more force is exerted on your firearm’s extractor which can lead to premature breakages if the gun wasn’t designed for the rounds in the first place. (SKS / AK owners, needn’t worry.)

As far as man-made issues, many ranges ban the use of steel-cased ammo out of concern for their backstops – this is particularly true with indoor ranges.  This is because most steel-cased ammo uses a mild steel core, and is difficult for ranges to differentiate from armor-piercing steel-core ammo which would quickly destroy targets.

The other manufactured downside is that some companies will tell shooters that using steel-cased ammo voids their warranty. In my not-so-humble-opinion, this is a cop-out to let companies brush off shooters who want to run cheap ammo in their gun.

Overall

In a nutshell, steel-cased ammo is good to go. It’s not as powerful, clean, or pretty as brass-cased stuff, but it runs fine if your gun is properly-gassed. Just make sure to check your gun’s warranty before running it, just in case.


About Jim Grant

Jim is one of the elite editors for AmmoLand.com, who in addition to his mastery of prose, can wield a camera with expert finesse. He loves anything and everything guns but holds firearms from the Cold War in a special place in his heart.

When he’s not reviewing guns or shooting for fun and competition, Jim can be found hiking and hunting with his wife Kimberly, and their dog Peanut in the South Carolina low country.

Jim Grant

 

28 Comments
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Stork
Stork
7 months ago

Cheap ammo is always good, or at least was. The issue I had with steel was I experienced a ‘hard lock’ almost every 60 rounds or so, which required a hammer and steel rod to rectify, as you all know.

Chuck
Chuck
7 months ago

The softest of steels has a surface hardness at least 2 1/2 times the surface hardness of annealed brass (on the Brinell scale), that being the case, unless the chamber was manufactured for the use of steel, from a metallurgical standpoint, steel will erode the chamber over time, not just the extractor. The extractor may be the first part to show wear, but the wear is going on nonetheless. I reload, so I’ve no interest in shell casings I can’t reload. The majority of steel cased ammo is Berdan primed. It was never engineered to be reloaded, while it is… Read more »

Jammoz
Jammoz
7 months ago

That’s why I bought an under-seat rifle rack from 4WheelOnline. I agree that the price of steel cases has gone through the roof so the affordable ones are only made in hard plastic.

Bill
Bill
7 months ago

I am not sure that steel cased ammo would wear out anything faster than brass, and would like documentation rather than theory on this. The reason? The steel case has a coating, which cushions against wear. Reloading would lose the benefit of this coating, as it wears off. But I do question the hypothesis, unless demonstrated, that a new steel case increases wear over brass.

Dave in Fairfax
Dave in Fairfax
7 months ago
Reply to  Bill

Bill, I know that there has been testing on it, though I don’t have them bookmarked. Have you searched on extractor wear with steel cased ammo?

Vern
Vern
7 months ago
Reply to  Bill

My experience with steel cased ammo in a Mosen Nagant was the coating was heated up with the explosion of the round in the chamber melting the coating and after a few rounds you couldn’t get a round to chamber because there was too much coating in the chamber.
Also, if you use the steel cased ammo close to dark it had a massive muzzle flash, if things come to a combat situation you want the flash coming from the other side so you can see where, they, are, not the other way round.

Duane
Duane
7 months ago

I shot thousands of rounds of it in AK’s SKS with out trouble.

I seen problems with stuck cases in AR type rifles.

Personally I do not use steel case ammo in AR’s.

I have a friend the reloads 223 steel cases better him than me.

musicman44mag
musicman44mag
7 months ago

Not one mention of reloading. My understanding is that you cannot reload the steel cases. I could be wrong but I wouldn’t want to put something that harsh in my dies even if I could. Then after it is worn out and too brittle to be used, I can turn it in for weight and get some money back!!! Do that with steel cases.

BMG_Gunner
BMG_Gunner
7 months ago
Reply to  musicman44mag

You can reload them. More work is involved if they’re berdan primed but it can be done. I’ve reloaded a few 9mm boxer primed steel cases and they work fine. From what I can tell and have seen/read..since steel is less malleable than brass, the cases don’t fireform as well to the chamber when fired. This might in some cases make them easier to extract possibly…but also explains the excess dirt build up.

musicman44mag
musicman44mag
7 months ago
Reply to  musicman44mag

I took one car to the crusher years ago. I received 35 dollars for it. After draining the fluids, taking out the battery and all the plastic and seats and removing the shocks it was more work than it was worth. If I had a junk yard it would be worth it. Instead I donate them now and I actually get more money and it is less work. I get paid cash for brass but they don’t pay very good on either. Funny, you want to sell it and it’s not worth squat you want to buy it and steel… Read more »

Bobocat
Bobocat
7 months ago

I have had six show up here in the last two years saying that they had an AR that was not working right. I asked what ammo they were using and it was the steel case. I told them to switch to brass and all was fine thereafter. I noticed that there was some burning of the breach when using steel case ammo. So, I disagree with all steel case ammo is great. Not one good experience with steel case in an AR or AK.

Michael J Arnold
7 months ago

Here’s what I find interesting:

Forever, you could not find a kind word being said about steel-cased, Russian ammo. If you believed the hype (as did I), the mere thought of using such trash would surely destroy your gun.

Then, Hornady hit the market with their steel-cased ammo. Then, Winchester jumped into the steel-cased market. Then, the prices skyrocketed.

Now, miraculously, steel-cased ammo will no longer hurt your gun.

Where would we be, without the miracles of marketing?

There’s nothing wrong with Russian steel-cased ammo, other than it smells like somebody has thrown a cat on a trash fire.

musicman44mag
musicman44mag
7 months ago

It’s that way with everything if you noticed. Coffee good, coffee bad, dark chocolate bad, dark chocolate good, eggs bad, eggs good. 20 years ago we would read an article about how bad eggs were for cholesterol and now we read that they are not that bad and it is ok to eat two a day but don’t eat the bacon. Today we only have to wait one week to get the opposite answer to what they just said yesterday. Basically, I feel it is the same as global warming, scientists just don’t fully understand or know but they get… Read more »

Ej harbet
Ej harbet
7 months ago

If you look at a 5.56 besides a 7.62 russian round you’ll notice th x39 and x54 both have a taper from the base to the mouth. The 556 has little taper.
The taper aids extraction considerably

Cruiser
Cruiser
7 months ago

Non brass ammo is my JIC prepper ammo. I doubt anyone will stick around after a firefight to police up their brass.

talon99
talon99
7 months ago

The lacquer that coats the steel case can be problematic when a round sits in a hot chamber. The lacquer will soften, and if the round sits in the chamber as it cools, it can make extraction more difficult in firearms not designed with a generous chamber.

musicman44mag
musicman44mag
7 months ago
Reply to  talon99

And a sloppy chamber adds to bad performance in accuracy.

Mac
Mac
7 months ago

I’ve shot it and it worked OK.

Dave in Fairfax
Dave in Fairfax
7 months ago
Reply to  Mac

Mac,
It doesn’t contract as fast as brass does, but you can shoot it in a bolt or lever gun without any problem. Semi-autos sometimes have problems if the chamber is tight and because it hasn’t fully contracted when the extractors try to grab it. I f the chamber is on the larger side of the spec it isn’t usually an issue.

Hazcat
Hazcat
7 months ago

Funny how you didn’t mention the elephant in the room … RELOADING.

Dave in Fairfax
Dave in Fairfax
7 months ago
Reply to  Hazcat

Hazcat,

Not really it always says that it’s Berdan primed, not Boxer. It even sometimes says that it ISN’T reloadable for those that don’t understand it from the names. Pretty sure that anyone reading the article, especially this bunch would know that.

Last edited 7 months ago by Dave in Fairfax
Ryben Flynn
Ryben Flynn
7 months ago

Exactly why I gave all my steel case .223 to my Brother who does not reload. I do. I still have some brass Berdan primed ammo for my 1918 Enfield, but I also found that IVI makes MilSpec brass for it and it is made for Boxer primers.

Last edited 7 months ago by Ryben Flynn
Dave in Fairfax
Dave in Fairfax
7 months ago
Reply to  Ryben Flynn

RF,

I just burn mine in my Rem 700. It’s a bolt gun and doesn’t care.

Finnky
Finnky
7 months ago

@Jim – Your statement above non bi-metallic seems to be saying that the case is bi-metallic. In most Russian ammo (Tula, Monarch, etc.) the case is steel and the bullet has a mild steel jacket with a thin copper coating. It is only the jacket which is bi-metallic, NOT the case. The projectiles typically have an lead core, not steel. Penetrator rifle rounds similar to M855 are available as well, and they do have steel core. No commercially available handgun rounds have the steel core as they would qualify as illegal “armor piercing” ammo under federal law. From discussion with… Read more »

GeniusJoe
GeniusJoe
7 months ago
Reply to  Finnky

Thank you, you beat me to it!

Ej harbet
Ej harbet
7 months ago
Reply to  Finnky

To add to a excellent list of reasons,some ranges use rubber peices in the backstops and if steel can start fires on certain outdoor ranges with grass.
It can start a heck of a fire in a rubber backstop medium.

Vern
Vern
7 months ago
Reply to  Finnky

Our range has a two mile backstop so there is no limit except, no tracers. Some people liked to shoot them in brush when it had been dry for a while. That does tend to clean up the excess grass in the range area. Other than that we can use just about anything.

MikeTX
MikeTX
7 months ago

I disagree on the viability of steel cased ammo in weapons when the mfg states otherwise. My HK USPc owners manual specifically states: “CAUTION: HK firearms are designed to function with quality manufactured brass cased ammunition. Use of steel or aluminum cased cartridges is not recommended and could adversely affect safe and reliable functioning. (emphasis mine) For further information on ammunition selection, contact HK Customer Service…” HK does not sell ammunition, so they have no dog in the cost of ammunition argument. Further, HK specifically says: “All USPs are approved for use with +P and +P+ ammunition as it applies… Read more »