Choosing the right ammunition for your combat rifle can be a daunting task. There are endless options when it comes to ammo, all of which can leave buyers confused and frustrated. With the rising cost of quality ammo, we field tons of questions about the use of steel cased ammunition. In light of this, I’m going to attempt to clear up some of the pitfalls that new shooters encounter when shelling out their hard-earned dollars for steel ammo. Some of you more advanced shooters may find this information somewhat basic, but read on anyway, you may learn something you didn’t know.
Before we get started, let’s get some nomenclature out of the way. The casing of a cartridge is what ejects out of the side of an automatic firearm. When we say cartridge, we are usually talking about the entire thing. When someone talks about the bullet, it is usually just the projectile itself. Look at the cartridge diagram if I am not doing a good job explaining this. Even though some of this stuff may seem a bit nit-picky; trust me, self-proclaimed gun experts who spend all day behind a counter tend to be a little snobby if you don’t know the lingo. Heck, some of them are snobby anyway. Just tell those types to chill out and try to enjoy the art of shooting; nobody was born an expert.
In the past, manufacturers tried to produce casings from all sorts of materials. Some early rifles used paper, some modern cartridges use polymer, but so far, shooters really purchase only brass and steel cased ammunition. When you pull the trigger, the firing pin hits the primer of the cartridge, igniting the powder in the casing. The case then expands as gas from the burning powder tries to escape the chamber. Instead of just exploding in your face, the gas pushes the projectile out of the casing and down the barrel. All this happens so quickly that it is over by the time you hear the bang. Depending on your firearm, how much the casing expands when the powder ignites is somewhat important. If the casing does not expand far enough, fouling from the burning powder can collect on the inside of your chamber, causing it to gum up. This is a problem when using steel cased ammunition in tighter tolerance automatic weapons, such as the AR-15. Steel doesn’t expand as much as brass, so more powder blows around your chamber, causing it to get filthy before you know it. Furthermore, ammo manufacturers usually coat the steel casings in lacquer or polymer, which when cooled, acts like glue on the inside of your chamber. This can cause a failure to extract as well as torn casings and broken extractors.
Most of the steel cased ammunition sold in the U.S. is from Russia. American and Asian factories tend to adhere to a higher quality standard than their Russian counterparts, so the steel cased ammunition you shoot can be of varying quality. I’ve seen some rounds without enough powder fail to eject, as well as accuracy issues from poorly seated projectiles. I guess the Soviet Union was more worried about quantity rather than quality during the cold war.
Steel cased ammunition does have a few good things going for it though; it’s cheap and readily available. Aside from having to clean your AR-15 after 500 to 1,000 rounds, which you should do anyway, there really is nothing wrong with using Russian steel cased ammunition at the range. If you are using a well-maintained weapon, you really won’t have a problem using it. I’ve gone through thousands of rounds of cheap steel cased ammo in my AR and never had a major issue. Steel cased also works well in Russian AKs and SKSs too, which have loose tolerances when compared to AR platform guns. Furthermore, bolt guns do not care if the case is steel or brass, so feel free to chew up a ton of steel case ammo in your Mosin, Mauser, or Springfield.
As long as you keep your equipment clean, steel cased ammunition is a nice alternative. While I wouldn’t bet my life on it, cheap ammo has a place in this world of overpriced brass.
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