Throwback Thursday—Shooting Steel Cased Ammo In Your AR-15

By CTD Blogger published on in Ammunition

You have no doubt noticed the large amount of inexpensive steel-cased ammunition available. It is hard to pass it up—prices for steel-cased ammo are cheaper than that of traditional brass-cased. Take it out to the range and it won’t be long before you hear the “tsk-tsk” of other shooters, commenting on how horrible it is to run steel-cased ammunition in an AR-15 style rifle.

But is steel-cased ammo really so bad? Is it safe to shoot steel-cased ammunition in your AR-15?

Busting Myths

Picture shows a steel-cased .223 Remington round.

Steel cased ammo may have gotten a bad rap, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

Let’s own up to a few facts first. In general, discount steel-cased ammo is dirtier and smellier than MIL-SPEC Lake City manufactured 5.56 NATO ammunition. Further, it is not quite as accurate either, but many shooters won’t miss a half-MOA here or there.

Now, on to some myth busting. Modern production steel-cased ammo is not corrosive, even when Berdan primed and it will not destroy your extractor. The ferrous bi-metal jackets found on most steel-cased ammo will not damage the rifling of your AR and are perfectly safe to use on any rifle-rated backstop.

Dripping Wet

What do you need to do to run steel-cased ammunition in your AR-15 successfully? First, you will need to make sure your AR-15 is well lubricated. Dripping wet some might say—especially the bolt carrier group. You will need to clean your rifle more often when shooting steel-cased ammo; at least once every 500 rounds. However, you could get away with letting it go for up to 1,000 rounds. Because steel-cased ammunition results in more carbon build up, it’s important to use a high-quality solvent like M-Pro 7 along with a synthetic lubricant. Thoroughly clean your bolt, paying close attention to the bolt face and extractor. It is usually a good idea to remove the extractor to clean underneath as well. You will also need to clean the chamber with a good M16/AR-15 chamber brush.

Modern Coatings

Steel-cased ammo is generally loaded lighter than standard military loads, so it is important that the AR’s gas system runs well. Some AR rifles have smaller gas ports and will not cycle well with the reduced-power loads found in steel-cased ammunition. If this becomes a problem, switch to brass-cased ammo such as PPU. Using a lower-weight buffer or a lighter buffer spring may also be necessary when shooting steel-cased ammo.

Steel-cased ammunition is available with three different types of coatings. To help prevent rust and corrosion of the cartridge case, older steel-cased ammo is lacquer finished. Brown Bear still uses this coating. As heat begins to build, some AR-15 rifles start to have problems with lacquer-coated, steel-cased ammo. Switching to modern production steel-cased ammo with polymer coatings sometimes alleviates this problem. In other cases, it may be necessary to use zinc-coated steel cased ammo such as Silver Bear.

5.56mm v .223 Remington

The best way to avoid extraction problems due to stuck cases is to use an AR-15 with a 5.56mm chamber. Differences in headspacing between 5.56 and .223 chambers can cause steel-cased .223 or 5.56mm ammo to get stuck as the metal heats up. Even Wylde chambers and other .223/5.56-hybrid chambers have issues with stuck spent steel casings. Stick with a true 5.56mm chamber and, as mentioned, remember to scrub the chamber out every 500 to 1000 rounds to ensure reliability.

Steel-cased ammo may have gotten a bad rap, but there is really nothing wrong with it—so go for it! Some AR snobs may sneer at the mere thought of running steel-cased ammo through their precious rifles, but you know better now. Save money when plinking and try out steel-cased. Most AR-15 rifles run it just fine with no problems at all.

Do you run steel-cased ammunition in your AR-15? What have you found that works best? Share your tips and tricks with others in the comment section.

This article originally published on May 27, 2010.

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Comments (122)

  • Steve

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    I’ an AR builder, I have found the problem of short stroking to be with factory guns being thrown together . They test shoot a couple of rounds and then box it. On cheep barrels the gas hole is usually too small and it was for super hot cartridges for full auto. I open the hole to .078 and you can go as high as .105 this will allow the gas to effectively charge the gas system with lower powered cartridges . I also found the gas blocks and the gas tubes don’t align well . I open the gas tube to be the same size as the blocks hole You can go through the allan set screw to do this . You can play with the weight of the follower and the spring . I prefer an adjustable gas block . Once the tube is properly over the barrel hole and the tube is opened you’ll see a big change in your rifle. It will feed and function so much better. I shoot Russian ammo and lake city ss109. The Russian is fairly consistent and cheep Hope this helps.

    Reply

  • Ron

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    Sorry for all the typos in my first comment – but I spilled coffee on my keyboard yesterday and turned it into a sticky bun.

    Reply

  • Ron

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    Maybe AR steel cases are the exception to the rule because of their size – the Rule to which I referred is the percentage of ammo-related failures that are deonted by a three-letter acronym where the first letter is always an “F” signifying FAILURE.”

    If the third letter in the acronym is also an “F,” it could stand for “Feed” or “Fire” – but, in reality, it should stand for “FUNCTION” OR “FINISH” in order to cover all of the things you do not want your ammo to do – INCLUDING gunking up your gun or leaving it full of nasty, oily soot.

    Because,in an AR, you can easily swap out the two main parts of the gun most likely to be aversely affected by steel-cased ammo, and the toughness of the material available for, let’s say the barrel and bolt carrier group, can be made out of titanium or tungsten carbide. Try finding a 9mm handgun witjh those materials.

    If steel was as problem-free as ou make it out to be, then why is it banned at every gun range in the country? (If there are ranges foir hasndguns that do not ban it, then please let me know because I have yet to see it).

    Wolf and Tula are the most popular steel-cased AR ammo in existence because they are the cheapest AR ammo in existence. However, they are aslo one of the DIRTIEST ammo in existence. Here’s where reloading a steel case would make it better than the original.

    Getting back to gun failures in handguns (as I noted, the experience with AR and AK ammo is a lot different as these long guns can take the punishment), pick a group of handgun owners who regularly practice in an open field or forest where their neighbors (if they have any) will not be bothered by their bang-bangs.

    If there are reports of ammo-related failures from this group, 80% of the time, these failures can be traced back to their use of steel-cased ammo.

    In fact, pick up any gun blog and count the number of instances where a shooter reports an FTF or FTE and see for yourself how many of them involve steel-cased ammo.

    Grantged, it is nbo more scentific that the anecdotal reports we always read that alweays go something liker this:

    “Well, I have shot ____ rounds of steel-cased ammo for _____ years and never had any problems”

    Of course, they forget to mention the complete configuration of the firearm they used to shoot all those rounds.In fact, when queried, you will find that multiple firearms were used in order to issue that statement.

    Faiurly recently, Wolf and Tula have been selling brass-cased versions of their AR ammo. If there is nothing wrong with their steel-cased stuff, then what’s driving the need? Gun ranges, for one. What else?

    My main question is, “OK, you’ve changed from steel to brass. Have you also changed the propellant?”

    It would be great if they did. However, their brass-cased AR ammo is no longer a price leader. And, if they are using the same dirty propellant, then where lies the advantages? Unless youy own stock in the companies, or can discount it more heavily than American brands, where’s the draw.

    No offense, but I’d like your take on steel-cased handgun ammo. Still as problem-free as the .223/5.56 magnetic monsters?

    Enquiring minds want to know.

    All I can say is thaty, if I owned a $1500 AR, I woujld not be pinching pennies by buying cheap, steel-cased ammo that is not problem-free no matter how many times you say it is.

    Because for every anecdote that claims to use steel-cased ammo and had no problems, there are at least as many or more anecdotes of claims that the steel-cased ammo they used screwed up their AR.

    To paraphrase a line from “Jerry MacGuire”

    “SHOW ME THE DATA!”

    Also:

    “YOU HAD ME AT {*click*} HELL!”

    Reply

  • Christian

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    From what I read in the “Steel vs. Brass Epic Torture test” on LuckyGunner.com last year it seems more of a barrel issue. From their test the steel cased ammo wears out your barrel a quicker. This is because the rounds have metal in them. If you put a magnet to a lot of the steel cased rounds[bullets] it will stick. This means the FMJ and/or interior has metal in it. Through repeated use it appears that this wears out the barrel quicker. This is the bigger issue for me personally; not whether it feeds well or is dirty…

    Reply

    • MIKE D

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      Yes, but the money saved with steel-cased ammo would buy you a brand new barrel and bolt carrier group AND still have 2000 more rounds leftover to shoot price-wise(on average). The rest of you’re gun won’t be affected. More hard-worked dollars left in you’re pocket and more plinking time at the range. One last note: If you use an 18″ barrel or bigger, it won’t build up carbon nearly as quick w/the shorter 16″barrels and won’t make you’re extractor work much (if at all) harder than if using brass cased ammo. It’s a no brainer for me and my 18″barreled Colt AR-15: steel ammo it is! (Regardless..I normally clean my gun after every shooting session. I never go more than 200 rounds without cleaning it. I play it safe plus I enjoy cleaning my guns).

      Reply

  • Deryl

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    I have been using Brown Bear steel cased, fmj ammo in my 7.62 x 39 AR15 for years. I have had zero operational issues…none. As an added bonus, the 123 grain Brown Bear runs very consistent and accurately in my particular weapon….better than many, more expensive rounds…

    Reply

    • MIKE D

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      That’s good to hear since I just bought 500 rounds of Brown Bear for my Arsenal AK that will be in my hands in a week! (yes..I live in Cali. Argghh..the dumb 10 day waiting period.).

      Reply

  • John

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    You state “Using a lower-weight buffer or a lighter buffer spring may also be necessary when shooting steel-cased ammo.” but never explained why this would help. I was always under the impression that it had to be opposite – heavier buffer with stiffer buffer spring to slow down the cycle rate that will improve the FTE problems.

    Reply

    • Secundius

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      @ John.

      When the inside barrel “heats-up”, temperature is transmitted back in to the “steel” cartridge and causes it to expand. As the barrel “cools-down”, allowing the barrel to contract. The steel cartridge stay hot, essentially “welding” itself to the inside of the barrel.

      There is another method you may or may not want to try, is getting a “paintball quick charge” device. Place it at the end of the barrel, release the small co2 cartridge. And use the co2 pressure blast, “ballistically” blow out the spent cartridge. Barrels vary, and this does not, unfortunately work with all pistols and/or rifles.

      Reply

    • Aaron

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      The first sentence of that paragraph explained it, “Steel-cased ammo is generally loaded lighter than standard military loads”

      You want a certain balance in the cycling of your rifle. Lighter ammo needs a lighter buffer and spring to be able to fully extract and eject. Heavier loads need a heavier buffer and spring to absorb that energy. This is all before getting into gas port length issues.

      Reply

  • ray3toes

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    Got my S&W M&P sport about 5 months ago, have run Wolf 223 and 556 for most of the 1,000 or so rounds. Did try some Fiocchi, 10 mags full and had one round hang for some reason. My S&W seems happy with most anything i feed it. Try the steel before you knock it.

    Reply

  • RegT

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    Since switching to the polymer coated steel case ammo in .223 and 7.62×39, I have had zero issues with any of my rifles. No issues with carbon either, since my Bushmaster M4gery has had an Adams Arms gas piston kit installed (love it). Both it and my 1946 Russian SKS operate flawlessly.

    The cheap Tula/Wolf steel case ammo is great for practice, with Lake City used in the M4 when loaded for “duty”.

    Reply

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