Ammunition

Steel Case Ammo: Good or Bad?

Metal military surplus ammo cans stacked up

Steel case ammo is available in a wide variety of calibers these days and has become quite popular, for good reason. Let’s talk about the good and the bad of using steel case ammo. Since I am generally optimistic, I will start with the good.

Steel Case Ammo: The Good

Price: Steel ammo is significantly cheaper than comparable brass case ammo—sometimes costing as little as half the price. Who wouldn’t want to shoot twice as much for the same cost?

Long-term storage: Many calibers are available in sealed spam cans, making it ideal for stashing away for the next family get together or zombie apocalypse.

tulammo steel case ammo
TulAmmo .223 Remington ammunition (steel case ammo) is used for sporting and hunting shooting through bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles and carbines.

Steel Case Ammo: The Bad

Extraction Issues: In some firearms, steel case can be harder to extract — or it doesn’t extract at all. This is caused by a combination of factors. Steel is harder than brass, so it doesn’t have the elasticity that brass does.

When a cartridge is fired, the resulting pressure makes the case expand to the internal dimension of the chamber. The case must contract slightly to allow for easy extraction.

Steel does not contract as easily as brass, so if a chamber has any roughness or tool marks in it from the manufacturing process, the friction caused by the case not contracting enough — and the rough chamber — can cause poor extraction.

On the other hand, studies have shown that over 10,000 rounds of .223 failed to show a measurable difference between steel and brass on the wear and tear of the chamber and barrel.

(Note: When I say rough, I don’t necessarily mean visibly rough to the naked eye. This might be remedied by polishing the chamber.)

Durability: Steel will be harder on parts such as extractors and barrels over time. It’s just a fact that if you rub a harder metal against the same surface as a softer metal, the harder metal will wear that surface more quickly.

Studies have shown that it literally takes thousands of rounds for the additional wear to become apparent so the cost savings offset this. Some shooters’ note that steel case ammo can be dirtier than brass ammo. This is due to the powder, not the case though. The solution is simple; clean your gun.

Range restrictions: Some ranges don’t allow steel case ammo. This is generally due to the heavy concentration of steel in the jacket. In warm, dry areas such as California, it can be a fire hazard. The same can be said of brass case ammo. The range has the issue with the bullet, not case. Check before you go.

There you have it. Steel case ammo is cheaper to shoot and generally works well in most firearms, but does have some downsides. I suggest trying a box or two before buying a large quantity. That way you won’t get stuck with a bunch of ammo that you can’t use if it doesn’t work in your particular gun.

Steel certainly has its place and as I said, over time the cost savings of the ammunition will equal or outweigh the extra wear and tear. After all, saving 30 to 50 percent on your ammo over the course of thousands of rounds will certainly outweigh the cost of a new barrel, perhaps even the gun in some cases.

What’s your experience with steel case ammunition? Tell us whether you are in the love it or hate it camp (and why) in the comment section.

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Comments (109)

  1. Vincent I own a armscor 9mm ria m1911fs tactical I’ve read not just their 1911s but all armscor guns will handle any factory load u can put in it now I did not contact them but read this on the armscor website not all but alot of customer service people know little about their products not familiar with the super load but should be fine and any manufacturer will tell you to only shoot+p ammo occasionally cause it’ll shorten the firearms life and i own a 1978 Ruger new model super Blackhawk in 44 mag great gun one of the very few mostly rugers that’ll handle buffalo bores heavy hot loads guns built tough anyway as for steel ammo have only shot it in 45,9mm,38sp, and 223 but I’ve never had a great experience with it in 45 shot it in Ruger American had decent amount of feeding issues ok accuracy for 9mm shot in Beretta M9A1,ria m1911,cz75 phantom,hipoint c9 only one did any good was actually the hipoint guess cheaper guns like cheaper ammo 38 special I shoot tulammo thru Ruger speed six almost every time seems to work great in revolvers no issues removing from the cylinder or anything and 223 I’ve shot thru a Amish arms buggy15 my local gunshops brand of AR-15 a little bit tried a box of 20 of almost everything and all functioned flawless just bad accuracy now maybe just my gun but some of it was quite bad would have 5-6 inch groups at 100 yards that’s not including the flyers that sometimes were so bad didn’t hit paper now cheap fiocchi 15 bucks for 50 can get 1-2 inch groups just not worth the accuracy especially now steels more popular so prices are getting as high as brass 20 rounds of steel ones cost 5-6 bucks can get 50 brass for $15 or 60 steel for $15-$18 haven’t tried but just bought hordany steel match that have heard great things about 50 for $19 so hopefully that’ll change my mind about steel but as for now my opinion is steel ammos good for revolvers that’s about it in semiauto pistols ok accuracy crappy feeding and rifles good feeding crappy accuracy so not sure where I’d find steel ammo half the price of brass but if I could might have to really think about it but I’m finding it almost same price as some budget brass maybe a buck cheaper sometimes not even that in 45acp bought perfecta for 14.29 for 50 steel was literally 20-30 cents cheaper infact couple cost more

  2. Yugoslavia ammunition was primarily brass case. Prvi and Igman were the primary sources for small arms ammunition during the war. They do not produce steel case ammunition. Soviet steel case ammunition was difficult to obtain once the war started. President Clinton and the UN failed to respond to humanitarian efforts to help the Bosnians. They would have been happy to take whatever type of ammunition they could get.

  3. My experience with steel cased cartridges has been mixed and nearly 20 years ago. While it performed flawlessly through the SKS in 7.62 x 39, the 5.56 x 45 was crap. I had more failures to feed and failures to extract in just one 30 round mag in either of my AR’s than I ever experienced with brass of various manufacturers. The 500 round special cheapo sale of the day wasn’t worth the headache, and I gave the remainder away to a friend who cussed me out when he had the same issues. Because of that experience, I never tried any in pistol calibers so I can’t comment on its ability in handguns. So my opinion is that it isn’t reliable in Non-ComBloc guns, unless you enjoy it as a gun failure clesrence drill. While I advocate clearence drills as being a positive learning experience, I don’t want to fo that on rvrry trip to the range.

  4. I have shot steel case ammo, mostly in my AK’s and SKS rifles. Will consider it for my AR’s, based on the info from this article. An interesting twist I found on steel ammo, I have a friend who was in the Bosnian War and said he never saw ANY steel case ammo during his time in the conflict. That’s interesting to me , as we Americans hear constantly about how steel case ammo is the norm for AK’s and other across the pond weapons. Food for thought.

  5. OldGringo, I have 2 Ruger Blackhawk single actions revolvers, and I shoot .45 ACP with an alternate cylinder in my Ruger .45 Colt. I shoot .45 ACP +P and even Super .45 ACP, and with no issues. BOTH of this ammo is above 600 ft. lbs. (from 616 to 770). The 616 ammo is by Atomic with a MV of 1225, and a bullet weight of 185gr. I also shoot .45 LC ammo, and the most powerful I have shot in this same gun is 1217 ft. lbs., so even 770 ft. lbs. is not that great of a load for this gun. But I realize that this is not a semi-auto pistol. I have been looking for a semi-auto .45 pistol that can shoot the .45 Super, and in case you are not aware, this ammo is just a .45 ACP +P +P. so it can be fired in ANY .45 semi-auto handgun. BUT, the power may be too great for most .45 semi-auto pistols, so great care must be taken, or it may destroy the gun or even seriously damage your hand.

    So, I have done some inquiring from some .45 semi-auto handgun manufacturers. Armscor released such a handgun a few years ago, and I contacted them. Theirs will NOT handle the .45 Super at all. I also contacted Ruger about their .45 semi-auto gun, and they responded with the response that theirs will handle this hot load, but only in limited quantities, and not for shooting this ammo ‘all day’. But if anyone want to do this in a Ruger .45 ACP semi-auto gun, you should contact Ruger and ask about the specific gun if you are thinking about do this and make sure.

    As for the brass vs. steel casings, I have shot in both guns some steel ammo (and lots of brass), which has been less expensive than brass ammo most of the time. My experience with steel cased ammo was that I had a harder time getting the ammo to slide into the cylinder and even more so when ejecting the casings For those who do not know, you have to load each individual cartridge into the revolver cylinder (5 or 6 at a time, depending on the gun, and mine are both 6). So, with steel cases when loading, I sometimes had to push the cartridge in with some force, vs. it just letting it slide in. And when ejecting, I sometimes had to shove the ejector rod a lot harder as well. So, I quit buying ammo with steel casings.

    Vincent
    (02-24-2019)

  6. Want to thank you for the ballistics and such in your reply, but I am Deplorable Robert, not old gringo. And I do handload the .357 Sig, although I haven’t check my loads on a meter. I may purchase a cheap one but my 115 grains are. Fast when I load to Max powder charge.
    Still considering a 10mm. Or .45 ACP or Glocks 45 GAB cartridge. Be safe my friend.

  7. OldGringo, according to my ballistics file, the max power from manufactured ammo for the .357 Sig is 660 ft. lbs., with a 125 gr bullet raveling at 1,542 fps. The norm for the 357 SIG is between 390-500 ft. lbs. Whereas, the .45 ACP max is for a 45 ACP +P is 616 with a 185 gr bullet traveling at 1225 fps, and for a 96 gr bullet travelling at 1,900 fps delivering 660 ft. lbs. The average for the 45 ACP is between 390-460. In addition, the 45 Super (which is really just a 45 ACP +P +P) maxes out at 694 ft. lbs. with a 185 gr bullet traveling at 1,300 fps, and at 771 ft. lbs. with a 68 gr bullet traveling at 2,260 fps! The 45 Super averages between 590-650 for normal grain bullets (between 185-230).

    Of course, the .45 LC is a lot more powerful since it is a much bigger cartridge. But for all these statistics, I would out a lot more weight on the cartridges with the heavier grain bullets for stopping power when either hunting or for self-defense.

    As a comparison, the .357 Mag is quite amazing since it varies in power from around 350 ft. lbs. all the way up to 907 ft. lbs., and those give a real kick! I also have a .357 Mag Ruger blued 6.5″ Blackhawk, so for practice I shoot the lower powered ammo (and less money too), and for kicks I pull out the high power ammo! But my 45 Ruger Colt kick a lot more when I fire the real big loads than my .357 Mag.

    In general, revolver loads will almost always be more powerful than semi-auto loads since the cartridges are much bigger, and hence a lot more powder. The 45 ACP is unique in that it can be hot in both revolvers and semi-auto guns. I have been keeping my eye out for a 45 Semi-auto handgun that can handle the 45 Super ammo, or be altered so it can.

    Vincent (01-25-2018)

    1. Steel case ammo IS dirtier in your weapon than brass. This is because the steel case is harder than the brass case, and doesn’t expand to seal the chamber against the blowback gases and unburned powder particles, particularly in a semi-auto weapon. This blowback WILL build up, and if you have a weapon with close tolerances, it will require more frequent cleaning than if you use brass case ammo.

    2. As a general rule, I tend to agree. Being retired military I learned the need to clean the weapon at the end of every day, in a tent made of 2 shelter halves in the pouring rain. With the M16 we learned early on that the gun simply had to be run wet and clean, if lube or oil was not available then even water was OK to wash the crud out of the gun ( you take the bullets out first). We still have a hard time teaching the young guys to do that. WD 40 or Ballistol is great. but some of the younger guys are so totally ignorant they do not understand that fact. There are idiots out there who still think WD 40 can harm your gun, something they read on the net, they do not understand what it is and does). Several years ago, I started reloading steel cased 45 acp, just for grins, even though I had thousands of brass cases sitting idly by. As long as they are clean and have no rust on them they work very well. I especially like to use them for my Peacemakers, single action Rugers with the 45 acp cylinder and my SW Governor. You can pick them up with a magnet at any range, load em, shoot em, and leave them lay if you want, and remember steel is stronger than brass so you can load them hotter. . If you have read my earlier comments, brass had 6% failure rate after 4 firings, where the Tullamo brand steel loaded exactly the same had zero failures. Anyone who cleans their guns has zero worry about steel cases, with one caveat. If you load them down to say gallery or light loads, then they may not fully expand to fill the chamber. It is counter intuitive, but just physics steel is better. Now, personally when I load really hot ammo for say the 45 Colt Ruger only, 454 Casull, and 400 Corbon, I like nickel plated cases, with small rifle primers. The reason is they do not tarnish or corrode, although nickel plating does weaken the brass and there will be shorter case life, I just want that first firing of really hot ammo to be as precision as can be. I might also comment that I do not think most people chronograph their loads because I see goofy stuff quoted on here all the time. For example, I shoot the 400 Corbon with a 165 grain bullet that averages 1,361 fps or about 650 foot pounds and well beyond 1,400 fps with the 135 grain bullets. I read on here people are using 45 acps they claim above 600 foot pounds. I call BS, and the reason is, when you get a 1911 about 1,300 fps, the speed of the slide is pretty significant, you need a stronger spring and shock buffs or you will batter your slide. So, if you are shooting somebodies factory load that fast, I just do not think you are shooting very many and just hyping on the net. Those who shoot fast ammo 1,300 plus in 1911s (except the smaller 38 super and 357 sig) know to go to 45 Super or other modification. Just saying, I read the same stuff you do, but I shoot a lot off it and I see a lot of hype on here. Just because Buffalo Bore loads a 357 mag to 800 foot pounds does not mean you can match that in a reload and surely does not mean your gun will hold up to it. My opinion is that if you are going to carry a magnum caliber, then you need to train with it, or just use a smaller caliber that you can actually master. Opinions may vary.

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