When to use steel cased ammunition?

PTR91 clone of G3 rifle has very energetic extraction cycle

The use of steel cased ammunition is hotly debated on web forums. The concept has been around since World War 2, but the controversy is far from over. Originally used to combat brass shortages, steel cases actually have a couple of important advantages. Let’s cover the disadvantages first. Steel cases don’t spring back as well as brass and aren’t effectively reloadable. They require plating with zinc or copper, or else a coating of polymer or lacquer to resist corrosion. Some people feel that even mild steel is harder on the extractors, and that is almost certainly true. However, the alternative to the increased extractor wear with steel cases is the increased likelihood of failure to extract because of a torn brass case rim in certain firearms. All in all, I used to view steel cased ammunition as something to avoid until a friend acquired a .223 FAL rifle.

Tula Ammunition is one of several brands of steel cased cartridges from Russia
Tula Ammunition is one of several brands of steel cased cartridges from Russia

That’s right, an FAL built on an aluminum receiver in .223 — light, handy, able to use AR15 magazines (quite an advantage during the AWB years) but also non-functional. The extraction cycle was so violent that case head separation was routine and completely tied up the gun every few shots. The problem was solved by restricting that carbine to a diet of steel cased military surplus and the problems stopped. The extraction was still quite violent, with cases flung 15-20 feet away from the gun, but the stronger cartridge cases held up just fine.

PTR91 clone of G3 rifle has very energetic extraction cycle
PTR91 clone of G3 rifle has a very energetic extraction cycle

Gas-operated rifles like AR15 use straight walled cases and extract relatively gently. Most of them will still run with steel cased ammunition, but in marginal cases the extra friction of polymer-coated .30 carbine, .223 or .308 case can be detrimental to the reliability. Rifles chambered for 7.62×39 Russian, 5.45×39 Russian and 6.8SPS don’t have that problem because of much greater case taper. Russian AK rifles and others with massive bolt carriers also have considerable reserves of extraction power to un-peel even a stubborn case from the chamber. The same issue comes up with 45ACP gas-operated BAZ45 — it won’t run with steel cases while blowback operated carbines and pretty much all 45ACP pistols work just fine. The tradeoff is, of course, felt recoil. A blowback 45ACP carbine kicks considerably more than BAZ45 fired with full-power brass cased cartridges. It’s the same with rifles — a 20″ AR15 is actually less likely to work well with steel cases than shorter guns with more rapid cycling, at the cost of more wear and tear on the shorties. Delayed blowback rifles, such as G3 and FAMAS, actually benefit from steel cases because their ejection cycles are fairly violent and hard on the brass. PTR91 is therefore a very economical rifle: not only can you buy 20-round magazines for it for under $2, but it also thrives on inexpensive fodder.

Most semi-auto pistols run fine with steel cases.
Most semi-auto pistols run fine with steel cases.

During WW2, United States Army used steel cased 45ACP ammunition. It was an austerity measure, but it was discovered that even steel cased cartridges can work quite well when properly loaded, polished and used in accurate firearms. There’s nothing inherent in the case material that would make such ammunition less accurate, other than the tendency for steel to be used in budget lines with less stringent QC. Hornady proved this point with their Steel Match line designed for competition use. By loading accurate ammunition in steel cases with simple bullets bullets, they provide an economical choice for people who do not reload and do not require exceptional terminal performance typical of hunting and defensive loads. And that brings us to the other advantage of steel cases: for the same amount of money, a shooter using steel ammunition in compatible firearms can get 50% more trigger time than the shooter using brass cased ammo. If the price of ammunition is a consideration in your training, this can be significant. Verify that your guns run with steel case cartridges before stocking up, but don’t be surprised if they work just fine.

About the Author:

Oleg Volk

Oleg Volk is a creative director working mainly in firearms advertising. A great fan of America and the right to bear arms, he uses his photography to support the right of every individual to self-determination and independence. To that end, he is also a big fan of firearms.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (23)

  1. the fal .223 the author is referring to is a red rock atr-1. I own one and I also had case head separation using brass. switching to steel also solved that problem with me but then as is mentioned in the article, I have since broken two extractors in that rifle. I use brass and steel in several of my guns including my stag arms ar-15, springfield m1a and my century arms fal and all shoot fine. I have recently tried using steel in my p-38 and my hi-power and have not had any malfunctions yet.

  2. I shoot steel cased ammunition A LOT! A good ratio would be 10:1, ten steal cased Tula, wolf, brown bear to 1 brass round. I have a full auto BCG with the Crane’s O-ring and 5 coil spring in it. I run a mid-length ar and I haven’t had any ammo related issues at all. I built my gun with the intent of shooting it a lot and for me a lot means steel cased in expensive ammo.

    For those with failures to extract I recommend you replace the BCG if you can, the extra mass of the Full auto carrier will help. If not possible at least replace the extractor spring and add a Crane’s O-ring.

    My motto is spend more on your gun, and you can spend less on ammo.

  3. I recently purchased a bag of fired casings at a swap meet. I bought it for the brass .30 carbine cases I saw. The rest of the cases (about 50) were steel and appeared to be .45acp. When I arrived home and was about to throw away the steel cases, I looked at the head stamp and realized the were military. The stamp was TW (twin cities) and dated 54. My question is, are there any collectors out there who would be interested in these cases for their collection? Contact me, and if you send a postage paid envelope, I will send you some cases at no charge.

  4. Pro:
    I shot 100 rounds (2 different times, 50ea) of Tula Ammo in my 1911 45 ACP. No problems with the ammo and accuracy is the same as with other brands. Some say the Tula ammo can be dirty, but both times were as clean as the Remington ammo, Winchesters were the dirtiest.
    Would that there was something definitive to show that steel will not damage the gun’s internal parts (specifically, automatic pistols), then I might shoot steel cased all the time.

  5. This comment may be out of place in a steel vs. brass thread, but for years I’ve used CCI Blazer with aluminum cases in both .45 and 9mm for training and practice. I can make way for the next relay quickly since I don’t have to salvage the cases (they’re nonreloadable) and they’re cheaper than brass. I believe they have their place. Haven’t tried steel, even though I know it’s available.

  6. I’ve got a friend whose AK jammed up with steel cased ammo, not sure whether he’s gotten it fixed yet or not. I prefer not to risk it, I load most of my own ammo and have significant piles of 5.56mm brass (over 3000 pieces of once-fired Lake City processed and primed with BR4 primers sitting in a box, plus what I have in buckets awaiting cleaning and processing). Once I’ve reloaded a set of brass five or so times, it gets reloaded a last time for plinking where I don’t bother recovering the brass (I tend to run warm loads in my competition rifles, want as much velocity as possible for 300/600 yards).

  7. While ejection is certainly energetic, the HK-91 is not really that hard on brass. The key is to equip the gun with a port buffer to eliminate the crease on the case body and load military brass to no more than military velocities. Cases easily last up to 10 reloads.

  8. Had an AR, wife got a Saiga in .223. Her Saiga beat the snot out of the brass so it was not reloadable; it is called the ‘AK Kiss”. The shells looked like someone had hit them with an axe. Solution? Steel cassed ammo. It is cheap enough to buy in quantity, I won’t have to reload it, and it turns out my M&P-15 likes it fine. It also comes in a reasonable selection of bullet weights and styles. You are no longer stuck with FMJs in only 1 or 2 weights.

  9. I loathe Wolf/Tula ammo, and refuse to shoot it in anything I own. That said, steel cased .308 (Silver Bear) has worked well for me in my PTR91. Steel .30 carbine sucks in both my M1 carbine and .30 Blackhawks. Steel works fine in .223 AKs, but I won’t use it in ARs. I’ve had good luck with Barnaul/Brown & Silver Bear, and Golden Tiger is great, IMO.

  10. It sounds like I’ve been fortunate, in that my cheapo, homebuilt ar m4gery has functioned just fine, with the case and a half or so, of Wolf steel case ammo that I’ve run through it so far. Nor any difference between the cheap steel cases or my brass case reloads. Maybe it’s the NATO chambering in the DPMS barrel or maybe just plain dumb luck.

    The only problem that I’ve ever experienced with steel cased ammunition was years ago, with some (very cheap!) surplus Albanian 7.62x54r that had a few case necks, that had folded creases. Happily, one of my M/N’s was able to chamber and fire them, so I didn’t lose any money(what? maybe three cents a round back then Lol!).

    It seems like it just depends upon the individual weapon and that a small quantity of steel cased ammunition should be tried through one first, before any large investment is made. YMMV

  11. “Constant FTF. Never got a single round to feed.” Sounds like incorrectly dimensioned ammunition, poor QC in general rather than something specific to the case material.

  12. I’m with Scott T. on this…For cheap ammo to introduce new shooters to an AR, I’ve had no problems with Wolf ammo. If you clean the lacquer out of the chamber and don’t let it solidify you can run it in a HOT chamber such as a DI AR with little problem. If you lag in the cleaning, then issues arise. The major problem AR shooters have with steel case ammo has nothing to do with the casing, but rather the coating on the case.

  13. I have seen several highly ranked multi-gun competitors use steel cased ammunition in their AR platform rifles with good result. Something to keep in mind when shooting steel is that the chamber must be thoroughly cleaned before switching back to brass. However, you can go from brass to steel without a problem. Because steel cases do not expand as readily in the chamber as brass you get more carbon build-up in the chamber. If you then shoot brass the brass expands completely and basically bonds itself to the carbon coated chamber. This can lead to cases becoming stuck or seperating.

  14. found that Tula wouldn’t cycle at all in my LCP. Constant FTF. Never got a single round to feed. Have never had a problem with commercial or reloaded brass cases. I still believe feed steel for weapons designed for steel and brass for weapons designed for brass. Reloading is simple and takes up very little room.

  15. Haven’t tried steel in of my other guns, but my S&W AR won’t shoot more than three rounds without jamming (and that’s if I’m lucky, usually, it’s more like “shoot one, jam, yank on charging handle, shoot one, jam, yank on charging handle, etc).

  16. I run steel cased ammo in all of my guns for plinking but for 3 gun or self defense I prefer brass cased ammo. I’ve had a handful of stuck cases using Wolf and Brown Bear in my AR but saving $100 per 1000rds just for plinking is worth it.

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