Steel vs. Brass Ammo: Which is Better?
One of the biggest debates in the world of shooting is the use of brass-cased ammo vs. steel-cased ammunition. Each one has its pros and cons and many shooters are firmly entrenched in one camp over the other. Steel cased ammo is said to be less expensive and brass cased ammunition more reliable. But is there really a difference between the two types of ammunition, particularly over a long period of time?
Table of Contents
A History of Brass Cased Ammunition
The metallic cartridge dates back to the early 19th Century. The earliest examples bear very little resemblance to what we see today. The closest examples that are similar to modern ammunition date to the 1840s in Europe and consisted of a copper or brass case containing propellant and a rimfire priming system.
Brass seemed to be the more popular choice due to its malleability, cost and effectiveness. Brass cased ammunition changed modern warfare in that ammunition no longer had to be produced on the battlefield by loading powder and bullets directly into the chamber of the firearm. This gave rise to the modern ammunition industry and by 1870 brass cased ammunition became almost a worldwide military standard.
Enter: Steel Cased Ammunition
Although brass cased ammo had many of the advantages that are favorable to modern ammunition production, it had a few downsides. The biggest disadvantage of brass ammo was its cost and lack of availability in certain countries. During World War 1, countries such as Germany experienced a shortage of brass as a raw material and looked to using steel cased ammo as an alternative.
Steel cases may have lacked the malleability of brass but they were quick and easy to produce. The Germans used steel cased ammunition through World War 2, mostly in 9mm and for use with submachine guns or machine pistols but also in 7.92 mm. Canada and the United Kingdom experimented with steel cases and so did the United States in 1941 for use in the 1911A1 pistol and M3 submachine gun. Some of that US-made 45 ACP steel-cased ammunition can be fired today.
After World War 2, steel-cased ammunition became popular with the former Soviet Bloc countries and Warsaw Pact nations. Other countries manufactured it as well, but that was largely dependent upon weapon systems and available resources or lack thereof. Primarily short-stroke piston, gas-operated weapons work well with steel-cased ammo.
Pros of Brass Cased Ammunition
We mentioned earlier the aspect of malleability in a brass ammunition case. This refers to the metal’s ability to be formed or shaped. This is crucial to the initial manufacture of the individual cartridge case and for the ease of reloading the fired case in order to resize it. Yet, it has an equally important feature and that is the brass case’s flow and expansion within the firearm’s chamber to act as a seal and contain the gases generated by the ignited propellant. This protects the firearm’s action from accelerated wear.
Most modern centerfire brass cased ammunition is Boxer-primed. This means there is one flash hole in the brass case and after a round is fired that the primer can be removed and replaced during the reloading process.
Brass has a natural resistance to corrosion and it is softer than steel. Coupled with its natural lubricity, brass ammunition tends to feed as well as extract in a superior fashion to almost any other cartridge case material.
Pros of Steel Cased Ammunition
The primary advantage of steel cased ammo over brass ammunition is the cost. Whether it is imported military surplus steel cased ammunition or newly manufactured steel cased ammo, it will often be significantly cheaper than its equivalent in brass cased ammunition.
In addition to cost, some firearms function better with steel-cased ammunition than their counterparts in brass cases. This is particularly true with firearms chambered in 7.62 x39mm and some semi-autos in 7.62×51 NATO.
The reason for this is that firearms in 7.62 x 39mm such as the AK-47 and SKS were, for the most part, intended to fire steel-cased ammo. The strong taper of this round aids in reducing friction on the fired case. This, in turn, helps when the empty case is being extracted from the chamber and subsequently ejected from the rifle’s action.
Steel-Cased Ammunition Strength
Another advantage of steel-cased ammunition has to do with its strength over brass cased ammo. Certain semi automatic rifles are over gassed from the factory. Coupled with a relatively short extraction cycle it is not uncommon for these types of rifles to tear the head of a brass case off of the body. Sometimes the case will remain broken and stuck in the rifle’s action, rendering the weapon useless. Steel cased ammo has the upper hand in situations like this by not deforming.
Lastly, steel-cased ammunition is one of the easiest types of ammunition to recycle. Because steel is magnetic, a large draw magnet or rolling shop magnet can be used to police empty cases after a shooting session on a range or in the field.
Cons of Brass Cased Ammunition
Other than the slightly higher cost of brass cased ammunition, the only disadvantage that we can see is that certain firearms just perform better with steel cased ammo. We mentioned this earlier and there are definitely rifles that function better without using brass cased ammunition.
Cons of Steel Cased Ammunition
Perhaps the biggest drawback to steel-cased ammo is that it is not easily reloadable. For some shooters, this is not a big hurdle as the ammunition is so cheap that reloading is not a major issue. It would probably cost more to process and reload 1000 rounds of steel cased ammunition than to buy a fresh case of ammo.
The reason it is not easily reloadable has to do with the steel cases being harder and less malleable than brass but also due to the fact that steel-cased ammunition is Berdan primed. This priming method uses two flash holes in the case that are off-center and the steel case cannot be as easily deprimed as its Boxer counterpart with a typical depriming tool.
This rolls it into the other disadvantage. Should some steel cases make their way into a reloading press due to the reloader not properly checking and processing the brass, there will be an interruption in the process. This is usually nothing catastrophic and at worst it will result in a broken decapping pin or a case stuck in a die, but it can be irritating to the reloader.
Steel Cased Ammunition and Premature Wear
Steel cased ammunition can also cause premature wear on a firearm. Steel cases are harder than brass and while a Rockwell Hardness test may reveal that steel ammunition cases are not as hard as the steel used in the firearm’s chamber; there are still two hard metals making contact through the firing sequence under pressure.
It has been reported that steel cases will cause a rifle’s chamber to wear out about 25% earlier than if the rifle only fired brass cased ammunition. This may not matter to the shooters who will never put a lot of rounds downrange. If a standard rifle barrel lasts 10,000 rounds, this means that steel-cased ammunition could wear it out by 7,500. However, if the shooter saves money by firing steel-cased ammunition, on that level it will still be cheaper to have a new barrel installed when it shows that kind of wear. Also, the majority of shooters may never put that many rounds through a firearm in their lifetime.
Wear and Tear on Extractors
Some shooters have reported premature wear on other firearm parts after feeding their guns a steady diet of steel cased ammunition. Often the extractor is the culprit in these instances. This does not seem to affect the AK and SKS-type rifles, but rather the AR variants and other brands of semi-auto pistols chambered in 9mm. For this reason, keeping a spare extractor on hand may not be the worst advice to heed when shooting steel-cased ammunition.
Lastly, some steel-cased ammunition is less accurate and underpowered when compared to brass-cased ammo. This has to do with manufacturers reducing costs, ensuring the ammunition is safe and having to cope with a rifle that may be over gassed on the consumer end.
Settling the Debate
People love to form strict camps and defend their methodology, brand, or favorite products, and ammunition case material is no exception. Thankfully, we find ourselves firmly in the middle. We think there’s plenty of room for both brass-cased and steel-cased ammunition.
Depending on the firearm in question, we prefer brass cased ammo for the majority of our shooting. However, if we’re using Soviet-type firearms, fully automatic firearms, or are in a class where it may be easier to go back with a magnet to police our empty cases at the end of the day, we will not hesitate to use steel cased ammunition.