Everywhere you look in the gun world, you can find a debate about something...Glock vs 1911, .45 vs 9mm, etc.
And like most things, people have their opinions…and then there are the facts, and a lot of the time there’s not a lot of crossover between the two.
Well, today we’re going to set the record straight on something that’s been the cause of a lot of debate in our comments section on Facebook and elsewhere: brass-cased vs. steel-cased ammo.
Some people say never use steel, some people would rather die than pay the more expensive brass ammo prices. Each side has its arguments.
What’s the difference? Why should you care? Does it even matter? Which one should you be using? Is one better than the other?
Let’s see if we can settle (or more likely just add to) the debate. We’ll cover both of these, lay out the pros/cons and get to the bottom of which is better.
So keep reading to learn more.
Table of Contents
Brass Ammo Pros & Cons
Brass Seals Better, Runs Cleaner
Brass ammo is generally considered to be better than steel-cased ammo because it creates a better chamber seal than steel.
Thus you have less blowback into the chamber and the receiver.
Brass is better at this sealing action because it is more malleable than steel. So, it expands to snugly fit the walls of the chamber.
This means you have less gas and unburned powder that pass back into your gun every time it’s fired.
Though cheaper, steel offers a less malleable construction. As such, it creates a poorer seal — generally running dirtier across the board.
This creates more opportunities for malfunctions due to carbon buildup.
It also means a rifle shooting steel-cased ammo will be less reliable in the long run…although there are some exceptions…but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Brass Can Be Reloaded, Steel Can’t
Not safely, anyway.
Because it’s softer and more malleable, brass can reliably be reshaped to its original dimensions and reloaded.
We call this resizing the case because gun folk are simple and direct a lot of the time.
You can learn more about the reloading process here.
Practically, if you don’t intend to reload/handload your ammo anyway, this won’t be much of a concern for you.
But for high-volume shooters and those who want to get the most bang for their buck (literally), this is something to consider.
Steel cases can’t really be resized as easily.
Once they expand they like to stay expanded — meaning you get only two, maybe three, safe uses out of the case before it has to be thrown away or recycled.
Steel-Cased Ammo Pros & Cons
Steel (Might) Extract Better
Of course, there’s also the issue of extraction.
Now, take for example some of the surplus FALs lying around (yes I know the FAL is Belgian), or AKs rechambered for straight-walled cartridges.
These rifles can, if not properly tuned, rip the heads clean off of softer brass cases.
This is because, in general, the tolerances are not as tight on these guns and they extract with much more force than most brass-cased ammo is designed to tolerate.
This is especially prevalent in older FALs in .223/5.56x45mm, and Kalashnikov-patterned rifles like the AK-74 that are shooting intermediate cartridges like the 5.45x39mm — rather than say, AKM and SKS rifles firing the larger 7.62x39mm.
This is in part due to the extra meat the extractor has to yank on as a byproduct of what is simply a larger cartridge.
More material supporting the point of contact between the extractor and the case means a lower likelihood of a failure to extract due to torn brass.
In general, any rifle with a shorter and more violent extraction is going to have more issues than a rifle with a longer cycle time and less violent extraction.
So, a delayed blowback-operated weapon like a FAMAS is going to be more likely to rip brass than an AR-15 and may function better with steel.
That’s not to say that weapons like the FAMAS, AK-pattern guns, the FAL, and others won’t run well with brass.
Quite the contrary, in fact.
These rifles may run just fine and never have a single issue, and many of them will fire thousands of issue-free, brass-cased rounds down range and never chamber a single steel cartridge.
This extra cartridge strength, especially in intermediate cartridges, is, however, one of the big selling points of steel.
Yes, it’s dirty, but it’s also incredibly robust when it comes to that sort of thing.
So, AKs and other guns that extract with a bit more force may actually perform more reliably with steel than brass — especially if you’re talking about older surplus guns that were imported as parts kits.
An argument can be made that countries like Russia gravitated towards guns with short, aggressive cycles because they could make use of cheaper steel ammo that our Eastern brethren produced en masse.
An argument can also be made for steel ammo being produced en masse in these countries because it works better in guns with looser tolerances and more aggressive extraction cycles that tend to be favored there.
Now, is this a concern for a target shooter or someone who is going to slow-fire their way through one magazine a month? Probably not, honestly.
But it’s still better to test any rifles that you plan on using for serious business, be that combat or competition, with the ammo you intend to use first.
Then Again, Steel Might Not Extract Better
While steel is harder and thus less likely to get ripped into by an aggressive extractor, it’s is also sometimes more likely to get stuck because of its other physical properties.
First, we have the hardness and resistance of deformation that makes it less resistant to ripped rims and torn off heads.
This same hardness is what causes steel to run dirty (remember, it doesn’t expand as well and thus doesn’t seal as well).
But it also means that it may expand unevenly in the chamber, leading to it getting stuck.
I’ve had steel cases get stuck so firmly that I had to run a steel cleaning rod down the barrel and gently tap it out with a mallet.
This kind of malfunction can be a pain in the ass at the range, and a death sentence in a combat/self-defense situation.
So, it’s definitely something to take note of when choosing steel ammo for a defensive gun.
Steel Ammo is Lower in Overall Quality & Less Accurate (Or is It?)
There’s an abiding belief that steel ammo is inherently lower in overall quality than brass ammo.
This is one area we can definitively side one way or the other.
In this case, we’re siding with the truth and that is this…
There is nothing about steel-cased ammo that says it’s of inherently lower quality than brass.
That said, it’s important to note that a lot, if not most, steel-cased ammo is produced to less-strict tolerances and with less consistency than brass ammo.
But that’s because most steel-cased ammo is aimed at a cheaper market in general.
There’s nothing about steel-cased ammo that says this has to be the case, however.
Hornady proved that with their competition-ready Steel Match ammo produced with all the quality and attention to detail that of their other premium offerings.
So, while steel ammo might be lower in quality than brass on average, that’s more a function of market trends and such that it is any difference in materials.
It also means that if you want match-grade ammo and maximum reliability, it doesn’t mean you need to feed your steel-preferring gun brass.
It just means you’ll want to pick up steel-cased rounds from higher-quality manufacturers.
These higher-quality rounds can be just as accurate as high-end brass rounds, provided you and your gun are both up to the task.
Steel is Cheaper (Usually)
This difference in average manufacturing quality leads to the next (perhaps the biggest) point of consideration.
One of the chief draws of steel-cased ammo, at least the stuff you’ll normally find on the shelves at big-box retailers and your local gun store is the price.
This is because, as we discussed above, most steel ammo isn’t manufactured to the same standard as brass-cased ammo.
This is the core of the steel vs. brass ammo debate for a lot of people.
Some people think the overall lower quality of steel disqualifies it from serious use. Others think the savings make up for the difference in quality.
In general, I wouldn’t recommend hunting, competing, or defending hearth and home with any cheap ammo — be it brass or steel.
That said, if you’re just plinking at the range, go with what suits your budget.
Practice is important, and if you’re trying to save money, spend more time at the range, and literally get more bang for your buck, steel may be the way to go.
Steel Needs Case Coatings
Steel is naturally less slick than brass, which can also contribute to the stuck case issue.
Because of this, most if not all steel ammo comes with a coating to help extract easier and stay free of rust which can also cause extraction issues.
Brass is naturally corrosion-resistant and again, slicker than steel.
While you can find lots of brass ammo that is coated for more reliability, it isn’t strictly necessary most of the time.
Steel coatings come in two flavors, polymer, which is more modern and generally more expensive, and the cheaper lacquer.
Lacquer coatings like what you’ll find on Brown Bear steel-cased ammo are commonly believed to be less reliable than polymer coatings.
This is due to the idea that the lacquer likes to “melt” and create extra gunk in the chamber.
That doesn’t seem to match up with reality, however. A least not in the exhaustive testing our friends at Lucky Gunner did.
They compared brass ammo versus a number of common steel alternatives.
In their testing, they found that lacquer-coated Brown Bear ammo malfunctioned about half as often as polymer-coated Wolf ammo in an AR-15 platform.
I highly recommend checking out their full results, especially if you appreciate a science-based approach to ballistics and firearms in general.
Now, it’s also worth noting that out of 10,000 rounds, even the worst performing of the three rounds that they finished testing only had fifteen stoppages
Tula was partially discounted because of issues, either inherent or acquired, with the rifle they were testing it with.
Fifteen sounds like a lot, but in reality that comes out to a 99.85% success rate, which is pretty good, especially for steel-cased ammo in the lightly extracting AR-15 platform.
But is it good enough?
Choosing Between Brass & Steel
Taking all of this information into account, and weighing all the pros and cons of steel vs. brass ammo…which one should you choose?
Well, the answer is actually the same as almost every other big “should I do A or B” question…it depends.
Do you have an old Soviet gun you found buried in a rice paddy? It may work better with steel ammo.
Do you have a modern AR-15 that is as soft-shooting as a .22? It may work better with brass.
Are you reloading? You’ll probably want brass again.
Are you an occasional visitor to the range looking to save some money? You might find steel to be the best option for you.
As with most things, this conversation comes down to personal choice. You have to sit down and weigh all these pros and cons and come up with an answer for yourself.
Ideally, you’ll want to do some testing on your own and find out what your gun works best with.
I’d recommend a 500 round test minimum to find out what your gun prefers.
Personally, I gravitate towards brass because I know it’s going to function in my ARs and I can reload it.
Hopefully, this information will help you better decide whether brass or steel runs best in your gun.
Just remember, there are upsides and downsides to each.
So, what ammo do you run in your guns? Let us know in the comments below. And be sure to check out our Ammo & Reloading section for our favorite picks for each caliber.