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 it’s 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.
First up, we have to talk about the reasons for the big debate.
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, and 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 more snugly fit the walls of the chamber and thus you have less gas and unburned powder that passes back into your gun every time it’s fired.
Steel, though cheaper, is less malleable and creates a poorer seal and so generally runs dirtier across the board.
This creates more opportunity for malfunctions due to carbon buildup, and generally means a rifle shooting steel-cased ammo will be less reliable in the long run, although there are some exceptions I’ll get to in a minute.
Steel (Might) Extract Better
Of course, there’s also the issue of extraction. Now, most of the Western weapons you’re probably most familiar with (AR-15 and AR-10s for example) use primarily straight-walled cartridges that extract with fairly light pressure.
Now, take for example some of the surplus FAL’s lying around (yes I know the FAL is Belgian), or AK’s 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 FAL’s 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
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 AK’s 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.
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.
Modern Yugo/Norinco guns may not have this issue, or may not have it nearly as bad as rifles that were manufactured by the beloved and most democratic Soviet Republic during its heyday, but its 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.
Steel may actually be more reliable in guns with these issues which is something to consider, especially if you notice lots of torn-up brass on the ground when you’re at the range or find yourself clearing lots of stuck cases with ripped cartridge rims.
An argument can be made that countries like Russia gravitated towards guns that have short, aggressive cycles because they were designed that way to make use of the cheaper steel ammo that
the Commies 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.
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 and Less Accurate (Or is It?)
There’s an abiding belief that steel ammo is inherently lower in overall quality than brass ammo, and 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.
Now, that being 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 that is produced with all the quality and attention to detail that any of their other premium offerings are made with.
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 if from serious use. Others think the savings more than 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.
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, and so 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. Maybe see if you can find an art student looking to make a nice anti-war sculpture and sell them at a markup (although being art students, they probably don’t have any money).
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, so you 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 cheaper Brown Bear steel-cased ammo are commonly believed to be less reliable than polymer coatings because of 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, at least not in the frankly exhaustive testing our friends at Lucky Gunner did, comparing 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 and Steel
Taking all of this information into account, and weighing all the pros and cons of steel vs brass ammo, which one should you be choosing to run in your rifle?
Well, the answer is actually the same as almost every other big “should I do A or B” question in the gun world, and that is: it depends.
Should you pick 9mm or .45 for self-defense? It depends.
What’s more important to you, rounds in the mag, or their effect on the target? What about recoil?
Should you carry a striker-fired gun like Glock or something hammer-fired like a 1911? It depends.
Do you want an external safety? Do you absolutely not want an external safety? What about a second-strike capability?
So, should you be shooting brass-cased ammo or steel-cased ammo? 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 going to be 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 choice, and I’m not making choice for anybody. 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 rifle works best with. If there’s any question and the rifle is going to be used for defensive purposes, I’d recommend a 500 round test minimum to find out what your gun prefers.
If you’re not planning on using the rifle in life-or-death situations, it’s less imperative, but still recommended that you test it with a few varieties of both types if you can.
Personally, I gravitate towards brass because I know it’s going to function in my AR’s and I can reload it, but I also have a bit more of an ammo budget because I roll my own and avoid buying factory loads when I can help it.
To wrap things up, here’s what you need to remember:
- Brass is generally cleaner to run than steel because it expands better and creates a better seal, resulting in less fouling of the chamber and receiver.
- Steel is more robust than brass and may extract better in some guns (AKs, FALs, other short cycle guns firing intermediate cartridges) because it’s less likely to get ripped up by an aggressive extractor/more violent extraction cycle.
- Brass can be reloaded, steel can’t unless you want to turn your gun into a grenade.
- Steel cases may be more likely to get stuck in the chamber, particularly in lightly-extracting guns like the AR-15.
- Steel cases are usually coated for better performance, and the differences between coatings are relatively minor.
- Steel-cased ammo is not necessarily less reliable or accurate than brass.
- Only you can decide what’s best for your gun and your particular circumstances.
- Test all ammo used in a defensive firearm extensively, and test range ammo as well if you can.
Hopefully, this information will help you better decide which ammo to run in your gun. Just remember, there are upsides and downsides to each, so don’t discount those who say brass is better and don’t make fun of those who take the steel route.
Wherever you fall on this debate, it’s important that you come to your conclusions on your own, and with all the facts. I’ve given you all the relevant facts (as far as I can see) so it’s on you to make your choices based on your needs.
And be sure to check out our Ammo & Reloading section for our favorite picks for each caliber
So, what ammo do you run in your guns? Are you a brass-only kind of person, or do you shoot steel and enjoy the additional savings? Let me hear from you in the comments below, and be sure to let me know if I left out anything important.