To be at the very top of your game when it comes to firearms excellence, you need to have all your ducks in a row.
So you can shoot them.
Everything from the weapon platform you’re using, to the clothes you’re wearing, to the training you’ve had can impact how you perform in the field.
And choosing the right type of ammunition is equally important.
In this article, we take a look at the steel vs brass ammo debate and find out which casing is right for you and your setup.
Let’s fire in.
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- Steel Casing vs Brass – Too Long, Didn’t Read
- Ammo Casings Explained – Terminology
- Ammo Casings Explained – A Brief History
- Steel Cased Ammo
- Brass Cased Ammo
- The Verdict
Steel Casing vs Brass – Too Long, Didn’t Read
In the interests of keeping things short and to the point for anyone in a hurry – here’s a brief summary:
The type of casing you choose will depend on four key factors:
- The weapon platform.
- The volume of shooting.
- Whether you reload ammo or not.
- Your budget.
To explore each of these points in more detail, read on, as we take you through the pros and cons of brass and steel ammo.
Ammo Casings Explained – Terminology
Before we take a bite-sized trip into the past, let’s first touch on some nomenclatures, so we can bust the jargon and all be on the same page.
Today, “ammo casing” refers to the metal shell that holds the primer (ignition device), propellant (gunpowder/cordite), and projectile (bullet). It’s also known as a cartridge or a round.
Many people somewhat mistakenly refer to them simply as “bullets,” although this is, in fact, only part of the casing as a whole.
This casing can be made of paper, plastic, or metal – more on this in a moment.
A “shell,” is more commonly associated with larger caliber weapons, such as tanks, mortars, and other artillery.
The word “caliber,” refers to the actual size of the bullet being fired.
Ammo Casings Explained – A Brief History
Metal casings for firearm ammunition date back to the early 19th century.
Prior to this, firearms as far back as the late 14th century used paper cartridges, which contained a powder charge and projectile, and were commonly used with muzzle-loading weapons.
Loading and firing muskets was a laboriously slow process. Tear the bottom of the paper cartridge, pour the gunpowder into the barrel, reverse the cartridge, and insert with the projectile into the bore.
Tear off the top of the paper cartridge, leaving the bullet lodged at the top of the barrel, and then use a ramrod to push it to the bottom, making sure it’s properly wedged on top of the powder.
Then, half-cock the rifle, install a new firing cap, and finally, you can now aim and pull the trigger. Variations of this process developed with the invention of newer firearms, such as the flintlock rifle.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that all-metallic cartridges were introduced when Frenchman Louis-Nicolas Flobert invented the first metallic rimfire cartridge in 1845.
Steel cartridges began to appear in World War I, when Germany suffered a shortage of brass, and steel became a cheaper, readily available material capable of mass production.
Today, the debate rages on as to which option is best, and you’ll find our two cents coming up in the passages below.
Steel Cased Ammo
The main advantage that steel-cased ammo has over brass is the fact that it’s much cheaper. On average, expect to pay $0.05-$0.10 less per round when you’re running steel.
Which, if you’re a high-volume shooter, is soon going to add up.
Steel cased ammo is more robust than brass, which means it is better suited to certain weapons that exert more force when it comes to extraction – the act of removing the spent casing from the firearm.
Guns chambered in 7.62 x39mm, like the AK-47, for example, are designed to use steel ammo, and as such will perform more reliably using this casing as opposed to brass.
If you’re running any Soviet-era firepower from behind the former Iron Curtain, then the chances are you’re using steel cased ammo.
When it comes to Russian-style firearms – more is more – and the ability to mass-produce steel cartridges has heavily influenced their design.
Furthermore, such firearms can tear the heads from softer brass casings, with a more violent extraction during the shot cycle.
As steel is much more robust, it’s the go-to choice in certain guns if you don’t want a shredded brass cartridge rendering your weapon useless in the heat of the moment.
An often-overlooked advantage to using steel ammo is that it’s magnetic, so cleaning up and recycling spent casings at heavy-volume ranges is efficient and practical with the right shop magnet.
One main downside to steel-cased ammunition is that it isn’t reloadable. While it is still possible, the process can be tricky and fraught with problems, and so most shooters refrain from even attempting it.
While this isn’t an issue for many firearms enthusiasts – largely thanks to the cheaper cost of steel rounds – it’s still chalked up as a disadvantage when compared to brass.
Brass Cased Ammo
We can see that steel has the obvious advantage when it comes to cost, but brass takes the crown when reliability comes into consideration.
It’s also by far the more popular of the two options in use today.
Because the metal is more malleable than steel, brass offers a tighter seal in the chamber, which in turn leads to a reduced risk of malfunction or failure throughout the cycle of each shot.
This is called “obturation,” and in this context, refers to the brass casing’s ability to expand and fit the bore.
A snug fit ensures the gasses generated by the primer are contained, which can reduce overall wear and tear on the firearm over time.
That, and it improves the bullet’s engagement with the rifling in the barrel – the grooves on the inside of the bore that are designed to impact torque on the projectile to improve accuracy and stability.
Brass casings are generally more reloadable than their steel counterparts, which means you can pick up your spent rounds and refill with a primer and projectile – if you have the know-how.
This can make the sport much more cost-effective in the long run – especially if you’re a high-volume shooter with reloading skills, tools, and equipment. It’s also good from an environmental standpoint, too.
I recommend familiarizing yourself with the dangers of a squib load, particularly if you’re ever shooting with inferior quality rounds, and/or they have been reloaded by a human hand.
Brass casings are often considered the “cleaner” of the two options to shoot. This is because steel typically requires a coating of some description in order to facilitate cycling.
This coating, commonly a lacquer, can potentially leave a residue over time in a hot chamber. Now you understand why steel is said to “run dirtier” than brass.
However, brass isn’t without its downsides, and we’ve mentioned it’s more expensive than steel.
But it’s also more susceptible to wear than steel, and misshapen cases can occur and cause problems.
Again, care should be taken to look for imperfections when reloading brass cased ammunition.
For more in-depth information, check out the video below, which is an excellent discussion on the merits and downsides of each type of casing.
At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to the factor that nearly always decides these close-run, one-on-one battles:
That, and the type of gun you’re shooting, how frequently you’re down the range, and whether you practice reloading or not.
There’s a case for both cases, and they each have their place.
As a rule of thumb (and obviously depending on the gun used), I would say choose steel casings for high-volume mag dumps at the range, in low-risk situations, and/or when you find good deals on bulk ammo purchases.
But switch to brass for hunting, whenever high accuracy is paramount, and/or when it’s a matter of life or death. In my home defense Glock-19, it’s brass all the way, baby.
And this article will help you with range-bag essentials, so you know exactly how to pack like a shooting pro.
Is steel-cased ammo OK for an AR-15?
You might get a few raised eyebrows at the range, but it is perfectly possible to run steel ammo in an AR-15-style rifle.
However, it is going to wear out the weapon faster than brass over time.
But so long as you’re using high-quality rounds, and that you clean your gun well after use, there’s no reason you can’t use steel rounds in an AR-15.
And speaking of being down the range, follow this link for more shooting range tips and tricks.
What type of ammo is best for home defense?
Great question. It obviously depends on your home defense firearm, and as long as it’s loaded with compatible ammunition, it’s going to get the job done.
However, in this context, I would say brass ammo is the better choice, as it’s generally regarded to be much more reliable.
Unless, your home defense gun happens to be an AK-47, of course.
Will steel-cased ammo hurt your gun?
It depends on how many rounds you’re firing. Over time, steel-cased ammo can have a detrimental effect on the inner workings of your firearm – even one that has been designed to fire steel ammo.
Given extensive use (and I’m talking a lot), high-volume steel case shooting could well reduce your barrel/firearm life by around 4000-5000 rounds.
But that’s not set in stone – so take it with a pinch of salt. Proper use, and a regular maintenance regime are important for keeping you in the fight for longer, regardless of the type of ammo you’re running.
Can I fly with brass ammunition?
Much like the firearms themselves, you can fly with ammunition – brass and/or steel – providing it’s securely stored in your checked-in luggage.
For more information, read this article on flying with firearms.
Should I use brass or steel ammo with a suppressor?
With a “silencer,” you can use either type of ammo, but be prepared to clean your setup more regularly if you’re using steel rounds over brass.
In the battle of steel vs brass ammo, both have their advantages and disadvantages, and the type you choose depends on a number of factors.
There’s never going to be a clear winner here.
Let me know in the comments which metal you prefer as your ammo casing and why. See if you can make a convincing argument to settle the debate once and for all.
Stay safe out there, and happy shooting.