A common topic of discussion among gun owners is steel vs. brass ammo casings and the differences between the two are. People love discussing the pros and cons of each.

So, in this article, we’re going to explore the differences between the two types of casings, and at the end, I’ll give you the breakdown of my opinion on which type is “better.”

“This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.”

Potential Paycheck Killer

At the risk of sounding blatantly obvious, I’ll start with the most noticeable difference when it comes to steel vs brass ammo. And this difference is the price.

Steel rounds are typically much cheaper than brass rounds. Because of that, some casual firearm enthusiasts simply see the price listed and buy up as many of them as they can afford, assuming they just got the deal of a lifetime. Some of them probably never even notice that they bought steel rounds rather than brass ones, even after shooting the rounds off.

The color is usually your dead giveaway, but someone not paying much attention could easily overlook that detail or write the color difference off to a difference among ammunition brands. Assuming the rounds act appropriately in the weapon, a casual shooter would probably notice little, if any, difference while firing the weapon. But that doesn’t mean no difference exists.

Treat Your Weapon as Yourself

“My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its sights and its barrel. I will ever guard it against the ravages of weather and damage as I will ever guard my legs, my arms, my eyes and my heart against damage. I will keep my rifle clean and ready.”

However, following a shooting session with steel ammo, your weapon will be significantly dirtier than if you had shot with higher-quality brass rounds. The difference is almost shocking to see, even when shooting a measly 30-40 rounds during a short, slow-fire shooting session.

Steel vs. Brass Ammo Casings, Which Are Better?
U.S. Marines with Marine Corps Embassy Security Guard practice shooting with their M9 service pistols on Range 12, Quantico. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Quinn Hurt/USMC)

One of the reasons this occurs more prevalently with steel vs. brass ammo is that steel is less malleable than brass and therefore doesn’t create as effective a chamber seal. This allows for more blowback from the round’s innards thus creating a dirtier weapon.

Another issue that is commonly discussed regarding steel-cased ammunition is its affinity for splitting under the pressure inside the weapon and thus creating a malfunction. Sometimes the malfunction is remedied by using the simple “Tap, Rack, Bang” procedure that the Marine Corps taught every recruit. Other malfunctions may require the “Lock, Strip, Forward, Load” procedure that was drilled into our heads in the police academy. Rarely, malfunctions of steel ammunition render the weapon completely useless because the round splits inside the barrel, or even worse, splits the metal, barrel, or chamber of your weapon.

In the event not everyone reading this understands those malfunction remedying procedures I just named, let me quickly explain.

“Tap, Rack, Bang” (TRB)

This procedure simply refers to what you should do if your weapon fails to fire as it should. You “Tap” (smack) the bottom of your magazine to ensure it is seated into the weapon and the ammunition is aligned so it can properly feed into the chamber. You “Rack” the slide or charging handle of the weapon to clear out any jams that are potentially located within and to chamber a round, if needed. And then you simply “Bang” firing as normal. (It’s the Marine Corps we’re dealing with here, so like preschoolers, we need sound effects accompanying everything.)

“Lock, Strip, Forward, Load”

This is a great procedure to use if “Tap, Rack, Bang” doesn’t work. It could be used in place of it, but we typically used it as a secondary malfunction procedure since it takes you off of your weapon for a bit longer than TRB. For this one, you “Lock” the slide or charging handle (bolt) to the rear. You then “Strip” the magazine from the magazine-well to help free up any jams or double-feeds trapped inside. Once you clear any jams that are present, you send the bolt or slide forward (home) to prepare the weapon to fire again. Finally, you “Load” the magazine back into the weapon, ensure you have a round in the chamber, and begin engaging the target.

You Have to Trust What You Carry

“My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My rifle, without me, is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will…”

Steel-cased TULAMMO rounds. (Ammoman.com)

The next factor one should consider when choosing ammunition is brand recognition and reputation. There are a couple of popular steel ammo brands on the market right now (TULAMMO being one), but even they pale in comparison to the reputation of brands like Federal Premium, Hornady, Speer, or Remington.

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This is where one major differentiation comes into play for me: The ammo that I’m going to carry is going to be the brand/type that has the best track record and performance, and the one least likely to jam up my firearm at the moment my life depends on it. Because of that, for my daily-carry ammunition, I always choose ammunition that is reputable and well-proven. There is no chance that I’ll be putting my future in the hands of a Russian-made steel-cased ammunition. It’s just not going to happen. There may be times when shooting steel ammo is perfectly acceptable (depending on who you are), but I would never recommend that someone carry the steel ammo in their daily-carry weapon, and especially in their official-duty weapon.

Don’t Get Cheap Now

“My rifle and myself know that what counts in this war is not the rounds we fire, the noise of our burst, nor the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit…”

I understand that the ammunition one loads their daily carry weapon with is significantly more expensive than ammo that you otherwise practice with. That is fine! Unless you are a Tier-1 operator, a SWAT sniper, or some other type of secret-squirrel James Bond human then it won’t hurt you at all to train using ammunition that is slightly different than the ammo you carry. It also isn’t going to wildly affect your capabilities when you switch between the practice ammo and the more expensive stuff.

There are many reputable brands that provide brass-cased practice ammunition specifically designed for practice at a cost much more comparable to steel-cased ammo.

Marine Corps Rifleman's Creed
Marine Corps Rifleman’s Creed (Usamilitaryposters.com)

I recommend that if you’re using an 80-grain bullet for your carry ammo, then practice with an 80-grain bullet. If you are carrying a 150-grain bullet, but you practice with an 80-grain bullet (hypothetically, I know), then you aren’t accurately portraying how your weapon will function in a real scenario. So, the first time it fires full-power it’s going to completely shock you. This is definitely something you don’t want when your life is on the line. It is, no doubt, more comfortable to shoot the lighter round, but it won’t accurately prepare you for the feeling of the real thing.

To better train for this difference, I’d recommend that you buy two-three boxes of your everyday carry ammunition and incorporate a few rounds into each training session as you shoot the practice ammo. This will help you better understand and trust the ammo that you are trusting your life with. It will also help you get more comfortable with your carry ammo without breaking the bank. Even police departments do this. They’ll shoot 100-200 rounds of practice ammo (brass) and then one-two magazines full of “duty” ammo just so they’re familiar with how it feels and reacts.

Do You Even Reload, Bro?

Steel vs. Brass Ammo Casings, Which Are Better?
U.S. Marine Sgt. Taylor Harris aims at her target during a deck shoot aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Essex. (Photo by Cpl. Anna Albrecht/USMC)

A final topic to consider when it comes to steel vs. brass ammo is whether you are planning to re-use the ammunition after you fire it. Many people reload their ammunition a number of times after shooting it, which helps to significantly cut down their training costs at the range. Much of the quality brass ammunition is able to be reloaded multiple times, but steel-cased ammunition is never recommended for reloading. So, the lower initial cost of steel casings could be easily recouped if you instead purchased a brass-cased round and then reloaded it a handful of times.

This also reveals why almost all ranges refuse to allow shooters to use steel-cased rounds. At the end of the day, the range employees walk around and gather up all of the casings. They then do one of two things with them: they keep them and reload them to sell back to you (or to keep) or they gather up all the casings and trade them in to a recycling facility for cash. Steel rounds don’t garner the same type of money that brass rounds do and they aren’t reloadable. Additionally, the ranges don’t want to spend that additional time separating the types out.

I’ve also heard range employees say that either that the steel core of the round causes more sparking and thus is more likely to start a fire with the miscellaneous paper materials lying around the range; that steel rounds damage their backstop; or, lastly, that steel rounds are too dangerous to shoot because of their tendency to split or stovepipe. I tend to believe that they’re just making stuff up to simply make more money. I can’t say this for sure, but that’s my take on it.

Steel May Be OK for YOU, if…

Steel vs. Brass Ammo Casings, Which Are Better?
Staff Sgt. Joel Turner, an Anderson, S.C. native and competitive shooting Soldier with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, fires his pistol during the 2017 U.S. Practical Shooting Association Multi-Gun Nationals in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Michelle Lunato/U.S. Army)

As you can tell, brass definitely wins the steel vs brass ammo standoff.

Nevertheless, I do think there are times that steel ammo could benefit a shooter. Firstly, if you are just practicing slow-fire or other slow drills that require single shots then steel ammo may work fine for you. Secondly, if you are someone who currently cannot afford to train with brass-cased ammunition, then training with steel will be better than not training at all. Finally, if you are determined to thoroughly clean your weapon after training with steel and before you load brass rounds then using steel rounds may be a viable option for you.

“Before God, I swear this creed. My rifle and myself are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life. So be it, until victory is America’s and there is no enemy, but peace!”

In the end, train with the highest quality ammunition that you can afford, and carry the best ammunition for your weapon, whether you can afford it or not. Ultimately, the comparatively low price of “duty” ammunition pales in comparison to the cost of your life if your ammo causes your weapon to fail when it alone is your last chance for survival.

 

Marine Rifleman’s Creed written by Major General William H. Rupertus (USMC, Retired)

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