Are you the proud owner of a new .223 Remington chambered rifle, looking for reliable, accurate ammunition? Are you a bit confused when it comes to where you stand on the brass vs. steel ammo debate? If so, please keep reading. We will try to break down the debate, get through the emotion & myth and let you see the good, bad & ugly of BOTH materials. Then you can decide what is best.
Ask a group of 10 gun owners a “which is best” question and you likely end up with 10 different answers, few of which are based on anything other than pure emotion.
It does not matter if you are discussing caliber size, semi-auto or revolver, concealed or open carry etc. The list goes on and it is near impossible to answer every debate today, so we are going to stick to just one – Which case material is best for your .223, brass or steel?
Like many of the common debate topics the brass versus steel one is often steeped in opinion, but there is also a great deal of science that can help you cut through the emotion. Our goal is to provide you with the facts, and science, you need to make your own informed decision.
Why is there even a debate about brass vs steel ammo?
While it is hard to convince those who are hardcore believers in either side of the brass v. steel debate BOTH cartridges do have their own advantages & disadvantages. Neither is perfect and either one may be a good fit for your personal needs or shooting style.
In other words, there is no one answer to the question. Instead, there are several questions that need to be asked. Let’s see what they are.
Is brass-cased or steel-cased ammunition cheaper?
In most cases, steel is cheaper than brass, although this is subject to changes in the market and local availability. If you want to save the most on steel, you need to buy in bulk and buy foreign brands. Of course, the cost of the ammunition alone does not accurately reflect the overall cost of using steel or brass.
You also need to consider whether one or the other causes additional wear & tear and, if so, the added cost of repairs or diminished life of your firearm- more on this later.
For now, based on ammunition cost alone the nod goes to STEEL (steel-case ammo is usually $0.05 – 0.10 cheaper per round than brass-cased ammo).
Does brass or steel ammo perform better long-term?
Die-hard brass advocates will undoubtedly point out that steel casings are synonymous with low quality, poor performing ammunition. While it is true that some steel casing ammunition is both low quality and poor performing it is equally true that there are plenty of equally worthless brands that utilize brass.
The truth is that bad ammunition can be steel or brass and it is also possible to manufacturer top-notch performance ammunition using either as well.
In one extensive testing study, after firing over 30,000 rounds of ammunition which consisted of 20,000 rounds of steel-case ammo (10,000 each of two of the most popular brands, Brown Bear and Wolf) and 10,000 rounds of brass-cased ammo (Federal AE223) there were a total of 24 stoppages (0 for Federal, 9 for Brown Bear and 15 for Wolf). a While a 99.85% successful firing rate is pretty commendable for the worst performing steel-case ammo, brass’s 100% firing rate takes the prize here.
Based on this the issue of performance the winner is BRASS.
Which is more accurate, steel-cased or brass-cased rounds?
As you can see from the results discussed above there was little difference between steel or brass casings when it came to performance but going “bang” is not the same as accurate hits on target. No one purchasing bulk ammo, steel or brass, should expect match grade accuracy but you do need to know your rounds will hit the intended point of aim consistency. In that same extensive testing study, the researchers can a field test to see how steel compares.
In the 30,000 round torture test, group sizes were checked every 2,000 rounds. Those accuracy tests consisted of firing 10 rounds at 50 yards from a supported position using US Optics scope with 17x magnification. Group sizes were recorded and compared throughout the 10,000 round field test. The acceptable accuracy was predetermined to be 5MOA or less.
The results of this portion of the test were mixed, with Federal (brass case) being within standards throughout the 10,000 round tests while Brown Bear and Wold showed keyholing & wild shots between the 4,000 & 6,000 round points. Barrel inspections indicated the cause for this loss of accuracy was the result of excessive barrel wear, something we will explore further in a moment.
The winner for long-term accuracy goes to BRASS.
Will steel-cased ammo damage my AR-15?
Potential damage to your firearm is another big concern when it comes to selecting brass or steel. The internet message boards are jam-packed with horror stories detailing how barrel and extractors were prematurely damaged after using steel casings. If true, this is obviously a major concern. As pointed mentioned earlier it adds to the overall cost of using what might otherwise be cheaper ammunition. How many pennies do you need to save when buying a case of practice ammo to cover the cost of an extractor or even a barrel?
There is no doubt that steel casings are harder than brass. It is also true that many of the steel case rounds use a steel core, or steel alloy core, which is also harder than the lead core utilized in most brass cartridges.
The above “torture test” indicated that excessive barrel wear was a contributing factor in a loss of accuracy at 4000 + rounds fired for steel-cased ammo. At the conclusion of the test, the barrels were cut and examined further which confirmed this to be the case.
So, yes, steel-cased ammo will wear your AR-15 out faster than brass ammo will.
Both bores and barrels of the rifles that fired steel-cased/bimetal jacketed ammunition were basically unserviceable. Chrome liners were almost non-existent, lands were ground to the groove diameter and gas ports were eroded.
The rifle that shot copper jacketed brass-cased rounds also showed near the end of life wear, but not to the point that they were unserviceable. Extractors, on the other hand, were a different story. Although all the extractors showed various levels of wear following the conclusion of the testing it was not readily visible to the naked eye. Furthermore, since there were so few failures even the worn extractors appear to have operated properly.
But what does this mean in a real-world application? Honestly, not enough to outright deter the use of steel case ammunition. In fact, the casing material was not a problem at all – it was the bimetal rounds they are frequently paired with. Most manufacturers recommend replacing the barrel of an AR at 10,000 round and extractors at approximately 2,500 rounds.
Based on the test, gun barrels that fire bi-metal jacket rounds (i.e. steel ammo) would need to be replaced approximately twice as often while extractors outlasted their expected life cycle. Changing barrels on an AR is a simple process and not an unexpected expense. Plus, how many times are you going to reach the 5,000 + round mark in your personal rifle?
When speaking strictly in terms of the case material for the “damage” inflicted when firing, brass and steel once again TIED.
However, when paired with bimetal rounds the steel was a clear loser so BRASS IS THE WINNER.
Other items to consider when deciding to buy brass vs steel ammo
Despite the test results being near even, there are some additional factors that may sway you towards brass.
First, steel casings cannot be safely reloaded.
Second, they do not set as well as brass and this results in far more fouling (and in turn more frequent cleaning).
Both issues are a result of steel being less pliable than brass.
Third, they are known to become stuck in the chamber more often. The latter is often thought to be a result of the lacquer or polymer coating often applied to steel casings, necessary to prevent drying or corrosion. However, multiple studies indicate this to be a myth as well. The more likely cause of stuck rounds is a combination of expansion and excessive fouling. Keeping your firearm well lubricated and clean will greatly reduce malfunctions.
The tests referenced utilized AR platforms, the most common among US shooters. However, if you are shooting an AK or similar Eastern Bloc design most of the problems mentioned are null and void. These platforms are built to a lesser, more forgiving standard than Ars and will readily accept a wide range of steel case bimetal jacketed ammo and even thrive on it. Yes, barrel wear will still be an issue at some point but is again an expected cost of extended shooting.
In summary, steel-cased ammo can be cheaper in the long run, but there are tradeoffs.
Overall brass is cleaner shooting and causes less long-term wear. However, steel is cheaper & performs about as well as you can expect from bulk ammo. Over the course of firing 5,000 -10,000 rounds, the cost saving may even be enough to offset the price of a new barrel. In the end, it really does boil down to a personal choice, not a matter of one being better than the other.
So, if saving some money will get you out to the range more often and allow you to increase your skills go ahead and pick up some steel cases. Sure, there will be a purist who will look down their nose at you but unless they offer to pick up your tab who cares? However, brass (or at least higher quality steel case with copper jacket bullets) rounds are still the preferred ammunition when it comes to protecting yourself or your castle.