STEEL-CASED/BIMETAL AMMUNITION IN MODERN DEFENSIVE PISTOLS

 Hey everyone, I would like to introduce you to my good friend Gregg Smith.  He is the author of this article. Gregg started as a competitor and shooting instructor in the 1970’s while serving in the USAF; he has served as President of the Clatskanie Rifle and Pistol Club, and for the past six years has been Rangemaster of that organization. Gregg added NRA-certified instructor ratings in multiple disciplines in 2005, along with Chief Range Safety Officer in 2009. He has authored courses on concealed carry and defensive pistol, teaches classes each month, and runs the clubs’ Action Pistol Program. Gregg also works with various law enforcement agencies and military units to assist in training requirements and certifications. Gregg is an engineer, instrument-rated pilot, and lives in rainy NW Oregon.

Much has been written regarding steel-cased ammunition…both by knowledgable folks in well-established positions, publications and websites, and the rank-and-file commenting on forums and blogs. Gracie of Packing Pretty.com asked me to put together this article regarding the use of such ammuntion in modern defensive pistols…the deeper I dug, the more intrigued I became. It’s like watching a train wreck about to occur…you know what’s going to happen, but can’t look away. I also did some research on the projectiles as well as the casings, and learned something new.

 As a certified firearms instructor that regularly teaches concealed-carry and defensive pistol classes I get alot of questions about ammunition, so this assignment was very useful to me…thanks Gracie; I’ll  get even with you later…

Rather than engage in the never-ending debate over whether this ammo wears out/breaks your pistol sooner (there’s enough of that out there already), I took a different approach – what do the folks that make (and have to handle warranty claims on your pistol) have to say?

I surveyed the following manufacturers on the subject of steel-cased ammo in defensive pistols. This included an examination of their current published user manuals; with the exception of the Ruger SR-series, steel-cased ammunition was not specifically mentioned. Not all manuals by the manufacturers shown below were examined, but several of the most current, popular pistol manuals for each manufacturer were used as resources. In addition to looking at the manuals, I followed up with a call to the customer service/repair departments for each of the companies and spoke to the folks that handle warranty repairs:

 

Steel

 
 

Mentioned

 

Manufacturer

In Manual?

Remarks from Customer Service/Warranty Dept.

Springfield Armory

no

No steel, and nothing (brass or steel) from Wolf.
Heckler & Koch

yes

Only brass-cased ammo (in manual).
Glock

no

Glock doesn’t care as long as it’s SAAMI or NATO spec.
Ruger

some

Steel permitted in SR-series; for other models US-made brass- or aluminum-cased if not specified in manual.
S&W

no

No steel; only brass-cased.
Walther

no

No steel; only brass-cased.
Kahr Arms

no

No steel…stated on FAQ page of website.
Kel Tec

no

No steel; only brass- or aluminum-cased.
Taurus International

no

Taurus doesn’t care as long as it’s SAAMI or NATO spec.
Sig Sauer

no

No steel.

I surmise that the positions rendered in telephone conversations are not reflected in their manuals because they don’t want a legal catfight from Wolf, Brown Bear, Tula, etc. since the steel-cased ammo they make or distribute is to SAAMI or NATO specs. It’s interesting that Springfield specifically mentioned Wolf by name (note: Wolf is a distributor, not a manufacturer.) Springfield Customer Service was specific that anything by Wolf wasn’t advised – they don’t care if it’s steel or brass.

This is even more intriguing since the entire XD-series started ten years ago from the HS2000, a Croatian military combat pistol designed and manufactured in Europe, where steel-cased ammo is more the rule than the exception.

The reasons manufacturers of defensive pistols don’t care for this ammo are fairly consistent across the industry…they state that steel causes more wear on the firearm than brass, it doesn’t expand/seal as well so the pistol gets fouled quicker, and some steel-cased ammo has a lacquer or polymer coating to resist corrosion (under heavy use this melts in the chamber and gums up the firearm causing stuck casings and feeding problems, although this has improved somewhat over the years with different coatings).

To summarize, with the exception of Ruger (SR-series), Taurus and Glock, most companies that make modern defensive pistols don’t want you using steel-cased ammunition.  I could foresee warranty claim problems with manufacturers that prohibit such ammo if you choose to shoot it.

Another consideration could be that much steel-cased ammo utilizes bullets with a ‘bimetal’ jacket…this is a mild steel jacket around the lead core, with a final outer layer of copper or bronze for corrosion resistance. Nice cost-saving measure, as steel is cheaper than a total copper (or bronze) jacket, but there are drawbacks…

The outer copper layer in a bimetal jacket is THIN…and by thin I mean 30-50 micrometers; to put that in perspective a human hair is around 2-3 times that thick. Testing by others  (good article by Eric Jay Miller of Northwestern University EPIC) shows that recovered pistol bullets with a bimetal jacket had rifling striations that went completely through the microscopically-thin copper coating, leaving rifling marks in the steel jacket. This means that at least part of the rifling in your pistol barrel is exposed to a steel jacket at whatever your muzzle velocity might be…I don’t care how ‘mild’ the jacket steel might be, it’s certainly a point to ponder.

Many ranges prohibit the use of bimetal jacketed bullets as they can cause excessive wear on steel deflection-type backstops and reactive steel targets; others have concerns about sparks setting grass on fire on outdoor ranges (pistol and rifle rounds). As a rangemaster for a gun club, I can understand their concerns. Many 3-gun competitions use the “magnet test” (not always accurate, but cheap and fast)…if the magnet sticks to the projectile, you can’t use it.

So what does this mean to you? Before you fill up the comment section with glowing testimonials of the thousands of rounds you (claim) to have stuffed down the barrel of you favorite piece of Tactical Tupperware  with ‘nary a problem or hint of wear, consider this: I’m a professional instructor, I shoot alot, and I took the time to really look into this. You are entitled to your opinion…I completely respect that, but I’m not using this ammo in my pistols. I am changing range policy at my club to prohibit the use of steel-cased and bimetal ammo when we engage reactive steel targets in Action Pistol and 3-gun matches. We will no longer allow such ammo to be used in our concealed carry and defensive pistol classes, and students will be advised of the potential drawbacks in the ammunition section of our courses.

It’s your money, your pistol…you decide. I still have a good supply of 7.62 x 39 steel-cased, bimetal projectile ammo for my AK and SKS rifles, and love it…but those guns were made for that ammunition, have looser chamber tolerances, get the bejeesus clean out of them every time they are used, and work just fine.

I carry my Sig, XD or Kahr PM40 every day, and my life (and those of my family and friends) may depend on it working reliably for years to come.

Unload and show clear…