Ammo & Gear Reviews

HOOBER: Why Steel Versus Brass Is A Stupid Argument


Guns and Gear Contributor
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By Sam Hoober

Some that people on the interwebs like to perpetuate is the trope of “if it doesn’t run steel, it doesn’t deserve brass.” It’s one of those things that – and there’s probably a word in German for this – makes sense on paper, but falls short in the real world if you actually know anything.

Obviously you want to equip yourself with life-saving tools that will work reliably under almost any condition; if steel- or aluminum-case ammunition is what’s available, it should be able to work and of course steel-case is cheaper, which is better for training/practice/competition.

Or was until Biden came along, but so much for that.

The idea being that a gun should be able to run any ammunition of its caliber, which is a good idea, of course, but the problem there is that it runs counter to how guns actually work, which is kind of silly.

And if you’re going to have them to save your life or someone else’s, it doesn’t really make sense to depend on equipment if you aren’t really using it the way it was designed to be used.

The better idea, of course, is to determine what ammunition works best in a particular gun and stick to it.

Think, for a moment, about the AR-15. A lot of people say that “if it don’t run steel” crap about ARs, and it’s a sure sign of a person who doesn’t know much about the gun they’re running.

And why is that?

The AR-15 is a far more ammunition-sensitive system than most people realize. It was developed with only one loading, the classic 55-grain ball (XM193) load. In testing, it ran like clockwork.

However, the rifle began to be associated with a lot of problems in the field a year or two into the Vietnam War. What happened is that the ammunition companies the military contracted with had to find a different powder to make ammunition with, because the original extruded powder (IMR) wasn’t consistent enough from lot to lot. And that’s when things went haywire.

The issues the M16 had in Vietnam were due to the powder used in XM193 ammunition being produced at the time. The powder used by some manufacturers changed the pressure curve (largely due to the burn rate inherent to ball powders instead of extruded/stick powders) producing excessive fouling and causing the cyclic rate to climb in full-auto fire, from a typical >800 rpm to <900 rpm, which caused all sorts of problems.

There were a number of fixes that were implemented, but none of them were significant changes to the gun’s operating system. Cleaning kits and different propellants in factory ammunition were about it.

In other words, the AR-15 platform is inherently ammunition-sensitive; the operation of the machine depends on a harmonious balance, and a very large factor in it is the ammunition that it’s fed.

Case material may or may not effect that, but powder charge definitely can since the gas system is not adjustable.

Another thing to bear in mind is that professionals are issued factory ammunition that’s loaded to precise specifications. When Lake City or whomever makes lots of M855A1 or what have you for the armed forces, they stick to the recipe that they’re told to.

In other words, the professionals don’t grab whatever; they stick to what works and don’t deviate from it.

Demanding a pistol or rifle to reliably cycle with any ammunition at all may be asking a mechanical system to do things it was never designed to do, which is just silly.

You know how 1911s were known for not feeding hollow points well, and that’s why people say you shouldn’t carry them? It’s a similar idea; the original gun and its magazine were designed to feed 230-grain hardball at 830(ish) feet per second and that was it.

The idea of 185-grain JHP didn’t occur to John Browning because it didn’t exist. The feed ramp, barrel and magazine follow geometry were designed for ball ammo only because that was the only ammunition it used and was the only ammunition that existed for it!

That gun is designed to run very reliably in a narrow set of parameters; if you change the parameters, it’s not going to be as reliable is it?

By contrast, the way Glock and other modern striker-fired pistols are designed, it matters a lot less. The feed ramp and magazine are designed to feed anything, and so long as the recoil generated by the propellant will cycle the slide – they run.

Modern piston rifles can be adjusted to allow more gas or less gas, depending on the load being used because adjustable systems are adjustable.

Now that isn’t to say you can’t optimize a particular gun for running different ammunition, but gun plumbing isn’t the point of any of this.

The point is that guns are machines. Every mechanical system has a particular set of parameters under which they operate the best. If you’re serious about a gun as a life-saving tool, it behooves you to learn what those conditions are and stick to them so your machine will run as reliably as possible.

Granted, plenty of AR-15s and other guns run just fine with steel case as well as brass. If it runs, it runs, and who cares. The point is more that the idea of “if it don’t run steel” and a lot of other ideas about ammunition are often counterintuitive to how firearms (especially semi-autos) actually work.

If you want to stake your life on something, what you don’t want to do is put it in a position where it might fail when you need it not to.

Sam Hoober is a hunter and shooter based in the Inland Northwest.