It is all too common for people to claim that steel cased ammo is junk or is BAD for your pistol. People tend to phrase it in such a way as if their gun needs to be on some diet or it will get fat and useless. I have used steel cased ammunition for my pistols for years. I have had several firearms where there were at least 10K rounds of steel cased ammo put through them with no issues. In this article, my goal is to break down some of the claims made and also try to explain what steel cases do when a round is fired.
ALUMINUM CASED AMMO
Not all pistol bullet cases are steel or brass. There is also aluminum cased pistol ammo as well. Aluminum is in between steel and brass in that it can flex relatively well like brass, making it light like brass and strong like steel. Aluminum is one of those wonder metals that has a light weight and great strength when heat treated properly. The aluminum used in the Blazer ammunition is a pretty soft aluminum alloy that behaves similar to brass for the one time it is fired. I am sure you could reload the aluminum cased ammo a few times without cracks, but the problem is that aluminum is not as tolerant as brass when it comes to stretching and warping. In a nutshell, aluminum cased ammunition is softer than steel, but some people will still call it crappy ammo, but without any understanding of metallurgy or manufacturing. If your gun won't run this stuff, it needs to be replaced, in my opinion.
Steel cased ammo uses a very low grade steel for a one time firing of a bullet. Some, like Tulammo have a thin polymer layer to help the case extract from tight chambers. Others, like Winchester Forged ammo has what they call their "proprietary surface treatment". There is even a company that sells 9mm ammo that is lacquer coated. This lacquer coating, much like the polymer coating is designed to act like a dry lube for the case in order to assist in easy extraction. The goal with all these types of steel cased ammo is to have the case expand to allow a tight seal, allowing all the gases to propel the bullet. The other part of this goal is to have the case shrink back down so that it can be extracted and ejected reliably. Each company attacks this differently by way of polymer layers to prevent sticking, dry lacquer for a dry lube, or a high polish coupled with a fast warping alloy. No matter what method these companies are using, I highly doubt that one method is necessarily better than another.
HOW IT WORKS
I know it is mundane, but I wanted to tackle what is happening when steel cases are used in a firearm in comparison to what brass does. First off, with brass being a pretty soft metal, you can expect it to tolerate expansion and contraction with relative ease. Steel alloys like those used in ammunition are relatively brittle. This means that the cases are not going to stand up well to expansion and contraction in terms of being fired and reloaded. In fact, I have actually bought a case of Russian military ammo where at least 1% of them had cracks that started at the neck. This can serve as a pretty obvious example to how brittle the metal can be.
When a steel cased round is ignited, the primer sends the charge into the powder, which causes the rapid pressure buildup inside the case, resulting in case expansion and the pressure finding the path of least resistance, usually resulting in the projectile being forced down the bore and out the muzzle. While the projectile is moving down the bore, the powder is burning off and the case is being delivered less outward and rearward pressure. Once the projectile leaves the barrel, most of the powder will have burnt off, raising the pressure enough to manipulate the weight of the slide rearward, overcoming the spring tension of the recoil spring, etc. This part of the firing sequence is greatly dependent on timing, which can be dependent on slide weight and spring tension, as well as whether the gun is recoil operated, blowback, gas-delayed blowback, etc.
For steel cased ammunition, the metal typically will not expand as fast or aggressively as brass, resulting in a loose "seal" in the chamber in some firearms. This means that steel ammo will typically not create a friction lock in the chamber as heavy as brass. However, steel does not contract all that fast, resulting in it needing a generous amount of lockup time during the firing sequence. This is where the polymer or lacquer coating comes in handy. It acts as a lubricant for the case so that it will resist staying locked in the chamber. For most new firearms and firearms with serviceable springs, cycling this ammunition is not an issue, barring having an extractor that is chipped and won't hold onto the rim. Basically, yes I think steel cased ammunition uses the extractor a little more than brass ammunition does, but not to the point that it is actually DANGEROUS or WEARING the extractor down.
WORTH THE PRICE?
There are a few guns out there that may not be able to handle steel cased ammunition due to poor designs in the chamber, or poor spring tension, timing, etc. All I know is that I want a firearm that can cycle through ALL types of ammo, that way I can practice with and carry whatever I want. If you have to be picky about ammo for reason other than price, I would say the selected firearm needs to be replaced with one that actually embodies the simple definition of reliable. Also, if the brittle steel of the case can damage your extractor, your gun is not made of good materials and is probably going to fail you at any time.
With all that said, there is another factor to steel cased ammo, for the reloader. You can't reload steel cased ammo, which means it is a one shot purchase. I would shoot exclusively steel ammo prior to reloading, but now if I buy new ammo, it is brass for obvious economics. I can reload it at about half the price of steel cased ammo. So considering price, functionality in your current firearm, and ability to reload, it should be pretty simple for most of you to decide if steel cased ammo is right for your pistol.
Do It Rite
Alaska-Based Youtube Vlogger, Retired Marine, Firearm and Gear Tester.