Steel Core Ammo Defined
From old wives tales and gun-counter exaggerations to political propaganda and fear mongering, there are many misconceptions about steel core ammunition.
Let's cut through some of the fog and misinformation to get to the facts.
Steel core ammo is exactly what it sounds like: It's ammo that has a steel core or has steel in the core. Ammo terms can be confusing because many times, the words correlate with something other than what they sound like.
In this instance, though, the word “core” means exactly what most people would think: the core or center of the bullet. Every bullet has some kind of metal as its foundation, which is the center point of the round that is covered by the outer jacket.
The most common material for bullet cores is lead. Lead is cheap, so you can make a lot of bullets for less when you use this base metal. Lead also melts at a relatively low heat point, making it easier to form into bullet shapes.
In most cases, steel core ammo still has a lead core. There's just a tiny steel rod in the lead core.
Steel Core Ammo vs. Steel Case Ammo
Steel Core ammunition and steel core ammo aren't the same things. Steel case ammo has a steel metal case instead of a brass metal case.
For the purpose of this post, the discussion is about brass case ammo with steel in the core.
Steel Core Ammo
Steel core ammunition refers to cartridges that have a projectile with a steel core, typically surrounded by a jacket or coating.
The purpose of using a steel core is to enhance penetration and potentially increase the armor-piercing capabilities of the bullet. Steel core ammo is commonly used in military applications or for specific hunting purposes.
Advantages of Steel Core Ammo:
- Penetration: The steel core provides increased penetration, making it effective against certain barriers or armored targets.
- Armor-Piercing: Steel core ammo can have an improved ability to penetrate body armor or hardened materials.
- Specific Applications: It may be preferred for hunting certain game or in specialized military scenarios.
Considerations for Steel Core Ammo:
- Potential Restrictions: Some jurisdictions have regulations on the use of steel core ammunition due to concerns about its armor-piercing capabilities. Check local laws and regulations before using or purchasing steel core ammo.
- Over-Penetration: Steel core ammo may have a higher risk of over-penetration, which can pose safety concerns in certain situations.
Steel Case Ammo
Steel case ammunition, on the other hand, refers to cartridges with a steel casing instead of a traditional brass casing.
The steel case is typically coated with a layer of polymer or other material to reduce friction and improve reliability. Steel case ammo is often more affordable than brass case ammo.
Advantages of Steel Case Ammo:
- Cost-Effective: Steel case ammo is generally less expensive than brass case ammo, making it an attractive option for shooters on a budget.
- Reliability: Modern manufacturing techniques have improved the reliability of steel case ammo, reducing the chances of malfunctions or failures.
Considerations for Steel Case Ammo:
- Extraction Issues: Steel cases may not be as malleable as brass cases, which can result in increased wear on the firearm's extractor. This can potentially lead to extraction issues over time, although modern firearms are designed to handle steel case ammunition.
- Non-Reloadable: Steel cases are not reloadable like brass cases, so reloading enthusiasts cannot reuse the cases.
What Is a Common Type of Steel Core Ammo?
You can find steel core in a number of calibers and ammo options, but one of the most common is M855, which is used in weapons chambered in 5.56x45mm NATO.
It's also sometimes referred to as a green tip light armor piercing round, due in part to the fact that the tips of the rounds may be painted green.
Additional (common) types of steel core ammunition that are widely used for specific purposes include:
- This is the NATO standard 5.56x45mm round with a steel core penetrator.
- It is commonly used in military and law enforcement applications.
- The steel core provides enhanced penetration capabilities.
7.62x39mm API (Armor-Piercing Incendiary):
- This is a variant of the 7.62x39mm round used in rifles like the AK-47.
- It features a steel core penetrator combined with an incendiary component.
- The incendiary component can create a visible flash upon impact.
- This is a 7.62x54mm round used in the Russian Mosin-Nagant rifles.
- It has a steel core with a hardened steel or mild steel penetrator.
- The B-32 variant is known for its armor-piercing capabilities.
.338 Lapua Magnum Armor-Piercing:
- This is a specialized round used in the .338 Lapua Magnum caliber.
- It features a steel core penetrator designed to penetrate armored targets.
- It is often used in military and long-range shooting applications.
.50 BMG Armor-Piercing Incendiary (API):
- The .50 BMG (Browning Machine Gun) is a powerful caliber used in heavy machine guns and sniper rifles.
- The API variant has a steel core penetrator combined with an incendiary component.
- It is designed to penetrate armor and may have an incendiary effect upon impact.
Why Can't You Shoot Steel Core Ammo at a Shooting Range?
Many ranges forbid shooters to use steel core ammo, and this has contributed to some misunderstandings about whether the ammo is especially dangerous or regulated.
However, the bans on steel core ammo at shooting ranges have a lot more to do with practicality and the bottom line of the range business than anything else.
A lead core expands, which reduces its penetration — particularly when it hits steel or other types of metal. That's what backstops and traps on a shooting range are made of.
Lead core ammo can hit these backstops many times before they need to be replaced. But steel core ammo doesn't expand, which can lead to greater penetration.
That causes more damage to the backstop, which means ranges have to replace structures more often. It's simply too expensive of a proposition for most ranges to consider.
The chances of ricochet and sparks that can start fires are also at least a little higher with steel core ammo, and many range owners simply don't want to worry about these issues.
Interestingly, much of this is also true for steel case ammo, which ranges may ban as well. Another reason they might ban steel case ammo is that they don't get a secondary financial benefit from it.
Many ranges gather spent brass casings and sell them for reloading purposes; steel casings aren't nearly as valuable in this regard as brass casings are.
Is Steel Core Ammo — and especially M855 — Armor Piercing?
Yes and no. The answer depends on the intent of the question.
Can M855 green tip and some other steel core ammo penetrate steel plates? Yes. This ammo designed for military use is meant for penetrating through the metal of light military vehicles.
The steel core ammo you can readily buy in the United States at gun shops and online for consumer use is not typically military grade — though even consumer-rated M855 can punch through steel plates given the right situation during target practice. That's why this ammo is called light armor piercing.
However, M855 and similar rounds, such as 5.56 SS109, are not regulated as armor piercing rounds by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Various laws, including the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act of 1986, delegate the responsibility of firearms management to the ATF and define which guns receive what regulations.
One of the purposes of LEOPA is to protect police officers and other public servants from armor-piercing rounds.
The original intent was to restrict guns and ammo that were intended to be armor-piercing — which, many argued, typically meant handguns and not sporting and hunting rifles and related ammo.
However, LEOPA was signed into law without a differentiation with regard to intent.
Because of this, the ATF considered exemptions to LEOPA regulations. The first exemption — made the same year the act was signed into law — was for 5.56mm projectiles in both M855 and SS109.
This exemption of 5.56x45 NATO from these regulations has not been without controversy through the years. In 2015, the ATF created a framework designed to determine the sporting purposes of ammunition.
It's a pretty complex web of ideas and regulations, but the "too long; didn't read" comes down to this:
The ATF's framework created a situation where the decision on whether something should be regulated under LEOPA — and thus illegal to manufacturer or import except under very specific circumstances and licenses — depended on whether criminals might use the ammo in violent crimes.
An argument was made that M855 ammo could be used in specialty handguns based on the AR-15 platform. Ultimately, this designation change didn't stick, and M855 green-tip ammo is still widely available, including via Ammunition Depot.
It's important to note here that state laws do differ. When purchasing any guns or ammo, always make sure you check state and local laws on the topic.
Should You Buy Steel Core Ammo?
It really depends on your preferences, why you're shooting, and your gun.
Shooters that want to stock up on ammo for practice at the range should probably stay away from anything with a steel core.
That's simply because you might not be able to shoot it at your intended range because of rules against it.
Before you buy ammo — and certainly before you buy practice ammo in bulk — it's often a good idea to contact your range of choice to ensure you'll be able to shoot your ammo there.
When looking specifically at M855 ammo, you may want to consider your gun. M855 has a relatively long projectile and a fast twist rate in the barrel.
The most effective weapons for this type of ammo are ones with a 1:7 twist barrel — that simply means the bullet rotates once for every 7 inches it travels down the barrel.
One of the reasons for choosing steel core ammo is the greater penetration it offers when compared with ammo that only has lead in the core.
However, steel core isn't some magic formation, and the further you get from a target, the less that extra penetration comes into play.
The Bottom Line on Steel Core Ammo
It's not illegal.
Some ammo with a steel core is light armor piercing, but there are many options that aren't regulated under LEOPA and that you can buy easily online and off.
You may not be able to use your steel core ammo at the shooting range, but that's the range’s business decision and that’s not because steel core ammo is illegal or inherently any more unsafe than any other ammo.