What Is Steel Core Ammunition? | Steel Core Ammo Guide | Ammunition Depot
What Is Steel Core Ammo?
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 Defined
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 case 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.
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.
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.
So, 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.