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Guest Writer Series
Steel Case Ammunition.
Will it give your guns cancer?
One of the most common firearm related myths is that steel cased ammunition is bad for your guns. Are there better options than SCA (Steel Cased Ammunition)? Of course, there are, but this discussion is about how bad SCA is for your weapons.
Its military training use comes and goes depending on availability and cost of materials. It could be years before a recruit fires SCA, but batches eventually reach the rotation. Weapons and training ammunition has to endure rigorous safety and endurance testing before line level use. Sometimes, bad tools get through the process, but SCA has been used as training ammunition in some capacity by our US military since WW2. The bugs have been worked out.
When it comes to shooting SCA, there are a lot of myths that are often repeated by "experts" and on the internet. As a guy who has been a professional shooter for several decades, I'm going to share some insights learned from personal experience as well as professional research, independent testing, and manufacturer supplied data.
The most commonly repeated myth I hear is that SCA leaves lacquer in your chamber causing failures to extract. Manufacturers haven't used lacquer in decades and those who do use spray coatings, typically use a polymer coating. It's cheaper for the manufacturer and is a better case lubricant. Smokeless powder burns at a temperature of 2500 to 3500 degrees. As demonstrated by rigid military testing, the types of polymer coatings used far exceeded the smokeless powder burn temperature. The operating temperature of a firearms chamber will never reach the testing temperatures.
Lead bullets work best with some type of lubricant to reduce fouling. For decades, that lubricant has been the same type of polymer coating used on the steel cases. If you have fired a non-jacketed lead bullet in the last decade, chances are more likely than not that it was polymer coated. If the same polymer coating is being used on lead bullets and steel casings, why aren't people equally complaining? If polymer coatings were harmful, it would seem that a polymer coated bullet would be more harmful to a firearm than a polymer coated casing. If a non-jacketed lead bullet is not polymer coated, they are usually wax coated which absolutely does leave a residue that nobody seems to complain about.
While modern SCA doesn't leave lacquer or polymer behind in your chamber or barrel, it does leave a noticeably greater amount of gun powder residue. When firing SCA, you'll likely notice a ring of residue in the chamber. Because shooters see more gun powder residue, they are quick to say that SCA is dirty. Some mistake the noticeable increase in gun powder residue as that lacquer or polymer coating residue. Some assume it's inferior gun powder that did not burn completely.
While your gun will be dirtier after using SCA, it's not dirtier for the reasons most people think. If you've ever compared spent steel and spent brass casings side by side, you'll notice some differences. The brass casings are more stretched and deformed because brass is a softer and more pliable metal. When fired, a steel case won't expand and seal like a brass case. When shooting SCA, it doesn't expand and seal as much. More gasses pass around the case and there will be more visible residue and less consistency and accuracy.
The reported failure to eject issues were most noticed when using mixed ammunition. Specifically, when switching between SCA and brass. When the shooter switches from SCA to brass case ammunition, the greater case expansion of brass combined with the increased blow-back residue of the SCA can create a failure to extract scenario.
Another common reason people will give to not shoot SCA is that it wears out your extractor faster. I have to admit, this one is a myth confirmed. Steel is a harder material than brass, so logically, your extractor should wear at a faster rate. Our company is one of the largest military contractors in the world. Our west coast training facility easily goes through 50,000 rounds per month and that number could easily double and triple ramping up to deployment. Those training weapons shoot SCA almost exclusively and we did find visible wear in all weapons somewhere around the 25,000 round mark. This visible wear, in no way, impeded safety or function of any of the weapons.
Realistically, most personally owned firearms will never have 25,000 rounds through them. The average gun won't have 1,000 rounds through it. Even if it was a big deal, which it isn't, a high end extractor shouldn't cost you more than $50 and 10 minutes to replace. We didn't find any failure to extract issues related to worn extractors until close to the 50,000 round mark and by then the firearms had bigger problems. Before the first extractor related failure to extract issue, accuracy was greatly affected from worn barrels.
SCA or not. When you're going to shoot that kind of volume, there will be significant wear on the gun. Even if the cause of the worn barrels was related to the SCA, which it was not, the ammunition cost savings far exceeded the cost of a replacement barrel and extractor over the life of the firearm.
Another complaint I hear about SCA and something I can't completely disagree with is that SCA is unreliable. We've already covered the myths about coatings and excessive gun powder residue, but some believe that SCA is inherently unreliable. Because it's a cheaply made ammunition, often sourced in countries with poor resources and quality control, you really can't expect it to work 100% of the time. Things don't always work or go the way we want. That's the whole point of training. If you want match grade performance, buy match grade ammunition.
Our SCA is sourced in the USA and per 1,000 rounds, I'd estimate that 2 or 3 will malfunction. Either failure to extract or light primer strikes which can't always be attributed to the ammunition. I would argue that ammunition malfunctions are a great training opportunity. In fact, we intentionally add dead heads (dummy loads) to our training ammunition for that purpose. I want to know ahead of time that our men know how to quickly identify and clear those problems.
I'm not making excuses for the benefit of SCA, but you really shouldn't be using it for anything other than training and range time anyway. For those purposes, a few extra malfunctions are irrelevant and as I see it, beneficial. Whether or not you use SCA is ultimately up to you. Sure, I'd like to train with my Federal Hi Shok and Speer Gold Dot all the time, but it's not practical. We had to make a choice between less training with more expensive ammunition or more training with less expensive ammunition. It was an easy decision.
I was recently recreation shooting with some new friends who immediately started the trash talk when they saw me unpacking and loading SCA into magazines. Those were the husbands of my wife's friends. You probably know the type. They own a nice gun or own a lot of guns and think that qualifies them as experts. One of them is local police. You'd probably be surprised how little most cops know about guns. It was the cop who started in on how dirty SCA is.
I told him to give it a try and before the end of his first magazine, he had his first failure to extract. Watching him try to clear his weapon was painful to watch. It was obvious he didn't know his weapon well enough. I offered to help and as soon and I ran his charging handle, I felt the grit. It was dirty and catching all the way back. After giving it a good cleaning, his gun worked fine the rest of the morning, but he still had it in his head that the 5 or 6 rounds of SCA gummed up his gun. It couldn't possibly be that he didn't know how to properly clean and he brought a dirty gun.
Since it's brought up, one more thing. Get into the habit of cleaning your guns after each shooting session. Whether you shoot 1,000 rounds in a morning or just a box of 50, get into the habit and keep it. You'll bring your malfunctions down to near to zero and find issues before they become problems. These are potentially life saving tools. Treat them well
As always, I hope you found this article useful.