Origins of Steel Cased Ammo & WWII .45 ACP Issues in TSMG


#1

In my collection, I have an Ordnance report from Aberdeen Proving Ground dated March 7, 1944 regarding M1A1 Thompson Submachine Guns, and particular failures involving steel cased .45 ACP ammunition. In summary, it detailed testing of 5 M1A1’s from the field that experienced a particular failure mode, and were sent to Aberdeen for evaluation of a potential proactive field repair procedure. The failure involved a steel cased round not fully chambering, and the soldier not noticing the cartridge being partially chambered. Subsequently, the soldier re-cocked the bolt, and attempted to fire. The weapon fired, however it was reported that the movement of the second round towards the chamber where the first round had not fully chambered caused the first round to fire, and the second round then chipped the bolt. The root cause was two-fold, involving insufficient chamfering of the chamber, and the different malleability of steel cases when compared to brass cases. All failures occurred with steel cases, and the failure mode did not occur with brass cased ammunition.

My question related to the 1944 report is much less technical. I’m wondering when the earliest steel cased ammunition was manufactured? Were there much earlier examples than in WWII? Was the U.S. use of steel cased .45 ACP the first example of the use of steel cased ammunition in a submachine gun? I may write a short article about this, and wanted to solicit some background input from members of this forum as to the history of steel cased ammunition. I know steel cased ammo was used by the U.S. due to constrained supplies of copper.

Your input is appreciated.

Thanks!

David Albert
dalbert@sturmgewehr.com


#2

Hackley, Woodin & Scranton in their Vol. 2 of History of Modern U.S Military Small Arms Ammunition 1940-1945 has several pages devoted to .45 steel case development. Not slanted toward the Thompson, but case and bullet jacket development.
They state that by July 1942 Frankford Arsenal had fabricated approx. 26,000 steel cases.


#3

Germany used steel cases quite extensively in the latter part of WWI, mainly in 7.92mm and to a far lesser extent in 9mm. Since the Bergmann was in use in 1918 it is conceivable that steel cased ammunition was used in it.

Apart from that, both the UK and Germany (and probably others) had experimented with steel case ammunition before WW1.

Regards
TonyE


#4

PetedeCoux and TonyE,

I appreciate your input on my questions.

Is anyone on the board aware of any other studies that include findings regarding malleability differences between brass and steel cartridge casings, and their effect on firing in different firearms? The condition experienced with the Thompson involved a slightly abrupt chamber chamfer, and a greater malleability demonstrated by brass cases during chambering, as opposed to the steel cased ammunition, which demonstrated less forgiving malleability characteristics, and resulted in an incomplete chambering of the cartridge.

David Albert
dalbert@sturmgewehr.com


#5

I think an example is the P 08 (Luger) which had a step in the cartridge chamber.
This resulted in failures to eject (case stuck in the chamber; Hülsenklemmer in German) with steel cases; a problem that did not exist with brass cases, due to different characteristics.
Swiss professor Friedrich Hebler already around 1890 elaborated on the (perceived) advantages of steel cases due to Youngs modulus being double of that of brass, allowing half the case wall thickness. But brass was kept, except in dire situations like Germany in WW1 and WW2 or the Soviet bloc even in peacetime.


#6

Having not seen the 1944 Aberdeen ordnance report, I have no idea as to what it says. To me, the problem described seems a bit strange. First, the situation described seems unlikely. I’d think that if the cartridge entered the chamber, the heavy bolt and spring pressure would almost certainly seat it fully in the chamber, unless the steel case was oversized, corroded, or in some way deformed. Second, it sounds as though the partially-seated cartridge was detonated by a follow-up cartridge, where the bullet nose of the latter struck the primer of the former. Detonation of the first round seems very unlikely, given the round nose of the military round-nosed FMJ bullet. If anything, I’d expect the second round to fire. Even if the detonation part is factual, I just can’t see that case malleability could have anything to do with the sticking problem described.

The only difficulty I have ever encountered in firing many thousands of rounds of steel-cased .45 ACP (none of which was fired in a SMG) was that the fired cases stick in the chambers of my Colt M1917 revolver, making extraction very difficult.

Have you read “Bullets by the Billion”? I think there is a copy on the internet somewhere.

Here it is: imperialclub.com/Yr/1945/46Ammo/Cover.htm


#7

I don’t know, off hand, of any further studies regarding differences in the performance of brass and steel-case ammunition, but there certainly must have been some.

Steel-case pistol ammunition really came into wide use about 1941 (1942/43 in the US in .45). There certainly was some use prior to that. Steel-case 9 mm
Was made by both Cleebron and Spandau, I believe, in the WWI period but specimens of that ammunition are so rare today, unlike brass case WWI German 9 mm which is often found, that its use must have been absolutely minimal. I think I have actually handled only one or two German WWI steel-case 9 mm rounds in 50 years of cartridge collecting. I have never owned one.

There were problems with the German steel-case 9 mm. All of the packaging with “Holsenklemmer” and “nur im Maschinenpistolen verschiessen” (Shoot only in Machine Pistols) are proof of that. The latter label did NOT identify ammunition too powerful for pistols, but rather ammunitiion that was not reliable in precision-fitted weapons like the P-08. It doers, seem though, that it was successful in weapons like the MP-40 and the various other German and foreign Machine Pistols pressed into service by the German Armed forces.

Regarding American steel-case .45 ammunition in Thompsons, I have no experience at all with the M1 or M1A1 Thompson. I have never shot one. I have had some experience with the M1928A1 Thompson, however, as well as the M3 and M3A1 “Grease Gun.” I have shot hundreds of rounds between the two types (only one specific Thompson, to my knowledge, although since my many firing sessions with it were at the courtesy of a Federal LE Agency, there might have been more than one over the three year period that I participated in the range activities), but several different M3s during military service - all peace time so NOT under combat conditions, admittedly. I do not remember ever having a malfunction. Virtually all of the ammo fired was, of course, from Evansville Chrysler. At one shooting session with the thompson, we fired a burlap bag full of that ammo, so dirty that some of the headstamps (yes, I ALWAYS look at headstamps) were not even legible for the “gunk” covering them. At that session, there were zero malfunctions, with the ammo fired in about 6 or 7 different 20 and 30-shot mags, and two 50-round drum magazines. All of this Thompson shooting was done in the 1970s and 1980s, as I recall, so the ammo was already approaching 40 years old. The M3 firings were down in second half of the 1950s and early 1960s. I fired a very few rounds, perhaps a single magazine half full, to demonstrate an M3 and a Store-sponsered Sunday picnic/shoot at a San Francisco Bay Area Police Range, where local authorities and MG dealers kindly provided some SMGS for the enjoyment of our guests, but I did not load the magazine and have no recall of the ammo used. It may well have been commercial, brass-case.

I have, with both SMG and Pistol, developed a huge respect for the quality of American Evansville Chrysler steel-case .45 ammunition. I used to keep an older GI .45 just for shooting what I acquired beyond collecting needs because it was corrosive, and I did not care to shoot in my match pistols or personal defense guns. Simply a matter of cleaning. As far as dependability, I would not have particularly worried about having it in a “defense of life” situation.

I have had my ups and downs with German steel case ammo. I don’t consider any of it particularly safe to shoot today, due to rotting of the case from the inside, in which instance a cartridge can appear mint on Monday and be sprouting rust all over it on Tuesday! I am sure it was adequate for the times in which it was used, but the passage of time has not shown the shelf life of the American .45 ammunition, by any means.

I have never had much trouble with COMBLOC steel-case ammo, most of it post-Korean War or even post-Viet Nam, and in 9 mm Makarov, the Chinese ammunition, in particular, has proven to be accurate and absolutely as reliable as military or commercial pistol ammunition I have ever fired.

Just some personal observations, for what it is work.


#8

Howdy David
Since part of you question was “first use” FA steel cases exist dated 9, 08 for the .30-06. I have a copper washed steel, draw piece with that date: rimmed, no head trim, rim undercut or mouth trim & it is still straight. So been around / tried for over 100 years.

Can’t help with performance or malleability.


#9

There are a lot of examples of early use of steel in cartridges cases. I have an aluminum-case, steel head and base, Model 1888 Mauser, headstamped < Polte > Magdeburg, and likely made before the end of the 19th century. The odd little marks I used are just to show there was a symbol entry there. Looked almost like a highly stylized, 4-point star if I recall correctly. I don’t have it anymore. These items though, are so rare today that they pretty obviously were only “trial ballons” and never actually issued in the field. WWI was probably the first real, wide-spread tactical use of steel cases, and probably 99.9% in rifle calibers. World War II was when steel-case ammunition really came into wide use. In that era, I include the 2930s buildup to the war.


#10

[quote=“DennisK”]Having not seen the 1944 Aberdeen ordnance report, I have no idea as to what it says. To me, the problem described seems a bit strange. First, the situation described seems unlikely. I’d think that if the cartridge entered the chamber, the heavy bolt and spring pressure would almost certainly seat it fully in the chamber, unless the steel case was oversized, corroded, or in some way deformed. Second, it sounds as though the partially-seated cartridge was detonated by a follow-up cartridge, where the bullet nose of the latter struck the primer of the former. Detonation of the first round seems very unlikely, given the round nose of the military round-nosed FMJ bullet. If anything, I’d expect the second round to fire. Even if the detonation part is factual, I just can’t see that case malleability could have anything to do with the sticking problem described.

The only difficulty I have ever encountered in firing many thousands of rounds of steel-cased .45 ACP (none of which was fired in a SMG) was that the fired cases stick in the chambers of my Colt M1917 revolver, making extraction very difficult.

Have you read “Bullets by the Billion”? I think there is a copy on the internet somewhere.

Here it is: imperialclub.com/Yr/1945/46Ammo/Cover.htm[/quote]

Thanks for everyone’s input.

DennisK,

I’m going to disagree with you on one point, based on personal experience with my own M1A1 Thompson, and agree with you on another point.

The heavy bolt and spring would not necessarliy force the cartridge into the chamber on an M1A1 Thompson. As previously mentioned, a chamfer issue existed among the 5 examples that were culled from over a million TSMG’s in service at the time. I have owned a West Hurley (WH) M1A1 Thompson for over 25 years. Barrel quality on the WH Thompsons was less than consistent. For almost 18 years, I fired my TSMG with lead reloads, without major issue. When I started to have less time for reloading, and began exclusively using factory FMJ loads, a very frequent issue developed with FMJ rounds not fully chambering, much like the failure mode described in the Aberdeen report. The cartridges would almost, but not quite chamber. They would chamber and fire after I removed the magazine, pulled the bolt back again, and pulled the trigger. I replaced the barrel with a newly manufactured barrel made by the preferred Thompson gunsmith in our collector community, and the issue has gone away altogether since. I believe the difference in malleability between lead and copper 230 grain bullets, along with the reloading that influenced cartridge dimensions caused the lead reloads to function reliably. The chamber on my original barrel was found to have a distinct chamfer issue. I think the lead bullets helped “ride” over the chamber chamfer problem.

That being said, I agree that the report’s account of the detonation of the first .45 ACP cartridge by the second cartridge, as blunt as they are, seemed improbable. However, keep in mind the failure rate among the large population of TSMG’s that I mentioned previously was very small. Three of the 5 example TSMGs, detailed by serial number in the report, had to have chipped bolts replaced for the test. The test proved inconclusive, but the failures that led to the test must have been legitimately concerning for the weapons to be removed from service overseas, and sent to Maryland for testing.

I have “Bullets by the Billion” in my personal collection.

David Albert
dalbert@sturmgewehr.com