Steel vs. brass/copper

It is my understanding that the use of steel and iron to manufacture cartridge cases, projectile jackets and projectile cores is simply one of economy. Steel/iron is less expensive to produce than lead and copper/brass. Is there any hard data comparing the manufacturing cost between steel cased/steel cored cartridges such as the 7.62x39mm M-43 and cartridges using the traditional brass case, copper jacket and lead core?


AKMS, actually not. Steel cases are much more expensive to produce in terms of technical equipment, tools, wearing, technology etc. Just the case material is easier available and cheaper but will not make up for the higher production costs.

I undersstand that, but why then are steel cases, jackets and cores so common? Does not the cost of raw materials play an important part in the final product? Why has Soviet and Russian post-WWII small arms ammunition been almost exclusively steel cased and steel cored?


Just an observation about the Russian steel cases. At Eusatory and IWA Exhibitions in Europe, they showed various calibers of ammunition in brass cases. I have some dummy rounds friends got me at those shows, in brass cases, with the Russian headstamps. They are NOT brass-washed steel, which they also make. However, in each case, the people given the rounds were told that they could not supply ammunition in brass cases!

Interesting that they would even show them as samples and then say they could not supply them! Not a very good sales presentation!

What other consideration would there be than cost from a country with the vast resources of Russia? I am not saying that the steel cases are cheaper to make, as on my own, I do not know either way. I am just asking a real question because I can’t think of any other reasons, but I admit that I am not super knowledgeable on manufacturing. The only ammunition factories I have ever visited were FN in Liege, and Pro-Load in the U.S.A. Pro-Load did not make their own cases, mearely loaded them, so there was nothing to learn about case manufacture. I also saw the early Jim Bell factory outside of Chicago, but the line was not in operation - two of us and one of Jim’s primary employees were alone in the factory. He explained a lot of what the machines did, but we didn’t talk at all about various production costs.

When producing huge amounts of ammunition, would their not be a point in production where the cost of materials over-took the price of the R&D and the machinery, etc.?

To my limited knowledge the production of steel cases is so expensive because:

  • There are more draw stages (and sowith 1 machine per draw) needed to make a case
  • The forces for drawing steel are much higher than for brass, means the machines are bigger and heavier and more expensive
  • Tools are wearing out faster when working with steel than with brass, such tools are then more expensive also

The facts listed above are independent from huge scale production, means the qty has no influence on the cost since these factors are fixed.

Of course I am not aware of all aspects of steel case production but it might be also that there is also a higher percentage of faulty cases when made of teel compared to brass.

I assume Russia for example is making so many steel cases in order to save copper.
What brings up a ver old question. Why is Russia not making steel cases in 12.7x108? (except for one test lot in 1979)

I think it’s agreed by most that brass makes a better cartridge case and steel cases are more expensive to manufacture. So why do we have so many steel cases? It’s my opinion that the answer is the same now that its’ always been - availibility of raw materials. During WWII the U.S.A. investigated the use of steel cases because of the fear of running out of materials to make the brass ones. Once it was determined that the fears were unfounded, the rush to make steel cases ended.

I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.


Ray, I absolutely agree with you!

There is one exception:
It just might be worth to mention that there are automatic weapon systems which generate such a high feeding stress to cartridges that steel cases are required to assure that the cartridges reach the chamber without dents and loose projectiles.
The first such weapon was to my knowledge the Russian ShKAS machine gun in 7.62x54R which not only had a steel case but also got reinforced case walls for this reason.
Today this requirement goes with many modern machine cannons.

Hi, All…This may or may not apply here in this day and age, but, I seem to recall reading somewhere that at one time, and this may still be so, the copper ore mined in Russia, and possibly elsewhere in the vicinity, is of a quality such that when alloyed with zinc to create brass, the alloy is somewhat brittle. This may be proven somewhat when you look at all the older brass 7.62 x 54R cases on the range that are split…???..Randy

Hi guys. Respectfully, I don’t agree with two statements so far, based on my understanding of those statements (you all know I am getting senile…).

EOD - you mention that the high cost of the various machinery, including replacement, is irrespective of the quantity of cases manufactured. I conditionally don’t agree with you - I say conditionally, because it depends on the quantity produced and how fast the tooling actually does wear out in comparison to that of brass cases. The fact is that as quantity of any item produced on machinery goes up, the cost of each individual item produced is reduced. If it costs ten cents for one cartridge case made in a lot of 10,000, it will cost less than ten cents for each one if the lot produced is 1,000,000. The cost of the machinery is spread out over many more items, and it reaches a point where the machinery is “paid for” but the items keep flowing off the production line. I think I am sound on that in manufacturing.

Also, regarding the number of stages to be drawn, etc., since the equipment in major factories is automated and progressive, meaning that while one operation is done to one cup another operation is being done to another, I don’t think anything but the initial cost of the tooling is a factor there. I don’t see a time element very much involved (time is money) once the process of manufacture has reachrd the point, almost instantly, that each station of manufacture is performing their functions simultaneously. On a tiny level, I have loaded on progressive tools. My .45 tooling has one more step than the .38, due to crimping differences, but it takes me the same time to load 500 .45s as it does 500 .38s, because once each station has a case for processing, every time I pull down the handle once I have produced a loaded round. I think it is the same principle in high-production, fully automated equipment.

Again, if the actual raw materials for each item are much more expensive for steel than for brass, than my explanation above does not apply, since the raw material cost will be the same for each item no matter how many are made, generally speaking (not always, so don’t nail me to the cross on that one).

Ray - I am not sure I understand your comment about the U.S. investigating the manufacture of steel cases, but when realizing that brass supplies were not going to run out, abandoned the practice. I can only speak for Evansville Chrysler, for the most part, but they produced millions and millions of steel-case rounds in .30 Carbine and .45 A.C.P. and those lines were only shut down because projected use of those calibers, based on the war ending much, much later than it actually did, indicated that they had produced sufficient quantities to last the entire war to the projected ending.
It had nothing to do with finding out the brass was not going to run out. (I am using “brass” as a combined term for all the elements of its manufacture). We were still shooting that ammo in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Further, in .30 Carbine, WCC made it in steel cases in 1942 and 43 at least, and Frankford Arsenal made it in 1955. Lake City produced .30 Carbine in steel cases from 1953-1956. That was basically peacetime production, probably to replenish stocks consumed in Korea.

Regarding .45 Auto ammunition, aside from the enormous production levels reaached in WWII by Evansville Chrysler and Evansville Chrysler Sunbeam,
Frankford Arsenal made steel cased .45 from 1942 thru 1945, and then again a small lot in 1949. Remington seems to have only experimented with steel cases in 1942, and may have stopped due to the arrangements between the government and ECS for steel-cased .45. I don’t know that, but am making just an assumption that it may have been a factor. Winchester Repeating Arms made only a very small amount headstamped W.R.A. .45 A.C. and probably stopped because of EC as well, since they (WRA) were very helpful in helping set up production at Chrysler. However, in the period 1953 to 1956, WRA as well as Twin Cities made the .45 in steel cases as full production cartridges.

I think one thing was the primary cause for shutting down steel case production, at least in those two calibers during WWII, and that was projected need by quantity of ammunition produced, not considerations of future brass supply.

Just my opinion based on how much steel-cased ammo was around for the War, and still is today for that matter, from those years.


Good points, all.

To clarify, I didn’t mean to imply that all steel case production was halted. We know that didn’t happen. But, from what I have read, there was a point early in the war when there was a real concern that the supply of brass would reach a critical point and unless we started to immediately tool up for steel ammunition the war could be lost. The fear proved to be unfounded but during those war years fear ran amok. I can remember as a boy scout, going out and collecting every imaginable item for recycling. Metals, rubber, fabrics, paper, wood. Nothing was thrown away. I’m sure that some of those things were vital and were put to use but I’d bet that most of them ended up in the dump or on the bottom of the ocean.

The use of steel cases for the Carbine and 45ACP ammo was probably continued to free up brass for the more critical ammunition, “just in case”. Whether it was really necessary, I doubt if anyone knows. And, I always come back to that one big factor, MONEY. The sheer number of rounds of ammunition produced was probably more the product of the manufacturers wanting the business than it was the thought that the war would last another 10 to 15 years. We like to think of those years and that generation as something special, which they were, but there was also a lot of greed. And after the war, a lot of waste. The difference between then and now is that back then you could get shot for criticising the war effort and now you are a patriot for doing so.

JMHO. Enough politicking.


Ray - I would totally discount the “business” motive for the production of the amount of ammunition that Evansville Chrysler made. They are a miracle story of WWII, ahead of schedule and under quote on almost everything they did. The war was projected to last until late 1947 or mid 1948, as I recall, and requisitions made by the Government reflected this. I do not think it was left to the manufacturers simply to keep running ammunition of the lines regardless of amount that the Government requested. In late 1944, it was decided that at the current rate of expenditure of ammunition in the calibers produced by EC and ECS, there was enough on hand to carry needs through the projected end of the war. The Atomic bomb shortened the war, probably by at least a year - perhaps more.

There were war profiteers and they often were uncovered and put out of business. EC/ECS won nothing but accolades for their wartime performance. In fact, I have never read of, or heard of, one hint of scandal to do with production of SAA at the major American manufacturers such as Remington, Winchester, ECS, nor even at the Government plants. I cannot speak for other explosive ordnance, as I have never studied it or the companies that produced it.

Regarding the small arms ammunition being made of steel to preserve brass for weapons that either favored brass, like high speed aircraft machine guns, or artillery (although I think a lot of that was steel case), or for non-ammunition needs, that is an excellent point about which I had not thought in my answer. I do not think it impacts at all of why steel case ammunition was shut down - my main point of contention with the original posting - but it certainly could have to do with why it was made in the first place. Great thought. Thanks.

  • Once I spoke with a Romanian guy who had worked during the 1980s in a large caliber ammo plant located north of Ploesti [Ploesti is a town located about 37 miles north of Bucharest, the capital of Romania]. That person mentioned that the large caliber ammunition having a steel shell case was kept in storage for military use only for a limited numbers of years. After 15 years the large caliber ammo with steel shell cases [which were not fired] had to be returned to some special plant to be destroyed. Perhaps the ammo which uses brass shell cases is more reliable after a number of years but I’m not sure if I’m right or not. That person also told me that the loading process had to be made during very strict rules about the temperature and humidity in the working areas. Any comments??? Liviu 09/29/08

Liviu may well be correct. I have a Swedish 9mm box for the M/39 E cartridge, which is steel-cased. It is lot Amf M 1/43 with box dated 28 May. It has a printed advisory on the box "F

  • @ John Moss: A few years ago I pulled out the bullets from two Czech made cartridges [7.62X45 and 7.92X57] manfactured in early 1950s. Both rounds had steel cartridge cases and the bullets had nickel jackets. On the outside both cartridges were looking great. The lower part of the bullets had rust and after taking out the propellant from both rounds I noticed inside of the steel cartridge cases rust like dust. This may be not good for the cartridge when it is fired. Such a problem will not exist if the cartridge case is made of brass. Liviu 09/29/08


  • @ Dutch: My point was this: those steel cartridge cases [Czech 7.62X45 and 7.92X57 from early 1950s] had rust INSIDE of the shell case where the propellant had been. => On the outside any cartridge case [brass or steel] can get damaged, I assume it depends how and where the ammo is stored. Liviu 09/30/08

Dutch - I have some of those too. Not nearly so many as steel, but it does happen to brass cases also. I believe you are correct - it is more a product of the powder formula than the case. I have never seen a U.S. steel-cased round by Evansville Chrysler rot from the inside like the German 7.9s do. That is NOT to say it never happense - I have simply never seen it, and have shot WWII EC .45 ammo within the last ten years, and have had, literally, thousands of rounds of it go through my hands.

Liviu - the rounds he pictures are not rotted from the outside. They have deteriorated inside. You can see the blue-green color of the deterioration, sometimes referred to as “blue ooze.” I have instances of that also. Brass is better for the cartridge case as we know it than is steel, but depending on the powder used, it can corrode from the inside as well, clear through the case. It weakens the brass in other ways too, like eating the neck thin enough that crimp pressure splits the neck. I had one cartidge that looked almost new, and one day I looked at it and the neck was split first vertically, then turning into a horizontal split, and the case neck looked like it had peeled open, or sprung open. Lots of "blue ooze, too. In a matter of a coule of weeks since I had opened the drawer last, the cartridge, with brass case, turned from a nice looking specimen into such a damaged round that I didn’t even keep it for the lot number.

In the questions and answers sections of a past IAA Journal, which issue I don’t recall, Fred Davis, a friend of mine and a retired professional chemist, explained the phenoma well, so the dummies like me could understand it. The technical descriptions I had read were above my knowledge of chemical terminology, etc., and I got little out of them.

  • @ John Moss: Yes, you’re actually correct. I saw many Italian made 6.5X52 rounds with brass cases manufactured during WW1 and having the same problem. I also remember some 7.62X54R rounds with brass cases made in Finland [by “VPT”] in early 1930s in very bad shape due to corrosion started from inside. Cleaning the rounds [on the outside] doesn’t solve the problem, the chemical process continues and that oxide appears again after a few months. Liviu 09/30/08

We recently contracted with a well know plant to produce copper washed steel cases in 5.56 simply because the cost is lower. In every instance I have known, steel cases were cheaper than brass. Most foreign plants are already tooled up for steel, so the extra costs are negligible.