Monday, April 4, 2011

Reloading imported (boxer primed) steel .223 cases

I have seen posted both pro and con of reloading steel cases, but not enough info to make a good judgment, so I started picking up the Wolf .223 fired cases. I have also (far in the past) reloaded Berdan primed cases, I fount the experience "less than satisfying" for the time expended, Berdan primed cases CAN be reloaded but it requires more time. Steel cases are harder than brass and some rifles could have parts damaged by the harder steel cases (a possibility, but this author has not had that experience). I prefer to find my own answers based on experience or facts based on documentation. Far too much has been posted containing too much conjecture about how the steel is too hard for the dies but NO FACTUAL DOCUMENTATION. What we do know is hard on dies is abrasives on the cases or abrasive contamination in the dies (dirt) the dies are considerably harder steel than the Wolf casings. So I decided to experiment myself, I was willing to risk the sizing die just to document what happens for my own answers and to test the results. I know that most dies are hardened far above and beyond what any steel case and it’s material could damage, aluminum cases would be adding abrasives to the mix, but steel with lubrication should be well within the working range of the dies. Of course I was making a guess that the steel cases are not as hard as one would think (or as much as has been posted on the internet), I see no damage so far with the current dies I am using, I have been keeping an eye on measurements of the dies to see as I progress in this experiment. (Update, no change whatsoever) So far I have picked up Wolf .223 that is boxer primed every time I go to the range - I live in a desert area, so rust is not that big of a problem, some are pitted more than others and the worst examples are culled. I tumbled them using simple play sand to nock off the paint/polymer and to clean out any rust inside or outside, and remove any of the worst of the rust. I then vibrate them in walnut abrasive with paper towel strips and old fabric softener sheets and three teaspoons of mineral spirits, just to make sure the sand does not get in the dies. (Update, I have changed to a water wash and quick dry prior to sizing, the rust has not become a problem, but it will develop.) I then size with a mix of lanolin and castor oil (swage lube-anti rust), trim, and vibrate them again as above... They come out nice and silver shiny, I shoot them quickly so I don't bother waxing or painting the cases, a thin wipe with lube wax or even swage lube would prevent rust, but I don't bother. (Update, I have switched to vegetable cooking oil for sizing as it is easier to remove.) I was going to anneal the cases, but I decided not to, so that I could simulate less than optimum conditions (normal) along with a warning I recieved. I was warned that annealing Steel would be different than brass. It involves heating the steel to a known temperature and then keeping it at that temp for a set time. You then have to cool the steel in a controlled matter. If a user attempted to anneal steel like brass the result will be hardening of the steel and Increased brittleness. Here is what has happened so far... I am shooting them out of four rifles, a T C encore, a bolt action, an HK 630, and an AR 180 franken clone (more on that later). (Update, currently the two KelTec SU16 rifles are digesting the steel hand-loaded ammunition.) The HK rifles, with three shots in you can tell the fouling gases were passing the flutes. HK and steel, possibly not the best combination but that is not a big secret. The HK had a few slam fire problems with the .223 but that is also true of military 5.56 cases of brass. (Update, a switch in primers eliminated this problem and now unlike the Military brass cases, the steel cases work fine without any problems.) TC Encore - I honestly could not tell the difference from the Wolf and the military brass I often use, with the same loads it all shot in a similar way, I even did a blind mix and the groups did not show any significant change, there is more fouling around the case mouth. Sooty and black it indicates that the case is shrinking at the mouth when pressures drop, the bypass does not show "jets" of gas bypass. Bolt rifle, similar to the Encore, but tends to group to the left about .25 inch at 100 yards compared to the brass cases (the drift could easily have be environmental not the ammunition), no particular change in group size. (Update, change was environmental as this drift cannot be repeated, in other words it has not happened again.) AR 180 clone (the V18) fouling to the case neck, no jets, black and sooty, but it does this with brass cases, I note a light increase with the steel cases While all of the rifles showed similar issues, the AR180 clone is the hardest on cases (any case brass or steel), because I knew it was abusing the cases, I keep the best records on what was happening. First cycle of reloading, any cases that had pitting from rust at the case mouth split from edge to edge on the mouth at the pitted areas (of the pitted cases) one in five split- one reloading. Second reloading, more splits on pitted cases at about one out of three, the fresh cases that did not have any rust did not show signs of distress. Third reloading, more splits on pitted cases now at about half of the pitted cases, one pitted case ruptured at the mid point. Fresh cases start to show splits at the mouth one out of about dozen. Fourth reloading, most of any pitted cases are now gone, and the fresh cases start to split at the mouth at about one in each ten. I have not loaded further at this point... I found the rejects at just above what I get from military brass cases, for free "pick ups" the fresh fired cases are not bad for an abusive autoloader, the reloads are much more accurate than the original loadings of wolf and I can shoot Varget (my favored powder) with bullets of my choice. I have not broken any parts on the autoloader (extractor or ejector) but the work hardening of the cases is evident with the mouth splits. I think that while I am using a small sample it clearly points out that the steel cases DO NOT last as long and have peculiar properties when compared to brass cases and reloading. I certainly would not argue that for the purposes of reloading, clearly the brass casings are superior, even if it were a matter or a few statistical percentage points that would prove the issue, in this case it is clearly far more than just a few percentage points of improvement. While a good quality rifle can shoot inexpensive ammunition at least to mediocre levels a bad rifle will shoot even premium ammunition at lower than mediocre levels. Accuracy does not seem to be significantly influenced by the use of a steel case. While not as well documented as I would like, the experiment showed that while not as easy to work or as long lasting, the possible accuracy is similar if not on par with brass casings for general use loading. With all other items the same, quality bullets, primers, and powders and the same loads, steel cases showed no change in accuracy. This makes a point that the case, when construction sizes are within a specific tolerance range, is not the arbiter of accuracy as much as the charge of powder, bullet quality and suitability of the bullet size and powder charge to the particular rifle. I will continue to progress with this experiment if only to answer the question in a way that is satisfying. In some ways I feel some satisfaction in even reusing the cases even one time rather than regulation to the garbage or scrap dealer, in the same way I fee satisfaction in local recycling programs. Why are steel cases on the ground at the range and brass is not? Clearly two valid reasons, value of the scrap and ease of use while reloading. Berdan priming is an issue because most steel cases are produced with berdan priming, and boxer priming is much easier to size and remove the primer in one simple operation. There is the possibility of corrosive components used in steel cased surplus ammunition. Disinterest in the cases due to simply to reputation. I chose to reload the .223 Wolf because it was plentiful, made with non-corrosive components, and produced with a standard style Boxer primer. I guess that makes me more "green" as a hand-loader. The reloading of boxer primed steel cases took far less time and effort to reload than brass berdan cases would take. In that regard I was also noting that the reloading of the steel cases was showing no more "wear and tear" on the dies or the rifle used to fire them. Certainly there is no current shortage of brass casings, and outside of price they are a better choice. So outside of a desire to stop "seeing something go to trash" and the willingness to risk as set of inexpensive dies for an experiment, there was no reason outside of simply testing theory with application. I note no "wear and tear" on the dies nor any undue added difficulty in effort to form cases, prime, or trim in comparison to military brass. I consider this a successful experiment, and specific questions were directly answered with actual testing. If I feel to lazy to pick up a batch of reloaded steel cases for additional loadings, I can fee justified in allowing them to rust in positions knowing I used them once and that the reloaded versions fired with more accuracy and were of more consistent nature than the original Russian factory loading. I started reloading from the start because it was conservative in nature, and handloading will provide better control than factory offerings. The reloading hobby/habit is then justified yet again. Reloading is certainly not primarily to save money, because when counting labor, it never was less expensive. Most likely never will be, outside of obscure and rare calibers or loadings. I wanted to check, the negative comments on loading steel cases were all "I won't even try it" I was willing to risk my dies, I'm just not willing to tell someone "you can't do it" or "that would be bad" when there were no reliable sources for a factual response. It is clear from my current experiment now close to 4000 rounds of steel cased .223 wolf full length sized and ABSOLUTELY NO CHANGE IN THE THE DIES OR ANY WEAR that I can detect with my micrometer or calipers... I do use a very good lube I make myself with castor oil and lanolin (a swage lube) to make sure none of the cases get stuck, and I make sure the cases are VERY clean and no rough pitting before I size (but I do that with brass cases)... This testing holds that steel cases have little to no effect on the dies or their performance in comparison to brass cases. I'm not saying that they could or could not be harder on an extractor, or ejector on a rifle as that is outside of the testing I was conducting. Testing with real world supplies and actual use of product, I am not making a guess, I am actually using the product and keeping an eye on the results, I may not even use all of the cases, but I wanted to see and was willing to risk the dies. The testing showed, at least with Lee dies steel cases can be processed and there is no additional wear... With clean cases, well lubricated, and use of reasonable quality dies it not only works but is of little difference or consequence ON THE DIES and the physical effort required is only slightly elevated from the brass cases, far less effort than .308 brass full length sizing. I think the fear of this was only speculation based on comparison to the steel cases performance with extractors on auto-loading rifles.I will gladly note any damage if only for a warning to my fellow handloaders, but as it stands now I do not note any additional die wear or damage, while the steel cases are NOT better than brass for our use as hand-loaders they are clearly also NOT quite as bad as I have seen them made out to be either.


  1. I have loaded several 1,000's of steel cases, with much less effort then the above described. if you pick up your cases promptly from the ground, (unless its dry out) and run them through a fine walnut/corn cobe mix w? some red rouge, they will keep for a long time ( a year is the longest time I have stored some)I load them around 5 times and then just let'em fly. No sign of die damage (there shouldn't be)Oh and at least you know your gettin 1 fired steel cases at the range :-)

  2. I also reload the Blaser steel 45ACP pistol cases, with no problems. Get about 4-5 reloads.