If you visit Internet gun forums, there are a number of topics you’ll quickly discover to be perennial debates. Everyone seems to have strongly held opinions, which they repeat more and more forcefully. (This despite a proverb I learned in one of my paralegal classes: “an argument does not become more persuasive when it is repeated louder”)
One of these perennial issues is the safety of shooting cheap steel-cased Russian ammunition, such as Tula and Wolf. The proponents of this ammo say it’s perfectly fine stuff, and that because it’s cheap, you can shoot more and get better. The opponents usually say something like “ZOMG! Steel! It’ll damage your gun and you should stay as far away from it as possible, especially since its not THAT much cheaper.”
What’s the real story about shooting cheap Russian ammo? Will you destroy your gun? Or is it a safe and cost-effective way to practice?
Let’s look at some of the claims people make about Russian ammo, and the reality behind those claims:
Claim: Steel-cased ammunition will damage your gun.
Though I suppose anything’s technically possible, I think this is highly unlikely. The internal components of a firearm are made of ordinance-grade steel and are hardened to between 30-45 HRC on the Rockwell scale, a measurement of the hardness of metal. The mild steels of shell casings have a hardness somewhere around 50-60 HRB. These scales are not overlapping much, so even 90-100 HRB is much softer than 20 HRC, the bottom usable end of that scale. The brass used to make cartridges is somewhere between 55-90 HRB. In other words, the steel used to make your gun’s components is much harder than the steel used to make shell casings. Also, most steel-cased ammo is coated with a thin layer of plastic to minimize scratching risks. It’s highly unlikely that steel-cased ammo will damage a modern pistol.
Claim: Cheap Russian ammo will make your gun dirty.
This is absolutely true. In fact, it’ll make your hands dirty, too, as you can see from the following photo taken after I’d fired about 200 rounds of Tula ammo during a recent range trip:
If you shoot Russian ammo, it’s probably a good idea to clean your gun a bit more often than you otherwise might. Additionally, I hear that it’s a better idea to clean your gun when switching between steel and brass ammo, though I’ve not experienced any issues with this myself.
Claim: Russian ammo has more bang and more recoil.
I don’t have any objective way to measure this, but subjectively that’s my perception too. Russian ammo also seems to have a funny smell compared to US-made ammo, which I suspect is attributable to differing powder composition. If you’re a recoil-sensitive shooter, this may be an issue for you, but it’s not been much of one for me. If I was going to take a training course where I expected to fire hundreds of rounds daily, I might opt not to buy the super-cheap stuff for this reason, but I don’t find the difference enough to matter for my day-to-day shooting.
Claim: Russian-made steel-cased ammo cannot be reloaded.
This is true so far as I can tell, though supposedly some folks have figured out how to do it. The reasons for this seem to have to do with the design of the primer pocket on the shells, as well as with concerns about the steel casing losing ductility and becoming more brittle when it’s fired. If you plan to reload your ammo, the cost savings from reloading might well offset the price of buying brass-cased ammo, but I’m not a reloaded so I can’t speak to that definitively.
Claim: Russian-made ammo is less accurate.
That’s not been my experience, and I don’t know of many people who shoot the stuff in pistols and have issues. I’m not a rifle shooter, so there may be an added issue at longer ranges, but I can discern no difference in accuracy at the ranges I shoot and compete at (35 yards and less) with a pistol.
Claim: The cost savings of Russian ammo aren’t worth the risks.
In my area, 9mm Tula ammo runs about $10 a box. The cheapest American-made ammo in brass cases my local stores stock is about $12.50 a box, give or take. In other words, I can get about 20% more practice ammo for the same number of dollars if I’m willing to buy the Russian-made stuff. For carry ammo, you should by all means get the good stuff. But for practice, why not get the cheapest stuff you can, especially if it means you can buy more of it?
In summary, the Russian made ammo is a good choice for me for practice, especially since I don’t reload. Despite the concerns about steel casings damaging your gun, I think the risk of that is low to nonexistent. What have your experiences been? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.