Cheap Russian Ammo

20121111-151433.jpgIf 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.


  1. My experience with steel case ammo has been pretty bad. I prefer not to use it myself, but I have seen more shooters than I can count curse the cheap stuff (especially Tula). A friend of mine could not get it to cycle in his AR15. It was probably his rifle or mags being marginal, but I would recommend being cautious with steel cased ammo outside of an AK or SKS.

    I prefer to spend my time shooting rather than dealing with issues so I’ll stick to brass personally, but I’ll be ordering my reloading press soon.

    • I wonder if Russian rifle ammo is different from the pistol stuff? I’ve heard of reliability issues with the rifle ammo, too, but the pistol ammo hasn’t give me any trouble at all.

      Thanks for your perspective!

  2. My gunsmith always told me that it wasn’t the steel that was the problem, but the lacquer that coats the steel. That with repeated shooting, the lacquer can heat up and leave deposits on inside your barrel, which once cooled is impossible to remove. At SHOT Show six or seven years ago, we did talk to a Wolf rep who did not deny that the steel is coated with lacquer, but who still argued that the average gun owner would never shoot enough for the build-up to occur.

    When I worked at the shop, I never saw any lacquer build-up. But then, we strongly discouraged our customers from shooting Wolf. I’ve had no experience with Tula, though I’m seeing it more and more frequently.

    • I think Tula used to use lacquer too, but they now use a polymer which is less likely to melt. I wonder if Wolf has done the same? I doubt the lacquer would be “impossible to remove” because, if that was so, it wouldn’t migrate from the shells to the barrel, but I could easily imagine that you might have to heat the barrel up to remove it.

      Still and all, I tend to suspect the risk is low, since so many people seem to be shooting this stuff and nobody has come up with much hard evidence of it happening. I heard one trainer (Jon Hodaway, I believe) talk on a podcast about shooting “pallet-loads” of the stuff without issues.

      If someone wants to buy me a pallet-load of Russian ammo, I’d be glad to do the experiment… :-)

  3. SteveW says:

    My first two experiences with Wolf ammo were with a 1911 .45 ACP and a Mini-14 in .223. In both cases under sustained fire I had cases lock up in the chamber causing a FTE/FTF situation. Both times I had to use a cleaning rod and some judicious force to remove the stuck cases. Once again in both cases their was lacquer coating on the outside of the shell cases.

    Fast forward to this Spring when I decided to shoot two Sanctioned IDPA matches with a Browning BDM in 9mm. I used Tul Ammo to practice with and had zero failures related to the composition of the cases or the external coatings. I did have two hard primers out of 1000 rounds. I’ve had roughly the same failure rate in American made, brass cased ammo as well.

    Anecdotally speaking, my BDM (which is an oddity in itself), seemed to run better with the steel cased ammo vs. brass cased ammo.

  4. I’ve shot thousands of rounds of both steel case rifle and pistol ammunition through my guns. It’s not quite as evil as most would make it out to be, but I prefer brass.

    The lacquer does create problems in tight chambered rifles. If the chamber isn’t cleaned every couple hundred rounds, the cases will stick and start failing to extract.

    The bigger problem is the seeming lack of quality control. I’ve had one department rifle blown up after the officer fired a steel cased squib that deposited the bullet in the barrel. He performed a malfunction drill, cleared the spent case and fired the next round. It cracked the receiver, blew up the magazine, and damaged both the bolt carrier and extractor.

    In a recent Glock armorer re-cert, the instructor noted that they have replaced 3 Glocks this year that were blown up with excessive powder charges in Tula brand handgun ammo. He said they had never seen that with any other factory ammunition.

    • Thanks for this perspective, Greg! I’ve obviously not shot near as much of this stuff as a police department armorer might see, and obviously the risk of squib loads or over-charged cartridges is one to be aware of.

      As far as cleaning guns frequently while using this stuff, I definitely see the importance of that. On my last range trip, I shot about 200 rounds of Tula ammo, and both gun and my hands were filthy afterward.

  5. Mandy says:

    I shoot a lot of Monarch, Tula, the occasional unbranded surplus from who-knows-where, Hornady Steel Match, and an absurd amount of Wolf out of all of my most-used rifles. From what I’ve learned by experience – it depends very strongly on the caliber and the weapon what your results will be.

    I shoot a lot of 5.45×39, where there’s just no choice except between different varieties of steel cased ammo. I’ve had no real complaints with anything but the unbranded surplus, (and well, a couple boxes of Monarch marked as containing 30 rounds that only had 20). That complaint was mostly that it smelled terrible, and being corrosive meant that I obsessed over cleaning my rifle to a bit of an extreme. The smell is a pretty big issue when you’re firing an AK-74 lefty, so that pretty thoroughly turned me off of the stuff.

    I’ve barely shot anything brass cased from my AR-15 either. It eats through anything and everything without complaint. From what I’ve found, a friend’s Bushmaster will fail to chamber some of the cheap ammo I use, but I take the same loaded magazine and it works beautifully from my BCM or Noveske. So in that regard, a quality rifle matters more than the quality of the ammo. I don’t really see the accuracy problems with most of it, since I feel I can only expect 4moa from myself with irons, and 4moa is about the best most of it can do. I feel that shooting to the limits of my ammo is a pretty good test of my own ability, and am willing to accept that it means I’m not going to have teeny tiny little groups on my 100 yard target with my centerfire rifles. The Hornady Steel Match is an exception, as it’s excellently accurate ammo that just happens to have a steel case. Again though, I tend to avoid unbranded surplus since it smells awful and the rifle spits fumes right up my nose.

    But you had to mention Wolf. Though their new manufactured 5.45×39 and 5.56 aren’t spectacular, .22LR Wolf is actually manufactured by Lapua so don’t let the centerfire Wolf give it a bad name. It is match quality ammo for a completely reasonable price, and is just about all I use for smallbore competition practice out of my .22 rifle. And on top of all that I love about Wolf .22, the smell is like soap, and it smells so good.

    • Thank you for your comment and your perspective on this issue! I wonder if part of the problem is just that rifles, by the nature of the way their gas systems operate, are more ammo-sensitive than pistols. I know my friend’s M1 Garand requires ammo tailored to a very narrow pressure range, and that use of ammo outside that range can result in serious damage to the rifle. Maybe this is part of the problem?

      I didn’t know that the Wolf rimfire ammo isn’t manufactured by them – that’s good info for the people who are nervous about shooting it.

  6. I’ve shot a lot of both brass and steel case stuff and, while there are some differences, I’ve found that the gun has more to do with it than the ammo in most cases. The stink of some of it is indeed unpleasant, especially at the indoor range.

    We reload, so I don’t buy any steel cases stuff now, but still have quite a bit of wolf stuff in .45 and the “x39″ monsters for my SKS.

    I’m also finding that factory reloads are priced very competitively and will buy them instead of “new” every chance I get, especially if they have brass cases. Will have to research the idea of reloading the steel…

    • Let me know what you learn about reloading the steel cased stuff, because I’m curious now. I don’t reload yet, but a friend of mine has promised to teach me. My understanding is that the primer pockets on some of the steel stuff don’t lend themselves to easy punching out of the spent primers, but I might have that wrong.

  7. Cait Y says:

    I’ve shot a Mosin Nagant with steel ammo (I nkow, Russian gun and Russian ammo…)I never had a problem with it… as long as we were shooting at a friend’s farm out in the middle of no where. The problem came when we tried to use it at an indoor shooting range near the city I live in. They check your ammo when you come in to make sure it’s safe to use on the range (no tracer rounds, etc.)and we were not allowed to use the steel ammo. I’m not sure about other rnages, but this could have an effect on deciding to buy and use steel ammo or not.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Cait! My understanding is that indoor ranges don’t usually allow steel-cased ammo because (a) it can cause damage to the bullet-catching systems in the range, and (b) many indoor ranges collect spent brass to resell to reloading firms, and separating out the steel and brass shells is a pain.

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