Brass, Steel Aluminum? What Makes The Best Case?
Like most things that people buy, there's considerable debate about what the best metal is for modern, metallic cartridge cases: Brass? Aluminum? Steel? What the hell does it actually mean to me? What’s the best? Well, while there's a clear winner for most situations, there are times you might want to consider stepping outside the norm!
Without a doubt, brass is the clear winner for the most prolific metal used in metallic cartridges. And just why is that? Well, the overall properties of brass make for one helluva cartridge case. It’s malleable, durable, responds well to heat, and has the elasticity to tolerate multiple firing and reloading cycles. What are the downsides of brass? Well, compared to the other common materials, brass is considerably more expensive. The effect of expense is two-fold. One, ammo is more expensive to begin with. Two, many ranges, especially indoor, will not allow anything except brass cases. Why? Because there’s no good way to sort out aluminum, and they can fetch a far higher price for “clean” brass, whether they are selling to companies to re-process for loading, or simply to the scrap yard by the pound.
There is also the fact that brass is heavier than aluminum or steel, but that’s not really a concern for the vast majority of shooters (though it does come in handy when the need for air travel rolls around ). Other than that? Brass is pretty hard to beat.
The next most common material for cases is good ol’ fashioned steel. While generally associated with cheap, imported ammo from former com-bloc countries, there have been a few domestic manufacturers, most notably Hornady, that have used steel cases with varying degrees of success. Steel doesn’t have the same elasticity as brass, and most recommend against reloading it. That’s not to say that you can’t (I have), but you have to be more careful checking cases, and most of them use berdan primers, which are almost impossible to find in the USA anyway. Generally speaking, I steer away from steel cased ammo. I say this not because there’s anything inherently wrong with using steel to make a cartridge case, but let’s face it, most of the ammo that is loaded into steel cases is garbage. Obvious exceptions to this include cartridges, like 7.62x39, 7.62x54R and others that are available almost exclusively in steel cases, and Hornady’s Steel Match line of ammo.
Ah ha, at last, we have come to the little used, but generally well-regarded aluminum case. Currently, there is only one manufacturer, CCI (and by extension Federal) that is using aluminum cases for pistol rounds. The biggest advantage of aluminum? It’s cheap, really cheap. I can remember in the 2004-2006 time period being able to buy CCI Blazer for under $80/thousand at big box retail prices. Here’s to hindsight and wishing I’d bought a couple million rounds…
Anyway, like steel, it’s not recommended to reload aluminum cases. So if you’re a reloader, you’ll do well to stick with brass cases, but if you’re looking for single-use range ammo, it’s awfully hard to beat the 100 round box of Federal Aluminum 9mm. Other than not being reloadable, and possibly not allowed at some ranges, aluminum doesn’t really have a downside. Oh, one thing that I almost forgot. I mentioned earlier that aluminum is lighter than brass, and that was handy for air travel. Most US airlines follow the international regulation of 5 Kg, or 11 pounds of ammo per bag/passenger. With brass cased 9mm, that works out to about 250-300 rounds depending on bullet weight, etc. Using aluminum cased ammo with 115 grain bullets? You can pack about 400 rounds with no problem in case the airline Gestapo decide to weigh your ammo.
There have been some fairly recent developments in other materials like polymer, or 2 piece cases that show promise, but so far, nothing more than what I would say is a solid proof of concept at this point. Brass, steel, and aluminum rule the roost when it comes to metallic cartridge cases.
So, what’s the best? Well, in my opinion, outside of a few specific uses, brass cased ammo is easily the first choice the next time you're stocking up for the next range trip.