So…is reloading steel cases possible? Conventional wisdom says you can’t reload steel case ammo, but reality says you can.
Sure, reloading brass cases are much easier, but you can reload steel cases. That cheap Wolf 7.62×39 and the surplus 7.62x54r can both be reloaded if you take your time and add a few extra steps to the normal loading process. Since I believe there is a bit of a tinkerer in every shooter that reloads, this would prove to be an interesting exercise for all of us to work on to improve the existing processes.
Ok, here we go…
There are normally two different reasons given why shooters cannot reload a steel case: the case material and the primer. The case material is really not much of a problem. Brass is softer than steel, so it is easier to work on a press. But that doesn’t mean you can’t resize steel cases because you can.
Steel isn’t likely to last through as many reloading trips as a brass case will. That’s just the nature of the material. However, I’ve talked to hand loaders who have reloaded the same steel rifle cases five or more times before the cases were no longer useable. Getting four or five uses out of a steel case is not bad, especially considering the price of virgin brass.
Many shooters report steel cases only make it through one or two reloads. These variations are likely explained through a combination of load pressures and quality of the case (i.e. manufacturer.) If you are reloading steel cases for pistol calibers, you can probably expect multiple reloadings without any problems due to the lower pressures (than rifle rounds.)
One thing that you definitely need to do when sizing your steel cases is apply a liberal amount of lube. Even if you are using carbide dies, the lube will help prevent any cases from sticking. Steel takes a little more force to re-size than brass, and the lube eases the process.
Dealing with the primers is typically the real sticking point for most people who want to reload steel case ammo. The vast majority of reloaders in the US are using Boxer primers. This kind of primer has an anvil built into the primer, which allows the primer to ignite without being dependent on the case. Boxer primed cases have a single, large flash hole in the center of the primer pocket. If your steel cases use a Boxer primer, reload the steel case as you would with a brass case.
A lot of steel case ammo, however, uses Berdan primers. Berdan type primers do not have a built in anvil. Instead they rely on an anvil (essentially a small hump) in the center of the primer pocket, upon which the primer will ignite when struck by the firing pin of a firearm. Instead of a single, large flash hole, Berdan primed cases typically have two, smaller flash holes on either side of the anvil. Some cases may have three flash holes.
Trying to seat a Boxer primer in a case designed for Berdan primers will likely just detonate the primer during seating. Not only is this potentially dangerous, it completely defeats the purpose of reloading.
However, there are options for loading Berdan primed cases:
- reloading with Berdan primers
- reloading with modified Boxer primers
- reloading Boxer primers in modified Berdan cases
Berdan primers are available in the United States. They tend to be a little harder to find, but the internet makes searching for them a lot easier. In the past, various international ammo makers have supplied Berdan primers to suppliers in the US. However, I was only able to confirm that Tula is still selling them in the US. They seem to only sell two sizes: one for the 7.62×39 cases and one for the 7.62 NATO (aka .308) cases. In the past PMC and Magtech have both sold Berdan primers for reloading steel cases.
Removing a used Berdan primer from the case can be accomplished with a special tool that hooks on the outside of the case and pries out the used primer. For a less expensive, but very effective, option, consider hydraulically pushing out the primer. This method involves filling the case with a fluid (water in most circumstances) and driving a tight fitting rod (such as a screw driver) into the case mouth. The rod acts as a piston and forces the water through the flash holes, which in turn push the old primer out.
Reloading with modified Boxer primers can be done, but I do not recommend it. The process involved manually removing the anvil from the back of each primer with a pick or pin. Not only is it a slow, tedious process, but it can also be dangerous. Mess this up and you can have a primer explode in your face. Again, I do not recommend trying to alter the primer itself.
The last option to reload steel case ammo with Boxer primers is to modify the case itself. In many/most/all(?) instances, this will require taking a drill to the case to remove the case-integrated anvil and make a center flash hole for the Boxer primer. Once this is done, it is a matter of finding the correct size Boxer primer that will properly fit the steel case. Some calibers will have a particular size of Boxer primer that will work without additional modification.
Some cases will not have a good primer pocket to Boxer primer match. These case will require additional work to make them work correctly. This might mean drilling a wider pocket or adding material into the pocket to fit a smaller primer.
The below video from MaineJunker shows both the drilling out of an anvil in the primer pocket on a copper-washed steel case and the addition of copper tubing to properly fit a primer. The case in question is a surplus copper-washed, steel case for the 7.62x54r cartridge.
Once you have the primer issue worked out, then reload the steel case ammo like you would a regular brass case. Sure, reloading steel cases with Berdan primers offer challenges, but it can be done. And the more people we have working on the processes, the more likely we will come up with better and easier ways of getting the job done.
As with all reloading: follow all of the load recipes published in the recognized load manuals such as those from Hornady and Speer. Always start at low pressures and work up your loads. Always wear safety glasses. Don’t do stupid things – if it doesn’t look or feel right, throw the case away. Sure, it may cost you a few pennies, but trying to shoot a damaged case could cost you an eye.