Right at the top of the list of things new competitors don’t know that they don’t know is that they don’t know about the issues surrounding steel-core ammunition. If reading that sentence didn’t light a fiery rage in your soul, or at least feverish nodding in agreement- keep reading, this probably pertains to you. Steel core ammo refers to bullets that are just that- a steel core encased with a lead and/or bimetal jacket. The military designates such bullets as “penetrators” or “armor piercing” or more specifically “M855;” it is fairly cheap to produce and large quantities end up for sale on the surplus market. Volumes of threads have been written in the hallowed halls of internet forums about what steel-core will and will not do to various mediums for those who want to dig into it further, but your attention spans aren’t that long- so we will just cut to the chase.

Steel-core ammo is very specifically banned from use at 3-gun matches across the country. This is specifically because the steel targets we use are made out of AR500 steel. Whether or not a steel-core rifle round will actually zip through a steel target is highly debatable, and mostly myth, but depending upon the grade of steel, velocity, and distance…they could. Punching holes in the steel targets is a great way to become VERY unpopular, VERY quickly. Even if the bullets don’t go through, they will certainly damage the target in the form of pitting. As the surface of a steel target gets pitted, its ability to safely spall a bullet decreases and the chances of unsafe ricochet or splash back increases.  As targets faces get degraded, or get holes punch in them, they become unsafe to use and must be replaced. The targets are very expensive to replace and the use of steel-core ammo accelerates their wear, so their use is specifically banned in 3-gun match rules. Did we mentioned that steel core ammo is banned?

Photo Credit: ShootSteel.com

How do you know if ammo is steel core? First, anything marked M885 certainly is, and anything with similar characteristics is certainly suspect. Anything painted with a green tip is suspect as steel-core, and any 5.56mm 62gr bullet is likewise suspect as well. The official way to check (and the way match officials will screen) is to use a magnet. If the bullet sticks to a magnet, it is not eligible ammunition for use at the match. There is lead core ammunition that will stick to a magnet (mostly of Russian origin) because it uses a bi-metal jacket. Sometimes those are allowed, but most matches will just say no magnetic ammo PERIOD. This is not to be confused with steel CASE ammo like Hornady Steel Match. A magnetic case (the part that holds the primer and powder) is not a concern, just the bullet itself. At the end of the day, it is really a best practice to just keep any sort of magnetic projectile ammunition completely separate from your 3-gun equipment – don’t even put it in your bag, it’s not worth it. The penalty is almost always a match DQ and you may have to buy the target.