May 15, 2020
Today’s shooters have access to record loadings across multiple tiers — especially pricey “premium” — and optimized for every imaginable situation. However, the fact remains that inexpensive ammunition is, not surprisingly, the most utilized. According to Winchester Ammunition’s Nathan Robinson, a very high percentage of ammunition consumed annually is for recreational shooting. Maximizing range time at the lowest cost is certainly appealing, especially for the high-volume rifleman.
With all that activity, shooters will economize where they can. But is bottom-tier, value-priced, brass- or steel-cased ammunition a good route to take? What, if any, corners are cut to reduce price? Are there drawbacks? If so, what? These are questions I sought to answer when determining the “true” cost of stretching my ammo budget.
To get answers, I reached out to multiple well-known ammunition and AR-15 manufacturers to create an all-encompassing view of cheap shots, from components and assemblage to packaging and use. Although I’ve utilized said loads throughout my life, I still learned much from my findings. You will, too.
Misconceptions abound about budget ammunition. For instance, some shooters incorrectly believe that cost is low because corners are cut, such as the use of second-rate components. That’s far from the truth.
“Our opening-price-point loads [such as UMC] are made from first-quality, factory-fresh components,” said Nick Sachse, director of ammunition product management and senior product manager at Remington Ammunition. “They are not factory seconds…[and] are designed and manufactured to deliver consistent and reliable performance.”
How then is the low price point maintained?
“While first-quality components are used in our opening-price-point ammunition, costs are kept low primarily through manufacturing efficiencies and material selection,” said Sachse.
Robinson concurred. “Cost is kept low by using simple construction and producing it rapidly. Think full-metal jacket — pretty simple design. If you want to add a hollowpoint or a boattail, it requires additional strokes from the machine, adding tooling and more time,” he explained. “Thanks to Winchester’s massive scale and long tenure, we are masters at efficiency and can pass that savings on to the consumer.”
While streamlining production reduces time and expenses, savings are also achieved through limiting offerings. Fewer equipment changeovers result in increased volume, so it makes sense to reduce stock numbers. For example, Remington’s UMC line only has four .223 Rem. loads: 45- and 50-grain jacket hollowpoints (JHPs); a 55-grain FMJ, and a 62-grain CTFB. Likewise, in Winchester’s USA “White Box” series, there are only three .223 Rem. options: a 45-grain JHP, 55-grain FMJ and a 62-grain FMJ. Both feature larger calibers in these lines, but you get the picture. Minimal multiplicity but large-scale manufacturing is employed to reduce cost. This practice is common industry wide.
In general, leisure shooters don’t need price-increasing extras; many recreationists plink only in favorable outdoor conditions or at indoor ranges at close to moderate distances, where “standard” is sufficient. None of the aforementioned conditions demand premium features or the latest technology, so adding them unnecessarily raises the price. For that reason, lower level loads typically lack them. But they’re available if shooters want to explore.
“We offer other tiers that have enhancements or newer technology. These include things like higher-quality Mil-Spec primers, different bullet types that might be more accurate, nickel or copper plating, lacquered primers or case mouths, etc.,” added Robinson. “These aren’t necessarily drawbacks to economical loads, but if someone is involved in serious competition or severe conditions, it would be worthwhile to try several tiers to see if they benefit from additional features.”
Analogously, Sachse explained, “Opening-price-point defensive or hunting ammunition projectiles may not penetrate as deep or as consistently expand as much, retain as much weight, be flash suppressed, be waterproofed or be as accurate as higher-price-point rounds. The only drawbacks exist in the level of performance they achieve by design. Our open-price-point loads are designed to achieve the same objectives as higher price-point loads. They just do so with slightly less precision than higher-price-point products.”
A Case for Steel
“Some people swear by steel-cased ammo, others swear at steel-cased ammo,” said Steve Mayer, Rock River Arms’ law enforcement/government sales manager. It’s amusing but true. Here’s why: The least costly by a considerable margin, Russian-made, steel-cased centerfire ammunition maximizes the number of rounds procured per dollar spent; however, the thrifty loads have baggage that’s tough for some to tote.
The imported ammunition employs utilitarian, nonreloadable, Berdan-primed steel cases. As a case-making material, steel is less costly than brass. This helps reduce price, a positive. Conversely, the expansion and rebound rates of steel differ notably from brass, which, as Mayer noted, “can reduce the use-life of the extractor and can create timing issues with the proper function of the rifle.”
To this he added, “Another example of problems with some steel-cased ammo is the corrosive nature of many of the primers used and even some of the powder. While not endemically related to steel-cased ammo, it is causally linked to the less-expensive, imported steel-cased ammo.”
Beyond the cases, primers and propellants, unbeknown or simply disregarded is the detail that many projectiles housed in Russian-made, steel-cased ammunition have copper and steel jackets surrounding the lead core, and the copper is of insufficient thickness to prevent high-velocity, steel-on-steel contact. Through extensive testing, Lucky Gunner Labs (luckygunner.com) noted accelerated barrel wear from the use of Russian “bi-metal” bullets.
The maxim, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” certainly applies to imported, steel-cased ammunition. Using it will, in time, negatively affect your rifle, be it operationally or through premature wear, thereby requiring fixes. Do the savings now justify the expenditures later? That’s your call. Do keep in mind that the use of steel-cased ammunition voids the manufacturer’s warranty for some companies. Check before you use.
Rifle Maker’s Take
Day in and day out, AR manufactures build and test their arms, as well as hear from those employing them. For that reason, I queried several stalwarts about their experience with budget ammunition. Here’s what they had to say:
“We qualify our rifles with/for NATO spec ammunition and, in the case of 5.56 ammo, M193 is very economical for both testing and general use both by us and by our clients…even M855 is reasonably priced, good-quality ammunition,” Mayer said. “In all cases, this is predicated on it actually being spec ammo not qualified with extra letters or numbers that make the buyer think that he or she is getting M193 or M855 when, in reality, it is often ammo that didn’t make spec but is still regarded by its manufacturers as ‘safe to sell’ and/or ‘close enough to spec’ to sell into the commercial market.
“A benefit of using spec ammo is that, when it meets spec, it is an international standard. Regardless of manufacturer, if a particular round meets spec, it should perform identically to any other rounds that make the same spec,” added Mayer.
Mark Gurney, Ruger’s director of product management, said that the variability of the inexpensive ammo is a primary factor.
“We have found that the super-economical steel- or brass-cased ammo can be a little more variable lot to lot. I’d recommend testing each lot individually before relying on it,” Gurney explained. “It seems as in these days, ammo prices in common calibers are very inexpensive. Maybe the risk-to-savings ratio doesn’t really support using ammo packed in boxes in Cyrillic, possibly dug out of a farmer’s field in Albania during the 1970s. Fortunately, with new, first-rate, brass-cased options now plentiful from worldwide sources, shooters aren’t relegated to such.”
Lastly, Springfield Armory Media Relations Manager Mike Humphries said, “As far as ammo goes, Springfield Armory does not officially recommend any one brand over another, and it’s good to test your gun with a broad range.”
Testimony Through Testing
No ammunition review would be comprehensive without testing. As such, I purchased an assortment of economical .223 Rem/5.56 NATO ammunition from online sources and brick-and-mortar stores and tested them through a limited-frills Springfield Armory Saint topped with a Leupold VX-3i 4.5-14x40mm scope. By no means was the testing all-inclusive or exhaustive, but it did provide a glimpse into to the capabilities of the value-priced loads.
Each of the seven loads were test-fired for accuracy consisting of three five-shot groups at 100 yards from a weighted, Caldwell 7 Rest. The testing showed some noteworthy findings.
Of the ammunition evaluated, the most accurate was Aguila’s 5.56x45mm 62-grain FMJ-BT, which averaged 1.57 inches for all 15 shots. Quite impressive given the $23 per box of 50 rounds that I paid for them. Second best was American Eagle AR 5.56x45mm 62-grain FMJ (M855), which had a mean of 1.98 inches.
In my test rifle, which has a 16-inch, 1:8-inch-twist barrel, loads with 62-grain bullets outperformed those featuring 55-grain projectiles. All loads were sufficient for perforating paper at the ranges they’re typically employed. To reduce group size for extended ranges, however, I would have to do a bit more experimentation with other economy loads or transition to another quality tier.
With accuracy testing complete, I switched to chronographing each load to determine its velocities across five shots, and from that I calculated the average extreme spread (ES) and standard deviation (SD). Key to accuracy — especially at distance — is consistency. Any variances in velocity will affect trajectory and wind deflection, so the lower the ES and SD the better.
Not unexpected was that, in general, the foreign-made ammunition posted ES and SD numbers greater than those from American munitions makers. There was an exception, however, with the Mexican-made Aguila. Aguila’s offering proved to be the most consistent from round to round, generating an ES and SD of 22 and 9, respectively. That consistency manifested in the smallest group mean of the loads evaluated. None of the loads in the table failed to feed, fire, extract or eject from the Saint.
There is no shortage of economical, new-production ammunition from which to choose. Those included in the chart are only a small portion of what’s available. When seeking said ammo, here are some offerings to look for: Remington (UMC); Winchester (USA and USA Ready); Federal/American Eagle; Aguila; Hornady (Frontier); Fiocchi (Shooting Dynamics); PMC (Bronze); BarnauL; Monarch (from Academy Sports); TulAmmo; and Wolf.
It’s not uncommon to find .223 Rem./5.56 ammunition for less than 30 cents per round, though better-quality, American-made loads will run slightly more. I’ve seen TulAmmo .308 Win. loads for a low as 40 cents each.
Remember, there’s a cost-versus-performance tradeoff that’s associated with economy ammunition.
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