Write your legislators! We’ve made it easy. Visit our ATF M855 Ban Action Center to join the fight against this latest infringement on our rights!

Everyone is surprised that ATF has announced plans to ban M855 ammunition (steel-core 5.56 NATO). The issue has been raised as to whether the cartridge has sufficient “sporting purposes” as a means to fight the ban. Make no mistake, the “sportability” of the cartridge is not the real issue. We at IFSA agree that M855 ammunition should NOT be banned. However we would like to offer some explanation as to the methodology being used by the Government in this situation. The definition of Armor Piercing (AP) Ammunition is . . .

“A projectile or projectile core which may be used in a handgun and which is constructed entirely (excluding the presence of traces of other substances) from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium;”

This definition was agreed upon in the mid-’80s between the pro-gun and anti-gun forces as a middle-ground against the Senator Charles Schumer’s catch phrase “cop-killer bullets”. At first it was suggested that any bullet be banned which can penetrate a cop’s vest. Law enforcement and many others were all for that definition until the NRA fought it because the unthinking hadn’t realized that it would ban ALL rifle ammunition.

That was the only definition of AP ammunition until the Swedish M39B (9mm Luger) cartridge arrived on the surplus market in the late 80’s. Being intended for use in the Carl Gustav M45 (Swedish K) submachinegun, it had a much thicker jacket than normal 9mm Luger cartridges and a higher velocity, which allows it to penetrate soft body armor.

So, since the problem didn’t fit the solution (the M39B didn’t qualify as AP), a new definition was added to the definition of AP ammo. It was added that AP ammo would include;

“A full jacketed projectile larger than .22 caliber designed and intended for use in a handgun and whose jacket has a weight of more than 25 percent of the total weight of the projectile”.

Notice that the definition didn’t just say M39B, because that would leave the possibility to re-name the cartridge all allow it to come into the U.S.

During a career with ATF, it was obvious that it is not the ATF itself that takes the initiative to rule on many of the anti-gun issues that arise, rather they receive directives from anti-gun administrations in Washington, and are directed to write whatever needs to be said in order to make the intended action occur.

Keep in mind that ATF applied the first AP definition to steel core 7.62×39 ammunition on 2/2/94 during the Clinton administration, in order to prevent it’s importation. Then ATF Director John McGaw said at the time that “…(t)hese bullets when used in handguns pose a life-threatening risk to all law enforcement officers.”

Someone should have pointed out to him that ALL 7.62×39 rounds will penetrate soft body armor. But having been a Secret Service Agent until he became ATF’s Director might explain his lack of familiarity with ammunition technology. So concerning the ability to penetrate soft armor, there is no difference between any other load in that caliber and the ones having a steel core.

Then, about a year ago, ATF stopped the importation of 5.45 x 39 cartridges with steel core bullets by ruling them to be handgun ammunition. Do you see the pattern? Just recognize any cartridge with a bullet made of the listed metal(s) (more on that in a minute) as being useful in a handgun, and it becomes un-importable and unable to be manufactured.

It was surprising to IFSA at the time of both “bans”, that although there are pistol versions of the AK47 (7.62 x 39) and pistol versions of the AK74 (5.45 x 39), that ATF left out 5.56 x 45 ammunition with steel core. There are certainly more AR15 pistols in circulation than either of the other two models, and the AR15 pistol emerged onto the market much before the other two did. Again, not that we support the ban in any way, but it was apparent that the anti-gun administration was behind both additions to the list, so why did they leave out the most obvious one?.

We teach the topic of Armor Piercing Ammunition in our seminars and it’s well-covered in our online course on Ammunition as well. We always point out first, that there is a difference between what will penetrate a Policeman’s body armor and what qualifies as “Armor Piercing Ammunition” under the definition. Many cartridges, including all rifle ammunition will do so. For instance, most loadings of 7.62×25 pistol ammo will easily do so, but it is not considered “Armor Piercing unless it fits the definition.

Again, ANY loading in 7.62×39, 5.45×39, or 5.56×45 will penetrate all soft body armor, so why are the steel-core loadings being singled out? Easy. Because once the Armor Piercing wand is waved over them, they can no longer “be imported or manufactured except for Government use”. The definition is again being used as a tool to keep ammunition out of the hands of pro-gunners.

Here’s the real tool that should be used to fight the ban. Point out to ATF that the bullet of M855 is not within the definition of Armor Piercing ammunition. Because the bullet is partially made of lead, it is NOT “constructed entirely from one or a combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium;” Therefore the definition of AP does not apply.

But then it doesn’t apply to the 5.45×39 or the 762×39 cartridges either.

And that’s the problem. Sometimes ATF rules that things fall within definitions that they clearly do not fall into if you only read the requirements of the definition . If you’d like to see more examples, read the Declaration we wrote for U.S. District Court, in Ares Armor vs. B. Todd Jones, wherein we pointed out that most of the firearm “receivers” on the market don’t fall within ATF’s own definition of a receiver.

We at IFSA are all for the regulating of firearms in an attempt to keep them out of the hands of criminals, but what happens if ATF were to be ordered to rule solid lead bullets as “armor piercing”next, even though they don’t fit the definition? A regulatory agency should at least be required to operate within their own definitions.


Written by Daniel O’Kelly, Director of the International Firearm Specialist Academy (reprinted with permission).

Iowa Firearms Coalition is an entirely volunteer, grassroots, 2nd Amendment advocacy group. Responsible for bringing uniformity to Iowa’s Concealed Weapons Permitting process, IFC’s members work to protect and enhance 2nd Amendment rights in Iowa. An affiliate of the National Rifle Association, the IFC actively seeks to foster and promote the shooting sports. Sign up for our email list for the latest on 2nd Amendment issues in Iowa. You can support our work by becoming a member, or making a donation.