I’ve heard a lot of opinions on what to shoot at major matches… New brass only, or well used, or whatever I have laying around, or whatever happens to be loaded up… My opinion is that once fired brass, fired in your gun from new brass, is the only way to go… Here’s why…
One of the most important but easily controlled factors in your match preparation is the quality of your ammunition. We’re all aware of the need to make the appropriate power factor with our match ammo, and most folks are pretty clear that their match ammo also needs to shoot accurately and go bang every time they pull the trigger. What doesn’t seem to impress upon most folks is the importance of a quality container for those components they do think about – if they brass isn’t in appropriate shape, the bullet, powder and primer aren’t going to have a chance to do their job.
Bad brass can lead to several different types of failures, and it doesn’t have to be old, gnarly, beaten to death brass to have issues. New brass can also cause issues. There are relatively easy ways to avoid these issues, though, and I would submit that simply using the new brass once works around all these ills. Before I support that claim, though, let’s take a look at the problems.
Old, well worn brass can develop a bulge at the base that can case a nasty jam when the gun tries to chamber the brass. Depending on the caliber and gun, and the size die in use, this bulge might not get fully taken out during resizing, and can bite you during use. Case gauging your ammo should help avoid this one, of course – you do case gauge your ammo, right?
Old brass also tends to work harden and lose its elasticity. Two problems can occur as a result. The first is that the case tends to expand back out a bit after resizing, and this reduces the amount of pressure the case exerts on the bullet. When the pistol goes to chamber that round, the bullet can be pushed further back into the case (i.e., setback) – this can cause catastrophic pressure problems (read: KABOOM!), or can induce a failure to feed as a good portion of the energy stored in the recoil spring is spent seating the bullet deeper, leaving too little to finish closing the gun. The second problem is that work hardened brass tends to be brittle and can crack easily. Normally, a case that cracks under the stress of firing gets extracted and ejected normally. However, depending on the situation, it can result in junk being vented down into the gun, or a piece of brass being left in the chamber, both of which can cause a jam later.
Finally, trashed brass usually has a fairly worn case head, and these cases heads are sometimes squeezed out of round, or can have damaged rims. Again, jams, usually due to the extractor being forced under extra tension to try to fit around the rim.
New brass has some different potential issues, though that last one can also apply. If the rim or case head is improperly formed during manufacture, it can cause similar jams.
Another issue unique to new brass (but one that I’ve now seen a number of times) is a case trimmed to the improper length. To date, I’ve only seen this with Remington brass, but I’ve seen it with two different calibers (9×19 and .38 Super +P). In the examples I’ve seen, the case is trimmed about a tenth of an inch too long, causing the round to fail to chamber (though it otherwise feeds and extracts/ejects without issue). Again, case gauging is your friend, here, of course, as the case should also not correctly fit in the gauge.
I’ve also seen cases with no flash hole cut in them. Usually, this only shows up as a factory ammo problem. The primer ignites, but nothing goes bang. When you eject the round, there’s a nice black ring around the primer. If you pull the primer out using an appropriate tool, you see that there’s no flash hole. Loading the ammo with a decapping pin in the sizing die should warn you of the issue, but I have actually seen a case where a shooter loaded with the decapping pin in the die because he’d bent a pin and didn’t have a replacement and needed to load his match ammo. It’s new brass, right? Shouldn’t be a problem… “Shouldn’t” and “Doesn’t” are two different words, unfortunately…
Finally, new brass could be heat treated improperly or have an issue with the metallurgy of the brass used to make the cases, and this could lead to a catastrophic case failure upon firing. This is a very rare condition, obviously. It could cause the case to rupture or crack, and potentially cause a jam or failure to extract.
Some of those problems are avoidable through proper ammo preparation, but some aren’t. The potential for issues is obviously lower with new brass than they are with old brass, but there’s no apparent way to discover them before the big day… or is there?
The way to avoid all of those issues is to buy new brass (or factory ammo), and shoot it once in your competition gun. Then reload it with your match load. Done. This insures that any new brass issues are avoided (brass with material problems will almost always crack on the first firing, if it’s going to do it), and also insures that the brass is in very good shape when it goes into the gun for the match.
Realize that “once fired brass” obtained from unknown sources very well may not be as advertised… And brass fired in a gun other than your competition gun may be questionable due to differences in bulges in the case vs. the chamber, etc. So, at best, you need to treat “once fired brass” as new brass, and shoot it in your gun once (no, that (ostensibly) second firing shouldn’t bother it too much).
There’s a hidden benefit to shooting once fired brass for your match ammo vs. shooting new brass, too. You have to get out to practice with that new brass once in order to go to the match!