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"Everlasting" stainless-brass cases; the new two-piece "steelhead" cartridge cases offer reloading versatility in either standard or wildcat calibers.

"Steelheads" is the name given to a radical new style of cartridge case offered by O'Connor Rifle Products Co., Ltd. (Rt. 1, Box 572, Dept. GA, Edisto Island, SC 29438). These cases, which are of "basic" design and meant to be formed by the user into any appropriate standard or wildcat rifle cartridge configuration, are of two-piece design, with a brass body which is threaded to screw into a stainless steel head. If a brass body is ruined, it can be unscrewed and deep-sixed, and a new one screwed into the almost indestructible steel head. I suppose it would be possible to use the same Steelheads for several calibers, merely by interchanging the brass body portions. Extra brass bodies are available.

Steelheads are currently available in standard (.30-06) rimless and belted magnum styles, and are long enough to be shaped into any modern round.

The idea is that the head of a conventional brass rifle case is its most vulnerable portion, the part most often ruined by high-pressure loads through expanded primer pockets and/or swollen heads. Replacement of this area of brass with tempered steel, therefore, should allow the handloader to work at maximum pressures almost indefinitely (as far as case-life is concerned, anyway) with a larger safety margin. Or, if he chooses, he can exceed conventional handbook-recommended maximum loads safely for super velocities. I suspect this latter motivation generates the majority of Steelhead sales. Some of the loads reported in literature accompanying the Steelhead samples sound a bit frightening to this conservative old handloader, including some hairy duplex loadings, with some pressures exceeding 80,000 pounds per square inch absolute (psia)! This data is not to be taken as the manufacturer's recommendations, being merely a report of test results.

Do velocities increase to match the pressures? Well, they certainly increase, but perhaps not as much as might be expected. A Steelhead .30-06 case is shown to drive a 150-grain spitzer softpoint up to the 3,100-3,200 feet-per-second (fps) range from a 24-inch test barrel, which shifts the '06 into .300 H&H Magnum territory. Some years ago, however, I achieved similar velocity levels with long-loaded rounds of conventional brass from a 26-inch barreled Ruger #1 (almost certainly the strongest sporting action commercially available today). Those loads were distinctly too hot for regular use, as indicated by head expansion, but they were by no means bombs. Theoretically, these Steelhead cases might permit one to use such loads routinely, in a very strong, modern rifle.

It seems to me, though, that there are other considerations. A rifle and its ammunition is a rather carefully balanced system, all the elements of which have evolved together. A radical change in one element affects all other elements. For example, some good bolt-action rifles may suffer locking-lug setback (increasing headspace) at pressures around 80,000 psia, and other portions of the rifle will accumulate severe stresses, although no immediate deformation may be measurable. Barrels will erode much more rapidly at such pressures, temperatures and velocities, shortening their useful life. In some instances, hunting bullets designed for conventional velocities will fail badly at excessive speeds, and accuracy may suffer. In all instances, recoil effect will be magnified, perhaps exponentially. In other words, merely increasing pressures and velocities safely is not the whole story; there will be adverse side effects as well as advantages, at least without a major redesign of the entire system.

Each handloader must decide for himself whether the benefits of Steelheads outweigh the disadvantages. The product appears to be very well-made, although the belts on the magnum samples furnished me are too wide, with the result that they will not chamber in several rifles with normal headspace. The accompanying literature is quite thorough and realistic. Instructions for forming brass are excellent.

Steelhead cases have considerably smaller internal volume than conventional brass in the same caliber, about 8 percent less on average. This means, of course, that even conventional loadings must be completely redeveloped in them. Full and proper testing of this product for evaluation will be a time-consuming and expensive project.

In boxes of five, basic standard Steelheads cost $14.95, belted magnums two bucks more. Unformed replacement brass comes five for $4.95 for standard, $5.95 for magnum. No FFL is required, and postage and handling adds $1.50 per order. For a SASE and $.40, you can get literature, including .30-06 test data and manufacturer's loading recommendations.

Roy Weatherby and others have been preaching for a generation that the most promising route to progress in rifle performance is via higher velocities. That idea brought about first the "express" cartridges, and then the "magnum," almost a century ago. Although I might argue the point (breakthroughs in bullet construction and a couple of other items having almost equal potential), the high-velocity hypothesis is difficult to contest without getting into some specialized and subjective realms.

Perhaps the Steelhead concept is on the cutting edge of a technology which will lead to higher standard velocities and greater rifle effectiveness. It is even possible that they are that technology. The passage of another generation may see all rifle cases made this way, with "old-fashioned," all-brass casings regarded as quaint relics of a bygone era. It's always interesting to speculate on the impact of such imaginative new products, but only time ... and the economic rough-and-tumble of the marketplace ... will tell.
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Author:Wooters, John
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Nov 1, 1985
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