Nickel Brass Cases: Reloading the Shiny Sibling

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Nickel brass cases are visually appealing, since the coating resists tarnishing after being handled.
Nickel brass cases are visually appealing, since the coating resists tarnishing after being handled. Photo courtesy Massaro Media Group and JNJphotographics.

Nickel brass cases are the shining gems of ammunition, but to use the component for reloading takes some understanding of the material's characteristics.

When I first saw nickel brass cases around twenty or so years ago, I was immediately enamored. They were shiny, almost mirror-like, and when I read that they wouldn’t tarnish like a regular brass case, I simply had to have some.

I still use them for some applications, but in those twenty years I’ve had some experiences with them that have forced me to rethink their uses.

The construction of these cases is relatively simple. They are a brass cartridge case, coated in nickel. Nickel is a metal that is still malleable enough to be worked, yet does not tarnish when carried in a leather shell holder or when handled with sweaty hands. These features are good, but they come at a price.

Nickel is harder than brass, and in repeated uses will scratch the inside of a standard reloading die. They are also more apt to stick in a reloading die. I know this first hand, because when I first tried to load some ammunition for my .375 Holland & Holland Magnum, all I had was nickel coated cases, and I simply didn’t use enough lubricant in the resizing process. Yep, I stuck that case in the resizing die so bad it seemed like I had welded the case in there. Had to toss that die, and I never forgot it.

Nickel cases also seem to vary a bit more in case volume. This can pose a problem in the higher pressure rifle cartridges. I have used “nickel brass” in my .22-250 Remington and my .300 Winchester Magnum, and here’s what I’ve noticed. The cases that performed with the same level of accuracy as their all brass counterparts had a different point of impact while using the same powder charge, primer type and brand, and the same particular bullet.

This effect is all but unnoticeable in the pistol cartridges, but the same drawbacks of reloading die damage apply, unless you use a carbide or titanium resizing die. I use them frequently, and I don’t have an issue resizing nickel coated pistol brass. I do however believe that as a result of the flaring of a pistol case’s mouth the harder nickel brass has a shorter life than the all brass variety.

Then there’s the issue of having small bits of nickel flake off into your firearm’s chamber or barrel, and that can be a problem. Brass can be removed with a good solvent, but nickel can’t be removed as easily, so when you clean your gun, be sure and use a good brush to remove all those tiny nickel fragments.

Now, these issues don’t stop me from using nickel coated brass. In fact, in some rifles, I use it almost exclusively. My favorite safari rifle, a Winchester Model 70 in .416 Remington Magnum, is one example.

When I first bought the rifle, Remington only offered nickel coated brass as a reloading component. Therefore, I developed the load for this big stick using the case volume of the nickel cartridge cases, and it has proved to be a very accurate rifle and load. I use the nickel brass for all of my softpoint loads, and reserve the brass cases for the solid bullets that African big game requires.

The softpoints are what I use most often, and being a sweaty Italian in the tropical sun, I don’t worry about my paws tarnishing the cartridge cases while handling them on safari. This idea of two types and colors of cartridges makes them immediately identifiable. I use those nickel cases for my .300 Winchester specifically for the slower 220 grain loads that I use for black bear, and I can easily differentiate between those and the brass cased, and much faster 180 grain loads I use for long range work.

While nickel brass cases are sharp looking care must be taken when reloaded. Harder than brass, nickel has the potential to scratch the inside of some dies.
While nickel brass cases are sharp looking care must be taken when reloaded. Harder than brass, nickel has the potential to scratch the inside of some dies. Photo courtesy Massaro Media Group and JNJphotographics.

If you choose to load nickel coated brass in your rifle, I recommend you pick up enough to create a good amount of ammunition, so that you don’t have to worry about a different point of impact with all brass cases. If you’re worried about pinpoint accuracy from your handgun, I would recommend segregating the brass from the nickel, and range testing the two to see if there is any difference in target impact.

I’d be willing to bet you won’t, but it’s always good to know.


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