M855: Facts, Falsehoods, and Fighting Back

In recent weeks, a hot topic in firearms circles is the proposed BATFE ban on M855 ammunition, and there’s a staggering amount of misinformation circulating. One of the greatest detriments in promoting gun rights is misinformation. Failure to grasp the facts hurts the pro-Second Amendment side more than you might think, partly because a lack of understanding has a tendency to lead to false or foolish statements and also because inconsistencies only led to the mire of half-truths and deceptions being marketed by the gun control crowd. Consider this a primer on M855 and the potential ban to come.

What is M855?

M855, also known as SS109, green-tipped ammo, and Penetrator rounds, is a 5.56x45mm caliber, 62 grain round with a lead alloy and steel core. Originally known as SS109, this round can trace its roots back more than 50 years to the time surrounding the standardization trials NATO carried out in the 1970s. SS109 gave FN’s, FNC, and FN Minimi greater range and penetration. During the NATO trials to choose a second rifle cartridge for standardization, SS109 was the one round to meet NATO’s requirements.

Following NATO selection of SS109, which took place on October 28, 1980, the U.S. designated the round M855. The round was designed for peak performance with a 20” barrel with a 1:9 twist. When it was designed, it wasn’t created to pierce body armor but was meant to penetrate the thin steel helmets worn. The M855 bullet is 0.906” in length and composed of a combination lead and steel core with a partial copper jacket. It’s yaw-dependent, meaning its performance relies on the angle at which the bullet strikes its target. Ideally, it strikes at the proper angle to deliver rapid energy transfer on impact, rotating and breaking apart for maximum soft-tissue damage. However, if it hits at the wrong angle, it simply blows through the target, creating a through-and-through wound.

Is it an armor-piercing round?

Quite simply, no. M855 is not an AP round, neither literally nor by the BATFE’s own description of AP rounds. It’s rated for use against light personnel and vehicles in the military, and you’ll find it’s capable of punching through many steel plates at target practice, but it’s not an AP round.

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What about that steel?

One of the most frustrating moments to be repeated with mind-numbing regularity has been the claim that M855 has a steel nose – once referred to as a steel “cap” by a particular fellow online. It does not. This round has steel in its core, but it only takes examining a cross-section of an M855 round to see its nose is comprised of its copper jacket, and its core within said jacket is made up of a combination of a lead alloy and steel. These are Full Metal Jacket rounds, meaning the top and sides of the bullet are encased and do not expand on impact. It does not have a solid steel core and it is not jacketed in steel; its jacket is made of copper.

Why does it look dirty?

This question has also come up more than once. The reason an M855 case appears “dirty” is due to annealing. Annealing is the process of heating metal to high temperatures and then allowing it to slowly cool in order to strengthen it. Visible evidence of annealing is part of the MIL-SPEC requirement for M855, hence your dirty-appearing case. It is literally the proof needed for the case to be strengthened through the heating – annealing – process.

Is the BATFE banning 5.56?

While many of you may be surprised by this question, it has been posed more times than you might think. The ban being proposed applies to M855, which is a specific type of ammunition of 5.56x45mm, not the cartridge itself. If the ban were to go through, there would still be plenty of 5.56x45mm and .223 Remington out there. That is not to say a ban of this type is all right or that we shouldn’t fight back, but simply that it doesn’t wipe out an entire caliber.

How does the BATFE define an AP round?

The federal government defines an AP round as follows under 18 USC Sec. 921(a)(17):

  • (17)(A) The term “ammunition” means ammunition or cartridge cases, primers, bullets, or propellant powder designed for use in any firearm.
  • (B) The term “armor piercing ammunition” means-
    • (i) 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; or
    • (ii) 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.
  • (C) The term “armor piercing ammunition” does not include shotgun shot required by Federal or State environmental or game regulations for hunting purposes, a frangible projectile designed for target shooting, a projectile which the Attorney General finds is primarily intended to be used for sporting purposes, or any other projectile or projectile core which the Attorney General finds is intended to be used for industrial purposes, including a charge used in an oil and gas well-perforating device.

By the above definition, which is their own, M855 does not meet the federal government’s description of an AP round. M855 does not have a core made entirely of steel, only partially, and the other metal used is lead. In addition, the jacket on an M855 bullet does not weigh more than 25% of the projectile’s total weight; it weighs less. For this reason, the BATFE excluded M855 in prior years. The failure to specifically state the exemption was made in 2014, and while the BATFE is now trying to say it was simply an oversight, all gun owners should be aware of the power of the written – or, in the case, the unwritten – word.

What is the LEOPA of 1985/86?

The Law Enforcement Officer Protection Act of 1985, which is also referred to as the LEOPA of 1986 due to its being introduced on July 31, 1985, and enacted into law on August 28, 1986, has to do with the ban of AP rounds for public sales. The aforementioned definition of what an AP round is can be found in the LEOPA of 1985. There is a slightly murky area here, though, and it has to do with the various types of body armor.

Body armor is rated from Type I to Type IV, with I being the weakest, capable only of offering protection from .22LR and .380 ACP rounds, and IV being the strongest. Currently, the most commonly issued body armor for LEOs is Type IIIA. IIIA is rated for protection against .357 SIG FMJ rounds and .44 Magnum SJHP rounds along with “most” handgun threats, with the understanding that by handgun it means handgun calibers, not rifle calibers that can be used in some pistol platforms. When you consider this reality, you realize the average vest can be penetrated by a number of rifle rounds, so while M855 is not technically an AP round, not all armor is created equal, either.

What is the proposed ban?

If it goes through, this ban would make M855 illegal for use by civilians. Earlier in 2015, BATFE announced a potential ban on M855 by citing the aforementioned LEOPA of 85/86, which gives the federal government the authority to ban AP rounds. Common thinking is that the proliferation of AR pistols capable of firing M855 has led to this proposal, and while there may be some truth in those pistols being used as an excuse, this certainly is not the first time a particular type of ammunition has been banned (Who here remember Black Talons?). Of course, there are some commonsense problems with the logic being used by the White House.

The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, has publicly stated on more than one occasion that Obama fully supports the ban. Earnest uses words like “everyone” and “common sense” when explaining who believes in the ban and why, which is a wording technique referred to by some in journalism as astroturfing. Basically, it means the speaker is using specific words to create the appearance of widespread support where there is a lack. This isn’t a new technique by any means and unfortunately, there are many in the public who swallow these ideas hook, line, and sinker.

Another statement made by the White House involves what they say is the fact that any “easily concealed weapons” capable of penetrating body armor should not be allowed. While this statement has been made, it’s been specifically in reference to AR-15 platform pistols, which are anything but easily concealed. In fact, they are, on average, two feet long and between five and seven pounds. This is far from the definition of easy to conceal. For comparison, my daily carry is six inches long, four inches tall, and weighs less than two pounds, fully loaded. Anything larger is flat-out impossible for me to conceal, and my preferred CC is actually larger than those carried by many gun owners.

Another proponent of the idea that AR-15 style pistols are small is one of Bloomberg’s Everytown leaders, Mark Glaze, who said he’s “worried about…handguns that are cheap, small, and easy to conceal if they can carry bullets that can cut through your Kevlar vest.” See above regarding size, and as for price, well-made AR platform pistols cost over four digits, often nearly $2000. This also brings up another point being pushed by the White House: the idea that ridding the public of M855 removes the existence of ammunition capable of penetrating commonly issued body armor. The reality is there are many rifle rounds capable of that kind of penetration, including, but not limited to, .308 Win, 7.62x39mm, .30-06, .223 Rem, and, of course, all 5.56x45mm. But wait, you say, the wording of the current AP ban lists the ban as applying only to rounds that can be fired through handguns. Well, those strictures don’t protect much of anything, either, because everything from 9mm to .45 ACP to .44 Magnum can penetrate at least one type of body armor. If you follow this logic far enough, the only handgun rounds protected in the end would be .22LR and .380 ACP.

Bans do not stop at one item; bans are creatures of boundless appetite, methodically working their way through the ranks, bit by bit, piece by piece until there’s nothing left. By stretching the current AP ban to cover M855, which is not an AP round even by its own definition, a precedent would be set. It’s a dangerous precedent, one capable of opening the door not only to doing away with untold numbers of ammunition types and calibers but also one with the potential to get what the anti-2A crowd has been after for some time now: banning AR-15s.

And then there’s the issue of gun violence. According to Obama campaigner Marjorie Clifton, “most” of the shootings that have taken place in recent years have involved the use of M855 ammunition. This is patently untrue, and while some choose to claim Clifton simply misspoke out of excitement or nerves, she has had ample opportunity to build her public speaking skills and undoubtedly knows exactly what she is saying. In fact, according to the FBI’s own database, which has been operating for almost 40 years, there are absolutely no records of M855 ammunition being used in even one public shooting. There are also no records of a single case of M855 being used against a member of law enforcement. In fact, there are no records of 5.56/.223-chambered pistols being used against LEOs, period. Why? Because your average criminal prefers pistols that can be easily concealed, whether in the waistband of their pants or the palm of their hand, and they also prefer truly cheap weapons. And while you’ll find some larger-caliber shootings, statistics for the past 25 years show the three calibers most commonly used against LEOs are .380 ACP, 9mm, and .38 Special. As 17-year LE veteran Brent Ball said, “As a police officer, I’m not worried about AR pistols, because you can see them. It’s the small gun in a guy’s hand that you can’t see that kills you.”

What you can do

Make your opinions heard, and do so in a calm, logical manner.

While we’re all aware, the government will do whatever it wants regardless of our opinions, it’s still worth fighting back. Never give up. Never surrender. Our Second Amendment rights are precious and should never be taken for granted. Never assume someone else will fight for your rights; fight for your own rights. After all, what makes you think for a moment they’ll stop at M855?

They won’t stop, and neither should you.


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