If you’re a regular reader of firearm news and issues, then you’ve surely come across the recent stir around the M855 / SS109 round. These rounds, commonly known as “green tip” rounds because of their color coding, are designed for use with the AR platform in the popular caliber of 5.56. However, if you haven’t heard already, the ATF is withdrawing these rounds from the civilian market citing their armor piercing capabilities. In the past the round has been generally grouped together with proper “black tip” armor piercing rounds, but up until now, the M855 has received an exception because it does not contain the same characteristics of an armor piercing round.

5.56mm-military-rounds

Comparison of several 5.56 military rounds.

The ATF now argues that the M855 is dangerous to those who wear body armor like law enforcement officers, especially when used with the AR pistol platform. Yet critics of the ban argue that removing the round from the market will destabilize the already shaky market for AR ammunition. Let’s examine this debate in more detail so you have all the facts. The ATF is calling for open feedback from anyone concerned about the withdrawal of this round until March 16, 2015, so now is the time to get educated and speak up if you use the round or you are concerned about how the removal of this round will effect the availability and pricing of other 5.56 ammunition.

What Makes A Round Armor Piercing?

We’ll cite the full ATF definition in a second, but to simplify it first, armor piercing ammo is classified either by the contents of the core of the bullet or the jacket weight (or really concentration) of the jacket in regard to the rest of the bullet. Armor piercing rounds need added weight to help punch through tougher targets, that’s why the core of traditional armor piercing rounds usually consist of iron, steel, brass, bronze,  tungsten alloy, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium. These materials are far more dense than lead, and give the round the added weight it needs. This can also be accomplished by a thicker brass jacket, and this is measured by the percentage of the jacket in regards to the rest of the bullet. If a FMJ round (.22 rounds are excluded) has a jacket that exceeds 25% of the total weight of the projectile, then it is considered armor piercing.

green-tip-5.56

Green tip M855s alongside tracer M856 rounds in an ammunition belt.

In the ATF’s terms for accuracy:

  • (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.

Why The M855 Isn’t Classified As Armor Piercing

The real outrage that critics have of the pending ATF ban is that M855 doesn’t fall into either of the above categories. Its core is still lead like many conventional bullets, and its jacket does not weigh over 25% of the total weight of the projectile. The bullet does have a steel tip, but that is not mentioned in the above classifications released by the ATF. When we begin to examine why the M855 was developed, the confusion of why it is being banned grows for many. It was originally selected by NATO in their search to standardize a second caliber. They decided upon the SS109 which had been designed for use in FN Herstal firearms like the the FN FNC rifle and the FN Minimi machine gun. The round was essentially developed to increase the range of the FN Minimi machine gun, and NATO selected it as the best option out of the ammunition it tested. Given the current debate, it is important to note that the SS109 was not required to pierce body armor, and it was not designed or tested for such. Soon after NATO examined the SS109, the US Military designated it at the M855, but they are the same round.

FN-Minimi

The FN Minimi machine gun.

As the M855 round was tested in combat, more concerns began to develop surrounding the round. It proved fairly ineffective at longer ranges, and in certain examples it wasn’t even able to pierce the windshield of a vehicle, and this included rounds that were fired at a very close range. It also performed very poorly out of a short barreled rifle, and it was excepted that this round was only suitable for longer barreled rifles. The one thing that was particularly desirable was that the M855 rounds were relatively cheap. All in all, the M855 did not perform as desired, and it has been phased out of military service and replaced by its counterpart M855A1 ammunition. M855A1 has problems of its own, but it is classified as armor piercing since its core is no longer made of lead. However, none of this matters when it comes to the civilian market because the M855A1 rounds are not available to the public.

5.56_M855A1_Enhanced_Performance_Round

Not to be confused with its predecessor the M855, the M855A1 is not available to the public.

So Why The Ban?

This leads the already suspicious consumer to wonder why the ATF is banning this ammo now after allowing it as an exception for many years. The main reason that the ATF cites is the rising popularity of AR style pistols. Because the AR pistol is considered “more concealable” than an AR rifle, the ATF worries that these rounds could be used against those wearing body armor. Critics are quick to counter and cite back that the round wasn’t developed to pierce body armor and that it generally performs very poorly out of an AR pistol in the first place. You could also make the argument that an AR pistol isn’t very concealable when compared to a handgun anyway.

The fact remains that green tip ammunition is still relatively cheap in an expensive ammunition market, and critics of the ATF’s ruling argue that banning this type of ammo could drive up pricing on all 5.56 ammunition. Certainly no avid shooting enthusiast likes the sound of rising ammunition prices or a buying frenzy. I guess you could say that is already happening though, at least when it comes to M855 rounds.

But the real kicker of this ban comes with the concerns surrounding the classification of a round used for sporting purposes. Ammunition is exempt from the armor piercing ban if it is primarily designed for sporting purposes, as the M855 has been used for since its appearance on the civilian market, and the re-classification of a round previously viewed as sporting to armor piercing is sure to make most every hunter nervous. After all, their treasured hunting rounds could be subject to the same “re-interpretation” if this ban succeeds.

What Now?

The ATF is encouraging users to email (apacomments@atf.gov) write in (Denise Brown, Mailstop 6N-602, Office of Regulatory Affairs, Enforcement Programs and Services, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, 99 New York Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20226: ATTN: AP Ammo Comments) or fax in (202-648-9741) their comments about the ban.

We’d also like to hear from you regarding your experience with M855 rounds. Why do you select and use them, and how do you feel the ban will effect you? Leave your comments here or in our social media outlets.

Images one, two and thumb, three, and four all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.