Close your eyes and allow me to take you back to a time when ammunition was cheap and plentiful. Crates of Comm Bloc surplus ammo could be had for the price of a night at the movies. Where ammo shelves were stocked to the brim, and retailers were handing out ‘buy one, get one’ coupons. Remember those days? No, neither do I .
As reported in early 2014 by our own Nathan S., the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE or ATF) officially banned the importation of 7N6 – a version of the 5.45x39mm ammunition most commonly used in AK-74 patterned rifles. Apparently, the ATF received a request from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for a scientific determination on whether 7N6 should be classified as ‘Armor Piercing Ammunition’.
From the ATF notification in March of 2014:
Before we get into the latest news on the importation ban, I decided to go to our own resident expert for background information on the 7N6. Thankfully Nathaniel F. was fresh off his latest installment of ‘Intermediate Calibers’ – the 5.45x39mm round. He writes:
Development of the 7N6 began in the late 1950s, when Soviet agents observed test firings of the then new Armalite AR-15 rifle and its .223 Remington caliber. Soviet engineers quickly copied this ammunition design for initial tests as part of an effort to create a new, more economical and lower recoiling infantry rifle round. After an extensive period of ballistic redesign, the program resulted in the late 1960s in a round which was very similar in both size and performance to the American 5.56mm round, as the now-standardized .223 caliber became called.
In both purpose and effectiveness, 5.45x39mm 7N6 round can be considered the direct equivalent of the old US military M193 loading of the 5.56mm infantry rifle caliber and also of commercial 55gr FMJ loadings of the .223 Remington rifle caliber. The 7N6 differs from those two rounds in that it follows the Soviet practice established in the 1950s of using a steel core insert inside of a lead sheath, instead of a plain lead core. This design has the purpose of conserving lead for economic reasons, a critical concern during warfare. However, this style of core is made of very soft (and therefore inexpensive) mild steel and has been demonstrated in multiple different calibers to add no substantial armor piercing effect to a round versus lead-only cored steel-jacketed ammunition of otherwise similar design.
In contrast to the 7N22 true armor piercing 5.45x39mm round, the 7N6 possesses none of the special qualities that purpose-designed armor piercing projectiles exhibit. Its core is flat-tipped and very soft, and it is clad in a substantial layer of soft lead, including a very thick cap on the core’s tip. Like virtually all Russian rounds, the jacket is (like the core) made of soft mild steel, a type which is shared between the 7N6 and importable lead-cored 5.45x39mm ammunition which is not considered “armor piercing”. In a technical sense, the 7N6 can in no way be considered to be an “armor piercing” round when compared to other standard ball rifle rounds in its class. – N.F.
In addition, when reading the section of the United States Code that covers the definition of “armor piercing ammunition, the 7N6 doesn’t appear to meet either of the two listed the criteria. From 18 U.S.C 921 (a) (B) (i & ii):
(A)The term “ammunition” means ammunition or cartridge cases, primers, bullets, or propellent 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.
As you can see, section (B)(i) states the round must be able to be used in a handgun and which has core constructed entirely of a “combination of tungsten alloys, steel, iron, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium“. More on this topic later in the story.
In section (B)(ii), the criteria includes ‘designed and intended for use in a handgun‘. And as we know from Nathaniel’s detailed write-up, the 7N6 does not meet this criteria. Besides, 5.45mm is .214 caliber, smaller than the required .22 caliber as listed in subsection (ii).
Now, on with the show…
Fast forward two years, when a curious AR15.com member who filed a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) with the ATF on the specifics surrounding the 7N6 classification as being ‘armor piercing’, received an official response:
If you remember, the ATF stated that the orginal request for a determination came from CBP, however the FOIA response did not reveal any documentation confirming these statements. The FOIA also included the ATF ‘Report of Technical Examination’ of the 7N6 ammunition:
Of note in the lab report is that, although the bullet contains a section of ferrous metal (as determined by its magnetic properties), it also contains lead. Meaning that the bullet’s core is not ‘composed 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’. Every definition I could find relating to a bullet’s ‘core’ defines it as ‘the material encased inside the bullet jacket’.
The 7N6’s core contains lead, is smaller than .22 caliber and is not designed and intended to be used in a handgun. As such, by the legal definition explained in both sections of the 921 United States Code, it is difficult to see how the 7N6 was ever classified as ‘Armor Piercing Ammunition’. Is there a process to get these determinations overturned?
And, in a strange coincidence in timing, just yesterday a federal judge in the 9th circuit upheld a decision in favor of the ATF in a lawsuit by an importer of 7N6, stating the ammunition was in fact “armor piercing”:
SEATTLE (AP) — A federal judge in Seattle has upheld a decision by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to ban ammunition originally designed for AK-47** assault rifles.
The decision Wednesday by U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour came in a lawsuit brought by Redmond-based P.W. Arms Inc., which obtained permits to import more than 100 million rounds of the Russian- and Eastern European-made ammunition known as 7N6.
When the first shipments arrived in early 2014, the ATF deemed them “armor-piercing” and barred their importation for civilian resale.
The company said the agency misinterpreted the definition of armor-piercing bullets under federal law. But the judge disagreed, saying they contain a steel core and can be fired from a handgun.
Coughenour noted that P.W. Arms never disputed the bullets can pierce body armor, and he called the company’s arguments disingenuous.
** (AK-47/AK-74. What’s an entirely different caliber among friends, right?)
Apparently, P.W. Arms made the same legal arguments we are reiterating here, only to have the federal judge ask for evidence not required in the criminal code. If I had to guess, P.W. Arms didn’t bother to test if 7N6 could actually pierce armor – because that has nothing to do with the legal definition of armor piercing ammunition.
Outside of the legal definitions, can 7N6 actually pierce armor? Stay tuned for further practical analysis from Nathaniel F. This is going to be good.