BY JOSH WAYNER
There are only a few things that confuse the novice more than rifles that chamber the .223 Remington/5.56mm NATO round. The news media describes the AR-15 as a big, scary gun that fires 100%-all-the-time-lethal ammunition at a rate of fifteen rounds a second.
In reality, the .223/5.56 (more on that small difference later) isn’t a particularly powerful cartridge relative to other rifles.
And the AR-15 is far less exciting than they would have you believe, with most people able to fire only a handful of well-aimed shots in a minute. So what is it that the beginner should know about the .223 Remington caliber?
The first thing is the difference between .223 Remington and 5.56x45mm NATO ammunition. To keep it simple, the 5.56mm is essentially just a different type of chamber profile as compared to ‘civilian’ .223, but the two can pretty much be used interchangeably. There are minute differences in the throat (the space in the bore where the chamber ends and the rifling starts) where wear may be accelerated if one uses higher-pressure 5.56ammo in a .223 chamber, but that isn’t a big deal. In fact, I doubt that most, if any, shooters would ever be able to tell a difference.
To further confound things, there are hybrid chamberings...
Like .223 Wylde and other match calibers that are dimensionally different from each other, but still fundamentally interchangeable. What you need to know is that yes, they are basically the same, but 5.56mm is slightly higher pressure in a factory loading. Handloaders can play with pressure and powder type, which negates most concerns over .223/5.56mm because it is flexible.
So, on to the fun stuff.
As you can imagine, with AR platform guns the most popular rifles in the US, .223 is probably the most popular single rifle cartridge. It has many great benefits which include:
- Low cost of entry. AR-15 rifles, which are hands-down the most popular guns chambered for .223, can be had for $500, or sometimes less these days.
- Ammunition cost is low and products are plentiful. A quick look at my media resource book revealed that there are literally hundreds of available factory options and thousands of load data combinations for handloads.
- The general use .223 cartridge, let’s say a 55gr FMJ or match bullet, displays great ballistics, low cost, and allows the novice shooter to enjoy a day shooting anything from 3-Gun to 500-yard plinking.
- The .223, especially in an AR rifle, has very little recoil and allows a new shooter to fire a full-power rifle with little discomfort or fear.
- Low ammunition weight means that a shooter can carry more of it and sweat less on long match days and hunting trips.
As you can probably imagine, there are many myths surrounding the .223. Lots of “alternative facts” are being thrown around, so I will make it simple for the newbie:
- The .223 is not a very powerful round. The media love to throw around words like ‘high-caliber’ and ‘high power’, but both of these are just plain incorrect. The .223 is a small caliber in most respects and is what most people consider a varmint cartridge. In fact a majority of serious hunters, myself included, don’t even like it for deer and recommend against it if there are better options available. The .223 is best put to use on coyote, groundhogs, and other pests.
- By direct comparison to other common cartridges, the .223 isn’t especially great at what it’s supposed to do. In fact, there are many cartridges that fully outperform the .223 while remaining in a similar size envelope. The fake news media would have you believe that the .223 is capable of blowing people in half at a distance of a mile, but that’s utterly false.
- The .223 (and the AR-15 rifles that fire them) are not ‘weapons of war’. Both the cartridge and the rifle are very popular for hunting and home defense use. The .223 is a common caliber for bolt action and single-shot rifles in addition to semi-autos.
There are, of course, many other instances where the vilification of the cartridge, and by default the popular AR rifles that fire it, reached peak disinformation, but we don’t need to go into that any further.
Today’s discerning shooter has their pick of ammo that will do well for them and a massive number of rifles that can fire it. Among the very best ammo out there are:
- Hornady makes everything from 35gr Superformance NTX Varmint to 75gr BTHP Match and it all rocks. Of particular note are their new 73gr FTX Critical Defense and 55gr FMJ M193 Frontier loads, which respectively offer state of the art self defense capability and military-grade range performance.
- SIG SAUER has recently released several great .223 loads that include both match-grade and hunting options.
- Military ammo can be purchased in bulk for relatively low cost, including M855 steel-core and M193 ball from a number of sources.
- Black Hill Ammunition offers over thirty different .223 and 5.56mm types including new and re-manufactured at various price points.
- Honestly this list could go on and on and on. There are so many types of ammo available from so many different places that I would never be able to list them all. Remington, Winchester, Federal, Silver, Brown, and Golden Bear, PMC, Wolf, Fiocchi, PPU, Freedom Munitions, Nosler, and HSM all make various .223 and 5.56mm loads.
As far as guns to consider for the .223/5.56mm rifles, you may want to take a look at the following systems:
- The AR-15, of course. Yes, I had to group them all together because there are so damn many. This rifle offers near-insane levels of modularity and limitless customization ability. It’s the most popular rifle type in America today and can be had in almost any configuration from the factory. Some great makers of AR rifles include: Daniel Defense, SIG SAUER, Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Aero Precision, CMMG, LMT, LWRC, Noveske Rifleworks, PSA, and Wilson Combat. And that list just scratches the surface.
- The SIG SAUER MCX. In addition to their AR-15 rifles, SIG makes an entirely unique rifle called the MCX. I have had the pleasure of using these rifles several times and I very much enjoyed their handling characteristics and very low recoil impulse.
- Ruger Mini-14. This rifle looks something like a shrunken military M14 and operates in almost the same way. This rifle has ‘classic’ lines and typically features a wooden stock and integral iron sights.
- Remington 700 and other bolt action rifles: There are many hunters and target shooters that use the .223 for small to medium game and mid to long range target shooting. Bolt actions offer better control of fired brass and allow the use of accuracy-enhancing reloading techniques like neck sizing and longer-than-standard bullet seating depths.
- IWI Tavor and X95. These are Israeli-designed bullpup rifles, meaning their magazines load behind the grip. This allows for a very compact overall length, typically about 26 inches, even with a full 16-inch barrel, so you lose nothing in terms of speed going with a shorter gun.
So there you have it. The .223/5.56 is a huge topic with too many facets to cover in detail here.
There are lots and lots of options available and I barely scratched the surface with this article.
If you’re considering a good rifle round for general use, the .223/5.56 is a great choice that tends to grow with you as you mature as a rifle shooter. An entry level AR shooter can develop into anything ranging from a skilled varmint hunter, a high-speed 3-Gunner, or a disciplined National Match service rifle competitor. There’s hardly a branch of the shooting sports that some version of the .223/5.56 doesn’t shine at.