Is the .223 Rem. a Deer Cartridge?

The question of the day: Is the .223 Remington/5.56 NATO cartridge an adequate deer cartridge?

Since this is my 223rd blog, I thought I’d say something regarding the .223 Remington, a.k.a. 5.56 NATO cartridge. Because of the so-called “Assault Weapon” ban of the 1990s there has been a lot of froth put forth about what is and isn’t a sporting rifle. As for me, I make no apologies for owning some AR-style rifles—some I use for sporting purposes; others are here for self-defense. But there are those who want to infuse the AR platform—as well as other semi-auto rifles—into the hunting world.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll state up front that I am a more traditional soul. My tastes run more toward blue steel and walnut. However, I am also acutely aware that many shooters and hunters prefer to use the latest in technology. They get a charge out of using cutting-edge technology in the field. As long as what they are doing does not adversely impact the resource—i.e. decimate the game herd or leave a lot of wounded animals to die slow, painful deaths—who am I, or anyone else, to say they are wrong?

Finally, we also need to accept the fact that lever- and bolt-action rifles—even single shots—were once primary rifles of the military. I’m sure that there were some old geezers around after World War I who thought these young whippersnappers coming back and hunting deer with bolt-action repeaters were unfair. We, nonetheless, must march onward.

The question of the day: Is the .223 Remington/5.56 NATO cartridge an adequate deer cartridge? I had some pre-conceived notions regarding this but no first-hand experience, so I checked with someone who did. Richard Mann is a gun writer out of West Virginia, and he has shot somewhere around a dozen whitetails with a .223 and seen a similar number shot by others. “Given a good bullet like a 63-grain Nosler Partition or Barnes TSX, the .223 is a fine deer cartridge.” I pressed him regarding the range these deer he has taken or seen taken were shot. All were less than 200 yards. Richard does a lot of research using ballistic gelatin and claims the wound cavities from a .223 with a strong bullet are better than a typical 150-grain .30-30 bullet.

“It’s because of the velocity difference,” he said. “A .30-30 bullet is going to hit a deer at 2,200 fps or less. In the .223 the bullet can be as much as 900 fps faster, depending on the range. The wound cavities I have seen in ballistic gelatin are much bigger than those from a .30-30.”

He said that when the .223 bullet gets down to 2,400 fps or less, however, that it will lose much of its authority.

That velocity threshold occurs at some point just this side of 200 yards. Since the vast majority of his whitetail hunting occurs in the east where he says a long shot is 150 yards, it would seem from that perspective that the .223 Remington is an adequate deer cartridge. Too, the deer in the east—while a buck can occasionally weigh 200 pounds—tend to be much smaller. Out here in the west where I live, the deer average a bit heavier—perhaps 150 pounds would be a reasonable average, and there are plenty of bucks weighing more than 200 pounds. Ranges tend to be longer as well, especially on the wide-open plains and in the Rocky Mountains. We also have to contend with more wind, and wind affects lighter bullets far more substantially than heavier .27- to .33-caliber bullets.

I think the best answer to the question as to whether the .223 Remington is an adequate deer cartridge is this: It depends. How big are the deer you are hunting; at what range must you be able to score a lethal hit; and what bullet you choose all have an impact on determining whether the .223 Remington—or any other chambering—is sufficient as a deer cartridge.

It is near impossible to give a definite and perfect answer to such questions. As soon as one declares a cartridge being the last word on a particular game animal—in this case deer—someone will pop up with testimonial evidence where he or his buddy shot an 80-pound whitetail doe in the heart with a .375 H&H Magnum and the deer ran 200 yards. All we can do is come up with tendencies.

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22 Responses to Is the .223 Rem. a Deer Cartridge?

Dave Jennings wrote:
February 04, 2015

I live and hunt in the piedmont region of S.C. and have wondered about this issue. Most shot in the area I hunt are very close range usually 35 to 100 yards, I will now hunt at ease with my Bushmaster AR-15 M4 Carbine using a Remington 69 gr hollow point. I appreciate this info !!!

billy cruthirds wrote:
January 20, 2015

I recently retired from driving a truck and finally have plenty of time to hunt. Also spent 9 yrs. in the military and have hunted all my life as a kid I was not a big deer hunter but I killed a few. Last year I shot a really nice 10 point with a 30-30 using 150 grn. SP at 20 yrds. knocked him off his feet and I walked over admiring him, took out my cell phone to take a photo he stood up and ran off !I was looking at the hole In him just behind the front leg entry exit on opposite side about the size of a nickel. I was shocked searched for three days with my step son never recovered the deer. This Christmas I got a Savage Axis .223 shooting 55 grn. FMJ killed a button buck 12/28/14 shot at 75yrds. behind front leg same shot placement as with the 30-30 he ran 25-50 yrds. when I cleaned him it took out both lungs. On 1/18/15 shot a 3 point buck at 75-80 yrds. also with 55grn. FMJ ran 25-30 yrds. when cleaned took out the lungs and the heart was exploded amazed that this deer ran 25 yrds with no heart or lungs. Shot placement is critical but I have been happy with my .223 I recently purchased some Hornady whitetail deer ammo 60 grn. hope to see what it does.

jack mcelroy wrote:
October 27, 2014

with proper shot placement a 223 rem is fine for deer at close range...200 or less. but to say its way better than the 257 roberts is a bit of a stretch at best. the 257 roberts carries more energy at 300 yards than the 223 does at the muzzle. and Karamojo Bell never used a 257 roberts i believe he killed over 800 elephants with the 7x57 mauser. anyone with 58 years of hunting experience should know that.

Rob wrote:
August 30, 2014

Bullet placement is critical. I live in mule deer country but I hunt antelope and regularly use my Sako bolt action 223 with a 70 grain bullet. I've always been careful with my shot and never had one run more 50 yards before he went down.

OFBG wrote:
August 30, 2014

As with any cartridge, it depends on the intended target. About 30 years ago I spoke with a fellow at my local range who was there with his nephew, who was shooting a Garand. The uncle told me that he never uses anything more than a .223, because he once shot a 'Texas whitetail' with a .30-'06 and 'there wasn't enough left to field dress.' On the other hand, I have seen northern and Canadian whitetail deer that rivaled our New Mexican elk in size. To quote the old saw, 'use enough gun.'

Lt Col Richard Vaught, USAF, Ret wrote:
August 29, 2014

Anyone who says a 223 is not a deer cartridge is not much of a hunter or shooter. Having hunted all through Africa (25 safaris), Europe (for 9 years) and North America (30 years) and having shot everything from elephant on down; a 223 for deer is more than adequate. It is called shot placement. A really great African hunter by the name of Bell, used a 257 Roberts (which a 223 is better) and took probably more elephants than any hunter that ever lived. Pity Americans do not know more about the 9.3x62 or 9.3x74R. All these 'arguments' about whether or not a 223 is adequate or not are just that, as no caliber except those in the 40 caliber (416 Rigby/416 Rem/470/450-400/etc) and above are ADEQUATE; everything else is 'it depends on the weather, the wind, the distance, the animal, etc'. By the way, I have taken everything from eland to leopards to everything else on down (under 2400 pounds) with a 30-06 in the standard 180 grain bullet. Shot placement overrides the so-called 'is it adequate' argument. At least that is what I have found after 58 years of hunting all over the world in 55 countries.

emkay wrote:
August 29, 2014

the .223 was designed to kill men, yes it will kill a deer too...why is there an article about this?

Jim Macklin wrote:
August 29, 2014

I guess I'm an 'old curmudgeon' since I like the look of traditional arms. There is something about an oil finish on good walnut, a tactile sense in the finger tips. A Winchester 94 or the Marlin 336 just looks right. Of course 100 years ago, 2 to 4 M.O.A. was good accuracy. Hunters had to learn how to stalk or setup a good blind or tree stand. Hunting took a level of skill that was taught by fathers who were hunters. Little boys learned almost as soon as they could walk the 'way of a hunter.' Today anybody can buy a rifle off the shelf that will shoot into less than 2 M.O.A. often much less. It is possible to see a deer at 600 yards and hit it with near 100[%] probability. Good optics in scopes and binoculars don't make a 'good hunter' but do go a long way to the game harvester. Yes, a proper bullet in a .223/5.56x45 can kill at 200 yards, even further, perhaps 300-350 yards. With a hit into the heart or lungs and the animal will die quickly. Even a .375 H&H in a poorly placed shot may not be fatal for 24-48 hours and probably feed a dog or coyote. Perhaps the pointless desire to claim that a particular type of rifle 'is sporting' misses the point that the Second Amendment should need no such defense that renders the 'sporting purpose test' as valid. The question is, can a skilled hunter take game 'in a fair hunt' with the rifle that they have when the citizen will need one riflefor survival and to defend the nation from tyrants or invaders.

Bill wrote:
August 29, 2014

Yes. But it requires the shooter to be knowledgeable about terminal.performance, range limitations, and his/her skill level. I have killed over a dozen whitetails, all down on the spot except one who went about 20 yds. I do mostly neck shots and have found Vmax bullets work very well for that.

Frank G wrote:
August 29, 2014

It will get the job done 'BUT' IMO not enough knock down power.

AKAGOA wrote:
August 29, 2014

I haven't shot a deer with a 5.56 yet. I am going to this year. Thanks for the article.

Buckbuster wrote:
August 28, 2014

If I were to use a .223, I would select a bullet that is designed to explode after entry instead of a mushrooming type and go for a lung shot. As stated before, shot placement is paramount.

MrVJP wrote:
August 28, 2014

With the proper big game hunting bullet in the cartridge, the .223 will kill deer, with good penetration and a lot of hydrostatic shock, out to about 200 yards. Beyond that it lacks velocity and energy to be consistently effective.

John Sandifer wrote:
August 28, 2014

I've killed a buck and a doe, both about 135 lbs, with my Savage 223 bolt rifle. The buck about 40 yards and the doe about 10 yards. Both ran with heart lung shots about 50 yards before dropping. I think a .243 makes a much better 'minimum' cartridge for our smaller central Oklahoma deer. I personally wouldn't shoot a deer further than 100 yards with a .223.

Craig L. wrote:
August 28, 2014

It seems to me that a number of Military Armories (USA & Allies) supply this cartiridge for both Offensive and Defensive use on the battlefield; without violation of the Geneva Convention proticols. Why would anyone question its use in an effective Deer hunting scenerio? I also understand that our Military trains for shots much farther than 200 yds.

Foxtrap wrote:
August 27, 2014

Lets remember that a deer can be killed with a .22 LR, but that doesn't necessarily mean humanely. We owe it to the critters we take to make as quick a kill as possible. Use enough gun. Moreover, practice with it until you are proficient. A .223 will kill a deer. Sometime. But we want the deer to hit the ground PDQ, not run off to die in agony later. And as other writers note, deer in some parts of the country are larger than others. here in Northern New England, bucks can easily go over 250 pounds live weight.

Wayne wrote:
August 26, 2014

I took down a 3 point black tail many years ago with a 70 grain hornady reload at about 50 yds with one shot. Course I hit him square between the eyes. He just stood there for about 10 seconds before toppling over.

Chris wrote:
August 26, 2014

Killed many with a mini14 since I was 12yrs old. When you can put a round exactly where you want it to go it never hurts. The .223/5.56 is a great round for younger hunters it allows them to focus on the shot not the kick of the rifle which will likely produce a better placed round. Also being from Arkansas you rarely shoot past 200yds.

Steve wrote:
August 26, 2014

Nice article. This gives me more confidence in preparation to shoot .223 at Deer this season in Northern California. I'm going to use the Deer & Antelope Winchester 64 grain Power Point round.

Rick246 wrote:
August 25, 2014

Of course it's an adequate deer cartridge; but there are better!

Dennis wrote:
August 25, 2014

In the end shot placement is the most important thing.

Dave wrote:
August 25, 2014

No obstruction of any kind In trajectory. Placement is critical at 200+.