A Hunter's Case for the .223 Remington

by
posted on June 3, 2024
223 Lede

The one. Oh, yes, the classic firearms-based conundrum. Shooters have likely been dogmatizing ad nauseum about the single best round since the development of the handgonne in the 14th century. Close your eyes and listen intently and you can almost hear the soldiers arguing about the merits of ball size before the next castle siege begins.

Like their iron-toting forefathers, modern firearms enthusiasts enjoy debating the virtues of metallic cartridges in an effort to determine which one is unsurpassed. This is, by the way, regardless of the fact that—at least in the United States at this time—we’re not limited to a single firearm and/or cartridge. And, there is no consistent criteria, either. For instance, should it stop a charging elephant dead right there (DRT) while also be a fitting choice for a steenbok? Or, must it vaporize varmints yet still be effective on medium-size game? Such an approach is inherently flawed.

Steenbok with guide

It's preferable, then, to consider not only a cartridge’s worth in the field, but also its shoot-ability and economy, among other things. When you do, you’ll discover that the round offering hunters and marksmen the most complete package is one that’s seldom considered, the .223 Remington. Scratching your head? Read on.

.223 Cartridges and boxes

History, Differentiation & Specifications

According to Cartridges of the World, 13th Ed, “The .223 Remington first appeared, in 1957, as an experimental military cartridge for the Armalite AR-15 assault rifle. In 1964, it was officially adopted by the U.S Army as the 5.56 mm ball cartridge M193 (for use in the selective-fire M16 rifle, itself based on the AR-15). Shortly after the military adopted this cartridge, Remington brought out the sporting version. The 5.56x45 mm NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is the official U.S. and NATO round.

Before moving on, we must differentiate between the .223 Rem. and the 5.56x45 mm NATO. What is different? Dimensionally, nothing. However, it’s what cannot be seen outwardly that must be fully understood. As is reported on hornadyle.com, “The first difference is the higher pressure level of the 5.56 NATO cartridge, which runs at approximately 58,000 psi. A .223 Rem. is loaded to approximately 55,000 psi.” Why? The 5.56x45 mm NATO chamber has a 0.125-inch longer throat, which permits more powder to be added and thus higher velocities (and pressures). “It gives the bullet more jump before engagement with the lands,” explained Hornady’s Seth Swerczek. “(Moreover), the .223 (Rem.) has a free-bore diameter of 0.2245 inches, while a 5.56 NATO is set at 0.227 inches. In summary, the 5.56 has more jump to the rifling and more free area around the bullet when it’s in the throat.”

Ammo on antlers and hide

Why does this matter? First is safety. A .223 Rem. cartridge can be used in a 5.56x45 mm NATO-chambered barrel, but the inverse must be avoided. Next is ballistics. Hornady’s website reported, “Due to the throat difference between the two chamberings, a .223 Rem. cartridge may not work optimally in a 5.56 NATO-chambered weapon. The cause of this is the lack of pressure built by a 223 Rem. cartridge fired from a 5.56 NATO chamber. The .223’s 55,000-p.s.i. (maximum average pressure, or MAP) will not be attained, and therefore velocity and performance are hurt.” Thus, if you want versatility, get a 5.56x45 mm NATO-chambered rifle. If accuracy and optimal ballistics are desired, opt for a .223 Rem.-chambered rifle.

Dimensionally, the short-action, bottlenecked cartridge has a maximum cartridge overall length (C.O.A.L.) of 2.260 inches, and a maximum case length of 1.760 inches. The case trim length is 1.750 inches. Case head width is 0.378 inches. Depending on the manufacturer (and whether a commercial case or military is used), capacity is around 27 to 29 grains (of water). Ignition is by way of a small rifle primer, and suitable jacketed bullets have a 0.224-inch diameter.

Why a .223 Rem.?

The merits of the .223 Rem. are many. Below are most of them, provided in no specific order. Alone they’re alluring, but together they make the .22-caliber cartridge especially appealing for a solitary solution.

.223 Remington magazines

Capacity and Recoil

The .223 Rem.’s diminutive dimensions easily enable above-standard magazine capacities, particularly for firearms utilizing detachable-box magazines. This is acutely accurate for modern sporting rifles (MSRs), such as the ubiquitous AR-15. While this is obviously beneficial for personal protection, it’s also helpful on prairie dog towns, while pursuing feral hogs and for following up fairly hit non-dangerous game (where legal). Also related to cartridge (in this case, capacity) and projectile size, the .223 Rem. produces negligible perceived recoil, and yet high velocities are customary. Recoil, or “kick,” is influenced by the weight of the bullet, muzzle velocity of the projectile, and the weight of the propellant charge. With modest charges and lightweight bullets, the .223 Rem.’s perceived recoil is temperate (especially in a semi-automatic rifle), making long shooting sessions—i.e. varminting—satisfying and successful. For the budding rifleman, no centerfire cartridge is better to learn the basics. What’s more, its low recoil enables hunters to see impacts at-distance without the aid of a partner.

223 Cartridges and boxes

Ammunition

The hunter who doesn’t handload benefits greatly by selecting the .223 Rem. First, its diversity is unparalleled; in fact, at the time of this writing, MidwayUSA lists 122 options, and that doesn’t include 5.56 NATO offerings, either. Plant-produced ammunition is loaded with bullets ranging from the leadless Hornady 35-grain NTX for varmints and small predators to match-grade 77-grain BTHPs. The latter are marketed for hunting, though.

Sierra Bullets

A quick word on rifling is needed here. Know that a single rifling twist rate cannot perfectly handle the aforementioned spectrum of bullet weights. Why? Insufficient spin applied to a long, streamlined, heavy-for-caliber bullet can lead to keyholing, while too fast of a twist rate—when combined with ultra-high velocities—can cause lightweight, thin-jacketed bullets to self-destruct prematurely. Depending on the projectile’s profile, 1:12-inch or slower twist rates common to older .223 Rem. varmint rifles rarely stabilize .22-caliber bullets heavier than 60 grains. Nowadays, rates run as fast as 1:6.5 inches, though the 1:8-inch and 1:9-inch are better choices. For all-around use, the 1:8-inch is the best option. With it, you’ll easily be able to achieve solid groups with lead-core varmint bullets down into the 50- to 55-grain range, all the way up to 77-grain competition projectiles. It’ll also stabilize the long, leadless bullets.

Ammo and boxes

Concerning price, most premium competition and hunting loads run $2.00 or less each, with the majority costing below $1.50. If you’re undemanding and ready to shoot plain-Jane, cup-and-core-type soft points or hollow points, the cost can come under $1.00 each. Full metal jacket “blasting” fodder for punching paper will be cheaper yet. Such low cost encourages practice and thus builds proficiency, and so the .223 Rem. owner will be likely be better prepared when heading afield than his or her counterpart, who can only fire a few rounds from a medium- or large-bore rifle due to cost and the additional recoil they dish out.

Reloading

If you’re a handloader, there’s simply no better rifle cartridge. Due to the cartridge’s popularity (and use of the 5.56x45 mm NATO by the military, law enforcement, and others), brass is omnipresent and inexpensive. In fact, there is a niche market for prepped, once-fired 5.56 NATO brass; however, due to its increased thickness and thus reduced capacity, starting with minimum .223 Rem. recipes is required. The primer crimp will also need to be removed, too. But, the effort is well worth the savings. Think of the volume used on hopping prairie dog towns.

At the time of this writing, grafs.com lists such brass for around $0.27 each, and new .223 Rem. brass starts around $0.45. Even premium Lapua only runs $0.89. The .223 Rem.’s closest varmint-riding rival’s (.22-250 Remington) brass costs nearly double that and is all but unobtainable. What’s more, the .223 Rem. isn’t the least bit finicky concerning propellants. There is nigh always an option to be found that’ll produce excellent results. And, since little powder is used, spending the day at the range or varminting won’t be as costly.

Hunter posing with gator in swamp

Hunting

The .223 Remington, like other .22-caliber rifles, are foremost varminters, and they excel at eliminating nuisance rodents and small predators alike thanks to the round’s relatively flat trajectories and volatile bullets. However, the cartridge is also a sensible option for hunting hogs and deer-size game, provided that it’s legal in the locale, the proper projectile is used and only ethical shots are taken. This differs none from other cartridges.

Hunter with whitetail

Laws vary widely. Some states permit .22-caliber cartridges for hunting big game, while others require energy benchmarks to be met for them to be considered legal. Virginia, my home state, forbids their use on whitetail deer, bear and elk. The reality is, the .223 Remington and other .22-caliber centerfires are perfectly capable of downing deer-size game. I know because I’ve used them in states where it’s permitted, and I’ve never felt under gunned. The deer and hogs expired very quickly. But, doing so requires additional forethought with regard to bullet design.

Hunter with gator

If it’s designated for varmints, forego it; only shallow penetration and wounding can be expected on larger species. Instead, opt for a bullet designed to withstand a high-velocity impact and still reach the vital organs. As with their larger brethren, among the best in .22 caliber. are: Barnes Triple-Shock X Bullet; Swift Scirocco II; Federal Trophy Copper and Fusion; SIG Elite Hunting HT; Nosler E-Tip; Winchester Deer Season XP; and Hornady CX. Nosler’s AccuBond and Partition are also great choices but must be handloaded. Many of the aforementioned bullets are heavy for caliber and thus long (especially the leadless options), and therefore may present stabilization issues. Adhere to the manufacturer’s guidelines. The 1:8-inch twist will aptly handle most variants and weights.

Ballistics

When compared side-by-side with a cartridge used for the same purpose, such as the .22-250 Rem. for varminting, it’s easy to underestimate the .223’s abilities. After all, the larger .22-250 handily bests the .223 when the same bullet is used, due to more propellant and a markedly higher pressure (65,000 psi). For example, according to the Nosler Reloading Guide No. 8, when a Nosler 55-grain Ballistic Tip Varmint—with a .267 BC—is used in the .223 Rem. it can reach 3,302 fps (with a max charge). In the .22-250 Rem., the same bullet attains 3,803 fps.

223 and 22-250

Zeroing 2 inches high at 200 yards results in the projectile dropping 4.7 inches, 14.3 inches, and 30.4 inches at 300, 400 and 500 yards, respectively, when fired from the .22-250 Rem. All else being equal, the drops from the .223 Rem. are 6.5 inches, 19.8 inches, and 42.2 inches. Only at 500 yards is there a marked difference. Due to the shorter time to target, naturally there is notable difference with regard to wind deflection: in a 10-mph breeze, at 500 yards the Nosler projectile drifts off course 31.9 inches (.223 Rem.) versus 26.2 inches (.22-250 Rem.). But at the cost of extra cost (ammunition or components), recoil, fatigue and barrel wear. But the .22-250 Rem. isn’t declared the ballistics winner just yet.

Thanks to the .223 Rem.’s ability to be conveniently had with fast-twist barrels, some of the .22-250 Rem.’s downrange advantages can be somewhat negated. For instance, if the .223 Rem. is loaded with the Nosler 70-grain RDF (with a .416 BC) to 2,957 fps (max), the drops at 300, 400, and 500 yards would be 7.1 inches, 20.7 inches, and 42 inches, respectively. Easy to dial in. More importantly, though, wind deflection at 500 yards would be 21.3 inches—less than the competition—so hitting tiny targets at-distance would be easier. Combine this capability with low ammunition cost, less shooter fatigue (mild recoil), the ability to call one’s shots, enhanced capacity, and long barrel life, and you can see why the .223 Rem. wins hands down versus other .22-caliber cartridges. But, we’re not done yet.

Hunter with AR

Rifles and Handguns

It goes without saying that the .223 Rem. can be had in nearly any possible firearm configuration, ranging from single-shot handguns and over-under shotgun-rifle combinations to bull-barrel bolt-actions and MSRs (usually in 5.56x45 mm NATO) with a sprinkling of hodgepodge in between. Because of their popularity, these firearms are easily found new and on the secondhand market. And, unless someone is an avid varminter, competitor or plinker (and abuses it), they’re usually found with good useful life remaining and at a real savings. Again, consider your locality and use before deciding. The omnipresent AR-style rifle offers a significant jump in magazine capacity, as well as reduced recoil, limitless customization, and easy barrel replacement. Accuracy of most quality ARs nowadays is on par with—if not exceeding—many bolt-actions, so it’s a matter of preference and adherence to laws. For low-volume shooting, bolt-actions get the nod from me, but again it’s a matter of fondness.

From the information presented above, it should now be obvious that the .223 Rem. (and its 5.56x45 mm NATO facelift) is the superior option for someone who is looking to streamline his or her collection or purchase a multitasker. It offers nigh anything you could want: low cost; mild recoil; respectable ballistics; universal availability; and the ability to ethically hunt everything from deer and hogs to varmints and predators. Mic drop.

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