The 5.56mm/.223 Remington is America’s cartridge just as the AR-15 rifle is America’s rifle. The rifle is used for recreational shooting, competition, varmint hunting, medium-sized game hunting, and personal defense. In fact, the same rifle will handle all of these chores—given a skilled shooter. While the rifle is versatile and may fill each role well, no single loading will serve in every pursuit.
The most versatile loads may perform well in two or three roles, but we will find that specialization is a great aid in satisfaction with the rifle. There are highly specialized loads such as the Black Hills Ammunition Varmint Grenade and others such as the Hornady 60-grain V Max that are versatile. Let’s take a look at some of the better choices. It isn’t possible to cover every choice but we may be able to get the rifleman started in the right direction. The loads enumerated have been test-fired in the author’s Colt, Daniel Defense, and Ruger rifles. A number were also fired in a long-serving Bushmaster carbine.
I would wager that over 90% of the .223 rounds fired in America are fired for recreational use, in low-stress pursuits. That is certainly true at my house. I have fired my old alarm and excursion Colt HBAR for fun, at varmints and at distant targets often over the past 20 years. I have settled into the bench in pursuit of MOA accuracy. I have practiced tactical drills. However, that was enjoyable. In the event the rifle was called on for real, well, I am very familiar with its capabilities.
For recreational shooting, the best choice is the least expensive, quality ammunition available. We all have brand loyalty and Winchester USA and Remington UMC may be found for a similar price, but sometimes one or the other may be on sale. This factory generic ammunition using a 55-grain FMJ bullet is one of the best choices for plinking and practice. The Federal American Eagle is up to practice and duty use as well as far as that goes.
I have avoided most steel-cased ammunition, and not because it doesn’t function. Foreign powder is often dirty and requires excess effort to scrub the bolt free of carbon deposits. Hornady’s Steel Match is loaded by Hornady and performs as well as most Hornady loads, which is very good to excellent. I now use quite a bit of this load.
However, the one that is found in bulk at a fair price is the one to choose. If you are purchasing loads in bulk I have found that boxer primed brass is longer lived in storage, versus the Berdan primed steel case loads. Just in case, in an emergency situation, a rifle may be loaded with quality practice ball ammunition and you can expect good reliability.
Competition means different things to different folks. Three gun competition demands reliability, and the loads covered in the recreational section will work well. The National Match, of course, would be another thing. The long-range stages at 3-Gun demand more accuracy. I have used the Federal American Eagle 62-grain Tip at 300 yards. Available in a bulk box, this load would fill the bill at 3-Gun nicely.
A number of competitors use the least expensive 55-grain FMJ possible, then switch to something like Black Hills Ammunition 60-grain JSP at longer range. Recently, I obtained a number of the Fiocchi Canned Heat loads with the 62-grain FMJ bullet. You simply cannot criticize the packaging. The plastic lid is pulled away to reveal another internal barrier similar to wax paper. Overall, it is a good kit for those who like to keep a ready supply in storage.
At long range, names such as Hornady and Sierra dominate the field, and the loads are filled with the individual’s choice of IMR 4895 or Varget. Handloads not only keep costs down, they also allow the rifleman to fine-tune the load. For the rest of us, beginning with the Black Hills Ammunition 52-grain MATCH—an old favorite—we have loads capable of cutting edge accuracy. In heavier bullets, the 75-grain BTHP as loaded by High Precision Down Range (HPR) is never a bad choice. Long-range demands precision. There are several loads that are more accurate than I am able to hold. The 77-grain OTM is the choice of the U.S. Marine Corps and other units. Match the load to your rifle and control the trigger. These loads are excellent choices.
The centerfire .22 was conceived as a varmint round. We have managed to get much, much more from the cartridge than first intended. Varmint hunting is a great pastime. The skill demanded crosses over into other fields. As an example, when my younger son graduated from basic training, the best shot in the platoon was a young man from Montana that grew up shooting on the prairie.
Accuracy is important and so is a clean humane kill. Highly frangible bullets are the best choice. These bullets also limit ricochet and preserve public safety. Hornady’s 36-grain NTX is both fast and accurate. I have also used the 40-grain V Max, particularly in the Fiocchi load, and found it clean burning and accurate. Despite the shorter bearing surface, these loads have given excellent results on targets well past 200 yards.
Another favorite is the Black Hills Varmint Grenade. On this subject some years ago, a very poor recommendation was made that law officers and home defenders should use the 40-grain .223. Some actually bought into this, and the choice is a very poor one for personal defense. These bullets are designed to blow up on a pest weighing a few ounces. The bullet would disintegrate on a belt buckle.
The 55-grain JSP is plenty frangible for home defense! Also, these loads sometimes do not function well in service-grade rifles, particularly those that have not been well maintained. The 40-grain V Max by Fiocchi and the Hornady 36-grain NTX each function well in my Colt carbine, but they are varmint and pest loads, not service loads. That being said they are excellent choices for the intended purpose.
A close friend has dropped a dozen deer in three seasons with a single shot each using the .223 rifle. His Mini 14 was loaded in each case with the Winchester 69-grain JSP. This loading exhibits an excellent balance of expansion and penetrating. It does not fragment but mushrooms like a .30 caliber bullet. Some time ago I researched the .22 Savage High Power, a high-velocity number from 100 years ago. The reason this caliber was not successful, most believe, was due to a lack of proper bullets for taking game. This is no longer true and the .223 Remington can be a good deer taker with proper bullets.
The Winchester Ballistic Silvertip is another good load. These loads expand and hold their weight rather than fragment. Another excellent choice is Barnes 55-grain TSX bullet. I have also tested the 62-grain TSX and find it an excellent all-around loading. These bullets simply give the hunter every advantage. A superbly accurate choice is the Federal Vital Shock 60-grain JSP. This load uses the proven Nosler ballistic tip.
Personal defense isn’t the same as military use or police service. Those who use the .223 for home defense must concentrate upon reliability and cartridge integrity. The ready rifle, or at least the magazine, may be stored for use. (It is good to load the magazine down 2 in the 20-round renditions and 3 in the 30-round magazines—this releases more than 10% of the pressure on the spring.)
Police shootings usually occur within 50 yards. Most are far shorter. The 55-grain JSP has been used across the board for many years. There are better choices, most of them intended to increase the penetration of the load and decrease fragmentation.
As an example, some years ago an officer attempting to stop a fleeing robbery suspect fired a single 55-grain JSP into a vehicle windshield. The bullet fragmented in the glass. The felon eventually bled out. However, he did so only after traveling some miles with a wound from a bullet fragment. Light cover penetration needed to be enhanced. This is why special teams still rely upon the .308 precision rifle in addition to the AR-15.
The .223 demonstrates less penetration in building materials and home structures than common pistol calibers such as the 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. With standard loads, the results from the 55-grain JSP against felons in the open have been excellent—with a single shot usually taking immediate effect.
This is a good thing for public safety. In this regard, practically every .223 55-grain JSP is a good choice. After considerable research, I adopted the 60-grain JSP as my personal standard some time ago and have seen little reason to change. The cartridge is available in 50-round boxes with training round options available. Another solution to the problem is the Hornady 60-grain A Max loading. Available, affordable, and predictably effective, this loading is versatile and accurate.
Winchester loads the Ballistic Silvertip in premium nickel-plated cases. I have explored the heavier bullets, particularly in light of the excellent results of the 77-grain OTM in the hands of our military marksmen. These heavy bullet loads are certainly formidable, but for my personal use I think the 60-grain loads are best.
The cartridges and loads discussed are all top quality. I have tested each for reliability, accuracy and ballistic performance. In the end, a loading that performs reliably in your personal rifle and which exhibits good accuracy is important. Consider the level of penetration needed and success is assured.
What is your go-to .223 round and for which purpose? Share your thoughts, opinions, and experiences in the comment section.