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The .223 Remington

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Reloading options for this military/civilian round abound.

The .223 Remington was developed in the 1950s and early 1960s as a military cartridge.

Do you know what common thread the .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .45-70 Government, and the .223 Remington share? Besides being the most popular sporting cartridges in their respective categories, they were all conceived and born to a life of government service. Each of these rounds has been used by the United States Armed Forces—and not coincidentally, immensely popular sporting calibers. Of the quartet, the .223 Remington is the youngest, first appearing in 1957. Perhaps appropriately, this Baby Boomer cartridge has bloomed later in life to become one of the most prevalent rounds on the shooting scene today. It can be found in everything from across-the-course high-power competition rifles to varmint rifles, and when reloaded properly, it performs well in all of those applications.

The .223 Remington was developed by Robert Hutton while working with Gene Stoner of Armalite in the late 1950s and early 1960s in an attempt to create a new military cartridge. The .222 Remington was ruled out for the military because it failed to meet the requirement of retained velocity greater than the speed of sound at sea level (approximately 1,190 fps at 68 degrees Fahrenheit) at 500 yards. But using a 55-grain boattail bullet developed by Sierra, Hutton was able to reach the velocity goal with the cartridge that would become the .223 Remington.

Called the 5.56mm NATO, it was adopted by the military in February 1964 and was released to the sporting public as the .223 by Remington one month later. The initial military loading was a 55-grain pointed boattail bullet with a muzzle velocity of 3,250 fps. In 1984 this was changed to a 70-grain pointed boattail bullet with a muzzle velocity of 3,150 fps.

The civilian .223 Remington annually appears in top-three lists of reloading die sales, and few, if any, rifle makers do not list at least one .223 Remington in their catalog. Even popular single-shot handguns such as the Thompson Center Contender are chambered for the .223 Remington. Accordingly, this round probably sees a more diverse listing of uses than any other round currently manufactured. It continues as a military round and is popular with civilian shooters of AR-15 and other quasi-military semi-auto rifles such as the Ruger Mini-14. Most makers of heavy barreled ultra-accurate varmint rifles chamber the .223 Remington in their rifles. It is highly favored in these rifles for shooting prairie dogs, gophers, and ground squirrels. In addition to its good accuracy and flat trajectory, these hunters love the .223 Remington for its mild recoil and report, light appetite for powder, and easy availability of components.

Predator hunters have found that the .223 Remington is all the cartridge they need out to 275 to 300 yards. It will consistently kill tough coyotes without destroying too much fur, even on foxes and bobcats. This is particularly true if you match the bullet to the expected target. Finally, the Service Rifle category of the National Match course is usually fired with a .223 Remington in an AR-15 rifle.

The Crucial Twist Rate Choice
In these various applications, rifling twist rates will vary a great deal. Most hunting rifles will have a 1-in-12 (or 1-in-14 in some early rifles) twist, while competition rifles are often as fast as a 1-in-7 twist. Some, such as the Colt HBAR Sporter, split the difference with a 1-in-9 twist. The twist rates are a prime consideration in reloading the round. A twist of 1-in-14 will not stabilize a 55-grain bullet very well, and at least a 1-in-12 rate is needed for bullets of this weight. The heavy bullets used for long-range target shooting, such as the 80-grain Sierra projectile, will require a 1-in-7 twist to stabilize. Any bullet of more than 60 grains will likely shoot better with at least a 1-in-9 twist.

Conversely, the 1-7 twist is too fast for most varmint-weight bullets and those designed for fragmentation on contact with the target. When fired at full velocity, the Speer TNT, Hornady SX or V-Max, or the Sierra Blitz will tear apart in flight from the centrifugal force of the too-fast rotational velocity. I have fired Hornady 40-grain V-Max factory loads in a Colt HBAR with a 1-in-9 twist with excellent results. This twist should provide a good compromise for shooters looking to use the long 60- to 70-grain bullets while still providing excellent results with bullets as light as 40 grains.

.223 Case Selection And Preparation
Military cases are plentiful and readily available. They can be used with good results, but the primer crimp must be removed with one of the many tools designed for this task. It is also advisable to condition the primer pocket and flash hole with the RCBS Trim Mate Case Prep Center. If you are going to be using the ammo in a semi-auto, it is a good idea to crimp the bullets. To get a consistent crimp, the necks must be trimmed to a common length. After trimming, you must chamfer the mouth inside and remove the burrs on the outside. Despite what some reloading-equipment manufacturers claim, you cannot crimp a bullet without a cannelure and expect good results. Several manufacturers offer bullets with cannelures, and you should always use one if you are going to crimp.

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Bullet

We Pick Fiocchi

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Big surprise—an Italian rimfire pistol brand shot well in three different rifles. Big loser: $8-a-box CCI Green Tag.

 

We recommend Fiocchi’s Pistol Super Match. This 300-meter-per-second (320 fps) ammo was the only brand to shoot sub-MOA in all three of our guns, even though it is not mar- keted for rifle shooting

Shooting a .22 LR rimfire rifle accurately presents a special — and unavoidable —problem for performance-oriented shooters: You can’t load your own ammo. Thus, to wring the best groups out of your squirrel gun, your free rifle, or your silhouette piece, you’re going to have to lot-test rounds in your gun. But there’s a big world of ammo out there, and you can spend a great deal of time and money looking for what is essentially the Holy Grail of accuracy. Like a knight’s fruitless quest, it’s possible you may search and search for the grail, but ultimately come up empty.

Unless some accuracy-obsessed researchers put you on the right road, which is just what we did. We purchased 33 commercially available .22 LR ammo brands from three mail-order sources, spending more than $1,500 in the process. We examined the biggest names in the high-end .22 ammo business, including Eley, Federal, Lapua, Fiocchi, and RWS, as well as more common rimfire fodder from Remington, CCI, and Winchester.

What did we find after more than six weeks of testing? If we were going to place an order for .22 ammo today, we would start with multiple lots of Fiocchi. Our goal was to shoot every one of the rounds in a static, windless environment in three very different guns, with the faint hope that we’d find some rounds that shot well across the board. Fiocchi’s Pistol Super Match (lot number 013502) was the only brand to shoot sub-MOA in all three guns. Though it’s not marketed for rifle shooting, the Fiocchi Pistol ammo shot best-of-test 0.69-inch average groups in a Cooper benchrest .22, 0.88-inch groups in a Walther GX-1 free rifle, and 0.93-inch groups in a KFS NS 550 bolt-action gun (which we are planning to review as a hunter-class silhouette gun in a future issue).

Also, other brands shot well, in some cases phenomenally well. RWS Special Match (lot 467CM127) shot the smallest average group size in our test—0.31 inches in the Walther—and it also shot well in the Cooper. Federal Gold Medal Match (lot 308) shot the next-smallest group of 0.50 inch in the Walther and was under an inch in the Cooper as well. Other top brands included RWS R50 (lot 438EP514), Fiocchi Rifle Super Match (lot 013509), Eley Match Xtra (lot WQ3058), Federal UltraMatch (lot 371), Eley Target Rifle (lot FS66), Lapua’s Master label (lot 6369C), and Eley Tenex (WR764). If we were beginning a lot-testing series, we would begin with these rounds. Though we can’t guarantee they’ll shoot well in your gun, their performances certainly suggest they are a good place to start.

In contrast, we wouldn’t buy the lots of CCI Green Tag, Winchester T22 Target, Federal Gold Medal Target, and Remington Target 22 we tested. They appear toward the bottom of the accompanying gun-by-gun results tables, and we think you would be wasting your time and money fooling around with them. Our opinions of each brand/lot of ammunition follow.

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Bullet

Supercharged Cartridges

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Are the Federal High Energy and Hornady Light Magnum hunting ammunitions worth their premium prices? We say no.

Seven different loads with two different bullet weights of .300 Winchester Magnum ammo were fired, including two new High Energy offerings.

Choosing an off-the-shelf factory ammunition load for big-game hunting used to be straightforward. The serious hunter would go down to the local shop, buy a box of three or four different brands in the bullet weight he wanted to shoot, tested their grouping ability in his rifle on the range at 100 yards, and took the best round afield.

Then Federal introduced its Premium line of ammunition, which featured the Nosler Partition bullet, and the world of factory hunting ammunition was changed forever. Now virtually every major ammunition maker offers a premium bullet in factory ammunition. With high-performance bullets commonplace, the next step in the evolution of factory hunting ammunition was muzzle velocity. For many years, companies have been thinking about ways to make their bullets go faster without increasing pressures beyond acceptable SAAMI specifications. In 1995 Hornady accomplished the feat when the company unveiled its new Light Magnum line of ammunition. By using a special ball propellant manufactured by Winchester and a special method of dropping that powder, Hornady was able to increase the muzzle velocity of several cartridges enough to market new hunting ammunition to speed-crazy hunters and shooters. Federal soon followed, introducing its new line of Premium High Energy ammunition in 1996. Like Light Magnum, High Energy touts faster muzzle velocities and increased performance over standard loadings in the same caliber.

If you believe the advertising claims made about the Hornady Light Magnum and Federal High Energy ammunition lines, you believe that your .30-06 will now perform like a .300 Magnum—a claim both companies make. Furthermore, Hornady’s new television ads show a race car peeling rubber, implying that Light Magnum’s performance versus standard ammunition is comparable to a Formula One racer competing against a commuter clunker. Also, Federal’s High Energy ammunition was recently named 1996 New Product of the Year by the Shooting Industry Academy of Excellence, a 200-member academy comprised of dealers, manufacturers, and industry writers.

But can either of these products match their hype? Performance Shooter decided to take a close look at both Light Magnum and High Energy ammunition to see what, if any, benefits these new cartridge lines actually give to hunters.

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Bullet

Premium Rifle Bullets

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In our expansion tests, we preferred projectiles from Swift, Barnes, and Winchester over the venerable Nosler Partition.

From left to right are: PMC’s Barnes X-Bullet ammo, the Winchester Fail Safe Supreme bullet, Remington’s Safari Grade ammo with the Swift A-Frame bullet, and Nosler Partition bullet.

The explosion of high-end factory rifle ammo in recent years has been hard to ignore. It started with Federal’s Premium line introduced some years ago and continued unabated until it now seems that everybody has jumped on the bandwagon. The primary difference between what has become known as the “premium” ammo segment and the mainstream factory offerings are careful quality-control standards and the use of name-brand bullets. Of course, both of these manufacturing factors serves to drive up the retail cost of premium ammo as well.

Each cartridge maker has different goals in mind when it loads a premium round. Remington’s Extended Range line of ammo, for instance, strives for increased ballistic efficiency by employing more streamlined bullets. Hornady’s Light Magnum line, however, increases velocities over what is considered normal for a given caliber and bullet weight.

Regardless of how a given ammo loading is supposed to perform, from a big-game hunter’s perspective the most important concern is terminal ballistics: What happens after the bullet hits the target. A big-game hunting bullet is asked to perform under a variety of conditions that are not always easily controllable. It should be able to shoot through both shoulders of an elk at 50 yards while staying together, but still be able to expand while shooting through the ribcage of a whitetail at 300 yards. With the huge difference in impact velocities and in target size and composition, this has traditionally been all but impossible for a single bullet to accomplish. The conventional thinking is that you must match the bullet to the expected game and range, and that a single bullet cannot possibly work under conditions this divergent.

To do so would certainly be a tough challenge, and there really isn’t a bullet that can do it all yet—but some bullets are getting pretty close, as we found out.

Premium Bullet Test
We wanted to determine how some of the best-known projectiles being loaded into hunting cartridges would perform in a realistic, but challenging, examination. Since most big game is shot at relatively close range, we decided to take a look at how some of the more popular bullets would perform under the toughest test we could devise: Impact at nearly full muzzle velocity. It takes a very good bullet to hold together while expanding and continuing to penetrate at full velocity. Most “conventional” bullets expand to the point of coming apart soon after contact and fail to penetrate very far in tough test medium. Other bullets designed to penetrate under these conditions, such as solids, do not expand and fail to cause the wound-channel diameters necessary for humane kills.

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Bullet

The .30-378 Versus The 7mm STW

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Both cartridges kick ballistic butt, but we pick Remington’s new Westerner over Weatherby’s big-dog chambering.

The .30-378 Weatherby (right) and 7mm Shooting Times Westerner (left) were developed for long- range shooting across beanfields and canyons. They overpower such cartridges as the .30-06 Springfield (center) in case capacity, velocity, and energy delivered to the target.

A couple of calibers introduced for 1997 may well be the best long-range big-game cartridges ever made in America. Remington and Weatherby have legitimized two popular wildcats, and in doing so they have redefined the parameters of flat trajectories and long-range energy delivery. With these companies making “honest cartridges” out of the .30-378 Weatherby and the 7mm Shooting Times Westerner, long-range shooting has been elevated to a higher level.

We recently tested rifles chambered for these new cartridges—to assess the quality of the rifle products that fire these hot new loads and to compare the ballistic performance of the rounds themselves. What we found pleased us in many ways, for both rounds are solid complements to the existing factory-cartridge menus offered by Remington and Weatherby.

Weatherby .30-378:
The Big Dog

Unquestionably, the .30-378 is the big dog of midline rifle cartridges. Ever since the movie Tin Cup repopularized the expression “Let the big dog eat”—meaning the most powerful members of a group get first crack at the goodies—we’ve thought the phrase described this cartridge perfectly. Its huge case has the ability to hold well over 120 grains of powder, and that is a hearty appetite.

This cartridge is formed when the massive .378 Weatherby parent cartridge is necked down to .30 caliber, maintaining the trademark Weatherby double-radius shoulder. The .30-378 was developed for 1,000-yard benchrest shooting, but it has its place as an ultra long-range deer cartridge. It has also proven itself as a long-range elk round; with the proper bullets, it is capable of taking any game on the North American continent.

We first encountered the .30-378 back in 1984 in an Ungava caribou camp along the George River. The hunter who was lugging it claimed the 180-grain bullet ran at 4,000 fps. He determined this velocity figure by the unscientific method of shooting at a distant rock with the rifle and a .220 Swift in succession. It was generally agreed that the bullets from the two guns took the same amount of time to hit the rock. Since the Swift exceeds 4,000 fps, he judged that the .30-378 did as well.

Today’s reality is something else. Weatherby still has not shipped factory ammo, and so we cannot prove or disprove the company’s claim of 3,450 fps with a Barnes 180-grain X-Bullet. But knowing that the company’s technicians are experimenting with powders and blends of powders that are not available to the reloader, that velocity is achievable, in our estimation.

We want to stress that we are exploring new territory here and that our testing is far from over. However, we have tested most of the popular powders and bullets for this cartridge and have not achieved the results we had hoped for and that others have claimed. As any reloader knows, this situation can change overnight as new powder or even powder lots become available.

Still, after experimenting with a variety of powders currently available to the handloader, we have found no truly safe handload that can deliver that velocity with that bullet. Though there are some wild claims of 3,600 fps or even 3,700 fps being made about this cartridge/bullet combo, we would have to see it to be convinced. Most of the loads we built that approached the factory velocity left the gun’s bolt difficult to open. Those that exceeded 3,500 fps were dangerously over pressure, and we wouldn’t attempt 3,700 fps even on a bet. In our Weatherby Accumark rifle the most velocity we could safely achieve has been 3,300 to 3,350 fps, which still ain’t too shabby.

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Bullet

Safari And Trophy Bonded

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These rounds from Remington and Federal showed speed, power, and expansion qualities we liked. Losers: Two Federal loads that turned to shrapnel.

 

The Remington Safari Grade Swift A-Frame 200-grain bullet.

Proper shot placement does not begin in the field while setting your sights on a trophy elk or monster mule deer. Rather, it all starts at your favorite ammo dealer because the best-placed shot of a lifetime could literally amount to a spoonful of shrapnel if you don’t choose the right cartridge and bullet combination.

One of the favorite medium-game cartridges is the .300 Winchester Magnum, which shoots the same caliber bullet as the .308 Winchester, but with more velocity. Thus, the .300 Win. Mag. will hit with more power, specifically, more impact energy. But you should still be careful about your selection of ammunition. For one thing, you can buy a .30-06 load in a .300 Magnum case. One of the loads we tested was just that, and not a very husky .30-06 load either. Another problem is bullet performance. It takes a stouter bullet to handle these higher velocities well.

To be effective a bullet must expand and penetrate. If it fails to expand it will produce only a pencil-sized hole through the animal, usually resulting in a lingering death and lost meat. A bullet that expands and promptly looses its mushroom is little better. This was a major problem with the bullets we tested. A bullet that disintegrates on impact and doesn’t penetrate expends its energy on the surface, causing only a superficial wound. You can’t expect to kill an elk with a spoonful of shrapnel. A somewhat less serious problem is bullets that lose most of their weight and energy on impact, but continue to penetrate. Our testing procedure checked for all of these problems.

A higher impact velocity can aid the mushrooming process of a properly constructed bullet, or it can “wipe” the mushroom off after the bullet enters the target. It takes a well-constructed bullet to withstand the higher impact velocity of a short .300 Magnum shot. Most of those we tested didn’t do so; they disintegrated or lost their mushroomed front end. But we buy these bigger guns to shoot at longer ranges; a bullet has to perform especially well at the limit of its range when most of the speed has drained away. All but one of the bullets we tested expanded at 300-yard velocities.

Our test rounds included the Remington Safari Grade brand, which has a Swift A-Frame 200-grain bullet; Federal Trophy Bonded with Trophy Bonded’s Bear Claw 180-grain bullet; the Winchester Power Point 180-grain Soft Point; the Winchester 220-grain Silver Tip; Remington’s 190-grain Extended Range cartridge; the Remington 180-grain Core-Lokt round; PMC’s Barnes “X” 180-grain bullet; Federal’s Premium load with Nosler’s 180-grain Partition bullet; the Speer Nitrex with a Grand Slam 180 grain bullet; Winchester’s 180-grain Fail Safe load; the PMC 180-grain Pointed Soft Point; Hornady’s 180-grain Spire Point Interlock; and Federal’s 180-grain Pro Hunter and 200-grain Boat Tail Soft Point loads. Of this group, we liked the Remington Safari and Federal Trophy Bonded rounds, but would pass on the Federal Pro Hunter and Boat Tail Soft Point loads, for reasons we detail below.

Bullet-By-Bullet Results
Remington Safari Grade with a Swift A-Frame 200-grain bullet. Our testing demonstrated that this is the best round available for the .300 Winchester Magnum. Each bullet expanded well in all three mediums and retained most of its weight. It also delivered the most energy at 300 yards because it’s a faster, heavier bullet than most of those tested. The cases are nickel plated. That may be an indication of premium price, but it doesn’t really make any difference. Cases are plated to prevent contact with leather from corroding the brass. No one that we know of carries his rifle ammunition in leather belt loops.

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