Reloading options for this military/civilian round abound.
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.
Military brass tends to be heavier, leaving less powder capacity. In testing five different brands of brass I found that there can be a significant variation in case capacity. In the five tested, the greatest difference in capacity of water was more than 18 percent of the average capacity. A load that is safe in one case may generate excessive pressures in another. The reverse is true as well, as a load that was maximum in one case may be on the mild side in another case. Always consider this when using new cases, but particularly when using military brass. Never mix case brands or lots. I also found a variation in weight and capacity in military brass of the same headstamp. Now and then one case would be considerably heavier than its litter mates. It would be best not to push the upper limits of pressure with any load as a rogue case may put it over the line, endangering both the shooter and the firearm.
Those hunters looking for full-velocity loads may be better suited with commercial brass’s extra case capacity.
All sized and conditioned brass should be tumbled to remove any trace of resizing lubricant. The RCBS Side Winder tumbler with ground corn-cob medium works as well as anything else I have tried.
Standard small-rifle primers will work with most loads, but ball or spherical powders usually will require a magnum primer for best accuracy and lower standard deviations. Reloads to be used in semi-autos should probably use the CCI Number 41 primer. This is a military-specification sensitivity primer that is designed to prevent slam-fires in semi-auto rifles. The small primers require a good feel to seat them properly.
You must make certain not to crush the primers with too much pressure, which is easy to do with press-mounted priming tools. On the other hand, it is important that all primers are seated fully to the base of the primer pocket. This is particularly important with semi-auto rifles where there is the possibility of a slam-fire (in which the gun fires when the bolt slams shut). That balance is best obtained with a hand-held priming tool such as those sold by Lee or RCBS.
Take A Powder
There is a variety of powders that work well with the .223 Remington, and it’s not a particularly fussy eater. However, with most hunting-weight bullets, Hodgdon H335 or H332 are always good bets. In addition to good velocity and excellent accuracy, they meter well from a powder measure, particularly H335. This can be very important when loading hundreds of rounds for a prairie dog hunt. Other good powders include H4895, BL-C (2), RL-7, RL-12, IMR-3031, IMR-4895, and W-748. Different powders are better suited to specific bullet weights. For example RL-7, gives high velocities with 40-grain bullets, but it has a poor showing with 60-grain bullets. In those bullet weights, the slower burning W-748, H4895, or even RL-15 are better choices for powering those heavy pills.
Bullets are available from several manufacturers from 40 up to 80 grains. New this year are the Hornady V-Max bullets with a polymer plastic tip. This lighter tip allows the center of gravity to be moved back slightly, creating greater stability in flight. The tip is backed by a small hollow cavity that allows it to move on impact, building kinetic energy before smashing into the rest of the bullet. When combined with the wedging effect of the tip, this creates improved fragmentation at long range and lower velocities. Also, the plastic tip resists deformation in the gun and in flight to ensure that the ballistic coefficient remains consistent from bullet to bullet. This promotes long-range consistency and accuracy.
Preliminary tests with handloads and factory loads in the .220 Swift, .22-250 Remington, and .223 Remington show this bullet to be extremely accurate. Also, I have tested the 40-grain in the .223 Remington and the 55-grain in the .22-250 Remington on coyotes. With solid body hits, death is instantaneous. In about a dozen coyotes that were shot, not one that was hit solid in the body exhibited an exit hole.
However, the Hornady 40-grainer isn’t appropriate on bigger game. One hunter tried to shoot a feral hog (against advice) with .223 Remington using the factory loaded 40-grain V-Max. He missed the head shot and hit the hog at the junction of the neck and shoulder with an almost straight front-on angle. The hog was killed a few minutes later with a bigger gun. Skinning the hog revealed that the bullet penetrated only about 5 inches and completely fragmented, tearing a fist-sized hole in the shoulder, which is exactly what it was designed to do.
Another new development in .22 bullets comes from Barnes Bullets. That company now offers its solid-copper hollow-point X-Bullet technology in 45- and 53-grain weights. This bullet is designed for positive, controlled expansion and deep penetration. The X-Bullet has proven itself to be a superb performer in big-game hunting calibers. Most hunters report that they can use a bullet one step down in weight from what they normally choose and still get as much or more penetration. The X-Bullet has a reputation for expanding positively and retaining weight over a range of impact velocities. Barnes was aiming for the deer hunters who use .22 centerfires, usually a .22-250 or .220 Swift, when it brought these bullets to market. While hunting deer with .22s will likely remain controversial, the .223 should never be used for this purpose, I believe. If you must do it, at least use one of the “bigger” .22s.
As stated, the new Hornady V-Max bullet in 40-, 50-, or 55-grain weights are some of the best I have tried for accuracy and consistent fragmentation. They, along with the 50- and 55-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip Varmint, are great long-range bullets. The plastic tips provide a consistent ballistic coefficient that ensures long-range accuracy. Along with the Speer TNT and Sierra Blitz, they are among the best choices for shooting small varmints such as woodchucks, prairie dogs, and ground squirrels. These bullets are designed to fragment on impact, for a quick kill and reduced chance of ricochet.
For predators, there are two schools of thought about bullet choices. One is to use a bullet that fragments on impact and stays in the animal without an exit hole. All of the above bullets are excellent choices for that when driven to .223 Remington velocities. The other philosophy is to use a controlled-expansion bullet such as in big-game hunting for complete penetration and a smallish exit hole. Here, the new Barnes X-bullets in both 45- and 53-grain weights will be the best choices. They are aimed at the deer-hunting market, but no amount of wishful thinking will ever make the .223 Remington a deer caliber. However, these bullets make good coyote rounds and will work well on foxes or bobcats. These bullets should also be useful for javelina hunting. The X-Bullets are pricey and with the continuing depressed fur market many hunters will not spring for the extra money. But if fur ever comes back in vogue where it is again important to kill the critter with as little hide damage as possible, these bullets should find a strong following. Many of the 55-grain bullets will also work to take fur, as will the 60-grainers. The Speer and Hornady 70-grain bullets are designed for bigger game, and in the .223 Remington they will serve well on coyotes if the rifle will shoot them well. Many 1-in-12-twist barrels will not.
Target bullets, such as the Sierra Match King and the Hornady Match bullets, should never be used on game. They are designed for accuracy and ballistic efficiency, so terminal performance—including expansion or fragmentation—is unpredictable.
The Sierra 80-grain Match King bullet is designed for the 600-yard stage of the NRA National Match Service Rifle competition. It requires a 1-in-7 or 1-in-8 twist rate to stabilize it and must be loaded single shot in the rifle, due to its long overall length.
My all-time favorite bullet in the .223 is the Speer 52-grain hollow point, although the V-Max is going to give it some stiff competition, I think. This thin-jacket cold-swaged bullet has shown outstanding accuracy in a variety of rifles. I load it with 26 grains of H335 and fire it up with a CCI 450 small-rifle magnum primer, for about 3,200 fps from my Contender Carbine or Colt HBAR Sporter.
It has performed well on everything from 8-pound woodchucks to tough 60-pound eastern coyotes. While it lacks the ballistic coefficient of the Nosler Ballistic Tip or the Hornady V-Max, it shoots flat enough for anything the .223 Remington was ever designed to do. When I sight it dead-on at 200 yards, it is 1.6 inches high at 100 yards and 7.9 inches low at 300 yards. This allows me a dead on hold on a coyote out to 250 yards and a backbone hold at 300 yards, the limits of the round’s hunting range. In contrast, the streamlined 55-grain V-Max with the same zero drops 7.1 inches at 300 yards.
No matter what your game, you will find the .223 Remington to be a good friend in the field. It’s not too fussy about what you feed it, it gets the job done, it won’t beat you, and it will never let you down.