Five Letters Re: An Opinion on .223 Remington/5.56mm NATO

I’d like to make a few points regarding the .223 cartridge. I am not as enthusiastic about it as Stephen D. seems to be, but I think it’s good for more than defense against, “a human wave of palsied, midget, and/or wheelchair-bound looters.” The .223/5.56 produces its nasty wounds through fragmentation, rather than tumbling. Any spitzer projectile, including the .308, is going to tumble when it hits a dense medium like water or human flesh. A bullet will generally flip around 180 degrees and continue it’s travel through the body backwards (for a body that’s pointed on one end and
blunt on the other, blunt end first is the most stable configuration).
Simply getting a .223 bullet to do a 180 doesn’t increase it’s wounding potential much, since it flips over rather quickly and then makes the same size hole going backwards as it did going forward. Fragmentation, on the other hand, is what causes truly devastating wounds. While fragmentation is rather inconsistent, it is not random. There are a lot of variables that determine whether or not a .223 round is going to fragment (including bullet construction, what part of the body it hits, etc.), but by far the most important one is velocity.
The cutoff seems to be around 2500-2700 feet per second. Faster than 2700 fps, fragmentation is practically certain, below 2500 fps, you have a .22 caliber ice pick. So anyone who wants to inflict serious wounds with their .223 rifle needs to ensure that the bullet arrives with sufficient velocity.
There are the big things that affect the velocity of the bullet when it hits the target: barrel length, bullet weight, and range. To give an idea of how the first three can interact, consider this example. A
55 grain M193 bullet (the old U.S. military standard issue round) fired from a 20-inch barrel will stay above 2700 feet per second out to almost 200 meters. On the other hand, a 62 grain M855 bullet (the current U.S. standard issue) fired from a 11.5-inch barrel will drop below 2700 fps in less than fifteen meters! Many of the recent ‘failure to stop’ incidents reported from Iraq and Afghanistan (and
even as far back as Somalia) involve soldiers firing the M855 bullet through M4 carbines with 14.5 inch barrels. This combination will only produce fragmentation out to about 50 meters or so. Beyond that, the odds of doing the target a lethal injury go way down. Soldiers with longer barreled weapons (like the 20-inch barrel of the M16 rifle and 18-inch barrel of the M249 SAW) tend not to have as many problems.
The other big obstacle to fragmentation is cover. This is perhaps the .223 round’s greatest weakness, it’s inability to penetrate barriers. The little 55 grain round just doesn’t have the mass to punch through even fairly light cover and retain enough velocity to fragment. So, anyone who wants to employ the .223 round for personal defense should keep these factors in mind: Use a fairly long barrel. 20-inches is best, but it means you give up some of the handiness that’s an advantage of a .223 rifle in the first place. 16-inches (the longest easily available to civilians in the U.S.) is a good compromise. Use a fairly light bullet. A 55-grain bullet like the old M193 round is probably best. Lighter ‘varmint’ bullets are available, but though they will fragment readily, they may not have sufficient penetration to reach the vitals. They may also break apart in flight if fired through a gun with a fast twist (1 in 7 or 1 in 9) designed to stabilize the heavier 62 grain round. Don’t rely on a .223 for extreme ranges. A 16-inch barrel with a 55 grain bullet will stay above 2700fps (fast enough to fragment) out to about 150 meters. Beyond that, lethality is going to drop off quite a bit.
Don’t shoot through stuff. If an opponent is behind cover, a heavier caliber is going to be necessary to dig them out.
So how does the .223 stack up as a defensive round? In a true SHTF situation, not all that well. It’s perfectly possible to use 55 grain bullets and a longer barrel to get pretty good performance from a .223
rifle. The limited effective range is a disadvantage, but just how big of a disadvantage depends on the terrain to be defended. In wooded or urban areas, long shots are rare and the extra reach of a
round like the .308 may not be necessary. The really serious disadvantage is the inability to penetrate cover. Potential opponents probably aren’t going to charge across and open field to be mowed
down. Having a rifle that can penetrate through a substantial tree or the bodywork of a car and still have enough punch left to inflict a lethal wound is a big advantage.
On the other hand, if the Schumer has not yet hit the fan, the .223 is a much more appealing choice. In a situation where authorities will be investigating claims of self defense, a truly long range rifle
isn’t necessary. If a target is beyond the effective range of a .223 rifle, it is going to be very difficult to justify using deadly force.
Similarly, for those of us who live in urban areas, the .223’s anemic penetration is actually an advantage. A .308 round has enormous penetrating power, particularly through wood frame construction. Fire
it in self defense and miss and it could pass through every house on the block before coming to a rest. A .223 allows the greater effectiveness of a rifle while decreasing the damage an errant round
might do.
If you can only have one rifle, a .308 is probably the best all-around choice. However, if you are worried about home defense right now, rather than just in case of TEOTWAWKI, a .223 rifle is very appealing. If funds allow, it might be useful to get a rifle in each caliber. To avoid the need to learn two completely different rifles, the best
option may be to purchase the same design in both calibers. Several weapon systems [allowing commonality of training] are available for both rounds, including the AR-10/AR-15 and the HK91/HK93.
Most of the technical information given above comes from For those who are interested in the subject, this site has an extremely thorough discussion of the ballistics and
wounding potential of the .223 round. – Chris


I would have to agree with Stephen on the 5.56 ammo. If you are shooting either the m193 55gr. or the SS109 62gr. as long as the bullet velocity is maintained above 2700fps then there is dramatic fragmentation. This is due to the military cannelure, when the bullet enters flesh it starts to yaw (tumble) once the bullet reaches 90 degrees the jacket comes apart causing massive wound injuries. This is only true of military style ammo, not plinking ammo or wolf. I feel that the 5.56 is more effective then 308 at 200 yards or less, but after 200 yards I would only recommend the 308. I do not expect you to believe just me so go to or there is a link on also. Another thing we must all take into consideration that the supply of surplus 308 is getting scarce and no major military is using it in mass quantities (that I am aware of) 5.56 is here to stay for a while and is readily available. In the event of a NATO or military invasion of US soil it is what the troops will be carrying so it would be nice to know that the enemies ammo can be used in our guns. Just a little food for thought. Great blog – Brian in Wyoming


I thought you, and the readers might find this link interesting The same site offers a daily e-mail with all their stories. Some good stuff as to the internal workings of government and the defense industry.
Also, as far as cartridges go, while you may think the .223 a bit anemic, I think it’s ideal for CQB, provided you are wearing ear protection, and your adversary is not. However, one thing that constantly seems to get overlooked in all firearm technology (especially when it comes to the .223 vs anything debate) are some of the newer bullet technologies out there.
Specifically frangible ammunition offers some advantages over your standard military ball ammo. For the most part, humans are relatively thin. I’m sure even the largest of people are no more than 1-2 feet thick. Which means, any bullet striking the body has to do whatever it is that it does in that distance. While I am in total agreement that M193’s fragmentation capability is arbitrary and not something to count on, explosive varmint bullets (like the Hornady VMAX and AMAX), and frangible bullets are more likely to increase the lethal effects of these “mouse gun” cartridges.
One thing that the .308 has in it’s favor these days is availability. There is still a substantial amount of “on the shelf” stock in .308 as well as surplus 7.62mm. As opposed to .223 which seems to be in incredibly short supply. The other day my friend stopped by, he was on his way to the range, and was only able to find 2 boxes of .223 and for $10 each! I gave him 100 rounds
with the agreement that they were to be replaced with 100 rounds of .308 ammo, and on the way back from the range he dropped off 5 boxes of American Eagle .308. Once again, it really pays to be prepared! Sincerely, – Drew


Dear Jim:
I second your opinion on the .308. Besides the ability to stop an attacker much faster and more consistently, another big factor is that the .308 has the huge advantage of penetrating much more cover than the .223.
Tactically, most often after the first few rounds, all will be hit, behind cover, or moving to it. Do you want to keep their heads down with a.223, or shoot through that tree or wall they are hiding behind?
Sometimes you just have to lug the weight, if you want the right tool for the job. Half measures don’t cut it. The .223s are great for small game, training, youngsters and petite folks, but if you have the upper body strength carry a .308, then do so. And if you don’t, then hit the gym!
Also you can modify .308s to make them more balanced, ergonomic and easier to handle:
— retrofit more ergonomic pistol grips, e.g.,, or file down your grips to get a better grip angle
–cover grip surfaces with 3M Safety Walk grip tape (the stuff used on steps to prevent slipping – in the paint department at Home Depot)
— shorten the barrel (the weight at the end of the barrel is harder to hold up) and lose the bipod
— take off the buttstock pad to shorten the buttstock and bring the weapon in closer
— put a mag in a SpecOps buttstock mag holder to balance out muzzle-heaviness
— add a vertical foregrip, etc., etc.
Any other suggestions to make heavier .308s more ergonomic? Regards, – OSOM


Dear Jim,
As any readers of mine know, I’m a tremendous fan of the AR-15 platform. However, it would not be my first choice of a survival weapon.
For survival over a long period, one should not be shooting large amounts of ammo. One should be in a secure position, preferably with neighbors for backup, and hunting occasional game, fighting occasional intruders. If things are bad enough you need a military type weapon, you’ve picked the wrong location in which to survive. (Assuming you’re not in a retreat community where such weapons are a good choice, with good logistical support, in addition to basic weapons.) However, it could be a very good choice for getting to a retreat.
I’ve tried the Beta C-Mag, and I concur with the US Army: Unacceptable Mean Time Between Failures (UMTBF). I’ve had it double feed, jam with both feed mechanisms at the bottom of the tower, and if you slam or drop it loaded on concrete, it will break. It’s adequate when pre-lubed, pre-loaded and ready to go for one time use before cleaning and re-lubing. That limits its utility. Add in the price tag, and there are better accessories to get.
For a long term survival rifle, a bolt action rifle chambered in 7.62x54R, .30-06, .308, or 8×57 Mauser is my recommendation. Easy to get ammo for, reliable, and if you have to reload with improvised propellant, bolt actions will fire it. (A self loader will not.)
I do recommend the AR-15 for bugout scenarios, based on the fact that parts are readily available, the ammo is the most common in the US, and doctrine for bugging out is to make holes in mobs–wounded or dead is the same, the military term being “Mission kill.” Someone not able to attack you is an effective kill for the duration of the engagement.
While I don’t think the 62 gr round was a wise change, I recently spoke to a Navy medic who is on a second tour in Iraq. His feedback was that any good hit with an M16 or M4 was almost always an effective hit. Most of the “I hit him three times center mass and he didn’t stop” stories are because soldiers didn’t hit. Stress can do funny things to one’s shooting. (Witness Peter Hathaway Capstick’s [“live rounds on the ground”] story of a hunter who cycled every round from the magazine [of a bolt action rifle] and ejected them, without pulling the trigger, and swore he’d hit the elephant four times.)
The military uses small caliber almost universally across the world, because militaries win wars through logistics and resupply–running out of ammo is always bad, so a larger volume of ammo is more militarily effective than a smaller volume of heavier ammo. A prepared individual in a retreat is only going to have what is on hand, and must make it count. One good rifle that will work out to 500 yards is the better choice. Obviously, funds permitting, you can do as I have–compromise and have both.:) – Michael Z. Williamson