column By: Gordy J. Krahn | May, 18
When the .223 Remington came on the scene in the late 1950s, it wasn’t long before it became apparent that this nifty little cartridge was destined for predator hunting hall-of-fame status – if there was such a thing, of course. Its potential accuracy, mild recoil and the availability of a wide array of factory ammunition, reloading components and once-fired military surplus brass contributed to its popularity, and it became a favorite among fur hunters from coast to coast.
The cartridge was originally developed for the U.S. Army – standardized as the 5.56x45mm Ball Cartridge, M193 in 1964 – and first used in combat rifles during the Vietnam War. Adapted for use in the select-fire M16 – a military version of the Armalite AR-15 – it proved to be an effective cartridge for close-quarters jungle warfare and became a staple of U.S. troops.
At about the same time, Remington began producing the cartridge commercially, as the .223 Remington. While it’s designated a .22-caliber cartridge, in reality it utilizes a .224-inch diameter bullet. The cartridge quickly gained popularity with hunters because commercially marketed rifles delivered excellent accuracy.
Ballistically, the .223 Remington is nearly identical to its sister cartridge, the .222 Remington Magnum, developed in 1957 for a U.S. military prototype Armalite AR-15 rifle. The .222 Remington Magnum was not adopted by the military but was introduced commercially in sporting rifles. The case of the .223 Remington is slightly shorter than the .222 Remington Magnum and holds a tad less powder. Both are considered midrange varmint cartridges, delivering excellent accuracy and punch out to 250 yards or so.
The $64,000 question, of course, is whether the .223 Remington and 5.65x45mm are interchangeable. The answer is . . . yes and no. It’s a common misconception that the two are the same, which can be hazardous. While the outside case dimensions are nearly identical, there are enough internal differences that the two are not completely interchangeable. The short answer is that the 5.56x45mm is different enough that it creates more pressure when shoved into a .223 Remington chamber, and while it is generally okay to shoot .223 Remington cartridges in any rifle chambered for 5.56x45mm, military-specification ammunition should not be fired from rifles chambered for .223 Remington.
In a past column I went out on a limb and wrote that if I had only one predator rifle for all applications it would be a bolt action chambered in .22-250 Remington, of which I own three. While nothing’s changed my mind in that respect, I concede that valid arguments can be made that the .223 Remington might be the most versatile fur cartridge available. Remember, however, the reason there are so many choices when it comes to cartridges and bullets in the first place is because there is no quintessential predator gun/cartridge/bullet combination, not even the .22-250 Remington (or .223 Remington). The best a predator hunter can hope for – if he uses one rifle for all fur-hunting applications – is to find the best compromise for the variety of animals he hunts in the various types of terrain where he hunts them.
While I have nothing to back this up other than personal observation, it seems to me that the Missouri River – where East meets West – is also the dividing point between hunters who prefer the .22-250 Remington and like calibers over the .223 Remington and similar “mighty mouse” cartridges. The majority of western predator hunters I’ve spent time with packed .22-250s, while I’ve noted a preponderance of .223s east of the Big Muddy. I believe this has a lot to do with terrain and the expectancy of long shots – with those taken in the East being typically shorter than those in the West.
So, for comparison, let’s take a look at how the .223 Remington stacks up against the .22-250 Remington. First off, let’s consider terminal performance, using the Hornady 40-grain V-MAX in its Varmint Express line as the proving ground. It’s no surprise that the .22-250 Remington bullet leaves the gate well ahead of the .223 Remington – roughly 4,150 fps/1,529 foot-pounds (ft-lbs) of energy compared to 3,800 fps/1,282 ft-lbs. Zeroed at 200 yards, the .22-250 Remington is still traveling at 2,568 fps with 585 ft-lbs and dropping 4.5 inches when it crosses the 300-yard line, compared to 2,324 fps/479 ft-lbs/5.5-inch drop for the .223 Remington.
At 500 yards, the gap has widened a bit more, with the .22-250 Remington traveling at 1,771 fps and delivering 278 ft-lbs, while the .223 Remington has dropped to 1,578 fps and 221 ft-lbs. Bullet-drop trajectory is -31.7 vs. -39.1, respectively. It’s evident that as range increases, the .22-250’s extra horsepower comes into play. Just for clarification in terms of percentages, let’s go back to the rifle muzzle. The .223’s initial velocity is 9.2 percent lower than that of the .22-250, and its ft-lbs of energy is 19.2 percent lower. Push both bullets out to 500 yards and the .223 Remington delivers 25.7 percent less energy than its big brother.
But is this performance difference really significant? It depends. At moderate ranges, probably not so much. But let’s be honest here: Most coyotes, foxes and bobcats are shot at less than 300 yards – even more often at 200 yards or less. But speed kills, especially when using fragmenting bullets on thin-skinned critters. And if shot placement is imperfect, a bullet that’s carrying more energy has a better chance of getting the job done. So once shots go beyond 300 yards – and certainly if shots are 400 yards or farther – the .22-250 Remington becomes a better choice, a reason it’s favored by hunters who hang out in the wide-open spaces of the West. That leaves the .223 Remington as a perfect choice for moderate ranges, say 250 yards and less. For those predator hunters who do their job well and call in critters sure-kill close, the .223 Remington should suffice for 95 percent of the shots they face.
There is one caveat: When calling larger critters, such as lions, bears or wolves, the extra foot pounds that the .22-250 Remington and other beefier calibers possess might come into play. Again, that’s the reason most predator hunters own more than one fur gun.
Okay, what about recoil? As Sir Isaac Newton profoundly put it: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Free recoil, therefore, can be loosely defined as the backward momentum of the rifle, expressed in foot-pounds of force, as the result of the forward momentum of the bullet leaving the barrel when the shooter pulls the trigger – a by-product of the propulsive force from the ignition of the cartridge within the rifle’s chamber. The rearward energy of the firearm is the free recoil, and the forward energy of the bullet is its muzzle energy. The greater the muzzle energy, the more recoil that’s transferred to the shooter.
To illustrate this, compare free recoil in a range of popular fur cartridges (.17 Remington, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington and .243 Winchester) in an 8.5-pound rifle. The .17 Remington with a muzzle velocity (mv) of 4,000 fps generates 1.6 pounds of recoil energy; the .223 Remington (3,500 mv) generates 2.6 pounds of energy; the .22-250 Remington (3,600 mv) generates 4.7 pounds of energy, and the .243 Winchester generates 7.2 pounds of energy with a muzzle velocity of 3,400 fps. This, of course, illustrates that as cartridge power increases, more foot-pounds of free recoil are generated. Some of this recoil can be tamed by increasing the weight of the rifle. Using the .22-250 Remington as an example, if the weight of the rifle is increased to 12.5 pounds, free recoil energy is reduced from 4.7 to 3.1 pounds.
Felt (or net) recoil is subjective. Shooters have different tolerances to recoil, and the human factor is very difficult to calculate. Felt recoil can also be altered by a host of factors, including the weight and action of the rifle, the weight of the bullet, the fit of the rifle, muzzle brake, recoil pad, etc. The bottom line is that with all things equal, the .223 Remington produces less recoil when compared to larger calibers, and for those shooters who are sensitive to recoil it might make a difference. Less recoil often means less flinching (better accuracy) and that the shooter might have an easier time staying on target and chambering and shooting follow-up rounds.
As mentioned, the availability of low-priced ammunition and reloading components for the .223 Remington is another reason why it’s favored by so many fur hunters. Factory ammunition for the .223 Remington is typically cheaper than for the .22-250 Remington and like calibers. For example, a box of 50 Black Hills Ammunition .223 Remington cartridges loaded with Hornady V-MAX bullets will run about $48, while the same offering for the .22-250 Remington costs about $33 for 20 rounds. While cheap, FMJ army surplus ammunition is available for fur hunting, I suggest staying away from full-metal jackets in favor of expandable bullets for better terminal performance, like polymer-tipped bullets and hollowpoints. For reloaders, grade 2, once-fired military brass can be purchased at outlets such as MidwayUSA for about $60 for 500 units.
To summarize, here’s the pros and cons of the .223 Remington and how it stacks up against more muscle-bound cartridges such as the .22-250 Remington, .25-06 Remington, .243 Winchester and other such cartridges.
Pros: Less perceived recoil; low-priced factory ammunition; readily available reloading components and cheap, once-fired military brass; availablity in every imaginable factory rifle; chambered in a wide variety of AR-type rifles; less fur damage.
Cons: Velocity and energy begin to drop off rapidly beyond 300 yards; not as much muscle when dealing with larger predators such as lions, bears and wolves.
Since its conception in the 1950s, the .223 Remington has remained a perennial favorite among a wide range of predator hunters because of its accuracy, reasonably flat trajectory and mild recoil. And while it’s capable of anchoring even the largest coyotes, it treats more delicate predators such as foxes, raccoons and bobcats with respect, minimizing fur damage. Who could ask for anything more in a fur cartridge?