If one is looking to purchase a small caliber, centerfire rifle today, you really only have one choice: the .223 Remington. The .22 Hornet and the .222 Remington have both faded from the lime light of shooting catalogs. It isn't so much because the .223 is such a wonderful round; it has more to do with the fact that it is the military and NATO round de jour. That means availability. And availability means cheap.
In the smaller bore, the .223 follows in power behind both the .220 Swift and the .22-250 Remington, though not by much. The .223 is a good 300 yard round, speeding along at roughly 3,400 feet per second. It is a light recoiling round that is easy to shoot all day. This makes the .223 an excellent choice for people who want to learn how to shoot a rifle, for people who want to hunt small game, and for people who enjoy formal competitions involving paper targets.
The .223 is an important round, both in terms of its developmental history and modern day applications. Looking closely, there are three things that need to be discussed about the .223 in order to give it full consideration. These three points are as follows:
- Design of the Cartridge
- Military Usage
- Varmint Hunting
Design of the Cartridge
Below is a rough time line that demarcates the different important points of the developmental history of the cartridge. We start with the parent cartridge and move forward.
- The .222 Remington was introduced in 1950.
- Then, a year or two later, under contract with the Springfield Armory, Remington was charged with finding a suitable cartridge that would meet the needs of the United States Army in their quest for a small caliber round.
- What Remington came up with for that initial contract would eventually be called the .222 Remington Magnum (which in turn was based on the .222 Remington). This design allowed for more powder capacity; and as a result, extended range and speed. However, this cartridge was rejected by the army.
- Then, in 1957, the army solicited both a cartridge and rifle design from both Winchester and Remington. Winchester came up with the .224 Winchester which was rejected. Remington first called their attempt the .222 Remington Special, but later changed it to .223 Remington. It was, of course, accepted and used in the then new Colt M16.
At this point, I think it is important to mention what brought about the cartridge is intertwined with some military history. You see, it wasn't just that Remington was looking to make a new cartridge (they just made the .222). The military was searching for a lower recoiling, lighter weight round than the standard .30" calibers that had been used through both World Wars and Korea. Automatic weapons were on the way, and the larger calibers would make them tough on the soldiers using them, in terms of both recoil and the weight of the ammunition. So, something lighter in recoil but very lethal was needed. Enter the .223 (which became for the military/NATO the 5.56x45mm — there are some differences between the two rounds in terms of speed and bullet, but for our purposes, we will treat them the same.)
If there is anything about the Vietnam War that stands out in the minds of tracing the course of military firearms and cartridges, there is the M16 and the .223. Both newly introduced, the M16 had problems of its own during the war, due in part to the actual design of the gun, and due in part to the smokeless powder used in the cartridge itself. The Army Ordinance officers were really quite reticent to change things around once the weapons platforms have been implemented. However, things were eventually fixed, though it is hard to guess the amount of casualties as a result of malfunctioning weapons.
Today, the .223 is still a major cartridge for the military, which also means it has a major market in the civilian population (this is in no small part due to the fact that military surplus can be had very cheaply). Typically, this cartridge is thought to be too small for taking larger game like deer (and in some states, this practice would be illegal) so it finds its place with the varmint hunters. Typically, this means small game like feral dogs, coyotes and fox. It also is used in great numbers on prairie dogs and groundhogs (woodchuck). Some people also use them for long range crow hunting.
Available in many different bullet weights, combined with the many good powders and surplus brass cartridges, the .223 can be reloaded to suit the handloaders particular purpose. However, since this cartridge is so cheap to begin with, many people don't bother.
The .223 Remington will go down in military firearms history as one of the most prolific cartridges ever developed. It will take its place alongside the .30-06 Springfield, the .308 Winchester (aka 7.62x51 mm), and the .45-70 Government.
Waters, Ken. Pet Loads