There are only a few things that confuse new gun owners more than rifles that chamber the .223 Remington or 5.56mm NATO round. The fake news media loves to describe the AR-15 as a big, scary gun that fires 100%-all-the-time-lethal ammunition at a frightening rate of fifteen rounds a second.

In reality, the .223/5.56 round (more on that small difference later) doesn’t make for a particularly powerful cartridge relative to other calibers. And the AR-15 rifle is far less exciting than they would have you believe, with most people able to fire only a handful of well-aimed shots in a minute.

So what is it that the beginner should know about the .223 Remington caliber?

The first thing is the difference between .223 Remington and 5.56x45mm NATO ammunition. To keep it simple, the 5.56mm round is essentially just a different type of chamber profile as compared to ‘civilian’ .223, but the two can pretty much be used interchangeably.

There are minute differences in the throat (the space in the bore where the chamber ends and the rifling starts) where wear may be accelerated if one uses higher-pressure 5.56 ammo in a .223 chamber, but that isn’t a big deal. In fact, I doubt that most, if any, shooters would ever be able to tell a difference.

That said, most people advise against shooting 5.56 in a .223 chambered gun because of the higher pressure of 5.56 ammunition. Shooting .223 in a 5.56 gun, however isn’t a problem at all.

high capacity magazines
Bigstock

To further confound things, there are hybrid chamberings like .223 Wylde and other match calibers that are dimensionally different from each other, but still fundamentally interchangeable.

What you need to know is yes, .223 and 5.56 are basically the same, but 5.56 is does produce higher pressures in a factory loading. Handloaders can play with pressure and powder type, which negates most concerns over .223/5.56mm because it is flexible.

So, on to the fun stuff. As you can imagine, with AR pattern rifles — the most popular rifles in the US — .223 is probably the most popular single rifle cartridge. The platform has many benefits which include:

  • Low cost of entry. AR-15 rifles, which are hands-down the most popular guns chambered for .223, can be had for $500, or sometimes less these days.
  • Ammunition cost is low (or used to be) and products are plentiful. A quick look at my media resource book revealed that there are literally hundreds of available factory options and thousands of load data combinations for handloads.
  • The general use .223 cartridge, let’s say a 55gr FMJ or match bullet, displays great ballistics, low cost, and allows the novice shooter to enjoy a day shooting anything from 3-Gun to 500-yard plinking.
  • The .223 round, especially in an AR rifle, produces very little recoil and allows a new shooter to fire a full-power rifle with little discomfort or fear.
  • Low ammunition weight means a shooter can carry more of it and sweat less on long match days and hunting trips.

As you can probably imagine, there are many myths surrounding the .223 cartridge. Lots of “alternative facts” are thrown around, so I will make it simple for the newbie:

  • The .223 is not a very powerful round. The media love to throw around words like ‘high-caliber’ and ‘high power,’ but both of these are just plain incorrect. The .223 is a small caliber that most rifle calibers and is what most people consider a varmint cartridge. In fact a majority of serious hunters, myself included, don’t even like to use it for deer and recommend against it if there are better options available. The .223 is best put to use on coyote, groundhogs, and other pests.
  • By direct comparison to other common cartridges, the .223 isn’t especially great at what it’s supposed to do. In fact, there are many cartridges that fully outperform the .223 while remaining in a similar size envelope. The fake news media would have you believe that the .223 is capable of blowing people in half at a distance of a mile, but that’s an inflammatory lie.
  • The .223 round (and the AR-15 rifles that fire them) are not ‘weapons of war.’ Both the cartridge and the rifle are very popular for hunting and home defense use. The .223 is a common caliber for bolt action and single-shot rifles in addition to semi-autos.

There are, of course, many other instances where the vilification of the cartridge, and by default the popular AR rifles that fire it, reached peak disinformation, but we don’t need to go into that any further.

Today’s discerning shooter has their pick of ammo that will do well for them and a massive number of rifles that can fire it. Among the very best ammo out there (when you can find it) are:

  • Hornady makes everything from 35gr Superformance NTX Varmint to 75gr BTHP Match and it all rocks. Of particular note are their new 73gr FTX Critical Defense and 55gr FMJ M193 Frontier loads, which respectively offer state of the art self defense capability and military-grade range performance.
  • SIG SAUER has recently released several great .223 loads that include both match-grade and hunting options.
  • Military ammo can be purchased in bulk for relatively low cost, including M855 steel-core and M193 ball from a number of sources.
  • Black Hill Ammunition offers over thirty different .223 and 5.56mm types including new and remanufactured at various price points.
  • Honestly this list could go on and on and on. There are so many types of ammo available from so many different places that I would never be able to list them all. Remington, Winchester, Federal, Silver, Brown, and Golden Bear, PMC, Wolf, Fiocchi, PPU, Freedom Munitions, Nosler, and HSM all make various .223 and 5.56mm loads.

As far as guns to consider for the .223/5.56mm rifles, you may want to take a look at the following systems:

  • The AR-15, of course. Yes, I had to group them all together because there are so damn many. This rifle offers near-insane levels of modularity and limitless customization ability. It’s the most popular rifle type in America today and can be had in almost any configuration from the factory. Some great makers of AR rifles include: Daniel Defense, SIG SAUER, Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Aero Precision, CMMG, LMT, LWRC, Noveske Rifleworks, PSA, and Wilson Combat. And that list just scratches the surface.
  • The SIG SAUER MCX. In addition to their AR-15 rifles, SIG makes an entirely unique rifle called the MCX. I have had the pleasure of using these rifles several times and I very much enjoyed their handling characteristics and very low recoil impulse.
  • Ruger Mini-14. This rifle looks something like a shrunken military M14 and operates in almost the same way. This rifle has ‘classic’ lines and typically features a wooden stock and integral iron sights.
  • Remington 700 and other bolt action rifles: There are many hunters and target shooters that use the .223 for small to medium game and mid to long range target shooting. Bolt actions offer better control of fired brass and allow the use of accuracy-enhancing reloading techniques like neck sizing and longer-than-standard bullet seating depths.
  • IWI Tavor and X95. These are Israeli-designed bullpup rifles, meaning their magazines load behind the grip. This allows for a very compact overall length, typically about 26 inches, even with a full 16-inch barrel, so you lose nothing in terms of speed going with a shorter gun.
.223 Remington vs 5.56 NATO
.223 (left), 5.56 (right)…can you tell the difference? (Dan Z. for TTAG)

So there you have it. The .223/5.56 is a huge topic with too many facets to cover in detail here. There are lots and lots of options available and I barely scratched the surface with this article.

If you’re considering a good rifle round for general use, the .223/5.56 is a great choice that tends to grow with you as you mature as a rifle shooter. An entry level AR shooter can develop into anything ranging from a skilled varmint hunter, a high-speed 3-Gunner, or a disciplined National Match service rifle competitor. There’s hardly a branch of the shooting sports that some version of the .223/5.56 doesn’t shine at.

40 COMMENTS

  1. In a word … boring. Though I own an AR-15, I don’t see why so many POTG get so excited about it. Call me a FUDD, I don’t care, but there are more flexible, powerful, and just plain more fun options out there. The same goes for the 9mm (a pistol I also own).

    • I agree with Jimmy Beam.
      The 5.56 is just . . . meh. Nothing to get excited about. And I have a Expert Rating courtesy of the USMC with a M16A2 service rifle.
      Would I like one of the newer 6.5s? Sure! Cannot afford it right now, and with the ammo shortage, not a viable investment at this point in time.
      Have to stick with what I have that works the best for me.

    • (sigh)

      Every time TTAG posts an article intended for beginners, there’s always a Debbie Downer who wants to throw poo.

      Don’t like your 5.56 AR or 9mm handgun? That’s your prerogative, and POTG always encourage others to enjoy guns in any flavor they choose. It’s called liberty.

      But discourage beginners to ignore the common 5.56 and 9mm? Really? I myself am an instructor with professional & certificated training, have shot, restored, built, armored, and trained with guns for three decades. I chose to streamline my handguns to mostly 9mm for ease of cross-training and ammo inventory. I chose to build my ARs in 5.56 (swappable with uppers in other cartridges).

      What is “boring” to you, I suppose, is the basis of responsible training to others.

      • What makes 223/556 so good in my eyes is BECAUSE it’s so “boring”. Ballistics are known and trust me no one wants to get hit with one. Guns are readily and plentily available (even at current prices), u can build ur one easily enough. It’s my go to bec I have simplified my calibers to 9mm and 223/556 and stock piled when the stockpiling was good. Having said that if u like 762 or 6.5 or 300bk or any number of “common” calibers. More power too ya. The more variety the better we all are.

      • @ I Haz A Question,
        If you say so.
        Out here, that itty bitty varmint round is not going to put meat on the table unless it is woodchucks. I can load 100grn round nose with light charges for small game/varmints, or 175grns for deer, moose, black bear in 308WIN.
        5.56 is not doing to do much in medium to heavy brush.
        5.56 is not a anti-material round.
        I need a general purpose round that can do an multiple different roles vs just varmint or self defense.
        For me, where I live, the .308WIN does all that.
        And I can afford to shoot it.

        • .308 is a great cartridge. I myself equipped my go-to AR with a .300 BLK upper, which nestles in-between the 5.56 and .308.

      • These are the infallible words of the inestimable ‘I Haz A Question’. As it was, is and ever shall be.

        All Hail.

        • You bet your ass, boy, and don’t you ever forget it.

          Now, get your shoe box and shine my fucking shoes… 😉

  2. Very Informative for the Newbies of the Firearms World. Would also be a good information piece for anti gunners to educate themselves. The problem with most anti gunners is their dislike resides in an emotional response to firearms. Facts and figures that don’t support their emotions are immediately disregarded as propaganda. Keep Your Powder Dry.

    • As a first center fire rifle cartridge, for both beginners and young shooters, you can’t go wrong with .223 Remington. Usually available almost everywhere ammunition is sold in a wide range of bullet weights and types. Just about every firearm type uses the cartridge. And it is very forgiving with reloading making it a good cartridge to learn how to make your own.

    • “Facts and figures that don’t support their emotions are immediately disregarded as propaganda.”

      That is the truth! I tried to educate my stepsister on the topic of “assault weapons” and she told me I was spreading propaganda and lies. The anti gunners will stick their fingers in their ears and scream, “La la la la! I can’t hear you!” when you try to educate them. I have converted a few “ban the AR” types when they actually have wanted to be educated and I do it by taking a Mini 14 with an ATI stock and accessory rails and put it next to a regular Mini 14. At 1st, they will say the scary black Mini needs to be banned, but the wooden stock one is just a regular rifle. When I show them that it’s the same rifle, they seem to realize that they now realize an “assault weapons” ban is just stupid. I have done the same with a Saiga .308 that looks like a regular rifle and I put an AK next to it. Some will allow you to educate them.

  3. I don’t think we ought to deny that 5.56mm is a weapon of war. Instead, we need to demystify the whole idea of weapons of war. Clubs, knives, axes, and spears are historically weapons of war. So is the Brown Bess musket, and the 1911 pistol. But not all weapons of war are the same. Since the advent of the machine gun, the role of the soldier’s service rifle has been the protection of his person and those immediately around him. That’s a role completely in harmony with its use for the defense of oneself and one’s home in civilian life.

    So yes, it’s a weapon of war. The 2nd Amendment was written specifically to guarantee citizens access to such weapons.

    • “I don’t think we ought to deny that 5.56mm is a weapon of war. Instead, we need to demystify the whole idea of weapons of war.”

      This. So much this. 👍

        • Reminds me of the quote by Mark Twain:

          “If you don’t read the newspapers, you’re uninformed.
          If you do read the newspapers, you’re misinformed.”

    • If military use defines a military cartridge, this would cover almost everything from .22LR to .444 Marlin and .45-70, and almost everything else in between. Interesting to note .308 Winchester was released in 1952 and the very similar 7.62 NATO was adopted in 1954.

      And many military cartridges became popular for civilian use including. 30-06, 7 and 8mm Mauser, 6.5×55, .303 British, and 7.62x54r. All of the above are 115-130 years old.

  4. I was at my closest LGS yesterday. Took some safe queens to consign. Old guy came in with a very thick but not distinguishable to me accent. He wanted ammo for a “S&W M&P 15”. Not an AR or AR 15 ammo or 223 or 556. They had some soft point “hunting ammo” that they were willing to selling him 2 boxes of. Everybody was a beginner once but damn…Another interesting thing at that LGS, they had a ton of pistols for sale. 75% were set up with high sights and threaded muzzles, the other 25% were 40S&W. Not even people who are desperate for a gun will buy them.

    • Jimmy James,

      I have no idea why so many people shy away from the .40 S&W cartridge and handguns.

      It is a fine caliber with excellent reliability. And there is a really wide range of bullet weights available, from 135 grain self-defense hollowpoints all the way up to 200 grain hardcast lead “woods defense” bullets.

      As you also mentioned, .40 S&W tends to be more available during periods of unprecedented demand.

      What’s not to like?

      • Love 40. Although most of my stock if guns and ammo is 9mm. My friend has a Glock 22 and he has put over 15k through it and will only carry 40.

        • I was issued a Glock .40 by the Department sometime in the mid90’s. Didn’t particularly like the gun but quickly reached a point where I shot it very well. Carried it for about 15 years and had an opportunity to purchase it for a reasonable price upon retirement. I took a pass as I still didn’t particularly like the gun.

  5. The best thing about the AR-15 is that the very sight of one causes soccer moms and soyboys to head immediately to the nearest fainting couch where they await the passing of the vapors.

  6. What the difference between 5.56 NATO and. 223, the .223 s a varmint cartridge the 5.56 NATO is an Army bullet, it’s used in Army gunms, we can’t have army gunms, the army gunms is called M16 or M4 or something with an M. The M gunms are assault rifles, we can’t have M gunms. So all this, “your AR is an assault rifle” is just a lie, its not an M gunm that shoots M gunm bullets. AR stands for another rifle, other rifles are used in hunting, hunting rifles are FUDD gunms, not assault rifles. So the next time somebody tells you that an AR is an assault rifle you can tell them no it’s not, it’s not an M gunm. I hope this explanation was helpfull.

  7. .223 wylde for all you newbies.

    Considering the ammo you’d get is whatever is on the shelf, it’s your best option.

    And remember kids – just say “No!” to steel case 😂

  8. If y’all thought the 223 was crap take a gander what young Kyle did in Kenosha😄😎😏 BTW Jimmy James the ubiquitous S&W Sport is what I have. It eats everything. So ragging on an old furiner is stupid. I had no clue about any of this chit 10years ago!

  9. OK advise for newbies. The really strong attribute, is when the newbies grow up they can graduate to a better caliber just by replacing the upper at moderate cost. The ATF will never know. And there are just a few choices:
    .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, .22 Nosler, .224 Valkyrie, .25-45 Sharps,
    6mm ARC, 6.5 Grendel, 6.8 SPC, .300 Blackout, .300 Ham’r, .30 Remington AR
    .350 Legend, .450 Bushmaster, .458 SOCOM. Or you can put a CMMG 22LR conversion kit into 223 and really have low cost fun. This conversion with 60gr Aguila SSS can make it a fantastic urban sniper rifle. Point is AR-15 223 is the basis for a lot of versatility.

  10. A question for those that actually know –

    Can either the .223 or the 5.56 be re-chambered for the .223 Wylde, or is a new barrel always required?

  11. I can usually tell the difference in factory ammo with a glance. 5.56 is made to military standards (M193/M855), so it has had the neck annealed, which gives it the rainbow look below the neck. The factory .223 I see is shiny brass the whole way. I don’t think I’ve seen factory green tip .223 either, but it could exist.
    Since 5.56 is higher pressure, you should make sure your .223 gun is rated for it before using it. Quality ARs usually are fine, but someone is going to find one that’ll do a Rapid Unplanned Disassembly.

  12. I have nothing against the the AR. I own one. 5.56 is my ammo of choice. 21 years starting with a rattle trap XM16A1 to the M16A2 makes the AR feel like an extension of my body.

    I also prefer bolt action rifles in 7.62. Same reasons of familiarity.

    The best weapon is the one you are comfortable with using and are proficient with.

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