Jan 30, 2010

Armorer's Report: 5.56X45mm/.223 Ammunition Review: For Self-Defense (Updated with Pictures)

5.56/.223 loads from left to right: Mk 262 Mod 1, Hornady TAP 5.56, Black Hills 68 grain HP, Federal 64 grain SP, M856 tracer, M855, M193.

Ammunition is what guns fire, but not all ammo is created equal. When confronted with a self defense situation, there are certain types of ammo and bullet designs that are considered better than others for stopping an assailant dead in his tracks. In this article I am going to review a few, of the many, different kinds of 5.56X45mm/.223 ammunition available for use in a self defense situation. When it comes to selecting the proper cartridge, there are many things that one should consider before going out and plunking down some serious cash for some brass. First off, ammo prices are not as friendly as they used to be which is helpful to keep in mind when selecting different types of ammo for different applications. I personally would not pay over $1 a round for self-defense ammunition unless it was guaranteed to be a 1 shot, 1 kill round (which doesn’t exist).

There are several different bullet types that one should consider when searching for an acceptable self defense round, the two most common being hollow points and soft points. Hollow points and soft points are good self defense rounds because the bullets are designed to expand and sometimes break apart in your target, adding to the severity of the wound. Some full metal jacket bullet designs can enter a target and pass right through like a needle through fabric and if they do not hit a bone, major artery or organ, your adversary is most likely going to keep firing. Hollow points and soft points are constructed differently to address this problem and perform well against soft targets thanks to their design, with rapid expansion occurring due to a divot located in the nose of the bullet which, when hits, fills up with flesh and forces the bullet lips to peel back like a banana, shedding fragments as well as allowing the bullet to deposit more of its energy into what you're shooting. These types of bullets create a bigger and much more severe temporary wound cavity, while fragmentation makes extraction of the bullet and its pieces that much more difficult.

In this article I am going to review 5.56X45mm defensive rounds, a popular caliber that most AR-15s/M-16s come chambered in (also known as .223 Remington). The differences between .223 Remington and 5.56X45mm are negligible, but you should be forewarned that there are some dangers presented when shooting 5.56 out of a .223 chambered gun. 5.56X45mm (5.56 NATO for short) started out life as a developmental cartridge being looked at by the U.S. military for use in war during the 1950s. World War 2 taught them that the heavier, longer range battle calibers they were using were pointless after research indicated most firefights occurred within 300 yards, due to the advancements of mechanized warfare. Our military wanted a lighter, more portable round (enabling a soldier to carry 2X's the loadout of 7.62 NATO) that was also still traveling faster than the speed of sound at 500 yards. They were also looking for a lighter, handier weapon to fire that round. After the M-16 (firing the 5.56mm cartridge) was adopted in 1964, Remington came out with a commercial version of the 5.56 round, calling it the .223 Remington. The differences between these two rounds are small but important. First off, the 5.56 cartridge has thicker case walls both at the head and sidewalls of the case to handle the higher chamber pressures generated by the more hotly loaded 5.56mm military round. The .223 Remington chamber is also dimensionally different from that of its NATO counterpart; it has a much shorter throat and slightly less headspace, resulting in a tighter chamber. Shooting 5.56 out of a .223 chamber can result in unsafe pressures leading to excess wear and tear on the firearm (and possibly you!). Basically what it boils down to is you can shoot .223 in 5.56X45mm chambered guns but it is not recommended to fire 5.56 out of a .223 chamber.

When searching for a defensive 5.56/.223 round, there are certain characteristics that one can look for that will aid in supplementing a bullets effectiveness. Two very important things to keep in mind are speed and weight. When it comes to selecting a defensive hollow point round for my AR, I always reach for the heavier end of the spectrum (68+ grains). 5.56/.223 bullets can range in weight from as little as 35 grains to as much as 100+. When selecting a proper bullet weight, keep in mind what the rate of twist is in your barrel. Twist rate is defined as how many revolutions the grooves in the bore of a rifle barrel (rifling) make in a certain length of barrel. Therefore a 1:9 twist rate would mean one complete revolution of rifling for every 9 inches of barrel. The rule of thumb is heavier (read longer) bullets need faster twist rates to stabilize them. Most popular manufacturers of AR’s (Rock River, Bushmaster, Stag, DPMS, Armalite) come with a 1:9 twist rate which can handle bullet weights anywhere from 40 grains to 69 grains (although I have heard of some 1:9 twist barrel owners who can shoot 75 grain bullets with no ill effects. Try it out, no 2 barrels are alike). I personally prefer a 1:7" twist rate because it can handle the lighter end of the spectrum (55 grains), as well as 75 and 77 grain load outs and also because this is what our military demands.

Another thing to consider when selecting a good 5.56/.223 cartridge is velocity. 5.56X45mm has a reputation of being an extremely effective round against soft targets AS LONG AS IT YAWS/FRAGMENTS IN THE TARGET. This is where the 5.56mm round shines; high velocity plus a small bullet means high tumbling/fragmenting capabilities and devastating wound cavities. The 5.56mm round is considered EXTREMELY effective within the 100M-150M range, much more so than 7.62X39mm which is slow moving and does little more than put a .3 inch hole in your target. However, the 5.56mm bullet is SEVERELY hindered when it is not moving fast enough. At slower velocities (1500 fps), being shot with a 5.56mm round is almost the same as being shot with a .22 rimfire. This is where a lot of these “5.56 is not powerful enough” rumors come from. It is said that a 5.56 FMJ bullet needs to be traveling at 2700 fps or more to achieve reliable fragmentation although I have also heard 2500 fps is enough. For hollow point bullets it is closer to 2200 fps. When selecting a bullet, keep in mind what the velocity is at different distances (also remember that 5.56 almost always packs more velocity than .223). For example, M193 (military designation for a 5.56 cartridge topped off with a 55 grain lead-core FMJ bullet) leaves a 16" AR at around 3200 fps but drops to below 2500 fps at 200 yards making it a not so effective round at distances past this.

As said before, I usually reach for any bullet that weighs over 68 grains with either a hollow point or an open tip match (OTM) point. Open tip match is a military term used to describe a bullet that has a small hole manufactured into its tip that provides for greater accuracy. Since hollow point bullets are banned from use under the Hague Convention, these bullets allow our military to sidestep this rule because they are not technically "hollow points" i.e. they are not designed to expand. They do however, fragment quite explosively and are devastatingly accurate.

There are many fine manufacturers of hollow point (HP), OTM and soft point (SP) 5.56/.223 rounds but some of the top makers are Black Hills, Hornady, Federal and Winchester. Black Hills makes some of the best commercial loads you can buy and any of their .223 hollow point loads in 60+ grains should suffice quite nicely in a defensive situation. The two most popular bullet weights for self defense are the 75 and 77 grain load outs. I personally prefer the 75 grain cartridge (utilizing a Hornady bullet, extremely good yawing/fragmenting qualities) over the 77 grain cartridge (using a Sierra Match King bullet, which has a reputation for yawing a little late before breaking up). For you 1:9 twist barrel owners, Black Hills offers up a 68 grain HP cartridge topped off with a Hornady SST bullet that has a good reputation for fragging.


Black Hills ammunition comes in either a red box or a blue box and is some of the most accurate ammunition available commercially. The red box is top brass, first rate ammunition, but you will pay for it. The blue box is 'factory seconds' (using once fired brass), but is still just as good as the red box (minus a LITTLE accuracy). Black Hills has an extensive line of bullets in all calibers for self-defense and it would be impossible to cover them in this article so check them out.

Hornady is another fine producer of commercial cartridges and their TAP (Tactical Application Police) line of products should definitely be checked out. Now be forewarned, there are many different offshoots of the Hornady TAP line including TAP FPD (For Personal Defense), as well as regular old TAP 55 grain and 75 grain loadouts that all come in .223 pressures. What we are looking for specifically is TAP in 5.56X45mm NATO pressures, which Hornady only sells to law enforcement and military (for the time being), but if your lucky this site sometimes stocks it and sells it to us lowly civilians. I can not recommend Hornady TAP 75 grain 5.56X45mm rounds enough. When looking at the wound channel and fragmenting qualities that this round possesses in ballistic gel, it is hard not to have faith in it. It is reported that this round also has no problem penetrating level IIIA body armor (no ceramic plates) and retains almost all of its fragmenting capabilities and effectiveness once it gets through the kevlar. Hornady also produces TAP in .223 pressures which they do sell to civilians. Original TAP comes in a red box and is brass cased, TAP FPD comes in a black box and has nickel plated cases. .223 TAP is purportedly more accurate than 5.56 TAP but at the cost of lower velocity (2750fps vs. 2600fps). You decide which is more important to you.

Every once in awhile you can buy 5.56 TAP here at $199 for 200 rounds and while it ain't cheap, I'm willing to pay it, especially in today's market where common M193 ball and M855 can cost up to $.60 per round. Also we're talking about a self defense situation where your life is on the line, and I am fully confident in the outstanding results achieved when using this round. 5.56 TAP is cannelured (to prevent bullet setback, a common problem with auto-loading firearms and non-cannelured bullets) and uses military grade primers (harder) that are crimped and sealed in place per mil-spec (to keep water out and functioning at 100%), unlike most commercial loads, another reason to reach for TAP when out on patrol. Hornady has also just come out with a new 5.56 TAP bullet designed specifically for use in the AR-15/M-16 platform designated the “T2" bullet. Check it out.


The United States military deploys a wide variety of 5.56 ammunition depending on what kind of weapons system is being used. M193 and M855 are the two most common rounds being issued to troops across the globe right now. M193 is a 55 grain FMJ (full metal jacket) lead-core projectile, usually issued to troops with older A1 style M-16s with the slower, 1:12 twist rate barrels. M193 is a good, cheap defensive round for use within the 150-200M range and it is reported that the bullet possesses good fragmenting qualities (due to the thin jacket and high velocity yawing habits). After 200 yards M193 is just not heavy enough nor is it moving fast enough to drop targets with anything less than a head shot. Most troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are issued M855, a 62 grain projectile with a steel insert in the tip that provides both greater penetration and fragmentation 100 yards beyond M193's effective range. However, there are a few reports trickling back from Iraq on the tendency of M855 to over penetrate targets in close quarters combat, passing right through the body without tumbling/fragmenting, requiring several more shots to eliminate a threat.


It didn’t take long for top military brass to recognize the need for a heavier grain projectile to put down targets more effectively. The military wanted a heftier (75+ grain) bullet with an OTM point to deploy with their special forces units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Three bidders came to the table but ultimately it was the 77 grain Black Hills cartridge that won the contract (kinda by default). This developmental cartridge was named Mk 262 Mod 0 (now Mod 1) and it is one bad ass bullet. Black Hills started off with a cannelured 77 grain Sierra HPBT (hollow point boat tail) bullet and put beneath it Winchester brass loaded up with a custom, factory blended powder (unduplicable and extremely potent, contains flash retardants which greatly reduce muzzle flash, a plus for night fire) and topped it off (or should I say bottomed) with a mil-spec crimped and sealed primer. The result; an extremely accurate and devastating round that has logged one hit kills beyond 700 meters (pretty impressive for 5.56mm). There is one report from Afghanistan of two Special Forces snipers killing 75 Taliban using 77 rounds of Mk 262. Plainly put, this is the most sought after 5.56 ammo you can get (besides tungsten cored M995 armor piercing which if someone has, they ain't selling/telling). Mk 262 can be hard to find and will cost you over $1 a round (although it is sometimes stocked at Cabela’s for around $42/50, comes in a white box, factory seconds because the firsts go to troops, look for "5.56" on the side of the box because it is NATO ammo and NATO doesn't load .223).


I would definitely like to get my hands on some, but I have heard and seen that Hornady’s 75 grain 5.56 TAP round is on par with Mk 262 at a better price. Still, I wouldn’t mind having 10 mags on hand loaded with Mk 262 Mod 1. Speaking of military ammo, I just got my hands on some Lake City M856 which is a 64 grain tactical tracer round. I loaded all my mags up with 3 rounds of tracer on the bottom so the last three shots visually remind me that it is time to reload. Some recommend this tactic, some don't but I know the military uses tracers to some effect, so I do too.


When it comes to penetration, the 5.56 round is not the greatest. One would think that for greater penetration, the heavier the bullet the better the result. This is not the case with 5.56. When it comes to shooting through barriers and vehicles, I have heard that soft point bullets produced by both Federal and Winchester achieve fantastic results. Federal has a line of “Trophy Bonded Bear Claw” bullets that come in either 55 grain or 62 grain load outs (62 grain is best) that have excellent reputations for superior barrier penetration as well being #1 performers (compared to any other 5.56/.223 round) when having to shoot through glass I.E. windshields. Winchester also makes a 64 grain “Supreme Power Point Plus” jacketed soft point bullet that has a good reputation when it comes to shooting through vehicles/barriers. I would stock at least a few mags of this ammo if I was running a checkpoint with vehicles or was going to be fighting in an urban environment with soft cover. Just remember that because of the lead soft point, these bullets cannot be cycled into your AR chamber too many times or it will ruin the tip/not feed reliably after awhile.

Now, I know that all this info is a little overwhelming and that this only covers a FRACTION of the 5.56/.223 ammo available, but it is good information for all AR owners to know and I hope that someone out there gleaned at least a little bit of information from this article. Just remember that for anti-personnel rounds reach for the heavier hollow point/OTM rounds and for barrier/glass penetration stoke your AR with 62-64 grain soft points.

That’s all for now, more to come in the future.

-Saheim out.

20 comments:

The Red Son said...

Excellent article Saheim and well worth the wait. I look forward to reading the next armorer's report.

Also readers should check out my previous note concerning hollow points.

Mutt said...

Not a bad article for a n00b.

For super penetration, there is a TAP round, designed to penetrate the steel blast doors at nuclear facilities.

Take that box 'o truth.

Muttski said...

Check out this video

http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=3d1_1222910861

The Red Son said...

Hey Mutt,
Check out this 11 year old girl field strip and reassemble an AR 15

http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1828310

Marxo-Anarchist Freedom Front said...

That's AMAZING! I wish I could've been able to do that when I was 11!

The Red Son said...

I still can't do that!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
3% said...

68 grain Hornady Match BTHPs are hard to beat. They work well in a 1:9 twist with a variety of powders.

I've been handloading (and stockpiling)them for quite a while @ under $.40/round.

Good thing we live in a free, non-communist society where individuals can own and speak of such things. Are there any communist nations where semi-auto firearms are allowed to be owned by individuals? I am unaware of any, but I learn something every day.

Just sayin'...

The Red Son said...

Likewise how many capitalist countries have the same gun laws of the u.s. And how many allow private firearm ownership at all?

If firearms ownership determines the merits of a political/economic systems, it speaks volumes about you.

Anonymous said...

The ability of the people to defend themselves against another Stalin or Hitler cannot be overlooked.

A political/economic system must be evaluated on many merits and with many measures. Freedom is just one. Of course I am not that simple-minded. Just making a point.

I am sure any communist revolution in this country would immediately followed by gun confiscation.

Your support of communism, in the face of its historical performance/failures, speaks much about you as well.

We will never agree on politics, Red Son. This site is well done, however, with much good information. I will refrain from political comments from here on out.

Keep up the good work!

The Red Son said...

I am sorry if I came off unwelcoming. I do welcome any and all political view points so long as people conduct themselves civil. If you do wish to debate politics I would prefer that it was in the comment section of a political not weapon related post.

I have and should make it clear that I am not a communist. Where I am now I think of myself as a liberation socialist. I do not wish to emulate the USSR or the PRC although at the same time I don't necessarily agree with most of the common criticism of these country. I do support Cuba and many other historical regime that were radical left/progressive.

And after the revolution there will not be much gun confiscation as they will already have been picked up from the corpses of counter-revolutionary combatants.

But thank you for the nice words and I am glad that you find the blog useful.

Facta Non Verba said...

--M855 223REM 62 GR
--HORNADY TAP FPD JHP 223REM 60GR
--HORNADY TAP URBAN 223REM 55 GR

--AR-15 M4 CARBINE
--BARREL: 16"
--TWIST RATE: 1 in 9"
--CALIBERS: .223, 5.56

--I researched on ammo for my AR-15 and came up with HORNADY TAP FPD JHP, URBAN in which it is used by Law Enforcement and the Military. So, I thought why not give a try for having it for self defense and it seems that they would do just fine since. This ammo has been thoroughly tested and recommended by the members of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA).

Anonymous said...

Thank god we live in a free country, I read the article and was very impressed then saw a strange name...I have Fought for this blessed country and have fired rounds at the enemy.. so I was told. AFCC rules the skies Thank you Saheim.
p.s Dont ever let anyone bullie you around:) Merry Christmas Just recived a new Mini -14

Anonymous said...

Not to continue the political debate on a weapon related post, which is full of great information BTW, but just to throw in my two cents--countries with capitalist economic systems do not have a monopoly on democracy. Countries like Chile under Pinochet had fairly free markets, but were certainly less than democratic by anyone's standards. Conversely, much of the "communism" the world has seen has unfortunately been of the authoritarian/statist variety, I would argue mostly due to a power-hungry, authoritarian vanguard, or "official" communist party, willing to oppress the people as a form of State Bourgeoisie, worse than any democratic bourgeois government. Personally, I feel that for any socialism to be liberatory, as most of the theoreticians of the political philosophy intended, it must, and should be, democratic in nature. However, voluntary, libertarian socialism is difficult to bring about, as getting a majority of the citizens of a given nation to agree/organize/act, except under the most terrible of circumstances, has been notoriously difficult to do. Therefore most of the "socialism" we have gotten has not been socialism at all, in its true, voluntary sense, but rather an authoritarian-collectivist offshoot, more Stalinist in nature than Marxist. Anyone who has read "The Civil War in France," or read Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia," which is about the Spanish Civil War, should be aware of the democratic nature of both Marxism specifically and socialism in general. One can debate the merits of a market system, or the necessity of individual rights, personal property, etc. to avoid tyranny of the majority, but one also cannot deny the coercive nature of modern corporate capitalism. Not only does the American economic system not exist in reality as it supposedly does in theory (i.e. we have a mixed economy with a significant degree of private/state collusion), but the moneyed interests in society exert a disproportionate amount of influence over our political system. No one can argue that this is good for the average American citizen. Even the most radical individualists cannot deny that our system is, in many ways, coercive and exploitative. Is this the fault of the state or private institutions that have subverted the state for their own purposes?

Anonymous said...

(reached the maximum character length because I'm a blabber mouth--continued from previous post)

I would argue that in reality it is some degree of both--very large, powerful institutions with absolutely no accountability to the public are usually not good for society. In short, whatever economic system you support, whether it be market based or collectivist, I think we can all agree that democracy, individual freedom and equal opportunity are good things, and that unaccountable tyranny, monopolization, collusion, and exploitation are bad things. The specifics of an ideal economic system are debatable to some degree, but the desirability of unaccountable authority is not. In other words, I think some forms of socialism would be an improvement over our current economic system, so long as they are voluntary in nature. Democratic capitalism is better than authoritarian communism, but democratic socialism, being the only "true" form of socialism in my opinion, could be better than either. So long as we have our political freedom though, we can debate our economic differences in a civilized manner. In the words of Mikhail Bakunin, "liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality." The difference being, though, that with political freedom, economics can be changed, but neither socialism nor the free market do you much good in an authoritarian society. A democratic society can, at least theoretically, right economic injustice, but when democracy is threatened--that's when it's time to start loading magazines. By the way, it's nice to see someone on the left that believes in the right of the people to keep and bear arms, and who is educated enough to understand how to properly utilize them in a potential fight for their freedom--a fight more people ought to be prepared for, regardless of how likely it seems. We wouldn't be the first democracy to go authoritarian. Fascism usually doesn't warn you in advance.

The Red Son said...

"Fascism usually doesn't warn you in advance."

Truth. And thanks for the kudos, this blog is one of my attempts to do whatever I can in this regard.

I also appreciate your political/economic rant, although next time try to find a more relevant post to comment on. I wrote a post about the lessons from Homage to Cataluna which you would find interesting.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for straying so far off topic--I just get a little irritated sometimes when I hear the whole "democracy naturally implies capitalism and socialism is inherently anti-democratic" argument, and I didn't immediately notice any posts discussing the relationship between democracy and socialism...felt a little strange starting a random debate on another page, even if it was a bit more relevant, but if there's a page it would better belong on, feel free to move my comment. As far as the topic at hand goes, I intended to comment on the the post when I went off on my "democracy and socialism" tangent, but I got a bit distracted after posting such a long-winded post. Anyway, as far as what I was going to say originally--

5.56 has an advantage over many other projectiles in that it fragments. Not all 5.56 will, but military surplus M193 will, and it is a fairly affordable, fairly easy to find FMJ round. Now, this is only within a certain velocity range: fragmentation becomes negligible when the round drops below 2700-2500 fps or so, which in most cases is well within 200 yards even with a 20 inch barrel. Soviet 5.45 has the velocity necessary to fragment and actually yaws earlier, but because of its bullet composition it does not. You can get commercial ammo in most any rifle caliber that will fragment, however 5.56 is one of the few calibers that will do it with run of the mill, FMJ, military surplus ammunition. I am no terminal ballistics expert but, as far as I know, so long as you have a bullet constructed of fragile enough materials traveling with enough velocity it should fragment, though projectiles that yaw early and have a weak spot in the bullet (i.e. a cannelure, or ballistic tip) tend to fragment more violently/consistently. This is why the heavy match rounds are desirable in a 5.56...they're longer, and therefore yaw and fragment earlier. Commercial fragmenting rounds in 7.62x39/51, etc. are devastating as well, but are much more expensive than mil-surp 5.56. Additionally, M855/SS109 will penetrate certain intermediate barriers even better than 7.62x51. The larger .30 caliber projectiles are inherently better at penetrating intermediate barriers, however, because of the construction of the M855 round (which has a steel core penetrator), it performs better in that specific role. So, the moral of the story here is that caliber is not the end all, be all consideration when choosing a fighting firearm. The size/dimensions of a cartridge only tells part of the story--construction also plays an important role. Having access to affordable surplus ammunition that can penetrate barriers well and/or fragment when used against personnel is a major advantage for the guerrilla, especially considering these performance advantages do not add any additional weight to a load out as opting for a larger cartridge would. Not to mention, these types of rounds will be more readily available in raids, as battlefield pick ups, etc. As much as I love AK variants, I personally prefer 5.56x45 to 7.62x39 and 5.45x39 for no other reason than the military surplus ammunition available in that caliber performs better, as well as the increased number of commercial loadings to choose from. 5.45 would be my next choice, being more accurate than a 7.62x39, unless I needed barrier penetration. 7.62x51 is the preferred choice for long range precision work. That being said, if you prefer the AK design, some companies offer AK type rifles chambered for 5.56x45, and I would advise having at least one rifle chambered in that caliber for the aforementioned reasons. Despite all its detractors, 5.56 performs very well for its size within typical combat distances assuming proper ammunition selection.p

Anonymous said...

"The weapons will already be confiscated off the dead bodies of counter revolutionaries." Sounds like to me "We're going to line anyone that owns guns up against a wall and execute them for fear of opposition." "PS we're also going to line up anyone who disagrees with us, or doesn't want to live in a turd world communist shit hole against the same wall and shoot them too."

After all your type has had no qualms about doing it in the past. Lucky for the good guys fuck stains like you have a very poor understanding of how weapons, and ammunition work. Typically You're also those hipster types that sit in Starbucks all day complaining about capitalism. Your type won't do shit but serve as the useful idiots for someone with a nefarious agenda, just as others in your shoes in other countries have for the last 100 some odd years.

Better dead than red Comrade.

The Red Son said...

Latest anonymous- Thanks for stopping by, I got a good laugh at what you think you know about me. Same stupid bullshit right winger often post, full of ill informed assumptions and devoid of a logical or evidence-based argument.

Whit Johnstone said...

For what it's worth, I've read that Izhmash says that their Saigas are labeled as ".223" in order to get around import restrictions, but have chambers designed for milspec 5.56. Unfortunately, the thread on the Saiga-12 forum where someone posted an email from an Izhmash representative to that effect seems to have disappeared.