May 2013

Testing 223 Remington Rounds For Personal-Defense Use

We shot 21 loads from eight manufacturers in bullet weights as low as 35 grains to as much as 77 grains. What we found surprised us, and the results may surprise you, too.

The subject of the 223 Remington-chambered rifle for personal defense comes up often, and is now the subject of heated political maneuvering to get these semi-auto long guns banned in some states, or at least reduced in capacity. What is overlooked in almost all of these discussions are the reasons for the rifleís popularity: The AR-15 rifle offers good handling, excellent accuracy, ease of control, and a good reserve of firepower when fitted with standard-capacity 20- or 30-round magazines. Another item thatís overlooked is what are the best loads for personal defense.

We took a hard look at almost two dozen 223 Remington loads and found that many are not well suited for personal defense because they donít offer adequate penetration. Other loads, however, are practically ideal for personal defense. Also, the loads must be reliable in every AR-style firearm or other design chambered for the round, from a Colt HBAR the excellent Ruger Mini-14 rifles. For our test, we used a Bushmaster 16-inch-barrel carbine with Trijicon iron sights. It was a stock set up except for a red receiver plug that tightened things up.

The major areas of downrange performance many people wonder about are: Which load is the most frangible?, and which load offers the best combination of downrange public safety, stopping power, and a lack of ricochet? The only means of arriving at the truth is to conduct a test program that is both repeatable and verifiable. To start, we agreed that reliability is more important than anything else. We fired a minimum of 20 rounds ó a magazine full ó of each load to gauge reliability. It isnít a given that all cartridges run well all of the time. Also, we noted any other malfunctions that occurred during the rest of the test as part of the reliability numbers.

Next, we measured both penetration and expansion in our standard gallon-water-jug testing program. In self-defense situations, we canít expect to have a perfect scenario for a low-penetrating round to do its job. Ideally, we wanted somewhere between 15 and 18 inches of water penetration.

We also conducted an accuracy test using our defense-length carbine, but you may be able to get better results with longer barrels. Still, using an ATN scope mounted on top of the carry handle, we fired some tiny three-shot groups at 25 yards, which is a long range for personal defense. (For hunting coyotes or predators, this is almost point-blank range.) Just the same, one of our raters noted that some of the loads that were acceptable in the AR-15 for personal defense would also cut a half-inch grip on demand in his heavy-barrel Howa rifle with Nikon scope at 100 yards. So, the accuracy results, while uniformly pretty good, may not reflect the true potential of a load.

We shot a number of loads in as many different weights as possible. While bullets of different designs behave differently in the same weight, we felt that the test criteria showed the performance of various classes of loads well. The lightest bullet tested was less than half the weight of the heaviest load, with the weight of the rounds tested ranging from 35 to 77 grains. The ammunition samples tested were in 20-round boxes unless otherwise specified. In the Black Hills lines, each load came from blue box, or remanufactured, products with mismatched cases in 50-round boxes. Hereís what we found:

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