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 rifles 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 thats 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 dont 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 – a magazine full – of each load to gauge reliability. It isnt 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 cant 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. Heres what we found:

Hornady 35-grain NTX
Lead Free 83266, $22.99/20
@ Midway.com #698370

This is a varmint bullet, pure and simple. It is also a lead-free California-compliant bullet. Performance was true to the design. Penetration was about 6 inches, which would be closer to 4 to 5 inches in ballistic gelatin, as a reference. Something we appreciated concerning this load was its reliability. Some years ago when the varmint-weight 40-grain loads were introduced, function was sluggish in the AR-15 rifle. This was particularly true if the rifle was not well maintained or dirty. The Hornady load exhibited good function.

Our Team Said: Penetration was problematic, but then this is a varmint bullet. Still, we dont believe it has the requisite penetration for reliable personal-defense use.

Black Hills 36-grain VG
$38.37/50 @ Midway.com #191840

This was another speedy load that fragmented early. As might be expected, penetration is limited, but accuracy was good and so was function. Like the Hornady NTX, the VG bullet is designed for field use on small animals. It should be effective for hunting coyotes, prairie dogs, and the like.

Our Team Said: This is a purpose-designed bullet and load that do not meet our defense-load criteria.

Hornadys 36-grain VG bullet in the Black Hills cartridge fragmented and would be ideal for varmints and small game.

Fiocchi Extrema 40-grain
Hornady V-Max 223HVB50,
$22.49/50 @ Midway.com #533596

The Hornady V-Max finds its way into quite a bit of ammunition loaded not only by Hornady but also by Black Hills, Fiocchi, and many custom makers. The Fiocchi load doesnt offer anything novel in the way of ballistic performance, but the quality is good, accuracy outstanding, and it is attractively priced. Fiocchi has demonstrated good quality control with other products, and this load is no exception. Because it fragmented into pieces that werent measurable, this might be the best small-game choice if ricochets are an issue.

Our Team Said: This is a purpose-designed bullet and load that do not meet our defense-load criteria.

Hornady Varmint Express
40-grain V-Max 8325,
$17.99/20 @ Midway.com #989515

The ammunition maker loads its own bullets right. In limited testing from longer-barrel rifles, the Hornady V-Max proved more accurate than most of the lightweight bullets we have tested over the years. The powder combination offered good function and accuracy in self loaders. Hornady, unlike some makers, has toed the line in keeping prices within reach of most shooters. Hornady is priced competitively with economy grade ammunition.

Our Team Said: This is a purpose-designed bullet and load that do not meet our defense-load criteria.

Cor-Bon DPX Hunter 53-grain
Barnes Triple-Shock X Bullet
Lead-Free DPX22353,
$33.02/20 @ Midway.com #564348

As we moved through the ultralight bullets, we began to see better penetration. The Cor-Bon load was the first combination that reached the critical penetration depth that is acceptable for personal defense, in our view. In fact, it was among the best loads tested. The Cor-Bon DPX was reliable and accurate, and the performance of the all-copper Barnes bullet was good in water, reaching a 17-inch depth. The bullet expanded to about twice its original diameter.

Our Team Said: The load is pricey, but then these all-copper bullets are expensive items from a custom maker. Performance cannot be faulted.

Buffalo Bore 55-grain
Polymer Tip Boat Tail S22355,
$29.21/20 @ Midway.com #195029
Buffalo Bore loads its ammunition up to maximum SAAMI specifications, which works particularly well on a wide range of small game and smaller big game animals. This ammunition is not intended for older guns. This load cannot be faulted on performance for small game, delivering 8 inches of penetration in water. Feeding was good and ejection positive. This is a good, fast load well suited to varmint shooting with the heavier bullet. Performance was typical of the 55-grain loads, but accuracy was not quite on par with the Winchester Silvertips.

Our Team Said: This is a purpose-designed bullet and load that do not meet our defense-load criteria.

Cor-Bon Self-Defense 55-grain
Sierra BlitzKing Polymer Tip
$31.99/20 @ Midway.com #298507

The 55-grain BlitzKing is more of a traditional sporting load for varmints and predators; just the same, its accuracy and reliability cannot be faulted. This load demonstrates better penetration compared to others in the same weight range, and at the time we purchased it, the Polymer Tip was a markedly more affordable choice than the 53-grain DPX.

Our Team Said: This is an interesting counterpoint to the Barnes DPX bullet from the same maker, but the 53-grain DPX is much superior for self-defense, we believe.

Federal Trophy Bonded
Bear Claw P223T2,
$10.29/20 (Discontinued)
This load was available at bargain prices from several sources as of 10/10/12, but apparently is being discontinued by Federal. We had it on hand before we received the news, so we are publishing the results anyway. That way youll know if its worth buying at auction or close out. Consistency is good and Federal quality apparent.

Our Team Said: If you can get this, it offers a considerable advantage over most traditional 55-grain JSP bullets in penetration.

Winchester USA 55-grain
Full Metal Jacket USA223R1,
$11.49/20 @ Midway.com #275599

This is among the most widely distributed and most used 223 loads in America. We tested this load to determine if the recommendation for use of FMJ loads for self defense was warranted. Some have stated that the 55-grain FMJ is effective because it breaks up, and that shooters do not need a jacketed spire-point (JSP) bullet. As a counterpoint, there is little doubt that the FMJ bullet would be more prone to ricochet than a JSP bullet.

Our Team Said: The Winchester load penetrated to the satisfactory range and seemed to break up consistently. Obviously, there is something to praise for this round. Just the same, we prefer an expanding bullet for self defense.

Winchester Supreme 55-grain
Ballistic Silvertip SBST223B,
$28.31/20 @ Midway.com #555978
The solid-base boattail design of the Lubalox-coated Ballistic Silvertip bullet is designed to deliver rapid expansion and fragmentation in varmint-size game calibers and controlled expansion and penetration over long ranges in deer-size game calibers. This is a classic load in the traditional weight, with outstanding quality control and consistency.

Accuracy and function are ideal, and the load burns clean. The balance of penetration and expansion leans toward rapid expansion, which is what the sporting use of the 223 calls for. We recovered one piece of the bullet that didnt expand much (.24 inch) beyond the original diameter, shedding 30 grains of weight along the way.

Our Team Said: At 7 inches of penetration, we think this is inadequate for personal defense.

Black Hills Remanufactured
60-grain JSP M223R4, $27.50/50
@ Midway.com #662754

The primary rater switched from 55-grain loads to the Black Hills 60-grain JSP as soon as it was introduced. The momentum, he says, is greater and function seems better in most rifles. But the penetration and expansion are superior as well. In one experiment, the 60-grain Black Hills load expanded to a full .54 caliber diameter, although average expansion was more in the .44 range.

Our Team Said: This had outstanding performance. The load is also available in relatively affordable 50-round boxes, which make it a Best Buy.

Black Hills Remanufactured
60-grain Hornady V-Max
M223R10, $38.99/50
@ Midway.com #389230

This was among the first of the 60-grain bullets tested, and this weight was popularized by Black Hills some time ago as a service-load weight. Function is better than the 55-grain load in a dirty or marginal gun, and performance is all-round good. The V-Max, however, fragments and penetrates less than the 60-grain JSP from the same company. This is a sporting load, but its one that many shooters swear by for long-range accuracy.

Our Team Said: Penetration is in the range with the best 55-grain loads, but with the added weight of this bullet, it should do better.

Hornady TAP FPD 60-gr JSP
83288, $19.99 @ Cheaper
ThanDirt.com #15462

This load increases the penetration of the 223 Remington while maintaining the low ricochet concept. Muzzle flash is subdued, and function and accuracy are good on all counts. Hornady pulled out all of the stops when designing this load, and it is a great service load that will serve well for personal defense. Silver-nickel cases eliminate the potential for corrosion, improve feeding in all firearms, and are easily visible in low-light conditions. Propellants in the cases are engineered to protect your night vision by minimizing muzzle flash.

Our Team Said: This load is very popular in police service, so the reliability is proven by thousands of training rounds spent without complaint. However, it looks like Hornady has discontinued this bullet weight in the TAP lines.

Hornady TAP Barrier 60-grain
JSP 83286LE, $16.99,
@ BudsPoliceSupply.com

This load is designed to offer superior barrier or vehicle penetration. The TAP Barrier version of the 60-grain JSP demonstrates typical Hornady quality control. Accuracy is excellent. As it turns out, increasing the penetration simply puts this bullet into the ideal range at over 15 inches in water. Expansion is good at .40 inches.

Our Team Said: When available at a good price, this is an acceptable personal defense load. However, it looks like Hornady has discontinued this bullet weight and style in the TAP line. Hornady now makes a 60-grain Urban TAP that fragments quickly and is markedly different than the TAP choices we tested.

Nosler Match Grade 60-grain
Ballistic Tip 60013,
$18.39/20 @ Midway.com #212387

We were surprised to find Nosler ammunition at an affordable price, but this is top-quality ammunition, as the testing proved. The 60-grain weight trounced the lighter bullet loads. As we tested more 60-grain bullets, we began seeing results nearing the ideal range of penetration.

Our Team Said: This is another good service load that would prove to be a good choice for all-round personal defense.

Cor-Bon DPX Hunter 62-grain
Barnes Triple-Shock X Bullet
Lead-Free DPX22362/20
$28.99 @ Midway.com #467277

This is the single load that exhibited the best balance of expansion and penetration in our opinion, if police service is a criterion. For civilian use, the DPX offers outstanding downrange performance. While part of the appeal of the 223 is its limited penetration, a high-velocity load retains much of the frangible properties of the caliber. But the penetration that is needed in a defensive firearm cannot be compromised.

Our Team Said: The 62-grain DPX is a recommended loading for personal defense. Recoil is light, but the 223 really shines with this loading. You may find it at a cheaper price than the 53-grain DPX.

Winchester Super-X Power Max
Bonded 64-grain Protected
Hollow Point X223R2BP
$19.99/20 @ Midway.com #147721

Affordable, reliable and with proven Winchester quality, the 64-grain JSP delivered good performance. For those concerned with overpenetration and choosing the 223 over a 30-caliber rifle, but not wishing to use a load with the varmint profile, this is an excellent choice. The Winchester 64-grain JSP was among the first 223 loads to incorporate a bullet that expands reliably rather than fragmenting. Using this load, an acquaintance of one of the raters has dropped a straight run of a dozen Southern whitetail deer with a single shot each from his Ruger Mini-14. That is impressive performance.

Our Team Said: Great expansion and high bullet integrity puts this load at the top. We would have liked another 3 to 5 inches of water penetration to make it an unquestioned defense round.

Black Hills Remanufactured
75-grain Match Hollow Point
M223R6, $29.50/50
@ Midway.com #985423

This is among the most accurate and pleasant loads to fire and use. Accuracy was good at 0.4 inches, and though performance differs from the justly famous Black Hills Open Tip 77-grain load, one wonders how much practical difference there would be in the field. This is a superbly accurate loading in bolt-action rifles, as confirmed by our raters, and very accurate in a Daniel Defense AR-15 rifle as well.
Our Team Said: This strongly tracks the performance of the Winchester Super-X 64-grain load and the Hornady TAP 75-grain round. By the piece, it cost less when we bought it, but who knows now?

Hornady TAP 75-grain JHP 80268,
$19.89/20 @ Midway.com #118191

This is among the new generation of heavyweight 223 loads launched in order to achieve superior results in service guns. We believe it is important that 223 ammunition maintain a solid 2500 fps for effective performance even with the heavy bullet loads. The TAP load does so and offers reliable, consistent performance. It generated 10 inches of penetration in water and expanded to a 0.44-inch diameter with substantial retained weight.

Our Team Said: It was among the best defense loads in the test.

Black Hills Remanufactured
77-grain Sierra MatchKing
HPBT M223R9,
$35/50 @ Midway.com #114847
Of all of the loads tested, the Black Hills 77-grain Open Tip has the only undeniable world class record for unquestioned effect by our long-range military shooters and a top choice for special law-enforcement teams. Black Hills military contracts have proven this loads performance. The single most accurate load tested, the Black Hills Open Tip load is a winner on all counts.

Our Team Said: Slightly more expensive than the 75-grain load, this number remains a Best Buy when purchased in the blue 50-round box.

Buffalo Bore 77-grain
HPBT S22377, $29.21/20
@ Midway.com #670936

The Buffalo Bore load has good function and accuracy. It is faster than most other loads in this weight range, but recoil is not a problem in the 223. Pressure signs were normal. Accuracy from a Daniel Defense rifle, in particular, was excellent. It very closely tracks the performance of the Black Hills 77-grain load, coming out with a little more speed and energy, comparable accuracy, identical penetration in water, and expansion and retained weight right alongside with the Black Hills 77-grain load.

Our Team Said: This is a load well worth your consideration.

Our Recommendations
This was an exhaustive and sometimes exhausting test that has been in the making for some 18 months. With one of the authors top helpers attached to NATO for 14 months and another in helicopter school, trained raters and helpers were in short supply. Just the same, the effort was worthwhile and in the end answered a lot of questions our testers had.

We want to ensure were clear about the grading on the varmint cartridges. They got relatively low C grades because they just didnt generate enough penetration for a defense load, in our estimation. Oddly, if youre super-sensitive about not wanting penetration – which some household defenders are – then the light loads may have a place.

If you want penetration, the Cor-Bon DPX loads at 53 grains and 62 grains are outstanding. Also, the Winchester FMJ created substantial penetration in water, but the DPX loads held together better, which we preferred.

As a blanket recommendation for home or area defense, the best results begin at 60 grains, and in particular the Black Hills M223R4 load, which was among the most accurate loads in the test, penetrated 14 inches in water, expanded to .44 caliber, and retained 78% of its original weight. For those particularly concerned with overpenetration, the Cor-Bon 55-grain BlitzKing or the Black Hills 60-grain V-Max are first-class choices.

Among the heavier loads, the readily available Black Hills 77 grain is a top choice.The Buffalo Bore 77-grain loading is virtually equal save for Black Hills military reputation. GT




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