other By: John Haviland | February, 23
The more I shoot the .223 Remington, the more I like it. The cartridge is inexpensive to shoot, and its recoil is like a pat on the cheek. Yet it shoots fast and flat enough to aim right on and hit as far away as I can hold a steady crosshair. Many other shooters agree, because the .223 Remington is the most popular centerfire rifle cartridge in the U. S., and probably the world. Because of its high approval, more bullets and powders are introduced every year aimed at the .223 Remington.
Because .223 Remington brass is often loaded several hundred or even a thousand at a time, it would take a month of Sunday afternoons to weigh each powder charge for that many cartridges. Choosing a powder that meters consistently cuts way down on reloading time, because it can be run through a powder measure and dumped directly into cases. All the powders listed in the load table were metered through a measure. None of them produced any wide swings in velocity. Certainly there was no more velocity variation than if the time had been taken to dribble the last exact kernel into the pan on a scale.
In the same vein, a powder that fills the case right up to the top of the mouth requires additional reloading time. A completely full case must be handled gently to keep from spilling the powder. A full case also must often be tapped to settle the powder enough to insert a bullet in the case mouth before running the whole thing into the seating die. Maximum amounts of extruded powders, like H-4985 and Varget, most often cause this problem. To solve the problem, reduce the charge slightly with these powders.
Where to seat bullets in relationship to the rifling depends on the rifle. Two Savage bolt-action rifles shot their tightest groups with bullets .03 inch short of contact with the rifling. Cartridges of that length, however, would not fit in the Savage magazines.
The Remington Model 700, worked over by Sisk Gunsmithing, that was used to develop the loads shot slightly better with the Nosler 50- and 55-grain Ballistic Tip bullets .03 inch short of touching the rifling, compared to backing the bullets off .08 inch at 2.25 inches overall loaded length. (The standard maximum overall cartridge length is 2.26 inches for the .223 Remington.) The difference in accuracy between the seating depths, though, was only .11 and .18 inch. That small difference could likely go the other way, depending on how much my hands wiggle at the bench. The Thompson/Center Encore shot Nosler 55-grain Ballistic Tips about the same whether seated close or far from the start of the rifling. A bullet seated straightly in a case neck and aligned with the bore probably has more to do with tight groups than a few hundredths of an inch in seating depth.
On the other hand, a friend bought a Remington Model 700 Varmint rifle and had an impossible time developing an accurate load for the rifle. He turned it over to me, and I tried a bunch of powder and bullet combinations, all with the bullets set .03 inch short of contacting the rifling. The best the heavy-barreled rifle shot was about one inch for five shots at 100 yards. The average was more like 11⁄2 inches.
I was all set to sand the barrel channel and bed the receiver of the rifle, but before doing all that work, I decided to shoot the rifle one more time for groups as a base to see if my work would help or ruin the rifle. I grabbed a box of cartridges off the shelf loaded with 25.5 grains of Ramshot TAC and Nosler 50-grain Ballistic Tips. The cartridges measured 2.25 inches in length, which set the bullets .08 inch short of contacting the rifling. The rifle grouped them into nearly one hole. Other powders produced similar accuracy. My friend thinks I’m a real hand.
Bullet weights from 40 to 60 grains work well in the .223 Remington with standard one-in-14-inch twists and up to 80 grains in rifling twists of one in 7 or one in 8 inches. Forty-grain bullets have been available for decades, but mostly they were chubby, little bullets with a form not much sleeker than a rock. Nosler changed that with its 40-grain Ballistic Tip. Hornady followed along with its V-MAX and Sierra with the BlitzKing. The ballistic coefficient of these pointy plastic tipped 40-grain bullets is comparable to a 50-grain bullet with a standard lead tip. These streamlined bullets with a speed of 3,700 fps sighted one inch high at 100 yards drop only 5 inches at 300 yards.
These bullets quickly kill game up to the size of coyotes. One morning a bobcat came to the call, slinking through the brush. The little Ballistic Tip hit it at 20 yards. The bullet left only a pinprick of an entrance hole and tore the cat apart inside. The bullets are bombs on gophers, prairie dogs and marmots well past 300 yards.
Forty-grain bullets would be the all-around bullet for the .223 Remington, except in places like Wyoming where the only time the wind stops is to change direction. Last spring John Wolfe of Douglas, Wyoming, took me prairie dog shooting north of town. By midafternoon the western sky had turned black, and the wind howled. I was shooting Winchester Supreme 40-grain Ballistic Silvertips at 3,600 fps out of my .223. The shots were around 300 yards with the wind blowing strong from the right. John called my shots to the left. I held farther and farther into the wind, but still John said the bullets hit left. The gusting wind made it even worse because it threw the bullets here and there with the same hold. I finally gave up.
“Here, use my rifle,” John offered, and kindly handed me his Remington Model 700 .223 Remington loaded with Nosler 55-grain Ballistic Tips. I held the left edge of the scope’s dot reticle on the upwind side of a prairie dog and knocked it for a loop. Three more of the fat rodents rolled with the same hold.
A 40-grain Ballistic Tip at 3,600 fps is supposed to drift about 7 inches in a 25-mph wind at 275 yards. A 55-grain Ballistic Tip at 3,200 fps drifts only an inch less. Way out at 350 yards the 40-grain bullet should drift only 2 inches more than the heavier bullet. Perhaps the wind was stronger and the range longer than I had thought, but the 40-grain bullet seemed to drift at least twice as far as the 55-grain bullet. Whatever the reason, it made a good excuse for all the misses.
A 50-grain bullet is probably the best overall bullet for the .223 Remington in the field. From the 26-inch barrel of a Thompson/ Center Encore rifle, Nosler 50-grain Ballistic Tips reached nearly 3,500 fps with Hodgdon Benchmark powder. The same load was only about 100 fps slower fired through the 20-inch barrel of the Sisk Gunsmithing Model 700. A bullet at that speed drops only 6 inches at 300 yards when sighted one inch high at 100 yards.
Although I could never tell the difference in the field, a 55-grain bullet has about 2 inches more bullet drop than a 50-grain bullet at 300 yards. A 55-grain bullet somewhat makes up for that because it drifts one inch less in the wind than a 50-grain bullet way out at 400 yards.
Some hunters think they just have to plug a deer or antelope with a .22-caliber bullet. A variety of better choices exist, but a Barnes 53-grain X-Bullet, Nosler 60-grain Partition or Trophy Bonded 55 grainer flying somewhat over 3,000 fps from the muzzle of a .223 kills big game. I’ve used the X-Bullet and Partition on antelope, and the bullets poked a neat hole through them. The animals ran a short way and fell over. However, the bullets really start running out of energy much past 200 yards, so don’t limit yourself when the world is full of .243s and .25-06s.
Heavy 69-, 75- and 80-grain bullets are intended mainly for long-range target shooting. They are designed to punch holes in paper and have little use on small game. An 80-grain hollowpoint boat-tail bullet looks like a little spear that should fly flat clean out past the Smith farm. Yet with a bullet speed of only 2,700 fps from the 20-inch barrel of a Colt H-Bar Match AR-15, the long bullet actually drops 5 inches more at 500 yards than a 55-grain bullet. But that additional bullet drop is easily compensated for by sight adjustment. The long bullet’s advantage is 15 inches less bullet drift at that distance, which is not so easily offset.
From shooting 10 .223 Remington rifles with short, long, heavy and thin barrels, I’ve noticed the .223 places a variety of bullet styles and weights, loaded with different powders, within .5 inch of one another at 100 yards. That saves a bunch of time and ammunition when switching from one load to another.
On a Colorado prairie dog shoot last summer, I brought a mishmash of .223 loads. I sighted in with Nosler 55-grain Ballistic Tips and Varget powder to hit 1.5 inches high at 100 yards. I shot a sack of those cartridges the first morning. Next was a bag of Barnes 50-grain Varmin-A-Tor bullets loaded with Ramshot TAC. Those didn’t last much longer. I finished up with Nosler 50-grain Dog Town bullets loaded with Varget. Most shots were between 200 and 300 yards, with an occasional Hail Mary past 350 yards. I hit pretty consistently, if I do say so myself, and never touched the scope adjustment.
Twenty-two-caliber bullets must work over a wider velocity range than any other caliber. A certain style of bullet fired from a .220 Swift that sends prairie dogs to that sagebrush patch in the sky may only poke a hole in the varmint when fired 400 fps slower from a .223 Remington.
At .223 speeds, though, Hornady V-MAX, Nosler Ballistic Tip and Sierra BlitzKing bullets expand violently when they hit flea-infested fur well past 300 yards. However, their price is a bit steep when shooting 400 or more rounds a day. At about half the price and nearly as good are lead-tipped bullets like the Hornady Spire Point and Spire Point Super Explosive, Remington Pointed Soft Point, Sierra Varminter and Varminter Blitz and Speer spitzer softpoint. Unless hollowpoint bullets have a thin fluted jacket, they tend to perform erratically much past 200 yards when fired from the .223. Of course, shooting a lighter bullet, like a 40 grain, boosts velocity and expansion.
Within the last few years, several powders have been introduced that work well in the .223 Remington. A few of the new ones are Alliant Reloder 10X, Hodgdon Benchmark and Varget and Ramshot TAC and X-Terminator. That’s not to say established powders are obsolete; W-748, H-4895, Reloder 15, BL-C(2), H-4198, IMR-3031 and others still produce good accuracy and velocity.
Hodgdon Benchmark delivered the most consistent velocities of the powders listed in the load table. Even though Benchmark was run through a powder measure, standard deviations averaged about 15 for all the loads listed. It was followed by Reloder 10X and Varget.
Does a powder with the most uniform velocity correspond to the most accurate load? Sometimes. In the case of the Thompson/Center Encore and Sisk Model 700, Reloder 10X averaged the best accuracy, followed by Benchmark and then Varget. Actually, the average accuracy of the powders from the Sisk Gunsmithing Model 700 differed only about .40 inch (if the Partition loads are omitted). That pretty much shows a properly built rifle shoots well with almost any suitable powder.
The .223 Remington really has no competition. The .222 and .222 Magnum are deader than corporate honor, and the .223 finished them with its inexpensive ammunition and cases and availability of rifles of every action type. The .22-250 Remington is the only other .22-caliber cartridge in the ballpark, but it is on another level. With 10 extra grains of powder it produces an additional 400 fps of bullet speed over the .223. That helps on shots 400 yards and farther on large critters. But a moderate rate of fire is necessary to keep the .22-250 from burning out a barrel over a weekend and to minimize the cumulative effect of its recoil. Not so with the .223 Remington. The more I shoot it, the more I like it.