If you bring up the topic of using the .223 Remington cartridge for hunting, invariably strong opinions arise:
“It’s great! Works just fine.”
“Only for varmints; I wouldn’t shoot deer-sized or larger game with it because that’d be inhumane.”
“Anything less than .30 caliber isn’t a real hunting round.”
“If you use it, you better make sure your shot placement is perfect.”
and it goes on.
Of course, some people have no opinion whatsoever because it’s illegal to use that caliber for game hunting in their state. As well, some people use the fact it’s illegal in some states as justification for why you shouldn’t hunt with it (ignoring all the other ways it’s illegal to hunt that could actually be beneficial, like using suppressors). Here in Texas, it’s legal to hunt with .223 and many people have reported successful deer and hog hunts using .223. Of course as well, there are many stories of failures with a .223 and those one or two stories someone has are reason enough for them to say it’s inadequate. The simple reality is any round can fail, no round is a magic bullet (pun intended). Yes you cannot pick your ammunition blindly, but in the end if you pick the right equipment and you do your job — which you should be doing no matter what you’re using, a .22 or a .300 magnum — it can be effective.
This isn’t any sort of definitive piece about hunting with .223 and shouldn’t be taken as such; it’s merely me thinking out loud and presenting things I’ve found on the topic.
Why am I considering hunting with .223? Because I have it and I’m not made of money.
Since I started hunting, Oldest and Daughter have expressed great interest in hunting as well. If I want to take the kids hunting, I need to pick a rifle they can handle. This isn’t just issues of recoil, but also issues of gun fit. The standard protocol for youth hunting is to go out and buy a youth-specific rifle, meaning the barrel and length-of-pull are shorter (perhaps other ergonomics as well for smaller-framed folks), typically chambered in .243 Winchester since that has about 7-8 ft-lbs. of recoil (see this table) but is generally considered adequate for taking a lot of North American game. I’ve been looking for a good used rifle in this area, but haven’t been able to find anything. Buying new is an option, but an expensive option. The reality is, I’m just not looking to spend that sort of money if I don’t have to. If I must I must, but I wanted to see if I could do something with what I already had.
I have an AR that’s lightweight and adjustable. I figured to pull off the A3 carry handle and put on a decent scope and viola, hunting rifle. The ergonomics of the rifle work just fine because it’s lightweight, the barrel isn’t too long so it can balance well for shorter-framed people, the stock is 6-way adjustable so it can fit various people. It fits the ergonomics bill quite well, and few people would argue that the AR platform isn’t suitable in this area. The main point of any debate would be about caliber.
First and easy enough to get out of the way, there’s no debate that .223 Remington is a light-recoiling caliber, about 4 ft-lbs. This is certainly managable by a young, small person. But if there’s only so much energy going backwards, how much energy is going forwards to take out that deer? Is it enough?
I should preface this in saying that I’m not looking at this for hunting giant beasts, just animals that you can find here in Texas, typically going to be whitetail deer and feral hogs. So these aren’t things with thick hides (tho the hog’s “shield” is a consideration) and massive amounts of body mass. Shots are generally not going to be over 200 yards, with 50-150 yards being more likely. It’s important to understand and define this shooting context for the context does affect the end choices of what tools to use.
Let’s look at some terminal performance characteristics.
Of specific interest are the 53 grain Barnes Triple Shock, 62 grain Barnes Triple Shock, 60 grain Nosler Partition, and the 55 grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, as those are more hunting-style rounds than military rounds. There’s good penetration, good expansion. The wound channels are pretty good, with the action happening close to the entry point (i.e. it doesn’t take 6″ before things open up). All in all, this looks pretty good.
This leads into the discussion of the bullets themselves.
First, you can learn tons of stuff about .223/5.56 rounds at the AR15.com Ammo Oracle. More than you ever wanted to know. It is tilted towards military, SHTF, self-defense, and other such things, but still very informative and it does touch on hunting.
Most people consider .223 to be a varmint caliber. We also must note that the US Military uses 5.56x45mm NATO (the close cousin of .223 Remington). What makes .223 terminally effective in these cases is fragmentation. You can read about the military rounds and how fragmentation works here. Specific varmint bullets are also designed to fragment. In those cases you don’t care to preserve the animal, you’re just wanting the varmint or predator to be done away with quick and sure.
These bullets are not good for game hunting, where you want to preserve meat. Little fragments of lead and copper, tons of damage to the meat… not really best for game hunting. But if fragmentation is a large part of what makes .223 effective, what can you do?
You just have to look for .223 bullets that can have expansion and can keep themselves as together as possible. They do exist.
Some that I’ve found:
- Barnes TSX, which I’ve found in Federal Vital-Shok P223S, which is a 55 grain bullet and Federal marks as being usable on deer-sized game. One thing I can say with the Barnes’ is they tend to be longer bullets. Thus, you really have to watch the twist rate here; a 70 grain TSX is going to be rather long and probably require a 1:7 twist to stabilize (whereas other 70 grain bullets are often short enough they can stabilize in 1:8 and 1:9 twist barrels). Their MRX bullets might solve a lot of issues here, but they’re not available for .22 cal.
- Nosler Partition, which I’ve found on Federal Vital-Shok P223Q, which is a 60 grain bullet, and Federal marks as being suitable for use on deer-sized game. This bullet design has a long and positive track-record.
- Winchester PowerPoint-bullet, which I’ve found on Winchester Super-X Power-Point cartridges, which is a 64 grain soft-nosed jacketed bullet, and Winchester says is suitable for deer-sized game.
- Speer’s Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, which I believe in 55 grain form is used in the Federal Tactical Bonded LE223T1 and in 62 grain form in their LE223T3; however, both of these are marketed to the law enforcement market and can be difficult to find commercially (tho possible, AmmunitionToGo often has stuff like this).
- I see Remington now offers their Premier Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded in .223 Remington with a 62 grain bullet. I don’t have much information on this, and Remington doesn’t give “game ratings” like the other manufactuerers do. But looking through all of Remington’s offerings in .223 Rem, the Premier Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded may be the only one suitable; the rest appear to be either for plinking or varmints. This page seems to state that this is an attempt by Remington to court the use of .223 for deer-sized game, and gives stats of a velocity of 3100 fps and 1323 ft/lbs of energy. This post on arfcom shows pretty poor accuracy.
- There’s stuff like Speer’s Gold Dot load, Federal’s Fusion. I know there are lots more out there, but I’m not looking for factory loads as much as I am looking for bullets themselves.
Note the above list is a small representative sample. I know there are other factory loads out there, I know there are other manufacturers that use the same bullets (e.g. Cor-Bon). If you do have to list, please add it to the comments.
Some other random things:
- Handloads provided fantastic accuracy. Any time someone would show targets from benchrest shooting comparing factory loads vs. handloads, the handloads were always tighter groups. This is expected.
- Barnes TSX bullets are pretty slick, especially when it comes to accuracy.
- One of the more popular factory ammos seems to be the Winchester Power-Point 64 grain. But anything with Barnes TSX or Nosler Partition seems to also be spoken well of. But there’s just some strong regard for those Power-Points.
- Bullet weights tend to be in the 55-65 grain range. I haven’t seen much for deer-sized-game hunting rounds outside of that range. Certainly there are lots of stories of people using other things (e.g. 77 grain match bullets), and while it may kill, is it ideal (see next bullet point)? As for how heavy to use? Doesn’t seem to matter. Might have a little more energy at closer ranges with a ligher faster bullet, but not sure how much it matters in the field.
- This guy shot a doe with a 77 grain Sierra Match King. Sure it killed the deer, but massive massive massive amounts of tramua and thus meat loss. Stick with those expanding soft points. 🙂
DPeacher at arfcom has made this (re)posting numerous times and I think sums things up rather well.
.416 Rigby with a 400gn Hornady softpoint @ 2500 FPS at the muzzle. Range 150 yards. The bullet entered the left chest just in front of shoulder (deer quartering towards me) obliterated the top half of the heart and liquified the front half of the lungs, then came to rest on the ball joint of the right hip. The 10 point buck stayed on his hooves and ran 40 yards. No blood trail, not a single drop.
.223 Rem with a 60 gn Nosler Partition @ 2900 fps. Range 165 yards. Classic broadside shot just behind the shoulder on a mature doe. Bullet penetrated completely through the ribcage leaving a golf ball sized exit. The heart was missing 2/3 of it’s top half with 6″ diameter area of both lungs liquified. The doe ran about 50 yards. OK blood trail.
.223 Rem with 62 gn Barnes TSX @ 2900 fps. Range 145 yards. Classic broadside shot high in the shoulder on a mature doe. Bullet penetrated completely breaking both shoulders leaving a quarter sized exit wound. 6″ diameter area of both lungs liquified. Doe DRT. Not a single step. (I had the exact same shot and performance using a 120 gn Barnes TSX out of my 6.5×57 @ 2900 fps on a small 8 point. My son had the same performance with a 180 gn TSX out of the .308 @ 100 yards. There is something “magic” about the high shoulder shot, 1/2 to 2/3 of the way up the chest/shoulder that just seems to work like a light switch. I think it traumatizes the spine and knocks the deer out, then they bleed out before coming to.)
7mm Rem Mag with 140 gn Nosler Ballistic Tip @ 3000 fps. Range 100 yards. Classic broadside shot on a mature buck. Buck dropped at the shot, then while my buddy and his young son were giving each other high fives, the deer walked off into a thorn thicket so dense we had to crawl into it on our hands an knees. We followed a blood trail that at times was so heavy it looked like someone was pouring it out by the Coke can. The trail went on for about 400 yards through the thicket, then into an open field where it tapered off to a few drops then stopped. The deer was never recovered. It’s as if it “rubbed some dirt on it and walked it off”. (The year before, my son shot a nice doe with a .223 62 gn TSX from the exact same blind and had the exact same results, except the blood trail only went about 100 yards. The folks who own that property say they have lost DOZENS of deer the same way from that blind with 7×57, .270, .308… As hard as we all try to recover every animal shot, there will always be a few that haunt us.)
I’ve seen enough deer shot with the .223 to know that a 60 gn or heavier bullet designed for use on deer sized game will leave a wound channel that is virtually indistinguishable from that of a .270 or .30-06 IN THE CASE OF BROADSIDE SHOTS WITH RANGES OF 250 YARDS OR LESS. I’ve seen enough deer shot to know that you can NEVER count on a blood trail even when using a .416 Rigby. Heart shots work, but the deer is going to run for 30 to 200 yards, maybe more. High shoulder shots tend to be DRT but you are going to waste a large part of both shoulders. There’s not a cartridge in existence that doesn’t have at least 1 “failure” on it’s record.
.223 with 60 gn and heavier bullets will work just fine if the hunter is patient enough to wait for a shot that will pass through both lungs. A flubbed shot with ANY cartridge has a high potential for unrecovered game.
I know there is a bit (quite possibly a LOT) of disbelief/hesitation for a lot of folks to trust a .223 to properly do the job on deer sized animals. I WAS ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE. I grew up when most of the experienced hunters viewed .243 and 6mm Rem as marginal, and PROPER deer cartridges started with the .257 Roberts.
Given the projectiles available in most areas in the 70’s and 80’s, old cup and core designs the best of the era being the Remington Core Lockt and the Hornady Interlock, the seasoned hunters were probably right. Sure, the Nosler Partition had been available to handloaders for about 40 years, but just as today the VAST majority of hunters bought their ammo from the local sporting goods counter at Walmart or a local Mom & Pop gun shop, and they probably decided to buy whichever box was cheapest. The major manufactures didn’t really start offering their ‘premium’ bullets until the late 80’s early 90’s, and if the local shop even carried them, they were usually twice the price of the standard offering (that really hasn’t changed over the years). Remember, this was WAY before the internet and the Cabela’s and Bass Pro mega marts.
Back then, the manufactures marketed ammo and rifles tailored to specific niches. They loaded .223, .22-250, .243/6mm ammo with light weight thin jacketed bullets, and they offered rifles in those calibers with slow twist 1/12 or 1/14 barrels. Using those combinations on deer sized game most certainly was a BAD idea. Remember when a 55 gn .224″ was HEAVY? What about 80 gn .243″… They didn’t offer anything else because their slow twist factory barrels couldn’t stabilize anything heavier.
Technology has made BIG advances over the last 30 years. Electronics and data communications have been the leaders of the pack, but the bullet tinkerers have been busy too. The current bullet technology is FAR ahead of the old cup and core designs. Bonded core bullets like the Swift Scirocco, Hornady Interbond, Nosler Accubond, Remington Core Lockt Ultra Bond are marvelous. The monolithic copper bullets like the Barnes TSX and the Hornady GMX are astoundingly effective.
We can thank the custom barrel makers for the fast twist barrels we have today and the custom bullet makers for the heavier, bonded core/monolithic copper bullets that are available. Today’s .223 Rem loaded with a 70 gn Barnes TSX coupled with a 1/7 twist barrel is VASTLY different than the .223 rifle and ammo on the shelves in 1980.
The very first deer I saw taken with a .223 was shot by the now ex-wife of a well known member here. She wanted to hunt, but the .270 her husband was using kicked too much for her to handle. I had been reading of many folks using .223 loaded with quality 60 gn and heavier bullets for a few years, and I decided to load up some 60 gn Nosler Partitions with an eye on shooting a deer with them. Well, as things worked out, Nicole was the one who actually got to do it. We spent about an hour on the 100 yard practice range making sure she could keep every shot in a 4″ circle, and we talked all about whitetail anatomy and bullet placement. Nicole went out to the stand that afternoon and shot a small doe at 40 yards. The deer was quartering away from her. The bullet entered on the left side about 3 ribs up from the diaphragm, it obliterated the liver and both lungs, then broke the right shoulder leaving a golf ball sized exit wound. She said the deer dropped in its tracks and kicked for a few seconds, but died before she could reload. That deer was hanging in the skinning shed next to another one that had been dropped with a .270 when I got back to the ranch house (empty handed, I should add). The wound channels were VERY similar. She was quite happy with herself and she had every right to be. She went out to that stand alone and cleanly killed her first deer without ANY assistance.
In all honesty, the .223 worked a LOT better than I ever thought it would. Over the years the range has increased but the results have remained consistent. I’m comfortable that a properly loaded .223 is very capable of cleanly killing 250 lb whitetails out to 250 yards AS LONG AS THE HUNTER HAS THE PATIENCE TO WAIT FOR A REASONABLE BROADSIDE SHOT AND THE SKILL TO PUT THE BULLET THROUGH BOTH LUNGS.
.223’s just alright with me
(Sing it like the Doobie Brothers).
The more I look at it, the more I think I’m just fine. Yes, you must pick the right ammo for the job, but that’s always the case, isn’t it? And when shooting you must ensure proper placement — but that should always be the case, shouldn’t it? Doesn’t matter what you’re shooting with, you should always place it properly else you don’t have any business shooting. And could it still go bad? Yes it could, but it could go bad with any round. Ultimately it’s not necessarily any better or worse than any other caliber out there. Yes it has limits (e.g. I’m not sure about going out past 200 yards), but this is what tool selection is all about: knowing the constraints you have to work within and choosing tools accordingly. I think given the constraints I’ll be working within, it’ll be just fine.
So now the question becomes… what to use?
Picking A Round
The hardest part about wanting to game hunt with a .223 has been finding suitable ammunition. When I go to the local stores, most of the .223 ammo is oriented towards 3 things: 1. plinking/target/practice, 2. self-defense/SHTF, 3. varmints. Finding specific hunting loads in .223 has been rather difficult. I did manage to find some Federal P223S at Cabela’s one time and picked up 2 boxes of it, but that’s all I’ve been able to find. Of course, I can order just about anything I want online, so it’s not that horrible of a problem, but there is something nice about buying in-town.
Since I am delving into the world of reloading/handloading, I think that gives me more options to work from. For instance, Barnes makes a 53 grain TSX and a 62 grain TSX, and while a few companies have factory loads with the 53 grain, only Cor-Bon makes one with the 62 grain. Finding factory .223 loads with Trophy Bonded Bear Claw is downright difficult. So right now I’m leaning towards just loading my own round.
So what bullet to use?
I’ve been using Barnes TSX bullets and have been impressed with them. I tried shooting some of that Federal P223S out of the hunting AR and it performed well, in terms of accuracy (all I could measure). That doesn’t surprise me tho. Still, if I can hand-load and opt to use Barnes, I’m tempted to try the 62 grain TSX. I can’t really explain it, but something about wanting to have that slightly heavier bullet just appeals to me here. But given the fact the TSX’s are longer, I’ll certainly have to ensure a 62 grain would stabilize in a 1:9 twist barrel; probably will, but only testing in my rifle will bear that out.
I didn’t know much about Speer’s Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, but as I’ve been reading on it my curiosity is perked. I can only wonder if the lack of information on it is because the only people I read about shooting it are folks that handload. All that do have spoken well of the performance. However, it seems that this particular bullet has been discontinued by Speer. I see it listed as discontinued on MidwayUSA’s website, and I’ve read recent online postings echoing the same thing. Bummer. I’m sure it could still be found here and there, but I’d rather not bank on coming up with a hunting round based upon it then having no more bullets ever and having to start all over again in finding a round. Might as well just skip it. 😦
The Nosler Partition is very well-regarded, as is the Winchester Power-Point. Take a look at this article from Shooting Illustrated’s Guns and Hunting titled “When the Bullet Hits the Bone“. It used a 60 grain .223 Nosler Partition and the bullet performed quite well, alongside larger caliber bullets. It also looked at a Barnes TSX and attempts to explain some of the TSX performance characteristics. I wouldn’t feel bad about using the Nosler.
As I poke around and read more, the feeling I get is ultimately any of these will work fine. The Barnes will probably give a bit more penetration, but there’s some that question its ability to expand at lower velocities. However, I doubt out to 200 yards that will be an issue. The Power-Points should be really good at expansion, but some reports I read can question penetration in “less than ideal shots” (e.g. non-broadside). Same seems to be with the Nosler, given it will shed, but it seems to have a reputation as a “tougher” bullet and stuff I’ve read is generally very positive on this round. Given I’m also considering using this on hogs and how they can be tougher than deer, it makes me think the Barnes may be the way to go.
The main thing I’m wanting is for the round to be good on both deer and hogs, and they are different beasts. Deer are “fragile” by comparison to hogs, and having a single round that could be effective on both would be ideal. So let’s look at one of the best forums for Texas hog hunting and look at what I’ve found:
I’ve shot a ton of game with Barnes TSX and TTSX bullets in 6.8SPC, .270, 7mm08, .280, .308, .30-06, .358, 9.3×62 and .375. Everything from Racoons to Cape/Australian Buffalo. I have had exactly one failure, a 200gr TSX shot into a water buff in Argentina, it was an early production 200gr .308 bullet which apparently was a little TOO tough and I was only shooting a moderate load so it failed to expand.
ALL others have killed game VERY efficiently and the few I have recovered could be used in a Barnes ad. This bullet allows you to shoot larger game with smaller calibers effectively. Using TSX bullets, calibers like .243, .260 and 6.8 are more than adequate for whitetail/mule deer and the largest hog. Last Sat I shot a 270# boar with a 6.8SPC, 110gr TSX at 2325fps MV from a 11″ suppressed SBR and he didn’t even take a step!!!
Everything being equal you normally seat Barnes TSX/TTSX bullets further off the lands for best accuracy and they normally create less chamber pressure than the same weight lead core conventional bullet.
If your after 100% weight retention and DEEP penetration for TOUGH game you just can’t beat Barnes X bullets!!!! For deer in calibers larger than 7mm08 they are overkill.
Kevin, I’ll send you a box of .308 168gr TTSX bullets tomorrow, load these up in your .300 and there isn’t an animal in N or S America you can’t cleanly and reliably kill from about any angle.
Who posted that? Bill Wilson. Yes, THAT Bill Wilson of Wilson Combat. Reading further on that forum, while they are generally down upon using .223 to hunt hogs, the performance of the Barnes TSX seems to be changing their minds.
So for now, I think I’m going to try out the Barnes TSX. Not sure if I want to do 53 grain or 62 grain, but I may try them both out and see how they perform in the rifle and let that be more of a deciding factor. Not sure how I’ll load it up, what powders, what cases, what primers, and so on. But I know there’s a Barnes bullet book at Cabela’s and I’ll check that out. I know Barnes has some data for free on their website, but the book contains a lot more.
No idea what or how this all will go. It may be a flop. I may need to try out other bullets, other loads. Or I may just get a 6.8 SPC upper and be done with it. 🙂 But at least I feel that using .223 Remington for hunting deer and hogs here in Texas shouldn’t be a problem. It’s certainly usable, it’ll certainly do the job if you do your job. So really, at this point it’s all about ensuring I can do my job.