When deciding upon a certain mission for a rifle, the lucky ones choose the caliber and then the rifle. If I wished to fire .223 Remington ammunition, I would do so in my beautifully accurate Howa rifle. I would not be concerned with powder burn rates, lubrication, and perhaps even barrel twist. But such is not the case. My rifle is the AR-15 and I like it very much. And this rifle is chambered for the .223 Remington. While no single tool is ideal for everything, the AR is my basic go anywhere do anything rifle. I fire it a lot. The expenditure of two hundred rounds in an evening is not out of the question. Only the most ardent bolt gun shooter, craving repetition, would approach that weight of brass with a bolt-action rifle.
For the majority of varmint hunting the bolt gun reigns supreme. I realize that, but just take a look at NRA High Power—the AR-15 rifle will drive that tack brothers and sisters! We all have a budget and that budget dictates the number of rounds we fire. If we use only factory ammunition the budget gives out sooner. If we roll our own then we are going to shoot more rounds before the budget gives out. And perhaps even enjoy a certain amount of pride in handcrafting our product.
Handloading for America’s service rifle is not that difficult. After all, we have successfully loaded good, accurate ammunition for the Garand and the M14 for generations. But the AR is a bit trickier while remaining the same. We have to carefully consider powder selection, which M1 shooters appreciate, but there is also that sticky problem of bullet twist. However, neither is a problem if we have done our research.
First, you have to decide what you want to do with the rifle. If the piece is used in long-range competition, care in producing ammunition is critical—on the level of the white-garbed technician producing miracle medicine in a sealed clean room. Well, perhaps that description is severe but it keeps the kids out of the loading room. Some produce match winning loads on their own, while others of us use match grade factory offerings such as the Hornady A-Max in competition and attempt to use practice ammunition that duplicates the point of aim and impact. Others regard the AR-15 as a close quarters battle weapon—which it is—and load vast quantities of ammunition without the same care for consistency. Either will work, but by the same token I think those of us using the .223 fire more rounds than most riflemen. The cartridge is like that. It is accurate, pleasant, and light on the shoulder.
This is not a report on loading the .223 Remington per se, but on loading for the .223 Remington. Rather than reams of load data, I am talking principles. The loads I use in the AR rifles are often quite accurate in the bolt action as well. The intricacies of loading for the AR are many. I am glad I learned, but the lessons are not burned into muscle memory. I must consult my notes and follow the program on which I have based my procedure. If one day you tackle the 6.5 Grendel or the .300 Short Remington Magnum in an AR platform, you will be thankful for the easy lessons learned with the .223.
First, let’s look at the major difference in the semi auto and the bolt gun as pertains to handloading. The AR bolt has little leverage compared to a bolt gun. When the bolt flies forward to strip a round from the magazine and feed it into the chamber, the cartridges must have been properly resized. There is no room for error and no means of placing extra force on the cartridge—the forward assist only works with properly resized cartridges and a dirty chamber, not off specification rounds. I have used small base dies that resize the base to the minimum diameter.
Sometime, long ago, an experienced shooter that loaded full power cartridges for the Garand recommended this course to me. Today, some recommend opening the chamber. The brass is much cheaper than the chamber. Small base dies work for me. Opening the chamber is a decision for an individual rifleman, but when you load cartridges for several rifles and even for the family, let’s be certain each one chambers in every rifle. When you have the sizing dies properly set, be certain the cases move freely into the chamber before going any further.
Naturally, neck sizing as is so often done with bolt-action rifles, will not work because of less leverage and the fact that autos tend to stretch brass to a greater degree on firing. Besides, many of us pick up range brass or have it donated to us and this will be from a variety of rifles. We are not firing the same brass again and again in the same rifle as a bolt gun shooter may do.
There are differences in brass. Commercial WCC stamped brass is fine, as is Federal, Hornady, Remington, and Black Hills. It is difficult to keep up with brass in big boxes of once fired to nearly ready to be discarded, but a general memory of the age of brass aids in knowing when it is time to trim brass. Then, you may measure a random sample and check to see if the brass is more or less in the same ‘generation.’ That would never fly for making match loads, but it is an OK program for high production.
For match loads, carefully gauge the brass length often. A rule of thumb is that commercial brass is not as thick as military brass. This means it may not be as strong but will take more powder. Military brass may have less capacity, but it seems the equation works out to a fraction less powder with the same velocity. I am pretty certain the pressure with this fraction less powder is the same as that generated by a ‘heavier’ load in commercial brass.
Pressure is pressure; powder charge is powder charge, and independent in the equation. Less powder, same pressure is a good rule for military brass as long as you follow good loading procedures. If you are loading at the top end with commercial brass and decide to load the next box of top end loads with military brass, you will encounter excess pressure. Be certain you completely understand the difference in brass before beginning.
Most extractors are just fine but some need a little bump up. If the spent case sticks in the chamber, the extractor will pull off of it and the next round will bump into it. I have installed a Buffer Technologies upgrade to my Bushmaster extractor, and while the advantage is difficult to quantify, this is an inexpensive and worthwhile upgrade.
A word on chambering—always use a crimp. I do not use a heavy crimp, I simply kiss the neck of the brass. Some will argue the point. Bullet set back can be ugly with a high-pressure cartridge like the .223. The bullet simply must be crimped in place, and this means a minimal expander and a good crimp. Accuracy is just fine with a solid crimp and it is really needed.
Articles have been written solely concerning AR-15 barrel twist. I have written a number myself over the years, and like to consult my notes before recommending a particular twist. For the most part, we will not be building custom rifles but will go with what we know in the rifle we have. However, I will note that custom maker Les Baer offers not only the one-in-seven twist in his rifles, but also one-in-twelve, one-in-eight and one-in-nine. So, there is some choice but if the bargain rifle at the pawnshop has an unfamiliar twist certain rules if respected will give fine accuracy.
If you wish to use the popular and highly-accurate heavy bullets, sometimes called very low drag or VLD bullets, then the one-in-seven twist works fine. The heavy bullets begin in the 60-grain weight and go to 80 grains. The Sierra 80-grain bullet is brilliantly accurate in the Howa Bolt action but in the AR I have found the heaviest practical bullet is a 77-grain version.
The one-in-twelve-inch twist generally is limited to bullets of 60 grains. Some authorities flatly state do not go over 55 grains with this twist rate, but I have used the factory Hornady TAP 60-grain JSP in this twist rate with excellent results. This one may be the most efficient heavy bullet load for the one turn in twelve inch barrel twist. Conventional wisdom and factory recommendation is that the one-in-nine handles bullets to 68 grains well. The standard 55-grain bullets work well in all barrel twists—per my experiments—and is never a bad weight to settle upon. I have to admit that bullets at the low and high end of the weight spectrum are pretty interesting, however, and the subject of some experimentation.
When bullet selection begins, you must understand your bullet twist. The twist rate is usually stamped on the barrel of AR rifles and the manufacturer can provide details. The most common bullet used in the AR is some type of 55-grain FMJBT bullet. Unless you are loading for hunting or competition, the 55-grain FMJBT works fine. Accuracy is good but if you can put together a cheap and accurate load why not? The hair’s width difference when going to a more expensive bullet may not pay off in the long run for economy. I use the Hornady bullet I find on sale or in bulk, period. It works for me. The A-Max load is accurate, but only if you take time in load development. The heavy bullets give great results at longer ranges, but are more expensive. Again, burner bullets or precision is the catch word.
Also, a word on velocity. I use several 16-inch barrel ARs but also love shooting the longer barrel rifles. We will not realize the maximum velocity printed in many manuals when using an AR. We are limited to a certain range of powders and they are not the slow burning engines used to produce top-end velocity in bolt guns. The shorter barrel and faster powders simply will not give us the results we had with a varmint rifle. But then, a longer barrel AR is comparable to any other long-barrel rifle. The top end velocity possible with the bolt gun and slow burning powder is simply out of our reach by a margin.
Since the AR is gas operated, care in powder selection is important. But the AR is not a common gas operated rifle. The AR does not use a gas piston but rather funnels gas direct to the bolt. (With respect to the piston guns, most of us use the original type.) This results in a simpler system, and perhaps a system that is inherently more accurate than others. But it is also a system that tends to deposit more foreign material into the action.
Fast burning powder will batter this system. We do not wish to batter the AR. Powder with a mid level burn rate is ideal. Sure, fast burning powders may be more economical as they accomplish good if not outstanding velocity with miserly amounts of powder, but they do not work well with the AR. Likewise, slow-burning powders will often leave excess unburned powder.
For my use, the new Varget and the proven H 4895 work just great. Winchester 748 has also proven acceptable. I am very familiar with H 4895, however, and the others required new load development. Varget burns a bit cleaner, but otherwise I am not certain there is an advantage. In my precision bolt guns, Varget loads do seem to be the most accurate, so the potential may cross over with extensive load development. All three powders are adequate to say the least.
At times, when seating the bullet, there is a difficulty with those of us with fat fingers, as the .223 offers little gripping surface. Plus, we have a tight neck to work with. But I have used the Arbor press from Russ Hayden shooting supply at times, along with Wilson gear to produce brilliantly accurate loadings. No, I do not have the time to do this with every loading but this gear can really increase your accuracy potential in a top end rifle.
Otherwise, using my proven Hornady loading gear, I am simply careful. An off line bullet may not be accurate and it may also produce a tie up in the AR. I do not chase the highest velocity with the AR. As I mentioned earlier, there are differences in brass and those pursuing the totem of high velocity must carefully work their way up the ladder, using the same brass, powder, primers and bullets in every load. By loading at a bit less pressure, the longevity of the barrel, firearms, and perhaps the shooter is increased.
Unless you really need a load that shoots flat past three hundred yards, a load as much as 150 fps below factory specifications will function just fine and give acceptable accuracy.
When loading, the lighter bullets may be seated slightly deeper but for most uses the maximum overall cartridge length is 2.260 inches. Heed this or your rifle may not feed the cartridge from the magazine. Also, while the 75-grain Hornady bullet has proven brilliantly accurate in my rifles, I have found that the heavier bullets are more subject to a pressure spike as might be expected. Merely changing the bullet to a different maker even though the bullet is the same weight, may produce a significant pressure spike. Always reduce the load by 10% when changing any component, particularly the brass and always when changing the bullet.
An interesting variation on the theme these days is the lead-free bullet. Hornady offers the NTX bullet that is lead free and California compatible for those living on the Left Coast. It is accurate and it works great. A bullet designed not because of regulation, but by a belief in all-copper design is the Barnes X bullet. (I call them all X bullet, but there are important differences.) I have used the popular TSX with excellent results. However the more I learn, the more I learn toward the TSX with polymer tip. If you are a long-range shooter, the polymer tip affords a better BC and the expansion of the projectile is guaranteed. I have been a serious user of these bullets for some time and load them for specific uses. Barnes also offers an affordable lead core bullet in the Burner line.
The .223 Remington cartridge offers light recoil, excellent accuracy, and the capability of taking a wide spectrum of game. Most of all this is a friendly and pleasant cartridge I would hate to be without.
|Bullet Powder and Charge Velocity (16-inch barrel Daniel Defense)Winchester brass/Winchester rifle primers|
|Bullet Type||Bullet Weight||Powder||Velocity||Result|
|Hornady A MAX||55-Grain||27.0 Varget||3,150 fps||Very Accurate|
|Hornady||68-Grain||24.0 Varget||2,622 fps||Very Accurate|
|Hornady||68-Grain||25.0 W 748||2,703 fps||Accurate|
|Hornady A MAX||75-Grain||24.0 H4895||2,700 fps||Very Accurate|
|Hornady A MAX||75-Grain||24.0 Varget||2,650 fps||Accurate|
|Barnes TSX||62-Grain||25.0 Varget||2,801 fps||Max Accurate|