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The .223 and 5.56×45 NATO cartridges are nearly identical rounds that have led shooters toward countless debates, confusion, and frustration. But understanding the differences between these two rounds isn’t all that difficult when you cut you through the misinformation. In fact, with just a little background information about each cartridge and an understanding of how you plan to use your firearm, you’ll find yourself better prepared to make a decision between the two calibers. You’ll also know the risks, if any, of shooting a 5.56 round in a .223 chamber.
The History of .223 & 5.56
Remington submitted the .223 Remington round to SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute) in 1962 as a sporting round generally considered a varmint cartridge. Since then, .223 Rem ammunition really hasn’t changed in terms of cartridge dimensions or the pressure that it is loaded to, according to Gun Digest 2013. That makes sense, as SAAMI is pretty rigid with their testing and once a standard is set, it tends to remain that way for the life of a given caliber. While variances on the .223 Remington round have popped up, such as the .223 Wylde, which is a round many feel is a good compromise between the pressures and performance of .223 and 5.56, .223 Remington is far and away the most popular of the .223 calibers.
On the other hand, 5.56×45 NATO has never been submitted to SAAMI because it’s a military round, loaded to a military standard that is quite different from SAAMI’s standards. As you can imagine, military standards are very exact and quite rigid all over the world. That’s not to say military standards are better than SAAMI, it’s simply that the way they each measure different attributes of a round are different so you can’t truly stack the rounds side-by-side and understand the differences between them. This variance in standards plays a huge role in the confusion that surrounds the .223 vs. 5.56 debate today.
In summary, the military measures pressure one way and SAAMI measures pressure in a different manner so the two calculations can’t be compared side-by-side, helping spur more discussion, confusion, and even misinformation about these two calibers.
Are 5.56 and .223 Rounds Interchangeable?
In terms of the exterior dimensions, 5.56×45 and .223 cartridges are just about identical so there are not really any concerns about fitting each round in your chamber, it doesn’t matter if you’re chambered for .223 or 5.56, the round will likely load. However, pressure varies between the two rounds and that pressure change can be significant depending upon your firearm. Generally, 5.56×45 ammunition fires at a higher pressure than .223 Remington ammunition. A typical range round of 5.56×45 will hit a peak pressure of around 60,000 pounds per square inch while a comparable .223 cartridge’s peak pressure will be about 20-percent less.
To help function under those increased pressures, many 5.56 chambers are larger in critical areas than .223 chambers. Specifically, the area of the chamber known as the leade or throat of the barrel will be different. This throat or leade portion is the area of the barrel in front of the chamber just before the rifling begins. So, if you load the same exact round in both a .223 chambered firearm and a 5.56 firearm, the extra area in the 5.56 chamber will help safely handle the pressure loaded cartridge and potentially lead to less potential wear and tear than if you fired the 5.56 NATO round in a .223 Rem firearm.
Also of note, odds are you’re going to get slightly faster muzzle velocities using 5.56×45 ammunition than you would if firing .223 Remington.
So what does it mean? For most shooters, the general rule of thumb as it relates to each round is that you should not fire 5.56 in a firearm chambered for .223 while you can safely fire .223 in a 5.56-chambered firearm. But it’s not that cut and dried.
There are several cases where shooters have documented firing 5.56 in their .223 firearms with no major problems and while a major malfunction, such as an explosion is possible, it is extremely unlikely to happen. You see part of what led to this way of thinking is because of the SAAMI standards for testing. Given a highly pressurized barrel, 5.56 rounds in a .223-chambered firearm are not a great idea. Most civilian .223 rifles on the market today, however, are much more forgiving than the barrels used for SAAMI standard testing so you’re likely to not only avoid major malfunctions but you’ll likely not even be able to tell the difference when firing 5.56 in a .223 Remington chambered AR-15.
Keeping that in mind, if you are relying on an AR-15 in a survival situation, you will likely want to invest in ammunition that is ideally suited for your specific chamber. Because of the pressure each round is loaded and the tolerances accepted by most modern sporting rifle barrels, even if not ideal in terms of wear-and-tear, you will likely be able to effectively neutralize a target using either caliber.
How to Tell .223 Remington and 5.56×45 Cartridges Apart
So you’re stuck in a place where ammo is scare and you come across rounds that appear to be appropriate for your firearm. Since .223 and 5.56 are nearly identical in physical appearance, how do you know if it’s .223 Remington or 5.56×45 ammo? The quickest and easiest way is to examine the head of the cartridge. If it’s 5.56, it’ll be stamped be stamped with a NATO insignia, which looks like a circle with a plus sign (+) inside of it. If it’s .223 Remington, it’ll say .223 Rem.
So Which Caliber AR-15 is Better?
The short answer about which caliber is best for you depends on your particular needs. The .223 Remington is the mostly widely produced caliber and while you likely won’t want to fire 5.56 in your firearm often, in an emergency you could easily get away with firing a few hundred rounds if necessary. The bottom line is this: if you want to be as safe as possible, always shoot .223 Remington ammunition. The .223 Rem cartridges will safely fit and fire in any rifle chambered for either .223 or 5.56.
In terms of pricing, .223 ammunition and 5.56 ammo cost about the same amount per round and both are readily available most of the time on the U.S. civilian market. If you’re not sure what you’ll be using the firearm for, most shooters find 5.56 chambered firearms more appealing because of the flexibility they offer when it comes to firing either .223 or 5.56×45 rounds.
About the Author:
Mark Ollendale is a life-long shooter and firearms enthusiast obsessed with ammunition. Passionate about helping protect the 2nd Amendment while spreading the benefits of firearm ownership to new shooters young and old, Mark works for online ammo retailer AmmoForSale.com.
For let us make no mistake. If the end of the world appeared in all the literal trappings of the Apocalypse,* if the modern materialist saw with his own eyes the heavens rolled up* and the great white throne appearing,* if he had the sensation of being himself hurled into the Lake of Fire,* he would continue forever, in that lake itself, to regard his experience as an illusion and to find the explanation of it in, psycho-analysis, or cerebral pathology. – CS Lewis
I am in my late 50s, and have seen “end of the world” predictions for a half century.
I also do preparedness.
So… what gives?
I have indeed lived through the “Run for the hills, the end of the world is coming” scares of many past decades: the Cold War, various asteroid, comets and rogue planets making a guest appearance at a planet near you, sundry predictions of WWIII starting, Y2K, the annual end of the world meltdown predictions from the global warming charlatans, and much, much more (including the epic global catastrophes of Jennifer Lopez’s Gigli and Kevin Costner’s Waterworld!) I have a particular distaste for the issue of anthropogenic global warming – on which I have done a 400 page paper – and which I consider to be perhaps the most expensive fraud ever perpetrated on mankind, bar none.
As one writer, whose name escapes me now, once observed, he had lived through many disasters, the vast majority of which never happened.
So, why is it that I do preparedness?
Simple – risk mitigation, a knowledge of history and an understanding that we live in a universe that – like it or not, be it long or short, a culture eventually reaps what it sows (even though individuals may escape). There clearly is one “possibility” that is indeed certain: I have to die, and I have to live until I die. In other words, if I don’t die, I have 100% probability of getting old, and then dying (of course, as Keynes famously observed, in the long run, we’re all dead). Thus, one form of preparedness is that I plan for either retirement, and/or make sure my will is in order (it might also be helpful to make peace with God – after all, you are going to be dead a lot longer than you are going to be alive.) Similarly, it is also likely that if you devote an extreme amount of time to preparedness, your wife and children will either leave you, or you run the serious risk of alienating all of them. Or, if you aren’t married, you will end up with very few friends – and even less prospects of ever getting married! Preparedness starts with a dispassionate analysis of possible outcomes, based on your understanding of the world and history. It also means the prepper should make sure to take adequate time to smell the roses in his journey to readiness. You do not want to reach the end of next year, next decade, or the end of your life, having lived in a bomb shelter, or never having had the opportunity to actually visit the Corn Palace, in Mitchell, South Dakota. (Ok… well, make that the Pyramids at sunrise, or the Eiffel Tower at sunset, but you get my drift.) By the same token, one also needs to determine the value of that new Lexus vis-à-vis the value of preparedness and “only” being able to afford a Toyota Corolla instead. I don’t know your financial situation – however, I do know that a plurality of westerners have chosen to live for today – with the problem being that the results of “Live for today, for tomorrow we die” is that tomorrow you don’t die. Rather, you wake up and you have a massive hangover, you wake up and find there is no seed corn for next year’s planting – or you wake up and find you and are in debt (as an individual or society) that you will never be able to pay back.
This, then, is the initial step in the preparedness journey – prioritizations, and a cold analysis of what is certain to happen, likely to happen, possible to happen, and only remotely likely to happen. Yes, this will certainly be a judgment call – it can’t be helped – but your decisions can be reasonably informed, as much as your – and my – time allows.
So why prep? First, the goal is not to live in fear. Preparedness – paradoxically combined with faith in God – is the antidote to fear. In contrast to FDR’s dictum that the government should provide freedom from fear and want, the prepper is one who believes the same thing – only brought about by his own actions, not that of the nanny state, which inevitably can only do the exact same thing using your money – and do it half as well, using twice the dollars. You also need to weigh how much you believe is self-reliance – can you live with yourself being utterly dependent on everyone and everything. Yes, no man is an island, most of us live in community, and we need to interact, so there is indeed a continuum between total dependence and total self-reliance, with no one at either extreme. However, there clearly is a point where one “depends on the kindness of strangers,” or worse, becomes a ward of the state. If you are comfortable with this, please stop reading!
Another goal is to have the self-respect that can only be found in a reasonable degree of self-reliance. You cannot have true self- respect if you have no preparations made for what you determine are realistic threats, and expect others to rescue you. Further, one also has an obligation to provide for one’s family – not the nanny state, not the government, not the socialists – but you and me, individually. Indeed, the great falsehood about socialism, as Bastiat observed, is that “it is the great fiction, whereby everybody endeavours to live off of everybody else.” It doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked, and it by definition can never work – but that never stops socialists from their “we’re smarter, and this time we will get it right.” As a corollary of this, yet one further goal of the prepper is to not become victimized by the by a socialist mediated economic collapse (and they always end up collapsing) – be is a slow, grinding Argentinian-style collapse, or something more rapid and calamitous.
Am I being overly dramatic about what might result from an economic collapse? Ask someone from Argentina (which used to be one of the richest countries in the world 100 years ago), from the Weimar Republic, from Greece, Spain, Portugal or Ireland today, or New Zealand in 1986, or any number of other countries around the world that have experienced this.
History also guides my concern for preparedness. And yes, those who don’t know history – think those people you saw interviewed on Jay Leno’s walkabouts – will indeed watch it repeat… or at least see it rhyme.
And what is that history? Just to select a few examples:
The Black Plague of medieval Europe. Ahhhh, but we’re much smarter than that now, you object… that would never happen now. Really? Are you talking about today’s developing antibiotic resistance? Designer germs or intentionally spread diseases by terrorists? Maybe just a “vanilla” global nuclear exchange? Of course, the explicitly stated intentions by globalists is to reduce the world population by a very large percentage, so who knows how that may come to fruition.
The Jews in 1936 Germany thought it couldn’t get worse, and particularly the most civilized, advanced country in the world would not go to serious extremes. You know that story – though you may not have taken it to heart.
The Haidas on the Queen Charlotte Islands, located off British Columbia, my old home province. This proud tribe – the only Indian tribe that was advanced enough to hunt whales – saw 80 – 90% of their population wiped out when smallpox and other diseases were accidentally introduced when explorers arrived. The Mayan collapse is another aboriginal disaster many are now familiar with, given the Mayan calendar end of the world scam of 2012
Perhaps the history to be repeated will be something more along the lines of Russia in 1918. You may laugh off predictions of disaster, but 61 million people who died in the USSR did, in fact, see their very own TEOTWAKI situation realized, including perhaps seven million who were intentionally starved to death in Stalin’s Holmodor of the Ukrainian Kulaks. In fact, according to Stephane Courtois, around 100 million were murdered last century due to various socialist “solutions.” No doubt many Russians in 1910, as they listened to Tchaikovsky and read Tolstoy, felt the hell of the USSR just around the corner was not even a theoretical possibility.
On the other hand, we may see the slow, leftist devolution of an economy, such as seen in Argentina, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Greece. If you are one of the youth who has been unemployed for the past five years, you are experiencing your own slo-mo TEOTWAKI. (And in fact, if you are one of the 48 million Obama now has on food stamps, up from 32 million when he took office, you don’t need to wait to imagine.) Would preparedness have done a disservice to those Greeks who were “paranoid” enough to have anticipated the future five years ago, and engaged in preparedness? What are those who mocked the Greek or Argentinian “preppers” thinking right now? Perhaps Spiros the prepper in Greece prepared for an EMP event, but do you think that since it was an economic collapse that occurred instead, all his work was for naught?
What would you have said if, in 2007, I told you that GM or AIG would no longer be functioning companies in a couple years without a slew of free money? Would you have believed me? There has indeed been an economic collapse in the US – it is just covered over by printed money and ensuring Dancing with the Stars keeps running weekly.
The list could go on, from the Irish potato famine to Krakatoa to the possibly collapse of Las Palmas Island in the Atlantic to that occasionally restless magma below Yellowstone, but you can fill in the blanks yourself.
There is a full panoply of potential disasters – admittedly with low probability – but high stakes if they do occur. What is the cost/benefit ratio for you, personally? Only you can figure that one out, of course, but the point is: many times things go on just as they always were for centuries. Then one day, an 8th century Copt looks up and sees an Arab army in the eastern distance; a citizen from 13th century eastern Europe observes some Mongolian heritage peoples gathering their cavalry before his country’s foot soldiers using something never seen before in battle – stirrups. Or perhaps it is Vladimir Lenin quietly entering a train to be transported via sealed train car back to Russia for political reasons, or a group of Arab radicals the summer of 2001 finishing flight classes that did not include lessons on how to land their aircraft. Low probability, high impact indeed!
So, what to do? First, recognize that things change, and sometimes rapidly, after years of stasis. A very close friend who was doing his Ph.D. examining chaos theory did one study on what causes sand hills to collapse. Condensing years of study into several sentences, one can pile sand grain upon sand grand, until finally, after a seemingly infinite number of grains, one single grain causes a slide. What number of grains is it, and when is it that this occurs? Suffice to say, at one point there is a hill, and after what seems an imperceptible addition, the slide has occurred. Not a big deal if it is a sand castle at a beach. But it is a giant deal if it is 2008, the week before Bear Stearns collapsed, and you have your life savings in a failing bank – or perhaps it is October, 2015, the week before the $6 trillion-dollar pyramid of derivatives (which Warren Buffett famously called “weapons of mass financial destruction”) collapses. In fact, the dog’s breakfast of derivatives may never collapse. Maybe the Bernanke Fed really has invented a perpetual motion machine. Maybe they actually have mapped out the cause and correction of economic downturns. The question is, as Clint Eastwood put it, “So… do ya feel lucky, punk? Well.. do ya?” Less theatrically, does central planning still work – and are you willing to stake your life, and that of your family on it – or does it just make a worse collapse inevitable, as Ludwig von Mises of the Austrian school of economics pointed out: “There is no means of avoiding a final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as the final and total catastrophe of the currency involved.”) Similar to von Mises prediction, Reinhart and Rogoff’s book This Time is Different documents that, historically, there has never been a good outcome when a country’s debt exceeds 100% of its GDP. What is it worth to you to hedge against this threat of economic disaster?
When it comes to economics, warfare, or politics, is mankind fallible or not? Are you willing – after seeing the tech and housing bubbles just in the past dozen years or so – still willing to repeat the “this time is different” mantra? What are your assumptions about human nature, and what could possibly result from that analysis? Is the government all-seeing an all-knowing, or even relatively so? Or does bigger government just increase the risk when something does go awry? (“Hey, Klem – no need to get out of New Orleans… the Army Corp of Engineers know what they are doing). And when it comes to natural disasters, do we really still need to examine what a hurricane can do, or what havoc another Carrington Event from the sun might possibly create (one credible analyst predicted that if an EMP event were to occur, 90% of the U.S. population would be dead in a year). What is it worth to you to protect against that? And if it is not worth a penny, then presumably you do not buy auto or home fire insurance, either.
One final note. A great portion of us still need to keep a job, which in turn means compromises need to occur with time and money, as well as keeping living quarters in or near an urban area. If you are independently wealthy, good for you – go ahead and build, or move to, that retreat. I’d love to join you. Alternatively, you may be able to re-jig your life style by downsizing, changing jobs, or similar, to allow for a move. Well and good. Just be careful you don’t turn into Mel Tappan. Mr. Tappan was a well-to-do banker that – convinced society and the economy were going to collapse – relocated to a rural Oregon retreat off the Rogue River and created the highly regarded Personal Survival Newsletter in the 1970s – yes, getting to be almost 40 years ago now with still no cataclysmic disaster! Unfortunately, Tappaan was not near medical care when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1980, only in his late 40s. Tappan is thought by many to have been foolish, but that is Monday morning quarterbacking. Perhaps if something like the early 1960s Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in 1979, and the missiles had actually launched, he would be considered prescient by the survivors. We know today that the Cuban missile crisis came within a hair’s breadth of seeing an actual exchange of missiles.
Recall, too, that rural retreats like Tappan’s, in a partial meltdown, may in fact be more dangerous, in that you have no community to rely on for defense, mutual encouragement and practical support. Large cities also may get more attention and funds from a bankrupt government – or, alternatively, they may turn into Detroit on steroids. The truth is, there are too many variables, too many facts, too many websites and too many opinions to arrive at a conclusive answer. We thus arrive back where this article began – risk analysis and risk mitigation – and which is where I leave you. Risk mitigation is a sober analysis of all the facts that you able to gather at present, then progressively elaborated as you move forward.
In conclusion, consider well this nine minute segment on lack of preparedness from the Twilight Zone, entitled The Shelter:
Long or short, there indeed will come some period in the future when citizens in the West will have wished they prepared. Don’t be one of them.