Many satisfied users may wonder why this one time ‘wonder cartridge’ needs to be defended and I too believe, to paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘the death of the triple-two has been greatly exaggerated’. For those satisfied owners no defence is necessary, but statistics show the long-beloved .222 R has been overshadowed by the .223 R for decades.
This means newcomers to our sport, and particularly those stepping up from the ubiquitous .22 rimfire, are almost invariably advised to buy a .223 R. Indeed a reply in Australian Shooter’s Top Shots section (August 2018) advising a would-be .22 centrefire shooter, praised the ‘excellent’ 22 Hornet (circa 1932) then jumped to the .223 R and .22-250 R. Likewise, Wikipedia describes the .22 Hornet as ‘filling the gap between the .22 WMR and the .223 R’.
So perhaps the .222 R does need a little defence as it seems to have become invisible. The current choice for ‘new shooter’ will most often be a .223 R, influenced by those who already have one and are satisfied with it. Of course they’re satisfied with it, as both calibres will do an excellent job, but the .222 R was doing an excellent job for decades before the arrival of the .223 R, so why has the latter so overwhelmed the ‘original’?
The simple answer is the .223 R was originally a military calibre (5.56mm) and military calibres attract greater publicity, greater usage and greater availability of ammunition and brass for civilian use. Of course there can be serious pitfalls in using ex-military ammunition in many civilian rifles. The primers are harder and rounds can be ‘over length’ compared with the civilian specs and most military 5.56mm ammunition is loaded to higher pressure than civilian .223 R (more later.)
The military choice of the .223 R (5.56mm) was made after consideration was given to the .222 Magnum which had already ‘improved’ the original.222 R, but the Magnum was thought a little more powerful than necessary for military purposes.
The .223 R was given slightly increased case capacity, a 5gr heavier projectile and 100fps more muzzle velocity which increased range and terminal energy, and militarily was classified as the 5.56mm. The grounds for its selection as a military calibre were understandable but aren’t necessarily reasons for hunting or target use over the original .222 R. These points take us naturally to the history of both and advantages of each.
History of the .222 R
It was developed by Remington design engineer Merle ‘Mike’ Walker in the late 1940s and went into production in 1950 in the Model 700 rifle also designed by Walker. As he was designer of one of the most successful cartridges and several very successful Remington rifles, here’s a thumbnail sketch of his life.
Born in 1911, he was one of Remington’s top design engineers for both rifles and ammunition for decades. His best known rifle design was the Model 700, developed from the Models 721, 722 and 725. The 700 was one of the most successful and longest production run of any Remington rifle, despite becoming controversial due to an occasional trigger safety catch problem. Walker claimed this was because of an alteration in his design which saved the company 5.5¢ per rifle.
He resigned over this in 1975 and litigation against Remington by customers over accidental discharges continued until early this century. Walker died in 2013 aged 104, having been a witness in several court cases (against Remington) until 2011. However his undeniably greatest fame is associated with ‘his’ .222 R round.
With its vastly improved velocity and energy (typically 3200fps muzzle velocity and 1000 ft/lbs with 50gn bullets), it quickly replaced the previously widely used .22 Hornet (2600fps MV and 700 ft/lbs with 45gn bullets). Various specifications were tested, particularly using 40gn bullets at first, finally going into production with 50gn projectiles which became, and remains, the most popular weight for both hunting and target use, although 55gn ammunition is available.
Adoption by rifle manufacturers
It was found to have exceptional accuracy and was adopted by several rifle manufacturers in the US (including Winchester and Ruger), plus from Europe, Brno, Tikka and Sako. Interestingly, many developed special lightweight models for the calibre, since its short length and light recoil meant short receivers and light barrels became common, without affecting the inherent accuracy.
Hunters and benchrest shooters adopted it throughout the US and the .222 R still holds some US benchrest records to this day. Likewise, hunters in Australia took advantage of this new round for foxes, goats and medium-sized feral pigs. I’ve used the .222 R for goats, foxes and medium-sized pigs but for large boars both the .222 R and .223 R are borderline, requiring exacting bullet choice and placement.
Although various ammunition has been produced ranging from 36gn projectiles with a velocity of 3600fps to 55gn with somewhat lower velocity but retaining energy a little better, the 50gn remains favourite among shooters worldwide.
Development of the .223 R
This started in 1957 as a military round in conjunction with the design of a new military firearm. Fairchild Industries did most of the development work using a prototype .223 Special by Remington. The rifle used in testing became the AR 15 by Armalite which was a division of Fairchild. The final production round was designated ‘5.56mm’ using a 55gn full metal jacket projectile. After wide military use it was introduced as the .223 R commercially by Remington in 1963 in their Model 760 bolt action rifle.
As mentioned, although the calibre is the same, civilian and military rounds can differ in specification, particularly in developed pressure. This is catered for in military weapons with a longer dimension between the seated bullet and commencement of the rifling. This space is called the ‘leades’ or throat. Not all commercial rifles have these specifications so military ammunition should not be used in commercial rifles without ascertaining the leades specification of their brand of rifle. Militarily, the 5.56mm virtually displaced the 7.62mm in military rifles and machine guns were soon designed for this ammunition.
In civilian hunting use the .223 R became popular, falling between the original .222 R and .222 R Magnum, and in the US it was more popular than both. Worldwide it was slower to achieve the same popularity and, in some countries which prohibit ownership of military calibres for hunting, the original .222 R prevails.
Advantages of the .222 R: Almost no recoil; much less noise than the .223 R; inherently more accurate; available in many lighter rifles with (and because of) a shorter action; if sighted in 1^ high at 100yds it will be almost right on at 200yds, making it a ‘200-yd rifle’. Disadvantages: Slightly less range than the .223 R (over a flat trajectory).
Advantages of the .223 R: Slightly more velocity and energy; slightly more range (over a flat trajectory); can retain an equally flat trajectory with slightly heavier projectile; ammunition more widely available than .222 R; if sighted in 1^ high at 100yds it will be almost right on at 300yds (making it a ‘300-yd rifle’. Disadvantages: Noisier than the .222 R; slightly more recoil (but nothing to worry about); slightly less inherently accurate.
Typically the .223 R has a MV of 3200fps and energy of 1200 ft/lbs with a 55gn bullet, compared with the .222 R’s typical 50gn 3100fps and 1000 ft/lbs energy. It seems appropriately sized game can’t tell the difference between these calibres and succumb to either with correctly placed shots. If you own or can find a bargain .222 R you’re lucky. If buying a new rifle you must consider both calibres very carefully.
Odd facts about the .222 R, .223 and ‘06’
The .222 R is almost identical in profile to the much-loved .30/06 in their most common projectile weights (50gn for the .222 and 180gn for the .30/06). They have almost the same included neck angle and case angle and are proportionally similar.
Considering this, I wonder if the .30/06 profile was the starting point for Mike Walker all those years ago when he initiated what became, for several decades, the world’s most popular high power .22 centrefire round? (The .223 R perhaps has an even more similar profile but wasn’t derived from the .30/06 but from the .222 R.)
While mentioning the .30/06, it was the basis for many smaller rounds such as the .308 W and .270 W as well as the larger .35 Whelan, while the .222 R became the basis for several larger rounds, notably the .222 Magnum and .223 R.
When a long-term favourite cartridge becomes the origin for other popular calibres, it shows how successful the parent round is. (Incidentally, the ‘06’ as it’s often known is the only calibre among thousands named after its year of origin!)
Today the .223 R is the most popular .22 calibre centrefire by far and the .308 W the most popular mid-power .30 calibre. Owners of the latter correctly maintain the .308 W is ‘almost as good as the .30/06’. Statistically the .30/06 creates about only 9 per cent more energy than the .308 W but has 19 per cent more recoil, so maybe the multitudes are right - they certainly enjoy a little more comfort.