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The .223 May Be The Rifleman’s Most Valuable Tool

The .223 May Be The Rifleman’s Most Valuable Tool

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A while ago, I wrote an article on basic rifles for the aspiring rifleman: (1) An air rifle or a .22 LR rifle. (2) A big-game rifle, not to actually shoot much, but for the lessons it teaches.

Because they are quiet, pleasant and cheap to shoot, the air rifle and .22 are ideal for learning the basics. The big-game rifle teaches (1) Centerfire ammunition is expensive. (2) Recoil and muzzle blast aren’t as much fun as we initially thought. (3) Hitting little targets way out there is fun and challenging.

Now we want to learn to use the capabilities of a centerfire rifle. It’s time for a centerfire we’ll actually shoot. For learning purposes nothing beats a .223. The .223 shoots far, fast, and flat. It will teach valuable lessons about ballistic coefficients, bullet drop, wind drift, accurate rifles, accurate ammunition and handloads, marksmanship skills. It will do so with minimal recoil, mild report, and (relatively) moderate cost.

True, ammunition costs have increased whether we’re talking factory loads or handloads. But .223 is still a bargain compared to bigger centerfire cartridges. Quality brass is plentiful, powder charges moderate, and outstanding bullets are available.

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This is probably the finest .308 Win. setup for long-range shooting Dave ever shot,
or likely ever will shoot. It’s a Steyr SSG-08 rifle with a 5-15X Trijicon TARS scope.
Its only downsides are the weight, so it’s not very portable for all-around use, and uh,
the retail value of the combination is around $10,000 (yikes!).

Learn By Doing

Some think I make too much of cost, muzzle blast, and recoil. Here’s something many don’t want to hear. If you want to be a good shot, you’re going to have to shoot. I sometimes get the impression people will buy anything or try any shortcut if they can only avoid actually getting out there and shooting.

Mention long-range shooting and immediately talk starts of .30 Magnums and .338 Lapuas. But rifle/scope combinations costing $5 or $6 grand, shooting ammunition costing $6 per shot, tend to discourage newcomers.

Better to think first in terms of mid-range, in the 400- to 600-yard ranges. For this type of shooting the .223 is ideal. In fact, there are shooters doing outstanding work at 1,000 yards with the .223 cartridge. But this is post-graduate stuff. For now let’s stay in the medium ranges.

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The Ruger 77 Hawkeye .223 with Black Hills “Blue Box”
77-grain Sierra MatchKing bullets delivered this 100-yard
group (above). This is what happens when you try to shoot
heavier bullets (below, in this case 69-grain Sierras) through
a .223 with 1:12″ twist barrel. Three shots and all went
through the paper sideways. This was at 25 yards, because
at 100 yards, bullets were missing the target by 2′.

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Medium-Range Rifle

Long ago the industry settled on a 1:12″ twist for the .223. For varmint shooting I like light, fast bullets in .223. They are plenty adequate for typical varmint-shooting distances, and with their high velocity provide good “hang time” when they hit. For such bullets the 1:12″ twist works fine.

For longer ranges we want longer, more ballistically efficient bullets, which need a faster twist. I tried some 69-grain Sierra MatchKings in my Remington 700 with 1:12″ twist. At 100 yards the first shot not only was 2′ off point of aim, the whirling bullet neatly broke one side of my portable target stand.

The move to faster-twist barrels has been glacially slow. I suppose from the maker’s viewpoint most shooters buy a .223 for varmint shooting, so there’s no need to invest in retooling for something only a few buyers want.

Well, there may be more than a few. Currently several factory rifles are offered with 1:9″ twists. The 1:9″ has kind of a compromise feel to it, and as with most compromises doesn’t get anyone excited. In my rifles 1:9″ stabilizes such excellent bullets as the Hornady 75-grain BTHP and Sierra 77-grain MatchKing. I can live with 1:9″ though I wouldn’t mind the little extra margin provided by a 1:8″ twist.

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When Dave says you should own a .223 to learn the capabilities of a centerfire
cartridge, it doesn’t have to be a bolt action. AR-style rifles have some advantages.
Generally they come with faster twist barrels (this Armalite M-15 has a 1:7″ twist).
With free-floated barrels they are often very accurate. On the downside it’s usually
more expensive to get a quality trigger pull.

Do The Twist

Among popular .223 commercial bolt-actions the Tikka T3 is available in either 1:12″ or 1:8″. Savage rifles, notable for offering outstanding accuracy at reasonable cost, use a 1:9″ twist on most models, with 1:7″ offered in some specialty models.

Remington 700s are mostly 1:12″ but some models (look for the word “tactical”) have a 1:9″ twist. All current Rugers have the 1:9″ twist, as do Kimbers in .223.

The .223 doesn’t have to be a bolt action. AR-style rifles have a couple of advantages. Generally they come with faster-twist barrels, from 1:7″ to 1:9″. Many have free-floated barrels and flattop receivers with rails for mounting optics and, in terms of accuracy, can outshoot all but the best bolt guns.

On the negative side it is generally harder (or at least more expensive) to get a really good trigger pull on an AR. The rifles themselves tend to be more costly, though certainly not always. But a lot of fine ARs have been sold in recent years, and are capable of a lot more than just firing 30 shots in 30 seconds at 25 yards.

My current favorite “teaching” .223 is a Ruger Hawkeye All-Weather model. With one minor change (a Wolff sear/trigger return spring) it has a very good trigger pull, crisp at 2 pounds, 14 ounces. The Ruger rings let me easily switch between bulky target/varmint scopes and more compact hunting-style scopes. With its medium weight (7-1/4 pounds, rifle only) it is easy to hold steadily while still reasonably portable. Groups as small as 3/8″ at 100 yards aren’t hard to make.

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Dave’s newest .223 is this Ruger 77 Hawkeye. Ruger calls it their All Weather
model, with stainless steel barrel and action, and synthetic stock. Ruger uses a 1:9″
twist in .223, and the rifle gave outstanding accuracy with heavier bullets like the
Hornady 75-grain BTHP and Black Hills ammo topped with Sierra 77-grain MatchKings.

By Dave Anderson

Hawkeye
All-Weather .223
Maker: Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.
411 Sunapee St.
Newport, NH 03773
(603) 865-2442
www.gunsmagazine.com/ruger
Type: Bolt-action
Materials: Stainless steel barrel/action, synthetic stock
Capacity: 5, Length-of-pull: 13-1/2″
Barrel: 22″, 1:9″ twist
Overall length: 42″
Weight: 7-1/4 pounds
PRICE: $859

GUNS Magazine August 2012 Issue

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  1. Thank you so much for that info.

  2. I recently purchased a youth Savage Axis in 223 …great utility carbine…

  3. King Ghidora says:

    I have a Savage 12 LRPV and it is very accurate out to about 500 yards. I had never shot distances like that until I bought that rifle although I had shot a lot of rimfire rifles before that. I grew up shooting those. It took me about 6 months to get everything figured out well including drop and the right cartridges to use (I use Black Hills blue box stuff too) but I was shooting 4″ groups at 500 yards by the end of that 6 month period.

    I love long range shooting. I have varmints to shoot at around my house (coyotes) and a .223 is perfect for that. I have bigger caliber rifles for bigger game but for varmints and just plain target shooting / plinking the .223 is a great way to go.

  4. I’ve got a Savage Axis in .223, and love it. It stabilizes the 75 and 77 grain bullets just fine. With Privi Partizan, Hornady Tap and Black Hills ammo – 69 to 77 grain, I can keep the five shot groups inside and inch at 100 yards.
    Thanks for the helpful article.

  5. I own a pair of 223 rifles. A bolt action varmint rig and a 20 inch AR15. Either one of these rifles will hold half minute groups if the shooter can call the wind. More than one tasty critter has fell to a well placed hollow point from these rifles.

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