The 223/5.56 is the most common centerfire rifle cartridge in the US. It’s a little bullet with a decent velocity, but will it actually fill the freezer?
The 223/5.56 is effective for deer up to 200-yards as long as the barrel is 16 inches or greater. The best target area is the lungs, behind the shoulder. You should use an expanding bullet such as Winchester Deer Season XP or Hornady CX. The 223/5.56 is gaining popularity as a deer hunting rifle.
So, how effective is it really? It can be pretty darn effective. There are some dos and don’ts for success. Ammo choice is perhaps the most important factor.
Deer Hunting with a 223
You need to know three things to successfully take deer with a 223. They are: Where to shoot, How fast the bullet comes out of Your barrel, and their minimum expansion velocity for your bullet. You need to be sure the bullet is going fast enough to expand well
For most hunting bullets, the expansion threshold is near 1800 fps. common bullets have a velocity threshold between 2000 and 1600 fps. Generally, the newer all-copper hunting bullets need around 2000 fps to show a little expansion.
The actual velocity of the bullet depends greatly on barrel length. but, it can also vary 100 fps + or – between two similar guns. Depending on what ammo you use, that could be a pretty big deal. First, let’s look at some standard numbers on a ballistic chart.
|100/200-yard data for deer hunting rounds||Energy (ft/lbs.)||Velocity (fps)||Drop (in)|
|Hornady 55-grain CX (all copper)||991/752||2482/2144||0/3|
|Hornady 50-grain GMX Full Boar (all copper)||916/669||2454/2073||0/3|
|Winchester Deer Season XP 64-grain||1026/804||2687/2378||0/1.5|
|Barnes Vor-Tx 55-grain (all copper)||940/677||2774/2354||0/3|
Just to note, the all-copper bullets listed here need to be going 2000 fps at a minimum to work decently. And that’s only marginally so. The Deer Season XP will expand down to around 1600 fps or a bit above. That means that of the bullets I listed, Deer Season XP and Barnes Vor-Tx have the largest margins for the bullet to work in.
Now, bear in mind that these numbers are from a rifle with a 24-inch barrel. Most 223 and 5.56 ARs have 16-inch barrels. A 16-inch barrel is expected to average at least 100 fps less than a 24-inch barrel. I’ve seen up to a 150 fps difference between 24 and 16-inch barrels.
Considering a 16-inch barrel, as both of my ARs have, I’m going to go with the Winchester or Hornady CX Even with my shorter barrel (minus 150 fps) and even if my rifle shoots a little slow (minus another 100fps), they still both have more than enough velocity to expand well enough at 200-yards.
Of those two, the Hornady is a more precise round, but the Winchester has more wiggle room in its velocity expansion. It’s also got more energy than the other options. It may sound like the best option, and that’s what I went with, but there’s a drawback.
Best 223 Ammo for Deer
Red means the bullet is expanding very little or not at all.
|24- inch barrel 223 ballistics||100-yard velocity/energy||200-yard velocity/energy||300-yard velocity/energy||400-yard velocity/energy|
|Hornady 55-grain CX||2872 fps|
|Hornady 50-Grain GMX Full Boar||2885 fps|
|Winchester Deer Season XP 64-grain||2807 fps|
|Barnes Vor-Tx 55-grain||2774 fps|
Red means the bullet is expanding very little or not at all.
|16-inch barrel 223-ballistics||100 yard||200-yard||300-yard||400-yard|
|Hornady 55-grain CX||2712 fps|
|Hornady 50-Grain GMX Full Boar||2737 fps|
|Winchester Deer Season XP 64-grain||2548 fps|
|Barnes Vor-Tx 55-grain||2939 fps|
The best 223 ammo for deer is Winchester’s 64-grain Deer Season XP. It’s more powerful, has a good ballistic coefficient, and has a further effective range than most options. It’s also affordable and easy to find.
Winchester’s 223 Deer Season XP doesn’t penetrate very deep. The Deer Season XP line of ammo uses a rapidly and aggressively expanding bullet. It doesn’t tend to fragment much. It retains its weight well, but expands immediately and really makes a lot of drag, lessening penetration.
Deer Season PX bullets in any caliber aren’t designed to pass through a deer. They are designed to go in, explode the soft tissue, and not quite come out. They tend to cause a deer to fall over from bullet shock. That’s a real thing. It literally causes the deer to go into shock, fall over, and bleed out right there.
The Copper bullets expand a bit slower, giving them deeper penetration. Even more impressive, as the copper expands, it peels back into petals with sharp edges. This cuts through tissue much more easily than Winchester’s bullets.
In fact, the copper bullets tend to penetrate twice as deep as the rapid expansion bullets. Expanding copper bullets penetrate very deep. They just require more velocity to expand. WIth Deer Season XP, you have to wait for a fairly decent broadside opportunity on a deer to be sure it penetrates into the lung area.
The copper bullets should reach the vitals even at a 45-degree angle. The copper Vor-TX will likely be able to make it through the front shoulder and still tear apart the lungs and/or heart. For me personally, I went with the Winchester XP because it’s easier to find, and it expands well. I’ll wait for a decent shot.
223 Effective Range for Deer
The common effective range of a .223 for deer is 200-yards. Depending on your ammo and rifle, that can vary between 150 and 400-yards. Copper hollowpoint bullets have a shorter effective range, and faster-expanding bullets like Winchester Deer Season XP have the furthest effective range.
We went over how barrel length can make a bit of a difference with the effective range due to a bit more speed. Still, even with a longer barrel, it’s often advisable not to shoot much past the 200-yard point. Basically, do you want to stretch things as far as possible, operating at the extreme minimum?
If you don’t give your shot a margin of error, you do run more risk of not recovering your deer. At the very minimum, you need to shoot your rifle through a chronograph to measure the starting bullet velocity. Then, you can go to a ballistic calculator like shooterscalculator.com and find your custom ballistics.
You’ll also need the ballistic coefficient for your bullet, which can be found by searching online, or by calling the manufacturer.
Best 5.56 Ammo for Deer
for a 5.56 rifle, you are largely limited to hunting with 223 ammo. Shooting 223 ammo in a 5.56 will work, but usually generates a bit lower velocity which will shorten the effective range some. Hornady does make a 5.56 55- grain GMX hunting load, but it can be hard to find.
How Practical is an AR for Deer hunting?
An AR rifle is highly practical for deer hunting. It’s a great hunting rifle for kids and adults. There are many good AR hunting calibers, and it’s easy to swap calibers in an AR. Using a 5-round magazine is recommended, and required in some states.
Other great AR calibers for deer hunting are 7.62×39, 6.5 Grendel, 350 Legend, and 450 Bushmaster. I really like the 6.5 Grendel and 350 Legend. You can change the caliber by swapping out uppers. Complete uppers cost $300 and up.
Here’s another great article, Where to Shoot a Deer With a 223