Modern .223 Remington Handloads
Date: Jul 15 2022
If you own a .223 Remington rifle made before, say, 2002, odds are that it holds a barrel with a 1:12, or maybe even a 1:14 rifling twist. The tube also likely measures 24 to 26 inches long. More recently, the trend in .223 Remington rifles are faster twist rates and shorter barrels. The former serves the latest craze of shooting ever-heavier bullets in the pursuit of long-range aspersions. The latter is the result of our newfound interest in all things tactical, from scopes to the clothing and boots we wear into the field.
Early .223 Remington rifles were designed largely for small-varmint shooting and the highly frangible 35- to 55-grain hollowpoint, softnose and polymer-tipped bullets that are most popular for such activities. When shooting over a well-tenanted ground squirrel colony or lightly belabored 3prairie dog town, where 90 percent of shots are presented between 150 and 250 yards, I’ve long contended that 40-grain, poly-tipped bullets represent a .223 Remington ideal. On days when a desert wind does not stir, I can confidently push Hornady 40-grain V-MAX, Nosler Ballistic Tip Varmint or Sierra BlitzKing loads out to 400 yards and beyond with relative confidence while employing quality-turreted scopes. When I want to shoot farther, or a prairie wind rears its ugly head, I reach for something like a .22-250 Remington or .220 Swift. Today, more shooters are opting to instead load heavier, more streamlined bullets for such circumstances.
Admittedly, I was a little behind the curve on this trend. Recently, while searching for a .223 Remington rifle to use for a Wolfe Publishing project, I was surprised to discover nary a new, slow-twist .223 Remington could be had after checking all the major gunmakers’ websites. Most new .223 rifles now include 1:9 twist rates, with some sporting barrels with twist rates as fast as 1:8 to 1:7 (the latter is particularly prevalent in AR-15-style rifles). These rifles will certainly handle bullets as light as 40 grains, oftentimes with great accuracy. I’ve certainly done so with my newest .223 Remington, used for testing here. In the beginning, this was done out of simple necessity, as I had maybe 1,800 40-grain, polymer-tipped rounds on hand. I shot hundreds of burrowing rodents with those loads and the test rifle with few complaints.
As I eventually turned loaded ammunition into empty cases, my heavy-bullet curiosity grew stronger. My myopic focus on 40-grain bullets slowly dissolved as I began to experiment with heavier bullets and was shocked to discover that not only did the heavier bullets not drop out of the sky at longer ranges, but wind drift margins were often cut by half. With turrets and solid ballistic charts, elevation corrections are child’s play. Wind is a different matter, because so few of us are adept at accurately estimating wind velocity, and seldom does velocity remain static between shooter and target at extended ranges. So yes, there is a very real advantage in adopting heavier .224-caliber bullets and the faster rifling twists to accommodate them.
The test rifle is pretty representative of the modern .223 Remington trend – a Remington Model 700 VTR SS. Translated: Varmint Tactical Rifle, Stainless Steel. The VTR holds a distinctive triangular barrel featuring three integral muzzle brake slots. In tactical style, the barrel is just 20 inches long. Many believe flutes and geometry such as this triangular tube provide improved structural rigidity, when in truth, the opposite is true. Any material removed from the barrel actually makes the barrel less rigid. What is provided are slightly lighter rifles, and perhaps a little cooling advantage, as the surface area is increased to speed heat convection in a breeze. The VTR includes a longer tactical-style bolt handle with a large, faceted handle and is set in a snazzy, black-synthetic stock with side cooling vents in the forearm, dual sling studs up front, a soft recoil pad and contrasting gray grip pads on the forend and wrist. A Picatinny rail was installed at the factory and a decent sling stud-mounted bipod was included. It also included an aluminum drop plate activated by a knurled button located inside the cast-aluminum trigger guard. The action has always run smoothly and the rifle, which has never been touched by a gunsmith, has proven capable of assembling impressive groups with the right handloads or factory ammunition.
This rifle has held many scopes in the time I’ve owned it, but currently, it has an excellent Leupold VX-5HD 4-20x 52mm CDS-ZL2 Side Focus Duplex scope – with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $1,599.99. Its exceptional optics, second focal plane (SFP) arrangement, 34mm tube combined with CDS ZeroLock 2 elevation turret (custom turrets available for specific loads) and trim dimensions, make it ideal for the varmint shooting this rifle was designed for. The scope is set in solid Leupold PRW2 medium Precision Fit Rings. In the very short time this scope has been attached to this rifle, my longest confirmed ground squirrel kill is 385 yards.
In this series, instead of testing a bunch of different bullets with relatively few powders, I was more interested in auditioning some of the newest compatible propellants, some of which I’ve never paired with the .223 Remington. I chose only two 69- and one 75-grain bullets, which are ideal weights for the 1:9 twist, but 14 different new or less commonly encountered powders. These powders included Czech-made Shooters World, Canadian-made IMR, Finnish-made Vihtavuori, Western Powders (Accurate and Ramshot) made in Belgium (now the U.S.), Australian and U.S.-made Hodgdon, U.S.-made Winchester and Swedish- and U.S.-made Alliant examples. Once-fired Hornady brass and CCI BR-4 Small Rifle primers were used throughout. All powder charges were individually trickled onto a RCBS balance beam scale for consistency.
First up was Rocky Mountain Reloading’s (RMR) 69-grain 3-Gun Hunter (3GH), which included an estimated G1 ballistic coefficient (BC) of .335. Jake Wilcox, owner of RMR, designed this bullet to double for the 3-gun competition and varmint shooting he passionately pursues. This is a hollowpoint boat-tail that resembles Sierra’s MatchKing externally, but offers more reliable expansion on burrowing rodents. I’ve used this bullet to bag everything from tiny ground squirrels to coyotes to medium-sized Texas hogs. It was paired with Shooters World Match Rifle (with characteristics similar to Hodgdon CFE 223, Alliant Reloder 15 or IMR-4064, though not interchangeable), IMR-4166 (a temperature-stable/decoppering Enduron powder), Vihtavuori N135, Ramshot TAC and competition-inspired Hodgdon Benchmark.
All powders resulted in some usable groups, with certain ones being exceptional. Shooters World Match Rifle’s best group measured .83 inch center-to-center at 2,795 fps. IMR-4166 did better using 22 grains of powder at 2,795 feet per second (fps), printing .59 inch. The best group produced by this bullet was .41 inch, the result of 21.5 grains of Vihtavuori N135 at 2,535 fps. Velocity jumped to 2,839 fps with a maximum load of 23.5 grains, with a group measuring .68 inch. Ramshot TAC managed only .70 inch with 22 grains of powder at 2,628. Hodgdon Benchmark proved most consistent, producing .61-, .45- and .52-inch groups with 21.5, 22.5 and 23.5 grains of powder, respectively, and velocities of 2,674, 2,787 and 2,868 fps.
Next on the roster was Sierra’s 69-grain Tipped MatchKing (TMK). This is a polymer-tipped version of the Sierra MatchKing, but it was given a green plastic tip that boosts G1 BC to .375. MatchKings, while ultra-accurate, do not expand reliably on varmints. The addition of a poly tip better initiates expansion on light targets. The TMK was set up with Shooters World Tactical Rifle (similar to Hodgdon H-335 and Accurate A-2200, though not interchangeable), decoppering/temperature stable CFE 223, Vihtavuori N140, .223 Remington-inspired Accurate A-2230 and Alliant Power Pro 2000-MR.
Shooters World Tactical Rifle proved consistent, providing .88-, .87- and .84-inch groups with charges from 22.5 to 24.5 grains of powder and velocities from 2,766 to 3,045, which were the fastest velocities of this test. CFE 223 did the best with 23.5 grains of powder, printing .69 inch at 2,646, with Accurate 2230 best showing just .89 inch using 21 grains of powder at 2,547 fps. Alliant Power Pro 2000-MR impressed, producing .57 inch (25 grains), .88- (26 grains) and .56-inch groups at 2,669, 2,864 and 3,027 fps, respectively – an excellent combination of speed and accuracy. The clear accuracy winner with this bullet was Vihtavuori N140 with 24 grains producing the tightest group of the entire test. That group measured .30 inch, at 2,807 fps. Adding a grain of powder produced the second best group with this bullet, .54 inch at 2,925 fps. Adding another grain produced 3,037 fps with a .86-inch group.
Finally, I put Speer’s 75-grain Gold Dot through the paces. This is a rugged, electroplated, lead-core bullet, sporting a softpoint and boat-tail that produces beautiful mushrooms and included a stated .411 G1 BC. I’ve taken decent-sized Texas hogs with these bullets and wouldn’t hesitate to hunt deer with them. As a varmint bullet, they provide an ideal pelt-shooting option that won’t unduly damage hides. The Speer was paired with Shooters World Precision Rifle (with characteristics similar to Hodgdon Varget and H-380, though not interchangeable), Winchester StaBALL 6.5 (the first temperature stable/decoppering ball powder), Vihtavuori N540, Accurate A-2460 and the brand spanking-new Alliant Reloder TS 15.5. TS stands for Temperature Stable and the powder contains a decoppering agent. Before this test, I would have warned handloaders not to expect too much accuracy from a Gold Dot, but this round changed that perception.
Shooters World Precision Rifle failed to impress with this bullet, while Accurate A-2460 did best with a maximum load of 23 grains for .64 inch at 2,749 fps. Winchester StaBALL 6.5 also started badly, but showed promise after reaching the maximum load of 25.5 grains. That compressed load produced the third best group with this bullet, .63 inch at 2,639 fps. Alliant Reloder TS 15.5 broke an inch with every load, and tied for second best group, with .50 inch at 2,720 fps with a compressed/maximum load of 24.5 grains. Vihtavuori N540 proved to be the star with this bullet, producing both the No. 1 group and No. 2 group tie. A .37-inch group resulted from 22.5 grains of powder at 2,561 fps, a .50-inch group from 23.5 grains at 2,705 fps.
In 69-grain bullets, IMR-4166, Vihtavuori N135 and Power Pro 2000-MR definitely deserve more exploration. Hodgdon Benchmark could certainly become a new 69-grain favorite given the consistently small groups it turned in. But this test proved again that my favorite – Vihtavuori N140 is hard to beat. Brand new Reloder TS 15.5 proved itself in the 75-grain weight class, with Vihtavuori N540 the clear winner.