First introduced in 1957 as an experimental military cartridge for the Armalite AR-15 rifle, the .223 has since proven itself on the battlefield (in the military variant 5.56 NATO) and among American sportsmen. Over the decades, the AR-type rifle has only grown in popularity and production, making the .223 one of the most popular cartridges ever made. Bullet weights range from 40-75 grains, with multiple offerings in match, FMJ, and hunting loads.
There is a lot of variety in .223 ammunition, from match to FMJ and ballistic tip. Your best bet for deer is to select a heavier-for-caliber bullet with quality construction, especially those designed for hunting.”
Great for home defense, among competitors, and in many predator and varmint hunting applications. But the question still remains:
Is the .223 a viable deer cartridge?
The question is not whether the .223 is the best option for deer — it is most certainly not, in my opinion — but whether it will in fact get the job done when pressed into service. I think the answer to that question is yes, for a number of reasons. There are at least four factors that must be addressed, however, when considering the .223 for deer. I would also encourage you to check your state hunting regulations, as some states like my own, Colorado, do not allow anything smaller than a .24 caliber bullet for big game hunting, deer included.
I’ve shot plenty of deer in Texas with the .223, and at reasonable ranges, with quality bullets and shot selection, it’s an extremely effective cartridge.
The Right Bullet
First and foremost, not all bullets are created equal. Likewise, bullet selection becomes even more important when you’re dealing with a limitation in caliber size, velocity and, as a result, energy on target. If you are going after deer with a .223, you definitely want a heavier bullet that’s well constructed for maximum penetration. For example, the .223 will send a 60-grain Nosler Partition, a good choice for deer, at 3,160 fps with roughly 1,330 ft.-lbs. of energy. Federal offers a 62-grain Vital-Shok Trophy Bonded Tip that will hold together nicely, provide excellent penetration, and leave the muzzle at about 3,000 fps.
Federal’s 62-grain Trophy Bonded Tip is an excellent example of deer-worthy .223 cartridges. It has plenty of velocity, energy, and penetration at moderate distances to take down deer.
What you want to avoid are light-for-caliber bullets that are made for either match or varmint shooting. Many of those bullets, including the defense loads, are designed to limit penetration, something that’s good in a home but not necessarily on an animal. While I have seen people effectively take deer with such bullets, it’s not necessarily ideal.
If you do opt for a lighter bullet, there are quality loads that will get the job done, including Hornady’s 50- or 55-grain GMX, which comes in either the Full Boar or Superformance lines. I’ve shot plenty of hogs with loads like these and, as far as I’m concerned, hogs are a tougher target than most whitetail deer.
The Right Rifle
One of the great benefits of the .223, in my estimation, is the widespread usage and availability of the cartridge, which means there are plenty of great offerings in bolt-gun and semi-auto configurations. On the bolt-action rifle side, I am a huge fan of Mossberg’s MVP Predator, which is extremely nimble as a truck gun because of a short barrel (18.5 inches; overall length of 37.5 inches) and short length of pull (13.25 inches).
The rifle conveniently–and uniquely, compared to other bolt action rifles– houses Magpul-style magazines, which make for rapid follow-up shots on coyotes, prairie dogs and other predators. The MVP Predator features a barrel with a 1:9-inch twist rate, which will adequately handle heavier hunting bullets when you opt to go in search of deer or hogs. Because it’s lightweight (7 pounds), easy to carry afield and highly maneuverable, it also makes a great first rifle for young shooters, and there’s very little recoil.
On the semi-auto side, Mossberg’s MMR carbine in .223 is one of the most accessorizable and versatile options on the market. M-LOK attachment points allow you to configure lights, bipods, and vertical grips, while a continuous Picatinny rail will accommodate almost any optic setup, either for long-range or up-close encounters.
With a barrel length of 16.25 inches and a weight of just 6.75 pounds, the MMR is friendly for trucks, deer stands, or on a shoulder afield. The barrel features a 1:8-inch twist, which accommodates nearly any bullet weight in .223, including those most suitable for deer. Because it features an adjustable buttstock and length of pull between 10.5 and 14.5 inches, it can also be custom fitted for any size shooter. Accurate, highly customizable, and lightweight, it’s a perfect option for deer, while the semi-auto function and muzzle brake virtually eliminate recoil.
The Right Barrel
As Nolser’s reloading manuals state, the other issue is that heavier bullets, say above 60-grains, will not stabilize with many older .223-chambered rifles because the twist rate was around 1:12-inch. In order to handle the larger hunting bullets, you need a rifle barrel with a 1:9-inch twist or better, with the ideal being a 1:7- or 1:8-inch twist.
This is where companies like Mossberg have been incredibly smart, offering the MMR with a 1:8-inch twist and the MVP Long Range with a 1:7-inch twist rate.
The twist rate in those barrels allows you to comfortably and accurately shoot 55- or 75-grain bullets, which would work well on deer-sized targets. That means a bolt-operated MVP or semi-auto MMR will deal well with everything from lighter varmint rounds to heavier deer bullets, providing an extreme degree of versatility with each rifle.
The Right Conditions
The other major consideration is shot selection, which includes shot angle and distance. At most places I’ve shot deer in Texas with a .223, the average shot was probably 50 to 100 yards, which is fine for the cartridge. I would not, however, take a shot at 300 yards with the same rifle. This means that if you head afield with the .223, you need to know what your particular load is capable of doing, and stick to a maximum range.
Consider, for example, the 60-grain Federal Nosler Partition. At 100 yards, the bullet drops below 1,000 ft.-lbs. of energy and is travelling about 2,700 fps. By 200 yards, that bullet has only 737 ft.-lbs. of energy, and at 300 yards it’s down to 500 fps. That’s at about 1,900 fps, with roughly a foot of drop in elevation. It’s not that a 300-yard shot is impossible — far from it — but it’s also far from ideal.
How does this play out in the real world?
If I’m hunting deer in Texas from a blind and the longest shot is 80 yards on average, the .223 is going to be just fine.
I’ve taken plenty of hogs with the .223, and in my experience, hogs are much tougher than whitetail deer. As always, quality shot placement and a quality bullet are paramount.”
If I’m hunting mule deer out West and 200 yards represents relatively close quarters shooting, there’s no way I’m settling on the .223. If I had to pass on a 190-inch muley at 275 yards, quartering slightly away down a steep slope, because I chose to take a .223 and not, say, a .270, I’d be kicking myself for years to come.