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Handloading The .223 Remington For The AR15

by Layne Simpson   |  January 4th, 2011 13

Matched to the right loads, an AR15 can be incredibly accurate. Layne is here to give you a few pointers on how to build super-accurate handloads for America’s longest-lived battle rifle.

The AR15 and the Ruger 10/22 have something in common other than the fact that both are semiautomatics. Both can be transformed into precision shooting machines by simply upgrading various parts. Hang a match-grade barrel on either rifle and you will likely be rewarded with a noticeable improvement in accuracy. Switch out their triggers and you should be able to shoot them more accurately.


With such a wide variety of bullet weights available, selecting the right
bullet for the intended purpose is critical in building good .223 Remington handloads. (From left to right) Hornady 40-gr. V-Max; Nosler 50-gr. Ballistic Tip; Nosler 55-gr. Ballistic Tip; Nosler 60-gr. Partition; Sierra 69-gr. MatchKing; Berger 73-gr. Match; Swift 75-gr. Scirocco; Hornady 80-gr. A-Max; Sierra 80-gr. MatchKing; Berger 90-gr. VLD.

Shoot match-grade ammunition rather than the mart special stuff and group size will likely shrink even more. A big difference between the two rifles is you can handload ammo for the AR15 but you can’t for the 10/22, which brings me around to what this report is all about: handloading the .223 for the AR15.

Not too many years ago I spent a bit of my time shooting super-accurate bolt guns chambered to 6mm BR Remington and 6mm PPC in registered benchrest competition, and my averages for five five-shot groups at 100 yards were always well inside half an inch.

I was impressed with the performance of those rifles back then, and I am even more impressed with the accuracy of top-level AR15 rifles being built today. When fed decent ammunition a really good AR will keep five bullets inside half an inch at 100 yards with boring regularity. To me, this is remarkable considering the fact that it was designed for use on the battlefield rather than at the target range.


The AR15 magazine accepts cartridges loaded to overall lengths up to 2.275 inches; longer handloads must be fired single shot.

I mean, a rifle that looks like something out of the pick and shovel section of a hardware store should not be this accurate. But as hundreds of shooters have proven time and again through the years, when top-quality component parts are assembled with great care the AR15 will deliver accuracy once thought possible only with the bolt-action rifle.


When handloading for the AR15, a relatively quick burning powder such as Reloder 7 (L) is ideal for bullets weighing up to 55 grains, and a slower burning powder like Reloder 15 (R) is more suitable for heavyweight bullets.

Getting Started
The Super Varmint from Les Baer Custom I recently shot is an excellent example of how accurate a really good AR15 can be. But some effort is required on the shooter’s part in order for this to happen. For starters, handloads put together haphazardly are good for making noise, but when it comes to ammo for feeding a super-accurate AR you need the best available in order to realize its full accuracy potential.

As odd as it might sound in a report on handloading, shooting factory ammo in a new rifle is a good place to start simply because doing so gives you a baseline for comparing the accuracy of your handloads. This applies more to the .223 Remington than to many other cartridges due not only to the excellent match-grade ammunition available from Federal and Black Hills, but super-accurate varmint loads offered by those two companies as well as Remington, Winchester, and Hornady. Really good match ammo is capable of sub-half-minute-of-angle accuracy, and some of the varmint loads are almost as good.

Choosing The Right Bullets
Next comes the matter of choosing the right bullets for handloads. As a rule, those weighing 40 to 55 grains are the best bets when the .223 is used for varminting and in action rifle competition. Moving up in weight to bullets designed specifically for use on deer-size game we come to the 60-grain Nosler Partition and the 75-grain Swift Scirocco.


Courtesy of Sierra Bullets

Even heavier match-grade bullets, such as the Sierra MatchKing, Berger VLD, and Hornady A-Max, are commonly used for long-range competitive shooting, most commonly out to 600 yards but more and more frequently out to 1000 yards. I also know a few groundhog shooters who shoot the heavy match bullets in quick-twist rifles. Then comes the rifling twist rate issue.

The first M16 rifles built by Colt many years ago had barrels with a rifling twist rate of 1:14 inches. While that was quick enough to stabilize 55-grain bullets at what we consider normal ambient temperatures, bullets became unstable when the mercury plummeted well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This prompted the Army to switch to a slightly faster 1:12-inch twist, and then later when the 62-grain SS109/M855 bullet was adopted the specified twist became an even faster 1:7 inches.

The typical factory varmint rifle in .223 Remington has a rifling twist rate of 1:12 inches. This is a good compromise since it is quick enough to stabilize the long 60-grain Nosler Partition and Hornady softnose bullets of the same weight as well as those weighing a tad more, with the 62- and 64-grain bullets from Berger being excellent examples. And yet the 1:12 twist is not too quick to deliver excellent accuracy with various 40-grain bullets.

There are, however, flies waiting around to drop into the handloader’s bowl of soup. Through the years I have worked with several 1:12-twist .223s that refused to deliver decent accuracy with any bullet weighing more than 55 grains. The only way to know for certain is to give it a try. If I were to have a rifle rebarreled specifically for use with bullets in the 60- to 64-grain weight range I would hedge my bet by specifying a 1:10 twist. Then there would be no question of stability with those bullets, and the barrel should still deliver acceptable accuracy with bullets as light as 50 grains and probably those w
eighing 40 grains as well.


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Super-Accurate .223 Handloads
BULLET POWDER VELOCITY (fps) OVERALL LENGTH (inches) DATA SOURCE
(type) (grs.)
Speer 52-gr. Match BTHP W748 27.5 3397 2.240 L. Simpson
Sierra 53-gr. HP MatchKing TAC 26.0 3219 2.240 L. Simpson
Hornady 55-gr. V-Max Varget 27.0 3344 2.240 Hodgdon
Nosler 55-gr. Ballistic Tip Reloder 7 22.5 3284 2.250 L. Simpson
Sierra 55-gr. BlitzKing VV N-130 24.0 3300 2.250 Sierra
Nosler 60-gr. Partition Benchmark 22.5 3048 2.260 Nosler
Sierra 60-gr. HP VV N-133 24.0 3100 2.250 Sierra
Berger 64-gr. HP Match H335 25.0 3928 2.250 Les Baer
Hornady 75-gr. A-Max W748 23.3 2600 2.390 Hornady
Hornady 75-gr. A-Max H4895 24.5 2861 2.273 Les Baer
Hornady 75-gr. BTHP BL-C(2) 24.4 2600 2.250 Hornady
Swift 75-gr. Scirocco Varget 23.0 2714 2.270 L. Simpson
Sierra 77-gr. MatchKing Reloder 15 24.0 2648 2.260 L. Simpson
Berger 80-gr. VLD H4895 23.7 2744 2.350 Les Baer
Hornady 80-gr. A-Max Varget 24.4 2752 2.230 L. Simpson
Nosler 80-gr. J4 Comp H335 22.5 2719 2.450 L. Simpson
Sierra 80-gr. MatchKing Reloder 15 23.8 2600 2.550 Sierra
Berger 90-gr. VLD Reloder 15 22.0 2611 2.635 L. Simpson
Berger 90-gr. VLD VV N-550 23.0 2574 2.635 L. Simpson
Berger 90-gr. VLD IMR-4320 22.0 2561 2.635 L. Simpson
Sierra 90-gr. MatchKing H4895 21.7 2600 2.550 Sierra
Sierra 90-gr. MatchKing IMR-4064 22.4 2600 2.550 Sierra
NOTES: All loads with bullets up to 80 grains delivered sub-MOA, five-shot accuracy in the Les Baer Super Varmint with most averaging either close to or less than half an inch at 100 yards. The Berger and Sierra 90-grain bullets are too long to stabilize in a 1:8 twist and are shown for reference only. Winchester cases and Federal Gold Medal 205M primers were used in all loads. Velocity is the average of 20 or more shots measured 12 feet from the gun’s muzzle. Maximum overall cartridge length for the AR15 magazine is 2.275 inches; loads shown with greater overall lengths are intended for single-shot loading directly into the chamber of the AR15.
NOTE: All load data should be used with caution. Always start with reduced loads first and make sure they are safe in each of your guns before proceeding to the high test loads listed. Since Shooting Times has no control over your choice of components, guns, or actual loadings, neither Shooting Times nor the various firearms and components manufacturers assume any responsibility for the use of this data.

Match rifles in .223 Remington, the AR15 in particular, are available with barre
ls in a variety of rifling twist rates. Making proper choices among the various bullet weights boils down to a simple matter of how slow or quick the rifling pitch is. As a rule, optimum twist rate for bullets weighing 40 to 55 grains is 1:12 inches–although as previously mentioned, some rifles with that twist rate will handle some bullets as heavy as 64 grains.

Moving on up in weight (and more importantly, in length) the Sierra 69-grain MatchKing requires no less than a 1:10-inch twist while 1:8-inch is the slowest twist that will stabilize the 77- and 80-grain MatchKings and the 75-grain Swift Scirocco. The incredibly long 90-grain MatchKing and the even longer 90-grain VLD (Very Low Drag) from Berger require a 1:7-inch twist, and some long-distance competitors are shooting them in barrels as quick as 1:6 and 1:6.5 inches. The rifling twist rules-of-thumb I have mentioned also apply to other bullets of similar lengths available from not only Sierra and Berger but from Hornady and other makers as well.

I have yet to work with a barrel with a rifling twist rate quicker than 1:8 inches, but those who have tell me that while the occasional rifle will shoot 80-grain bullets quite accurately, most rifles prefer 90-grain bullets only and will seldom deliver acceptable accuracy with anything lighter. A twist rate of 1:8 inches is the best compromise for those who wish to shoot reasonably light and reasonably heavy bullets in the .223 Remington, and it is what I prefer for all-around use.

Some bullets weighing less than 50 grains will absolutely not work here simply because the centrifugal force tears their thin jackets apart in flight before they reach the target. This is of no consequence to me since I prefer 50- and 55-grain bullets when shooting varmints with this cartridge. On the opposite end of the bullet weight range, the 1:8 twist is just about perfect for the long 80-grain Sierra and Berger match bullets that many competitors have proven to be entirely adequate for shooting out to 600 yards–a few more are using them successfully at 1000 yards. That’s as far away as I intend to shoot at anything with any rifle in .223 Remington. In other words, if it can’t be done with the 80-grain bullet, I probably won’t try doing it with one weighing 90 grains.

When choosing bullets to shoot from your AR15 don’t overlook the fact that the extremely heavy-for-caliber bullets are intended for single-shot loading only and they were designed to be seated out to a greater overall length than the magazine box will handle. Maximum overall cartridge length for the magazine is around 2.275 inches, and with some of the heavyweights seated to that length, part of the case neck is out over the ogive of the bullet rather than over its shank with the result inadequate case neck tension on the bullet. On top of that, they would extend quite deeply into the case and use up a lot of what is already a fairly small powder space. As a rule, the Sierra 77-grain MatchKing and Berger 73-grain VLD are the longest bullets that should be seated deeply enough to feed from the magazine. All the others should be seated out of the case for single-shot loading.

Selecting Optimum Propellants
Some of the powders that have proven to be ideal for use in the .223 with bullets in the light to medium weight ranges are a bit quick in burn rate for the heavyweights. For example, Reloder 7 is an excellent choice for bullets weighing anywhere from 40 to 55 grains, but the slower burning Reloder 15 is a better choice for those weighing 60 grains and up. The same applies to other brands of propellants. For 40-grain bullets Sierra recommends powders such as VihtaVuori N-130, IMR-4198, and Hodgdon H322 whereas slower burning powders such as VV N-550, IMR-4064, and H4895 are recommended for the 90-grain MatchKing.

Using The Right Primers & Cases
Regardless of bullet weight, most of the powders suitable for use in the .223 are ignited quite uniformly by standard-force primers. I am partial to the Federal Gold Medal 205M; the Winchester WSR is quite popular among those who shoot the AR15 in Service Rifle competition.


ONE SUPER ACCURATE RIFLE
The test rifle I used when shooting various handloads for this report was a Super Varmint from Les Baer Custom, and it was not the first one I have worked with. Several years ago I shot the same rifle with a 1:12 twist, and it consistently delivered five-shot groups of less than an inch at 100 yards with both handloads and factory ammo.

The rifle I shot more recently was basically the same except for the quicker 1:8-inch twist rate of its barrel. With LBC precision EDM scope mounting rings holding a brilliantly clear Weaver 6-20X Grand Slam scope atop its flattop receiver, it weighed two ounces beyond 12 pounds on my postal scale, and that along with its incredible accuracy potential made shooting tiny little groups falling-off-a-log easy. The group I am most proud of was fired with the Sierra 77-grain MatchKing seated atop 24.0 grains of Reloder 15. I wanted to shoot that load through the magazine so I used the Sierra-recommended cartridge overall length of 2.260 inches. Fired from a benchrest at 600 yards on a windless day, the group is a 10-shooter and it measures an incredible 2.842 inches (or roughly 0.474 minute-of-angle). Can I repeat that performance on demand? Probably not. Is the rifle capable of doing it all the time? Most definitely.

One of the reasons I was able to shoot the Super Varmint so accurately is its trigger. Of two-stage design, it is from Jewell; the trigger finger first takes up the initial stage with 34 ounces of pull and then suddenly at the 42-ounce mark it breaks cleanly. AR triggers don’t get any better than this. The barrel is benchrest-grade 416R stainless, and its size accounts for a good bit of the overall weight. The 24-inch barrel has a muzzle diameter of .925 inch. The Super Varmint is also available with 18- and 22-inch tubes, and rifling twist rate options are 1:7, 1:8, 1:9, and 1:12 inches. Upper and lower receivers are precision-machined from forgings, and the former is available with or without forward assist. These and all other parts, such as the chromed bolt and carrier, extractor, aluminum gas block with Picatinny top rail, and the free-floating tubular handguard, are manufactured in house by LBC. Accessories included in the package are quick-detach Versa Pod, 20-round magazine, padded rifle case (with side pockets big enough to hold lots of stuff). Like several other AR15 variants offered by LBC, the Super Varmint comes with a half-minute-of-angle guarantee. Believe me when I say it is no brag.

Any good brand of case will do for target practice and varmint shooting, but Winchester brass is probably the most popular among competitors due to its hardness and excellent weight uniformity. For trouble-free chambering in the AR15, cases should be full-length resized rather than neck sized. Top-quality, out-of-box components properly assembled on any good single-stage or progressive reloader will produce ammunition capable of half-minute-of-angle or better and that’s good enough to satisfy most of us. I am sure it is also far better than the original designer of the M16/AR15 rifle ever dreamed of achieving with what went on to become America’s longest-lived battle rifle.

  • Russ

    Just curious, did you seat each bullet to the rifling using a precision instrument, old method, or not at all? Just wondering why such differences in the 3 Hornady 75gr A-max bullets. My AR seats to 2.560 inches after backing of the rifling .010. Thanks.

  • moecoffee

    Interested in producing very accurate 223 rounds for my Colt AR15. Definition of very accurate same hole at 100 yards. I have just purchased Nosler 55 gr ballistic tip varmit bullets. Will be using Winchester brass, CCI primers and H335 powder.
    Would anyone be interested in commenting on this post?

    Thanks MOECOFFEE

    • John Adkins

      Good luck

    • Rob

      same hole @ 100?? +1 with john. I can get lower than 1/2 with 75 gr hornady match BTHP, 24 grain varget. but shooting a 1 in 7 twist with young national match bolt carrier and 3g trigger (all that helps)
      but same hole?

    • brian

      Good choice of components as far as I'm concerned. I use Lake City brass, CCI 400 primers and Benchmark powder at 25.3 grains and recently got a 4 shot group in under .5 inch. Two were in the same whole. This was using Nosler gr ballistic tip varmint bullets. I shoot a Rock River Arms Operator that I love with a Leupold Mark AR scope sitting on top.

  • kopete

    Berger 64 gr. 3928 fps nah!

  • PAUL

    WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT LC BRASS?

  • Todd

    I'm with kopete, the Berger 64 gr. load with H335 should probably read 3028 fps.

  • Lee

    I suspect he meant 2928, not 3928.

  • gulf vet

    i like the H335, but with 25.6 gr W748 cci 450 primer LC brass and a nozler 60 gr ballistic tip out of a bushmaster m-4 (xm177E-2) with a 1:9 twist and a mil surplus 3×9, i am punching out 3/4 inch three shot groups at 100 yds all day long, with the first round out of a cold barrel ,cleaned or not ,hitting about an inch high and an inch right of the rest of the rounds for the day.

  • Fred Phifer

    I have been using 24gr of AA2230 with a Hornady Soft Point w/cannulure. Out of my Bushmaster M4 16" barrel it shoots one little small ragged hole at 100yds. It is about 2950 fps. A little slower, but a lot more accuracy out of this load. I am using LC brass wiht CCI small rifle primers also. Use Lee Dies to crimp the for feeding reliability. NO PROBLEMS SO FAR.

  • Larry Atnip

    interesting article,…. why are you showing a sample target with a wide spread pattern?

    • Kenny

      Larry I think that was his 600 yard target. That is an excellent 10 shot group at that range with an AR.

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