February 02, 2023
By Michelle Hamilton, Field Editor
Ask most any average firearm owner or gun shop patron, “What is the best firearm for home defense?” and the most likely answer will be 12gauge shotgun with “handgun” coming in as a close second. What is typically not mentioned or touched on is a rifle, especially those of intermediate power and caliber. This is unfortunate considering a lightweight AR15 carbine offers substantial advantages over either a handgun or shotgun. However, a stigma exists with rifle or carbine usage for home defense. Typically, the words “over penetration” will be thrown around a lot. At times, even a funny addition about blasting the neighbor’s cat will be thrown in as well. How much truth is there to this age-old opinion? Is it backed by science and facts? In short, no.
Rifle Cartridge Overpenetration
The main concern with using a rifle to defend the home is typically overpenetration. That is a valid concern, but it also must be understood that different subcategories of rifle cartridges exist. Certain rifle projectiles will penetrate less than a standard 9mm handgun load, interior walls are little more than dividers offering concealment, and drywall is a soft material incapable of stopping a projectile. When touching on the subject of rifles or carbines for defensive use, magnums, fullsized rifle cartridges and bigbore rifle cartridges are not what are being suggested.
Ask any advocate for using a rifle for urban or home defense and the “belted magnum” (such as the .300 Win Mag) will never be mentioned. Rather, the cartridge of choice is the intermediate power rifle cartridge or more specifically, the modern “smallcaliber, high velocity rifle cartridge” (which is a descendant of the 7.92x33mm Kurz and the Sturmgewehr 44). This intermediate cartridge typically uses a smallcaliber, lightweight spitzer-style projectile that is fired at high velocity. The result is a smaller and lighter payload in comparison to a conventional full-size rifle cartridge like a .308 Win. A rifle chambered for one of these smallcaliber, high velocity cartridges will also offer less felt recoil and faster follow-up shots while being lighter and faster handling.
While many popular cartridges in the intermediate family exist, in the United States the most popular by far is the .223 Remington. Also known by its military nomenclature of “5.56mm” and later adopted as NATO’s 5.56x45mm, it utilizes a .224-inch projectile typically weighing from 45 to 77grains and exhibits velocities that often meet or exceed 3,000 feet per second. While it is true that most references to the “5.56mm” cartridge is referring to the NATO cartridge at this day and age, originally the 5.56mm and .223 Remington were in fact, the same cartridge. Eugene Stoner was involved in the development of the .223 Remington while working for ArmaLite (a division of the FairchildHiller Corporation) which then transitioned to Colt Mfg. with the purchase of the rights and patents to the AR15 rifle in 1959. Fast forward to March of 1964 and the adoption of the Colt Mfg. AR15 Model’s 603 and 604 by the U.S. Military. This acquisition of rifles was considered somewhat a “one off” order, as the U.S. Army still had vested interests in the Special Purpose Individual Weapon (S.P.I.W.) program and was ultimately phasing out the M14 rifle. Upon adoption into the U.S. Military arsenal came the adoption of the .223 Remington cartridge.
With this adoption, came the birth and designation of the “5.56mm” and “M193” cartridge, which was little more than simply a name. It wouldn’t be until the official NATO adoption of the 5.56mm that any drastic changes would come to either the cartridge or the chamberings of the rifles. Field tests would begin in Germany in 1978 and NATO would officially adopt the cartridge in 1980 as the 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge. The 5.56mm, while globally used, is most commonly coupled with the AR-15 pattern rifle (which the cartridge was designed for) in the United States. These typically offer the ability to accept standardcapacity magazines, have exceedingly mild recoil and great accuracy potential. This perfect pairing makes for a lightweight, easily maneuverable, and formidable firearm for defensive use that nearly anyone can effectively employ (with a bit of training). While the 5.56mm cartridge has proven effective on the battlefield, how well does this cartridge perform protecting the home front? The answer is quite well actually.
5.56/.223 in the Home
Given that the American citizen has a much wider array of projectile and ammunition choices than our armed forces (due to NATO’s observation of the Hague Convention), the responsible armed citizen can tailor their 5.56mm carbine’s ammunition to suit their individual needs and requirements. First though, you must consider the most likely situation in which your long arm would be used and select the proper load. This choice will require understanding projectile performance and the manner in which it will perform overall. This can actually be a bit overwhelming due to the huge array of .223 Rem and 5.56mm loads available. That said, it is common to see uninformed people flock to buy 62-grain FMJ-BT M855, commonly called by the unofficial name of “green tip.” Standard US military issue for decades, this ball load is known as a “light armor penetrator,” due to the mild steel “cone” sitting atop a soft lead core. The lead and steel care are wrapped in a conventional copper jacket.
With many firearms owners, the M855 has almost a magical or mythical “power,” which can’t be explained outside of “our military uses it …” and is typically followed with “it’s good enough for me … .” While not noted for its accuracy, 62grain M855 is known for its erratic and inconsistent terminal performance, especially when fired from shorter barrels. Sometimes, M855 will fragment and provide good terminal results and other times the projectile will penetrate cleanly leaving just a small hole. The inconsistent results are believed to be due to slight differences in manufacturing. The older classic M193, 55grain FMJBT 5.56mm load (which the 62grain M855 replaced in U.S. military service), is a superior performing cartridge in terms of terminal performance. It is really the only logical FMJ choice for home defense or most personal protection situations that the American citizen may find themselves in.
That said, the citizenry of America is not limited on ammunition choices like NATO and other countries that observe the Hague convention. While M193 “ball” ammunition is superior out of the two, it is practically the “lesser of the two evils” so to speak, as superior performing munitions exist and are available for public use. For situations outside of chaos, I personally recommend looking outside the use of FMJ 5.56mm and into a more tailored ammunition that fits your personal needs.
My list of recommended .223 Rem/5.56mm loads for personal protection practically mirrors Dr. Gary K. Robert’s, with only the addition of a select couple of loads from companies such as Defiant Munitions and their TCX line. The loads I recommend have provided stellar results in terms of accuracy, penetration, expansion and weight retention during my personal research and testing. While there’s no “one round does all” for every individual and situation, .223 Rem/5.56mm defensive load selection can be broken down into three basic categories, based on how a specific projectile reacts in 10 percent Ordnance gel. The following is how I personally break my .223 Rem/5.56mm defensive load choices down.
Urban Area Rifle Defense
These areas are densely populated areas or multi-family housing areas such as apartment complexes or for those who may reside in an apartment or flat with people in close proximity. In these areas, you desire the terminal performance of a rifle but with limited penetration. Typically, a rapidly expanding Varmint projectile is a good choice, with projectile weights ranging in the 50- to 60grain range. These will likely have a deep hollow point or tipped hollow point construction and feature a thin copper jacket with soft lead core. This causes rapid expansion and fragmentation, resulting in limited penetration in adversaries and barriers and drastically reduces the chance of collateral damage.
Likely, the best offerings are those from Hornady, with their TAP Urban and Custom line, which uses their proven VMax projectiles. For those users who are more budget conscious, Fiocchi USA’s Perfecta line is a great choice. Fiocchi uses Hornady’s VMAX projectile and is a good overall alternative. This choice isn’t without drawbacks however. While overpenetration is cut to a minimum, terminal performance can be reduced due to shallow penetration. I consider this to be an acceptable trade off overall, as the permanent wounds left are massive and will promote rapid blood loss. It must be understood, with the utmost importance, that the individual is responsible for every round fired. This means, that while these cartridges will help limit collateral damage, the end result (be it successful or tragic) and responsibility begins and ends with the person behind the firearm.
The urban setting is a person who lives in a bit more sparsely populated area. Possibly an apartment with neighbors, a subdivision or typical suburban neighborhood. This area opens up a wider array of ammunition choices. It also adds a higher probability of needing light barrier penetration. This may include auto doors or auto glass. With areas such as these, a person can comfortably step outside the arena of varmint projectiles and into superior-performing ammunition choices. This includes bonded and nonbonded soft point projectiles ranging from 55 to 75 grains. These projectiles utilize an exposed lead tip and often feature a heavier and tapered copper jacket (excluding varmint soft points). Offerings such as Hornady’s Interlock will feature an interlock band and higher antimony lead core. This interlock copper band promotes high weight retention and controlled expansion by “locking” the core to the copper jacket. While not a chemical bonding process, it allows for weight retention that mirrors that of chemical bonded projectiles. Soft point ammunition such as this offer good accuracy and great terminal performance overall. This ammunition type is a great balance in terms of delivering mass to vitals through penetration, while causing severe damage to large areas through expansion (and hydrostatic shock, for those who believe this theory).
My personal choice of ammunition falls in this category and I choose the versatile Federal Fusion, 62grain bonded soft point. More forgiving areas such as this also allow for high performance solid copper offerings such as Barnes TSX in Black Hills 5.56mm, Remington’s hog hunting line, Barnes ammunition line and Hornady’s GMX solid copper offering. Other noted performers are Hornady’s TAP “T2” 75grain BTHP, Black Hills Mk 262 Mod 0/1, Speer Gold Dot 55 to 75-grain and Federal’s Mk. 318 Mod 1, which uses a 62grain Trophy Bear claw. For those looking for budget friendly, high-volume purchases, consider Hornady Black 75grain interlock soft point, Hornady/Frontier 62-grain soft point, Frontier 68grain OTM and 75-grain OTM. Hornady/Frontier is loaded using Lake City 5.56mm brass and premium Hornady projectiles. While not as accurate or clean shooting as premium offerings, its reliable and shoots well overall.
Sparsely Populated Areas
These areas are placed outside city limits. Typically, areas such as this are placed on far more than simply a lot or two of land and neighbors are spaced fairly far apart. In most cases, these are homes and not apartments or apartment complexes, meaning singular family residents. In worst case scenarios, areas such as this may require light to medium barrier penetration. This may include auto glass, auto doors or even wood.
This is likely the most forgiving areas, but it also can prove to be the more dangerous, and one should prepare for those potential dangers. With rioters threatening to move outside of burning cities and into rural or suburban areas, this may require engagements of multiple targets who may be using automobiles or trees as cover (as using automobiles as the most likely form of transportation is highly probable). Luckily, the ammunition types for this area are practically endless. I would skip over varmint hollow points, tipped varmint ammunition (such as V-Max or Ballistic Tip from Nosler) or varmint soft points completely. Consider the use of Black Hills and their 50grain Barnes TSX projectiles. This particular projectile is designed for light to medium barriers and for use in carbine or pistol length gas guns.
Other contenders would be Hornady TAP GMX 55-grain solid copper hollow point, Defiant Munitions TCX line or 60- to 75-grain bonded soft points. Other great choices would be Winchester Ranger 64grain bonded soft point, Federal Fusion 62-grain bonded soft point, Federal/Lake City 62-grain Mk. 318 and Speer Gold Dot 62, 64, and 75-grain bonded soft point. Budget minded choices would be Hornady Black 75grain interlock soft point and Frontier 62-grain soft point. Also consider medium game .223 Rem and those rated for feral hog hunting, as these are designed for controlled expansion, high-weight retention and deep penetration.
While on this subject, frangible practice ammunition is not a good choice for defense. Regardless of what internet lore states, most frangible practice ammunition uses a thin copper jacket with a compressed powder core. It is designed for use on steel targets as a close-range training aid and to prevent dangerous spauling. Frangible practice ammo does not act the same way against soft targets as it does steel. Often, frangible ammunition is run at reduced velocities (as I’ve experienced a 10 to 12 percent decrease in frangible 5.56, as opposed to its FMJ counterpart of equal projectile weight) and will perform less effectively than bulk M193 FMJ.
If frangible is considered, use M193 55grain as it would be the superior choice. This does not include frangible defensive ammunition however, as it is an entirely different animal. While bringing about the safety of traditional frangible ammunition against hard targets, this ammunition is also designed specifically for defensive use. Offerings from DRT, MagSafe, Glaser and their “safety slug” will bring about the lower possibility of penetrating hard targets, with rapid expansion typically found in varmint ammunition. This is yet another avenue that those who are concerned with over penetration can take.
All of these picks in the .223 Remington/5.56mm and 5.56x45mm NATO cartridges are great performers and will provide the user with an optimal degree of performance for their unique situation. That said, even these carefully chosen self-defense cartridges will penetrate through drywall. The reason being drywall is a thin, relatively soft building material that was a simple and cost-effective replacement to plaster walls. Drywall is ultimately a room divider that is typically half to three-quarter of an inch thick, making for a total thickness of one to 1.5 inches for two layers. At most, this surface is simply concealment and will not stop bullets of any type. A simple fist or robust knife blade will pass through drywall, as will a .22 caliber pellet from an air rifle. With this soft building material, a person should look more into limiting overpenetration.
As hard as it may be to believe, the .223 Rem/5.56mm light varmint loads (like the 55grain V-Max) will penetrate LESS drywall than a bonded jacketed hollow point fired from a 9mm handgun or a load of 12 gauge 00 buckshot utilizing a flight controlled wad. One may ask how, but it is simple physics and understanding on how various ammunition types act. A defensive handgun projectile is designed to penetrate to vital organs and also defeat various light barriers (such as heavy clothing). Due to this, there is a high likelihood of the hollow cavity clogging with drywall dust. Once this occurs, the relatively heavy but slow projectile will act much like a full metal jacket, passing through several layers of drywall before stopping. A shotgun is much like a handgun, in that it fires its payload at relatively low velocities and is reliant on penetration to vitals (or, simply removing vitals). With this, the flight-controlled wad will keep a tighter pattern at extended distances. This means, a missed shot at 10 to 15 feet will result in almost a solid mass of lead. This pattern of buckshot pellets, when launched at 1,200 feet per second, is difficult to slow down and will continue through several layers before stopping.
The smallcaliber spitzer style projectile of the .223 Rem/5.56mm however, is fired at velocities that are approaching or over the 3,000 feet per second mark. This is markedly faster than a handgun or shotgun. Impact with drywall can begin the destabilization of the very thin jacketed varmint projectiles, causing them to yaw and fragment, thus resulting in limited penetration and reducing the possibility of collateral damage.
This is ultimately a simplified version of the dynamics of how projectiles can and will act. For more information, I would highly urge those to study heavily into the FBI’s testing, evaluation and findings on this subject. They found that even 5.56mm M193 55grain FMJ produced far less overpenetration than common service pistol and shotgun cartridges. The 5.56mm is likely one of the best choices and my personal first choice for defending against a home invasion. The light weight, light recoil, great capacity, diverse load choices, impressive terminal ballistics and ease of use makes the small and handy 5.56mm AR carbine the number one choice for defense not only of the home front, but also the homestead.
About the Author
Michelle Hamilton has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice/Homeland Security, is a serious student of wound ballistics, military history, small arms design and manufacturing and is a competitive shooter.
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