June 07, 2023
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The AR-15 is the most popular and common rifle in America. There are more than twenty million of them in this country, and AR-pattern guns are now found extensively with hunters, too. If you don’t already an AR-15, they are one of the most versatile tools you can own. With dozens of different brands, caliber offerings, styles and more, there is a lot to consider for a first purchase. One of the biggest considerations is the caliber of a new AR. If you head to your local gun store, they might suggest .300 Blackout for home defense, or they might show you one chambered for the 6.8 SPC or the new 6mm ARC. However, there is a lot to be said for the tried-and-true 5.56/.223 for your first AR. If you happen to have one or multiple ARs already but not chambered for the 5.56/.223, then you should strongly consider adding one to your gunsafe or at least get an upper. If you’re uncertain on what to purchase for your first AR, or you’re on the fence about the 5.56/.223 cartridge, here are the top five reasons why you should.
5.56 and .223 For Home Defense: Is it Right for You?
Shootable and Affordable
As rifles go, ARs are small, light and have minimal recoil. They are quick to reload, and standard magazines hold 20 and 30 rounds. The most popular version of the AR-15 has a 16-inch barrel and a collapsible stock. Empty, it weighs roughly 6 pounds, which means it is small and light enough for just about everyone to use effectively. My wife, for example, much prefers shooting an AR-15 to pistols as the rifle is easier to shoot accurately and is easier to control. They are a proven design for reliability in practically any environment. Perhaps just as important, they are remarkably affordable due to how common they are, especially if you shop smart. The difference in quality and performance between budget and boutique brands, honestly, will not be noticed by most people. Whether you’re looking for a rifle to teach your kids to shoot, something to punch paper with at the range, something for varmint/small game hunting, or are interested in home/personal/vehicle defense, a 5.56 AR-15 is a great, and arguably even the best, choice.
Why, specifically, should you choose a 5.56/.223 AR-15? First, a brief explanation of the cartridge name. The commercial cartridge is .223 Remington, and from it was developed the 5.56x45mm, or 5.56 NATO, military cartridge. The dimensions of the two cartridges are identical except for a minor curvature at the shoulder and neck, and the 5.56 NATO cartridge is loaded to higher pressures, providing faster velocities. As a result, it is perfectly acceptable to shoot .223 Rem cartridges out of ARs with 5.56 NATO chambers, but using 5.56 ammunition in a gun with a .223 Rem. chamber can lead to problems. These days, the majority of “5.56” ARs being built have 5.56 NATO chambers or chambers meant to work with both 5.56 and .223 (such as .223 Wylde), so you can safely use both types of ammunition.
Now, as for the question of why 5.56, there are a lot of reasons to recommend the cartridge, even before talking about performance. This is the cartridge around which this firearm was designed, so it is inherently the most reliable. You won’t need any special magazines, as you do with 300 Blackout, 6.5 Grendel, 6.8 SPC, etc. It is widely available, if your local gun store or favorite online retailer has any centerfire ammunition on hand. It is as inexpensive as you’ll find when it comes to rifle ammunition. It is also physically lighter than just about any other centerfire caliber, keeping the overall weight of the gun down.
Because the .223/5.56 is the most common rifle caliber in this country, not only can you find ammo made by just about everybody, but you can find ammunition specifically tailored to your intended use. Want cheap FMJ plinking/practice/target ammo? It’s everywhere. Want premium hunting ammo? Every ammunition manufacturer makes that as well. I personally recommend the 62-grain bonded SP Fusion load from Federal, with which I have killed hogs and an alligator. Want top-of-the-line defensive ammunition? You’re in luck. For home defense I recommend rapidly expanding bullets (like the Hornady V-Max) that are deadly but don’t over-penetrate. If barrier penetration is important to you (doors/walls/windows), bonded and/or copper solid projectiles are now common on the commercial market, and work well. I recommend the Black Hills TSX loads. Rifles are more powerful than pistols to begin with, and modern expanding projectiles are incredibly effective.
Modularity and Customization
Americans love to upgrade and accessorize, and there is no more modular gun on the U.S. market than the AR-15. You can swap out and change every part on the gun — and I mean every part — using simple hand tools. I assembled my first AR-15 lower receiver when I was 18 using nothing but the tools found in my father’s toolbox. The AR is an intuitive design. I figured out what went where simply by studying a completed lower. Do you want different or better sights, grips, stocks, handguards, trigger, selector, charging handle, muzzle device, sling mount, foregrip/handstops, whatever? You have so many size/brand/color options that you might be overwhelmed. The AR-15 is so popular and ubiquitous that most optics are designed to mount on them, making less work for you.
The AR-15 rifle is often referred to as a platform with good reason. The primary use for an AR is self-defense. When something goes bump in the night, a suppressed AR with a good white light and optic is your best friend. The 5.56/.223 cartridge has an excellent track record for successfully defending one’s home, and there are hundreds of ways to optimize an AR for your own self-defense. If you need to hunt game for you and your family, that same gun will put food on the table. It may not be the best cartridge for hunting deer or pigs, but the right .223 cartridge will get the job done, and once you own one AR, odds are several more will follow. Backcountry and mountain hunters love ultralight ARs for covering a lot of ground without breaking your back. The AR can also be optimized as a long-range gun, and if you’ve never been to a 3-Gun match, your’re missing out. It’s definitely possible to build one AR that “does it all,” but building or buying ARs for specific tasks is a lot of fun. Whatever you need an AR for, starting with a traditional 5.56/.223 build is a smart choice. If you don’t want to invest in a dozen complete rifles, you can always acquire multiple upper receivers that will be compatible with your lower, too. It’s a great way to own multiple guns while saving cost, space and hassle.
Finally, and (to my mind) most importantly, the AR-15 is exactly the kind of firearm the Second Amendment was written to protect. The entire Bill of Rights is a restraining order against government. Our Founding Fathers just overthrew a tyrannical government (their own) and understood government was a necessary evil. They used the Bill of Rights to list our inalienable rights, including the right to keep and bear arms, as an insurance policy against the likelihood of our government turning tyrannical again. Armed citizens keep a government inclined toward tyranny (which is all of them) in check. Why do you think all the politicians want to ban these kinds of guns? They are the least common type of firearm used in any crime, but they are the most effective in battling tyranny. At the time of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, American citizens could own any type of weapon they wanted (and could afford), including cannons, without asking permission of the government or filling out any government paperwork. That’s what “shall not be infringed” means. I want everyone to own an AR-15 so that when they come for them, they must come for us all.
5.56 and .223 For Home Defense: Is it Right for You?
About the Author
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. A former police officer he is a USPSA Production Division Grand Master. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current best-selling novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon.
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