Winchester USA 5.56mm - "White Box" Is Something Of A "Gold Standard"
Dec 21, 2009 (Updated Jul 2, 2013)
Review by morilla
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Good velocity/pressure for shorter barrels; More consistent than some alternatives; Good brass
Cons:Getting a bit expensive in the 'value' niche; Not recommended for .223 chambers
The Bottom Line: It's not the same as .223 Remington. While not the 'best' grain weight for modern barrel twists, it is good fodder for most of those nasty, old, "evil," black rifles.
Let's get it over with right at the start...
Recommend this product?
There are many who see the 5.56 NATO and .223 Remington cartridges as "identical" in the sense that: A.) It's always worked in their firearm, (B.) There doesn't seem to be a difference in the dimensions - i.e., it ‘fits' in the gun, and (C.) They were told it should work in their rifle. As a result, there exists a certain amount of confusion among shooters; a problem exacerbated by those who go around, proffering the ‘wisdom' that "if it fits in your gun, it's probably alright to use, after all, it works in mine." The trouble, not to mention the ‘controversy,' is that the actual difference is something which may not cause a problem in any given firearm. You may be able to fire 20, 100, or 100,000 rounds of 5.56 NATO through a firearm designated for .223 and never have a problem. Then again, depending on the firearm, you may have problems after firing just a single round of 5.56.
...No Question: There Is A Difference...
The difference between the 5.56 NATO and the .223 Remington cartridges is not a matter of ‘opinion.' In an overly simplistic sense, one could state that the .223 is the civilian version of the 5.56 NATO military cartridge. The trouble is, that is precisely where the confusion begins. Without spending considerable time going through the technicalities involved, the average shooter only needs to recognize the following:
1.) While virtually identical visually, there are case tolerance differences between the two cartridges; i.e., ‘military' brass is heavier and thicker than ‘civilian.'
2.) The reason for these tolerance differences stems from the fact that 5.56 NATO generates higher pressures than the .223 Remington cartridge; which is based on the 5.56 being a bit ‘hotter' than the .223 and based on the fact that...
3.) There are differences in the chambers of specific weapons which accommodate the differences in the cartridges. For instance, a rifle chambered for 5.56 NATO will work well with either the .223 or the 5.56. However, a rifle chambered for .223 will only work safely with .223 since the chamber is ‘smaller' and, therefore, can create dangerously high pressures with the higher pressured 5.56 NATO cartridge.
In short, don't ever let someone convince you that the .223 and the 5.56 are the ‘same' cartridge; I don't care how much experience/expertise they claim or what Tech Manual they point to. I've seen a considerable number come out of the woodwork, claiming to have spent "X" number of years in the military and their AR-15/M-16 fires either just fine. I've also seen shooters who've never been in the military claim that either cartridge has worked well in their AR-15.
All well and good, but... First, the military does not issue .223 Remington; they issue 5.56 NATO. Second, military issued weapons are chambered in 5.56 NATO. While this has been the case for most AR-15's manufactured from the mid-1960's until roughly the turn of the century, with the plethora of AR-15 "clones" now on the market, it must be remembered that not all of the AR-15 variations now available on the civilian market are so chambered. Various chambers include .223, 5.56 NATO, and, now, the .223 Wylde. Third, not all models, model years, metallurgy, and manufacturer's specs are created equal. Neither is the use/abuse any given weapon has endured.
...That's Not Just My "Opinion"...
The usual canard is: "Well. That's your opinion and I'm entitled to mine." Problem: As stated, the issue is not a matter of ‘opinion;' whether based on your individual experience or not. The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute, the primary entity which sets industry standards over the last 80-plus years, has a technical data sheet called "Unsafe Arms and Ammunition Combinations" available on their website (http://www.saami.org/Unsafe_Combinations.cfm). The basis they state for these unsafe conditions is: "...This unsafe condition is caused by an excessive build-up and/or release of high-pressure gas in a firearm's chamber, barrel and/or action beyond which the firearm is designed to withstand..." Scroll down the page and in the Centerfire Rifle section you will find the following...
"In Rifle Chambered For - 223 Remington ...
Do Not Use These Cartridges - 5.56mm Military, 222 Remington, 30 Carbine"
Not convinced? How about what Winchester themselves say about their own ammunition? On Winchester's Law Enforcement website, a 2001 posting (http://www.winchester.com/lawenforcement/news/newsview.aspx?storyid=11 - downloaded 9/29/2009) states:
"...The truth is that, although somewhat similar, they are not the same and you should know the differences before buying either cartridge... The cartridge casings for both calibers have basically the same length and exterior dimensions... The 5.56 round... typically has higher velocity and chamber pressure than the .223 Rem... The 5.56mm and .223 Rem chambers are nearly identical... a 5.56mm chamber... almost twice as much as in the .223 Rem chamber... You can fire .223 Rem cartridges in 5.56 chambers... Problems may occur when firing the higher-pressure 5.56mm cartridge in a .223 chamber with is much shorter leade. It is generally known that shortening the leade can dramatically increase chamber pressure. In some cases, this higher pressure could result in primer pocket gas leaks, blown cartridge case heads and gun functioning issues... we do not recommend, nor does SAAMI recommend, firing a 5.56mm cartridge in a gun chambered for the .223 Rem..."
In the end, there is no opinion to agree or disagree with. The difference does exist and the potential significance of that difference comes into play once the trigger is pulled.
...White Box Ammunition...
In a very real sense, Winchester's USA (or "white box") ammunition has become something of the ‘gold standard' when it comes to ‘value' ammunition. While much of this has to do with the fact that the shooter receives a decent round for the price, there is also the American Made factor at work. Unfortunately, as with many other products these days, such jingoism may be misplaced when it comes to their 5.56mm.
A careful perusal of Winchester's catalog demonstrates that there are actually two versions of their USA 5.56mm, 55 grain, Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) load. That difference is designated by the product number: Q3131 and Q3131A. The trouble starts with the fact that even these designations aren't "absolute" indicators. Why? While you can find Q3131 listed in Winchester's standard catalog and Q3131A listed in their Law Enforcement catalog, the actual boxes I have sitting in front of me as I write this review are labeled Q3131A1.
Why does this matter? According to one source in a piece regarding the difference between 5.56mm and .223 Rem (Have I driven that point home yet?), the Q3131 marked boxes contain cartridges made in the USA, while the Q3131A boxes carry those made by Israeli Military Industries (IMI) - see http://www.thegunzone.com/556v223.html. This would seem to make sense in that the boxes marked Q3131A1 sitting in front of me are also marked as being "Made In R.O. Korea." While all three are listed with identical ballistics data and most shooters won't notice a difference in performance, I maintain there is a potential significance in that: A.) the "USA" designation represents a product line or ‘brand' rather than a place of manufacture and (B.) while I cannot confirm it, I suspect that the "Made In R.O. Korea" boxes are, in fact, made by the parent company which owns PMC (see review link below) - which may partially explain some of the results of the testing we'll look at in a minute.
...Problems With A ‘Standard'...
Since 55 grain, Full Metal Jacket (FMJ - ‘ball') 5.56mm NATO is used in everything from "pistols" to squad automatic weapons, performance standards or, more accurately, performance expectations vary widely. There are, however, a couple truisms that can be universally accepted. First, ‘ball' (FMJ) ammo was designed to feed reliably, penetrate, and be durable; i.e., it won't deform when stored, carried, or while being fed from a magazine or clip the way soft point and some hollow point ammunition will. ‘Ball' ammunition does not rely on a combination of velocity, bullet design, materials, and target composition to expand as intended; it simply doesn't expand.
Second, many is the debate that can be had regarding things such as cavitation, fragmentation, stability/instability, velocity vs. bullet weight and how it impacts energy, et al.; but, the fact remains that you are firing a .22-caliber, 55 grain bullet out the barrel. Those two factoids alone have meaning insofar as effective range; not to mention penetration/deflection, particularly as range increases. They also play heavily in the potential for accuracy depending on the weapon and the shooter on the trigger. While the 5.56 NATO is a ballistically efficient cartridge, that does not, by definition, translate into ‘stopping' or ‘knock-down' or ‘killing' power. Such effectiveness will depend greatly on weapon, range, target, point of impact, and myriad factors having little to do with the inherent capabilities (or lack thereof) in the cartridge. Suffice to say that there are good, documented, and predictable reasons why the military is currently issuing M14 (.308/7.62 caliber) rifles to unit designated marksmen in Iraq and Afghanistan and why debates still rage concerning volume of fire vs. accuracy when it comes to the true definition of firepower.
As a basis of comparison, the .223 Remington, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute (SAAMI) standards call for a velocity of 3,215 f.p.s. at 15 feet from the muzzle of a 24" barrel with a 1:12 twist, utilizing a 55 grain bullet. Meanwhile, according to Technical Manual 43-0001-27 Army Ammunition Data Sheets Small Caliber Ammunition (Headquarters, Department of the Army, April 1994), Cartridge, 5.56mm, Ball, M193 has an average velocity of 3,250 f.p.s. 15 ft. from the muzzle. Now, before one gets too excited by what seems to be a minimal difference, that's not the whole story.
Realize that the Tech Manual also states the M193 cartridge is for use in the M16 and M16A1 rifle. When this manual appeared on the scene, the standard M16/M16A1 had a 1:12" twist barrel which measured 20 inches. For our purposes and as related to setting a ‘standard' to go by, the primary issues involved with these differing specifications are:
1.) A barrel twist rate of 1:12 (one complete turn of rifling for every twelve inches of barrel) has not been the ‘standard' since the A2 version of the AR-15/M-16 was introduced 20 years ago. The Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle has a ‘faster' 1:9 twist rate, as do many barrels for the AR-15. There is also the fact the even faster 1:7 twist rate is now becoming more and more prevalent in the AR-15 market; to the point where it could be argued that it is even more readily available than the 1:9.
Keeping it relatively simple, there is an ‘ideal' barrel twist rate for every bullet and/or bullet weight for proper ‘stabilization' of the bullet; i.e., creating the correct ‘spin' for the bullet to ‘stabilize' it (keep it from wobbling) in flight and as it impacts the target. The original AR-15/M-16 barrels had a 1:14 twist that understabilized the 55 gr. bullet; creating gruesome and devastating wounds as the bullet would tumble upon impact. Without going into the causes of the change, the military soon adopted the 1:12 twist barrel so as to properly stabilize the 55 gr. bullet. Based on various factors, this became accepted as the standard twist rate for the 55 grain .223/5.56 round.
When the military adopted the heavier, 62 grain bullet, it was determined that a 1:9 twist barrel would be more appropriate as the 1:12 did not sufficiently stabilize the heavier bullet. As a result, the 55 gr. bullets were, to some degree, overstablized in these faster twist barrels. While overstabilization combined with high velocity can lead to bullet fragmentation and/or decreased accuracy, there hasn't proven to be much of a problem running 55 grain .223 through 1:9 twist barrels; unless you're a target shooter that's just gotta get that last millimeter of performance.
Of course, time marches on and manufacturer's as well as shooters being what they are, the .223/5.56 is being used as and generally made over into something it's really not. Thus, even heavier bullets have entered the fray in an attempt to generate greater accuracy/range and ‘knock-down' potential. Also factoring into the equation was the move to a carbine version of the M-16 as a general issue weapon; with the shorter barrels needing a ‘faster' twist rate to properly stabilize the heavier bullets. Think about it. The M4 Carbine has a 14.5" barrel. If you have a 1:9 twist in a 14.5" barrel, that means the rifling makes just over 1 ½ full turns vs. just over 2 full turns in the now, more common 1:7 twist barrels. However, if the 1:9 twist overstabilized 55 gr. bullets, what could be expected from 1:7 barrels besides faster wear of the barrel?
2.) The 3,215 f.p.s. velocity for the .223 Remington comes with a plus/minus of 90 f.p.s. which translates into a range of 3,125 - 3,305 f.p.s. While such a range may be useful for creating a certain standardization among numerous manufacturers, it is an inconsistency that I'd find somewhat intolerable from a single manufacturer; especially given the fact that, when combined with criteria such as gas system and barrel length (which will impact pressures and velocity), rounds at the lower end of this range may not operate a given weapon.
3.) Barrel length is going to be greatly dependent on intended application and will, therefore, vary greatly. While 24" and even 26" barrels may be common on target and even some varmint rifles, they certainly don't constitute the majority of .223 or 5.56mm barrel lengths on the market. A full-sized AR-15 rifle comes standard with a 20" barrel. A Ruger Mini-14 in .223 comes with an 18.5" barrel and their new SR-556 (AR-15 type) rifle comes with a 16 1/8" barrel. Of course, there are the increasingly popular carbine versions of the AR-15; with the two most popular barrel lengths being 16" plus flash suppressor and 14.5" of rifled barrel with a ‘pinned' flash suppressor to meet the legal minimum 16" barrel ‘length.'
Since SAAMI states that there is a potential and approximate velocity change of 30 f.p.s. for every 1" change in barrel length for cartridges which range between 3,001 - 3,500 f.p.s., you can see the problem. If we reduce the barrel length from 24" to the standard 20" barrel length for the AR-15 rifle, the SAAMI nominal velocity for .223 Remington drops by 120 f.p.s. If we drop the barrel length to the carbine barrel length of 16", the SAAMI velocity drops double the amount - or 240 f.p.s. In a nutshell, the further the velocity (and pressure) drops, the greater the increased potential for the round to fail to fully operate the weapon.
I'd submit that this is the reason why the 5.56 NATO round generates higher velocities and pressures. If we subtract 120 f.p.s. from the SAAMI average velocity for .223 Remington so as to be consistent with a 20" barrel, the nominal velocity would then be 3,095 f.p.s. vs. 3,250 f.p.s. for the 5.56mm. Suddenly, what was perceptibly a minimal difference becomes more significant. Given the increasing use of the carbine version of the AR-15/M-16 weapon system for both civilian and military applications, the higher velocity/pressures translates into increased potential for weapon reliability and cartridge effectiveness.
...The Test Rifle And A Standard For Evaluation...
Given the increased popularity of the carbine version of the AR-15 and the growing dominance of the 1:7 twist barrel, it was decided to ‘procure' an appropriate firearm. Without going into all the specifications, the test carbine has a chrome-lined, 16" Noveske 1:7 twist barrel chambered in 5.56 NATO and a mid-length gas system. According to their catalog, Winchester USA .223 Remington 55 gr. FMJ is listed as having a muzzle velocity of 3,240 f.p.s., while their 5.56 mm 55 gr. FMJ comes in at 3,270 f.p.s. (Notice that the company lists these as two different cartridges!!! Alright. I'll stop pressing that point.)
Utilizing SAAMI's calculation regarding a potential and approximate velocity change of 30 f.p.s. for every 1" change in barrel length for cartridges which range between 3,001 - 3,500 f.p.s., Winchester's 5.56mm would be expected to come at approximately 3,030 f.p.s. Bear in mind, this change in velocity does not mean a necessary or substantive change in pressure.
As for establishing a velocity range, that is somewhat problematic. If we were to apply SAAMI's plus/minus of 90 f.p.s. (which is, likely, appropriate) to the adjusted factory spec, we'd end up with a range of 2,940 - 3,120 f.p.s. While that may sound reasonable, in terms of both reliable weapons function and potential accuracy, that's a pretty extreme spread from a single manufacturer. Truth be told, given the shorter barrel length and mid-length gas system, I'd prefer to see velocities averaging a little closer to the ‘high' end of this range to reliably operate the weapon; though the calculated, average velocity expectation for the Winchester 5.56mm is slightly under the high end for the adjusted .223 Remington velocity range (2,910 - 3,090 f.p.s.) in the same product line.
As a result, in this case, we might be better off looking toward the standard deviation (SD); i.e., how close each shot in a string is to the ‘average' velocity. Stated simply, the lower the standard deviation, the ‘better' or more consistent the ammunition. While I may strive for and expect a relatively low standard deviation from my handloads, I simply don't have that much faith in factory ammo; particularly ‘budget' (non-match) lines. Therefore, an SD between 10 and 20 is what I hope for in factory loads.
I set up a Chrony F1 (chronograph - see review link below) and measured a distance 15 feet from the muzzle in accordance with SAAMI and the Army's Tech Manual; a distance sufficient to mitigate the muzzle blast's potential to influence the chronograph results in this caliber. All testing was done offhand. The elevation was 5,500 ft., on a clear day with temperatures hovering right at 77 degrees F and relative humidity around 35%.
Bearing in mind that I am not a ‘gun writer' with access to manufacturer's in terms of obtaining ‘donated' ammunition for testing, the sample size is, of necessity, a bit small. Be that as it may, 10 rounds from two different boxes/lots of Winchester USA, 55 gr. FMJ (product code Q3131A1), to establish the following results:
Mean Velocity = 2,998.67 f.p.s.
High = 3,063 f.p.s.; Low = 2,964 f.p.s. - ES (Extreme Spread) = 99 f.p.s.
Standard Deviation (SD) = 34.49
This puts it marginally below the expected, adjusted average of 3,030 f.p.s. based on the factory specifications; but only just over 11 f.p.s. below an adjusted velocity expectation based on the 3,250 f.p.s. found in the Army's Tech Manual (i.e., 3,250 - 240 = 3,010 f.p.s.). As noted, given the shorter barrel length and mid-length gas system, I'd prefer to see velocities averaging a little closer to the ‘high' end of the range to reliably operate the weapon and the results for the Winchester are pretty much right in there.
As I said, I hope for an SD between 10 and 20 in a factory load. Since an SD of 30 isn't outside the realm of what I'd call ‘reasonable,' an SD of 34.49, is also, sort of, "in there." Set this against an SD of 75.43 and 52.86 for the PMC and Sellier & Bellot .223 Remington tested the same day (see review links below) and it sounds even a bit better. In fact, of the four brands tested that day, this Winchester was the second most consistent; followed by the Sellier & Bellot, with the PMC coming in at a pitiful SD that was almost twice (75.43) that of the Winchester 5.56mm. In a sense, it is still a ‘marginal' outcome; even for ‘value' ammunition. Frankly, I was shocked; as was an ‘expert' I showed the results to. While we agreed that a retest (next year in similar conditions - it's way too cold now) is in order. However, given that the results were consistent across the spectrum of .223/5.56 brands tested that day, I gotta say that I did some hard thinking.
As a result, I'm forced to come to the same conclusion as I did with the PMC (also noting my suspicion regarding the manufacturing source of boxes marked with the Q3131A1) and Sellier & Bellot .223 Remington. You will note that the ‘aim of the game' for the military in recent decades has been suppressive fire. In that methodology, accuracy isn't the first criterion; consistency being a key to accuracy. You don't suppose there's a reason why I stipulated above that there are good, documented, and predictable reasons why the military is currently issuing M14 (.308/7.62 caliber) rifles to unit designated marksmen in Iraq and Afghanistan and why debates still rage concerning volume of fire vs. accuracy when it comes to the true definition of firepower? Could this ‘volume of fire' also be a contributing factor to the ammunition shortages we've seen recently?
I will note here that there was a very noticeable difference in recoil between this ammunition and the PMC .223 Remington; not to mention a certain similarity between the Winchester and Sellier & Bellot. Even if I hadn't known from staring at the chronograph that the average velocity on the Sellier & Bellot was 3,092.57 f.p.s. and the average velocity on the PMC was 2,733.57 f.p.s., the felt difference in recoil was more than sufficient to set me on notice that something was different.
I do not currently have access to an ‘official' range. I won't go into the reasons; suffice to say I've been ‘invited,' but there are ‘issues' I find run somewhat against the grain of my sense of aesthetic. With BLM cracking down as regards shooting on ‘their' land (don't get me started on that), I'm forced to find my shooting opportunities on Forest Service lands. While our USFS guys and gals in the region are pretty good eggs about this kind of stuff, it is a bit difficult to find an open stretch of country that isn't shooting toward a road, in the direction of ‘human activity,' isn't congested with trees/bushes/limbs, and is over a few yards in length.
I did manage to pace off a good 60 yard range (call it an honest 50 yard-plus distance), with a slight downhill slant. I attached a human silhouette ("B-27") to the remainder of a deadfall trunk. All rounds expended were grouped sufficiently to stay well inside the "9" ring shooting off hand, rapid fire, without a sling. While I have said that about both the PMC as well as the Sellier & Bellot ammunition, I will further stipulate that the Winchester was the more consistently accurate of the three from this particular weapon.
Bear in mind, however, I was primarily interested in function testing the weapon and had no rest; manufactured or impromptu. Likewise, while I did test four different brands of ammo, I was not interested in simply blowing through a bunch of factory ammunition, at the current replacement costs, in an ad hoc attempt to establish some sort of ‘ideal.' (The guy intends shooting mostly 68 grain handloads through the rifle.)
There were no Failures to Feed (FTF) or Failures to Eject (FTE). Unlike the PMC, both the Winchester and Sellier & Bellot brass ejected into the same relatively small area; cutting down considerably on my ‘policing' time.
...An Issue For Reloaders?...
In a sense, as with their ammunition, Winchester cases serve as something of a ‘standard' for reloaders. As I've noted in my other ammunition reviews, I never load a case to failure. For autoloading firearms, I do around 5 or 6 loads and then deposit said case in the brass bucket and the Winchester has held up well under those parameters.
Unfortunately, insofar as reloading, I've run into much the same trouble with the Winchester USA 5.56mm cases as I did with the Sellier & Bellot; i.e., a given box will have very tight primers. In fact, the trouble is actually more consistent than with the Sellier & Bellot in that almost every case "popped the top" on my Lee Decapping Die; it's designed to have the pin emerge from the top of the die if too much pressure (enough to potentially damage the pin) is exerted attempting to remove a primer. While an irritating circumstance, it is decidedly preferable to breaking a pin; something I would certainly have accomplished with an ordinary decapping die.
How do I know that? Because, I dug out my Lee Decapping Pin and Base, the one every Classic Lee Loader (see link below) contains. The way the Lee Decapping Pin and Base works is you set the case in the base, insert the pin through the case mouth until it touches bottom, then gently tap the top of the pin with a plastic headed hammer. Well, though you don't have to ‘ring the bell,' most of the Winchester 5.56mm primers take a bit more than a gentle ‘tap.'
I don't remember this problem from the past and have not had this trouble, at all, with either Winchester small rifle or Remington 7 ½ primers used in Winchester's commercially available .223 cases (see review link below). The problem, at the moment, is that while I've decapped these cases, I have not reloaded any of the 5.56mm cases I shot that day; something I just realized as I sat down to write this. It shouldn't "need" to have the primer pocket swaged, but...
It's just something to be aware of...
Of the FMJ ammunition tested that day, the Winchester USA 5.56mm was the one I recommended for that rifle. It has the advantage of being relatively easy to obtain. Though ‘available' has been a relative term this last year, this Winchester has been fairly consistent in terms of being able to find it; though not at Wal-Mart in my area. However, while PMC .223 Remington can be found for as low as around $8 per box of 20 if purchased in bulk, the Winchester USA 5.56mm can set you back, on average, around $12 - $13 for a box of 20; though Cabela's and other retailers will, depending on supply, occasionally have it on sale for $9 - $10 a box.
As for the ‘difference' between product codes Q3131, Q3131A, and Q3131A1, I have already stated what I know and what I suspect - except... In all of my recent purchases, whether online or locally, the only version which has been available is the Q3131A1. For the moment, I accept that the reality behind this may be due to the concept that virtually all domestic 5.56mm (and other calibers) ammunition production is said to be going to fill the needs of the military and law enforcement; in that order.
If I were looking to feed the type of rifle used in the above test and had the money, this would be the ammunition I'd choose to stockpile against Armageddon or should the zombie hordes be massing. It just felt "right" in the weapon and the performance, though not ‘great,' was solid. While I can and did do better with standard (not ‘match' intended) handloads, that's the way it should be short of factory "Match" ammo. As a ‘plinking' round, frankly, I'd go for something a little less expensive such as the PMC; though I, personally, stay well clear of the Wolf.
Were I securing a supply of ammunition for a firearm listed as being chambered in .223 Remington, this would not be my choice of fodder.
Should you choose to ignore the documented differences based on what your firearm will do, has done, or might do...
Well, I'm glad it's not my problem...
Reviews Cited Above
Classic Lee Loader
Winchester Unprimed Small Caliber Rifle Brass
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