Compared: The .204 Ruger and .223 WSSM
By Chuck Hawks
Here we have two new, ultra-high velocity, varmint cartridges. The .223 WSSM was introduced in 2003 and the .204 Ruger in 2004. The .223 WSSM is a very radical "super short" and fat cartridge with a rebated magnum size rim in the common .22 caliber. The .204 Ruger is a conventional appearing cartridge sharing the rim and head size of the .223 Remington but using an unconventional 5mm (.204") diameter bullet. They practically beg to be compared.
The .204 Ruger
The .204 Ruger has become a solid success in the four years since its introduction. It was the result of a cooperative effort between the Hornady Manufacturing Company (ammunition and bullets) and Sturm, Ruger & Company (firearms). It is based on the obsolete .222 Remington Magnum case. It retains the same .378" rim and head diameter as its parent, as well as the same 1.85" case and 2.28" cartridge overall length (COL). The shoulder of the .204 is set a little farther forward than the shoulder of the .222 Mag. Bullet diameter is .204".
Hornady factory loads for the .204 Ruger use a new ball powder specially developed for the purpose. This powder is not available to reloaders. The Hornady factory loads include 32 grain and 40 grain V-Max bullets and a 45 grain Spire Point (SP) bullet. These are varmint bullets that have established a solid reputation for excellent accuracy and violent fragmentation that minimizes the chance of ricochet. Other manufacturers are now offering .204 Federal factory loaded ammunition with similar ballistics. Remington offers .204 factory loads with 32 and 40 grain bullets, Federal offers 32 and 39 grain bullets and Winchester offers 32 and 34 grain bullets.
Hornady factory ballistics for the .204 Ruger claim a MV's of 4225 fps for the 32 grain V-Max bullet, 3900 fps for the 40 grain V-Max bullet and 3625 fps for the SP bullet from a 26" test barrel. At 100 yards the little 32 grain bullet is traveling at 3605 fps, at 200 yards 3064 fps, and at 300 yards 2582 fps. Hornady claims that their factory loads for the .204 Ruger are very accurate, designed to shoot into 1 MOA or less.
Bullet choice for reloaders in .204" diameter is not exactly extensive, but the popularity of the .204 Ruger has caused it to expand. Besides the 32, 40 and 45 grain Hornady bullets, I am aware of 32 and 40 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip Varmint bullets and a 36 grain Berger MEF (maximum expansion, flat base) hollow point bullet.
Ruger initially offered five rifle models in .204 caliber, three Model 77 bolt actions and two No. 1 falling block single shots. Additional manufacturers have picked up on the .204 Ruger cartridge, including Savage, Remington, Kimber, Cooper and others.
The .223 WSSM
In the five years since its introduction, the .223 WSSM has failed to gain much popular support. WSSM stands for "Winchester Super Short Magnum," and super short it certainly is. Winchester's new .223 offers ultra-high velocity on the order of the non-magnum .220 Swift and 5.6x57mm RWS.
The .223 WSSM is based on a radically shortened version of their .300 WSM case, itself a short action caliber based on the huge .404 Jeffery case. COL is 2.36" and case length is only 1.67". The new .223 WSSM is designed for a rifle action about 1/2 inch shorter than the usual (.308 Winchester length) short action.
The shoulder angle is 28 degrees and the rim is rebated to .535" while the case head is .555" in diameter. The .223 WSSM is misnamed as it actually uses standard .224" diameter bullets.
The new .223 WSSM looks like a larger version of the bloated little .22 PPC cartridge. (Which, by the way, was intended for single shot target rifles and is notorious for not feeding properly in repeating rifles.) Feeding problems have already surfaced in .223 WSSM rifles, although Browning and Winchester claim to have the problems licked. Browning and Winchester were the first gun manufacturers to supply rifles for the WSSM cartridges, based on super short versions of the A-Bolt II and Model 70 bolt actions. (The latter has since been discontinued.)
Very short, grossly fat cartridges such as the .223 WSSM are touted as the last word in accuracy. To quote from Olin/Winchester advertising material this is supposedly due to, "a highly efficient propellant burn . . . and headspacing off the shoulder."
All rimless bottleneck cartridges except belted magnums, of course, headspace off the shoulder. This specifically includes the .204 Ruger.
Olin/Winchester claims a MV of 3850 fps for both of their 55 grain bullets, whose SD is .157. The sleek Ballistic Silvertip bullet retains somewhat more velocity over typical varminting ranges and shoots slightly flatter than the less expensive Pointed Soft Point bullet. The black, moly-coated Ballistic Silvertip is traveling at a velocity of 3438 fps at 100 yards, 3064 fps at 200 yards, and 2721 fps at 300 yards. The .223 WSSM can achieve MV's of 4400-4500 fps handloaded with 40 grain bullets. As far as I know, no other major ammo makers load the .223 WSSM cartridge and very few mass produced rifles are offered in the caliber. For all practical purposes, factory built rifles are now limited to the Browning brand.
For the purposes of this article I am going to compare two typical loads for each cartridge. These will consist of a lightweight bullet and a medium weight bullet for each caliber.
Representing the .204 Ruger will be the Hornady factory load with the 32 grain V-Max bullet and a typical handload using the Berger 36 grain MEF bullet. Representing the .223 WSSM will be a typical handload using a 40 grain Hornady V-Max bullet and the Winchester factory load using the 55 grain Ballistic Silvertip bullet.
Here are the selected loads we will be comparing (caliber, bullet, MV, ME):
In the course of this article we will compare velocity, ballistic coefficient (BC), trajectory, energy, and recoil. We will end with a look at some additional factors not related to ballistics.
Unlike some previous comparisons, this one will ignore bullet frontal area, sectional density, and killing power. Varmint bullets are designed to fragment on contact, rendering both frontal area (which normally affects the diameter of the wound channel) and sectional density (which affects the length of the wound channel) moot points. Killing power is stipulated as being more than sufficient for shooting varmints way beyond the maximum point blank range of either cartridge. Essentially, if you can hit 'em, both cartridges will kill 'em.
Velocity is important because the faster a bullet flies the less time gravity has to work on it before it hits the target. Thus bullet drop is reduced or, as riflemen say, the cartridge shoots flatter.
As can be inferred from the numbers given above, the velocity of the two cartridges is pretty similar, with the .223 WSM having a modest advantage with bullets of similar sectional density. The .32 grain .204" bullet (SD .110) and 40 grain .224" bullet (SD .114) are good examples of this.
BC is a measure of how efficiently a bullet flies through the air. The lower the air drag the higher the BC. If two bullets have the same construction and form, the longer (heavier) or skinnier (smaller caliber) contender will have the higher BC. Here are the ballistic coefficients for the bullets used in this comparison.
The higher the BC the slower the bullet sheds velocity. It will exhibit less drop and less wind drift downrange. None of these varmint bullets actually have impressive BC's. (For example, the BC of a Hornady 130 grain SST .270 bullet is .460!) The advantages of superior BC are most apparent at long range. This should give the .223 WSSM an advantage at the longest ranges.
Here are the trajectory figures in yards for our selected loads. A scope height of 1.5" over bore is assumed. For comparison, the zero range is 200 yards in all cases.
The .223 WSSM has a slight advantage in trajectory, 0.5" less drop at 300 yards comparing the 32 and 40 grain bullets, which are of similar design and sectional density. The higher MV of the .223 load is the main factor here. The relatively poor BC of the Berger 36 grain bullet shows in its 1.9" greater drop at 300 yards compared to the sleek 55 grain Ballistic Silvertip bullet, since both bullets start with the same muzzle velocity.
Kinetic energy is essentially a function of mass (bullet weight) times the square of velocity. It's important because energy is a measure of the amount of work (i.e. destruction) of which each cartridge is capable. It is energy that powers such important functions as bullet expansion and tissue destruction. Following are the energy figures in foot-pounds for each of our selected bullet weights at 100, 200, and 300 yards.
In this case, both cartridges far exceed the amount of energy required to kill common varmints at 300 yards, which is beyond the maximum point blank range of both cartridges. The lowest energy level at 300 yards is the 362 ft. lbs. provided by the 36 grain bullet from the .204. To put that in perspective, that is approximately the same amount of energy as a Winchester 9mm Luger factory load generates at the muzzle of a pistol. Do you think that a 9mm pistol will kill a ground hog at the muzzle? So do I.
Recoil is an important factor because anyone can shoot better with a gun that kicks less. The effects of recoil are cumulative and varmint hunters are often shooting at small targets at extended ranges, so differences in recoil matter. Guns that kick less are more fun to shoot both in the field and at the range.
Both of these calibers, like most varmint cartridges, are light kickers. The .204 Ruger is exceptional in this regard, since both its powder charge and bullets are lighter than those required for similar performance in the .223 WSSM.
An 8.5 pound .204 varmint rifle generates only 2.6 ft. lbs. of recoil energy when shooting the Hornady factory loaded 32 grain bullet. A .223 WSSM rifle of the same weight shooting a Winchester factory load with a 55 grain bullet delivers 5.1 ft. lbs. of free recoil energy. The greater downrange energy of the .223 WSSM results in about twice the recoil.
As noted earlier, the .223 WSSM is a standard caliber in an odd configuration. Winchester promotes their new .223 primarily on the basis of precision accuracy, which they attribute to the short, fat cartridge geometry.
Experienced and knowledgeable shooters have, however, raised questions about some of the features of this case design. The fat case raises back thrust at the bolt face, the rebated rim leaves the bolt less to catch when attempting to slide a cartridge from the magazine, and the sharp shoulders and short length tend to cause the cartridge to tip and fail to feed properly into the chamber. Browning and Winchester both encountered feeding problems when adapting their bolt action rifles to the WSSM cartridges, and so have magazine writers testing the new rifles and cartridges (although these were generally not reported to the magazines' readers).
I have received e-mail letters from WSSM rifle owners who were very pleased with the reliability of their new rifles, and letters from owners disappointed by the unreliability of their new rifles. I can only conclude that the jury is still out on the relative merits and drawbacks of this cartridge design. One thing for sure, driving bullets to ultra-high velocity with large charges of powder, as the .223 WSSM is capable of doing, is a prescription for short barrel life.
Ruger is promoting their new .204 cartridge with its odd caliber but conventional configuration quite differently. The following is a direct quote from the text of a Ruger advertisement:
"A cartridge doesn't have to look odd to perform great. . . Forget about "super short fat magnum" cartridges with more difficult feeding, increased rearward bolt thrust, and shortened barrel life. A standard short-action Ruger M77MKII accommodates this powerful, accurate, flat-shooting varmint cartridge. You get incredibly swift performance without a super-long or super-fat cartridge case. The new .204 Ruger is a sensible cartridge that really works."
One point not often mentioned is that the smaller the bore diameter, the more quickly it fouls, a fact well known by .17 caliber centerfire rifle shooters. The .20 caliber is not that much smaller than a .22 caliber, but it is smaller. Clean burning powders are favored in very small bore rifles.
In terms of rifle availability, the Browning A-Bolt II comes in a special super-short action that is chambered for the .223 WSSM. I understand that at least one other manufacturer has experimented with the WSSM cartridges and concluded that WSSM rifles are too unreliable to be marketed.
Any rifle that is chambered for the .222 or .223 Remington cartridges could be chambered for the .204 Ruger and many rifle makers have taken advantage of this fact to offer .204 rifles. Rifles and ammunition in .204 are widely available and have become quite popular with varmint shooters.
As I write this, .223 WSSM ammunition comes only from Winchester and rifles from Browning. The distribution of both is poor, since the caliber has failed to catch on. Most retailers have not found enough demand to make stocking .223 WSSM ammunition and rifles profitable.
The .223 WSSM does have a big advantage in the availability of bullets for reloading. .224" bullets are just about as common as dirt since every rifle bullet manufacturer worthy of the name offers a line of .22 caliber bullets. On the other hand, relatively few .204" bullets are available to reloaders, although the situation is improving.
The .223 WSSM is a maximum performance varmint cartridge. It is one of the highest performance cartridges of its type ever offered by a major ammunition manufacturer. Only the American .220 Swift and the German 5.6x57 RWS, among centerfire .22's, are its equal as long range varmint cartridges.
The .204 Ruger offers similar ballistics without the technical problems in a format that is adaptable to a much wider variety of rifles. .204 recoil and muzzle blast are noticeably less than that of the .223 WSSM or the other hot centerfire .22 caliber cartridges. The varmint hunter who wants a good choice of rifles and factory loaded ammunition would do well to go with the .204 instead of the .223 WSSM. The .204 Ruger has clearly won the race for shooter acceptance.
Copyright 2004, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.