Compared: .223 Remington and 7.62x39mm Soviet
By Chuck Hawks
Both of these cartridges were designed as military service rounds. The .223 Remington is the civilian name for the 5.56mm NATO, while the 7.62x39 (Model 1943) was the Soviet answer to the German 8mm Kurz assault rifle cartridge of the Second World War.
The doubtful merits of both of these rounds as military cartridges has been endlessly debated, and some of that debate has taken place on our sister site Naval, Aviation and Military History, which you can read at this URL: http://www.chuckhawks.com/index3.naval_military_history.htm
However, it is not my intention to rehash the military merits of either cartridge. Guns and Shooting Online is a site for and about recreational shooters. So this article will compare the .223 Rem. and 7.62x39 as CXP1 class game (varmint and small predator) hunting cartridges. Coyotes, which average about 35 pounds live weight (an extremely large male might weigh 45 pounds) represent about the largest animal that we will consider shooting with either caliber.
The .223 Remington
Remington had already hit the jackpot in 1950 with their .222 varmint cartridge, a top 10 best seller, when in 1957 they began work on a new and revolutionary .22 caliber military cartridge that ultimately became the .223 Remington.
The .223 has the same .378" rim diameter as the earlier .222 and looks similar, but its case is longer and its neck is shorter (only .203") than the earlier cartridge. Despite its nomenclature, it actually uses standard .224" bullets.
That very short, less than one caliber, neck has been the source of some concern among extreme accuracy buffs, and the .222 may in fact be the intrinsically more accurate cartridge. But, the .223 has proven to be a very accurate varmint and small predator cartridge with an excellent balance of economy, performance, and low recoil. It is the most popular varmint cartridge in North America and probably the world.
The .223 is legal in some states for hunting deer, and with the right bullet and perfect shot placement it will indeed drop a deer at short range. So, for that matter, will the .22 WMR rimfire cartridge. But the .223 was never intended to be a big game cartridge and it should not be used as such, regardless of its legality.
Just about every manufacturer of centerfire rifles with an action that can handle the .223 turns out rifles for it. .223 factory loads are available from a bewildering number of manufacturers and with bullet weights from 40 grains to 77 grains. Remington alone offers 10 different .223 factory loads. But the most popular and useful bullet weights are between 50 and 60 grains. The cartridge was designed for a 55 grain bullet, and that is still a very good choice for shooting varmints and small predators.
For the purposes of this comparison we will use the Remington Express .223 factory load that drives a 55 grain Power-Lokt Hollow Point (PLHP) bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 3240 fps. That is as close to a standard .223 load as can be found.
The 7.62x39 Soviet
The 7.62x39mm is misnamed, as are most Russian and Soviet cartridges. For whatever reason, the Russians have always gravitated toward odd bullet sizes. 7.62mm implies that it uses .30 caliber (.308") bullets, but in fact it usually uses .303 caliber (.311") projectiles. The exception is the one civilian rifle chambered for the cartridge to achieve reasonable popularity, the Ruger Mini-30 Carbine. That little gun has .300" bore and .308" groove diameters, making it a true .30 caliber rifle, and reloads for a Mini-30 should use .308" diameter bullets.
This stubby little Soviet Bloc military cartridge has made the transition to sporting arms, but to a greatly reduced extent compared to the .223 Remington. It lacks the power for big game hunting, and it lacks the flat trajectory requisite for a long range varmint cartridge. For this reason it is generally encountered chambered in surplus military arms such as the SKS carbine and infamous AK-47 assault rifle. The primary exception, and probably the best made rifle available in the caliber, is the aforementioned Ruger Mini-30 carbine, a variation of their popular Mini-14 Ranch Rifle.
Fed loads with bullets that expand rapidly (NOT military FMJ loads), a Mini-30 can be an effective small predator hunting rifle. Remington offers a single 7.62x39 load in their standard Express line that uses a 125 grain PSP bullet at a MV of 2365 fps. That is a typical bullet weight and velocity for sporting 7.62x39 factory loads, so we will use it for our comparison.
As in past Guns and Shooting Online comparison articles, we will compare the .223 and 7.62x39 on the basis of bullet cross-sectional area, velocity, energy, trajectory, killing power, recoil, and the availability of rifles and ammunition. Our selected Remington factory loads for both calibers are typical, and reloads for either caliber should be similar if loaded to SAMMI specifications.
For purposes of reference, the ballistic coefficient (BC) of the .223/55 grain Remington Power-Lokt HP bullet is .209 and the sectional density (SD) is .157. The BC of the 7.62x39/125 grain Remington Pointed Soft Point is .267 and the SD is .184.
The higher ballistic coefficient of the 7.62x39 bullet will allow it to retain a higher percentage of its starting velocity and energy. We will see if this difference is significant when we get to the trajectory part of our comparison.
One thing worth mentioning is that the published BC of the Remington Power-Lokt HP bullet happens to be considerably lower than the typical BC of the bullets chosen by most reloaders for the .223 Rem. Typical .224", 55 grain bullets sold to reloaders or supplied in premium ammunition, such as those offered by Hornady, range from .235 to .255 in BC, which considerably reduces the 7.62x39's advantage.
The sectional densities of the two bullets are both inadequate for shooting big game animals, but fine for varmints and small predators. Either should give adequate penetration on CXP1 game.
Comparing two cartridges as different as the .223 and 7.62x39 is bound to result in some one-sided results in certain categories. That is to be expected; we will find out if the results balance out in other categories. And, in the conclusion of this article, we will briefly comment on their relative importance.
Bullet Cross-Sectional Area
The bigger the hole you punch in an animal, the greater the potential damage. The size of the wound channel is a critical factor in killing power, second only to bullet placement. Remember, however, that for CXP1 game we want a bullet with near explosive expansion that penetrates about an inch and fragments, causing a nearly spherical (or atomic cloud shaped) wound in ballistic gelatin tests, not the typical long (more or less cylindrical) wound channel. This requirement for violent bullet expansion and fragmentation tends to minimize the importance of bullet cross-sectional area. The actual cross-sectional area figures (in square inches) are as follows.
Obviously, a .311" diameter bullet has greater frontal area than a .224" diameter bullet, a clear advantage for the 7.62x39.
Velocity matters because it is a prime component of energy as well as having a dramatic effect on trajectory. And the flatter the trajectory--the less drop a bullet has over any given distance--the easier is it to hit a small target downrange. High velocity important for a varmint and small predator cartridge. Here are the velocity figures for our selected Remington factory loads in feet per second from the muzzle (MV) to 300 yards.
In velocity the .223 is clearly superior to the 7.62x39, which should come as no surprise. The difference is so great that we can anticipate a significant advantage in trajectory for the .223 Remington. We will see how that plays out soon.
Energy is a very important component of any cartridge's killing power. Kinetic energy is a measure of the bullet's ability to do "work," which in this case means expand violently. Energy is what drives bullet penetration and expansion. Here are the catalog energy figures in foot pounds for our selected loads from the muzzle (ME) to 300 yards.
These numbers are not impressive compared to big game hunting rifles, but they are way more than is needed for killing the 2 to 40 pound animals that are the usual targets of varmint and small predator hunters. As can be seen from these figures, the 7.62x39 has a definite energy advantage at all ranges. However this advantage is probably immaterial for hunting CXP1 game.
Comparing a long range cartridge like the .223 to a medium range cartridge like the 7.62x39, you would expect the .223 to shoot considerably flatter, and it does. This is where the higher velocity of the .223 really pays off.
Trajectory is a factor of major importance to a varmint and small predator cartridge. A flatter trajectory makes hitting small targets much easier at long range. For shooting varmints and small predators you need to limit the maximum bullet rise (mid-range trajectory) to about 1.5 inches. Here are the Remington trajectory figures in inches for our comparison loads in each caliber out to 300 yards.
The .223 Remington is clearly superior to the 7.62x39 in trajectory.
Killing power, of crucial importance to big game hunters, is of much less importance to varmint and small predator hunters, as long as it remains adequate. Edward A. Matunas developed, and published in the Lyman 47th Reloading Handbook, a system for quantifying the killing power of big game rifle cartridges in terms of the weight of the animals for which they are suitable. His "Optimum Game Weight Formula" takes into consideration some of the factors we have been comparing and relates them to the size of animal and distance at which a given load is optimum in killing power.
No such formula is perfect, and the numbers below assume a controlled expansion bullet of the type used for big game, not a frangible varmint bullet, but Optimum Game Weight (OGW) does, in my opinion, provide a useful tool for comparing the killing power of hunting rifle cartridges.
OGW results show the optimum animal weight for the killing power of a given load at various ranges. These are the OGW figures for our .223 and 7.62x39 loads from the muzzle to 300 yards, which is well beyond the maximum point blank range (+/- 1.5") of either caliber.
The 7.62x39 far exceeds the .223 in killing power. But, the reality is that the .223 and 7.62x39 both have entirely adequate killing power for shooting varmints and small predators out to 300 yards, which as far as anyone with a lick of sense should attempt to shoot at them with a .223 and way beyond the under 200 yard maximum range allowed by the trajectory of the 7.62x39.
Recoil is always a consideration when comparing rifle cartridges. Less recoil is good, making any rifle more fun to shoot and easier to shoot accurately, particularly in high volume shooting situations.
Recoil calculations are based on bullet weight, powder charge, muzzle velocity, and rifle weight. Remington does not publish the powder charges used in their factory loaded ammunition, but there is adequate reloading data to calculate the approximate recoil of both cartridges. To be as fair as possible, I will assume that they are loaded with Hodgdon BL-C(2) powder, which is appropriate for both cartridges.
The Ruger Mini-30 carbine weighs 7.0 pounds and a Remington Model 700 SPS Stainless in .223 weighs 7.25 pounds. These are both plain rifles with synthetic stocks and stainless steel barreled actions. Add 1 pound for a scope and mount, round off to the nearest even number, and the weight of rifle we will use to compare recoil is 8.0 pounds. Here are the recoil energy (in foot pounds) and recoil velocity (in feet per second) figures in 8 pound rifles for both cartridges.
Neither the .223 Remington nor the 7.63x39 are hard kicking cartridges., although the 7.62x39 kicks about twice as hard as the .223. The 7.62x39 also creates more muzzle blast, probably mostly due the relatively short barrel supplied on most 7.63x39 rifles, but also because it burns a little more powder. For most of us, both will be pleasant to shoot, but the .223 is noticeably less tiring over a long day with many rounds fired.
Availability of Rifles and Ammunition
We touch on this subject earlier in this comparison. The .223 Remington cartridge is near the top of every major manufacturer's list in ammunition sales. It is a worldwide varmint and small predator cartridge. And reloaders have a plethora of .224" bullets from which to choose.
The 7.62x39 is also a worldwide cartridge, but favored primarily by Communist insurgents and terrorists, not hunters. Hunting loads with soft point bullets are available in the U.S. and other countries, but they are not nearly as numerous, diverse, or widely distributed as .223 hunting ammunition. There are a few hunting bullets designed for the 7.62x39 available to reloaders, but again not close to the selection available in .22 caliber.
As I stated earlier, practically every manufacturer of centerfire rifles with an action that can handle the .223 turns out rifles for it. There are so many brands and models of rifles available to the hunter that I cannot possibly name them all in this article. And most of them offer pin point accuracy out of the box.
On the other hand, the civilian hunter looking for a decent quality 7.62x39 hunting rifle, as opposed to a cheaply made surplus army rifle, has a real problem. Except for the Ruger Mini-30, which is itself a military style semi-automatic carbine, I know of no other widely distributed 7.62x39 rifle. And the Mini-30, while reliable and handy, does not have a reputation for exceptional accuracy.
In this very important but often overlooked category, the .223 Remington is the winner by a huge margin.
Summary and Conclusion
Both the .223 and the 7.65x39 dominated certain categories in this comparison. The 7.62x39 is clearly superior in bullet cross-sectional area, energy, and killing power. The .223 was more than adequate, however, in all of these categories for its intended purpose of shooting varmints and small predators (CXP1 game).
The .223 dominated in the areas of velocity, trajectory, recoil, and the availability of ammunition and rifles, all of which are usually considered critical to a good varmint and small predator rifle. The 7.62x39 is lacking or marginal in all of these areas.
In addition, a very high level of accuracy is usually demanded of varmint and small predator rifles and the .223 is widely known to deliver exactly that. The 7.62x39, on the other hand, is generally regarded as mediocre, sometimes poor, in accuracy. This is most likely due to the general lack of precision rifles, bullets and ammunition in 7.62x30mm caliber.
Be that as it may, as this comparison clearly shows, the .223 Remington is a far better varmint and small predator cartridge than the 7.62x39 Soviet.
Copyright 2006, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.