The .223 WSSM

By Chuck Hawks

In 2003 Winchester introduced a pair of new centerfire rifle cartridges based on a radically shortened version of their .300 WSM case, itself a short action caliber based loosely on the huge .404 Jeffery elephant cartridge case. The new .223 and .243 Winchester Super Short Magnum (WSSM) calibers are designed for a rifle action about 1/2 inch shorter than the usual (.308 Winchester length) short action.

The .223 WSSM retains the rebated rim design of the WSM cartridges. The rim diameter is .535" and the case head is .555" in diameter. Its shoulder has diameter of .535" and an angle of 28 degrees. The case length is 1.675". Large Rifle size primers are used. The rifling twist for the new cartridge is specified as 1 turn in 10". It is misnamed, as the cartridge actually uses standard diameter .224" bullets.

The .223 WSSM looks like a larger version of the bloated little .22 BR Remington cartridge. (Which, by the way, was intended for single shot target rifles and is notorious for not feeding properly in repeating rifles.) Browning and Winchester were the first gun manufacturers to announce rifles for the WSSM cartridges, based on super short versions of the A-Bolt II and Model 70 bolt actions.

Browning has been forced to delay the actual release of their super short action rifles due to feeding problems (the A-Bolt II is a push feed action) and extremely rapid barrel erosion. I have heard that barrels have been shot out after firing only a few hundred hot .223 WSSM loads. Winchester thinks that they have at least solved the feeding problem with their new hybrid "controlled round push feed" action.

Very short, grossly fat cartridges in the mold of the PPC and BR Remington target rounds are touted as the last word in accuracy. To quote from Olin/Winchester advertising material, this is 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!)

There is some truth to this, but I tend to ascribe most of the phenomenal accuracy of bench rest cartridges to the fanatical care and attention to detail that goes into reloading them. Perhaps the ultra accurate rifles in which they are fired and the skill of the shooters should also get some of the credit. Older cartridges as diverse as the .222 Remington and .308 Winchester have also delivered a very high level of accuracy when reloaded with similar care and fired from bench rest rifles.

I think that the popularity of short, fat cartridges is mostly a fad, driven by clever marketing. Just as flappers were fashionable in the 1920's and tail fins on automobiles were "cool" in the 1950's. The first fad of the 21st Century has brought us short, very fat, rifle cartridges. As a salesman friend of mine told me, "If you can't sell the product, wrap it in baloney and sell the baloney."

I doubt that the shape of the case actually makes much difference (within reasonable limits) in the practical accuracy of hunting or varmint rifle cartridges, as other factors in the rifle/cartridge/load equation are far more important. Conventional rifle cartridges such as the .22-250 Remington, .220 Swift, .243 Winchester, and 6mm Remington have already demonstrated more potential accuracy than can be realized in a rifle fired from the shoulder in the field. In fact, Browning and Winchester .223 WSSM rifles have been reported as delivering typical 100 yard 5-shot groups from a bench rest on the order of .75 to 1.25 inches. This is a high standard of accuracy, but no better than can be achieved with rifles chambered for the other hot .22 varmint cartridges.

The new .223 WSSM, the subject of this article, is a departure from all other hot .22's in that Winchester is touting it as a combination varmint and medium game (antelope, deer, and black bear) cartridge. Not since the ill-fated .22 Savage High Power of 1912 and the .220 Swift of 1935 has a major American manufacturer promoted a .22 as a big game caliber.

When Winchester introduced the .220 Swift, which has identical ballistics and killing power to the .223 WSSM, some over enthusiastic gun writers took Swift rifles on deer hunts and wrote articles about their successes. (Naturally, they didn't mention any failures.) Ordinary deer hunters read these articles and also tried the .220, with mixed and sometimes tragic results. Occasionally deer fell dead without taking a step, but all too often seriously wounded deer escaped to die lingering deaths. The .220 got a bad reputation among deer hunters, and deer hunting with any .22 caliber rifle was prohibited by law in most states.

As the first commercial cartridge with a muzzle velocity in excess of 4000 fps, the .220 also proved hard on barrels, particularly with maximum loads of the powders available at the time. Shortened barrel life is an inevitable result of burning a lot of powder and the friction caused by accelerating bullets to very high velocities. The .220's failure as a deer cartridge and its short barrel life with maximum loads blackened the Swift's reputation for many years. The same problems are very likely to plague the .223 WSSM and, in fact, excessive barrel erosion has already reared its ugly head.

It wasn't until shooters learned to confine the Swift to use on varmints and reloaders reduced velocities to slightly above .22-250 levels that its virtues became apparent. Clearly, the same will apply to the .223 WSSM.

I can practically guarantee that prominent gun writers are going to be supplied with .223 WSSM rifles and ammunition by Olin/Winchester and taken on deer and exotic medium game hunts under carefully controlled conditions so that these experienced hunters can "field test" the .223 WSSM. And they are going to report that it kills deer like lightning under these conditions. Big deal! Under the right circumstances, and with exact bullet placement, so will the .22 WMR.

(Note: This has already happened. Exactly such hunts were reported in the March 2003 issues of both Rifle Shooter and Shooting Times. I wrote the paragraph above in January of 2003.)

The result is that hunters are going to have to re-learn the same painful lessons their grandfathers and great grandfathers learned with the .220 Swift. The really unfortunate thing is that many innocent game animals are going to be painfully wounded and left to die miserable deaths by hunters wielding .223 WSSM rifles.

How soon we forget that previous generations, which have now largely passed away, have already been there and done that. It merely demonstrates again that knowledge is the most valuable, and also the most transitory, commodity on earth.

Some writers will point out that in parts of Europe calibers such as the 5.6x57 RWS (a caliber similar to the .220 Swift and .223 WSSM but slightly more powerful) are legal for use on deer and goats. As I noted in my articles about these calibers, this is perfectly true. But, as I explained in those same articles, those European deer and goats weigh about 50 pounds on the hoof. They are about 1/2 to 1/4 the live weight of average size North American antelope and deer! A delicate 50 pound animal is an entirely different proposition than an American deer that averages three times that size. Readers who are interested in the subject of .22 centerfire cartridges on big game might want to read my article ".22 Caliber 'Big Game' Rifle Cartridges."

To quote Arthur Alphin from Any Shot You Want, "Experimenting with how light a caliber can actually be effective on deer may be fun for the rifleman though I rest confident that it is decidedly less than fun for the wounded deer which struggles to get away when hit with bullets of inadequate weight, inadequate cross sectional area, and inadequate energy." That is a sentiment with which I could not agree more strongly.

The .223 WSSM factory load that Olin/Winchester recommends for hunting antelope, deer, and black bear drives a 64 grain Power Point bullet (SD .182) at an advertised muzzle velocity (MV) of 3600 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 1841 ft. lbs. At 100 yards the velocity is 3140 fps and the energy is 1404 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the velocity is 2732 fps and the energy is 1061 ft. lbs. At 300 yards the velocity is 2356 fps and the energy has fallen to only 789 ft. lbs. The trajectory of that load looks like this (Winchester figures): +1" at 100 yards, +1" at 150 yards, 0 at 200 yards, -2.2" at 250 yards, -5.7" at 300 yards, and -17.7" at 400 yards.

Clearly the primary limiting factors of this load as a deer cartridge are neither its energy nor its trajectory but rather its frontal area, weight, and sectional density. The frontal area of a .243" diameter bullet is widely regarded as the absolute minimum, and many authorities would prefer a .257" bullet. In weight, an 85-90 grain bullet is the almost universally recommended minimum. A SD of about .216 is generally regarded as the minimum acceptable for small bore (less than .33 caliber) rifle bullets. As you can see, the 64 grain .223 WSSM bullet does not even come close in any of these critical areas. Its deficiencies make paper velocities and energies meaningless.

The Winchester Super-X .223 WSSM factory load with the 64 grain Power Point bullet is simply inadequate for shooting North American deer and antelope, regardless of the velocity at which it can be driven by any .22 caliber cartridge ever produced. It is even more inadequate for black bear, not to mention illegal in some jurisdictions.

Black bear average around 300 pounds live weight, can run as much as 650 pounds in exceptional cases, and have thicker fur and hide and heavier bones than any North American deer. They are usually shy creatures, but can be dangerous if wounded or provoked. Intentionally plinking a black bear (and I'm talking about fair pursuit here, not executing an animal treed by hounds) with a .223 WSSM or any other centerfire .22 is unsporting and irresponsible. We owe the game animals we hunt better than that. I don't mean to be wearisome, but if these words save fine game animals from suffering painful and crippling wounds they are worth the time it took me to compose them, and you to read them.

The 64 grain Power Point bullet should not be used for varmint shooting, either, because it is not a frangible bullet. It is not likely to break up when it hits a hard surface (or a tiny animal) and therefore poses a danger to livestock, property, and other people in the semi-populated areas where so much varmint shooting takes place. I would confine it to use on small predators such as coyotes in wilderness areas, and perhaps javelina in the Southwest.

Now let's take a look at the Winchester figures for the .223 WSSM's varmint loads. There are two, a 55 grain Supreme Ballistic Tip bullet and a 55 grain Super-X Pointed Soft Point (PSP) bullet. Both are recommended for use on prairie dogs, woodchucks, and coyotes. These are sound recommendations; they are exactly the same animals that are humanely are taken with a 55 grain bullet from a .22-250 or a .220 Swift.

Olin/Winchester claims a MV of 3850 fps and ME of 1810 ft. lbs. for both of their 55 grain bullets, whose SD is .157. These are figures from 24" test barrels. Actual velocity from the 21" and 22" barrels of Browning and Winchester .223 WSSM rifles have chronographed about 130 to 230 fps below the claimed catalog velocities.

The sleek Ballistic Silvertip bullet, which has a ballistic coefficient of .267, 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, 2721 fps at 300 yards, and 2402 fps at 400 yards. The trajectory of that load looks like this (Winchester figures): +0.7" at 100 yards, +0.8" at 150 yards, 0 at 200 yards, -1.7" at 250 yards, -4.4" at 300 yards, and -13.6" at 400 yards.

At 100 yards the velocity of the Pointed Soft Point bullet is given as 3367 fps and the energy as 1384 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the velocity is 2934 fps, at 300 yards the velocity is 2541 fps and at 400 yards the velocity is 2181 fps. The trajectory of the 55 grain PSP bullet load looks like this (Winchester figures): +0.8" at 100 yards, +0.8" at 150 yards, 0 at 200 yards, -1.8" at 250 yards, -4.9" at 300 yards, and -15.1" at 400 yards.

The WSSM calibers are factory loaded close to the allowable maximum average pressure, which means that reloaders are unlikely to be able to safely better published velocities. However, it is possible to approximately equal the published velocities with carefully assembled maximum reloads using 55 grain bullets fired from rifles with 24" barrels. And, of course, reloaders can play around with bullets from 40 to 70 grains in weight, although the 55 grain spitzer bullet will probably prove to be the most useful, just as it has in the other big capacity .22's.

The sixth edition of the Hornady Handbook relates that "this cartridge is hard on barrels," with significant throat erosion visible after only 350 rounds had been fired. VARGET proved to be an excellent powder for bullets ranging from 40-60 grains. Using Hornady 55 grain bullets, 35.5 grains of VARGET gave a MV of 3500 fps, and 39.6 grains gave a MV of 3800 fps. Winchester WLR primers were used and their custom Browning test rifle had a 26" barrel.

As the ballistics show, the .223 WSSM is a good cartridge for a specialized, long range varmint rifle. The fact that the .223 WSSM works through a super short action is a moot point, since varmint rifles usually have 26" heavy contour barrels and weigh on the order of 10 pounds. In such rifles one half-inch of action length is irrelevant.

The .223 WSSM's very short and very fat case, wide shoulder, and rebated rim make it a difficult cartridge to feed from the box magazines of repeating rifles. But reliable feeding is not particularly important in a varmint rifle, and obviously Winchester thinks that they have the problem licked or they would not have introduced the WSSM cartridges. Many good varmint rifles are single shots, and even in a bolt action repeating rifle a feeding malfunction is unlikely to cause more than an irritating delay for the varmint hunter.

Things are different for the big game hunter, of course. However unlikely, a feeding malfunction may cost the deer or antelope hunter a trophy, or allow a wounded animal to escape to die a lingering death. A point to consider before plunking one's money down for a .223 WSSM rifle with the intention of using it on big game. For those who are interested, I explore feed reliability in more detail in my article "Bolt Action Rifles for Dangerous Game," which can be found on the Rifle Information Page.

"Jim," one of my correspondents, has been using a Browning A-Bolt rifle in .223 WSSM caliber for a few months now, and he has been kind enough to keep me updated on his experiences with the new caliber. Here are his comments, written in December 2003:

"As I continue to shoot the rifle (about 500 rounds through it so far) the accuracy has improved. Groups well under one inch at 100 yards are the norm. The 55 grain BST clocks at 3750 and the 64 PP clocks 3550 (both factory loads) from the short A-Bolt barrel. I have shot everything from varmits to deer to hogs with it and the precision with which you can place the bullets even at long range make it extremely deadly. No game has been lost, they expire after a few seconds. Feeding has been flawless and the free floated barrel holds its zero. It . . . benefits from slow powders, which I suspect will improve barrel life."

"My belief on the use of the 22 centerfire for deer is summed up by the statement that they are adequate in any condition where precise placement is assured. When precise placement is not assured, one needs to rethink the shot."

The .223 WSSM is a maximum performance .22 caliber cartridge on the order of the .220 Swift. As such it is one of the most effective 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.

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Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.