Choice between .308 and .223
- December 3, 2017 at 1:49 am #16073
In this piece I am going to look at the two main rifle rounds currently in use by the U.S. Military and NATO and evaluate them from what I consider to be a reasonable real world point of view as to what a prepper/militia type person needs and which does the better job. To state my biases up front, I believe that the 7.62x51mm NATO/.308 Winchester is the best way to go and the 5.56mm NATO/.223 Remington is a weak sister by comparison. Granted that one of the arguments in favor of the 5.56 is that there is so much of it out there. However, it is one thing to eventually shift to weapons chambered in 5.56 because logistical problems force that change. It is another to go with an inadequate cartridge from the start when a better one is available.
One of the more cogent reasons why the military shifted from the 7.62x51mm NATO/.308 Winchester to the 5.56x45mm NATO/.223 Remington was that shoulder fired weapons chambered for the larger cartridge could not be properly controlled on full automatic fire. So, do you have the appropriate licenses and have you paid the appropriate fees in order to be able to legally own a weapon capable of full automatic fire? In the overwhelming majority of cases the answer to that question is going to be, “no”. Then may I submit that how a weapon performs or does not perform on full auto is irrelevant when one is going to be using semi-automatic only variants?
Secondly, consider the situations the weapons are used in. In a modern line infantry unit the men will have their M-16s/M-4s/whatever. They will also have hand grenades. They will also have either rifle grenades or grenade launchers. Some of them will have Squad Automatic Weapons. It is possible that a mortar section may be attached to the unit. More often than not they are some sort of mounted unit operating from at least partially armored vehicles. Those vehicles will usually have either Squad Automatic Weapons, Medium machine guns, fully automatic belt fed grenade launchers or heavy machine guns. Much more importantly the unit will have a radio.
With that radio they can get supporting fire from heavy armored units (tanks), heavy artillery and air strikes. They can also call for ammo resupply as well as medevac of badly wounded people to a Mobile Surgical Hospital/trauma center. But here is the key thing. Standard military doctrine for line units has been that the main mission of the infantry was to find and fix the enemy so they could be destroyed by supporting fire. The actual weapons the individual troops carried were almost insignificant and pretty much an afterthought by comparison. All they have to do is put out enough fire the enemy will be forced to keep their heads down. Whether or not anybody actually gets killed by that is almost irrelevant.
Now look at your average prepper group. They will have no grenades of any kind. They will have no mortars. They will have no machine guns or belt fed automatic grenade launchers. They may have radios, but will not be able to get backup from heavy armored units, heavy artillery, or air strikes. They most definitely will not be able to get ammo resupply or medevac. Everything they need to get done is going to have to be done using semi-auto weapons chambered for a standard rifle cartridge.
What then needs to get done? If you can do your job as a rifleman and get a good, solid upper torso hit on an opponent, the cartridge/bullet used should be able to do its job and reliably incapacitate the target ASAP. There is a wealth of both statistical and anecdotal evidence out there to demonstrate that the 7.62x51mm NATO/.308 Winchester can do that, and the 5.56x45mm NATO/.223 Remington can’t. Indeed, in some states of this Union it is illegal to hunt deer with the 5.56x45mm NATO/.223 Remington because it can not get reliably get good clean kills on deer.
But what of potential opponents in SHTF, armed with a wide variety of assorted hunting weapons chambered for standard hunting cartridges? All of those weapons have one thing pretty much in common. They are designed to reliably get one shot kills on deer/people sized animals if the person using them can do their part of the job. Are you willing to bet your life, the lives of the other members of your group and your other family members that your opponents will NEVER be able to hit you? Don’t you want to be able to put them out of action fast and hard first?
Look up and study what happened during the infamous gunfight in Miami that led to the FBI ditching their 9mm handguns in favor of the .40 S&W. Why do I mention that in this context? One of the bad guys was using a Ruger Mini-14. It was chambered in .223. During the firefight, at ranges of from 10 to 20 feet he nailed each of the FBI agents at least once, some of them several times and even killed a few of them. It did him no good. The rounds he was using were not able to incapacitate the targets they hit and put them decisively out of action. Thus he was eventually taken out, at least partially by an FBI agent using a pump action 12 gauge shotgun regardless of the fact that a round from the Mini-14 had broken one of his arms.
It should also be noted that in operations in Afghanistan U.S. Army forces had from time to time found themselves in the embarrassing situation of being pinned down at ranges of 800 yards or so by Afghani tribesmen who were good with their bolt action rifles chambered in either 7.62x54mm R, .303 British or even .30-06. The Army’s solution to this problem? They have reintroduced the M-14 and variants thereof as a “designated marksman” weapon parceled out 1 per squad.
Also consider that your opposition may not be human. I live in the Pacific Northwest. Running around out in the woods, possible encounters with torqued off grizzly bears or irate moose are not out of the question. If you think you can handle that noise with a semi-auto .223, be my guest. Somewhat similarly, you may find yourself in the position of having to put a vehicle or piece of heavy construction equipment out of commission. The .308 is going to handle that better than a .223.
Yes, you can carry more .223 ammo, but then you will NEED more .223 ammo to do what a .308 could do with fewer rounds. Trying to do a decent analysis on this sort of thing is fraught with problems. The sorts of data I’d like to see to do a real analysis either don’t exist or I haven’t been able to find them. Regardless, assume that in a fire fight only about 50% of the rounds fired will hit their target. What the exact percentage is in real fire fights I don’t know as I haven’t seen any good analysis of that. The only thing I know for sure is that everybody agrees there’s a whole lot of missing going on. So we’ll use a 50% hit rate as a hopefully not too unreasonable ball park figure.
Then we have to consider the effectiveness of the two rounds in getting one shot incapacitations. Based on anecdotal evidence I could arguably claim a 98% to 99% incapacitation rate for the .308. But there are problems with anecdotal evidence and I don’t know of any good statistical studies on this, so for this analysis we’ll use a 90% rate. Note that this potentially makes the .308 less effective than some handgun rounds have been demonstrated to be. Then we have to come up with an analogous figure for the .223. Again, this is another can of worms. There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence out there that a lot of real world instances have required multiple .223 hits to incapacitate an opponent. But how many, what percentage, etc.? I don’t know, I don’t know if that evidence even actually exists. There’s also the fact that the .223 is illegal to use for deer hunting in several states because it will not reliably kill a deer. So again we’ll use a 50% figure as a fudge factor.
With all that as background let’s look at a loadout for a .223 assault rifle clone. Carrying 7 magazines, each of which can potentially hold 30 rounds but are only loaded with 27 we find that 189 rounds of ammunition are available. Multiplying that by 0.5 to get the number of hits and then 0.5 again to get the number of incapacitations we come up with 47 targets incapacitated for 189 rounds expended.
For a .308 battle rifle clone carrying 7 magazines, each of which can hold 20 rounds but are only loaded with 18 we find that 126 rounds of ammunition are available. Multiplying that by 0.5 to get the number of hits and then 0.9 to get the number of incapacitations we come up with 56 targets incapacitated for 126 rounds expended. So, to the extent that this analysis has any bearing on reality at all then the .308 loadout will incapacitate 9 more people than the .223 loadout with 63 fewer rounds expended. I would argue that towards the end of a long patrol or an extended fire fight that ability to incapacitate an additional 9 opponents could be key. And that’s not even considering that there are a whole bunch of things out there which can provide cover against .223 rounds but only provide concealment against .308 rounds.
Last but not least, consider “American Military History” put out by the Center of Military History, United States Army. CMH pub 30-1. Library of Congress Catalog number 76-600410. On pages 689-690 we read: “The U.S. Army paid a high price for its long involvement in Vietnam. American military deaths exceeded 58,000, and of these about two-thirds were soldiers. … Most deaths were caused by small-arms fire and gunshot, but a significant portion, almost 30 percent, stemmed from mines, booby traps and grenades. Artillery, rockets, and bombs accounted for only a small portion of the total fatalities.” In other words almost 70% of U.S. Army combat deaths in Vietnam were caused by small arms fire. Weapons that would likely have been chambered in either 7.62x54mmR (rough .30-06 equivalent) or 7.63x39mmR (rough .30-30 equivalent). That’s what you’re going to be facing taking semi-auto only .223s against hunting rifles, and unlike our troops in Vietnam, you will have NO backup and NO full auto capability.
In the final analysis the “job” that an individual rifleman/militiaman/prepper needs their rifle to do is simple. If they can do their part and get a good, solid upper torso hit on an opponent, the bullet should be able to do its part and render the target combat ineffective almost instantly. Whether or not the target dies instantly, dies later, is crippled for life or eventually makes a full recovery is irrelevant from this point of view. The important/overriding concern is that the target is out of action right freaking NOW! The way such things work though, cartridges/bullets which can do that job well will usually just kill the target outright. Conversely a hit which mortally wounds the target but still leaves them able to use their weapon with reasonable effectiveness, even for as short a period of time as a few minutes, is a FAIL! During that time the target could potentially kill you and or other members of your unit.
There is a huge abundance of anecdotal and other information out there to demonstrate that the 7.62x51mm NATO/.308 Winchester can do that job. There is also a similar amount of information to demonstrate that the 5.56x45mm NATO/.223 Remington can’t. It may very well kill the target eventually, but you are much more likely to get the sort of result I have defined above as a fail. Hence I cannot recommend the use of the 5.56x45mm NATO/.223 Remington for anything other than 4 legged coyote hunting. And if I could get the military to listen to me I’d get them to punt that cartridge as well. Though last I heard they had actually started research and trials to replace the 5.56 with a more powerful cartridge.
However, the military adopting a better cartridge sometime down the road is in the future. Unless and until that happens one is left with only two rifle rounds that are commonly available in the U.S. Military supply system. One of them can do the job that needs to be done. One of them can’t. Hence I recommend the one that can be demonstrated to do the job.
Note that I am not immune to the argument that smaller cartridges mean that you can carry more of them and thus have an advantage … as long as the cartridge can do the job as I have defined it. There are a whole host of 6.5 mm, 6.8 mm, and 7 mm cartridges which could do an excellent job from my point of view. But none of them are commonly available in the U.S. military supply chain.December 3, 2017 at 6:24 pm #16078
Thank you Minarchist for the comparison/analysis and information. Good reference material for those that are first time purchaser and/or looking to expand their armory!December 4, 2017 at 1:29 am #16080
I will agree with Minarchist that the 308 is more lethal. BUT I just want to point out one part of your argument that bothered me, saying 50% of rounds fired will hit in a firefight is absolutely wrong and I don’t want people reading this that have never been in a firefight to expect that half their ammo will find its mark. Stats on Vietnam suggest that it took 20,000 rounds fired by US servicemen per one kill regardless of caliber. My own experience in firefights in Afghanistan I do not believe to be quite that high but absolutely less then 1% and thats on both sides. The best personal experience/example was one night being in a 56 truck convoy getting lit up like the 4th of July for 2 or 3 minutes going 35 mph. We were in the back third of the convoy and I can remember just seeing green (enemy) and red (ours) tracer going everywhere way up in front of us, so far I couldn’t even hear any gunfire over the noise of the truck and the radio (the Doors Light My Fire was playing, no bullshit). Shit got real after the first RPG went over our hood, I shot my MK19 until it was out, then my M249 SAW until that was out then grabbed my 12g mossberg and started shooting in the ditch right beside us where I couldn’t even see (could clearly hear them shooting and rounds hitting the truck at this point tho) but guys were yelling from inside the truck thru the headset that they could see dudes in the ditches. After we busted thru the ambush, everyone gave an ACE (ammo, casualties ,equipment) report, half the trucks were shot to shit, tires blown out, windows hit, engines fucked, and almost half the trucks were disabled enough to need to be towed for the rest of the way. Point is that NOT ONE guy was shot on our side, and I will never know what the other side had but I bet that it wasn’t much because how fast it all happened. Not trying to be a dick here Minarchist, just keeping it real. BTW Why do you only load 27/30 and 18/20 in your mags?December 4, 2017 at 3:59 pm #16081
I am aware of the 1 kill per 20,000 rounds statistic. But that’s not necessarily looking at the sort of firefights I was thinking of, nor the sort of firefights I think post SHTF preppers are going to have to deal with. That statistic covers and adds in a LOT of suppressive fire put out by machineguns and likely aircraft as well. While the firefight you describe was certainly hairy enough, again we are looking at largely laying down suppression fire from moving vehicles. Not the sort of combat situation you get between two groups of people on foot who after the initial exchange of gunfire at least are aware of each other’s location and can occasionally take aimed shots at one another.
A possibly more relevant statistic is that snipers have been averaging about 1.3 shots per kill. Though again, that’s another specialized application. I had a conversation with a gentleman one day who had worked as a mercenary in the Belgian Congo back in the 1970’s. The rifle that he carried when he was doing that was an HK-91. He commented that it was rare for him to need more than 3 or 4 shots to hit an opponent in a firefight and that he could usually do it in two. However, that’s the anecdotal evidence of one man, and my memories of a conversation that occurred about 20 or so years ago.
Regardless, I eventually decided to go with the old a priori probability assignment. There are two logical outcomes to shooting a weapon. You either hit the target or you don’t. So one then assigns equal probabilities to each outcome and you get a 50% hit rate. Also, if one were to take the 1 kill per 20,000 rounds figure as controlling, for all practical purposes no one would ever be killed by small arms fire in combat. But it can too easily be demonstrated that is NOT the case and there is overwhelming documentation for people being killed by rifle fire from small units in combat.
So what’s the actual, real world hit rate for small units on foot in combat with other small units on foot? Based on the lack of evidence that I’d really like to see on this subject all we can do is guess. Though I would argue that lower hit rates arguably put more of a premium on the ability of the round that is being used to incapacitate the target. Otherwise all you’re doing is likely really motivating somebody on the other side to take you out.
As to loading magazines with less than full capacity, it comes down to what one believes about potential problems with magazine spring compression/weak magazine springs in general. Part of this post was initially written in response to a blog from a former Marine touting the 5.56x45mm NATO, and he was the one who was initially talking about loading the 30 round mags with only 27 rounds. I know another individual who was a Delta Force sniper, and he also argued for loading magazines to 90% capacity. When I was in the Navy, the .45s that we were using had 7 round magazines that were only loaded with 5 rounds. So, some people load magazines to less than full capacity because they want to avoid potential problems caused by weak magazine springs. Other people load magazines to full capacity because they think having less ammo is more of a problem than weak magazine springs. From my point of view, you should use whichever of those practices makes the most sense to you.December 4, 2017 at 6:07 pm #16082
Hi Guys, I thought this information was interesting. Thanks for taking the time to post on this subject. Smokey
December 4, 2017 at 10:32 pm #16085
- This reply was modified 2 months, 2 weeks ago by Smokey.
Further note: given that in the firefight that was described by Hank4 approximately half the trucks in a 56 truck convoy were damaged badly enough that they needed to be towed later then it would be axiomatic that somebody was hitting something. That no personnel casualties were sustained by Hank4’s unit would seem to be attributable more to luck and the convoy’s speed of travel through the kill zone than the total ineffectiveness of the enemy’s fire. Likewise Hank4’s report only covers half of the action, and while enemy casualties may have been low there is no way to determine what they actually were. So I wouldn’t necessarily take this instance as a clear demonstration of lousy hit rates with rifles in all situations, especially ones where both sides have the ability to take aimed shots at one another.December 4, 2017 at 10:53 pm #16086
Hey Minarchist thanks for the response. I understand what you were doing with the math problem, I just thought the 50% number was to high and might even skew your outcome. But I understand now where you came up with it and you were just illustrating a point. And yes I think the 20,000 number is equally skewed. I think they just took the amount of ammunition that was sent to Vietnam and divided it by a rough estimate of enemy KIA thru out the war. Also I see where your coming from on the rounds per mag deal.
Anyway as I said before I agree the 308 is superior to the 223 in all power ratings, but there are a couple factors not discussed in you original post. I think weight of ammo was discussed but I am not so worried about that as I am the weight of the rifle. Rifles chambered in 308 tend to be heavier then the 223. For smaller or not as physically fit people, that might need to be a consideration if they were going to have to travel on foot and lug it a long way. Also recoil is another factor that could be considered when thinking about follow up shots or sustained firing. Recoil from the 308 is significantly higher than that of a 223 generally speaking. The 308 does not have extreme recoil by any means but just something to think about. I will also add to this topic that NEITHER round will penetrate some modern body armor.December 6, 2017 at 2:31 am #16090
While I will cheerfully champion the .308 as being the best general purpose round, depending on what your exact needs are at any one time other cartridges may be better. Want to get rabbits out of your garden? A .22LR may be your best bet. On the other end of the spectrum I saw a post that had been made by a gentleman up in Alaska who claimed that if you were going to be hunting the big brown bears up there nothing less than a .375 H&H Magnum could be relied on. Granting the gentleman’s point for purposes of this discussion, that’s going to be too much rifle for a bunch of other things you might want to do. Definitely not the sort of thing I’d want to try to use in a firefight if I had any choice in the matter. And as Hank4 pointed out, the physical condition of the person using the weapon is an important consideration. The unfortunate thing is that as long as we are using standard firearm designs constrained by Newton’s laws of motion, you won’t be able to get more out of the barrel without also having to deal with more recoil. Muzzle brakes can help, but they also have various disadvantages as well.
The point Hank4 made about body armor is a consideration as well. Unfortunately if we are going to be dealing with ammo commonly available in the military supply chain the next heavier round than the .308, to the best of my knowledge, is the .50 BMG. The epitome of having way too much gun for almost any “reasonable” purpose one could think of. If you were instead to upgrade to a civilian round, say something in .338 caliber perhaps, then it’s not going to be available from military sources and could be a problem to get post SHTF from other sources. That was something I was actually looking at a while ago.
However, I had a conversation with another friend of mine a couple of years ago. He is a junior officer in the U.S. Army who had been serving in Afghanistan. He commented that .308 should still be able to do reasonably well. Remembering back to my time in the Navy in the Persian Gulf for Desert Shield/Desert Storm/Desert Saber the armor that we had was heavy, bulky stuff. The actual vest itself was rated at being able to stop .44 magnum. However the only portion that was supposed to be able to stop .308 was the ceramic trauma plate that covered just your upper chest kill zone. And even then it was only supposed to be good for a small number of hits. A hit with a .308 anywhere else but that plate would go right through.
I would be willing to bet a cold beer that state of the art for body armor probably hasn’t changed too much. I have heard rumors of some stuff that borders on being out of a science fiction story, but if it exists as anything other than an experimental R&D project it doesn’t seem to have made it into the mainstream yet. So, what do you do if you find yourself facing people wearing obvious heavy, bulky vests? My recommendation would be to change your standard aim point(s) when you engage them. The down side to that is you may not be able to take them out of action as quickly as you would like to. However, unless you can get enough hits on their trauma plates to make them useless alternate aim points might be a better bet.
So, standard aim point to be used on people who aren’t obviously armored: imagine a “cross” where a line down the person’s spine intersects with a line through their armpits. That’s your target if you can get a shot like that. A head shot is also a good choice if you can get one. Circumstances may force you to take other shots, and if that is the case then take what you can get. But if the target is obviously wearing a heavy, bulky vest then instead for going for the upper chest kill zone you may want to go either for the target’s shoulders or hips/pelvic girdle.
The idea is that by taking out the target’s shoulder you may put that arm out of action and thus significantly degrade his performance. A hips/pelvic girdle hit could, if you were lucky, take out the target’s femoral artery and rapidly kill him outright. Breaking the bones in those locations, a much more likely result, will render him incapable of any significant movement. Furthermore, based on the way human anatomy works, I don’t think they’ve got any way yet that will armor that portion of a human body well enough to bounce a .308 round and still enable a person to move in anything at all like a normal manner.
So, that’s my two cents for what anybody thinks it might be worth. For general purpose all around utility go .308. For specialized needs, depending on what those are, make the best choice you can to fill that need.December 6, 2017 at 3:13 am #16091
I think you owe me a cold beer Miarchist. Plus these new plates are not as bulky as generations past as you can probably tell.
December 8, 2017 at 2:58 am #16099
Been thinking about this for a bit. The first thing that I’ll note is that while the plate in the video is less bulky, the presenter doesn’t show the vest that it would be carried in. As it would be the vest that somebody would be likely to notice, not the plate, then there might not be too much of a change there. See somebody in obvious, bulky vest and switch to alternate aim points. But technology marches on, and we cannot always assume that said vests will be bulky enough to be obvious and readily noticeable for what they are. What then?
Given an arguable proliferation of lighter and more effective body armor I don’t see an increasing need for something like the .223. As the vest material becomes more effective, the .223 may end up losing enough potency by penetrating the vest that it would be rendered even more marginal than it already is. Note in this instance I am referring to penetrating the vest as opposed to the plate by switching to an alternate aim point.
Thus we come back to the .308. The tactic here would seem to be that at first you shoot for your standard aim point because not everybody is going to have access to the nifty new armor. But if you score a good solid upper torso hit that has no apparent effect on the target then switch to an alternate aim point.
Just to throw out some numbers for comparison, these are muzzle energy figures for various rounds that I got from various sources. The exact figures for any one rifle will end up varying depending on the weight of the bullet that is being used, the length of the rifle’s barrel and other factors.
.223 Remington 1200 ft-lbf
.308 Winchester 2700 ft-lbf
.300 Win Mag 3500 ft-lbf
.338 Federal 3200 ft-lbf
.338-06 A Square 3200 ft-lbf
.338 Win Mag 3900 ft-lbf
.45-70 Govt 2300 ft-lbf
In the video the plate “bounced” a .300 Win Mag round from a range of 12 feet. I notice that while they had hit the plate previously with 4 rounds of .308, they only used 1 round of .300 Win Mag. Thus there is the possibility that even the new, improved plate can take only a limited number of impacts. But as the .300 Win Mag failed to penetrate with something around 3500 ft-lbf of energy I would be inclined to think that in order to truly penetrate the plate you would need either to get a heavier projectile, a lot more energy, or both.
I had previously thought that going to .338 caliber would be the way to go. But of the three .338 cartridges that I thought might be reasonable to use, only one made the cut. That is the .338 Winchester Magnum, using heavier projectiles and having more energy than the .300 Winchester Magnum. The disadvantages of the .338 Winchester Magnum are such that not everybody is going to want to be using one. Those who complain about the recoil from a .308 will be crying for their mothers over what a .338 Win Mag will develop for recoil. As well, the ammunition is going to be expensive. Last but not least, if you go for a .338 Winchester Magnum much more often than not you will be getting a bolt action rifle. While bolt actions are famously reliable, rugged and accurate they are lacking in the rate of fire that they can put out. I am aware of only one semi-auto available in .338 Win Mag and that is a “BAR” put out by Browning designed for civilian hunting use. It has limited magazine capacity and how well it would handle the heat build up from sustained use in a large firefight could be a problem. The advantage of the .338 Win Mag is that it has been out long enough that ammo may be reasonably scroungeable post SHTF.
The other round I might consider is the .45-70 Government. While this packs nowhere near the energy of the .338’s, it nevertheless has the ability to throw out some truly heavy bullets. There are currently factory loads available using 405 grain and 430 grain bullets. If you handload you can get 500 grain bullets. I don’t know for sure that it will penetrate the sort of vest that was demonstrated. But that round has been in use for 144 years in this country and may be reasonably scroungeable. Also, you can get lever action rifles chambered in .45-70, some of which are reasonably compact. If you are willing to carry a rifle for use in relatively short range engagements, about 200 yards or so tops unless you want to get real good at range estimation and figuring hold over for a cartridge with a trajectory like a mortar round, this may do it.
In conclusion, I still see the .308 as viable and a reasonable choice for a general purpose SHTF rifle. The new body armor does pose something of a challenge, but that can potentially be compensated for by changing the aim points you are using. Going to a heavier caliber is also an option, but then you start looking at problems caused by increased weight of ammunition, in some cases increased weight of the rifle itself, and increased recoil is also a definite problem. As well, you will also be looking at a concomitant drop in the rate of fire you can put out, and scrounging ammo that is only available from civilian sources could be a problem.
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