Modern Shooter: 5.56 NATO
The most popular sporting cartridge also just happens to be one of the least understood. A lot of people have heard many myths about it, what it’s capable of, and even what type of guns it can be fired in. Let’s take an in depth look about this famous rifle cartridge.
The media falsely claims that the rifles firing the 5.56 NATO are “high powered.” Sadly, what many of them fail to realize is that this is a moderately powered rifle round, at best, that is sufficient for closer-quarters combat and hunting small-medium sized game. In other words, while it is ballistically more capable than a handgun round, it isn’t as capable as many other rifle rounds out there.
One way I like to explain this particular cartridge to people, is that it’s kinda like a .22 on steroids. Or, it’s a .22 caliber bullet with more gun powder pushing it. To be fair, the bullet shape and length are better and longer, as well, which is one of the reasons it is used on the battlefield to begin with.
The 5.56 NATO is a sufficient cartridge at short to medium distances … but barely.
And, one of the reasons why it is sufficient, is not because of how lethal it is in a one shot one kill type of environment. In terms of lethality, it lacks behind. However, the infantryman can carry more of this smaller ammo than he can others. Furthermore, low recoil and muzzle rise allow the shooter to get back onto target quickly, enabling him to get multiple shots on target.
While it can be accurately fired at longer distances, it loses a lot of velocity and is less lethal at the point of a longer distance impact (just like any bullet would, this one more). Still, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of one at the 500 yard line. As someone who served honorably in the Marines and who had to hit a man-sized target at 500 yards in the prone position with nothing more than the steel sights, I’d rather not get shot by anything.
The parent of this NATO cartridge is its civilian counterpart, .223 Remington.
Speaking of .223, now is a good time to point out that while you can shoot .223 through a rifle chambered in 5.56, you should not do the opposite. While it can be done, and some have done it, it is not recommended. The NATO cartridge is loaded to higher pressures than its civilian variant is, and extended periods of shooting it could cause the rifle to fail sooner than it would if you just shot what it calls for.
Again, because it bears repeating, do not shoot your 5.56 rounds through any rifle chambered in the nearly identical .223. Can it be done? Yes. Should it? Well, I don’t. Some people disagree here, so take this advice with a grain of salt.
This is one of the reasons why, however, I always recommend people buy their rifles chambered in 5.56 (unless they’re shooting matches). That way, they can have the best of both worlds. Plus, at least in my area, .223 Remington goes on sale more often and is usually a better price than 5.56—and I like the option to be able to buy either one.
This rifle cartridge reaches muzzle velocities, with some bullet sizes, somewhere north of 3,300 FPS. Projectile sizes range from 45 up to 85 grains, and everywhere in between with the most popular being those of 55 and 62 grains.
Some people consider the rifles who shoot this round to be a mouse gun. Others believe it to be more capable than that. In all seriousness, for our military, I’d love to see something a little more effective on the battlefield. With modern technology where it stands, I don’t see why we can’t come up with something a bit better for our warriors.
What do you think? Is the 5.56 NATO sufficient? Under powered? Am I off base with anything I said here? Let me know in the comments below. Then, make sure you sign up for Gun Carrier’s FREE Newsletter.