5.56 Tracer

here has been a great deal of resentment surrounding the .223 Remington cartridge since its inception during the 1950s, and continuing right up to this day with no less, and no more, an eminence than Jeff Cooper disdainfully dismissing it as “a mouse gun round.”

Formally introduced in 1964 as the military’s Ball Cartridge M193 round for the experimental semi-automatic and light automatic rifles designed by Eugene Stoner, L. James Sullivan and Robert Fremont of ArmaLite Division of Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation, the 5.56 X 45mm (nee .222 Special) or 5.56mm NATO had evolved along parallel lines with the .222 Remington Magnum (nee .224 Springfield) cartridge, but with roughly one grain less of case capacity.

(The “triple deuce magnum,” a prototypal military round for use in light combat arms, had itself been developed jointly by Remington Arms Company and U.S. Springfield Armory¹ in the mid-’50s as part of Project SALVO.²)

Although the military had had its problems with the replacement for its venerable M1 Garand, the M14 chambered in 7.62 X 51mm, hard corps types, feeling that there was something unseemly about a fighting rifle of anything less than .30 caliber, denigrated the 5.56mm at practically every opportunity, and there is considerable evidence that the Army Ordnance Corps³(which had built the M14 itself) actually tried to rig the U.S. Military procurement tests to the disadvantage of the AR-15/5.56mm combination. That the 5.56mm/.223 Remington has succeeded as the military’s designated round for its infantrymen for as long as it has may be viewed as something of a minor miracle.

The .222 Special, now renamed the .223 Remington so as to avoid confusion with the other two “triple deuce rounds,” was released commercially as a sporting arms cartridge when the company for which it is named brought out their Model 760 slide action rifle in that chambering for the 1964 season. The gun writers of the day for the most part gave it short shrift, arguing that it was “wimpier “than the already established .222 Rem. Mag., and that the geometry of the cartridge with its relatively short neck was violating a cardinal design rule. But as more carbines and rifles were introduced for the .223 Remington, the .222 Remington Magnum has all but disappeared. (So too, for all practical purposes, has the original .222 Remington, once the standard for benchrest competitors who have abandoned it in wholesale numbers for the fat little PPC cartridges of .22 and 6mm designation which Ferris Pindell and Dr. Louis Palmisano introduced to great acclaim in the early ’70s.)

Undoubtably what has solidified the .223 Remington’s place in the hierarchy of small bore rifle chamberings has been the enormous popularity of Sturm, Ruger & Company’s Mini-14 (and subsequent “Ranch Rifle” edition) and the many variations of the Colt’s AR-15, the semi-auto version of the military M16, the celebrated, ofttimes notorious, but ubiquitous “black rifle” of Vietnam.

Background on the 5.56mm

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United States Military determined that it had a requirement for a detachable-magazine rifle with a fully-automatic capability. After a less-than-satisfactory honeymoon with the 7.62 NATO/M80 (a commercial version of which was released by Olin as the .308 Winchester), those involved in the Small Caliber/High Velocity (SCHV) program at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground agitated for a lightweight, select-fire rifle firing… no surprise here!… a smaller, mid-power, high-velocity cartridge. (Coincidentally, within this same period, the military of many other countries were experimenting with sub-.30 caliber caliber guns that were controllable in full-auto, and allowed more rounds to be carried.

CAR15Into the M1 Garand/M14 breech stepped small arms designer Gene Stoner of ArmaLite. Having designed the 7.62x51mm AR-10 rifle, Stoner listened when General Willard G. Wyman, Commanding General of the U.S. Continental Army Command (CONARC) suggested that a scaled down version might be looked upon with favor by the SCHV program. ArmaLite engineers Jim Sullivan and Bob Fremont thereupon reduced the AR-10 around the hot varmint cartridge of the day, the .222 Remington.

In the early-to-mid-’50s there had been three .22 caliber cartridges, all “stretched” versions of the popular “triple-deuce,” which were vieing to be the next military round:

  • .224 Winchester
  • .224 Springfield
  • .222 Special, a Stoner-design

After preliminary testing by the U.S. military, it was apparent that the .222 Remington developed excessive pressures when loaded to meet the Army’s ballistic requirements. At the same time, the pair of .224s also fell by the wayside. While the experimental .224 Springfield had the increased power sought, it was felt that its geometry would have prevented positive feeding in an automatic self-loading rifle. Stoner’s .222 Special case was then simply lengthened into the 5.56x45mm cartridge (a/k/a .223 Armalite) and released commercially as the .223 Remington with virtually identical exterior ballistics as the .222 Remington Magnum.

After U.S.A.F. General Curtis LeMay got a look at the scaled down AR10, yclept AR15, and was impressed enough to have the “black rifle” adopted by the Air Force, the rest of the military gradually fell into line, aided in no small amount by continuing problems with the M14 program. Designated the M16, the Stoner-Sullivan-Fremont gun survived everything from ammo-related problems (Winchester’s curious selection of propellants which caused reliability problems in the rifle’s finicky gas system) to invidious references by traditionalists to its evolutionary plastic appurtenances (“Weapons by Mattel”), and went on to become one of the most recognizable icons of the Vietnam war.

¹.- Not to be confused with the present day commercial enterprise in Geneseo, Illinois which in the mid-’80s had appropriated the then defunct Government arsenal’s famous name.

².- Project SALVO, a precursor to the Special Purpose Individual Weapon [SPIW] project of the early ’60s, explored numerous schemes of enhancing hit probability such as multiple barrels, multiple projectile loadings including flechettes, and “small-caliber, high-velocity” (SCHV) cartridges the likes of the .224-inch wildcats from G.A. Gustafson (a cut-down .222 Remington chambered in a modified M-2 Carbine) and William C. Davis Jr. (a necked down .30 Light Rifle [T65] case).

³.- Having fought so hard for the 7.62x51mm standard, the T65 cartridge and the T44 (M14) rifle, Ordnance Corps officials could not afford to allow competing projects to cast doubt on their decisions and usurp their authority. This is why potential SCHV projects from within AOC were axed by Dr. Frederick H. Carten. These included Gustafson’s and Davis’ proposed intermediate .224″ cartridge, along with the Springfield Armory prototype rifle chambered in .224 Springfield. In contrast, Gustafson’s work on the modified M-2 Carbine had been allowed to proceed unencumbered by politics since it didn’t threaten the idea of a “full-power” infantry rifle. Instead, it was to provide a replacement for the M-2 Carbine.

5.56mm Cartridge Descriptions

Both M193, with its copper-jacketed and cannelured lead-core bullet (see representative cartridge drawing), and its companion M196 tracing round (identified by a red tip), are now used during range training. The latter is designed to trace out to 500 yards.

The M195 is used with the grenade projection adapter.

The M197 High Pressure Test (HPT) is identified by its plain tip and silver, as opposed to brass, case.

The M199 is used during mechanical training (loading practice), “simulated firing to detect flinching of personnel when firing,” and for “inspecting and testing the weapon mechanisms.” Case has six (6) longitudinal corrugations (flutings) and the primer pocket is open to prevent wear to the firing pin.

The M200 is deployed during training when simulated live fire is desired. The case mouth is closed with a seven-petal rosette crimp and has a violet tip. (An M15A2 blank-firing device must be installed to fire this ammunition.) Note: use of the original M200 blank cartridges, identified by their white tip, resulted in a malfunction-inducing residue buildup, and were replaced by the current, violet-tipped blank cartridge.

The M202 (SSX822) is the new 58 grain FMJ “tri-metal penetrator.”

The M232 is used for function testing. The entire round has black chemical finish and no primer.

The NATO standard, NATO symbolM855 round is intended for use against light matériel targets and personnel, but not vehicles. Identified by a green tip, the 62 grain projectile is constructed of a lead alloy core topped by a steel penetrator, the whole contained within a gilding (copper alloy) metal jacket. The primer and case are waterproof. (See representative cartridge drawing.) Despite the round’s penetration abilities, BATF has specifically exempted it from the AP ban.

The M856, identified by an orange tip on its copper-plated steel jacket, is used for observation of fire, incendiary effects and signaling. As with all all illuminated bullets except the new Hornady rounds introduced in the mid-’90s, it is hollowed out at the base and a tracing compound appended. (See representative cartridge drawing.) The perceived requirement to stabilze this round caused the M16A2 to have a 1:7-inch rate of twist instead of the more desirable 1:9-inch. Much longer than the earlier M196 tracer bullets (55 grain), it is designed to trace out to 875 yards.

M862 Short Range Training AmmunitionThe M862 Short Range Training Ammunition (SRTA) provides a realistic training alternative to M193/M855 service rounds. With a maximum range of 250 meters, the “plastic practice” round has an effective range of 25 meters, but requires the M2 Training Bolt when used in the M16A2 Rifle.

The M995, identified by its black-tip, uses a shaped tungsten core in a jacketed envelope, and penetrates 12 mm armour plate of 300 HB at 100 meters. It began development in 1992 as part of the Soldier Enhancement Program, and its primary mission is to improve incapacitation capability against troops within lightly armored threat vehicles.

The XM996 Dim Tracer ammunition provides the user with a tracing round which is invisible when viewed with the naked eye but which can be seen when viewed through night vision devices (NVDs) and does not cause visual interference to the wearer of a NVD. Standard tracer ammunition provides excessive illumination/visual interference (“blooming” effect) to the user when viewed through NVDs.

M193M193 Cartridge, 5.56mm, BALL. Unpainted tip. For use against personnel and unarmored targets.

Variously referred to as: 5.56 Ball, .223 Armalite, .223 Remington Special, 5.56 x 45mm.

Suitable for use in most weapons with a 1:12″ barrel twist. 5.56mm Rifles: M16, M16A1, M16A2, AR15, H&K, Galil, Ruger, FN, SIG, other compatible systems.

M855M855 Cartridge, 5.56mm, BALL. Green bullet tip. For use against personnel and light armored targets.

Variously referred to as: 5.56 x 45mm, 5.56 Penetrator.

Suitable for use in most weapons with a 1:7″ barrel twist. 5.56mm Machine GunM249.² 5.56mm Rifles: M16A2, M4, M4A1, H&K.

M856M856 Cartridge, 5.56mm, TRACER. Orange bullet tip. Allows observation of projectile trajectory to the point of impact.

Sometimes referred to as: M855 Penetrator Tracer.

Suitable for use in most weapons with a 1:7″ barrel twist same as M855. Often in links as every fifth round.

M200M200 Cartridge, 5.56mm, BLANK. Rosette crimped closure of cartridge case mouth. For simulated firing.

Sometimes referred to as: Blank Training Cartridge.

Suitable in 5.56mm Rifles: M16, M16A1, M16A2, M4, M4A1 and other compatible systems.

Images courtesy of Alliant Techsystems, Inc. (ATK) Lake City Small Caliber Ammunition Company, the sole source provider to the U.S. Department of Defense for small caliber ammunition, producing approximately 500 to 600 million rounds annually.

Notes on the 5.56mm / .223 Remington

  • Better designation is “5.56mm NATO Ball.” The Ball part can usually be skipped as it’s the most common round and just referenced as “5.56mm NATO.”
  • “SS109” is the original Fabrique Nationale cartridge from which the “NATO standard” was derived. U.S. M855 Ball meets this standard, but isn’t “SS109” as this is the Belgium service round, probably Dutch, as well. Canadian 5.56mm NATO is C77 and there are numerous others.
  • The 5.56mm Steyr AUG from Austria“5.56mm NATO” (not 5.56×45 NATO) is the actual standard, but the SS109 name has stuck just like “.30-06” stuck in the U.S. Army.
  • “5.56mm NATO Ball” describes a specific cartridge, not a class of cartridges. The projectile is roughly 62 grains in weight and is projected at about 3100 fps at the muzzle. Lots of dimensional and pressure standards, too. 5.56×45 describes a class of cartridges which can be anything. U.S. M193 Ball is 5.56mm Ball, but it isn’t “5.56mm NATO Ball.”
  • There is a distinct difference between “5.56mm NATO Ball” and the commercial “.223 Remington.” The American Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute issued an advisory about this issue more than 20 years ago when military 5.56mm ammo started showing up in sporting goods stores.
  • The “MK 262 Mod 0, 5.56MM 77 Grain LR Ammunition” is a whole ‘nother story in itself, and a currently evolving one. It is produced solely by an American munitions manufacturer on a sole-source basis for use by a Special Forces Group. It may or may not be shortly usurpted by another evolving military cartridge, the 6.8 X 43mm.The Mk 262 Mod 0 is the end product of several years of testing which began with the evaluation of 27 different commercial match projectiles. As early as 1999, the candidates were narrowed to three: Berger’s 73-grain LTB (Length Tolerant Bullet), Powell River Laboratories’ 87-grain powdered tungsten core projectile, and Sierra’s 77-grain Match King. Availability issues with the first two manufacturers resulted in the Sierra Match King being chosen. Production has since switched to the Mk 262 Mod 1, in which the primary change is the introduction of a projectile cannelure. The Mk 262 Mod 1 has been loaded with either the 77-grain Sierra Match King or the 77-grain Nosler Custom Competition (formerly, the J4 OTM). To date, Black Hills Ammunition is the sole source of the Mk 262 Mod 0 and Mod 1; however, there are indications that Lake City may begin loading the ammunition.

    The Mk 262 cartridge was initially intended for use solely with the SPR (Special Purpose Receiver/Rifle), a designated marksman offshoot of the M4 SOPMOD Kit’s Block 2 update. While it was originally intended for modified upper receivers to be procured as an off-the-shelf item, the recent “War on Terror” resulted in a number of SPR being assembled on an emergency basis by Navy (NSWC Crane) armorers for issue to SOCOM operators. The upper receiver is a mix of military and commercial parts, including an 18″ Douglas barrel, which is then mated to a M16A1 lower. (Less commonly seen is a SPR upper mounted to a M4A1 lower receiver complete with a collapsible stock.) The Mk 12 Mod 0 SPR is used solely by Army Special Forces and is recognizable for its Precision Reflex, Inc (PRI) free-float forearm. The Mk 12 Mod 1, in use by other SF units, is equipped with a KAC free-float RAS forearm. The Mk 12 Mod 1 evolved from the earlier SPR/A and SPR/B, which varied primarily as to which Leupold Vari-X III scope was mounted (3.5-10x versus 2.5-8x, respectively). The current Mk 12 Mod 0 and Mod 1 reportedly use a Leupold 3-9x.

    Similar rifles are being built by the Army and Marines for their individual services’ designated marksman initiatives. These are known respectively as the Squad Designated Marksman (SDM) and Squad Advanced Marksman (SAM). The USAMU is building both M16A4 and M4 SDM variants using fluted Douglas barrels (20″ and 18″ respectively) and Daniel Defense free-floating rail forearms. The USMC’s SAM-R is also based on the M16A4, and is easily the heaviest of the lot due to its extra thick 20″ Krieger barrel. Like the Mk 12 Mod 1, the SAM-R is equipped with KAC’s free-float RAS forearm. – Daniel Watters

Vs .223 Remmington

Almost a quarter of a century ago, SAAMI recognized potential problems with shooters assuming that the 5.56mm cartridge was identical to the commercially available .223 Remington round. Here is their 31 January 1979 release, with some minor errors corrected:

With the appearance of full metal jacket military 5.56 ammunition on the commercial Market, it has come to the attention of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) that the use of military 5.56mm ammunition in sporting rifles chambered for Caliber .223 Remington cartridges can lead to higher-than-normal chamber pressures and possible hazards for the firearm, its user and bystanders.

Tests have confirmed that chamber pressures in a sporting rifle may be significantly higher in the same gun when using military 5.56mm ammunition rather than commercially loaded Caliber .223 Remington cartridges, according to SAAMI.

SAAMI points out that chambers for military rifles have a different throat configuration than chambers for sporting firearms which, together with the full metal jacket of the military projectile, may account for the higher pressures which result when military ammunition is fired in a sporting chamber.

SAAMI recommends that a firearm be fired only with the cartridge for which it is specifically chambered by the manufacturer.

In Rifle Chambered For Do Not Use These Cartridges
223 Remington 5.56mm Military
222 Remington
30 Carbine

Additionally, SAAMI’s Unsafe Arms and Ammunition CombinationsTechnical Data Sheet page states:

The .223 Remington is rated for a maximum of 50,000 CUP while the 5.56mm is rated for 60,000 CUP. That extra 10,000 CUP is likely sufficient to cause a failure in a chamber that’s only rated for the “sporting” .223 Remington.

The .223 Remington and the 5.56mm NATO, when checked with a chamber ream from a reliable manufacturer of each, also have discernable differences in the areas of freebore diameter, freebore length (leade) and angle of the throat.

SAAMI
Technical Office:
P.O. Box 338
Branford
CT 06405-0338

(Ironically, given the nature of the on-line confusion exhibited by .30 caliber shooters, no similar SAAMI advisory is given concerning 7.62 NATO beyond the fact that those who have rifles chambered in “308 Winchester” shouldn’t attempt to shoot cartridges marked “7.62×39” or “300 Savage.” Well, duh!)

However, the estimable Clint McKee of Fulton Armory, has thoughtfully provided a brief monograph, The difference between 5.56mm and .223 Remington chambers in the AR-15®-type rifle, which explains this issue in greater (but quite readable) detail.

Olin’s Winchester Ammunition site, in 2001, addressed this matter as well, in a concise monograph by Paul Nowak, and Randall Rausch has a number of excellent technical documents, with graphics displaying the differences between the two cartridges, available at AR15barrels.com. Of particular interest are headspace and reamer dimensions.

Further Views on “Differences”

At the October 2001 IALEFI Conference in Reno, Nevada, Giles Stock, retired from Phoenix Police Department after 20 years service, discussed the differences between the .223 Remington/SAAMI and 5.56mm/NATO rifle chambers. The long-time range master for handgun, rifle, carbine and shotgun at Gunsite and developer of the acclaimed Giles Tactical Sling suggested that, as a general rule, recreational rifles have the former, and military rifles the latter… but there is some overlap, most notably in the popular Sturm Ruger Mini-14 which has been offered in both specifications!

NATO chambers have a long leade1. SAAMI chambers are tighter and have a short leade. SAAMI chambers are designed for increased accuracy, but will yield dangerously high pressures in guns using military ammunition and/or which are subject to high volume shooting. Under such high pressures, a primer may back out completely, drop into the action and cause the firearm to stop working.

It has been suggested that an autoloading rifle utilizing a SAAMI-spec chamber may increase risk of overpressure due to the tighter, shorter leade which retards the projectile somewhat as it is attempting to exit the case. Leave the SAMMI chambers to the a bolt action and single-shot rifles.

ArmaLite, not the original, but the Eagle Arms pretenders, has its own views on the subject.

Winchester “White Box” Confusion

Q3131AWinchester "USA" brand ammoThis has been making American shooters nuts for a number of years now… particularly in the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001 when there was a major run on 5.56mm ammunition. Winchester’s “generic” or “budget” USA, or “white box,” brand of ammunition actually has two different 55-grain FMJ rounds, and one has to look closely at the “small print” to discern the difference.

For openers, in addition to the ATK-operated Lake City plant2, Winchester is also a primary supplier of M193 to the U.S. military. That particular X223R1 round is commercially available in the white USA box product encoded “Q3131.” What few realize is that Israeli Military Industries (IMI), the sole supplier of ammo to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), also supplies their M193 as a subcontractor for Winchester; that round is often made available in the USA white boxes marked “Q3131A.” By most reports, qualitatively, it is the same round and performs virtually the same as the home-grown variant.

1.- Leade is the distance the projectile of a chambered round must travel upon ignition before it enters the bore of a barrel. It is measured in thousandths of an inch, and is a datum of considerable interest to benchrest shooters.
2.- The government-owned, contractor-operated Lake City Army Ammunition Plant (LCAAP) in Independence, Missouri, is the largest (458 buildings on 3,935 acres) small-arms manufacturing plant in the world.

Founded in 1941, “Lake City” manufactures and proof-tests small arms (5.56mm – 20mm) munitions. It was initially operated by Remington Arms Company until 1985 when Olin Corporation bid and was awarded the contract to operate the facility. In 1999, Alliant TechSystems (ATK) in conjunction with Federal Cartridge Corporation won a ten-year contract to assume the operations. ATK subsequently acquired Federal Cartridge from Blount Sporting Goods Division.

An original Armalite AR15“When an armed man guardeth his home, thieves are as Swiss-cheese in the night air.”
– Book of StonerChapter 15, Verse 223 (Translation by Tim de Illy)

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