When it comes to debates at your local gun store, your grandfather’s porch, or around the fire at your deer camp, there is none more heated than 223 vs 308. The 223 Remington and the 308 Winchester are the two most popular centerfire rifle cartridges across North America, Europe, and the world.
Ever since the 223 Rem replaced the 308 Winchester as the U.S. Military standard issue cartridge in the 1960s, the debate has raged on hotter than a +P+ 44 Magnum round as to which of these two rifle cartridges is better.
Although I doubt we will solve the 308 vs 223 caliber crisis in this article, I am confident that you will learn which is the right NATO round for your needs.
Grab your favorite AR platform and let’s rack those charging handles on this 60+ year caliber debate. I hope your magazines are fully loaded because we’re jumping into 223 vs 308 right now!
In the context of this article, .308 Winchester (308 Win) and 7.62x51mm NATO (762 NATO) will be used interchangeably. The same can be said for .223 Remington (223 Rem) and 5.56x45mm NATO (556 NATO). However, please understand that rifles chambered in .308 Win and .223 Rem are different than those chambered in their NATO spec equivalents, 7.62 and 5.56, respectively.
You should experience zero issues shooting 5.56 NATO ammo in your .223 Rem rifle, but not vice versa. The same is true for 7.62 NATO in a .308 Win rifle.
This is due to chamber pressure differences between the .223 Rem vs 5.56 NATO and .308 Win vs 7.62 NATO rounds.
Bottom line: Know what round your rifle is chambered in (it’s typically engraved on the barrel or receiver of your rifle) and know what pressures your rifle can safely withstand.
Following the end of the Korean War, the U.S. Military started developing a replacement for the storied M1 Garand. Although the M1 Garand had served the U.S. Armed Forces valiantly through World War II and Korea, the military wanted a more modern service rifle with select-fire capability and detachable magazines similar to the Stg-44 and AK-47.
The M1 Garand was chambered in the 30-06 Springfield cartridge, 7.62x63mm NATO designation, a round that has been credited with taking down every North American large game animal, including the great bears. Despite its combat effectiveness and lethality, the 30-06 had some downsides that the military was ready to fix.
Firstly, the 30-06 Springfield required a long action to accommodate the length of the cartridge. A long action is not ideal for fully automatic fire and the military wanted a short action cartridge for its new service rifle.
With advancements in rifle powder technologies and case designs in the 1950s, the new 7.62x51mm NATO rifle round was able to achieve nearly identical ballistic performance as the 30-06 Springfield with its shorter cartridge case length (51mm vs 63mm) and lesser overall weight.
The US Army officially adopted the 7.62x51mm NATO round in 1954 and the new M14 battle rifle in 1958. The M14 featured a 20-round detachable magazine and select fire capability (semi-auto and full auto).
The M14 saw its first action in the Vietnam War before being quickly replaced by the M16 in 1964, I’ll discuss why in the next section.
The 762 NATO round has also been utilized in multiple machine guns fielded by the U.S. Military, including “The Pig” M60, the M240B, and the GAU-17/A minigun. Furthermore, the 762 NATO has been the de facto sniper round for law enforcement, designated marksmen, and military snipers since its adoption.
Seeing the potential of the 762 NATO in the civilian market, Winchester was quick to adopt the new rifle round to its Model 70 bolt action rifle. The civilian version of the 7.62 NATO was named the .308 Winchester and was released to the general public in 1952, two full years before the U.S. Military formally adopted the cartridge.
The 308 Winchester was almost an immediate commercial success for its astounding accuracy, stopping power, and an effective range out to 1,000 yards (with appropriate loadings). Since the 1950s and even up to this day, the 308 Win has been a staple in deer hunting camps and in marksmanship competitions across the globe.
One appeal of the 308 Winchester for big game hunting is its range of bullet weights, typically ranging between 120 to 180 grains.
Although the 6.5 Creedmoor and the 300 Winchester Magnum are beginning to gain popularity in the hunting and precision shooting circles, there is no shortage of shooters who swear by and will never let go of their beloved 308 Winchester.
As I’m sure many of my active duty and former military readers will agree, many of the decisions from top level brass are more politically motivated in terms of gear selection. This is very true with the acceptance of the 308 Winchester as the new battle rifle cartridge.
The generals loved the heavier bullet that the 308 Win fired, feeling it was necessary for combat effectiveness due to the success of the 30-06. Ballistically, the 308 was an easy choice as the successor to the 30-06 as well. However, the only thing that wasn’t gushing about the 308 Win was its host rifle, the M14.
Even though the M14 was quite heavy, it was not well suited for fully automatic fire. The recoil was simply too much to allow for effective and accurate suppressive fire from the M14 and most soldiers utilized semi-automatic fire instead of full auto.
Furthermore, even though the 308 was lighter than the 30-06, the U.S. Military wanted an even lighter cartridge so their soldiers could carry more ammo into battle.
Here’s where the 223 Remington comes into play.
Development of the 223 Rem rifle round began in 1957 and the final design was submitted by Remington Arms to the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) in 1962. The development of the 223 Remington cartridge was a joint operation organized by the U.S. Continental Army Command between Fairchild Industries, Remington Arms, and Eugene Stoner of Armalite, using the 222 Remington as a parent cartridge.
Eugene Stone was the primary inventor of the AR-10 rifle (chambered in 7.62 NATO), which he was invited to scale down to accommodate the new .223 Rem cartridge. The resulting rifle that the military accepted was the M16, the civilian version being the AR-15. Since its adoption, the AR-15 carbine has become the most popular sporting rifle in US history.
The AR platform is so popular, firearms manufacturers have been offering it in different, and sometimes obscure, calibers like 6.5 Grendel, 300 Blackout, 7.62x39, and 6.5 Creedmoor to appeal to a wider audience who like to shoot different calibers.
With its lightweight and low recoil, the M16 is an ideal platform for full auto fire and the ammo is considerably lighter than its 7.62 NATO counterpart. This allows soldiers to carry more ammo into battle for the same weight, meaning they can stay in the fight longer without impeding their mobility.
The M16 had some teething problems in the Vietnamese jungles, which soured some GIs on the platform entirely. Horror stories of poor reliability in Vietnam have plagued the M16 for years. However, after some tweaks were made to the M16 chamber lining, the powder used for 223 Rem ammo, increasing the speed of barrel twist rates (1:10 vs 1:7), and the widespread distribution of cleaning kits to all frontline soldiers; the reliability issues with early M16s all but disappeared.
Since then, the M16 and the shorter barrel length M4 Carbine have become a ubiquitous symbol of American military prowess across the globe.
The original version of the 223 Rem that the military adopted was the M193, which fired a 55 gr full metal jacket bullet at a muzzle velocity of 3260 FPS with a muzzle energy of 1294 foot-pounds.
FN Herstal developed the 5.56x45mm NATO round beginning in 1970 using the 223 Rem as a parent case. The 5.56 NATO and .223 Rem cases have identical dimensions.
Once accepted as a NATO round, the 223 Remington has become one of the most mass-produced cartridges across the world. Furthermore, it has become known as an amazing varmint hunting round, as it ballisticly outperforms the 222 Remington and 222 Remington Magnum in all categories.
All the major ammo manufacturers have a variety of 223 Remington ammo available for sale. Many of your higher end companies like Hornady, Nosler, Barnes, and Federal offer customized bullets that simply outperform full metal jacket (fmj) bullets. Ballistic tip, A-Max, soft points, and hollow point match bullets are all available in 223 Rem to really tailor your ammo for the task at hand.
The Difference Between .223 Remington and .308 Winchester: Speed and Capacity vs Stopping Power and Range
When it comes to comparing .223 vs .308, there is no way we can say that one rifle cartridge is better because they each excel in their designated roles.
However, what we CAN do is take an objective look at each cartridge in our 11 Point Comparison Criteria and see which is better in a given situation.
Let’s start off by just looking at the differences in cartridge case specs between these two outstanding modern military staples.
One of the starkest contrasts between the 308 Winchester and 223 Remington is their size. You can see it in the picture above.
It truly looks like David and Goliath as you could almost fit the entirety of the 223 Rem inside the 308 Win!
As you’ll see in the Ballistics Table section below, this translates to the 308 Winchester having significantly higher muzzle energy (measured in foot-pounds). That added stopping power comes at the cost of weight and recoil, which we will discuss next.
The other massive difference between these two rifle cartridges is the case capacity. The 308 Winchester has almost 80% more case capacity when compared to the 223 Remington.
This allows the 308 Win to fire a heavier bullet and keep it going for long range shooting, but all at the cost of recoil.
I’ve seen some stark contrasts in my time, but the difference in recoil between a 308 and a 223 is nothing short of monumental.
On average, felt recoil from a 308 Winchester will be in the realm of 22 foot-pounds. Now that is not unmanageable or painful by any stretch of the imagination. Most shooters will not have any problem with handing a 308 when it comes to recoil management. However, compare that to an average of 4 ft-lbs from the 223 Remington! That’s what we call a “night and day” difference (over 5x less felt recoil!)
To give you an idea of what this difference means, I want to share a story my father told me about his experience in Advanced Infantry Training (he was drafted during Vietnam).
The M16 had just been introduced while my father was in Basic and he actually qualified as “Expert” using an M14. However, during AIT, to demonstrate the difference in recoil between the two cartridges, a drill instructor placed the buttstock of an M16 against his groin and fired a round downrange. (Do NOT try this at your local range!)
He did not keel over in pain and agony; instead, he handed the rifle to my father. Sadly, this drill instructor did not repeat this display using an M14 and a 308 Winchester.
If this is not the most eloquent explanation of the differences between 308 Winchester and 223 Remington recoil then I don’t know what is!
When it comes to recoil, the 223 clearly dominates the field which makes it the superior choice for quicker follow up shots and shooters who are recoil sensitive.
Both rifle cartridges are extremely accurate and overall accuracy will be more of a function of the shooting platform and the person pulling the trigger. However, the listed effective range of the 223 Remington is considered 500 yards while the 308 Winchester is trucking out to 800 yards (1000 yards is attainable with handloads or match ammo).
The 308 Winchester was designed for long range shooting accuracy using a heavier bullet that will resist wind drift while the 223 Remington was designed as a low bullet weight, high-velocity cartridge to engage targets at intermediate ranges.
All things being equal, there should be negligible differences in accuracy for shots under 500 yards. For shots about 500 yards, the 308 Winchester will be the better choice.
Do not think that the 223 Remington is ineffective outside of 500 yards, it most certainly is. However, as the 223 bullet begins to hemorrhage fps out past 500 yards, the number of corrections needed increases. In contrast, the 308 Winchester is still trucking along at these distances with minimal change in trajectory.
Trajectory is the way we measure the flight of a bullet to its target based on bullet drop (in inches).
The 223 Remington fires a lighter bullet at much higher muzzle velocity than a 308 Winchester. As such, the 223 Rem has a flatter trajectory out to 500 yards.
Looking at our Ballistics Table below, we will compare the 308 Winchester 168 gr Match ammo vs the 223 Remington 69 gr ammo.
Assuming a 200 yard zero, at the 400-yard line the 308 will have had a bullet drop of -21.6” while the 223 has only dropped -17.5”. There’s no denying that the 223 Remington has a flatter trajectory. However, beyond 500 yards is where the 308 Winchester starts to shine, and the 223 Remington starts to fall off (literally).
Beyond 500 yards, the 308 Winchester will actually have the flatter trajectory as the 223 is losing too much fps to maintain its trajectory. Furthermore, the 223 Remington typically goes subsonic around 700 yards and this is when accuracy truly begins to suffer as the bullet is affected more by external forces (gravity, wind drift, air resistance).
To sum it all up, under 500 yards the 223 Remington will have a flatter trajectory than the 308. However, anything beyond 500 yards and the 308 is the clear short. This means that the 308 Winchester is the better ammo for shooting long range.
Ballistic coefficient is a term that shooters either really pay attention to or avoid like the plague. To put it simply, ballistic coefficient (BC) is a mathematical representation of how aerodynamic a bullet is and how much it resists wind drift.
Typically, heavier bullets will have a higher BC. A higher BC means the bullet is more streamlined, can resist crosswinds more effectively, and are less susceptible to wind drift than bullets with a lower BC.
Since the 308 Winchester can fire heavier bullets, logically you’d think that all 308’s have a higher BC. And compared to the 223 Remington, you’d be 100% correct in that logic.
On average, a 308 will have a ballistic coefficient of 0.434 while the 223 will be traipsing about with an average BC of 0.252.
The data we discussed in the Accuracy and Trajectory sections support this conclusion. The 308 Winchester will have an easier time bucking the wind and is considerably more aerodynamic than the 223 Rem.
Sectional Density (SD) is the measure of how well a bullet penetrates a target. This is extremely important when hunting big game, as you need a bullet that can punch through thick hide, bone, and sinew.
Sectional density is calculated by comparing the bullet weight and the bullet diameter, the higher the number the more effective it will be at penetrating a target. The higher the SD the deeper the bullet will penetrate into the target.
Heavier bullets with smaller diameters will have higher SD’s as there is more force being applied to a smaller surface area.
If you are sitting there thinking, “There’s no way the 223 Rem beats the 308 in terms of penetration!” You’d be right again.
On average, a 308 Winchester has a SD of 0.248 while the 223 Remington has an average SD of 0.164.
This means that the 308 will penetrate deeper than the 223 on average. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your situation.
Hunting is a category where both rifle cartridges excel in their own intended use. As there are different types of hunting available, let’s talk about where each round finds itself most at home.
In terms of varmint hunting and small game, you simply cannot beat a 223 Remington. Firing a lower grain bullet weight really makes the 223 Rem ideal for small game like groundhogs, prairie dogs, coyotes, and smaller feral hogs.
Its flat trajectory and stupid high-velocity make it the better choice for these varmints and predators when comparing it to the 308 Winchester. For these small game animals, a 308 packs way too much punch and is the true definition of overkill (unless you’re into that sort of thing…I don’t judge!)
The low recoiling 223 Remington allows for incredibly quick follow up shots and multiple target engagement in your favorite bolt action or semi-automatic hunting rifle.
But what about big game? Like whitetail, elk, and caribou?
This is where the baton is passed to the 308 Winchester as it is, without question, the correct choice for these big game animals. The 223 Remington simply lacks the stopping power and penetration to take down big game. It is illegal to hunt deer using a 223 Rem in many states for this reason (please check your local hunting regulations before ever heading into the woods).
The 308 Winchester has been one of the most popular big game hunting rounds since its inception and deservedly so. Its heavier bullets really pack a punch and long range accuracy makes it the best choice for taking on big game animals at distance.
Although you can utilize flatter shooting options like the 6.5 Creedmoor and 300 Winchester Magnum, the 308 Winchester has been the go-to choice of thousands of hunters for well over 60 years and it’s showing no signs of stopping anytime soon.
You can use a 308 up to black bears (with proper shot placement), but if I’m going into bear country I’m probably going to take a 375 H&H Magnum or a 340 Weatherby Magnum to make sure I have enough penetration to get the job done.
Don’t get me wrong, the 308 Winchester “can” take down a black bear or a brown bear, just like a 223 Remington “can” take down a whitetail. It’s just not the best choice for these game animals.
I’d recommend utilizing the Hornady SST with a 150 grain bullet for whitetail or antelope-sized game animals. This option will give you exceptional expansion, flat trajectory, and fantastic terminal ballistics.
For the bigger game like moose, caribou, and elk I’d recommend the Nosler Partition in the 165 grain bullet offering. This bullet will give you the stopping power, expansion, and penetration that you need to drop big game animals in their tracks.
To sum it all up, for varmint hunting you cannot beat the high fps and flat shooting 223 Remington. Its low recoil allows for fast follow up shots and multiple target engagement potential.
For large game, grab your 308 Winchester bolt action hunting rifle. The 308 has the power you need to drop whitetail, pronghorn, and even black bears.
When it comes to ammo availability, you simply cannot beat the myriad of options available to you for 223 Remington and 308 Winchester. Both of these rifle cartridges are extremely popular, and you can find a wide range of bullet weights and types for every conceivable application.
From home defense loads to cheap fmj practice ammo to hollow point match bullets for long range shooting to soft point bullets for hunting, there truly is a bullet design for ANY potential use for the 223 and 308.
In terms of price, the 223 Remington simply cannot be beaten. Every ammo manufacturer has a 223 Remington offering and there is an excess of surplus military rounds available for cheap practice ammo.
If you like to shoot a lot and not break the bank at the same time, 223 Rem is definitely the way to go as you can shoot brass cased ammo for around $0.60/round or steel cased ammo for about $0.40/round at the time of writing.
Premium hunting rounds for 223 Remington will typically run you in the realm of $1/round. For 308 Winchester, the average price is a bit higher. Long gone are the South African battle packs of cheap brass cased 7.62 NATO ammo you used to be able to find at every gun shop across North America.
At the time of writing, cheaper surplus 308 ammo will cost you about $0.90/round while the premium hunting ammo will be closer to $1.50/round. Although 308 Winchester ammo is still relatively inexpensive when you compare it to some other high-end magnum cartridges, it is still more expensive than most of your 223 ammo options.
Both the .223 Remington and the .308 Winchester have more rifle options than you can shake a boomstick at.
With the widespread popularity of the AR-15, the civilian version of the M16 and M4 carbine, virtually every firearms manufacturer has their version of the rifle. Furthermore, you can acquire about any configuration of a bolt action rifle in .223 from a Savage Axis to a Ruger Hawkeye.
If you are not a huge fan of the AR platform but still want a semi-automatic, you should definitely check out their Mini-14 line of rifles. The Mini 14 is essentially a scaled down M1A (civilian version of the M14) and is a very handy rifle to keep in your truck rack or your bug out bag in case it’s needed.
For the .308 Winchester, you have about as many varieties of rifles as you do for the .223. The AR-10 will be your primary semi-automatic option but there are many military surplus .308 options as well.
The FN-FAL, CETME, and Saigas chambered in .308 are all excellent surplus semi-auto .308 Win options. Furthermore, the Springfield M1A is also an excellent option for your .308 magazine-fed blasting needs.
As for bolt action hunting rifles, the sky is the literal limit for 308. Savage, Remington, Winchester, Ruger, and Weatherby all have extensive lines of bolt action hunting rifles chambered in .308.
The bottom line is that you will not lack options in rifle selection for either rifle cartridge.
In terms of reloading, both the .223 and .308 have plenty of options for you to choose from in terms of different powders, bullet profiles, and bullet weight.
Since both rifle cartridges are NATO rounds, massive amounts of cheap, surplus brass are available for purchase.
The .223 and .308 are simply a joy when it comes to reloading, and you will have more options than you can imagine when tailoring your perfect reload for your rifle(s).
When it comes to self defense, you cannot go wrong with either the .223 Remington or .308 Winchester. Both cartridges are battle proven and will be more than enough to protect you and yours from anyone who would do you harm. However, which is the ideal choice for home defense?
To tackle this issue, we need to consider where you live. For all of my urban and suburban readers, honestly, I’d say that neither is the ideal choice. With modern construction, walls are not the bullet stopping powerhouse that you might think.
Sheet rock (drywall) is a very poor barrier for bullets and even a .223 will not have much issue punching through a few layers. And let’s not even talk about the .308 when it comes to confined living conditions as that bullet is going to go through the bad guy, your apartment, and the apartment next door without even breaking a sweat. In an urban or suburban setting, I believe the ideal choice for home defense would either be a handgun loaded with hollow points or an AR-15 chambered in 300 Blackout with a full magazine of subsonic ammo. However, if I must choose between the two cartridges for this situation then the .223 Remington is a clear choice. Despite having very high-velocity rounds, the bullets penetrate less and will deflect more than a .308.
In a rural self defense situation, then I’m grabbing a M1A SOCOM or an AR-10 with a magazine full of ballistic tip ammo to protect myself or my loved ones.
In this situation, over penetration should not be an issue and I want as much stopping power as I can get my hands on.
223 vs 308: Comparison of America’s Modern Military Cartridges originally appeared in The Resistance Library at Ammo.com.