The Tactical Loads Test:

A Comparison of High Performance Bullets for the 5.56 x 45 mm


The US military has been evaluating a variety of loads and some alternative cartridges for the last few years, in response to criticism arising since the infamous "Blackhawk Down" incident in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 that affected the military in much the same way that the Miami Shootout affected the FBI and police (though without any resolve to make the necessary changes). The standard issue 62 grain FMJ-BT M855 ball ammunition is not well regarded in terms of its ability to stop aggressors. It was originally developed as a general purpose machinegun load called the SS109 with improved armor and barrier defeat capability for the FN Minimi, which ultimately became the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) for the US Marine Corps and US Army. The bullet has a steel cored ogive and only fragments at relatively high velocity. The earlier M193 Ball load with its 55 grain FMJ-BT bullet also only fragments at relatively high velocity, and if no fragmentation occurs it is a poor performer, like the M855. Either of these loads in an M4 carbine, with a 14.5 inch barrel, loses so much velocity that its maximum effective range is 100 to 150 m.

Soldiers want something more potent. Unfortunately for them, the US DOD abides by the Hague Convention, which prohibits any form of small arms ammunition designed to cause "superfluous" wounding by expansion or fragmentation (though we never signed it, nor did our enemies, and it is non-binding even for signatories when fighting parties who did not sign). Instead, what our soldiers use is ammunition that "inadvertantly" fragments (some of the time). In other words, it is deliberately designed not to perform its intended function, its a scalpel designed to have no sharp edge.

Most of the following loads are non-compliant with the Hague Convention, so these won't solve the problem until the White House or Congress decides to quit abiding by antiquated, hypocritical and morally repugnant 19th century European rules of war and gives our troops the tools they need and deserve. However, police units may find something here of interest, as may the individual citizen looking for a good tactical load for his carbine and the hunter who uses the .223 Remington cartridge (although I am not advocating its use for big game and you'll shortly see why).

Comparison of High Performance Loads for 5.56 x 45 mm NATO

This comparison of twelve loads pretty well covers the waterfront. The velocities shown below for the loads tested were chronographed using a Shooting Chrony Beta in both a 11.25 inch Shorty barrel and a 16 inch CAR-15 barrel. The wetpack tests were conducted at the 11.25 inch barrel velocities, which corresponds closely to the 200 m impact velocities from a standard 20 inch rifle barrel or the 100 m impact velocities from a 16 inch CAR-15 or 14.5 inch M4 carbine barrel. It is at this range that most of the cause for complaint is encountered, although some criticism has been offered for the lack of effectiveness at close quarter battle ranges. Expanded diameter is the mean of the widest and narrowest dimensions. Retained weight is the mass of the fragment that was recovered from the terminus of the primary wound path.

Summary Table of Tested Loads and Results

Bullet Type / Mass
11 inch Shorty
16 inch CAR
Depth of
40 gr Hornady V-Max
(RBCD / LeMas, Ltd)
~3000 fps
~3300 fps
0.257 in
75 mm
3.0 in
5.4 gr
55 gr Nosler CT Ballistic Silvertip
(Winchester Supreme)
2562 fps
3032 fps
0.398 in
128 mm
5.0 in
15.9 gr
55 gr FMJ-BT
(South African Surplus Ball)
2771 fps
3205 fps
268+ mm
10.6+ in
55 gr Trophy-Bonded Bear Claw
(Federal Premium Vital Shok)
2726 fps
3035 fps
0.431 in
165 mm
6.5 in
52.7 gr
60 gr Nosler Partition
2568 fps
2951 fps
0.416 in
210 mm
8.3 in
52.2 gr
62 gr FMJ-BT
(M855 / SS109 Ball)
2683 fps
3078 fps
0.473 in1
253 mm
10.0 in
43.2 gr
64 gr Soft Point
(Federal Power-Shok)
2544 fps
2928 fps
0.392 in
160 mm
6.3 in
35.1 gr
64 gr Power Point
(Winchester Super-X)
2348 fps
2820 fps
0.478 in
180 mm
7.1 in
56.6 gr
75 gr Match Hollowpoint
(Black Hills)
2330 fps
2640 fps
0.415 in
196 mm
7.7 in
54.4 gr2
75 gr Hornady Hollowpoint
(Hornady TAP FPD)
2336 fps
2639 fps
0.425 in
214 mm
8.4 in
57.3 gr3
75 gr Swift Scirocco
(Precision Crafted Ammunition)
2356 fps
2634 fps
0.472 in
240 mm
9.4 in
73.7 gr
77 gr Sierra Match King
(Buffalo Bore Sniper)
2447 fps
2778 fps
0.352 in
231 mm
9.1 in
34.0 gr
  • 1 Measured mean of length and width of recovered ogive in full yaw
  • 2 Cohesive mass of fragments; largest fragment was 29.9 gr
  • 3 Cohesive mass of fragments; largest fragment was 30.2 gr
  • The Lightweights (40 - 55 grains)

    Comparative Illustrations of the Wetpack Wound Tracks

    Remarks on the Specific Loads

    RBCD / LeMas, Ltd 38 gr Urban Warfare (40 gr Hornady V-Max)

    RBCD and its military marketing subsidiary, LeMas Ltd, have created quite a stir over the last few years with some fairly outrageous claims concerning the performance and construction of their bullets, including the assertion that their bullets only perform as advertised in warm living tissue (i.e., not under test conditions), which is a violation of all the principles of penetration mechanics and quite simply impossible, and also that their bullets are made of "blended metal", a mysterious concoction, rather than lead alloy. Underneath the moly coat of this load is what gives every appearance of being an ordinary red poly-tipped Hornady 40 grain V-Max bullet. Scientific analysis of LeMas loadings supports this surmise (Nosler poly tips in .224 caliber are bright orange, so I am convinced that this example is a Hornady bullet). Its a hot load. It was clocking over 3600 fps from a 20 inch barrel (factory spec is 3650 fps). I didn't have enough of these to chronograph in my test barrels, so the impact velocity is a guess, but its probably in the neighborhood. This behaves pretty much as you would expect a high performance varmint bullet to behave - it blows up like a bomb. The cavity is huge but very shallow and attenuates just as quickly as it forms. Penetration was only 75 mm; that's just 3 inches, less than half the next worst performer. The only thing recovered at the bottom of the hole was the circular base of the jacket with a smear of lead on top. These behaviors are tailored for maximum lethality on prairie dogs and rockchucks. It would be disastrous to use such a load on big game. It would be more likely to wound superficially rather than to kill. I regard this as inadequate penetration for a tactical load as well.

    Winchester Supreme 55 gr Ballistic Silvertip

    This is the Winchester-Nosler Combined Technologies version of the Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet. Designed as a varmint bullet, it is highly frangible. Only the jacket was recovered from the bottom of the hole. The boat-tail was plugged with mascerated, compressed paper. It penetrated a bit farther than the 40 grain Hornady V-Max, but still on the shallow side.

    South African Surplus Military Ball 55 gr FMJ-BT

    Since there are more 55 grain loads on the market than anything else, especially as inexpensive bulk ammunition, I decided to test some foreign surplus. This is not Lake City M193 ball. It is 1982-83 production South African military ball. The bullet is slightly longer and seemingly more robust than US produced M193 ball, but it is intended to be equivalent. Surprisingly, it produced the greatest penetration. In fact, this shot was only the second time I have ever had a bullet exit the back of my wetpack and not be recovered. Look at the illustration and you'll see why. It did not yaw or expand for the first 120 mm of penetration. Then it seemingly began to expand in a controlled fashion, apparently without yawing. The holes were quite circular. I am at a loss to explain this behavior. Maybe it bulged at the cannelure and failed. I could repeat this shot to capture the whole event, but why bother? It illustrates the point: this load cavitates at far too great a depth. The green lines in the figure indicate the predicted cavity in a semi-infinite wetpack. The large diameter at the exit is almost certainly due to the explosive failure of the rear surface.

    Federal Premium Vital-Shok 55 gr Trophy Bonded Bear Claw

    This bullet was developed expresslly for deer hunters who used the .224 caliber. It performed very much like a larger caliber Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, expanding perfectly and retaining almost 96% of its weight. For all that it did not perform quite as well as I expected that it would. Its modest penetration and the brevity of its maximum cavity I attribute to its 55 grain weight. If it had been 64 grains or 75, it would have been better. Its not bad by any means, but I think this load has been discontinued, so its a moot point.

    The Mediumweights (60 - 64 grains)

    Comparative Illustrations of the Wetpack Wound Tracks

    Remarks on the Specific Loads

    Ultramax 60 gr Nosler Partition

    Nosler thickened the jacket on the ogive of this bullet to help support the front core and it works. This is good performance for a Partition in a small caliber. Usually the front jacket would fully flatten against the bullet shank and the front core would be lost. In this case, the mushroom remains broad and retained weight is crowding 90%. Its a pity that they didn't make this a 64, 69 or 75 grain bullet, but I am sure that the opportunity to put a heavily constructed bullet into rifles with 1-in-12 twists (overwhelmingly the rate found on the sort of rifles used by .22 centerfire hunters) was the deciding factor.

    M855 (SS109) Military Ball 62 gr FMJ-BT

    The M855 Ball is the standard load for the US military in all of its 5.56 x 45 mm weapons. The lesion created in the wetpack was oblong from the point where it began to grow in size and is almost entirely the result of bullet yaw. The bullet broke into two pieces, which also contributed to the oblong lesion and eventually to two separated paths. The smaller piece weighed only 4.3 grains and terminated at 164 mm depth very quickly after separating from the primary wound path; the ogive continued to penetrate to a depth of 253 mm. That would be consistent with behavior that has been observed in living tissue and ballistic gelatin tests. The illustrated wound track is the average of the maximum and minimum cross-sectional dimensions. Although the M855 delays its cavitation until a much greater depth than typical expanding bullets, it makes a better wound than I expected at this velocity. The problem is that its maximum cavity occurs at around 150 mm of depth. Since wetpack depth is only 50% to 75% of that observed in thoracic shots through ribs, this means that it would occur at a depth of 200 to 300 mm of depth in a frontal shot on the human torso, thus in all likelihood the bullet will have exited or be at the point of exit. On quartering shots or side shots, it will be fine. For the first 80 to 120 mm (3 to 5 inches), there is a bullet caliber hole, so shots that hit limbs will probably just zip through causing relatively little injury.

    Federal Power-Shok 64 gr SP

    This is my choice of the best medium weight bullet. There is a niche for this weight class for those rifles that cannot shoot a 75 or 77 grain bullet because of a rifling twist rate that is too slow. This Power-Shok design produces a very long, nearly straight cavity of significant diameter. It is a more frangible design that its peers, but still holds on to more than 50% of its weight.

    Winchester-Western Super-X 64 gr Power Point

    This load was also developed specifically for the .22 centerfire deer hunting crowd. The load was recommended several years back by the Firearms Tactical Institute on the basis of analyses and positive feedback from police units that had experience with it. It is a superior performer, especially considering its conventional design. This bullet expanded well and retained almost 90% of its weight. That is amazing to me after examining the wreckage of so many .224 caliber bullets. I had begun to doubt that such a thing was possible in this small caliber unless the bullet were bonded. Its in good company with the 55 grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and 64 grain Federal Power Shok.

    The Heavyweights (75 - 77 grains)

    Comparative Illustrations of the Wetpack Wound Tracks

    Remarks on the Specific Loads

    Black Hills and Hornady TAP FPD 75 gr Hornady Match HP

    I have been told that the 75 gr match hollowpoint in the Black Hills and Hornady TAP FPD (i.e., For Personal Defense) loads are the same bullet. This test substantiates that assertion. The first 60 mm or so of their penetrations were practically identical. The recovered "bullets" were actually a cohesive, tangled mass of fragments and had very similar remaining weights and largest fragment sizes and masses. At about 65 mm, the Black Hills bullet separated into two pieces and began to create a wider lesion in the wetpack. As long as two pieces remain relatively close they create a synergistic cavitating effect. Material between them is macerated as if a single projectile of a diameter equal to the width of the bullets (including the space between them) were penetrating. At some point, however, they diverge to the point that two much smaller holes are created. This became apparent at about 146 mm. The larger mass went 196 mm, the lesser bit only 157 mm. The reason that the Black Hills bullet broke up in this fashion could be due to the fact that this shot got too close to the side of the wetpack and almost exited. So, there was a lack of support from one direction that may have allowed the bullet to yaw. That happens in the real world too, so it was an interesting thing to observe. The behavior of the Hornady TAP bullet may be taken as the more typical.

    Precision Crafted Ammunition 75 gr Swift Scirocco

    This is not a factory load. It was custom ammunition produced by Precision Crafted Ammunition (now defunct). I was very excited to discover that this long bullet could indeed be loaded to feed properly from an AR-15 magazine. The soft copper jacket of the Swift Scirocco may not be ideal for combat (due to fouling issues with high rate fire), but for law enforcement or hunting its the best in my judgment. The recovered bullet is a gorgeous perfect mushroom and retained 98% of its weight!

    Buffalo Bore Sniper 77 gr Sierra Match King

    This load by Buffalo Bore for its Sniper series of ammunition is slightly hotter than the Hornady TAP and Black Hills loads of the 75 grain Hornady match HP. There is a commercially available Black Hills load of the Sierra bullet, but I was not able to obtain this, so I don't know how its velocity compares (published information indicates that the Black Hills load is also a relatively high velocity). I doubted that the extra 100 fps of velocity accounts for the performance difference observed, but I have been told by a very well informed source that the 75 grain Hornady and 77 grain Nosler bullets seem to yaw and fragment more readily and consistently than does the Sierra Match King in both gel testing and actual use, so maybe 100 fps is significant after all. It would add (all else being equal) another 50 meters of effective range in any event. This is the winner in my testing, which is an interesting conclusion since this is essentially the Mk 262 Mod 1 load adopted by USSOCOM for its designated marksmen. In this test the Sierra Match King retained less weight than the 75 grain Hornady match bullets, yet what remained was slightly more substantial - a mass of naked lead amounting to about 44% of the original. The flattened ogive separated and pursued a diverging path about midway. Since it is a long bullet, it may also perform reasonably well past the point at which it deforms.

    General Remarks

    At the end of the day, what can we say about the 5.56 x 45 mm NATO cartridge? Is it adequate for combat? Arguably, yes. Are there better cartridges for this purpose? Undeniably. Equally undeniable is that the military ball loads are non-ideal. The best tactical load overall is a heavy match bullet loaded as fast as is prudent for the weapon in question: 75 grain Hornady match hollowpoint, 77 grain Nosler match hollowpoint (not tested) or 77 grain Sierra Match King in Black Hills, Buffalo Bore, Hornady TAP or similar loadings. These performed well, far better than I expected. The heavy bullets were superior to the light and medium weight bullets, despite the lower velocities - a somewhat surprising observation. I questioned prior to the test whether the heavy loads would perform well at these low velocities. Another observation worth noting is that a long bullet need not fragment to be effective - provided that it yaws and tumbles end over end at a relatively shallow depth. Making that happen is the trick.

    The 55 grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, 60 grain Nosler Partition, 64 grain Winchester-Western Power Point and 75 grain Swift Scirocco all expanded into classic mushrooms. These four are big game bullets in miniature. You expect great things from Trophy Bonded, Nosler and Swift, but I was amazed at the performance of the Winchester 64 grain Power Point. It did not penetrate as deeply as the Nosler Partition, nor make as large a cavity as the Bear Claw, but it made a significantly larger cavity at much greater depth than either of these. The absolute best performer was the heavy 75 grain Swift Scirocco. Among the hunting softpoints, it won on both penetration depth and largest wound cavity. Although none of these loads is really an ideal deer load, the 75 grain Swift Scirocco is what I would use if I had to shoot a deer with a .223 Remington.

    As evidenced here, the use of good ammunition removes some of the basis for a change in caliber. The military could save itself hundreds of millions (as compared with the cost of the new XM29 weapon and/or a caliber change) and significantly improve the effectiveness of our small arms if they did two things. First, DOD should supply the troops with ammunition designed to perform the intended role of the rifle (i.e., to kill the enemy). Any of the 75 or 77 grain loads tested would provide a step up in lethality. You could also design something better still - if deliberate lethality were permissible under legal review.

    Secondly, DOD should provide each rifle or carbine with an inexpensive, rugged and lightweight, low-power (2 - 5X) telescopic sight that doesn't need batteries to function. I love aperture sights. They are much better than plain open sights and its fun to hunt with quaint, antiquated technology. But they can't hold a candle to a good scope for rapidity of target acquisition and alignment (especially in poor light or with targets in low contrast against the background), as any hunter experienced with both can tell you, and there is no reason why our troops should be using quaint, antiquated technology.

    I don't really expect either of those two things to occur, but here it is for what its worth.

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