About a year ago we were hanging out with our gunsmith Travis Redell of RBros Rifles and we asked him what our next build should be. In the back of our minds we were expecting him to recommend one of the more powerful 6.5mm cartridges or a flat shooting 6mm. Instead Travis recommended we both build .223 trainers. His response was interesting but not terribly exciting. Fast forward a bit to the 2015 SilencerCo Quiet Riot when we had a chance to spend some quality time with a very successful shooter Bryan Morgan (Ed was actually lucky enough to be squadded with him). Bryan shared that he spends most of his time practicing with a .223 trainer and only shoots his match rifle for the most part to make sure it’s sighted in.
After some additional research and contemplation, we started to get excited about our trainers with the following objectives and benefits in mind:
- Reduced wear on our match rifles (we were going through two barrels a year on our 6.5×47 Lapua match rifles)
- Reduced cost – we could shoot 200 rounds in a practice session vs 75 – 100 for the same cost
- Time savings – we could reload sub-moa ammo on a progessive with no need to weigh individual charges
- Reduced recoil allowing for focus on fundamentals
- Superb barrel life – 5,000 rounds at a minimum with some reporting practical accuracy up to 7,500 rounds and beyond
We want to give special thanks to our sponsors Defiance Machine and RBros Rifles for making our builds possible. BTW, if you place an order through Defiance you can get a really cool serial number limited only by your imagination and whatever the BATF considers acceptable.
.223 or .223 AI
We had to decide between .223 AI and plain old .223. In our case most of our practice takes place at 200 yards so we didn’t need the extra velocity, and purchasing new dies and forming brass for the .223 AI didn’t excite us. Depending on who we spoke with, some reported feeding issues with the .223 AI and one notable shooter said they were going to switch from .223 AI to .223 with their next barrel change.
On the other hand, there are folks who use their .223 trainers for matches out to 600 yards. In that case, .223 AI is the right choice especially if your main match rifle is a barrel burner. A .223 AI pushing 75gr Amax bullets at 3,050 fps has near identical ballistics out to 600 yards.
We ended up going with plain old .223. However, we are still able to hit targets out to 900 yards so we don’t feel handicapped at all.
You can learn more about the .223 vs .223 AI by reading this informative article.
We didn’t expect the selection of a .223 magazine to be much of an issue as we were going to go with the Accuracy International polymer magazines. Unfortunately they stopped manufacturing what had become a bit of an industry standard for those shooting .223. After a bit of searching with came across two magazines – one made by Accurate Mag and the other made by MDT.
Both magazines require slight modification depending on your use case (go to the 7 minute mark on our video below where we provide a full explanation). The Accurate Mag has some ridges on the back that interfere with the trigger guard on the XLR chassis. Fortunately these ridges can be filed or sanded down with minimal effort. The Accurate Mag will not accept cartridges much longer than standard AR magazine length but this can be remedied by removing a small plastic tab in front of the follower. The plastic tab doesn’t seem to serve any purpose and it impairs the usability of the magazine, so why they put it there is a mystery.
Both magazines are a good choice with the MDT being about half the price of the Accurate Mag. Unless you run an XLR chassis (or others with similar trigger guards) you can use this magazine without any modification. On the other hand, the dimensions of the Accurate Mag are identical to a 10 round AICS mag which is an important consideration as your .223 trainer should be as close to your match rifle as possible. The Accurate Mags are also a bit smoother and have a higher quality feel.
Area of Accurate Magazine plastic insert to be modified
Area of MDT Magazine to be modified
Lake City Brass is a popular choice among competitive shooters and we both had an adequate quantity on hand from feeding our AR-15s. The primer pockets are crimped and we explored two options to address that. The first option is the Dillon Primer Pocket Swager. This tool indexes of the web of the case so your results can be inconsistent due to flash hole burs or lot to lot variations in brass. When it works it works great, but it’s easy to over swage or under swage primer pockets due to brass variations or improper adjustment. Another option is to use a tool such as the RCBS deburring tool hooked up to a drill. This option is our preferred choice. We recognize that there are other tools available and we will try them as they become available to us.
While there are many different powders for use in the .223, we decided to go with IMR XBR 8208 due to it’s ease of metering. It’s an extruded powder, but it meters just as well as any ball powder (H335 for example). In addition, XBR 8208 is very resistant to temperature changes and has a reputation for accuracy.
We use CCI 450 primers primarily because they are our go to primers for our 6.5×47 loads and we wanted to avoid stocking a different primer for our .223 loads. We tried Remington 7-1/2 Benchrest primers too. They were much hotter than the CCI 450 primers and increased SD and ES measurements significantly. We were able to get our SD under 10fps with the CCI 450 primers so we called it a day. Other shooters report excellent results with Federal Small Rifle Match primers, but we didn’t have any on hand to test.
As far as bullets are concerned, the Hornady 75gr Amax seems to be an all around favorite. They are very accurate and can be had for less than 20 cents each (less if you buy in bulk). Some of our audience members report excellent results with the 80gr Amax. We’ve got some 55gr Nosler ballistic tips that are waiting to be loaded up for an eventual introduction to some overripe watermelons and cantaloupes courtesy of our local grocer.
We also tried out some of the XM193 ball ammo. Some of the lots proved to be decent (1 – 1.5 MOA) but other lots would through some wild flyers. We were hoping for better, but for now XM193 will serve as a source of brass after feeding our AR-15s.
We were unable to make it to the range for a more formal load development session, so Ed wanted to see if he could find a good load shooting out his back door armed only with a chronograph. It was raining hard that day so Ed didn’t feel like posting paper targets which would have turned to pulp in minutes. Reliable sources were reporting that 24.5 (twenty-four point five) grains of XBR 8208 combined with 75gr Amax bullets made for an excellent bolt gun load (WARNING: Our attorney Saul Goodman reminds us to remind you of the following: This is a hot load and way too hot for your AR15 or other gas guns. Always work your way up to any recommended load looking for pressure signs. If you are not sure of what you are doing STOP and seek advice from more experienced reloaders).
As 24.5 grains was above published maximums, and out of concern for lot to lot variations with components, Ed embraced the best practice of working up some loads checking for pressure signs. After confirming that 24.5 grains (and slightly above) didn’t show any pressure signs Ed worked up some loads below and above in .2 grain increments. Long story short, 24.5 grains gave the lowest SD and ES. Even more interesting was the impact of seating depth on SD and ES with 1.942″ from base to ogive giving the best result (SD of 6 and ES of 16). This was good enough for a practice load and subsequent range sessions showed this to be a sub 1/2 MOA load. Furthermore, it confirmed our belief that a reasonably accurate load can be arrived at with only a chronograph. As Ed was using mixed headstamp Lake City brass, he decided to weigh brass to see if there was any noticeable improvement and there wasn’t.
Summarized load specifications (WARNING – way too hot for use in your AR15 or other gas guns):
- 24.5 (twenty-four point five) grains IMR XBR 8208 powder (excellent choice for using with powder measure on a progressive reloader)
- 75 grain Amax bullets (relatively inexpensive yet accurate)
- CCI 450 primers
- Lake City Brass (mixed headstamp)
- Base to ogive of 1.942″ (using Hornady tool)
- COAL 2.486 (the polymer tips on the Amax bullets make for extremely consistent measurement from round to round)
- In a 26″ barrel, expect to see an average velocity around 2900 fps.
Typical 100 yard 5 shot group – more than adequate for a practice load
The objective was to emulate our match rifles as closely as possible. Here are our configurations:
- Defiance Deviant Action
- Broughton Light Varmint 7.1 countor, 8 RH Twist, 26″ threaded 5/8×24 for use with suppressor (mainly to avoid bothering the wife when shooting out a window between conference calls)
- Vortex Razor HD Gen II with EBR 1-C reticle with Seekins 1″ matched rings
- Manners T2A stock
- Jewell Trigger
- Harris 6-9 swivel bipod with Tactical Supply Talon feet
- Defiance Deviant Action
- Broughton Light Varmint 7.1 countor, 8 RH Twist, 24″ threaded 5/8×24 for use with suppressor
- US Optics Scope LR17 with Horus H59 Reticle with American Rifle Company rings
- XLR Carbon Chassis
- Jewell Trigger (for now) with plan to switch to a Huber Staged Break trigger
- Harris 6-9 swivel bipod with Tactical Supply Talon feet
We are absolutely thrilled with our .223 trainers and they are quickly becoming our favorite rifles to shoot. The ability to shoot 200 rounds in a training session without fatigue and without breaking the bank is a huge game changer for us. The rifles are so easy to shoot accurately that we had to move from a 4″ steel target at 200 yards to a 2-3/4″ target for positional practice because the larger target no longer presented a challenge.
This might be a controversial statement to make, but for those getting into the sport we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a .223 as a first rifle. If you went with .223 AI you would loose nothing to other cartridges when competing in matches out to 600 yards. We didn’t believe that at first, but compare a 75gr Amax at 2900 fps (or 3050 fps in the case of the .223 AI) to what you are using now. With a .223 trainer rifle, you can spend your time perfecting your technique without being encumbered by fatigue inducing recoil and the associated expense of other cartridges. If you already have a match rifle, we would strongly recommend a trainer in straight .223 for convenience and maximum barrel life.