The Best In Stock (Maybe!) Ammo For Your AR15

The sticker means 'Arm Yourselves' In Irish Gaelic - Courtesy of A Better Way 2A.

In 2021, it seems kind of pointless to talk about the best ammo for your AR-15, right? I can make a bunch of recommendations for the best 5.56mm AR-15 ammunition, but most likely it’ll be out of stock. However, if you’re quick to the virtual trigger, you can still load up on ammo for your AR-15. Now grant it, some concessions will need to be made, but the ammo is out there. As we’ve covered in the podcast, the ammo companies are realizing this is no mere “bump” but it’s a more sustained craze - so they’re tooling up as much as the supply chain will allow…

There is a whole universe of 5.56mm and .223 ammunition for your AR-pattern rifle out there. Of course, the domestic suppliers are king with Hornady, Speer, Winchester, and Federal leading the pack. In prior years, I was a huge ammo snob. With the exception of Israeli Military Industries (IMI) ammo, I never let weird Balkan and Russian-branded ammo sully the innards of my Colt, Aero Precision, or Spike’s Tactical AR-15s.

Of course - 2020, and now 2021 changed all that. We have to take what we can find. The best ammo is the one that goes bang reliably - even if it’s dirty. You can always clean your guns more often.

Recommendations for 5.56mm & .223 AR-15 Ammo

I’m going to break it down a little differently in terms of recommendations. As with any firearms platform, there’s the ammo you train with, and then there’s the ammo you (hopefully never have to) fight with.

Best Ammo To Train With For Your AR-15

Much like with pistols, the best ammo to train with when running your 5.56mm AR-15 is your basic full-metal jacket loads. Typically the most common types will be 55-grain M193 or equivalent, or 62-grain M855 aka “green-tip” or equivalent. I’m mentioning “equivalent” since as of late, a lot of imported 5.56mm has been making the rounds, and it’s often labeled a little different.

62-grain 5.56mm M855 - aka “Green Tip”

Federal Premium 5.56mm M855 aka Green Tip from the LCAAP

One of the most common 5.56mm cartridges is is the M855 full-metal jacket “ball” round. Consisting of a 62-grain boat-tail projectile with a 7-grain steel core, the M855 was developed in the 1970s to provide a little more penetrative power as compared to it’s predecessor, the M193. Designated by a green-painted tip, it’s usually pretty easy to find, even now in 2021.

Several manufacturers produce M855 and label it as such. Winchester currently has the contract to operate the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, aka the LCAAP, so most M855 that shows up in the citizen sector is now in a Winchester box. You’ll still see a lot from Federal Premium from their time running LCAAP, as well. IMI from Israel has been shipping M855-marked boxes to the US, and there’s even some Russian Wolf-branded ammo bearing the designation. M855 isn’t a trademark, it’s only a US military designation - but companies worldwide will use the branding for ammo that meets the spec.

Anyway, this is the most common 5.56mm round out there. It’s primary use is for training, though in military service, it’s a common round used for combat, due to the steel penetrator core. It’s not legally classified as armor-piercing, mainly since at the time of it’s design, body armor was uncommon in military use. A good set of Level IV plates will stop M855 in reality.

Since it’s a full-metal jacket projectile, it’s not really designed to expand - you won’t get that wound cavity in soft tissue. Terminal performance is so-so at best. This fact alone pretty much relegates it to training use only.

Due to the steel core, a lot of indoor ranges prohibit it - since over time, multiple hits on their steel backstops will chew them up, creating a safety hazard, in addition to being a costly replacement for the range. For indoor facilities, fall back to M193.

Remember, that if you are going to run this or any heavier projectiles, your AR’s barrel must have a 1:8 twist rate or better for stabilization.

Can M855 be used for defense?

Sure - just remember that it’s an FMJ round and you’ll really need to be aware of your target and what’s beyond it. It’s not ideal, but if all you have is M855, it’s better than a pointy stick.

Wounding is accomplished by fragmentation, but the projectile has to be able to yaw and change course in tissue to do that. Tests and combat usage report alarming cases where the bullet just whizzes right through the target and it keeps coming. Try to have something else for defense, if possible.

Variants

  • F1. F1 is Australian-made M855. Same idea, but no green-tip.

  • SS109. The NATO designation of M855.

  • M855A1. This is the newer variant of M855 with a bigger steel penetrator. It hasn’t been sold directly to the citizen market as of yet, so anything you find online has been plucked from the military supply chain somewhere. It’s decent ammo, but no more so than any number of dedicated defensive 5.56mm loads that us Regular folk can get. FYI - any A1 for sale could be stolen. Buyer beware.

  • M856. M855 but with a tracer component. Light up the night. Remember tracers trace both ways.

A Note On The X

Some M855 boxes will be designated “XM855”. There’s a little-known US military policy which prohibits the resale of surplus ammo to the citizen sector. What we get from the LCAAP is “factory seconds”, i.e. ammo that didn’t make the cut after a quality control test. The ammo itself functions fine, but inspections deemed it unsuitable for military use - so it’s pulled from the line and sold to us Second Amendment Radicals. The “failure” is usually something mundane, i.e. the green paint isn’t applied correctly. What happens is that if there’s flawed rounds in a batch, the entire batch (regardless of the level of perfection of the rest) is pulled and set aside for commercial sale. The “X” denotes it’s been removed from the military order. The “X” is also used for contract overruns - the military orderd 1 billion rounds, LCAAP produces 1.1 billion, and the rest are “X’d” out.

Check For In-Stock 5.56mm M855 at Lucky Gunner

55-grain 5.56mm M193

Hornady Frontier M193 5.56mm M193 equivalent.

The original cartridge for the AR platform was the .223 Remington round. With some slight tweaks, it was adopted as “Cartridge, 5.56mm Ball, M193” aka just plain old M193. Sporting a 55-grain full-metal jacket projectile, this projectile was “made official” in September 1963.

The usual suspects make M193. Federal, Winchester, Hornady under their Frontier marque, as well as overseas manufacturers like IMI and Fiocchi. It’s a simple load, and it’s usually quite plentiful, even during panic times. You’ll also see a lot of Russian/former Combloc steel-cased ammo with a 55-grain projectile which is in theory equivalent to M193, but with the use of potentially inferior powder and primers, this may not be true.

The military doesn’t really use it anymore, so most output of M193 is for the citizen sector. Once a combat round, it was superseded by M855 in the 1970s, after a sobering experience by US forces in Vietnam, where the lighter projectile had issues penetrating foliage and light barriers.

Since M193 isn’t a penetrator round per se, it’s good to go at any indoor range, so if that’s where you train the most, stock up.

M193 is also usable in older and vintage ARs with 1:9 twist and 1:12 twist barrels - remember, it’s the original cartridge for the platform as defined by Stoner himself.

Can M193 be used for defense?

Any ammo can be used for defense if it comes down to it. Again, if all I have is my trusty AR-15 and a few magazines of M193 in a defensive situation, it beats a pointy stick. Interestingly enough, M193 actually fragments more than M855, since the projectile is almost uniformly lead. This leads to better performance against soft targets at 100 yards or less. Again, in a pinch, it’ll do something.

Variants

  • M1A3. South African M193. Probably can snag a case for a Krugerrand.

  • M196. M193 but in tracer form. M196 is harsh on your barrel so use sparingly.

Check For In-Stock 5.56mm M193 at Lucky Gunner

Best Defensive Ammo For Your AR-15

Beyond M855 and M193, there is a whole universe of 5.56mm and .223 loads tailored for hunting, sport, and defensive use. Of course, the million dollar question is whether the best defensive ammo for your AR is in stock, but if it is, there’s a few choice loads for defensive use in your AR-15. The recommendations below are based on my own personal experience and research. Sure, there’s other awesome defensive loads out there, but I don’t want to recommend that which I have not personally handled or shot.

Speer 75-grain Gold Dot Soft Point .223 Law Enforcement Ammo

Speer 75 grain Gold Dot Soft Point .223  ammo.

This is one of my favorite defensive loads. With a proven track record from law enforcement, this cartridge from Speer is simply superb. Though crafted to the .223 commercial spec rather than the military 5.56mm, this round is no slouch in the defensive department. The specially-constructed Gold Dot Soft point projectile has excellent weight-retention, even through barriers such as heavy clothing, auto glass, and plywood.

In citizen use, you aren’t shooting through the latter two usually, but with a barrier-blind projectile, you can be assured of excellent performance, with the bullet expanding only when you “need it to”, i.e. when it is inside the soft tissue of the target, creating an impressive wound cavity which aids in incapacitation.

One thing I dig about this round is that it just works out of a variety of barrel lengths. You can load it up in your 11.5” AR pistol or SBR build, or in a standard 16” setup, and not have to worry about performance. It goes bang, and does the job extremely well. Much like the Gold Dots for pistols, Speer delivers with this amazing rifle round.

Check For In-Stock Speer 75-grain Gold Dot Soft Point .223

Black Hills 77-grain Tipped Match King 5.56mm

Black Hills 77-grain Tipped Match King 5.56mm ammo.

The undisputed champions of ammunition design are none other than Black Hills out of South Dakota. In the game since 1981, they have elevated the art of ammunition production to utterly amazing levels. It’s to the point where they supply testing ammunition to most major firearms manufacturers. When testing, you want to rule out all variables, and the last thing you want to worry about is some weird anomalies in the ammo you’re using. With Black Hills, you’re not worrying about that. Anything they produce is consistent with repeatable precision and accuracy in the hands of a trained marksman or markswoman. Is that a word? Well, it is now.

Their 77-grain Tipped Match King 5.56mm is just simply amazing. Sporting the Sierra Bullets 77-grain TMK projectile, this ballistic-tipped (it’s got a green polymer tip for more uniform performance upon target arrival) wonder excels, even at longer ranges.

The Tipped Match King projectile is described as being ideal for taking down mid-sized game (yes, you can hunt with an AR-15, Fudds…) which does roughly translate to being a suitable defensive round as well. This sort of versatility is great, which is why I’m very loath to shoot my stash of this amazing ammunition these days. Even during the good times, it’s hard to acquire - and now, you just gotta be dedicated and quick to snag a box or two.

Described as a variant of the military’s Mk262 Mod 1 - which makes sense since Black Hills developed that, as well - the 77-grain Tipped Match King 5.56mm is pretty much in the upper pantheon of ammunition for your AR-15. It’s as precise as you are, and if you’re really looking to work on some long-range precision out of your AR-15 rifle, this is the ammo to use - the sheer quality means you can rule it out as a variable. It’s you, not the ammo.

Flat-out not want to worry about your ammo performance? This is it. The Black Hills 77-grain Tipped Match King 5.56mm is simply the best, whether it’s for hunting, or defensive use. Go with it. If you can find it in these crazy times.

Brownells

Check For In-Stock Black Hills 77-grain Tipped Match King 5.56mm

Oddities

Anyone ever run this 223 ammo from Winchester?

Grabbing ammo, especially for the most popular rifle platform in the US, the AR-15, is a competitive sport these days. As I stated prior, I used to be an ammo snob prior to all this nonsense. Steel-cased anything would never sully my AR-pattern rifles, and I even glanced askance at normally-OK brands from Brasil, Israel, Czech Republic, the Balkans, and so on. To be honest, ammo hailing from most of those places is made on modern equipment using similar propellants to domestic ammo, so it was mostly me being an ass.

However, in this day and age, if you want to “stay current”, you gotta make some sacrifices. You’ll run into all sorts of weird brands and configurations for 5.56mm and .223 these days. A lot of Russian steel-cased stuff. It’ll go bang, but it’s dirty, and that funky lacquer coating to minimize the wear on your gun can leave some funky residue over time. Just clean your gear more thoroughly. Also be aware that quality control, much like a lot of things behind the former Iron Curtain, is a variable at best. You’ll run into failures more often, which is good for training I guess, but I wouldn’t want to bet my life on a mag full of Russian .223, to be sure.

Additionally, I’ve seen in-stock quantities of frangible ammo making the rounds. While extremely cool and useful for training, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for defensive use. The ammo is designed explicitly to shatter and go “poof” when it hits something. To be sure, someone who has been shot with frangible 5.56mm ammunition will be in a world of hurt, or maybe even dead, but it’s far from ideal. Pick it up for training, but don’t buy the weird myths about it “fragmenting” and “messing the guy up” that make the rounds on Reddit or wherever.

Oh, and double-check that you aren’t buying blanks. Those won’t work.

Protip - if the ammo isn’t in stock, set up an email alert with the vendor. It helps!

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