First developed from a commercially available sporting cartridge, the .223 Remington and its 5.56 NATO cousin, along with the guns that use them, are among the most popular in circulation. 

The story began in 1950 with the rimless, bottlenecked .222 Remington, an accurate and flat-shooting varmint and target cartridge that "Big Green" introduced with a companion Model 722 bolt-action rifle chambered for the new round. That well-loved and still viable round by May 1957 had been tweaked to become what was dubbed the .222 Remington Special and was soon tapped by upstart rifle maker ArmaLite for its prototype new AR-15 rifle – with the "AR" standing for the first two letters in the company's name. Contrary to trendy belief, “AR” does not stand for "assault rifle" or "automatic rifle."

The lightweight carbine was based on Eugene Stoner's AR-10 of the same manufacturer. 

In March 1958, ArmaLite submitted 10 new AR-15s chambered in .222 Special to Fort Benning for the Infantry Board field trials, but the Army wasn't enamored with the gun. Soon the company sold the rights to the handy little carbine to Colt, which started making the guns in late 1959, with small orders filled with Malaysia and India. 
 

ArmaLite AR-15 number 8 at the Springfield Armory Museum
ArmaLite AR-15 No. 8, one of the very first 1957-made guns chambered in what would later be dubbed .223 Remington, is in the Springfield Armory Museum Collection – complete with a Hollywood, California rollmark. (Photos: SPAR


The first consumer review hit the stands in the October 1959 "Guns" magazine, with the testers using ArmaLite AR-15 Serial No. 000001, chambered in .222 Rem Spl. During roughly the same timeline, the .222 Rem Spl became known as the .223 Remington, to avoid confusion. 

Then, at a Fourth of July party in 1960, General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was given a chance to zap watermelons with a new-made Colt AR-15 and soon recommended that the service purchase enough of the new guns to replace aging WWII-era M1 and M2 Carbines used by the Air Force's Security Police. In December 1961, the first contract for 1,000 guns was issued by the Pentagon, and just two years later, the Army was onboard for adopting the rifle in select-fire format, dubbed the XM16E1 and then later the M16. 

By 1963, Colt was advertising the AR-15 Sporter, later dubbed the Model R6000 SP1 Sporter Rifle, to the consumer market. 
 

1963 Colt AR-15 sporter ad
"If you’re a hunter, camper, or collector, you’ll want the AR-15 Sporter," reads the circa-1963 ad copy. By 1969, something like 15,000 SP1s had been made. 

 

.223 Rem? 5.56 NATO? Or 223 Wylde?


Although the Air Force had initially classified the .223 round as the "5.64mm Ball MLU-26/P," with 19 million rounds ordered from Remington in 1963, the Army would type classify their original preferred loading as "Cartridge, 5.56mm Ball, M193." 

Not getting into the weeds too much on this, however, it wasn't until October 1980 that, as part of STANAG 4172, the 5.56 NATO that we know today was standardized. Keeping .223 Rem and 5.56 NATO apart these days comes down to headstamp and barrel markings, with the general rule of thumb being it is safe to use .223 in a 5.56-marked barrel but not 5.56 NATO ammo in a .223-marked barrel, with .223 Wylde chamberings being more universal. 
 

Becoming America's Caliber


In 1969, only a few years after the SP1 was introduced, ArmaLite was selling a completely different semi-auto AR chambered in .223 – Eugene Stoner's AR-180. Already Colt was getting competition. 

Besides the SP1 and AR180 semi-autos, in 1973 – just a decade after the first .223 sporters hit the consumer market –Ruger introduced the Mini-14. Styled on the M14 but downsized to use the smaller .223 round, one of the Ruger's rifle's chief engineers was L. James Sullivan, a man who had done lots of work on the AR-15 previously. 
 

Mini-14 GB
The Mini-14 first hit the market while Nixon was in office, and well over 3 million have been made since then. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)
1974 Shooter's Bible
In the early 1970s, if you were looking for a .223 sporter, you could get a side-folding ArmaLite AR-180 for $294, a Colt SP1 for $252, or a Ruger Mini-14 for $200, as seen in this vintage Shooter's Bible.


By the time of Reaganomics and the debut of MTV, Colt's grip on the AR-15 markets had begun to slide and companies like Olympic Arms and Bushmaster were on the scene making their own. Added to this were exotic .223-caliber imports from Europe and even Asia – such as the Daewoo MAX-1 from South Korea and Norinco Type 84S from China – beginning to hit American shores. 
 

Can't Stop the Signal


While President George H.W. Bush banned the imports of 43 types of mostly .223 caliber semi-automatic rifles in March 1989, and President Clinton dropped a domestic ban hammer via his signature of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban five years later, they couldn't stamp out the round and the guns that used it. Despite the bans, aesthetically abominable imports, clad in featureless thumbhole stocks and carrying abbreviated magazines, still came in, while domestically made ARs appeared with the same sort of cosmetic compliance in place. Meanwhile, the Ruger Mini-14/Ranch Rifle remained in steady production.

 

A Kimber-imported Daewoo DR-200 .223 sporter of the AWB era. Note the thumbhole stock.
A Kimber-imported Daewoo DR-200 .223 sporter of the AWB era. Note the thumbhole stock. 


Turned out, folks just really liked the .223, especially when people said they shouldn't. 

Once the shackles of the federal AWB fell away with the law's sunset in 2004, AR production skyrocketed as millions of gun owners who languished under the ban sought out a once-forbidden "evil black rifle" of their own. This almost insatiable demand led to more than 200 AR makers by 2020. This included production by "traditional" gun companies that had never made such rifles.

Then, the guns started shrinking. Besides the general whittling down in preferred barrel length from 20-inchers to 16 and even 13.7s with pinned-and-welded muzzle devices to make them NFA compliant (for now at least), the concept of .223-caliber large format pistols came about. The first American-made AR pistols debuted in 1993 with the Rocky Mountain Arms Patriot – if you don't count the Gwinn/Bushmaster Armpistol of the 1970s – and shortly after William Dafoe's onscreen use of the similar Olympic OA93 in the Tom Clancy film "Clear and Present Danger" cemented the concept. 
 

Clear and present danger screen capture
That M81 aesthetic, though. (Photos: Screencaps via IMFDB)


While the figure is not comprised of just .223-caliber semi-auto rifles, the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates that over 24 million black rifles were produced domestically or imported from abroad between 1990 and 2021. The trade group sees rifles of its type as the most common in private consumer ownership. 
 

 

Moreover, it goes almost without saying that, true to its .222 Remington varmint/target roots, there are plenty of single-shot, lever-action, and bolt-action .223s on the market today.

With that, head on out to the range with your favorite .223 today, if possible, and celebrate that little round that could.

revolver barrel loading graphic

Loading