Long Guns, Short Yardage: Is .223 the Best Home Defense Caliber?
February 10, 2012
One sure way to liven up a day at the range is to ask a group of shooters what they think is the best weapon for home defense. For years that argument was divided into two camps: the pistol crowd and the shotgun crowd. Proponents of the pistol argue its compactness and maneuverability; the shotgunners argue stopping power and "fudge factor" when aiming, as it's a little harder to miss, even when stressed, when you're sending a cloud of projectiles downrange out of a long gun. In the past few years, however, a third school of thought has steadily been growing — that of the rifle as the best home-defense weapon. Specifically, the AR15 platform and the .223/5.56mm cartridge.
At a recent Winchester event, I found out about a new NSSF survey revealing that more than 12 percent of the respondents said they had purchased rifle ammunition in the past year for self-defense. The results shouldn't have surprised me as much as they did. I was reminded that the NSSF did a survey of over 12,000 respondents in 2010, and home defense was the No. 2 reason (behind recreational shooting, before hunting) for owning a "Modern Sporting Rifle," NSSF's term for ARs.
While careers have been made arguing over the effectiveness of the FMJ rounds our troops have been required to use in their M16s and M4s, civilians interested in using an AR-style rifle for personal defense don't have those same limitations on their choice of projectiles. In the last few years, manufacturers have really made a concerted effort to produce ammunition designed for self-defense — not hunting or plinking or target shooting, but rounds specifically created for defense against two-legged predators.
The new .223 PDX1 loads from Winchester, with their split-core technology (SCT), are the latest example of these types of rifle rounds that have benefitted from modern manufacturing technology. Winchester performs exhaustive testing of the terminal performance of all of their defensive products, in ballistic gelatin and through the types of barriers likely to be encountered (as a result of the FBI test protocols established over 20 years ago).
But before we get to the bullet specifics, let's talk about why the concept of using a rifle for home defense is seeing a surge.
Military-style rifles have always been popular in this country, but since September 11, 2001, the sales of the AR15 and its clones have skyrocketed — just look at how many companies are making them now. There are a number of factors behind this — increased exposure to the weapon system via media, fears of terrorism and the realization of just how fun the darn things are to shoot. Fully 30 percent of the respondents in the NSSF survey purchased their "MSR" in just the last two years.
The Overpenetration Question
Overpenetration has always been a concern when discussing the use of firearms in a dwelling, so the knee-jerk reaction has been to immediately eliminate a rifle as a suitable option. However, in the last several decades there have been exhaustive studies about what pistol and shotgun projectiles do when fired indoors, and those results are very interesting (and not in a good way).
Proponents of the pistol for home defense like to think that because it's "just" a pistol round, overpenetration really won't be an issue. Such is not the case. Drywall sheets and hollow-core doors (which are what you'll find in the majority of homes and apartments in this country) offer almost no resistance to bullets. Unless brick or cinderblock was used somewhere in your construction, any pistol cartridge powerful enough to be thought of as suitable for self-defense is likely to fly completely through every wall in your abode. In fact, hollowpoint pistol bullets tend to plug up as they go through drywall, turning them — in effect — into round-nose bullets. Round buckshot pellets are just as bad, and shotgun slugs are worse.
These same concerns about overpenetration are what kept people away from considering the rifle for home defense. For years many people just assumed they knew what would happen to a rifle bullet fired indoors — it would go through every wall available and then exit the building. While armor-piercing and FMJ ammunition is specifically designed to do this, extensive testing has shown that light, extremely fast-moving .223 projectiles (including FMJs) often fragment when they hit a barrier as soft as thin plywood.
When talking about the effectiveness of rifle bullets on people, ballisticians and armchair commandos throw around a number of technical terms, such as "hydrostatic shock" and "temporary wound cavity." The simple fact is that the more of its energy a bullet can dump into a target, the more effective it will be. Full metal jacketed ammunition has a tendency to zip right through, and while the resulting wound might cause the person to bleed to death, until they do there's a good chance they'll go on posing a threat. Projectiles designed either to stop in the body or cause a great deal of tissue upset work much better at immediately stopping the threat. That's why police talk about the "stopping power" of a cartridge rather than its "killing power."
When using rifle ammunition with projectiles designed specifically for personal defense, such as Winchester's new .223 PDX1 loadings, fragmentation is assured. Bullets striking an intruder will separate into smaller, lighter pieces and — most likely — not overpenetrate and exit the body as errant shrapnel. All of the energy generated will then be transferred into the target. If the round fired is a miss and hits only wood or drywall, the projectile will break apart into smaller pieces — while these are still dangerous, their potential for injury, or penetration of additional walls, is much less than a pistol bullet or buckshot pellet. Many SWAT teams are using M4-type rifles, and overpenetration, when your teammate may be on the other side of the wall, is a major concern.
A Split-Core Solution
The Winchester .223 PDX1 projectile has a split core. The front half of the bullet has a protected hollowpoint to initiate expansion. It is not bonded to the back half of the bullet, so when it impacts it expands and fragments, usually in the first six inches of travel. This creates a very impressive wound cavity. The rear core of the bullet is welded to the jacket to ensure penetration. Winchester engineers did this because much of the .223 ammunition marketed for self-defense is loaded with nothing more than thin-jacketed repurposed varmint bullets, which expand very rapidly but may not penetrate deeply enough to be effective on a man-sized target. With Winchester's PDX1's SCT bullet, you can have the best of both worlds.
New for 2011 from Winchester are a 77-grain .223 PDX1 loading and a 120-grain .308 offering. Both have been optimized for massive and rapid energy deposit and are being marketed as personal defense rounds suitable for use at what, for a rifle, is point-blank range (25 yards and under). But even with advanced bullet design, I'm not sure I'd want to use anything heavier than a .223 inside a home. But plenty of people live in rural areas where their property line is "over there somewhere," and for them, and for the police marksman who often has to shoot through glass, a rapidly expanding .308 Winchester round would be very useful.
Just how effective are these rifle rounds? Our troops have been in combat overseas for more than eight years, and I've heard hundreds of anecdotes about the effectiveness of the 5.56. Our troops are usually engaging the enemy in urban environments, at distances often similar to what a homeowner might encounter when confronted by an intruder. For every story about an insurgent soaking up hit after hit without effect, you can find troops who will tell you that when you hit what you're aiming at, the M4 puts the bad guys down — and this is with ammo specifically designed not to expand.
Why the AR Rules
Looking at the AR platform itself, I think it has several selling points that make it a better choice for home defense than a pistol or shotgun, at least in most circumstances. First, while it may not be as maneuverable indoors as a pistol, the length of the rifle will make it point much more naturally, increasing the chances of hitting the target. Second, unlike shotguns, most such rifles will be fed by 20- or 30-round magazines and have much less recoil than a smoothbore.
The M4 is the preferred arm of SWAT teams across the country. Most of the shooting data involving AR-style rifles loaded with modern expanding ammunition comes from law enforcement sources. While they do not go out of their way to broadcast their investigative and autopsy findings, actual shooting results show that ARs loaded with modern defensive ammunition designed to expand — such as the .223 PDX1 — work very, very well.
Personally, though I put on a pistol every day when I get dressed, my designated home-defense weapon is a lightweight M4-style carbine from Bravo Company. I keep it out of sight but conveniently located for easy access.
I love my Glock, but there are certain things a pistol just can't do.