Guidance: The Case for a .223 Trainer

Recently, I had the opportunity to review a Trainer Rifle chambered in .223 REM from the fine folks at Accurate Ordnance. It was an outstanding rifle, and unlike some rifles I drop off at UPS, I was very sad to see it head back home to one of AO’s owners, Mark Kuczka.

When I asked Mark for an overview of his design goals for a .223 Trainer, he sent the following paragraph over along with the technical specs on the rifle:

Requirements for me were to have longer barrel life than my main 6.5 Creedmoor rifle, cheaper to shoot, similar weight & feel of my primary competition rifle.  It is a benefit to have a light recoiling rifle for training newer shooters which I’ll also do with this.  That this caliber is tougher to shoot in the wind at distance is actually a big training benefit!  It forces the shooter to get better at wind reading.

In my testing, I never got to validate the barrel life claims, but I did find it to be an almost recoilless rifle that could absolutely be a challenge to shoot in the wind with the “right” ammo. From the moment I taped the box up and slapped a label on it, I’ve been thinking about owning a .223 Trainer of my own, but I wanted to more fully understand the various facets of ownership to help inform my decision. Naturally, I turned to Excel and JBM Ballistics to put numbers to my subjective interpretations.

***Note: the entirety of the referenced spreadsheet is linked at the end of this article. You are free to download the spreadsheet and use it for your own personal use. You are forbidden from publishing it elsewhere without my express written consent***

Trainer Rifles 

Generally speaking, a trainer rifle is one modeled after a competition rifle chambered in a cartridge that allows for lower cost of operations and better development of skill surrounding wind reading. It should use the same stock, action type, and (ideally) optic.

As most rifles on the precision rifle competition circuit are chambered in a 6.5 of some flavor, the common wisdom is to chamber a trainer in either .308 WIN or .223 REM. Mark has also played around with the idea of a .22 LR chambered trainer, but for the purposes of this article, I evaluated a 6.5 Creedmoor competition rifle against a .223 REM or .308 WIN chambered trainer.

Recoil

One of Mark’s design goals was to reduce recoil as much as possible while still maintaining competent external ballistics.

Practice should really be called “data collection” for the serious shooter as a trip to the range is focused entirely on collecting data to inform future decisions. In my experience, the two most important moments in the shooting “cycle” are the moment the trigger breaks and the moment the bullet impacts.

On the trigger break, you should be evaluating the reticle to see where your aiming point was at the moment the shot broke. This is the entire reason any instructor worth their salt recommends hundreds of hours of dry fire – you’re evaluating what happens in the moments before and after the trigger breaks.

With a heavier recoiling rifle, this moment is hard to work through as the reticle is easily lost in the chaos of recoil. Using Mark’s trainer, I was effectively able to isolate some flinch, correct it, and shrink my group sizes.

After the shot breaks, you should be back on the scope as soon as possible to spot your impact. Assuming your reticle was where you wanted it when the shot broke, you can see if your wind and ranging calls were correct. Confident in the first part of the shot, you can evaluate and adjust for any subsequent shots. The reduced recoil of a .223 REM trainer ensures that you’ll be able to get back on the scope faster to watch your impact.

I plugged the necessary data into JBM’s Recoil Calculator to better understand the numbers behind this subjective impression, and was shocked to see just how much less recoil a .223 REM chambered 14 lb rifle has. Intuitively, I knew it would be a significant, but I didn’t anticipate the actual numbers. If reducing recoil is your primary concern, a .223 trainer is the only way to go.

Psychology of Group Size

On my first outing with Mark’s rifle, I looked at my targets and declared that I was having a “Real shit day on the range.” It looked like I’d been patterning a shotgun instead of shooting a $4000 precision rifle.

I came home and dutifully logged my data to find that, yes, it wasn’t my best day of shooting, but all my groups with quality ammo had been sub MOA.

Intrigued by that, I thought about it for a few seconds, and promptly smacked my forehead when I realized that, yep, small holes cover less of a target than larger holes.

In my linked Excel sheet, there is a tab called “Bullet Sizing” that compares the area covered by various bullet diameters, and their relative coverage of a 1 MOA diameter circle. I used that data to produce the graphic above which shows a five shot .223 group on the left against a 5 shot .308 on the right. Both fit within a 1MOA circle, but one looks much better than the other.

In fact, I found that five non touching .224 diameter holes cover 22.9% of a circle 1 MOA in diameter while five non touching .308 holes cover 43.3% of the same target.

When I’m shooting for groups, I’m evaluating the group size as a whole through the scope, and you better believe that shrinking groups is never far from my mind. I’m trying to punch out ragged holes on paper, and that’s significantly harder with a .223 than it is with a .308.

External Ballistics

Fortunately for shooters, there are many quality match projectiles for consideration in the three calibers evaluated. Unfortunately for writers on the internet, there are many quality match projectiles for consideration in the three calibers evaluated!

In an effort to keep things as consistent as possible, I elected to stick with Berger’s VLD offerings in each caliber at what I figured to be relatively achievable velocities. Undoubtedly, someone will disagree with my data selection, but luckily for all of us, JBM’s ballistic calculator is available for all.

What can be broadly agreed upon is that the best projectile out of a 6.5 Creemdoor will outperform the best projectile out of both the .223 REM and .308 WIN for drop and wind, no matter the projectile. This is settled science, and if you don’t believe me, consider that most precision rifle competitions break off .223 REM and .308 WIN chambered rifles into their own class from everyone else because of the performance disadvantage.

A 75 gr Berger VLD at a muzzle velocity of 2800 fps will hang within (an arbitrarily chosen) 2 inches of a 140 VLD at 2700 fps out to the 500 yard line in my simulation. Push the smaller Berger a little faster and it gets a bit better, but there’s some diminishing return on that sort of behavior.

A 175 Berger VLD at a muzzle velocity of 2600 fps does quite a bit worse, only staying within two inches of elevation out to roughly 300 yards. Like the 223, you can push the 308 faster, but it’s just never going to be as slick as the 140 VLD. If you shoot a lot of unknown distance competitions, the 308 would be a great pick for a trainer as it will demand that you’re doing a great job ranging targets where the 6.5 and .223 leave a bit more cushion.

Where the 223 gives up ground in a big way is when it gets windy. There’s no two ways about it, that little bullet is going to get pushed around in the wind.

Cal Zant at PrecisionRifleBlog.com wrote an excellent piece using Applied Ballistics WEZ tool to quantify “what matters” as it relates to long range shooting. No surprise, reading the wind is the number one thing you can improve on to make a big impact in your ability to make big impacts downrange.

Setting yourself up to fail with an inferior cartridge will absolutely pay dividends if you make it a priority to go out on windy days and shoot (and miss). Each shot is a datapoint that will absolutely help you get better. Keep in mind that I used a good performing bullet in the 75 gr. VLD. Should you elect to use bulk 55 gr. ammo, you’ll struggle even more which, if managed well, should help you become a much better shooter with your slick shooting 6.5.

Long story short, a .308 WIN trainer is going to punish poor range finding, but hang closer to the 6.5 in the wind, unless you choose a poor performing bullet to degrade performance in the wind. The .223 REM will hang with the .308 WIN for elevation, but will get beat up in the wind. Personally, wind calls are way more important to me than accurate ranging.

Energy Transfer

When I questioned Mark about the competition utility of this rifle, he had the following to say:

I will absolutely use the rifle in competition!  The only downside is that at further distances an inexperienced RO may not see impacts or trace well.  For that reason I will limit the rifle use to matches where the COF is 90% 600 yards and closer.

In my experience with various .223 chambered rifles, he’s not wrong at all. Spotting for my friends at 500+ yards, I need to be on my game to spot hits on steel with a .223. In my experience, shooters using a .308 WIN or 6.5 CM are simply not having those issues until well past the 1000 yard line. This is a fundamental physics problem.

Moving steel plates requires work which is equal the change in energy of an object. We can easily quantify kinetic energy. It is equal to 1/2 of mass multiplied by velocity squared. Kinetic Energy is the only reliable measure of “plate swinging ability” and the .223 REM simply doesn’t have the juice to do the deal. If you plan on having your trainer do double duty as a competition rifle, and the course of fire regularly exceeds 600 yards, you will likely be better served by a trainer chambered in .308 WIN.

Barrel Life

Barrel life is heavily dependent on usage. If you shoot one round every few minutes, allowing the barrel to cool completely between shots, you could see truly excellent barrel life from even the hottest overbored cartridge. Similarly, if you treat your bolt gun like a machine gun, even the tamest .308 WIN is going to see throat erosion and a degradation in accuracy much earlier than anticipated.

As I mentioned above, I was unable to fully test Mark’s claims about barrel life, but it is safe to say that if treated like their 6.5 Creedmoor precision rifle companion, both .223 REM and .308 WIN chambered trainer rifles will outperform the overbore 6.5 CM from a barrel life perspective. For the purposes of my simulation, I assumed 1500 rounds of life for a competition 6.5 Creedmoor and 5000 rounds for a 223 and 308 trainer.

Consumable Costs

All things being equal, there are two major consumable costs in a bolt action rifle – ammo and barrels. Barrel life is heavily influenced by usage, but ammo is a pretty straightforward calculation, especially for factory ammo.

Calculating per round costs with reloaded ammo is a bit harder because brass life is similarly dependent on usage and loss. Put together weak loads and collect all your brass and you save money on reloading. Blow primers and leave your brass behind at matches, and you’ll be spending more. I elected to use five firings for brass, but you’re welcome to change the numbers to suit your experience.

I realized fairly quickly that I needed to evaluate the raw costs of four different ammo types

  1. Premium Reloads – This is ammo that uses high quality brass and projectiles
  2. Cheap Reloads – This is ammo that uses cheaper brass and lower cost projectiles
  3. Premium Factory – Federal Gold Medal or similar, usually $1.00+ per round
  4. Cheap Factory – Bulk, lower quality ammo.

The attached spreadsheet allows you to control all facets of the cost model with the exception of time, because I learned long ago that valuing your time in a reloading calculation is a quick way to become disenfranchised with reloading.

Broadly speaking, ammo for the .223 REM is going to be less expensive that its comparable counterpart. As you can see from my screenshots above, .223 REM will always be the least expensive, followed by .308 WIN or 6.5 CM depending on the scenario. In the case of the Premium Reload scenario, the higher projectile cost, and higher powder charge translated to a slightly higher cost per round for the .308 WIN. In all other scenarios, the 6.5 Creedmoor will be the most expensive round.

Breakeven

An investment in a like for like trainer means that you’ll be paying up for another complete rifle, optic, and set of rings. I elected not to include additional accessories for my calculations, but the model becomes a bit more accurate if you do.

As Mark competes with a TMR, Nightforce ATACR, and Nightforce rings, I calculated that a new trainer would cost a touch more than $7000. Money can be certainly saved going with a less expensive optic, but you do want to make sure that you’re using the same reticle and measurements as your competition rifle. Additionally, you might be able to tweak and trim the rifle to lower costs. My current simulation is sort of a “worst case” scenario as it assumes the most expensive investment you could make.

After entering rifle cost, barrel life predictions, and ammo costs, it’s time to see what the breakeven point is based on ammo type. As there are dozens of scenarios to compare, I’ll leave it to you to pick the scenario that fits your lifestyle, but here are a few that match up with my experience.

In my case, the most likely scenario is that I shoot premium reloads in my competition rifle and cheap factory ammo in my trainer. As you can see above, the breakeven in that scenario is about 10,000 rounds for a 223 Trainer and almost 15,500 rounds for a 308 Trainer.

Those numbers can be cut in half by evaluating premium factory ammo vs. cheap reloads. Again, keep in mind that this is for the most expensive rifle/optic combo. Further tweaking can definitely bring these breakeven numbers down.

Final Thoughts

A dedicated trainer is a big investment and fully understanding the implications of that purchase is a big part of grasping the utility of such a thing. There are several scenarios where the costs for rifle, optic, and consumables can be tweaked to get the breakeven point for a dedicated trainer down below 5000 rounds. Assuming a typical 100 round practice session, you could realize cost savings within 50 range visits which a pretty serious competitor will knock out easily in less than three years. Beyond that, it’s money saved.

The pure financial costs cannot be the only data points considered as the psychological and technical benefits to a trainer are myriad. Spend time doping the wind and shrinking group sizes and you will become a better shooter. That’s not the sort of thing that can be evaluated in Excel.

If you’re a regular competitor and shooter (5000+ rounds/year) with a slick 6.5, a trainer of any type should be a consideration for you. If you plan on adding another rifle to the stable that will fill multiple roles as a trainer, competition rifle for the Tactical division, and fall hunting rifle, you’ll likely be best served by a trainer in .308 WIN. The breakeven point is a bit further out as the ammo costs are a bit higher, and you’ll still have recoil to contend with, but you’ll get a competent performer in the wind (with the right bullet), and the kinetic energy downrange to ensure that the steel swings enough for an RO to call a hit.

If you plan on only competing with your 6.5 and keeping your trainer in that role alone, the .223 REM would be the better choice. You’ll lose downrange kinetic energy, so like Mark, you should plan to only compete with that trainer in shorter distance competitions. You’ll also limit your hunting options with the tiny .223 REM. However, the lower consumable costs, psychological impact of group size, and the reduced recoil paired up with the poor wind performance are going to ensure that you have the opportunity to become a better shooter with each trigger squeeze.

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *