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5.56 vs. 7.62x39: Which One is the Best?

7.62x39 vs 5.56
November 30, 2021 Edited March 23, 2023 24396 view(s)
5.56 vs. 7.62x39: Which One is the Best?

If you’re ready to enter the world of intermediate cartridges, there are really two 800-lb gorillas that you should consider -- the .223 Remington/5.56 NATO and 7.62x39 Soviet.

There is a lot of overlap between the two, but there are also some major differences. I’ll break them all down and give you some helpful guidelines to get you started!

But first, some history!

 

Histories

5.56 NATO Rifle Live Fire

 

.223 Remington / 5.56 NATO

Designed by a lot of people working together from Remington, Winchester, DuPont, ArmaLite, and Fairchild Industries. Eugene Stoner also played a major role in the development process since it was being done side-by-side with his work to down-size the AR-10 into the AR-15 design.

All of this would eventually result in the .223 Remington.

What started it all? A request from U.S. Continental Army Command in 1957 for a small-caliber, high-velocity cartridge to replace the .308 Winchester.

Using a 55-grain bullet and looking to achieve a muzzle velocity of about 3,300 feet-per-second testing and development started by using the .222 Remington and a 22” barrel.

However, chamber pressures were deemed too high. Stoner asked Winchester and Remington to expand the case slightly to reduce pressure but maintain velocity. The modified version was called .222 Special.

After more testing, including a head-to-head test with the T44E4 (what would become the M-14) using .308, the .222 Special was considered outstanding and approved for adoption.

Since there were other .222 cartridges and projects in the works, it was decided to rename the cartridge to .223 Remington.

And the kicker? This whole time, the caliber of the bullets being used was actually .224.

7.62x39 Rifle Live Fire

 

7.62x39 Soviet

In July of 1943 the Technical Council of the People's Commissariat for Armaments (Техсовет Наркомата Вооружения) met to discuss the development and adoption of a new intermediate cartridge.

They decided that this cartridge should be mild-recoil and was to be used in a wide range of guns including a semi-automatic carbine, select fire rifle, and in full-auto LMGs.

Development was assigned to chief designer N.M. Elizarov (Н.М. Елизаров) who set to work on the project. He consulted other major soviet firearm designers such as Fedorov and Tokarev but the bulk of production was completed by him and his team.

In December of 1943, the new cartridge completed range trials and was approved for adoption and wider use -- enter the 7.62x41!

“But wait” you might say “That isn’t what we have now!”. You’re right. It’s not.

The 7.62x41 was a stumpy cartridge with a bullet made of pure lead. It also didn’t have a boat tail, and that would become a problem.

Further testing would be conducted and it was found that a boat tail improves accuracy even at shorter ranges. So in 1947, a boat tail was added.

To do that, the bullet had to be lengthened from 22.8mm to 26.8mm. Since they wanted to keep the overall cartridge the same size, the case was shortened from 41mm to 38.7mm. And because naming conventions tend to round up, this new cartridge was deemed the 7.62x39 that we know and love.

A lot more testing and story are left to be told, but this is the short version!

5.56 vs 7.62 ammo display

 

Practical Applications

Practically speaking, 5.56 and 7.62x39 can fill basically the same roles -- but they each fill some roles better than others.

For anything that requires a bit more range, 5.56 is your horse to run. But if you want raw power and deep penetration, 7.62x39 is a powerful argument.

From home defense to hunting, to just having fun on the range -- both calibers are roughly equal, but you might want to keep a couple of things in mind.

 

Fun On The Range

For fun on the range, it’s really up to you. I love both. Or whatever is cheapest. It depends.

Both are a lot of fun, but in slightly different ways. For me, 5.56 NATO is about drills, 2-gun competition training, trying out new configurations of my AR, and reenacting my favorite action movies.

7.62x39 though is more about the rifle than the cartridge, to me. Milsurp guns and trying what the other guys use is something I really dig. It’s also, generally, a lot cheaper than 5.56 NATO so I feel less silly just turning money into noise.

Of course, your mileage may vary.

AR Pistol held by guy

 

Home Defense

When it comes to home defense, I strongly recommend 5.56 NATO over 7.62x39. 55gr 5.56 and 55 grain M193 223 ammo are surprisingly bad at going through drywall. It tumbles, deforms, and breaks apart.

It will still poke through a few layers, but it won’t go sailing cleanly through your house and the guy next door.

7.62x39 on the other hand is heavier, slower, and bigger. It will punch through drywall and keep going.

If for some reason you worry about punching through car doors or something, then 7.62x39 might be an option.

 

SHTF/Zombies

If the end of the world as we know it is weighing on your mind, you should definitely be looking at stocking up.

My answer would be both. Get both 7.62x39 and 5.56 NATO since both will never go out of style.

If you had to pick one though, I’d say 5.56 NATO. Mostly because it’s a great cartridge for a huge range of applications, but also because it is by far the most common cartridge for big boy activities in the USA.

And if things get really bad, there will be lots of it laying on the ground.

 

Hunting

For hunting, it will depend on what you want to shoot. Both calibers have roughly the same limitations when it comes to the size of game you can ethically take, but 7.62x39 will have a much more rainbow-like ballistic arc making it not great at longer ranges.

But if you’re hunting something on the dangerous side like wild boar, the extra authority that 7.62x39 carries can make a difference.

[The higher grain weights of 7.62 make it a better option against medium-size game like deer; see our guide to Hunting with an AR-15 to learn more.]

 

Ballistics

.223 Remington and 5.56 NATO will be very close to each other… mostly because they are the same cartridge. The differences will be in bullet weight, bullet construction, and what powder is used. [For more on this see our article on 5.56 vs. 223.]

For the graph, I used a .223 Remington firing a 70gr VLD bullet, something you’d expect to see from a .223 Remington rifle that was designed for precision at longer range.

The 5.56 used is standard M193 ball. Likewise, the 7.62x39 Soviet is a very common 123gr FMJ loading.

5.56x45 vs. 7.62x39 Ballistics Chart

Now you can see, .223 Remington and 5.56 NATO have a lot more reach than 7.62x39.

However, 7.62x39 has more energy at 150-yards than 5.56 NATO has at the muzzle (1197 ft.lbf Vs. 1174 ft.lbf).

The trade-off is that 7.62x39 has a much more limited practical range. At 200 yards 5.56 NATO has less than 3-inches of drop, 7.62x39 has almost 6-inches. This trend continues with 5.56 NATO having about half as much drop than 7.62x39.

7.62 and 5.56 ammo and bolt

 

AR vs AR VS. AK vs AK

Technically speaking, you can get an AR-15 in 7.62x39 or an AK in .223/5.56 NATO. But normally you’re looking at an AR in 5.56, an AR in 7.62x39, or an AK in 7.62x39.

.223/5.56 AKs are hard-ish to find, magazines are hard-ish to find, and you’re normally paying significantly more for everything.

So what is best for you?

Right off the bat, I love AKs just because of the style they bring to the party and how fun they are to shoot. So a good AK always gets my vote.

But if you’re in the USA, you live in an AR world. If you’re looking at 5.56 NATO, get an AR-15 and you’ll love it.

When it comes to 7.62x39 in ARs though… things can be a little weird.

For a long, long time 7.62x39 ARs were simply horrible. Because of the extra taper that the cartridge has, magazines need to be weirdly shaped. It took a long time before we got good magazines on the market.

The other issue is that AR-15 bolts are barely big enough to fit 7.62x39. They can fit, but the walls are so thin that there are durability issues long term. This is one of the reasons why 300 Blackout was invented.

Thankfully, we have better bolts now. We have better magazines now. And for the most part, a 7.62x39 AR can be very reliable.

Bear Creek Arsenal has made modifications to their 7.62x39 bolts and extractors to increase their reliability and durability. They also include enhanced firing pins in all their 7.62x39 uppers and 7.62x39 rifles for increased reliability with steel cased 7.62x39 ammo. Watch this video about these improvements!

As with any new rifle though, make sure to give yours a good testing before trusting it to something defensive.

If you want to think outside the box, 7.62x39 has a lot more milsurp options than 5.56 has. Things like a Chinese Type 56 are cheap, easy to find, and are loads of fun shooting inexpensive 7.62x39.

 

Buying Recommendations

Building an AR pistol or rifle in 5.56 NATO or 7.62x39 really isn’t much different either way. You just need a different barrel and bolt between the two.

I’m a huge fan of building rifles when you can, but if this is your first or you just don’t have the tools -- buying a complete rifle or complete uppers is a solid way to go.

Bear Creek Arsenal has some great options for both 5.56 NATO and 7.62x39. And a whole lot of other cartridges if that floats your boat.

When it comes to an AK though, I’m not an expert. I do know that you won’t go wrong with a WASR-10 or Zastava AK -- both are highly regarded in the AK world as great rifles.

 

Conclusion

And with that, you now know a lot more than you did before about .223 Remington/5.56 NATO and 7.62x39 Soviet.

Both cartridges are ones to love, both have a lot of applications they are awesome at, and both are a ton of fun.

Personally, I’ll always be a 5.56 NATO person primarily -- but I still love my 7.62x39 rifles.

For home defense, do-all, or quick range-time fun -- my recommendation is 5.56 NATO.

For milsurp options or you just want to be different, 7.62x39 is there for you.

[Leave a comment below and check out our other articles such as 7.62x39 vs 308 and 9mm Carbines!]

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CaptJ
December 1, 2021
For me .556 is a plinking or predator round, fun to shoot-used to be cheap. But pretty much useless as a hunting round, but 7.62x39?I LOVE IT! started hunting with a mini 30&shot lots of deer&hogs with it. Nowadays it's one of 4 BCA ar's in 7.62x39 -1 16"g2,2 10.5"g2&1 rear charging 10.5".The rear charging has a Romeo 4h & is my shtf gun that stays in my truck, the others all get alot of use in the woods all have KVP linear comps&are very accurate out to 300yds& no more recoil than my.556 -definitely my favorite deer hunting round-only because 6.5 grendel ammo is SO EXPENSIVE rt now, but I can shoot steel case 123g hp rds for about .40 cents a rd opposed to 2.50 for 6.5 grendel & 2.00 for 350legend-another favorite! But I have filled the freezer for years with wolf 7.62x39 hp ammo &don't plan on changing ever!,too fun&inexpensive to shoot!! Capt J
Graham Kelley
December 7, 2021
I JUST LOVE 556 223 MM I HAVE BOTH THE AK 47 has always been off balanced to me but since palmetto came out with the KS 47 I LOVE IT I HAVE MULTI CALIBERS FOR SPORTING also have started loveing 300 blackout since ammo came down bear creek definitely helped me upgrade .
mike
December 3, 2021
Love them both but the x39 is a lot of fun to shoot. You guys need to do a x39 other offering!
Wymon Watson
January 6, 2023
They have x39 uppers? Don't know if your aware of that, they shoot great too.
Arminius Schwertkampfer
December 4, 2021
having listened to my brother's high talk about capability of the 8x33 cartridge in his stg44 during the war against the Russians; I have no doubt of the similar m43 round to perform, as attested to the fact that my first line, go to firearm is an outstandingly accurate and dependable SKS rifle; that said; 5.56/.223 in my builds does everything I assign to its application; I would not hesitate to defend life or hunt with any of them . A.S.
Samuel
December 6, 2021
I have both and enjoy using and practicing with both. But when SHTF it is the 7.62x39 I will depend on.
Harrison Pulliam
June 9, 2022
Thanks, a great article and much needed info for myself and I'm sure many or most others just entering the AR world, I'm an 86 year old retired machinist and like you, I love making things, and guns and hunting have have been a lifelong special interest for me, starting at pre school age. Living in a very small town in Oklahoma, I started hunting tree squirrels and rabbits with my 22 rifle and 410 shotgun at age 5 alongside my older brother Bob, age eight. Thanks again, Harry P
Tom Reed
August 2, 2022
Great article. Here in South Texas the deer tend to be small-ish so x45 works fine and x39 is always a good deer stopper. I shoot an AR in x45 and a Bear Creek upper in x39, as well as an SKS. Can't go wrong with any of the three for deer or hogs.
Michael Jones
November 19, 2022
Are you guys planning on doing any 5.45x39 Uppers? I hear a lot of people asking about that. I think you guys could nail it. There is going to be a lot of 5.45x39 on the market after this war is over.
Noob
December 12, 2022
What’s the benefit of 5.45 over 7.62x39?
Josh collins
February 4, 2023
Zastqava all the way baby when I point it goes hands down but tactic formation ill take rock river LAR-15 is my way of the party favors
James Adkins
February 25, 2023
How bout that M-249 s.a.w.!!!! Thanks for the info.. M-16A1,M16A2, M-203,..7.62x39,762x41,762x49...aa51... 350m target,rifle range,3 hits to expert .... Dig it man....
James Adkins
February 25, 2023
Recently have built 556 pistol, first build ever..next is AR.BC-10.. 762. Good read,thankx.
Richard Martin III
April 4, 2023
Have you thought about making AKS47 type rifle like the mutant 47 like Rock River 47 but give me 2 caliber reflective abilities by changing my uppers from the AK47 round to the 6.5 Grindle still used in AK47 mags have you thought about it
VK
July 9, 2023
There is Robinson XCR which combines the best of both platforms and allows a quick switch between different calibers.
Danny Phillips
December 19, 2023
I recently built an AR 47. It shoots really well, and I am very happy with it. I have an Anderson Arms AR15 That I really like but I keep it in my truck. I haven't gotten the AR 47 sighted in fully yet, but I will in the next few days. My vision keeps me from shooting anything over 200 yds so The AR 47 should do OK. In boot camp I scored expert with the M 16, but I could see verry well in those days 20-15 vision.
Rick
December 19, 2023
This is one of the many reasons that I really like Bear Creek! They publish articles with history, and info that shows they know their stuff, and they care! Keep the great work coming, Bear Creek, and Authors! I've built a couple ARs in 300BLK, what a fun round! Built a few in 5.56 NATO too, of course. I'm leaning towards a 7.62x39 Ar next! That is, after I complete the 6.5 Grendel that I am currently working on... BCA SC Upper, Faxon barrel, etc... it's coming along well :-)
Ralph Rogers
December 19, 2023
I have 5 rifles that are 7.62x39 or the M43 as it is known in some circles. 2 SKS and 1 AK to go along with my to AR one of which has an 18 inch barrel. I have 3 AR 15’s of various lengths one of which I have converted to .22LR. I love them all but I hunt with a home built 7.62x39 which I did in green and is known as the Zombie Killer. I have taken many deer.
Steve Akom
December 19, 2023
Good article gave me something to think about I have both AR in both calibers that I use for hunting
William Mc Caslin
December 20, 2023
I've always been a 30 cal fanboy, an own one of your 7.62x39 complete riffles, an love it myself, but it don't like steel cased, only brass. Had to many jams with steel. But its a dedicated piggin gun, so no worries, shoot's 1 in groups at 100 yds with boutique ammo, an a scope, gotta love that
Joe
December 20, 2023
Shot my bear creek arsenal upper yesterday at 100 yds. PSA lower with a 4 power Athlon scope. Mainly to check out some reloads with 150 gr. Soft point and polymer and 155 gr. Hp. No tumbling , most within 6” circle , could have been better if I were a little steadier. By the way these were .308 bullets, have some 123 gr .310 for next outing. Very satisfied.
Philip Schaefer
December 20, 2023
So correct, My Zastava is quality. AR 7.62x39 just needs a radiused magazine to feed the cartridge consistently.
Mark Smiley
December 20, 2023
I have both and enjoy shooting both. The only problem with the AR in 7.62x39 is that about every 4-5 shots I would get a light primer strike. I changed out the trigger spring and it worked great. After around 50 rounds the firing pin broke so I ordered a titanium firing pin. This fixed the issue. The problem is that the ammo has a hard primer and you'll need a few minor upgrades.
Philip Schaefer
December 20, 2023
I have the great variations of the AR 10s and AR15. INTERCHANGEABLE IS GREAT, WITH DIFFERENT UPPERS, PISTOL LOWERS AND RIFLE LOWERS.. GREAT PRODUCTS, CAN HARDLY WAIT FOR THE AR8 SYSTEM ,so the large cases can be utilized with the lower recoil of a gas system. I sure they will come soon, once the gas operated system is fully designed.
Jack Alexander
December 23, 2023
Looking at folding stock adapters & wondering if the adapter will work on my 762.39.
Alan Henning
December 26, 2023
Started shooting 7.62x39 with my first Russian SKS. Then picked up a Zastava AK. Somewhere along the line a Chinese 56 snuck into my safe. They are all great shooters. My mailman got me shooting 5.56 when he asked me if I could load him some. I had no AR before then. After giving him 1000 rounds of it, I decided to get my own deloader. So, I bought my first Bear Creek Arsenal .223 Wylde in a 10.5" pistol. What a fun gun to shoot! Just make sure your muffs are down or you'll be hearing bells for days. You'll only do this once. I couldn't be happier with my little pistol. I wasn't prepared for the accuracy that 10.5" barrel has. What a tack driver! Unfortunately, I was now addicted to BCA products and am constantly spreading the word that they are great. I have 5 now. 3- 223 Wylde's, a .308, and a .450 Bushmaster. I have contemplated a 7.62x39 but I have that cartridge covered with the Soviet Bloc rifles, and they shoot great. I have a 10" AR500 target on my backyard range. I can shoot that thing all day with my .308 with no issues, but hit it with that .450 BM and I have to walk downrange to put it back on the mount. I get lots of exercise while shooting that round. I have all of these dialed in to to shoot 1" groups at 100yds.
Tom S
December 28, 2023
I love the BCA side charging uppers. I ran into a problem with my side charging 450 BM upper recently. I wanted to install a muzzle brake in place of the flash hider. My standard AR upper receiver vise clamp will not work with the BCA upper. Does BCA sell an upper receiver clamp for their particular designed upper?
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