5.56 vs 7.62: Which is the Better Long Distance Round?

Photo Credit: 1. Luis Robayo / AFP / Getty Images 2. U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Swafford / ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0
Photo Credit: 1. Luis Robayo / AFP / Getty Images 2. U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Swafford / ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

5.56 x 45 mm vs 7.62 x 39 mm; when it comes to ammunition, these two cartridges are among the most prolific and well-known. They’re used throughout the globe by a number of military forces who rely on their range, accuracy and firepower. Even though both are reliable and effective in a variety of circumstances, the debate over which is the all-around best is contested.

By looking at such variables as power, accuracy and the amount of recoil, we can put these two bullets to the test to see which is the ultimate long-distance round… And which comes in a very close second.

The prolific 7.62 x 39 mm round

The 7.62 x 39 mm round, also known as the .30 Russian Short and the 7.62 Soviet, is a rimless, bottle-necked cartridge used worldwide, thanks to the development of the Russian SKS semi-automatic rifle and both the RPD and RPK light machine guns. In particular, the 7.62 mm round has the prolific AK-47 to thank for becoming one of the most-used cartridges in the world.

In 1943, Russian armament officials began work on the development of a Soviet intermediate cartridge that could be used by a range of infantry weapons. The aim was to replace such Allied cartridges as the American .30-06 Springfield and the .303 British. A total of 314 cartridge designs were considered, with the testing pool narrowed down to just eight.

7.62 x 39 mm round sitting beside an AK-47 and a .30-round magazine
7.62 x 39 mm round sits next to a .30-round magazine and an AK-47. (Photo Credit: George Frey / Getty Images)

The first variant of the 7.62 mm went into trials at the end of 1943. The original cartridge was actually 41 mm in length, while the bullet itself was 22.8 mm long, with a lead core. After some tweaks and adjustments, the 7.62 Soviet went into production in March 1944 and was eventually adjusted to its current 39 mm length.

Unlike the 5.56 NATO, the 7.62 mm is a larger round featuring a deadly degree of kinetic transfer and stopping power. This has made it the preferred choice when aiming at enemies with body armor. However, as it was developed as a one-size-fits-all round, it delivers less accuracy and increased recoil.

The adaptable 5.56 x 45 mm NATO

The 5.56 x 45 mm NATO consists of the SS109, L110, and SS111 cartridges. It was developed by Eugene Stoner, with help from Remington, Winchester and the US Army, and by 1980 was standardized as the second standard-service rifle cartridge for NATO forces, as well as many non-NATO countries.

In 1954, the larger 7.62 x 51 mm cartridge was selected to be the first standard NATO rifle cartridge. This decision, however, was criticized due to the round’s recoil power, which didn’t suit the rate of fire needed for modern combat. The United States overruled NATO’s choice, while other countries accepted that the overall standardization of ammunition was more important than what cartridge was chosen.

5.56 x 45 mm NATO rounds within a magazine
5.56 x 45 mm NATO cartridge within an M16 rifle magazine. (Photo Credit: TKN / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5)

The concerns surrounding the effectiveness of the 7.62 x 51 mm led to the development of the 5.56 mm NATO in the 1970s. The resulting cartridge was a smaller round, which could withstand higher pressure than the older and outdated NATO rounds. Even though the 5.56 mm was a smaller projectile, it provided greater accuracy over longer distances.

The smaller size also drastically reduced recoil and, since it was smaller and lighter, troops could carry more ammunition than ever before. Even though the 5.56 x 45 mm isn’t as powerful as its predecessor, its accuracy and recoil make it the superior round. With a 500-yard effective range, low recoil, a flat trajectory and spacious magazine capacity, the 5.56 NATO is a no-brainer for many marksmen.

5.56 mm vs 7.62 mm

With the topic at hand being a 5.56 x 45 mm vs 7.62 x 39 mm battle, the time has come to decide which one is the superior long distance cartridge. Given all that’s been discussed, it’s our argument that the 5.56 NATO is the ideal choice for users looking to cover a lot of ground. This is largely due to its greater accuracy, smaller size and lesser recoil.

The many parts of a 5.56 x 45 mm NATO round next to a clear ruler
The 5.56 x 45 mm NATO is the superior round for those interested in accurate long distance shooting. (Photo Credit: Clément Dominik / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

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That being said, it should be noted that both the 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm serve very different purposes. Therefore, under a different set of circumstances or needs, the 7.62 Soviet might very well come out victorious.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

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