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7.62×39 Vs 5.56 NATO: Pros, Cons, & What Is Best For You? [2023]



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7.62×39 and 5.56×45 are, in many ways, the Coke and Pepsi of the shooting world. These titans of the firearms world have been proving themselves on battlefields the world since the start of the Cold War, and neither looks to be going away any time soon.

We’re going to be comparing and contrasting these two iconic cartridges, with an aim towards helping the average shooter decide which one might be better for their specific needs and circumstances (or just your next rifle purchase/build).

From hunting to target shooting to self defense, let's dig into it and see how these two calibers compare!

HOW WE GOT HERE

7.62×39 is a Russian cartridge that came out of the fires of WWII. Originally intended for the SKS and similar carbines, it quickly became adopted as the round of choice for the iconic AK-47.

After the end of WWII, as the world settled into the new normal of the Cold War era, it became clear that the heavy 7.62 calibers, both the Russian x39 and the American x51 flavors, were a little bit beefy for automatic fire from an infantryman’s rifle.

Modernized SKS? Sure, why not.

Towards that end, the Russians developed the smaller 5.45×39 as an intermediate cartridge (but that’s another story for another time…), while across the Atlantic, Remington Arms was hard at work on an intermediate cartridge for the US. That would become, after a few renames, the .223 Remington. 

From there, in 1980, this round would be tweaked a tad in terms of pressure allowances, and became the 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge that we know and love today.

5.56X45 AND 7.62X39 TODAY

Today, 5.56x45mm NATO is one of the most popular rifle cartridges on the planet, and almost certainly the most popular centerfire rifle cartridge in the United States. It is (for now) the primary rifle cartridge of all US Armed forces, as well as all major state and federal law enforcement agencies. 

It is also incredibly popular with civilian shooters, with at least 20 million AR-15s out there in the United States alone. 5.56 is a fixture among the competition and target shooters, as well as varmint hunters, tactical trainers, and those who take their self-defense and preparedness seriously. 

Left to right .300BLK, 6mm ARC, 7.62x39, 6.8 SPC II, and 5.56mm
Left to right .300BLK, 6mm ARC, 7.62×39, 6.8 SPC II, and 5.56mm

7.62×39 is still utilized by many militaries and police forces outside of the United States, particularly in Asia and Eastern Europe. But for a range of reasons, it is starting to see a downward trend among foreign militaries.

Here in the U-S-of-A, it’s still popular as a hunting and target shooting round, and can regularly be bought just about anywhere ammo is sold. AK-pattern guns and other 7.62×39 weapons are still popular as well, and available in every form, from basic Turkish and Romanian copies of classic AKs to modern tacticool versions.

No FN SCAR Build (1)
The Cypher X and Plumb Precision AK trigger module allow for rock-n-lock calibers like 7.62×39 and 5.45×39

There’s even a 7.62x39mm FN SCAR out there, but good luck getting your hands on one if you aren’t a government or Scrooge McDuck.  

BALLISTICS

First up, let’s take a look at some cartridge stats.

7.62×39 Vs. 5.56×45 NATO

7.62×395.56×45
Parent CaseNone (Unique case).223 Remington
Bullet Diameter(inches)0.3120.224
Neck Diameter(inches)0.3390.253
Base Diameter(inches)0.4470.377
Case Length(inches)1.524in1.76
Overall Length(inches)2.2052.26
Case Capacity (Grains H20)35.628.5
SAAMI Max Pressure )PSI45,01055,114

What we see here is two rounds of similar length but very different diameters and shoulder designs. 

You might think that the extra seven or so grains of case capacity would give the 7.62 a leg up, but the shoulder design and much higher pressure rating (and thus velocity) of the 5.56 tend to even the playing field, and even gives the 5.56 a leg up in terms of long-range performance.

For example, at 400 yards, a fairly average 62-grain 5.56 NATO bullet will have dropped around two feet. By comparison, at the same distance, a middle-of-the-road 123gr 7.62×39 bullet will have dropped over 44”, or nearly twice as much as its NATO counterpart.

Where the 7.62 comes back into its own is when we do the math on the amount of energy at the muzzle, with these same rounds coming in at around 1500ft-lbs for the 7.62 version vs. 1275ft-lbs for 5.56.

REAL WORLD USES

Hunting

For most hunters, especially here in the States, the 7.62×39 is going to be a better option due to its size and penetration at close to medium range. The humble 5.56 is great for taking out prairie dogs and the occasional coyote, but other than that, the .22-caliber projectile is a bit on the puny side.

Can you hunt whitetail deer or feral hogs with a 5.56 AR? In some states, yes, but it’s really not the most practical or ethical option out there.

LPVO and a light on a 7.62×39 AR make for a great hog rifle.

The larger, heavier bullets of the 7.62×39 translate into more energy upon impacting a soft target, so you’re going to spend a lot less time tracking that trophy buck over the river and through the woods after the shot (provided you do your part, of course).

The 7.62×39 has more than enough energy to harvest medium game at 150 yards ethically, and its .312” bullet diameter is above the minimum size in states that have them, which usually calls for a bullet of .243” diameter or greater for whitetail.

Target Shooting and Competition 

For general target shooting and competition, we have to give this one to the round with the longer range and the lower amount of recoil, the 5.56x45mm NATO. It’s a lot easier to reach out with this round due to its higher velocities, and recoil is a lot smoother and less jarring for those rapid shots up close.

Throw it in a bolt rifle, and you can reach out a lot further than most people give it credit for. 

Can you use a 7.62x39mm rifle in competition? Absolutely, I’ve seen it done. My spouse has run AK-pattern semi-autos in competition before and done very well against a field of AR-15s firing 5.56×45.

That said, the lower recoil of the 5.56, coupled with its superior performance at longer ranges, makes it the winner here. This is a round designed to perform well at medium ranges, and in most competitions where a semi-auto rifle is called for, this is the best option.

Self-Defense

In terms of self-defense, we’ve got a tricky call to make. On the one hand, the 5.56×45 has less recoil and is more controlled for rapid follow-up shots. On the other, 7.62 is a bigger number than 5.56. Bigger bullet = bigger holes, that’s just simple math. 

There’s a lot of data out there on the performance of these two rounds versus soft tissue, and after hours of analyzing them, my conclusion is this: I don’t want to be shot with either one of them.

Theres pros and cons either way, but both are capable self-defense rounds.

Both have plenty of self-defense-capable pistols and rifles available, with all the Picatinny rails you could want for attaching lights, lasers, IR designators, coffee grinders, and what have you so there’s really no difference there.

We’re gonna say this one comes down to preference. Both have more than satisfactory terminal performance at self/home-defense ranges (unless you’re fighting cattle rustlers out on the open prairie), so it’s really up to you.

If I had to choose, I’d say take the 5.56×45 just for the ease of shooting and the fact that it's less likely to go through the wall of your house and cause problems for people other than the ones you were trying to cause problems for.

Still, either will work, and the difference in performance is so small, and there’s so little practical difference that it’s really the dealer’s choice here.

AVAILABLE RIFLES AND AMMO

It’s really dead even for guns that shoot these calibers. 7.62×39 AKs are plentiful, but .223/5.56 AKs aren’t horribly hard to find either.

The AR-15 is America’s rifle and is normally found in 5.56 NATO, but getting 7.62×39 uppers for your AR is easy to do.

Bolt rifles are also pretty easy to find in both calibers, but not as easy to find.

Milsurp rifles are going to be 7.62×39 flavor with things like the SKS or the much rarer Egyptian Rasheed. There are surplus 5.56 ARs, but they are very expensive and hard to come by. 

As for ammo? If you can’t find 5.56×45 or 7.62×39 ammo near you, you need to move. We picked up some of each in the middle of Alaska during a blizzard. If you’re in a place that sells ammo, chances are they stock both of these calibers in a dizzying and bewildering variety of loadings.

The one caveat here is that with import restrictions on guns and ammo, it can be harder to find 7.62×39 stuff in stock, and you might have to pay a premium for it at times. Thankfully, the market is adjusting, and importers, as well as domestic manufacturers, are starting to fill in the gaps.

LOOSE ROUNDS

7.62×39 and 5.56×45 are both iconic rounds with long and storied histories in both military and civilian usage. It’s impossible to declare an overall winner with rounds so different (and so successful), but hopefully, now you have a better idea of where these two rounds might work better for you

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