If you own an AR-style rifle that takes 5.56x45mm NATO or .223 ammunition, you can shoot some of the most unique cartridges on the market, including red tip 223 and 5.56.
Due to military surpluses, a variety of rounds are available in bulk cartridges. They may cost more in total, but these high-count boxes can be extremely affordable from a per-round perspective.
While most of the surplus 5.56mm boxes are basic 55-grain FMJ ammo, some hold unique cartridges. 62-grain green tip ammo (M855) is one example. Another is red tip ammo, which is one of the most unique and interesting options available to AR owners.
These rounds may seem fairly standard, but they have a little secret that helps them stand out. They are tracers, and they can be extremely entertaining to shoot while, at the same time, being some of the riskiest ammo you’ll ever fire. (Hint: “fire” is the essential word!)
What is 5.56x45mm Red Tip Ammo?
These rounds, which fall under the military designation of M196, have a standard 55-grain full-metal jacket, which is probably the most common weight/bullet type combination for 5.56mm rounds.
However, at the back of the bullet there is a pyrotechnic charge that ignites when the ammo is fired. This charge creates a glow that shows the path of the bullet to the target. Shooters can see the glow, even in daylight, and use immediate feedback to adjust their shots. Instead of guessing (more or less) where the bullet hit, or watching intently for a cloud of dust, shooters simply watch the glow and make adjustments on the fly.
Tracer rounds have obvious uses in the military. Soldiers can fire at a target and make immediate changes to their aim. However, the tracer round also shows the enemy the location of the shooter, so, essentially, it’s a two-way street. Tracer rounds are also used by military leaders to direct fire. Basically, a leader can use tracers to tell their personnel to fire right there.
Not to Be Mistaken with Ballistic Tips
We should point out that not all handgun or rifle rounds with a red tip are tracer rounds. Many are in fact ballistic-tip ammo. For the purposes of this article, we are only talking about 5.56x45mm NATO FMJ rounds that have been painted red at the tip. (M196 ammo.)
This is important, as numerous manufacturers have ballistic-tip cartridges that use a red polymer at the front of the bullet. For example, Hornady’s Varmint Express V-Max ammo has a red polymer tip. It is NOT a tracer round. Neither is the Federal Varmint & Predator or Nosler’s Ballistic Tip Lead-Free, both of which have red ballistic tips.
Are they Legal to Own and Use?
In most areas, tracer rounds are legal to own and use. The specific legal uses for these rounds may be more complicated (for example, can you hunt coyote with tracer rounds?) but most states allow gun owners to own and fire this ammunition.
However, it appears the rounds are regulated by the ATF because of the pyrotechnic charge, which classifies them as explosives. If you come across a box of red-tipped tracer rounds, you may have to go through a variety of legal hurdles to finalize the purchase. The ATF has special rules for the purchase, sale, storage, and delivery of tracer rounds, so the process may be more complicated than simply going to the store and making the purchase. That said, there are dozens of shops that do sell the traditional tracer rounds and will ship them to you. We’ll defer to you on whether you want to accept those risks.
Some states, it appears, have prohibited these rounds. According to Hunting Critic, all U.S. states except California allow tracer rounds. The site says that only certain shotgun rounds can use tracer technology, which means the M196 cartridges are illegal in this state. All other states, however, allow tracer rounds. (Please note that this is not legal advice in any manner. Before purchasing tracer ammunition, check your state and local laws.)
Relatively recently, a new variety of tracer-styled ammo entered the American market for civilians. Ammo, Inc. manufacturers this ammo and it goes by the brand of STREAK. These rounds don’t face the same regulatory scrutiny that traditional incendiary tracers face. As a result, if you’re hungry for tracer ammo they may be easier to find and a more palatable option for.
Risks with Tracer Rounds
While tracer rounds are legal in most areas, and, from a shooting and ballistics standpoint, are basically no different than other ammo, there is one major concern: fire. Tracer rounds glow like a firework and can just as easily start a fire. Users of tracer rounds, whether it’s 5.56 ammo or another type, need to be aware that these cartridges create a high risk of starting an out-of-control fire.
This issue is not theoretical; tracer rounds have caused wildfires in the past. In the summer of 2018, a major wildfire raged through the Basalt Mountain region in Colorado, threatening homes in the area. The fire was apparently started by two shooters using tracer rounds.
Shooters have even been charged by law enforcement after starting fires with tracer rounds. Two shooters in Arizona started a fire with 9mm tracer rounds. The pair was charged by federal authorities for starting a fire in national forest land.
You need to be extremely careful, especially if you live in the western half of the U.S., which is typically more prone to wildfire. Reckless use of tracer rounds could result in a devastating burn, which could bring criminal and civil charges.
Red tip 5.56mm ammo can be an enjoyable change of pace for your AR shooting. Adding a unique element to a day at the range, they can help you improve performance while providing immediate and engaging feedback on your shooting.