Hunting With Modern Semi-Automatic Rifles—The AR Afield

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

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There was a time when AR-15-style rifles were a rare sight in a hunting camp, but that's all in the past. Today they represent the best-selling rifle category in the commercial firearm business. They are the darling of many shooters, and they have made huge strides with hunters, too. That a company as prominent as Remington supports those trends with two new rifles, the R-15 and the R-25, demonstrates that hunting with AR-style rifles is becoming more and more popular. In fact, just about every manufacturer of AR-style rifles currently catalogs a hunting model or two.

The guns are accepted in hunting camps around the country. Recently, I have encountered quite a bit of genuine interest in the firearms, and several fellow hunters told me they planned on buying an AR-type rifle in the near future. My guess is they will be quite happy with that decision. These rifles are reliable; after all, we equip our troops with the selective-fire, military versions. They also can be extremely accurate, as they prove again and again in various shooting competitions throughout the world. Once hunters get past the cosmetics and mistruths surrounding the guns, they discover that AR-style rifles are wonderful firearms for hunting.

There are two basic rifle sizes here. One is the "AR-15," a name trademarked by Colt long ago and now generally used to describe rifles designed around the .223 Remington/5.56x45 mm NATO cartridges and limited to cartridges of similar length. The larger rifles are often called the "AR-10 type." That name, owned by ArmaLite, is used generically here to describe a larger rifle that accepts .308 Win.-length cartridges.

Today's AR-style rifles are different in design than bolt-action or even other semi-automatic hunting rifles. Although the basic function of the semi-automatic design is the same, the layout of the rifle is different. There is a bit of a learning curve associated with new hunters using AR-type rifles.

One difference in competition shooting and in hunting is the problem of aiming at close targets. Because of the in-line stock of the AR-type rifle, any sights will be much higher than the bore. A scoped bolt-action rifle averages 1.5" between the line of sight and the bore, but an AR rifle can easily double that. Therefore, on particularly close shots, ARs hit low. This vexes me when I forget to aim high at close targets in a 3-gun competition, and it allowed at least one bobcat to live another day. I shot at its chest and put the bullet between its legs. The tom left-in a hurry and well educated about varmint calls. Usually this is a non-issue as most hunting shots are too distant to matter, and it's only a few inches difference at most. On the other hand, the higher line of sight has the opposite effect at long range and the bullet drop compared to line of sight will be less than that of a bolt-action.

Let's look at a .223 Rem. 55-gr. load from a bolt-action with the scope 1.5" above the bore and an AR with the scope 3.5" high, both with a 100-yd. zero. At 20 yds., the bolt gun hits 0.85" below the line of sight but the AR hits 2.45" low. At 200 yds., however, the bolt gun impacts 3.66" low, and the AR hits 1.66" low. So, it's all really a trade-off. Once you understand the gun's characteristics, it's not a problem. Perhaps it is even an asset, as long shots are more common than extremely close opportunities when hunting.

The guns can also be a little noisy if they are bumping against a metal pack frame or if the sling swivels are clicking on the fore-end. Again, a little duct tape and ingenuity can solve the problem. I should note that the same problems are pretty common with any other style of hunting rifle; they are all noisy when they click against a pack frame. The difference here is that my beautiful walnut stock is not getting gouged as it did recently on a backpack hunt with a bolt-action rifle.

Some complain that the safety on an AR-type rifle is too loud and, to be honest, I believe they have a point. The safety is designed to use a strong detent spring and to click solidly into the "safe" or "fire" positions. This ensures reliability and the audible confirmation can be important in some tactical situations. But a noisy safety is a bad thing while hunting. As with any safety, the technique used to push it on or off makes a difference. Putting pressure on the safety lever as you move it can quiet it down. I just did an informal check of 16 different AR-type rifles from six different manufacturers to see how well this works. On all but four rifles it was possible to manipulate the safety to allow it to go into the "fire" position silently, or nearly silently. Of the four rifles that failed, three were from the same manufacturer. The odd thing is that I did this same test with 16 different bolt-action rifles with about the same results; three rifles were noisy no matter what I did. But, even if you have a noisy safety on a bolt-action or an AR, odds are a good gunsmith can quiet it down for you without much of an investment.

I checked with one AR maker, and he told me that taking some tension out of the detent spring and polishing some parts will usually solve the problem. For a good AR gunsmith, that's about 30 minutes' work.

One other issue that an AR-type or any other semi-automatic rifle will have is that they are a bit noisy to load. The bolt should be allowed to slam shut when loading the first cartridge to ensure the gun goes into battery. If you hunt with a guide who insists that you chamber a round only when you spot the game, this could be a problem.

But, the pros far outweigh the cons if you ask me. The removable box magazine is a notable convenience. If you are doing a lot of getting in and out of vehicles, such as when calling predators, it makes loading and unloading the rifle simple. For the big-game hunter, an extra loaded magazine in a pocket provides a fast reload. Where it's legal, the ability to use a higher-capacity magazine is helpful, for example, when shooting prairie dogs. If you pre-load a bunch of higher-capacity magazines you will get in a lot more shooting than your buddy who is loading his bolt-action again and again.

The pistol grip design is another advantage for some hunting situations. For example, when calling predators it is a smart policy to keep the rifle up and ready. Sitting with the gun on your knee or on a bi-pod, (which is easy to do with the round fore-ends of AR rifles) and the stock on your shoulder can tire your trigger hand with a conventional stock design. The pistol grip puts the hand in a more natural position and reduces hand fatigue. It may sound trivial here, but after a long day of coyote hunting it is anything but. The pistol grip also provides a handle for an alternative way to carry a shorter-barreled rifle.

Speaking of predator hunting, I have seen some elaborate and odd systems to mount a light on a bolt-action rifle for hunting at night. But, with an AR, you simply attach it to a rail mount. Most AR-type rifles have several locations either with a rail or designed to add a rail. These rails offer lots of options including said flashlight, secondary sighting options, extra ammunition and just about anything else you would wish to attach to the rifle. They also provide the option of quickly switching scopes. More than once I have seen a hunt ruined by a damaged scope. It takes less than a minute to switch to another pre-zeroed scope and you are back in the hunt.

If you are like me and hunt a lot in the north where it's cold during predator hunting season, the adjustable buttstock that is a common option on AR-type rifles is a great addition. With short arms and thick shoulders I find it hard to shoot with a full-length stock and enough clothing to keep me warm in a sub-zero wind. But, by shortening the length of pull with the adjustable stock, things are cool again. (Pun intended.)

Finally, I see two more big reasons to use these rifles for hunting. One is that they are fun. I have always been attracted to guns that are a "little different," and with an AR-style rifle you can be the guy in camp with something on the cutting edge. The second and more serious reason is to make a statement to misguided politicians-who would take these rifles away from us-that they are wrong.

There are no bad guns, only bad people.

Common Cartridges For The AR Type Rifles ... Not Just The .223
Here is a look at some of the most popular cartridges-and their hunting applications-available from the larger manufacturers. This list is by no means complete, as the market offers even more options, from .17 rimfires up to the .50 BMG.

AR-15-Type Rifle Cartridges

.204 Ruger

This is one of the best options for prairie dog shooting. It's accurate, extremely fast and produces low recoil. The flat trajectory and high velocity are well-suited for long-range shooting and the low recoil helps keep the target in the scope so the shooter can see the impact. The .204 Ruger is also good for predators up to and including coyotes.

Hornady lists its 32-gr. load with a muzzle velocity of 4225 f.p.s., which is about as fast as it gets. That's my choice for prairie dogs. The .204 Ruger is also available in 40-gr. and 45-gr. loads, which are better choices for hunting coyotes.

.223 Rem. and 5.56x45 mm NATO

The .223 Rem. remains the most popular cartridge available in AR-15-type rifles. My guess is that more prairie dogs fall to the .223 Rem. than all the other cartridges combined. It's also well-suited for predator hunting. My favorite load for hunting coyotes is a 55-gr. Hornady V-Max bullet. In factory loads it exits the muzzle of a 24" barrel at 3240 f.p.s.

The 5.56x45 mm NATO is dimensionally the same as the civilian .223 Rem., but the two are not necessarily interchangeable. A rifle chambered for 5.56x45 mm can also fire .223 Rem. ammunition. But, a rifle chambered for .223 Rem. should not be fired with 5.56x45 mm NATO ammunition. Most 5.56x45 mm loads probably will not have bullets suitable for hunting use.

6.5 Grendel

This 6.5 Grendel started as a proprietary number for Alexander Arms, but has been picked up by a lot of other manufacturers. This is the first of the crossover cartridges that will work for varmints and predators and for some medium-size game, such as antelope and deer. From a 24" barrel, a 120-gr. Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet has a muzzle velocity of 2600 f.p.s.

6.8 Rem. SPC

This .27-cal. cartridge started life as a fighting round. Although its military future is uncertain, it has become popular with civilian AR-15-type rifle shooters. It's another crossover cartridge suitable for predators and smaller big game. I have personally used the 6.8 SPC to take several whitetail deer and a mountain lion. In my opinion, it is just into the "acceptable" range for deer with the current factory loads. It will do a good job, with the right bullets, if shot placement is perfect. A 110-gr. bullet has a muzzle velocity of 2550 f.p.s. from a 24" barrel.

.30 Rem. AR

This is a brand-new cartridge introduced by Remington for deer hunting with the R-15 rifle. It is a necked-down .450 Bushmaster, and it has a muzzle velocity of 2800 f.p.s. with a 125-gr. bullet. As of this writing, it's still having the kinks worked out and has not seen a lot of field use yet. But I know of a couple of deer shot with it this past fall and both hunters reported excellent results.

7.62x39 mm Russian

This is the cartridge that made the AK-47 and SKS famous. It's been around in AR-15-type rifles for many years, but it has never caught on because of magazine and feeding problems. There are some companies who say they have solved that. If so, expect to see a lot more guns available in this cartridge.

The 7.62x39 mm has a 125-gr. bullet with a muzzle velocity from a 24" barrel of 2365 f.p.s. This makes it adequate for deer hunting if quality soft-point bullets are used.

.450 Bushmaster

This big-bore cartridge is a true big-game thumper. It delivers a 250-gr. Hornady bullet out of the muzzle at 2200 f.p.s. That duplicates three-pellet, 150-gr. magnum muzzleloader performance, which has been well proven on deer and other big game. Although it's limited for long-range shooting, this is an excellent cartridge for deer and black bear in the woods.

.458 SOCOM

This is another cartridge with military origins. Rock River Arms offers the guns and Corbon has ammunition. This rebated-rim cartridge pushes a 300-gr. bullet to 1900 f.p.s., which duplicates a modern .45-70 Gov't load. For hunting deer and black bear in the woods, this would be an excellent choice.

.50 Beowulf.

The Beowulf is another Alexander Arms cartridge. It's a big case with a severely rebated rim designed to fit the AR-15 bolt face. The cartridge delivers a 325-gr. bullet out of a 24" barrel at 2010 f.p.s. I have had mine for years and can attest that it hits any target hard.

AR-10-Type Rifle Cartridges

While the number of AR-15 manufacturers seems to be infinite, there are only a few companies currently making the larger AR-10-style rifles. So the selection is more limited. It is in this rifle, however, that the AR style really starts to come into its own as a big-game gun. The AR-15 cartridges are all a compromise of either power or trajectory when it comes to big game, but this rifle is designed for use with larger, modern bottle-neck cartridges that don't compromise on anything.

Basically, any cartridge that can fit in a short action bolt-action rifle can fit in this platform. The most common cartridge is the .308 Win. But DPMS and others offer everything in that family from a .243 Win. through the .338 Federal.

.243 Win.

This is probably the most popular of the "dual-use" offerings in this family of cartridges. The .243 Win. has long been my preferred cartridge for hunting the northeastern coyotes near where I live. They are big and tough and sometimes the smaller .22 center-fires don't stop them well enough. But the .243 Win., with the right bullets, puts them down fast and forever.

It is also a good cartridge for deer if used with high-quality bullets. If you are interested in predator hunting, with an emphasis on coyotes and plan on using the same rifle for deer or antelope, this is a great choice. There are so many ammunition options it would be impossible to explore them all here. But, I prefer an 80-gr. polymer-tip bullet at more than 3300 f.p.s. for coyotes. For deer, the 100-gr. at 2950 f.p.s. is best.

.260 Rem.

This is another good crossover cartridge and is perhaps a bit of a better choice for deer. I have seen this cartridge work on about 20 different deer as well as a few antelope, and we have had much better luck with a 120-gr. Ballistic Tip bullet for deer than any of the 140-gr. loads. It's also going to be the coyote bullet of choice if you are shooting factory loads, as there are no varmint bullet options of which I am aware. But, if you handload, Hornady has a 95-gr. V-Max that is deadly on coyotes.

6.5 Creedmoor

Another new and interesting cartridge is the 6.5 Creedmoor developed by Hornady and chambered by DPMS. Although it was developed for target shooting, it does have a muzzle velocity of 2820 f.p.s. with a 140-gr. bullet. This makes it a deer gun with the right bullets.

7 mm-08 Rem.

This cartridge has built a reputation for being one of the best ever for whitetails. The 140-gr. bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2800 f.p.s. is the standard.

.308 Win.

This is the cartridge the gun was designed around and is by far the most popular. The diversity of ammunition is staggering and includes far more than could be covered here. But, my choice for whitetails is a good 150-gr. bullet. I used the Remington R-25 to shoot three whitetails in Texas in December 2008. The ammunition was Remington's 150-gr. Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded. Three shots, three deer in the cooler. Not much I could add to that.

If you are hunting elk or other bigger game, bump it up to a high-quality 180-gr. bullet. Hornady offers a 110-gr. V-Max varmint bullet in its TAP line that should be a good coyote load.

.338 Federal

This is my favorite cartridge for big game hunting with the AR-10-type rifles. I shot my best-ever black bear with the .338 Federal, as well as several deer. I have seen it take moose, caribou and elk. This is a versatile and hard-hitting cartridge. Don't be fooled into thinking it is a short-range cartridge. It can easily handle 300-yd. shots, which is about as far as most of us have any business shooting at unwounded game. I have an 8" steel, swinging target from R&R Racing. With my DPMS LR338 in .338 Federal and a Nikon scope with the BDC reticle, I can hit the target at 300 yds. at will, while shooting from hunting positions. The problem is that the .338 Federal hits so hard that it often knocks the target out of the frame, which means a long walk down to put it back. No other cartridge I have tried in any AR does that at that distance.

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