Hunting With Modern Semi-Automatic Rifles—The AR Afield
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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"
.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
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.
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.
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.
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
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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