Have you thought about taking your AR 15 hunting? The AR-15 remains the rifle of choice for the modern era and can be found in any shooting discipline, in any shooting activity.
From competition to home defense and law enforcement to military service, the AR-15 family of rifles remains completely dominant, the total choice for the discerning shooter. But there is still one area where the AR is meeting a little resistance, and that is hunting.
Now you will find no shortage of AR-15s and their many variants roaming the woods and fields and mountains of America carried by hunters in search of game, but despite the emergence of Gun Culture 2.0, and an increasingly performance-driven shooting public that has been forced to acknowledge the supremacy of the AR and all its many guises, the AR lags behind more traditional choices when it comes time to put meat in the freezer.
Even today with all we have learned there are shooters out here in the country that believes those cartridges are only suitable for pest removal when in fact you can bag plenty of game with either. In today’s article, I will make a case for bagging more than just prairie dogs with your AR-15.
The AR 15 Hunting Afield
Before we get into the great caliber debate, I would like to address the people reading this article that even now is preparing to tie me to the mast, and berate me for even suggesting that the sleek, plastic shape of the AR belongs anywhere in the field where should go instead blued steel and carefully oiled walnut stocks.
There is no accounting for taste I don’t guess, but we need to deal with reality here: essential mechanical and shooting characteristics of the AR-15 make it an ideal hunting rifle when used in conditions where it is suitable.
Like what? Consider this, black rifle haters:
No rifle today is remotely as adaptable as the AR-15. From internals to furniture, barrels to buttstocks, the AR-15 can be tailored for any objective and any shooter, and many modern components are configurable on the fly to meet changing conditions or different shooters’ needs.
The inline stock of an AR and superb human engineering remains the Standard for shoot-ability by which all other rifles are measured. Shooting an AR is a uniquely easy and enjoyable experience in most calibers and most conditions. When the time comes to quickly mount the rifle for a snapshot, or if you have to hold the rifle on your chosen quarry for an extended period, you’ll be glad it is an AR.
AR-15s in most guises and foremost manufacturers are rightly famous for accuracy, with even pedestrian offerings being routinely capable of shooting 2MOA with even basic commercial ammo. High-quality models from leading manufacturers are capable of atom-splitting accuracy with equally good ammo. The AR-15 is capable of producing accuracy far greater than the average shooter can meet on demand.
AR-15s made from quality parts and assembled correctly are exceptionally reliable in all conditions. They are no longer the rifles, they were when first rolled out into the hands of unfortunate GIs during the Vietnam War. I have before and will continue to take AR variant rifles on excursions and into conditions that would make a nicely bedded and wood-stocked bolt action rifle beg for mercy.
ARs are tough, and virtually impervious to damage from being dropped, bashed, or slammed. What’s more, the principal components in an AR-15 are aluminum and plastic, both of which are resistant to corrosion. Bare stainless or blued steel does not fare well in harsh conditions, and will definitely require more maintenance on the backside.
Mounting an optic to an AR is the picture of simplicity, even with the preponderance and ubiquity of Picatinny/Mil-Std. 1913 rails had long since spread beyond tactical weapons. Longer handguards and monolithic upper receivers ensure plenty of room and rigidity for keeping zero on quick-detach optics as well as the addition of thermal or NV attachments.
Shooting is shooting, and so long as you and your chosen cartridge are up to the task, it makes sense to go with the rifle that offers the most advantages most of the time. That rifle, in almost every case, is the AR-15. Speaking of cartridges, time to get on to the main event.
The 5.56mm/.223: What Are They Good For?
Not just war as some detractors would have you believe. For the longest time, the reputation of the 5.56mm and its commercial sire the .223 was bogged down and what used to be outdated wisdom and perpetually stalked by myths, gun counter talk, and tall tales told around the fire at hunting camps.
Much of this talk usually revolves around how the .223 is simply too light for taking any game larger than a prairie dog or poodle.
Other bunk still abounds, notions that the .223 cannot defeat bone in larger game or pests like deer and hog, or that the projectiles are all somehow inherently unstable to an insane degree, and will break up too quickly upon entering flesh to do any meaningful damage and bring an animal down.
Like most bad answers, there is a grain of truth to each of these but luckily for us, they are either blown entirely out of proportion or are founded in truths that are simply 50 or 60 years out of date and no longer relevant or even valid. Technology marches on, and those materials used in bullet construction have improved dramatically along with bullet design itself.
Cartridges evolve. The .223 and 5.56mm, along with many other .22 caliber projectiles, have enjoyed a bounty of performance enhancements that allow them to easily and reliably perform in ways that would have been impossible back in your grandfather’s day.
The rifles that chamber them are beyond capable in almost any shooting environment, so the weak links in the projectile delivery system are oftentimes the shooter and the specific projectile itself.
In the following sections, we’ll assess how the .223/5.56mm can perform when used against the common game and pest animals.
I am not knocking the man, but you can forget what dear old granddad told you about the .223 as it relates to the hunting of deer.
Shot placement is always king, but we are relying on the bullet to do its job once we have done ours and for that reason, you should not choose any light full metal jacket or traditional soft point bullet for this task. As discussed above they are poor choices for the taking of a large game in this caliber.
Luckily, modern ammunition manufacturers have produced an extraordinary array of extremely capable bullets optimized for the hunting of larger game that will reliably expand generously, penetrate deeply, and retain their weight.
These bullets perform in total contrast to the zippy, unstable .223 rounds of yesteryear that would break up as soon as they disturbed flesh in the target.
These rounds do not require a headshot to produce a clean kill on a deer, and they don’t even have to have a picture-perfect broadside shot.
AR 15 Hunting Shot Placement
So long as you know your holds and can shoot straight, delivering the bullet to the heart or lungs of your quarry these rounds will work about as well as anything else for the purpose.
Many of these modern hunting-specific projectiles can more than double their outside diameter when they expand properly, meaning you are boring approximately a .50 caliber hole through the animal. I don’t know anyone who would sneeze at that!
One thing to keep in mind is that the .223 and its cousin the 5.56 are always going to be what they were made to be, meaning small-diameter and extremely high-velocity, and no matter what kind of pill you are lobbing, it will always rely on velocity for proper performance.
That means the range is an issue no matter what, and the .223 is best in comparatively short ranges. Think 200 yards and closer.
Firing inside this range band means that the projectile will certainly have enough velocity upon impact to perform correctly. But conversely, the more velocity drops, the less likely the projectile will perform properly (i.e. expand, penetrate deeply enough, retain weight), and so effectiveness will be reduced.
Now, some of you are out there probably thinking that doesn’t sound like a very far shot at all for almost any rifle, and you are correct as far as raw range goes. But do not divorce yourself from the practical considerations at hand.
The vast majority of places you are going to hunt deer, especially in the American South. You will rarely have even a 200-yard shot save down a lane of power lines or shooting across a field.
Varmints and Other Small Game
The .223 and 5.56 have for a long time been near optimal small game and varmint cartridges owing to their supremely destructive effects upon these animals even when using traditional bullets along with the typical pinpoint accuracy achievable with many AR family rifles.
Eradication efforts are one thing. So then, what are you supposed to do if you’re trying to supplement your provisions or fill the family cookpot? Once again, careful shot placement or ammunition selection will save the day.
If you are a good shooter and have an improved shooting position, a headshot is an option. This is entirely achievable at modest ranges even on the smaller animals.
Shooting any of these animals in the torso will cause destructive effects on the meat and organs.
So then, no matter what your mission is when after smaller animals, an AR can definitely take care of it. AR 15 hunting is extremely versatile.
An even more contentious issue is the use of .223 on larger North American animals. Most specifically elk, moose, and various bear species.
While the modern hunting projectiles I have mentioned previously are certainly capable of showing an excellent effect on these animals. Neither cartridge would be my first choice for hunting any of them except perhaps a black bear.
Elk and moose in particular are far larger and far denser than whitetail deer. Obviously you can bring down almost any animal with a well-placed headshot. However, this is not always an option or achievable.
With regards to placing a round into the “pump house” that will almost assuredly result in a clean kill. In this context, there is a lot more flesh and bone to get through.
This is where a bullet with greater mass and consequently greater momentum oftentimes makes the difference with these larger species.
If I were going after one of these larger animals, the .223 would not be an acceptable choice. It would not be my first choice if I was in a pinch during a survival situation. But there is another way to square the issue, particularly with bears.
Just because the cartridge is not optimal for humanely harvesting any of these animals. It does not mean it will not inflict lethal wounds on them in a self-defense situation.
There are those that only rely on a firearm with a larger bore and more recoil for the purpose. Consider what the typical self-defense shooting looks like when dealing with a dangerous animal.
Much of the time the animal surprises the defender. Either with the defender stumbling upon the animal’s location and surprising it. Which, results in a charge and subsequent mauling. Or they unwittingly cross paths with resting or hiding animal concealed by the terrain in heavy brush or similar circumstances. In that case, the animal erupts with a bad temper and murder on its mind.
You will have a vanishingly short window to effectively engage these animals, and save your own life or someone else’s.
Also especially attractive is the magazine capacity of the average AR in these situations.
Goats and sheep are certainly within this pairing’s wheelhouse. I will have you know that the AR firing 5.56 is currently the most popular feral hog eradication choice.
You’re probably starting to sense a pattern here in that the effectiveness of the AR. Furthermore, its classic chambering is largely dependent upon range and projectile selection.
Don’t discount this adaptability if you are trying to keep your gun safe as lean as possible. And maximizing your options and opportunities for hunting.
AR 15 Hunting Conclusion
The AR-15 is America’s rifle! And though its genesis is in military service, it has gone on to attain spectacular popularity with hunters.
Even now it still has not achieved as much acceptance or widespread popularity for hunting.
It is an excellent choice as far as the rifle is concerned. And even its traditional chambering of .223 or 5.56mm can easily be maximized for taking large game.