Sun. May 19th, 2024

Black Rifle Whitetails – I was late to the AR party. I had nothing against them, simply preferring I-dotting bolt rifles for most of the shooting I do—namely sniping small burrowing rodents. I assumed an AR, with all those moving parts, could not supply that level of precision. That changed after I shot Rock River Arms’ A4 Varmint in .223 Remington, which easily assembled five-shot, ½-inch groups at 100 yards with tailored handloads. With a Trijicon AccuPoint 5-20x50mm scope attached, I was soon picking off soda-bottle-sized ground squirrels to 400 yards. 

I now own several AR-15s, including a highly-accurate “parts-build” .223 Rem, a military-pattern AR-15 for home defense, and parts guns in .224 Valkyrie, 6.5 Grendel and 6.8 Remington SPC to belabor Texas feral hogs with. 

The acronym AR has become the blanket label for a wide range of semi-automatic rifles made by a bevy of custom and mainstream gun makers. First developed in 1958 by ArmaLite (the A in AR, the R standing for rifle), and then sold to Colt in 1959, the AR-16 version became the standard-issue weapon for U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1963. Things really took off when the original ArmaLite/Colt patents expired in the 1970s, opening the floodgates to other manufactures. Despite the many manufacturers the AR-15 label stuck (the AR-10 moniker given to heavier, functionally identical rifles chambered in the larger 308 Winchester/7.62x51mm and similar-sized rounds). Continuous refinements have made ARs increasingly reliable, accessory and optics adaptable, generally more affordable, and especially more accurate. 

The last survey I saw from the National Rifle Association put the number of AR rifles in civilian use at roughly 8-10 million—though our recent political situation sparked a flurry of gun-buying activity, so that number is now likely higher. This makes the AR “America’s Rifle” and one of the most popular designs in the world. While a good percentage of AR-style rifles are purchased for personal defense and sport shooting, more hunters every year have adopted the handy design.

Despite liberal hysteria, most hunters don’t choose an AR for more and/or faster follow-up shots. Even during high-volume varmint shoots using an AR—employing a 10-round magazine due to less rest interference—it’s all about careful shot placement and high hit-to-miss ratios. 

The real appeal of the AR design is easy handling, low recoil (relative to other rifle designs chambered in identical cartridges) and low maintenance. The AR-15 is by design ergonomic. Click-stop telescoping stocks allow a single rifle to fit many shooters, from teens and petite women to burly men. Even newer rigid stock designs typically include a lot of adjustability for length of pull and comb height. The vertical pistol grip offers an ergonomic improvement over traditional stocks, and the side-lever thumb safety not only makes accidental discharges hugely improbable, but is easily and intuitively operated even while wearing insulated gloves. Detachable box magazines also make these rifles a snap to load and unload safely.

Low recoil is integral to the operating system, as some small amount of expanding gas is used to cycle subsequent rounds, and the inertia of the moving bolt carrier works to counteract recoil forces. This is especially pointed in AR-10s cycling 308 Winchester or parent-case rounds, or AR-15s feeding on thumpers like the 6.5 Grendel, 6.8 SPC or 300 Ham’R. This is a welcomed feature for smaller youth or women shooters. 

The AR’s military origins mean it was designed for quick and infrequent maintenance. Troops engaged in prolonged battle might burn thousands of rapid-fire rounds per day. The AR is made to run hot, and operate reliably with only periodic cleaning. When you do need to clean an AR (and you should, about every 300-400 rounds) the simple, modular design allows taking it down to component parts for a thorough scrubbing without involving a gunsmith.                

The newest controlled-expansion bullets and faster barrel rifling twists (standard on ARs and accommodating long, heavy-for-caliber bullets) has breathed new life into the 223 Remington as a deer-hunting round. I’ve decisively rolled Texas hogs with handloaded 75-grain Speer Gold Dot bullets, including boars weighing much more than any mature whitetail buck. Still more terminal insurance is available through several new AR-15-compatible cartridges. 

Before delving into AR-15 rounds, I must quickly say the AR-10s in standard 308 Win. chambering offers serious big-game energy delivery. That power is typically paid for with increased rifle mass and recoil. AR-10s are also available in many 308-based cartridges through various makers, including 243 Winchester, 260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington and 338 Federal, plus rounds such as the 6mm and 6.5 Creedmoors and 358 Winchester—that I know of. The hog-hunting craze has also sparked large-bolt-face ARs chambered in chubby/short cartridges like the 458 SOCOM, 458 Ham’R and 50 Beowulf, just as examples—ideal for stand hunting in thronged vegetation where ranges seldom exceed 100 yards.  

Black Rifle Whitetails – The number of hotrod 223-based AR-15 rounds seemingly increase annually. Off the top of my head, these include the 6x45mm (shooting a 100-grain pill to 2400 fps), .25-45 Sharps (doing its best work with 87-grain soft noses pushed to 2800 fps), Wilson Combat’s 300 Ham’R, developed specifically for hog hunting, and the 350 Legend. The Ham’R shoots 130- to 150-grain bullets from 2550 to 2700 fps, meaning it approaches 308 Winchester energy delivery while also offering sub-MOA accuracy and relatively moderate recoil. The Legend can shoot .355-inc/9mm bullets up to 170-180 grains, while producing upwards of 2200 foot pounds of kinetic energy.                      

The 224 Valkyrie, 6mm ARC, 6.5 Grendel, 6.8 Remington SPC and 300 Blackout, just to name the most common rounds, are also chambered in AR-15s. The Valkyrie is based on a 6.8 SPC case necked to .22 caliber, rifles including generous free-bore and faster rifling twists to accommodate 90-grain bullets sent from 2550 to 2700 fps. The 6mm ARC by Hornady uses a Grendel case necked to 6mm, shooting 103-grain slugs to 2500 fps—making it one of the most efficient AR cartridges made. The 6.5 Grendel is based on a PPC case and is also exceptionally efficient, designed from the ground up to run in AR-15s. It propels 120-grain slugs to 2400 fps, high ballistic coefficients providing long-range reach and pile-driving penetration. The 6.8 SPC was developed by the 5th Special Forces Group, U.S. Army to deliver increased AR-15 lethality. It is best paired with 100- to 115-grain bullets pushed to around 2500 fps. The Blackout does best—in my opinion—on big game using 125-grain bullets sent at 2100 fps.

Of the non-223-based cartridges the biggest disadvantages are generally higher rifle and ammo prices. Purchasing just an upper/barrel and mating it to an existing AR-15 offers the most affordable option. In the case of rounds like the 6mm ARC, 6.5 Grendel and 6.8 SPC, compatible magazines must also be purchased. 

Black Rifle Whitetails – ARs are no longer considered a political statement, but mainstream hunting tools for the average hunter. They’re versatile, handy and highly accurate. More pointed today, they’re offered in an ever-expanding array of useful deer-hunting cartridges. You certainly don’t need to sell your trusty bolt rifle, but if you’re looking for a new addition to the gun vault, the AR is sure-enough potent deer-hunting medicine.  

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