I can image the looks they must have got, those first fellows to uncase a Winchester lever rifle, Springfield ’03 or Remington 742 in hunting camp. I know that look. I occasionally get the same reaction. The abject horror, disbelief and disdain for those now-classic American hunting arms must have been similar to the reactions my “black” rifles get today.
“You are going to hunt with that?”
“My Gosh son, we ain’t fighting the Communists, we’re deer hunting.”
“Don’t put me near that guy with the automatic weapon.”
The AR-15 and its big brother, the AR-10, have gained a lot of traction with hunters over the last few years. But there are still folks who cannot fathom taking these rifles afield. These modern hunting rifles look different, feel different and other than sending a bullet downrange, they have little in common with Grandpa’s favorite deer rifle.
Like most rifles that got their start on a battlefield and soon migrated into hunters’ hands, the AR family is accurate and reliable. And even more so than their predecessors, they are astoundingly versatile.
I have had other hunters ask me, flat out and straight up, if hunting with ARs is ethical. It is a legitimate question. The answer lies in the hunter who holds the AR or bolt rifle, not in the rifle itself. Hunting arms should be accurate and have enough killing power to put an animal down quickly. Those are the only parts in the hunting equation for which the rifle is responsible. A properly outfitted AR in the right caliber satisfies those obligations.
Ethical hunters strive and practice for one-shot kills. But an immediate follow-up shot on hand is a nice feature to have if everything does not go as planned. The semi-automatic AR puts it there faster than most other action types. Someone with a spray-and-pray approach to hunting marksmanship will put rounds downrange with whatever rifle they happen to be using. Obviously that jack wagon can do it faster with an AR, but the problem is not the rifle.
A rifle is simply a tool, and while it might share a name with that favorite old girlfriend and have an eccentricity or two, it has no human qualities. A rifle does what it is told so any malice aforethought lies squarely on the shoulders of the man pulling the trigger.
Oddly enough, other hunters have asked me if the AR platform was a “safe rifle” as if it would spontaneously fire or go full auto. Think about it for a second: Several million service members subjected the M-16 and its many variants to combat conditions on nearly every continent for almost 50 years. That is a lot of dropped rifles and millions and millions of rounds downrange. Any mechanical flaws were pretty much sorted out at taxpayer expense a long time ago.
I will be the first to say that over the years the AR had its share of accuracy woes. But that’s no longer the case. My favorite pastime, after deer hunting, is trying to hit little targets or shoot little groups at great distances. I devote a great deal of time to being as accurate as possible and can unequivocally say that AR rifles are up to the task.
Twenty years ago, the average AR-style rifle could not match the accuracy of an average bolt rifle. That has changed, and I respectfully submit that a rack-grade AR is as accurate as the average rack-grade anything else. There are several custom ARs in my safe that will go toe to toe with any bolt rifle and hold sub-MOA groups as far as I care to shoot.
The military has a huge budget, vast resources and tireless tinkerers with penchants for innovation. Long ago they found ways to make the AR extremely accurate. Most manufacturers, in the interest of selling more rifles, quickly adopted things like free-floating fore-ends and match triggers.
After sending a trophy shot of my first-ever bison to a few friends, I got a curious email that pointed to another enduring AR myth, that you can only get them in 5.56 NATO or .223. My buddy wanted to know “what in the heck I was thinking” when I shot that bison with a little varmint round. In fact, I used a DPMS LR-338R chambered for one of my favorite big game rounds, the .338 Federal. It is just one of dozens and dozens of available rounds that can be stuffed into a .308/7.62 NATO magazine and therefore will work in an AR-10 style rifle. The same goes for the AR-15. If it can fit in the magazine, it will work in the rifle.
The cartridge range is almost endless. Quite a few companies make rimfires. Yes, that means .22 LR conversions, uppers or even dedicated rifles. If big-bore cartridges are your game, step up to a .450 Bushmaster, .458 SOCOM or .50 Beowulf (which can surpass the .45-70 in terms of muzzle energy depending on the bullet and barrel length used).
Several companies now make single-shot .50 BMG uppers, if you happen to draw that Tyrannosaurus rex tag.
So what’s the big deal? Most every rifle can be had in most every caliber. But I can swap from .22 LR to .223 to 6.5 Grendel to .50 BMG in about five seconds without loss of zero by popping two pins and swapping uppers. No other rifle in the world can match that kind of versatility.
At the end of the day, AR-15s and AR-10s are great hunting rifles — reliable, accurate, safe and versatile. Are they going to replace bolt actions or lever rifles? Are they perfect for everything? No, they’re not. But they also are not evil, sinister or inappropriate either.