By Primary Arms
What’s your desired target in the field? And can the AR handle it?
In this article, we aren’t trying to explore an exhaustive list of what you can kill with every possible one-off build of an AR with a custom upper receiver in existence. Instead, we wanted to try to focus on moderate sized game and intermediate or closer ranges with a bit of a kicker to cover some mainstream FAQ’s when it comes to hunting “big game” with an AR-15.
Basically: what’s out there, what’s realistic, and what’s going to deliver the type of hunting experience that you want will be covered below. This is a topic too wide-ranging to effectively cover all the points in a single article of this length, so please be aware the basic target is big game in the range of a moderately-sized deer; at distances out to about 500 yards, and really between 150-350 yards (a more realistic range for the AR).
Your state and local laws
We cover this a bit more down below, but the long and the short of it is this: a lot of regulators and legislators don’t know a lot about guns; subsequently there are a plethora of poorly constructed laws in many different places around the United States. You really need to be aware of the go/no-go regulations in your jurisdiction, and you should check regularly to stay abreast of changes to the law.
Every year, you need to brush up on your understanding of the law, and you should be on the email lists for forums, websites, or the legislative trackers for your state and local area if hunting is something you enjoy doing. There is no regulation in sport shooting or hunting that’s worth going to jail for.
Depending on the game type you could run the gamut. But for the sake of inclusion let’s shoot for moderate to large deer, where the smaller caliber options are approved by state regulatory bodies/legislation. This gives us the biggest range of options. Let’s be realistic here too, not many of these cartridges should be used out of an AR to take a long range shot on a massive animal like a moose or Caribou, anyway.
Anything in the long-range arena, with a body mass that large is probably much better suited to a bolt gun and a bigger cartridge with larger grain weight projectiles and a lot more powder behind them.
For the sake of the widest swath of potential hunters here, let’s assume that you are not going after a game that exceeds 400 lbs. on average – which all these cartridges, given the right load characteristics, projectile selection and basic range considerations are capable of dispatching cleanly.
As if it needed to be stated: we urge you to exercise discretion and do your best to take responsible shots when the numbers are riding the edge of reality for a specific hunt. Better yet, move up the ladder into something that will more easily suffice for all realistic scenarios for that hunt. In the case of very large game, and long ranges, that may not be the AR, and it may not be the cartridges that fit well on the AR patterns.
Below we highlight common cartridges that fit squarely in the mainstream AR camp and provide sufficient ballistics for the game options we outlined above. They all have pros and cons but are also all well suited to the task at hand.
5.56/.223 – obviously
This is a simple and straightforward take on the cartridge: it can kill deer of all sizes from an AR-15. It is also one of the most popular hunting rifles in existence right now. The concept of hunting deer with a standard AR in this caliber/configuration is exhaustively and more adeptly covered elsewhere. No one in their right mind still doubts a .223/5.56 on deer sized game. Just be realistic about your shot variables and take responsible shots. You’ll enjoy hunting with an AR. But you may enjoy it more with some of the cartridges listed below in more detail.
One of the best pure mixes on accuracy and range and ballistic performance for moderately sized deer or animals of substantially similar sizing. You can reasonably expect to be able to take a shot past 650 yards in regular conditions out of an AR! You can maintain the relatively lower weight of the AR with the need for only a 20-inch barrel configuration and get great performance. How many animals of that size are you reasonably taking at distances beyond that range? Certainly, anything beyond 650 yards on the regular, necessitates a bigger cartridge in general.
If there was a single round that possibly addresses the quality-of-life concerns on a hunt, and offers sufficient ballistics, and range capabilities, this is probably the best fit for medium to “smaller” large game at intermediate ranges.
You could likely expect a well-placed shot to get you past 600 lbs. At ranges up to 450-550 yards too, but you’d have to factor in the conditions on a case-by-case basis.
The benefit of the 6.5 Grendel on a hunt is that it gets you past the restrictions of the terminal ballistics and range of the .223/5.56 and it doesn’t weigh any more. It’s more accurate, longer range, and offers a much bigger grain weight. It can also claim significant advantages on velocity and lethality at much further distances.
Beyond that, you are also getting AR familiarity, and no move up to the larger AR.308 chassis. It can push the limits of the platform for accuracy too. You aren’t going to wring much more out of the AR on an intermediate range basis. It also behaves better in brush than the .223/5.56 and the .300BLK in subsonic loads.
You may not need the 6.5 Creedmoor’s extra range capabilities if you are using an AR, because where are you expecting to hunt with an AR in a 750+ yard range and needing that extra velocity – and ultimately, the Creedmoor requires a much longer, heavier barrel to get you out there. You’d likely be better off bringing a 6.5 Creedmoor in a bolt gun. Or maybe even jumping to the Super .30 Calibers, where you can jump the weight class up significantly to even include bears or other dangerous game.
You’re not bringing an AR for that.
308 (requires a non-standard AR)
.308 is a super versatile big game round. You can sabot a 55-grain bullet and go for ultra-high velocities, and smaller game variants, or you can load big and get into the 200’s in grain weight and still expect a shot out to 650+ yards. An AR, properly equipped, would easily get you to 650 with the right optic and a smart shooter on intermediate or larger game, but you might be pushing the upper limits of the rifle platform to get the accuracy you’d want to ensure a clean kill on very large game at distance.
Versatility is the name of the game with the .308 and there isn’t much here to tell that hasn’t been explored ad nauseum elsewhere in more focused articles on the .308 subject. Note: you’re carrying a heavier, larger rifle build to get the .308 on a hunt that probably won’t require it in 90% of the hunting grounds in the United States, at least not necessitating an AR.
6.5 Creedmoor (requires a non-standard AR)
The same concept we explored on the .308, rings true for the 6.5 Creedmoor, which is a special cartridge, and has so many admirable qualities. But suffice it to say, the limits of the AR platform are exceeded by this cartridge, and certainly if you need to reach out and dispatch a very large game target, the 6.5 Creedmoor has the distance, but it may not have all the oomph you could get elsewhere. Similarly, you wouldn’t likely bring an AR in 6.5 Creedmoor unless it was your only option, if you needed to get out to 1000+ yards where the round can still be super comfortable. The 6.5 Creedmoor “hunting for intermediate game” case screams that it needs to be made on the back of a bolt action, not an AR.
As impressive as it is in an AR, the Creedmoor is overkill for this task, and frankly not well paired. Furthermore, it’s not particularly well suited in the barrel lengths commonly available for an AR, to do what it does best, when you can crush most competitors with a bolt gun for the strengths of the Creedmoor.
If you want to hunt with the 6.5 Creedmoor, you can also do it with another platform, and save several pounds along the way, especially if you plan on packing in and out of 1000-yard kills. A fine round, on a fine platform in the AR, but even better elsewhere.
All the stubbies like the .458 SOCOM and the .450 Bushmaster, and the 50 Beowulf make excellent brush guns. Think modern .45-70 Govt., out of the people’s rifle. It’s a great combination of power and sheer driving energy that is perfect for shorter ranges that are blocked by dead limbs and dense leaf formations and the need to be able to power through those distractions to ensure a hit on a big game target.
You cannot go wrong with any of these in such a setting, where anything short of the super .30 cal. class is going to suffer a lot before it even reaches the target, and likely have deformation or significant placement issues if it’s been deflected by environmental debris.
If you have the means and the desire to grab an upper receiver in one of the stubby calibers, this is a great choice for crowded landscapes with a lot of brush.
Right up there with the 6.5 Grendel, this is a fantastic cartridge that offers a graceful balance of terminal ballistics, long range capabilities, great accuracy and more than enough to take out your target cleanly. No complaints here about the 6.8SPC on intermediate game, with intermediate ranges in mind.
Some important things to remember when hunting game with an AR platform
- Cartridges in the magazine limitations – there are laws for this
- Don’t burden yourself with undue weight: bring an optic, but lose the rest of the accessories if you can
- Better yet, if you feel confident and you have a short-range hunt in mind you may not even need an optic. Carrying a 7 lbs. gun in the field is a lot nicer than carrying 12 lbs. Did you practice on your iron sights? Is a set of irons realistic?
- You won’t likely get a follow up shot (see below)
- You will face some increased scrutiny if stopped by game wardens or other officials in certain areas because of the platform you are using. Make sure you are following applicable laws to avoid drama
- Make sure you meet the minimum state, and local regulations for caliber/cartridge some states have some ridiculous minimum caliber requirements that do not make real world sense
- Military ammunition can work, but it’s not ideal. Opt for some premium rounds if you can for enhanced performance
- There’s always going to be at least one person on the hunt that will look at you with disgust. The AR is about as mainstream as it possibly could be, but people seem to sometimes form opinions not based on reality when it comes to “their sport”. Take note and plan the future trips accordingly
Will ammunition and specialty components be a game changer in a modern hunt?
Yes, they can be. Monolithic all copper bullets may be mandatory in some places where very progressive regulations have already landed, but that may not be a bad thing – these loads are generally excellent for hunting.
Certainly, when testing the limits of the AR platform, the improvements in powders, projectile engineering and other components have evolved to make the AR a dynamo that sees few if any restrictions in any endeavor. Hunting notwithstanding.
The optic mounting will help a lot when it comes to quick sighting and field tuning as needed, even if you SHOULD have your optic dialed in prior to leaving. Also, bring the backup iron sights – you never know. While exceptionally rare, if you have a case for a follow up shot, the AR is about the best there is for something like that. The way you kit your gun out can have a dramatic impact on how fast you can get to a second shot engagement.
Is a follow up shot a realistic option?
Sometimes an animal doesn’t know it’s about 45 seconds from a zero-lung capacity scenario. And you don’t know either. It’s just standing there, aware of the shot, but it doesn’t see you. It’s moved a bit, but you aren’t sure that you hit it perfectly, because it feels like your shot placement is deceiving you at this moment. Take the second shot. With an AR this is a reality that can be carried out effectively. You may not ever get that chance with a bolt action rifle at under 350 yards. With an AR you can guarantee the kill and put your target at rest, and your mind at rest at the same time.
All that said, a follow-up shot at anything under 350 yards is all but a myth for most hunters. And at further distances, you’re going to have to be good to hit them a second time with less preparation when you may have missed by fractions of an inch on the first one. It’s just not all that likely.
Sure, in theory it’s easier to take a shot when you’re outfitted with a semi-auto, and a soft recoiling cartridge like a 6.5 Grendel or a .223. But it’s almost a sure bet you won’t have too many of those situations.
Hunting and sportsmanship best practices
It’s not a lecture because you already know it and agree with it, but also:
- Make clean, realistic shots or realistic targets that match up with what you brought to hunt with
- The AR is awesome, but it doesn’t magically make you capable of taking 1000-yard shots just because it’s well built or has a fantastic cartridge loaded in it – if it’s too far, check yourself a bit before you commit to the shot
- Ethical, legal hunting is what we should all be striving to participate in. Don’t risk jail time for foregoing regulatory hurdles, or avoiding compliance in the field
- Check your big mags at home, and carry a dedicated low-capacity magazine or two with the maximum number of rounds inserted per the regulations of your state and local jurisdictions
Conclusions about AR hunting
The enjoyment you get out of a hunt might be directly affected by the AR platform. And that’s a very good thing for the industry and proves just how important the AR is in the sporting world. But it’s not the be-all-end-all for hunting. In fact, it’s not all that versatile if you place it on the giant backdrop of all the game that exists in the wild outdoors.
All that said, the AR can be impactful, enjoyable, and familiar, and help you get the game you’re after if you take some basic planning into consideration and look at what you’ll be going after and juxtapose that onto what you plan on bridging from the hardware perspective. What we hope to have accomplished is providing an up-to-date primer on the subject that would apply to sport shooters and hunters all over the United States.