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Guns & Loads

The AR for Deer Hunting?

by Dick Metcalf   |  April 30th, 2012 1

Samantha Simonton favors her AR-platform gun -- in this case a Bushmaster lower and a DPMS upper in 6.8 Remington SPC -- over her bolt-action guns because of its pistol grip, adjustable stock and manual safety convenient to her thumb position. Photo by J. Guthrie.

Who would ever want to hunt whitetails with a “black gun?” After all, no deer hunter — or waterfowler or upland bird shooter or squirrel or rabbit hunter — really wants to hunt with a shotgun or rifle having a non-reflective matte black finish or black synthetic stock, right? They all prefer bright-polish blued or stainless actions and barrels and highly reflective, glossy, lacquered wood stocks. Don’t they?

Semiautos? Come on. Who needs them? That’s why you never see any “real” waterfowlers or upland bird shooters using semiautomatic shotguns like a Remington 1100 or 1187, or a Benelli Super Black Eagle, or the new Browning Maxus. Or small-game hunters using Ruger 10/22 semiauto rifles. Or whitetail hunters using rifles like the Remington Model 742 and Model 7400, or a Browning BAR.

And then there’s that magazine capacity thing. Why would anybody want a hunting gun that has the capacity for more than two follow-up shots? Federal and state hunting regulations already limit magazine capacity for hunting with many types of arms. That’s why shotguns come with magazine tube plugs. States that allow semiauto firearms for big game already restrict the number of rounds that can be loaded in them.

I don’t know why shotgun and rifle makers don’t just quit making hunting models that will hold more than two rounds in their magazines in the first place. Can’t they take a hint? I guess it’s because they figure that just because a gun can hold more than 2+1 rounds doesn’t mean that a hunter will load more than three rounds. But hunters can’t be trusted. So we ought to just outlaw high-capacity magazines entirely.

Okay, I’m being ridiculous.

The real reason that there has been so much resistance and opposition in recent years from established, long-time whitetail hunters to the growing use of AR-platform rifles in the deer woods is not because they’re black. And it’s not because they’re semiautos. And it’s not because you can put magazines into them that hold more than three or four rounds, if you want (regardless of what the hunting laws might say). It’s because AR-15 and AR-10 rifles just don’t look like these hunters think a deer rifle ought to look. It doesn’t look like the kind of deer rifle they grew up with and have been accustomed to using thus far in their lives.

It looks like a “military” gun.

NOTHING NEW HERE
There is nothing really new about any of this.

Virtually every type of centerfire hunting and sporting rifle in existence started off as a military weapon. The classic lever-action deer gun, long the most popular type of hunting rifle in America, began as the Henry Rifle of the Civil War era, designed to bring rapid fire against the enemy. The lever-action was succeeded in universal popularity by the bolt-action, still the standard hunting rifle of today, which we owe to Paul Mauser’s classic battle-rifle design. Does anybody out there still remember the converted surplus “Sporterized Mausers” that were the most economical route to a good hunting gun for most ordinary shooters from the 1920s to well into the 1950s?

Now another military-origin rifle design is moving rapidly into prominence in the hunting and sport shooting word. And, like those predecessors, the AR platform is meeting resistance, even outright opposition, from many hunters who are personally wedded to earlier gun designs.

That should not come as a surprise. When the lever-action first emerged among hunters, traditionalists whose idea of a “real” hunting gun was a single-shot muzzleloader disdained the need for a repeat-fire tool.

First-generation bolt-action military surplus rifles were also disparaged by many sportsmen as “inappropriate” for hunting.

The AR design has encountered the same resistance, in spite of the fact its proven capabilities have already made it the rifle of choice for National Championship high-power rifle competition. Serious long-range varmint and predator shooters were perhaps the first group of hunters to really catch on to its benefits, but it is rapidly spreading into big-game hunting and the deer-hunting arena as well.

Fact is, continuing surveys by the National Shooting Sports Foundation emphatically demonstrate that semiauto AR-platform rifles are well on their way to becoming the most popular type of centerfire long guns in America for everything from casual recreation to serious competition to home defense to big-game hunting, with rimfire versions now joining this wave in increasing numbers. The AR rifle is a deer rifle, and anyone who says different simply doesn’t understand history.

PERFECTLY SUITED
In terms of design and performance attributes, it makes all the sense in the world that proven military rifle designs have always been inherently appropriate for outdoor sporting use.

Mossberg is the latest firearm manufacturer to launch an AR-platform rifle. Pictured here in 7.62 NATO with a Mossy Oak Treestand finish. Photo courtesy of Mossberg.

All successful military rifles were specifically designed for rugged reliable function and durability, which translates automatically into use under even the most extreme field conditions. They are also designed for reasonable weight, portability and ease of fast handling by people who might be carrying a substantial amount of heavy gear and wearing bulky clothing. They have an inherent capability for follow-up shots. And, they must be accurate, against targets of the same basic dimensions and same range of distances typically encountered by hunters.

Add to this the fact that widespread wartime military service with each generation of these rifles served to pre-familiarize millions of American servicemen/outdoorsmen with their operation, capabilities and use.

The AR, in particular, is a superb hunting design because of its lightweight synthetic and corrosion-resistant alloy construction. And, it is extremely accurate, primarily due to the fact it is an “assembled” gun rather than a “fitted” gun. Its major component parts essentially snap together. Unlike a traditional bolt-action rifle, which generally requires close tolerance, hand-work receiver/barrel mating and precise bedding into the stock for maximum accuracy and consistency, a hunting-grade (or even competition-grade) AR rifle can be readily assembled out of modular components literally on a kitchen table, by anybody with a modicum of ability to use relatively simple hand tools.

Likewise, a service-grade “standard” AR15 in any caliber can readily be brought up to minute-of-angle performance by selective replacement of a few key modular elements with match-grade parts. And, once tuned for top performance, an AR stays that way, due to the fact that it doesn’t utilize any wood or other organic components that can warp or swell. To shoot as well or better than the best other type of sporting rifle you can buy, all an AR really needs is a quality barrel and a decent trigger. Top-quality off-the-shelf ARs readily shoot minute-of-angle with factory ammo out to 500 yards.

Moreover, due to its modular design, an AR is very easy to “sporterize,” even by ordinary shooters at their home workbench. The range of available quick-install AR accessories is nearly infinite, including a wide variety of precision-adjustable metallic sight designs, a diversity of optical sight-mount options, many different designs of adjustable or fixed buttstocks and forends (handguards), and attachments for varied styles of carrying and/or shooting slings and bipods for long-range precision shooting.

A growing number of AR users are also taking advantage of the basic design to have different upper receivers in different chamberings and/or barrel lengths/weights to attach to the same lower receiver, making an AR nearly as versatile as a Thompson/Center Encore. Hunting versions of the AR design are currently offered by numerous famous-brand manufacturers in popular chamberings ranging from the varmint-hunting .204 Ruger and .223 Remington through .308, 7mm-08, .243, .260 Remington, 6.8mmSPC, 6.5 Creedmoor and .338 Federal big-game cartridges and on to big-bore, close-quarters, dangerous-game chamberings like the .450 Bushmaster, .458 SOCOM and .50 Beowulf.

And I should probably also mention they’re not just black any more. Hunting AR rifles from all of our major firearms makers — Remington, Smith & Wesson, DPMS, Ruger, Bushmaster, Rock River Arms, Armalite — are all offered in the same popular camouflage hunting finishes as any other rifle. Or you can get them with brown, tan or dark green stocks, grips, forends and other “furniture.” You can even get a pink AR if you want.

BEHIND THE TIMES?
I may already be behind the curl by writing all this, because during just the past two years as I have been traveling the country for the Sportsman Channel’s Modern Rifle Adventures TV show, I have witnessed a dramatic shift in the use of AR rifles for hunting deer and other big game and in acceptance of that fact by other hunters. When we first started showing up in hunting camps with our ARs, there weren’t any others around, and guides and other hunters looked at us askance. Today, we see ARs on nearly every hunt, and hunters who don’t have them are talking about getting one.

The author displays a fine whitetail he took using an Armalite .308. Photo courtesy of Dick Metcalf.

As for myself, I’d already been using an AR-15 rifle for hunting, primarily for varmints and predators, ever since I acquired a Colt AR-15 Sporter Carbine back in 1979. I’d learned the gun carrying an M-16 during my infantry service in the late 1960s. But for deer hunting, I still preferred a compact bolt-action, specifically the original 18 1/2-inch Remington Model Seven 7mm-08 that’s been my go-to whitetail rifle for nearly 30 years.

That’s now changed. After hunting with a variety of AR-15 formats and chamberings for MRATV, I’ve now fixed on a 16 1/2-inch AR carbine in 6.8mm Remington SPC as my No. 1 whitetail companion. It’s every bit as light, handy and accurate as my Model Seven. Thanks to its milspec rails, I can switch and replace optics as situations require without re-zeroing. Installing a left-hand grip and manual safety was a five-minute job. Its sling system is a real shooting aid, not just something to hang over my shoulder. And most useful of all, its adjustable stock allows me to instantly set an absolutely perfect length of pull and cheek-weld for any season I hunt, whether wearing warm-season clothes or heavy late-season parkas, no matter how thick the shoulder straps on my backpack. And, if I need a little more cartridge reach than the 6.8mm SPC, I can turn to an AR-15-format Remington R15 in .30 Remington AR, which duplicates (actually slightly exceeds) the ballistic performance of a 125-grain .308 Winchester, with notably less recoil.

I was a believer in the AR rifle for hunting before. Now I’m a true believer.

A RIFLE FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
One thing that has come as a surprise to me is how useful the AR platform is for nurturing a young hunter. One of our MRATV episodes this year was a youth hunt in the Georgia Piedmont with 11-year-old Samantha Simonton (he birthday came during the hunt). This is a girl who has grown up in a rural hunting and shooting family, who had already taken deer with .243 and 7mm-08 bolt-action rifles. Having no real preconceptions about the platform, she took instantly to the AR-15.

Her reasons were illuminating. It was very easy for her to handle and carry, and she was shooting 1.25-inch groups at 100 yards right out of the box. She really liked the pistol grip, which she found made the gun much easier to pull and tuck into the shoulder than the cocked-wrist position required by a conventional stock design. The adjustable stock allows her to fit it precisely to her size, even as she sprouts into adolescence, while her dad can still hunt with it fully extended. And, most tellingly, she was really fond of the placement of the manual safety, which she can operate with her thumb at the exact instant she’s ready to fire without having to shift her shooting grasp in any way by reaching up to a tang-mounted safety, or receiver-side or bolt-mounted safety. Something I had personally not thought about before, probably because after so many years with other “conventional” hunting rifles, that’s “just where safeties are.”

As a whitetail hunter for more than 40 years with slug gun, rifle and handgun, I would never in my dreams have imagined that I’d someday be advocating an AR-15 as a deer rifle for schooling a pre-teen hunter. But I am.

AR rifles are legal for sport and hunting use anywhere any other semiauto centerfire hunting rifle is legal — except in states that may have passed laws banning specific models and configurations of semiautomatics based purely on their cosmetic features. Some legislators just don’t like the way some guns look, no matter how they function. But hunters who still question whether AR-platform guns should be used for deer hunting need to reconsider.

If using an AR rifle isn’t your cup of tea, well, don’t use one. But if you still oppose others using any sporting or hunting tool simply because it doesn’t “look right” to you, you are standing on the same political platform as the California State Assembly. Shame on you.

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