AR-Style Rifles for Deer Hunting
December 09, 2019
Modern sporting rifles offer speed and modularity, but how do those positives best serve whitetail hunters?
Before I hunted with a modern sporting rifle, I’d owned several. The bulk of my experience with them was time spent blasting steel targets and spraying bullets into inanimate objects like soda bottles, milk jugs and whatever other junk was lying around the shooting range.
Of course, like so many other red-blooded American boys, I developed an affinity for the AR-15 and AR-10 rifle platforms early in life. Barely old enough to be trusted with a BB gun, I’d already watched enough war movies, not to mention hours of History Channel, to know our armed forces often use the AR platform in combat. Infatuated with military weapons, I wanted one.
It didn’t take me long to achieve my boyhood goal of adding several ARs, or “modern sporting rifles” (MSRs), as they’re often referred to by members of the hunting community, to the gun safe. However, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started hunting with them.
If for no other reason, I was eager to break out of my comfort zone and chase whitetails with something other than a bolt-action rifle. So I spent two consecutive deer seasons (the centerfire-legal portions of them, anyway) hunting with MSRs produced by a variety of manufacturers.
Along the way, I shot several deer. I also got a pretty thorough crash course on what one can actually expect when toting an MSR into the deer woods. Following are just a few of the pearls of wisdom I gathered.
First off, expect one in the chamber. Yeah, we all know MSRs have semi-automatic rate of fire. But that’s a big deal — and often taken for granted!
The ability to let loose a fast follow-up shot is likely the biggest advantage MSRs offer hunters. For safety reasons, and to maximize your chances of punching a tag, be cognizant of the fact there’s another round of ammunition waiting for deployment almost instantly after you’ve pulled the trigger.
Be fully prepared to capitalize on a second chance to down an animal. When the adrenaline surges, that’s far easier said than done. However, practicing for such a scenario helps a lot. At the range, simply work on acquiring and engaging targets after recoil. With time, you’ll be able to put rounds on target with haste.
Next, expect modularity and accuracy. It’s amazing how customizable an MSR can be. In addition to experimenting with stocks, forearms and grips, I’ve enjoyed swapping optics on my MSRs using quick-detach Picatinny scope mounts.
Because I also use my MSRs to hunt other game, I frequently transition between variable-zoom scopes for whitetails and thermal/night-vision optics for hogs and coyotes. Making that transition without losing zero is very convenient.
In fairness, also expect most MSRs to be heavier than your bolt guns. When loaded with ammunition and topped with glass, all the MSRs I’ve hunted whitetails with weigh roughly 10 pounds or more.
Note: I usually hunt big game with AR-10 variants, as opposed to AR-15s, which typically weigh less. Why? Because the AR-10 platform accommodates most of the centerfire cartridges I prefer.
For some, added weight is a deal-breaker right out of the gate. I tend to use shooting sticks and seldom shoot whitetails free-handed, so a heavy rifle doesn’t slow me down much.
Also, I almost never have to lug a ton of gear into the backcountry. If keeping your max gear weight to a bare minimum is mandatory, an MSR might not make the most sense for you.
If you haven’t spent much time around MSRs, expect a learning curve. Take the time to learn how the rifle functions. Familiarize yourself with the process of breaking down and cleaning the AR platform. Learn how to separate the upper and lower receivers and remove the bolt carrier group and charging handle. You’ll quickly find that most MSRs can be field-stripped and cleaned very easily, which is nice for folks who shoot a lot.
Lastly, expect options. Perhaps the most exciting thing about MSRs is the fact more of them are released each year. As a new demographic of hunter welcomes the use of MSRs in the field, these trendy rifles will likely continue to rise in popularity. That means consumers will have more configurations to choose from.
One new MSR I’m excited to try is the Savage MSR-10 Hunter chambered in .338 Federal, as shown on pgs. 22-23. This rifle features forged upper and lower receivers, a free-floating M-LOK handguard and a 5R-rifled carbon steel barrel.
In my experience, the MSR-10 Hunter is fond of Federal Premium’s Trophy Bonded 200-grain ammunition, which boasts a muzzle velocity of 2,630 fps and 3,071 ft.-lbs. of kinetic energy. That should be plenty of juice for any whitetail I intend to tangle with.