The AR-15 remains the rifle of choice for the modern era, and can be found in any shooting discipline, in any shooting activity.
From competition to home defense and law enforcement to military service the AR-15 family of rifles remain completely dominant, the total choice for the discerning shooter. But there is still one area where the AR is meeting a little resistance, and that is hunting.
Now you will find no shortage of AR-15s and their many variants roaming the woods and fields and mountains of America carried by hunters in search of game, but despite the emergence of Gun Culture 2.0, and an increasingly performance-driven shooting public that has been forced to acknowledge the supremacy of the AR and all its many guises, the AR lags behind more traditional choices when it comes time to put meat in the freezer.
Part of it might be aesthetics, and the other part might be that yearning to remain with the old ways, but I believe part of this recalcitrance is owed to the typical chambering of the AR-15, which is traditionally 5.56x45mm, or its commercial counterpart the .223 Remington.
Even today with all we have learned there are shooters out here in the country that believe those cartridges are only suitable for pest removal when in fact you can bag plenty of game with either. In today’s article, I will make a case for bagging more than just prairie dogs with your AR-15.
The AR Afield
Before we get into the great caliber debate, I would like to address the people reading this article that even now are preparing to tie me to the mast, and berate me for even suggesting that the sleek, plastic shape of the AR belongs anywhere in the field where should go instead blued steel and carefully oiled walnut stocks.
There is no accounting for taste I don’t guess, but we need to deal with reality here: essential mechanical and shooting characteristics of the AR-15 make it an ideal hunting rifle when used in conditions where it is suitable.
Like what? Consider this, black rifle haters:
- Adaptability: No rifle today is remotely as adaptable as the AR-15. From internals to furniture, barrels to buttstocks, the AR-15 can be tailored for any objective and any shooter, and many modern components are configurable on the fly to meet changing conditions or different shooters needs.
- Ergonomics: The inline stock of an AR and superb human engineering remains the Standard for shootability by which all other rifles are measured. Shooting an AR is a uniquely easy and enjoyable experience in most calibers and most conditions. When the time comes to quickly mount the rifle for a snapshot, or if you have to hold the rifle on your chosen quarry for an extended period, you’ll be glad it is an AR.
- Accuracy: AR-15s in most guises and foremost manufacturers are rightly famous for accuracy, with even pedestrian offerings being routinely capable of shooting 2MOA with even basic commercial ammo. High quality models from leading manufacturers are capable of atom-splitting accuracy with equally good ammo. The AR-15 is capable of producing accuracy far greater than the average shooter can meet on demand.
- Reliability: AR-15s made from quality parts and assembled correctly are exceptionally reliable in all conditions. They are no longer the rifles, they were when first rolled out into the hands of unfortunate GI’s during the Vietnam War. I have before and will continue to take AR variant rifles on excursions and into conditions that would make a nicely bedded and wood-stocked bolt action rifle beg for mercy.
- Durability: ARs are tough, and virtually impervious to damage from being dropped, bashed or slammed. What’s more, the principal components in an AR-15 are aluminum and plastic, both of which are resistant to corrosion. The aluminum components along with the steel ones are always anodized, nitrided or given some other form of hard-use protective coating. Their bores are often chrome-lined. Bare stainless or blued steel does not fare well in harsh conditions, and will definitely require more maintenance on the backside.
- Optics Mounting: Mounting an optic to an AR is the picture of simplicity, even with the preponderance and ubiquity of Picatinny/Mil-Std. 1913 rails having long since spread beyond tactical weapons. Longer handguards and monolithic upper receivers ensure plenty of room and rigidity for keeping zero on quick detach optics as well as the addition of thermal or NV attachments.
Shooting is shooting, and so long as you and your chosen cartridge are up to the task, it makes sense to go with the rifle that offers the most advantages most of the time. That rifle, in almost every case, is the AR-15. Speaking of cartridges, time to get on to the main event.
The 5.56mm/.223: What Are They Good For?
Not just war as some detractors would have you believe. For the longest time, the reputation of the 5.56mm and its commercial sire the .223 was bogged down and what used to be outdated wisdom and perpetually stalked by myths, gun counter talk and tall tales told around the fire at hunting camps.
Much of this talk usually revolves around how the .223 is simply too light for taking any game larger than a prairie dog or poodle.
Other bunk still abounds, notions that the .223 cannot defeat bone in larger game or pests like deer and hog, or that the projectiles are all somehow inherently unstable to an insane degree, and will break up too quickly upon entering flesh to do any meaningful damage and bring an animal down.
Like most bad answers, there is a grain of truth to each of these but luckily for us they are either blown entirely out of proportion or are founded in truths that are simply 50 or 60 years out of date and no longer relevant or even valid. Technology marches on, and those materials used in bullet construction have improved dramatically along with bullet design itself.
Cartridges evolve. The .223 and 5.56mm, along with many other .22 caliber projectiles, have enjoyed a bounty of performance enhancements that allow them to easily and reliably perform in ways that would have been impossible back in your grandfather’s day.
Many decades ago, a typical full metal jacket or soft point .223 bullet was still pushed to screaming velocities but would indeed behave much as the old-timers still confidently assert today;
So long as impact velocities were high, many of these rounds would destabilize and break up, or colloquially be said to fragment, inside a target creating massive soft tissue damage over a comparatively shallow area.
This works pretty well on people as well as smaller animals but penetration is limited and that made it a poorer choice for larger game outside of headshots. In fact, back then and to this very day a few states still forbid .223 from being used on deer and larger game in lawful hunting.
But now neither of these cartridges have to be relegated to “behind-the-ear” shots for larger animals and are still remaining entirely valid for varmints and smaller game.
The rifles that chamber them are beyond capable in almost any shooting environment, so the weak links in the projectile delivery system are oftentimes the shooter and the specific projectile itself. The former can be improved while the latter must be chosen carefully for the endeavor at hand.
In the following sections we’ll assess how the .223/5.56mm can perform when used against common game and pest animals.
I am not knocking the man, but you can forget what dear old granddad told you about the .223 as it relates to the hunting of deer.
Shot placement is always king, but we are relying on the bullet to do its job once we have done ours and for that reason you should not choose any light full metal jacket or traditional soft point bullet for this task. As discussed above they are poor choices for the taking of large game in this caliber.
Luckily, modern ammunition manufacturers have produced an extraordinary array of extremely capable bullets optimized for the hunting of larger game that will reliably expand generously, penetrate deeply and retain their weight.
These bullets perform in total contrast to the zippy, unstable .223 rounds of yesteryear that would break up as soon as they disturbed flesh in the target.
These rounds do not require a headshot to produce a clean kill on a deer, and they don’t even have to have a picture-perfect broadside shot.
So long as you know your holds and can shoot straight, delivering the bullet to the heart or lungs of your quarry these rounds will work about as well as anything else for the purpose.
Many of these modern hunting-specific projectiles can more than double their outside diameter when they expand properly, meaning you are boring approximately a .50 caliber hole through the animal. I don’t know anyone who would sneeze at that!
One thing to keep in mind is that the .223 and its cousin the 5.56 are always going to be what they were made to be, meaning small-diameter and extremely high-velocity, and no matter what kind of pill you are lobbing, it will always rely on velocity for proper performance.
That means range is an issue no matter what, and the .223 is best in comparatively short ranges. Think 200 yards and closer.
Firing inside this range band means that the projectile will certainly have enough velocity upon impact to perform correctly. But conversely the more velocity drops, the less likely the projectile will perform properly (i.e. expand, penetrate deeply enough, retain weight), and so effectiveness will be reduced.
Now, some of you are out there probably thinking that doesn’t sound like a very far shot at all for almost any rifle, and you are correct as far as raw range goes. But do not divorce yourself from the practical considerations at hand.
The vast majority of places you are going to hunt deer, especially in the American South, you will rarely have even a 200-yard shot save down a lane of power lines or shooting across a field. For woods and stand hunters even a 150 yard shot is probably going to be a rarity.
Sure, I’ve talked to all kinds of hunters who swore they had nice 300, 400 and 500 yard shots on deer but I believe what we are hearing about in these instances is the same sort of magic that makes a nice little bass grow into a hulking leviathan, if you take my meaning.
I’m not saying they’re lying, I’m just saying perhaps their memory is a little fuzzy!
Don’t believe the detractors in this case: hunting deer with a .223 using modern optimized ammunition is entirely possible, and a great choice in many places. It sure isn’t like bow hunting as some assert!
Varmints and Other Small Game
The .223 and 5.56 have for a long time been near optimal small game and varmint cartridges owing to their supremely destructive effects upon these animals even when using traditional bullets along with the typical pinpoint accuracy achievable with many AR family rifles.
Things have only gotten better with modern rifles being better adapted for use with a high magnification scope, bipod and potentially even monopod and fully adjustable target or sniper type stock.
Eradication efforts are one thing, but what are you supposed to do if you’re trying to bag these critters to supplement your provisions or fill the family cook pot? Once again, careful shot placement or ammunition selection will save the day.
If you are a good shooter and have an improved shooting position, it is far from out of the question that a headshot is an option, and is entirely achievable at modest ranges even on the smaller animals.
No matter how you slice it, zapping any of these smaller animals in the torso with a full-power rifle is going to have some destructive effects on the meat and organs.
We can go the other direction on projectile choice and look for ones that offer only modest expansion or even no expansion but emphasize weight retention since it is the dramatic destruction and fragmenting of the round in the body of smaller animals that usually results in such ugly damage.
But, at any rate, no matter what your mission is when after smaller animals, an AR can definitely take care of it.
An even more contentious issue is the use of .223 on larger North American animals, specifically elk, moose and various bear species.
While the modern hunting projectiles I have mentioned previously are certainly capable of showing excellent effect on these animals, neither cartridge would be my first choice for hunting any of them except perhaps black bear.
The reason is that there are more chances to be left with a lower percentage shot when facing any of these animals and the .223 is going to need every last ounce of performance it has to reliably bring down these big creatures even with good shooting.
Elk and moose in particular are far larger, and far denser than whitetail deer. Obviously you can bring down almost any animal with a well-placed headshot, but this is not always an option or achievable.
With regards to placing a round into the “pump house” that will almost assuredly result in a clean kill now, in this context, there is a lot more flesh and bone to get through.
This is where a bullet with greater mass and consequently greater momentum oftentimes makes the difference with these larger species.
If I were going after one of these larger animals, the .223 would not be an acceptable choice, and would not be my first choice if I was in a pinch during a survival situation. But there is another way to square the issue, particularly with bears.
Just because the cartridge is not optimal for humanely harvesting any of these animals does not mean it will not inflict lethal and effective wounds on them in a self-defense situation.
Several bears in the past two decades have been brought down by multiple rounds of .223 fired quickly and accurately in defense, including one highly publicized incident in Fort Yukon Alaska in March of 2008.
As it turns out, the light recoil, easy handling and precise accuracy of the AR-15 means you can be filling an aggressive animal with lead about as fast as you can pull the trigger.
There are those that would only rely on a firearm with a much larger bore and correspondingly more recoil for the purpose but consider what the typical self defense shooting looks like when dealing with the dangerous animal.
Much of the time the animal surprises the defender, either with the defender stumbling upon the animals location and surprising it, resulting in a charge and subsequent mauling, or they unwittingly cross paths with a resting or hiding animal concealed by the terrain in heavy brush or similar circumstances. In that case, the animal erupts with a bad temper and murder on its mind.
You will have a vanishingly short window to effectively engage these animals, and save your own life or someone else’s.
Even though on paper and when viewed through the lens of ethical hunting the .223 is a outright no-go or at best non-optimal for these larger species it is still certainly lethal, and the ability to place accurate shots as quickly as you can acquire your sight and pull the trigger is attractive.
Also especially attractive is the magazine capacity of the average AR in these situations.
AR-15s and their typical .223 or 5.56 chambering work admirably well on all kinds of other animals, from sheep and goats to feral hogs America’s favorite rifle and caliber combo gets it done.
Goats and sheep are certainly within this pairing’s wheelhouse, and I will have you know that the AR firing 5.56 is currently the most popular feral hog eradication choice.
You’re probably starting to sense a pattern here in that the effectiveness of the AR and its classic chambering is largely dependent upon range (what you can read as effective velocity upon impact) and projectile selection.
If one were to be hunting bighorn sheep or other mountain-dwelling analogs in areas where you might be shooting slope to slope or peak to peak at ranges well in excess of several hundred yards you probably want to leave the .223 behind for the task.
Likewise, when hunting feral hogs which are notoriously stocky, tough animals don’t choose a projectile that is known for fragmenting drastically and quickly when it enters flesh. Superficial wounds will not reliably bring these animals down, especially when they are enraged.
Also, it bears mentioning that the stock AR-15 can easily be converted to one of several calibers that will fit upon a standard lower receiver. This means that, if you need a special purpose cartridge for particular game, or just for an unusual purpose, you can do it with a new upper or, in some instances, just a new barrel and magazine.
Don’t discount this adaptability if you are trying to keep your gun safe as lean as possible while maximizing your options and opportunities for hunting.
The AR-15 is America’s rifle, and though its genesis is in military service, it has, like many military service rifles before it, gone on to attain spectacular popularity with America’s sportsmen and hunters.
Even now in the second decade of the 21st century it still has not achieved as much acceptance or widespread popularity for hunting as it probably should.
It is an excellent choice as far as the rifle is concerned, and even its traditional chambering of .223 or 5.56mm can easily be maximized for taking large game simply by choosing a projectile that is up to the task.