By Gun Rack Editor Ed Hall
Nowadays, you can get an AR rifle chambered in cartridges that are ideal for target shooting, for hunting predators, small, medium and big game. Not surprisingly, the military platform is ideal for home defense, too, and it has become popular as a competition rifle.
The “black rifle” is growing in popularity like no other in recent memory, and sportsmen who once dismissed it as a novelty are reconsidering.
Just a few years ago, only Colt and a couple of specialty companies made the AR. Today, Remington, Smith & Wesson, SIG Sauer and Ruger make them, as well as ArmaLite, Bushmaster, DPMS, Les Baer, Rock River, and Stag Arms.
The biggest misconception about these rifles starts with the name. While anti-gun politicians and media types like to imply that the AR moniker refers to a fully automatic military “assault rifle,” the civilian AR is actually a semiauto. Each pull of the trigger fires one round, same as other civilian rifles.
The AR name actually refers to ArmaLite, the original manufacturer. The designation has come to apply to all of the clones, too, regardless of brand.
The M-16 is the fully auto military gun, and it has been the U.S. military combat rifle since the Vietnam War, though a lighter carbine-length M-4 version is quickly gaining popularity with the troops.
When the M-16 was first issued, it was proclaimed totally dependable; soldiers were told they could just shoot one forever. They weren’t even issued cleaning kits.
Unfortunately, and against the inventor’s wishes, dirty ball powders were used in the cartridges, and the rifle was stuck with a bad reputation for failing in combat. Two improvements solved the problem, and became the modern M-16A1. Chambers were chrome lined, and a forward assist was added to secure the bolt.
The M-16 and the AR both operate via a “direct impingement” gas system. Upon firing, a gas port partway down the barrel channels hot exhaust gases through a tube all of the way back to the receiver, where the high-pressure gasses push the bolt carrier rearward to unlock the bolt and drive it rearward, cycling the action.
Those hot, dirty gasses are then dissipated throughout the action, yet with just a modicum of cleaning and attention, this system works reliably. In fact, our country has continued its use longer than any other military rifle.
Several manufacturers now use a piston system, replacing the tube with a long rod that cycles the action. With the piston system, gasses only travel a short way before driving the rod rearward to cycle the action. The gasses are vented into the hand guard, and the guns run cooler and cleaner. While the design works fine, AR fans seem to be mixed in their opinion of piston guns. Yet military piston guns are not new. The beloved Garand and its successor the M-14 are both piston-driven.
There are two basic categories of civilian AR rifle, the AR-15 and AR-10.
Cartridges for the AR-15 are limited to the length of the original 5.56 NATO cartridge (same as the civilian .223). A handful of newer cartridges have been made by opening the neck of the .223 cases to hold larger diameter bullets, notably 6mm (.243) and 6.5mm (.264). Another option is to use a fatter case, either straight-walled, such as the .450 Bushmaster, or fat and necked down, as in Remington’s new .30AR.
Other cartridges commonly found in AR-15 rifles include .204 Ruger, 6.5 Grendel and 6.8 SPC. These all use the basic .223 case. Fatter-cased cartridges include the 7.62x39 Russian, .450 Bushmaster, .458 SOCOM, and .50 Beowulf. While the cases are quite fat, the rims on some are kept small to fit existing .223 bolts.
The AR-10 is basically the big brother to the AR-15, designed for 7.62 NATO (same size as .308 Winchester). It can handle any short-action .308-based big game cartridge, from .243 and .260 Remington up through 7mm-08 and .308, on to .338 Federal and even .358 Winchester.
A couple of companies are building .22 rimfires on the AR platform.
Because of the military design, the AR is inherently easy to disassemble for cleaning, even in the field.
Push a pin and the upper part of the action pivots upward, allowing for easy removal of the bolt carrier. Further disassembly of the bolt is just as easy.
This ease of disassembly for cleaning is one of the great assets of the AR. Most hunters seldom if ever disassemble the actions of their hunting rifles to clean the internal parts, and those who do often end up taking a basket of parts to a gunsmith for reassembly. Do you regularly disassemble and clean the bolt of your rifle?
If it was an AR, it would be easy.
Remove another pin, and the rifle divides into two subassemblies, commonly known as an “upper” and “lower.”
More than one upper barrel configuration can be interchanged with the same single lower assembly.
The buttstock of an AR is very high, directing recoil just about straight rearward, minimizing the rising of the rifle under recoil.
The AR’s easily detachable magazine is another handy asset, especially when rifles are loaded and unloaded often, in and out of vehicles as is typical in predator hunting. Extra ammo can be carried in loaded magazines, ready to go.
Where legal, 20- and 30-round magazines are available, but hunting AR’s typically come with four-round magazines.
A .223 AR-15 would be a natural choice for varmints and predators up to coyote size, though the short 16-inch barrels on many of these rifles lower muzzle velocity considerably. Choose a longer 20 or 24-inch barrel if you plan to shoot out to 300 yards or more. Also consider the .204 Ruger chambering.
As I understand it, military 5.56 ammo can be fired in a rifle chambered for the .223, but commercial .223 chambers are a smidgen tighter, just enough to yield pressure signs when firing military ammo on a hot summer day. You might want a 5.56 chamber to shoot military ammo in warmer climes.
Black Hills offers a .223 load with a Barnes 62-grain TTSX bullet. It leaves a 20-inch fast-twist barrel at 3,000 feet a second, perhaps a best option when using the .223 for light to medium game.
Stepping up, we see larger calibers built on the basic .223 case. The 6x45 is just a .223 opened to hold a .243 bullet. A couple of manufacturers make rifles in this caliber, and Black Hills makes ammo, a 100-grain Sierra Spitzer at 2,600 ft/s and an 85-grain Sierra GameKing at 2,700 ft/s. These cartridges are adequate for antelope and average whitetails at typical ranges.
For coyotes, I might opt for a Sierra 55-grain BlitzKing .243 driven to approximately 3,100 ft/s.
A Les Baer Custom rifle in .264 LBC-AR, with ammo from Black Hills, drives a 123-grain Hornady A-Max bullet at 2,600 ft/s from a 20-inch barrel, and they report 1/2-inch groups at 100 yards.
The short, fat, .450 Bushmaster, in Remington’s R-15, delivers a 260-grain Accutip at 2,180 ft/s.
The longer AR-10 chamber can accept about any .308-based cartridge. The .243 is the crossover round, fine for coyotes and also very capable for medium game with properly constructed bullets. The larger cartridges, .260, 7mm-08, .308 and .338 Federal, speak for themselves as respected big-game loads.
The .30 Remington AR cartridge is designed for hunting big game with Remington’s shorter-action AR-15 rifle, and is a pretty good idea, at that. It delivers a 123-grain FMJ or a 125-grain Core-Lokt bullet at 2,800 ft/s. New this year is a 150-grain loading at 2,575 ft/s. Consider it in the realm of the .300 Savage.
One might question buying an AR-15 in .30 Remington AR, when the company also offers an R-25 in .308. The answer emphasizes the versatility of the AR-15, as an upper in .223 or another cartridge could easily be mated with that same AR-15 lower. The serial number is on the lower.
Remington, by the way, is part of Freedom Group, a conglomerate that also owns Bushmaster and DPMS, well-established makers of AR rifles. Technology sharing can be a good thing.
An interesting concept has developed from shooting the .223 AR in competition, known as VLD or very low drag bullets. While 60 grains is considered heavy for conventional .223, Sierra makes a 77-grain, an 80-grain, and a 90-grain .224 diameter bullet. For top accuracy, the longer 77- and 80-grain bullets require a barrel with a faster rifling twists of 7 or 8 turns an inch, and the even longer 90-grain requires an extremely fast turn in 6.5 inches.
For comparison, the Ruger SR-556, chambered for standard-weight 5.56/.223 bullets, has 1-in-9 rifling.
The growing choice of accurate barrels has been one of the drivers behind the AR’s growing popularity with varmint hunters and competitive shooters alike.
Last, but certainly not least, the AR is a natural choice for home defense, combining potency, dependability, compact size, and rails for mounting plenty of accessories. Most ARs come equipped with Picatinny rails, similar to Weaver scope bases but longer and beefier. One hand guard option has an octagon of eight such places to attach sights, scopes, grips, slings, lights, lasers and bipods.
For home defense, one might select a peep or ghost ring sight, add a light, a laser, a collapsible stock, a vertical fore grip, and a sling. Suppressors are legal in many states, and a definite advantage should you ever shoot a .223 indoors.
The Ruger SR-556 AR, with compact 16-1/4-inch barrel, comes with collapsible stock, muzzle brake, quad rail hand guard, Troy folding battle sights, Hogue monogrip, and a four-position gas regulator. One gas setting is for “normal” semiauto shooting, one for single-shot operation, one for shooting with a suppressor, and one for extra power when the rifle absolutely must function under all conditions.
Today’s AR rifles are versatile, dependable, and can be built with target accuracy. They do triple duty in the field, at the range, and for home defense.
Traditionalists everywhere had a hard time giving up beautifully figured walnut for the enhanced stability and lighter weight of synthetic stocks, and I suspect these same guys find the AR rather unattractive. But, same as synthetic stocks, there’s no denying the advantages.