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The AR-15 is the most popular semi automatic rifle in the United States. If you’re new to the AR-15 or firearms, it’s reasonable to wonder what its capabilities are.
One of the most frequently asked questions regarding the AR-15 is about range: how far it can shoot. Although it sounds like a relatively straightforward question, the answer is a little more complex than it seems.
Experienced shooters may not understand the question the same way you do, leading to multiple, sometimes confusing answers. Learn how to make sense of firearm range and why there may be more than one answer to this question.
Two Kinds of Ranges
When discussing the range of a firearm’s projectiles, it is critical to distinguish two similar but very distinct concepts: effective range and maximum range.
Most discussions of a firearm’s range are about effective range. You may have heard of this term before, but what exactly does this mean? To put it simply, the effective range of a firearm is the maximum distance at which a shooter can expect to hit a target accurately.
Because many things can be called targets, military documentation goes further and defines two types of effective range: point target effective range and area target effective range.
- Point target effective range: The maximum distance at which an average shooter can hit a human-sized target at least 50% of the time. In the vast majority of cases, this definition is the one assumed in discussions about effective range.
- Area target effective range: The maximum distance at which an average shooter can hit a vehicle-sized target (such as a car) at least 50% of the time. Area target effectiveness is typically not relevant, as it is not a good representation of the firearm’s mechanical accuracy.
Excluding shooter skill and aiming capabilities, multiple factors may significantly affect a firearm’s effective range, including but not limited to:
- Quality of the ammunition used
- Projectile type employed by the ammunition
- The barrel’s properties (length, twist rate, build quality)
- Shooter skill (marksmanship, aiming capabilities)
- Environment and shooting conditions
Therefore, it is critical to understand that when you see effective range numbers, they are ballpark estimates. Real-world results may vary considerably.
Less discussed but no less important, a firearm’s absolute maximum range is the maximum distance at which projectiles fired out of the barrel remain lethal.
According to the NATO definition, a projectile stops being lethal when it’s kinetic energy falls below 85 Joule (approximately 62.7 ft-lbf).
For comparison, a typical 62-grain bullet fired out of an AR-15 carbine typically exits the barrel at about 2,800 ft/s, resulting in a kinetic energy of roughly 1,085 ft-lbf. For this bullet to fall under the minimum lethal kinetic energy value, the bullet velocity needs to drop under 675 ft/s, requiring it to travel at least 1,400-1,500 yards.
However, due to bullet drop, this situation is wildly unrealistic, unless the shooter were to aim so high, the muzzle ends up pointed at the sky. Doing so would cause the bullet to take on a parabolic trajectory.
In other words, under normal conditions, it’s almost always a certainty that the bullet will hit something before it drops under lethal velocity.
Therefore, minding your bullets’ direction and trajectory isn’t just sensible; it’s part of the basic rules of gun safety. As the saying goes: “Know your target and what is beyond.”
How Far Can I Shoot My AR-15?
It depends. The U.S. military, and in particular, the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps, are the largest users of AR-15 type firearms and the organizations that tested and evaluated the rifle platform’s capabilities the most extensively.
Military-issued M16 rifles possess a 20” barrel, whereas M4 carbines have a 14.5” barrel. In contrast, a typical AR-15 carbine has a 16” barrel.
According to the US Army’s M16 and M4 operator’s manual (TM-9-1005-319-10), the M16 rifle and M4 carbine possess the following traits:
- Maximum range (both platforms): Approximately 3,600 meters (3937 yards, or over 2.2 miles)
- Point target effective range: 550 meters (602 yards) for the M16 rifle, 500 meters (547 yards) for the M4 carbine.
- Area target effective range: 800 meters (875 yards) for the M16 rifle, 600 meters (650 yards) for the M4 carbine.
Assuming mil-spec components and ammunition identical to that used by the military (62-grain ball ammo), the point target effective range of an AR-15 carbine chambered in 5.56mm should be approximately the same as that of a military M4 carbine.
The AR-15 Aftermarket
Unlike the military, civilians frequently customize their rifles and carbines with a wide array of parts, barrels, ammunition, and other accessories, some of which can dramatically change the AR’s overall performance.
The three most common ways of altering the effective range of an AR-15 require changing the ammunition, the barrel length, or the chambering.
Switching to more accurate hunting or match-grade ammunition may produce tighter groups and extend the rifle’s effective range with no other alterations.
For example, when shooting Mk262 mod 1, a type of 77-grain match-grade 5.56mm ammunition, Special Forces operators reported they could hit targets accurately and consistently at 800 yards or more using 18”-barreled rifles.
You may have noticed in the table above that the point target effective range of the M16 (20” barrel) is higher than the M4’s (14.5” barrel).
Switching to a longer barrel increases muzzle velocity and effective range, but only to a degree. While AR-15s with a barrel length of over 20” do exist, they are relatively rare; the longest examples typically do not exceed 24”.
Adding more barrel length is a game of diminishing returns; past a certain point, the velocity and range gained become negligible, resulting in additional weight for no tangible benefit.
One of the most drastic ways of modifying your AR-15’s performance is to rechamber it: changing parts so that it shoots a different caliber.
Switching to another caliber causes your AR-15 to gain that caliber’s ballistics and performance.
For example, an AR-15 chambered in 6.5 Grendel will shoot .264-caliber projectiles typically ranging between 90 and 130 grains in weight, possessing an effective range of 800 to 1,000 yards, depending on barrel length and bullet weight.
Even with extensive testing and evaluations, measuring the effective range of an AR-15 (or any other firearm) is a game of averages and estimates, not an exact science.
Remember that the most significant influence on a particular firearm’s accuracy (and overall performance) is the shooter itself. Unskilled shooters may shoot far below the expected average effective range, whereas very skilled ones may shoot far beyond it.
Ultimately, you can expect a standard 5.56mm AR-15 carbine fed with average 62-grain ammunition to be reasonably accurate at up to 500 yards. But remember that you need practice and training to hit targets reliably and accurately at this distance.