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The AR-15 is the most popular rifle platform of all time. While it is hard to guess just how many of these rifles are in the hands of American gun owners, the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates the number as somewhere between 5 million and 10 million in the United States alone. It only makes sense that the rifle’s extreme popularity would bleed over into the hunting world. A recent survey confirms this trend, with 27 percent of hunters reporting having used a modern sporting rifle (MSR) to hunt game.
Reasons to Hunt With an AR-15
The idea of using an MSR for hunting may seem foreign to some hunters. The traditional image of the wood stock hunting rifle doesn’t seem to gee-haw with the modern tactical feel of the AR-15. However, there are plenty of good reasons to hunt with one.
Compact and Lightweight
The compact lightweight design of the MSR makes it perfect for maneuvering in thick woods or hiking to remote hunting locations.
Many traditional hunting rifles have a reputation for “kicking like a mule”. However, the gas operating system of the AR-15 produces only nominal recoil. This makes the AR perfect for hunting fast-moving game where rapid, accurate follow-up shots are an absolute necessity.
Rugged and Reliable
While the AR-15 was designed for battle, the same qualities that make it well-suited for tactical shooting, also make it perfect for hunting. Made with synthetic, corrosion-resistant alloys, the AR-15 handles even the most extreme hunting conditions without even breaking a sweat.
Easy to Customize
With a ton of aftermarket support, customizing your MSR for hunting couldn’t be easier. You can swap out components from stock to muzzle brake to make a weapon suitable for any style of hunting.
With a traditional bolt-action rifle, the hunter must completely release the weapon, cycle the bolt, and return to the trigger to fire a second shot. The semi-automatic function of the AR-15 allows you to maintain your shooting position and stay tight to the scope for quick, accurate follow-up shots.
Creating the Perfect AR-15 for Hunting
A standard AR rifle will work quite well for most hunting applications. However, a few adjustments will help optimize your weapon for hunting.
Modern hunters wanting to fill tags with an AR this fall have two options. They can choose a branded hunting rifle (like the R-15 VTR Predator from Remington Arms) that comes completely optimized for hunting. Designed specifically for hunting, these rifles have a ton of special features that turn the standard AR-15 into a sleek hunting machine.
The other option is to buy individual parts to customize your own MSR to suit your individual hunting needs.
Here are some key points to consider whether you are customizing your own weapon or shopping for a ready-to-hunt AR-15.
The most popular AR caliber is definitely .223/5.56. MSRs chambered in .223/5.56 make a near perfect weapon for young or small-framed hunters. However, .223/5.56 shoots a relatively small projectile that many hunters consider insufficient for whitetail deer and larger game.
While a carefully placed shot with a standard .223/5.56 cartridge is capable of bringing down a whitetail (especially the smaller deer common in the deep South), it isn’t a guarantee. Chances are better that you will end up with an empty tag and a deer that runs off somewhere to suffer and die alone.
Just because you CAN shoot a deer with a .223 MSR, doesn’t mean you SHOULD shoot a deer with one.
Thankfully, ammo manufacturers are taking note of the growing popularity of the AR-15 as a hunting rifle. Many have made major advancements in technology to produce effective .223/5.56 deer cartridges. They’ve accomplished this by stealing bullet designs that are proven effective on big game. (One of our favorites is Winchester’s 64-grain Power-Max Bonded.)
Even so, many hunters aren’t convinced. Instead of trying to drop big game animals with .223/5.56, some hunters rely on one of the larger caliber choices for AR-15 rifles.
As the AR platform continues to grow in popularity, caliber choices have expanded. Now, hunters can choose from bullet diameters as small as .22 all the way up to .50.
Some of the most popular include 6.5 Grendel, .300 Blackout, and .450 Bushmaster. Rifles and ammunition in a range of calibers and effective hunting cartridges are readily available. For more information on some of the options, check out our article on Common Alternative AR-15 Cartridges.
Hunting with an AR-10
Investing in a good quality stock is a must. The stock is one of the important points of contact you’ll have with your hunting rifle. You can choose between a fixed stock or an adjustable stock.
Many hunters choose a fixed stock because it is more consistent and comfortable for shooting. However, a fixed stock also makes the rifle longer and heavier, which can be a hindrance when hiking through the woods or over rough terrain. Which type is “best” largely depends on your personal preferences and hunting style.
This is where you really get to customize the look and feel of your weapon, and there are nearly as many styles of handguards to choose from as there are deer in the woods. However, handguards fall into two basic categories: free-floating and drop in.
A free float handguard doesn't interfere with your rifle barrel, which can result in more consistent shot accuracy. If you plan on doing a lot of long-range hunting with your AR-15, you should seriously consider investing in a free float handguard.
Most handguards also offer some sort of mounting system for accessories. While KeyMod and M-Lok are innovative mounting systems, most hunting optics are compatible with the traditional Picatinny rail. Be sure to consider mounting systems compatible with your preferred optic or other accessories. You can always choose a handguard that features both innovative M-Lok and 1913 Picatinny rail (like this one from Centurion Arms) for the best of both worlds.
When choosing a barrel for your hunting AR, you need to consider two things. The first is caliber (which we discussed above). The second is barrel length.
Shorter barrels help create more lightweight, compact, fast-handling weapons. A longer barrel is typically better for precision shooting.
Aside from length, you should also consider the barrel’s twist rate, especially if you are shooting .223/5.56 cartridges.
The ideal twist rate depends on the weight of the projectiles you’ll be shooting. Bullets for these caliber cartridges generally weigh between 40 and 75 grains.
Although the weight of the projectiles vary, the diameter remains the same regardless of weight. That means heavier bullets will be longer, and longer bullets usually perform better when shot from a barrel with a faster twist rate (like 1:7). If you prefer to shoot lighter grain weights, a slower 1:9 twist rate should perform well.
While not a necessity, some hunters choose to carry their favorite camo pattern over to their hunting rifle. A camo finish will help you stay hidden in the woods and makes it clear to other gun owners that your AR-15 is a hunting rifle.
Parting Thoughts and Recommendations
If the idea of building an AR-15 rifle for hunting doesn’t appeal to you, there are plenty of ready-to-shoot hunting models to choose from. Here are just a few of our favorites.
1. Remington R-15 VTR Predator
This AR-style hunting rifle features a 22-inch barrel, a fixed polymer stock, and a pistol grip. It’s chambered in 5.56x45mm NATO and is perfect for hunting varmints and small game.
2. Smith & Wesson M&P15
This Smith & Wesson M&P15 sporting rifle is chambered in .300 AAC Blackout and comes in a Realtree APG finish, making it ideal for predators, hogs, and whitetails out to 300 yards.
3. Daniel Defense DD5 Ambush
This fast-handling, hard-hitting AR-style rifle is chambered in .308 Winchester, making it capable of taking on some of the largest game on the North American continent.
4. Wilson Combat Tactical Hunter
This one has the word hunter right in the name. If you want an AR-15 that betters the performance of the iconic .30-30 deer cartridge (which has been used to kill more deer than anything else), this is it.
No matter which AR-15 rifle you choose or what you plan to hunt with it, make sure you spend some time practicing on the gun range before you take it into the woods. Although these are effective, accurate weapons, they are only effective and accurate in capable hands.