The black rifle has gone mainstream. Eugene Stoner’s AR-15, a rifle once derided by traditional hunters and mass media as an “assault weapon,” has found its way into the hands of hunters across the nation. Its popularity continues to grow by leaps and bounds. What happened to bring about this change?
The biggest knock on the AR-15 has always been its .223 Remington/5.56 NATO caliber. Although it is a fine varmint caliber, and in a proper loading can be used to take deer, shot placement is critical on larger animals as the round has a reputation for being underpowered. Many hunters find the AR-15’s larger brother, the .308 AR-10, too heavy to lug around all day and still shoot accurately offhand when the desired game animal finally appears. Stoner’s design allows for easy caliber conversions and this feature has been a strong point of the gun for decades. Simply pull two pins mating the lower receiver to the upper receiver, and the top half of the gun can be swapped out in seconds with another, for a completely different configuration. For example, survivalists bought 7.62×39 uppers in the 1980s so they could use captured ammo to resist the Soviets during a post-World War III occupation (hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time). Various 9mm uppers have been around for awhile, and dedicated .22lr uppers for plinking are gaining acceptance as well.
But in the past few years a variety of calibers optimized for hunting have been adapted to the AR-15 platform, opening up a new world of possibility. On the small end, the .204 Ruger is advertised as the world’s highest velocity commercially produced round, zipping a 32-grain Hornady bullet at over 4,000 feet per second and vaporizing varmints. On the large end, the .450 Bushmaster caliber throws a monstrous 250 grain slug at 2,200 feet per second, capable of taking the largest game animals in the western hemisphere with a single shot. Intermediate calibers like 6.8 SPC, 6.5 Grendel, and .300 AAC Blackout are springing up like weeds, each promising increased accuracy and stopping power over the 5.56.
In case a single shot doesn’t do the job (and yes, hunters miss, even if we never admit to it), the AR-15’s magazine fed, self-loading semi-automatic action offers a better chance at a quick, accurate second shot than you get with a bolt or lever action gun. But one detail you don’t want to forget while hunting with an AR-15 is magazine capacity restrictions, which vary from state to state but are usually set at 5 or 10 rounds. You can’t load up a standard MagPul Pmag with only five rounds and call it good, you must purchase a low capacity magazine. Some states may let you get by with modifying a magazine to limit capacity. I’ve heard of hunters who inserted cut-off pencils inside the magazine body to limit the travel of the follower, but I wouldn’t want to explain away this setup to an impatient Conservation Agent itching to write me a citation and confiscate my firearm.
The AR-15 offers excellent ergonomics, with good placement of critical controls and a straight-line stock design which helps avoid muzzle rise when the gun recoils on firing. Added to these features is the greatest improvement in ergonomics seen in the past two decades—the MIL-STD-1913 “Picatinny rail” receiver, known as the “flat top.” Until the 1990s the AR-15 featured a “carry handle” on top of the receiver which could also be used as a scope base. But special mounts were needed, eye relief was problematic, and the height of the optic over the rifle bore complicated zeroing. The introduction of the flat top receiver on the Colt M4 carbine created a universal optic mounting platform allowing a virtually limitless array of scopes to be easily and correctly attached to the AR-15. The flat top has become the standard receiver type for most AR-15s, but variants intended for hunting especially benefit from this change. Whether it’s a red dot for shooting fast-moving targets at short range, or a powerful 20x scope for reaching out to those groundhogs 500 yards away, a flat top AR-15 will happily accommodate you.
Optics aren’t the only way in which the AR-15 gives its owner a choice. Jokingly referred to as “Barbie for boys”, a mind boggling selection of free-float handguards, bipods, slings, muzzle breaks, custom triggers and stocks are available for the AR-15, and most are easy to install without having to take the rifle to a gunsmith. These accessories help the AR-15 hunter maximize accuracy, stability, shooting comfort, and reliability and tailor the configuration of the firearm to match its intended purpose. Its so easy to modify the AR-15 that you rarely see one at the range that hasn’t been altered in some way to suit its owner’s preferences.
Its been a long time coming, but the AR-15 has evolved from a military and law enforcement weapon to a hunting firearm of great capability. If you are looking for a new hunting rifle, don’t dismiss the “mouse gun”. Its come a long way, baby.