For the AR-15 shooter, what does long-range shooting mean? It’s subjective. For someone who is usually popping away at 100 yards, then 300 yards may seem distant. If a shooter is comfortable at 300 yards, then maybe 500 or 600 qualifies as far. An experienced NRA High Power Rifle competitor might set the cap at 1,000 yards, and there are a few who take it farther than that.
In my way of looking at it, we hit the edge of the world when a bullet drops below supersonic velocity. Until then, it’s possible to keep shots on the intended target at any distance. Realistically, a properly configured AR-15 is easily capable of good performance at 500+ yards.
Good performance means it can hit a one-foot square target all the time. Competitive shooters can cut that standard nearly in half (the X-ring on an MR1 600-yard NRA High Power Rifle target is six inches, and high X-counts are commonplace among more skilled shooters). Of course, it wasn’t always that way…
In the early 1970s, shooters figured out that the AR-15 rifle itself could be made to perforate targets accurately. The Rodman Laboratories (Rock Island Arsenal) rifle experiments paved the way for civilian intervention, and that was essentially custom rifle builders duplicating the free-floating forend tubes engineered to float true match-grade barrels.
Early on, what stopped progress at extended ranges were bullets. At the time, bullet makers had yet to consider the .224-caliber bullet worthy of commercial refinement beyond 200 yards. About the best available projectile at the time was a Sierra 63-grain design. One of the Rodman Labs guns recorded a nice four-by-five-inch 600-yard group from a handload using that bullet, spun through a Hart 1:9-twist barrel. Those guns also had the first (that I know of) flat-topped upper receivers, done so that match sights could be mounted.
In the early 1950s, it was theorized that a smaller, higher-velocity projectile could be the hot ticket to the field hospital for our adversaries. In 1968, the Army’s SALVO project drew blueprints for a 68-grain .224-caliber bullet, which was essentially a proportionately miniaturized .308-caliber service bullet, to test the theory. Although this was not a match bullet, it was an effort to establish a .22 as a viable longer-range round. A (then) new company in California, Sierra Bullets, produced the prototype SALVOs. So, some 40 years ago there was a sub-MOA “sub-caliber” 600-yard rifle and a round to accompany it, more or less. I don’t know that a Rodman gun ever met a SALVO bullet, but who knows, they may still be sitting on the same shelf together.
Nothing of note happened with the SALVO concept until 15 years later. Sierra released its 69-grain MatchKing .224 in 1984 and literally added length to the competitive potential of the AR-15. While not reliable for pinpoint gunning at 600 yards, ⅔ of a score was better than no score, but that’s about all that could be expected from an across-the-course trip with an AR-15. (By the way, that bullet still works well at 200 to 300 yards.)
Bill Davis came up with a new bullet configuration called a VLD, for “very low drag,” that was designed to give our boys a better chance in ISSF 300-Meter competition. The original VLD was a .243, but the design, not the caliber, was what made it work. The result was an 80-grain .224 match bullet produced by Jimmy Knox and Carlene Lemmons of JLK from Davis-supplied blueprints. That was in 1990. This bullet, more than any other technical trickery, turned the AR-15 into a serious across-the-course tool.
The VLDs look more like missiles than bullets, and accordingly, they drop and drift significantly less than conventional bullets of equivalent weights. They do this by virtue of a higher ballistic coefficient (or “BC,” which, mathematics aside, means less speed lost over distance).
Sierra soon afterward released its own high-BC .224 profile in an 80-grain bullet. These bullets provided the .223 round cause for respect rather than ridicule. Compared to the commonplace 168-grain .308 Winchester load most service competitors were feeding their M1As, the 80-grain .224 bullet needed less wind correction. Of course, chamber specifications for VLD bullets need to be modified, and rifling twist rate, expressed as one turn in so-many inches (meaning how far the bullet travels before it makes a full rotation) needs to be a minimum of 1-in-8 twist for an 80-grain bullet.
To hit a target 500+ yards away, rifle configuration or component specifications are the first keys. Key numbers one and two are bullets and barrels. Of course, there has to be capable ammunition involved. For extended distances, that’s a handload — currently.
Right now, there is no viable commercial ammo for .223 that is adequate for anything much past 300 yards. In the competition world, a Sierra 77-grain bullet, for example, is not considered a good choice for a 600-yard event. The Sierra 80-grain is. It’s not the extra three grains, not even a little bit. It is the style of the bullet, which is also to say its shape.
The 80-grain projectile is much more aerodynamic. It is also longer, and too long to realistically be seated within the case neck to provide a short enough overall cartridge length that will fit rounds into a box magazine. If 2.25 inches is good to use for a maximum magazine-length round (and it is), then the 2.35+ inches necessary to load an 80-grain bullet to provide minimum suitable bullet cartridge structure (meaning suitable engagement area within the bullet shank and the case-neck contact areas) is well beyond the constraints of the magazine. You must feed rounds constructed with 80-grain bullets one at a time into the rifle.
(Important note: I refer to the “80-grain bullet” because it’s common and performs well. There are others that are similar: lighter-weight VLD-style bullets, high-BC 75-grain designs, and even 90-grain bullets. The point is that these are also all too long tip to tail to be seated deeply enough to fit in a box magazine.)
Choosing a Long-Range AR-15
When choosing an AR-15 for long-range shooting, there are a number of important factors your should consider. These can depend on the type of ammunition you plan to shoot, how far you want to shoot, and even your body type. I’ll cover a few of the main considerations below.
To stabilize anything longer than a 68 or 69-grain bullet, the barrel twist rate must be — at minimum — 1-in-8. Twist rates reflect how far the bullet travels along the lands or rifling to make one complete revolution. So, 1-in-8 (or 1-8, 1:8) means “one turn in eight inches.” I think it’s better to go a little faster in twist. There is nothing wrong with a 1-7 twist.
The 90-grain bullets require a 1-6.5, and that is getting on the quick side. If you want to shoot Sierra 77-grain bullets or equivalent, and certainly anything longer, 1-8 is necessary. By the way, it is bullet length, not weight, which constitutes the necessary twist rate to launch a stable bullet.
Floating a match-grade barrel (and defining that term will be a whole ‘nother article) of the correct twist rate is really the only technical “trick” necessary to get good groups from an AR-15. The “float” part comes from the installation of a tubular-style forend. These designs house the barrel with no contact points along the length of the tube. The gas block and gas tube are affixed to the barrel, certainly, and for this reason, it’s critical that the gas tube has zero contact at the point where it passes through the upper receiver.
Barrel length is not nearly as influential with a .223 Remington as it is in larger-bodied cartridges. The fairly small amount of relatively faster-burning propellant just doesn’t get the gains from extra inches of barrel length like, say, a .223 WSSM will. The difference between an issue 20-inch and an aftermarket 24-inch is about 80 to 100 feet per second, using proven suitable propellants. That, yes, is influential. (2,550 fps from a Sierra 80-grain is competitive.) The point is, there is only a scant difference between a 24-inch and a 26-inch, or more, barrel in a rifle chambered for .223 Remington.
Likewise, large-diameter barrels are of no discernable value to accuracy. Extra weight is about the only benefit, but most of those “bull”-type barrels are way too heavy. There is no recoil to speak of, as it is, certainly not enough to dampen with barrel weight. Anymore, I run a 0.800-inch taper that steps down for a gas block and then straight on 0.750-inch diameter to the muzzle.
Another vital aspect of more successful long-range shooting is getting the rifle to fit the shooter better, which is to say to help the shooter employ a more effective position. An adjustable buttstock is valuable, and even more valuable if it’s well-designed.
Mostly, a standard stock is too short, and the cheek area sits too low. Adding length helps a lot by itself. There are assemblies that replace the standard buttplate to allow for length and, usually, height and rotation adjustments for the buttpad.
An elevation-adjustable cheekpiece is a big help to attain a solid position. A solid position is one the shooter can settle into without any undue strain to maintain the head where it needs to be to get a good sight view. Ideally, when the face is resting fully on the stock cheekpiece, the view through the sight should be dead-centered and clear.
Muscle tensions necessary to clarify and correct the sight view ultimately lead to discomfort and muscle fatigue, and that leads to the shakes. Shakes and centered 1,000-yard shots are not normally coincidental.
The charging handle kills the effectiveness of most designs. The cheekpieces are set too far back to allow clearance for charging. The only real way around it is a modification whereby an operating lever is threaded into the side of the bolt carrier, and the need for the charging handle is done away with.
Correct optical sight positioning can be a challenge. With a flat-top upper, I need a good inch additional forward extension at the muzzle side of the upper for the sight mount bases to avoid holding my head “back” to get the optimal view through the scope. A longer rail piece is necessary for my builds as a result.
If you’re looking for a one-stop off-the-shelf rifle that will provide good results, there are a number of great options. One of the more budget-conscious options is the Ruger AR-556 Multi-Purpose Rifle. With an 18-inch free-float barrel, this provides great accuracy for the price.
Moving up on the list in terms of price, the Rock River Arms LAR-15M has been nocking down targets at distance for tons of shooters. With a 20-inch .223 Wylde barrel, this is a versatile option.
Finally, two of the more expensive options are from top-of-the-line companies with an outstanding reputation. The Wilson Combat Protector and Geissele Super Duty are great choices that will last a lifetime. Some would argue they have the best fit, finish, and high-quality construction on the market.
Conclusion: Long-Range Shooting
It’s a book in itself, maybe two, to address ideas on honing ability and developing the right kind of experience to become a master of long-range shooting. Without a doubt, anyone’s success as a longer-range shooter has a whopping lot to do with skill.
The rifle might group well enough to center impacts on distant targets, but if the shooter’s holding ability, shot-production skills, and conditions-evaluation accuracy and application aren’t supporting that potential, then that’s what he’s left with. Potential.
Do you have any tips for long-range shooting with an AR-15? What’s your farthest shot? Let us know in the comments.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in August of 2014. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.