For the AR-15 shooter, what does “long range” 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 1000, 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 1-foot-square target all the time. Competitive shooters can cut that standard in nearly half (the X-ring on an MR1 600-yard NRA High Power Rifle target is 6 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 4-by-5-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; 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, two-thirds 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 USSF 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.
However, with the right configuration of barrel specs and bullet shape, the AR-15 is capable of enough accuracy to challenge the skills of nearly any shooter. We’ll cover more elements of setting up a successful long-range AR-15 in much more detail next time.
What’s “long range” for you and your AR? Let us hear from you in the comment section.