Competitive Shooting

Long-Range Shooting with the AR-15

Heavy Barrel AR-15

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…

Cartridge Development

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.

.223 Remington cartridges
With proper load selection, the .223 Remington can be used for long-range shooting.

SALVO

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.)

Genuine SALVOs produced by Sierra Bullets
Here are some prize possessions in the author’s AR-15 historical collection: Genuine SALVOs, produced in 1968 by Sierra Bullets. Sure enough, they don’t look like match bullets, and they aren’t; the idea came back to life many years later by the same company that manufactured these.

Davis VLD

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.

6mm VLD Blueprint
The original blueprint supplied by Bill Davis to Jimmy Knox and Carlene Lemmons to produce the first true long-range .224 bullet: the JLK 80-grain VLD.

Sierra 80-Grain

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.)

Trio of Sierra bullets
Here’s a trio from Sierra that extends the length of the AR-15. From the left are bullets weighing 80, 77 and 69 grains, respectively. Unlike the relatively “spikey” VLDs — that tend to be sensitive to seating depths due to the extreme secant ogive configuration — the more gently tapered Sierras are an easier bet for improved long-range performance.

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.

Twist Rate

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.

DPMS AR-15 barrel built for long-range shooting with twist rate stamped into it.
When using heavier, longer bullets, make sure the barrel twist rate is at least this quick.

Barrel Selection

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.

AR-15 built for long-range shooting displayed on a bipod with a magazine inserted and shell casings below it.
A good bipod is a big help for long-range shooting.

Rifle Fit

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.

Last, a good trigger works wonders… Much more about those in future installments.

AR-15 with rifle scope built for long-range shooting that is on the forest floor
Having a free-float barrel and magnified scope is a good combo for long-range shooting.

Recommended Options

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.

Rock River Arms LAR-15M
The Rock River Arms LAR-15M is purpose-built for long-range shooting.

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? Let us know in the comments below!

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August of 2014. It has been updated for accuracy and clarity.

About the Author:

Glen Zediker

Glen Zediker is the owner of Zediker Publishing, which specializes in books and other publications focused primarily on AR-15s, handloading, and shooting skills. Since 1989, he has authored or co-authored 20 books.

He started shooting at age 5 and competing in NRA Smallbore rifle at age 8. He got his first AR-15 at age 15 and has now had 45 years of experience with that firearms platform. He’s worked professionally with some of the greatest shooters on the planet and leading industry professionals. And he does pretty well on his own! Glen holds a High Master classification in NRA High Power Rifle and first earned that using an AR-15 Service Rifle. He’s also competed in many other forms of competition, including USPSA, Steel Challenge, Silhouette Rifle and Pistol, Bullseye Pistol, ISSF Air Rifle, Practical Rifle and shotgun sports.

Since 1986 Glen has been a frequent and regular contributor to many publications, having had over 500 assigned articles published. See more at http://www.ZedikerPublishing.com
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (33)

  1. Hey Glen, nice write up. One question, you said the difference between a 20 inch barrel and a 24 is 80 to 100 feet per second for a .223 . What is the feet per second increase going from a 16 inch barrel to a 24 in .223 Rem ? Since some people want to upgrade their AR-15 and most come with a 16 inch barrel, it would be nice to see that info. Or where can I find accurate info on the subject on effect of barrel length on FPS etc. ?

  2. Great article Glen! Been shooting a 65 JLK Low Drag at long-range coyotes for awhile using a 223 AI AR/26″ 9T Hart barrel using the old (now discontinued) DPMS VLD magazine. Now I’m onto the 69 TMK. Got a buddy though who’s working up some very long-range loads out of his 8T AR using the new 80 Hornady ELD-M. The whole idea here is to get the best external and terminal ballistics out to 600 yards on coyotes in good conditions consistently. We’re hoping the high BC polymer-tipped bullets are the answer to this extreme challenge!

  3. Great article, Glen.

    I was pretty well there all the way. Having bullets with no twist to handle them was a normal situation for me in those dayz. I drove Boots Obermeyer and Jack Krieger nuts ordering barrels with faster twists. Also, I was ordering .224 barrels with oddball dimensions. Boots already had a .217″ reamer and Jack had nothing other than .219″. Jack kicked and screamed about having to buy a new reamer, but I would not want to guess how many .218″-.224″ barrels Krieger has made. It became his standard.:)

    Those were fun days.

  4. Very good article. This one will be hard to top this calendar year. Answered most of my questions about the AR15 capabilities regarding long range shooting. Something to very much look forward to doing after I retire in about 13 months.

  5. I’m a former Marine Vietnam 1967-68 vet, that was issued the M14 in the Northern I Corp for the first 4 months as a 2531 mos field radio operator Lance Corporal. When I transferred South to Hue/Phu-Bia in Dec, I was issued the M16 with a 3 prong flash suppressor, had that for a month or so. Then that was surveyed and was issued the M-16 with the bird cage flash hidder. They were swell, made by Mattel we joked. But as a PRC-25 and PRC-10 radioman I was delighted. And It
    was a killer, I’ll stop there!

    I started long-range rifle competiting in 2009 in Butte, MT with bolt rifles. I had a terrible time learning prone shooting due to neck injury. I was “told to buy” this used AR-15 target rifle last year in 2013. I used that AR in Deep Creek, MT last Sept (2014) at the palma (sling) format 800-900-1000 yd Match with 80 gr Berger VLDs and new loading techniques.

    WOW is all I can say. As of November 4th 2014 my new NRA Classification card that came in the mail in late Oct reads “High power rifle Long Range Expert.” The 10’s and X’s stunned the shooters that know me. I used to dislike the AR, even though it is so universal. I’m a stubborn 70 year old learning a new trick, Ha-ha. Mike V

    1. Nice job on that range. Just wanted to post and say Thank you for your service in Vietnam. Really Thank you.

    2. Nice post here. Very motivating for a younger buck (53 yrs.) that has never fired long-range. Now I have to splurge on some class-act optics. I have to first get this past the wife, who incidentally was born in Haiphong in 1968. I’m sure you know that separating THEM from their cash is not as easy as separating US from our’s … LOL Thank you also for your contributions, service, and sacrifice(s) in Vietnam. The world is so much better off because Y’all served there. There is a Hard Rock Cafe now in Saigon. It would not be there if it weren’t for all of Y’all firing the first winning shots of the Cold War. God Bless !!!

  6. Right about the gain twist. That’s been done, and generally abandoned. The idea was to impart more and more spin as the bullet traveled down the bore. Problems were that it tended to damage some bullet jackets, put excessive obturation marks from the rifling, because the rifling wasn’t consistent.

    1. I’ve been trying to get some re-load recipes for accuracy distance (paper killing) for 14 in h barrel, 1:9 twist. Any help? I have typically been shooting 55g NATO rounds. Nothing special, just having fun and u want to compete against myself with an A303 at about 300 yds (for now).

  7. (I mistakenly also answered with this to another post, but I meant to put it here…)

    Question about the “why” for .223 longer range interest is pretty much because we had to shoot it, in NRA High Power Rifle Service Rifle competition. The idea was to equal an M14 or M1A at 600 yards, not to define a new standard for long range rounds. It’s done pretty well.

  8. Folks, sorry for the delays in responding to posts. I’m kind of new to the blog thing…

    One question about the “why” for .223 longer range interest is pretty much because we had to shoot it, in NRA High Power Rifle Service Rifle competition. The idea was to equal an M14 or M1A at 600 yards, not to define a new standard for long range rounds. It’s done pretty well.

    I hope to have some more published here soon that might give some more ideas on ammunition, cartridge specifics.

    1. Was using a 10x40x50 using a 115gr bullet. Now changing scope set up as the scope I was using is a little too much for my 6.8 spc

  9. Ok, I’m just now getting into re-loads, got a good one for my 30-06, but so far havens made a good .223 load. BUT, now I’m even more confused. You mention several diameters OTHER than .223. Do these require different barrels? For example .224 80 g Siera was mentioned. How would that effect the action ?

  10. Looking forward to the next installment in the series. I would have liked to hear more explanation of the rate of twist and perhaps a discussion of appropriate barrel lengths to go along with it. If 1-8 is a “bare minimum” rate of twist, how much is too much and what do you give up with a higher rate?

  11. Great article, great information and awesome feedback. As a formal Marine under 100 meters was considered short range and 500 meters was considered long range. Although the AR is very capable of longer shots with the right bullet configuration I disagree with the lack of needed windage compensation. I found that the .308 was less prone to windage. I shoot a 16″ 1 in 7 twist match grade barrel and am very satisfied with the results. I tried the same in a 20″ barrel and it really didn’t change enough for the added weight and was some what more cumbersome with the added length. Thanks for the article. Keep up the great work.

    1. At 600 an 80gr can be pushed to better the 168gr .30 cal, but, you are right, the 175gr MatchKing can still have a (slight) edge. I agree about barrel length. I’ve seen amazing groups with short barrels (true match grade barrels…) There’s not nearly as much influence on downrange performance from longer barrels with .223.

  12. I have a PLR-16 Kel -Tec. If I zero my red dot at 30 yards, would it be close
    to zero at 100 yards still shooting 223/5.56? Has a 10″ barrel and 1.9 twist.

  13. Great article & info. Long distance shooting is desirable to most who’ve ever pulled a trigger but no matter what rifle and round you fire the Shooter is half the equation.Proper breathing,practice and mindset are crucial.

    1. David, check out a website called Long Range Hunting. They specialize in answering questions such as the one you posed. You also might want to look at the 6mmBR website. All kinds of information there.

    2. .50 BMG, .416 BARRET, .408 Chey Tac, .338 Lapua, .300 Win Mag, .308 Win, 6.5 Creedmoor, .260AI, to name a few that will get that 1k.

    3. You may want to check out 6mmar.com. I have a Robert Whitley 6mmarTurbo40. !05 Scenars and 105 A-maxs will go 1000 no problem.
      Check videos on you tube {6mmar turbo 1000 yds.

    4. I was at a rifle shoot in Detroit back in the early 60’s The had guys out
      there with bench rest rifles that were popping targets at 1000 yards. Then
      they had some guys come out with smoke poles and period correct(?)
      scopes that were as long as their barrel. They also shot at the 1000
      yard range. What shocked and surprised me at my young age was the
      fact that they were able to hit a target that I could barely see with those
      old muzzle loaders. Even more amazing was the fact that some of the
      20 shooters were able to actually hit the bulls eye. There used bench
      rest to sight the rifles and it was run to realize the there was some
      truth to the fact about the stories we had heard about long range
      shots.

  14. Reading this article raised a question in my mind: would there be any advantage to a barrel that was rifled with a varying twist rate (I mean, rifling that started at something like 1:11 at one end, and varied “smoothly” to reach something like a 1:6 pitch at the other. (I’m guessing at the muzzle end, but I’m asking, so maybe it would be better the other way.)

    1. This was actually done back during the muzzleloading days. It is still done occasionally in modern times on muzzleloaders. I think it’s called gain-twist rifling. I’m sure there is some sort of advantage to it but probably expensive to do in mass produciton.

    2. I know of one barrel builder that uses ‘gain’ twist or ‘progressive’ rifling on custom barrels. Check out Bartlein Barrels. High quality and amazing work.

  15. Nice article. I still don’t understand the point in taking a smaller caliber such as the .223 and trying to make it perform like a Creedmore or other caliber designed for real (in italics) long range shooting, or trying to stuff a heavier bullet into a .223 case, when it is far easier to merely bump the rifle caliber up to a .243 or other caliber designed for heavier bullets in the first place. But….what do I know…….

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