LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
AR platform rifles (the M-16’s civilian version) are now the most popular rifle in America, like it or not. Well over five million are owned nationwide, and they comprise the fastest selling, and fastest growing, segment in the firearms market today.
Soldier Turned Hunter
Although first envisioned by its creator, Eugene Stoner, as a military weapon, AR rifles are well suited to hunting. Their modular construction allows either the manufacturer or the end user to configure them for sporting purposes. In fact, Armalite chambered the first AR rifle, the AR-10, for the 7.62mm NATO round which is the popular .308 Winchester. All AR type rifles are almost identical mechanically regardless who produces them. Here’s a closer look at what makes the AR so good for hunting.
Roll Out the Barrel
The M-16 service rifle, and its sibling the M-4 carbine, have twenty and fourteen inch long barrels, respectively, and are chambered in 5.56x45mm NATO, which is the civilian .223 Remington. Modern sporting AR’s come with various barrel lengths but the most typical are 16.5, 20, and 22 inches.
Go Chrome or Go Home
Mil-spec barrels have chrome lined chambers and bores for corrosion resistance, a feature which helped address the early M-16’s poor reliability in jungle combat. Some sporting AR’s have this as well, but many do not; their barrels are either bare carbon steel, Melonite™ coated, or stainless steel. The unlined barrels are best suited to target shooting competition since these guns are well maintained, fed match-grade ammunition, and seldom see adverse weather conditions.
Either the chrome lined or stainless barrels are preferable for field use. Hunting guns are used in rain, snow, heat, and cold. It’s not unusual for a hunting gun to go for days or weeks without a thorough cleaning, and it must fire when needed or the hunter goes hungry.
Hunter’s should also select an AR which has a full floating barrel so pressure on the forward hand guard does not alter the gun’s point of aim, although standard barrel fitment is satisfactory for most hunting situations.
Hunters should select what is known as a “flat top” upper receiver on their AR. A flat top eliminates the integral carry handle/rear sight mount inherited from the M-16 and allows the user to install whatever optical sight they prefer. Also, a flat gas block is best since it deletes the high-profile front sight which interferes with a hunter’s view through the scope.
Piston or No Piston?
The AR’s semi-automatic action is known as a “gas impingement” system. It bleeds off small amounts from the hot gas which propels the bullet down the barrel and redirects it via a tube back to the bolt carrier housed in the upper receiver. The gas pushes directly on the bolt carrier to move it out of battery and cycle the action for the next shot. It is simple, effective, and eliminates several moving parts, but the down side is it introduces hot, soot laden gas into the receiver which can, if not cleaned out periodically, contribute to malfunctions.
To solve this problem, some AR makers have redesigned the action into what is known as “piston driven.” The original gas tube is replaced with a larger diameter unit which contains a small piston and actuating rod. The hot gases push on the piston which moves the actuating rod back into contact with the bolt carrier and cycles the action. This results in a gun which runs much cooler and doesn’t suffer from excessive carbon buildup, but it adds parts and weight.
Piston AR’s, while nice to have, are not necessary for most hunting since hunters seldom need to fire round after round with little cool-down between shots. Hunters are better off without the extra weight and expense.
The original M-16 had a fixed length stock made from fiber reinforced polymer, a simple, rugged design. The subsequent M-4 carbine had a telescoping stock adjustable for length of pull which debuted on the CAR-15 in the late 1960’s, and allows soldiers to tailor the length to compensate for body armor or heavy clothes. While versatile, the telescoping stocks are not well suited for precision shooting. They tend to wobble and have little surface area for a solid cheek weld.
Hunters once again benefit from AR components designed for the military. In this case, there are numerous replacement stocks which feature adjustable comb height as well as pull. They are also stable so they don’t affect the shooter’s aim.
The M-16 used 20 and 30 round detachable magazines. This limited the AR’s hunting usefulness in jurisdictions which regulated magazine capacity for hunting rifles. This problem has been solved with reduced capacity after-market magazines. Thanks to the fact an AR can use any compatible magazine, hunters can take their modern sporting rifles into the field and remain legal by just inserting a five round magazine into the weapon.
Accessorize Until You Drop
The current gun market is awash in AR accessories; some useful, some dubious, and some just plain cool. Hunter’s benefit from this rifle’s popularity. They can select numerous grips, hand guards, rail mount systems, trigger assemblies, and many others to improve their gun’s hunting effectiveness. Among the most useful are flared trigger guards, which allow room for thick gloves; wide charging handles, again for gloved hands; improved pistol grips; illuminated scope reticles; improved triggers; suppressors to reduce shooter’s hearing damage; and bipods.
AR platform rifles are here to stay. They are to this century what the Mauser bolt-action was to the last. They are fantastic hunting guns: accurate, reliable, lightweight, easy to use, easy to customize, and effective on game. Hunters who use them know how good they are. It is time hunters, and anyone else, who scoffs at these modern sporting rifles joined the 21st century.
A Few Accessories Turn the AR into a Great Deer Rifle
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Ken Burgess from Florida on February 28, 2017:
Nice write up, the AR-15 is my favorite as well, for one of the reasons you noted, after working with M16 and M4 for my military career, I will always have one in my possession.
LJ Bonham (author) on February 27, 2017:
They are quite good. Matching caliber to game is important though.