“…in those early days, my AR hunting was mostly limited to predators and groundhogs. Fortunately, that has all changed now with AR-platform rifles chambered in calibers capable of taking the largest game in North America and all but a couple of African animals.”
Bill Wilson used a .458 SOCOM AR to drop two hartebeests in South Africa.
Wilson used a .338 Federal to tackle a big nilgai bull on the famous King Ranch in Texas.
I was asked to write this article because, in all probability, I have hunted with and taken more game with an AR-platform rifle than anyone else. This is primarily because I’ve been hunting with ARs for a really long time. I’m also blessed to live on a large Texas ranch where we shoot several hundred feral hogs a year and harvest 70 or more deer each season. Hunting with an AR-platform rifle started for me back in the 1970s when I bought my first one, a Colt SP1, which I still have. Of course, back then, the 5.56mm NATO/.223 Remington was your only real caliber choice and bullets capable of reliably taking deer-sized game like the 62-grain Barnes TSX had not been invented yet. So, in those early days, my AR hunting was mostly limited to predators and groundhogs. Fortunately, that has all changed now with AR-platform rifles chambered in calibers capable of taking the largest game in North America and all but a couple of African animals. On top of that, we are fortunate to have bullets available to us that are suitable for almost any application imaginable, including hunting big tough game animals.
AR Hunting Advantages
Why hunt with an AR or modern sporting rifle (MSR) anyway? What are the advantages? Compared to your typical bolt-action hunting rifle, an MSR has some distinct benefits, such as ammunition capacity and the ability to easily attach various accessories to them. I know many states have limits on how many rounds of ammunition may be loaded into a rifle for hunting game animals, and obviously those game laws should be respected. However, I live in the great republic of Texas, where the Parks & Wildlife Department hunting regulations state, “There are no restrictions on the number of shells or cartridges a legal firearm may hold when hunting game animals or game birds (except migratory game birds).”
Since we do a lot of feral hog hunting here, having a few extra rounds of ammunition available often comes in handy. I’m always weight conscious when it comes to the rifle I’m going to have to carry, so I don’t get too carried away and normally have only eight to 10 rounds in my rifle.
The ability to easily attach accessories like a weapon light, laser, night-vision device or quick- detach (QD) sling is extremely handy, especially when you’re hunting hogs or predators at night. Here again it’s nice to live in the freedom-loving state of Texas, as the Parks & Wildlife Department regulations state, “Non-protected non-game animals and fur-bearing animals may be hunted at night with the aid of an artificial light on private property.”
Also, due to their easily adjustable length of pull and light recoil, MSRs are ideal for women, young hunters and anyone that’s recoil sensitive. An AR in 6.8 SPC, 300 Blackout or 7.62×40 WT would make a great deer rifle for young hunters and smaller-framed women. For those recoil-sensitive tough guys (yes, I know a few!), an MSR in 6.5 Creedmoor or .308 Winchester will handle most hunting situations and do it with very minimal recoil.
So what makes a good AR hunting rifle? Obviously, caliber selection is critical because, as ethical hunters, we always strive to make a quick, clean kill. With so many choices, it’s easy to match the caliber to the intended game.
This brings us to accuracy. Hunting is always precision shooting. Due to the makeup of the AR platform, a correctly installed, quality barrel will normally create a very accurate rifle. This is especially true if you take the time to try various ammunition to find out what load your specific rifle shoots the best.
Sporting rifles should also be kept reasonably lightweight, the nature of hunting involves a lot more carrying than shooting. An overly heavy rifle can take all the fun out of a long stalk. However, if you go too light, especially at the muzzle end, you will end up with an AR hunting rifle that’s hard to hold steady and shoot well. Have you ever tried shooting a really light-barreled rifle in a crosswind? For myself, I’ve found that a rifle weighing around 9 pounds with optics installed and loaded, ready to hunt, is a good compromise between the amount of weight I’m willing to carry and a weight that allows me to shoot the rifle well from field positions. Not going too light on the barrel profile and taking weight off the other end by choosing a lighter optic and stock results in an MSR that’s extremely accurate, easy to carry and easy to shoot well.
So what chamberings are available to us MSR hunters? I’ve personally used AR-platform rifles in .223/5.56mm, 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.8 SPC II, 300 Blackout, 7.62×40 WT, .30 Remington AR, .308 Winchester/7.62mm NATO, .338 Federal, .358 Winchester and .458 SOCOM. But there are many more. Other AR-platform calibers that I haven’t yet hunted with include the .204 Ruger, .22 Nosler, .243 Winchester, 6mm Creedmoor, .25 Sharps, 6.5 Grendel, .264 LBC, .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington, .375 SOCOM, .375 Raptor, .450 Bushmaster and .500 Beowulf.
On top of all these caliber choices, there are specialty AR rifles built by companies like NEMO Arms in chamberings like 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-06, .300 Winchester Magnum, .338 Lapua Magnum and probably others that I’m not familiar with.
As you can see, there are well over 23 caliber options available between the AR-15 and its larger cousins. There’s an MSR available today that’s suitable for hunting almost any varmint, predator or game animal on the planet. So what are my favorite go-to hunting calibers?
- Varmints and predators: .223, 6.5 Creedmoor
- Open country and longer-range hunting: 6.5 Creedmoor
- Whitetail deer and average hogs: 6.5 Creedmoor, .308
- Elk-sized game and big hogs: .338 Federal, .358 Winchester and .458 SOCOM
- Really tough game, up to and including big bears and Cape buffalo: .458 SOCOM
There are a lot of good ammo choices and bullets out there today, especially for the .308. Almost anything works fine for deer-sized game and smaller. For tougher game, I have had such good success for so many years with the Barnes X and Nosler Partition bullets that I rarely use anything else. The .338 Federal with 210-grain Nosler Partition or the .458 SOCOM with 300-grain Barnes TTSX bullets will handle any game animal in North America and all but a couple in Africa.
But even the best MSR with the best ammo won’t get the job done if you can’t place an accurate shot in the vitals of your game. That is why a top-quality riflescope is a necessity. Never outfit a hunting rifle with a bargain-basement product.
In today’s marketplace in the good old U.S.A., we have numerous quality scope options available with a street price of $400 or less. I’ve found the Burris Fullfield II series, Bushnell Elite series, or any of the Leupolds from the VX-2 series or better give me good, reliable service. If you can afford a scope in the $600 to $800 range, and you have a need for an illuminated reticle, consider the Leupold VX-R or Trijicon AccuPoint series. Both have proven themselves on my ARs.
For an all-around hunting scope, most of my personal rifles are topped with optics in the 2-7X, 3-9X or 2-10X magnification range with 35mm or larger objective lens. I know the 1-4x24mm and 1-6x24mm “tactical” scopes are the current craze right now, but they leave a lot to be desired in low-light situations. Keep in mind that big-bore ARs can be fairly heavy, so be conscious of the weight of your scope and mount. Remember, a hunting rifle is carried a lot more than it’s shot!
Oh, and we can’t leave out that question everyone likes, can we? “If you could only have one MSR for hunting, what would it be?” In my opinion, there are just too many positives, including all the ammunition choices available, and so few negatives with the venerable .308 Winchester to pick anything else. However, I’ve had so much success hunting with the .338 Federal and .458 SOCOM that I did have to hesitate before I typed my answer. That said, I hope all of this information helps you out. Good luck on your next AR hunting adventure.
For more information about Wilson Combat, visit wilsoncombat.com.
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