Reliability, accuracy and agility make today’s modern sporting rifle a solid choice for home defense, informal firing-line fun, action shooting sports and other competition. Hunting with an AR-15 harnesses those same soft-shooting and semi-automatic virtues, and more sportsmen than ever before at putting those assets to work on opening day. Here’s a look at how, and why, that nimble handling platform should be your companion this fall.
There’s no denying bolt-action rifles still dominate most seasons that require a centerfire, but the pendulum is quickly swinging. Many claim veterans returning to the sport—fresh out of uniform and intimately familiar with the nearly identical operation of their issued M4s—are fueling that trend. The volume of hunters too young to have served and older enthusiasts now regularly hunting with an AR-15, however, indicate there’s more to the trend. Regardless of the catalyst, more people than ever before recognize the reduced weight, performance, reliability and adaptability are valuable assets on the range, at home and in their blinds.
Advantages of Hunting with an AR-15
Pressing that home-defense or competition modern sporting rifle into hunting duty makes sound financial sense. Why own a separate firearm when the AR-15 you already have—or are considering purchasing—performs both missions with enviable dexterity.
Reconfiguring a home-defense AR-15 for opening day is fast, easy and takes minimal effort. Flashlights and lasers take seconds to remove and attaching a bipod is equally effortless. Reverse the process when the hunt is over and it’s ready for guard duty by the time you’re home. That benefit, of course, hinges on your rifle having MLOK rails in all the right positions—like these AR-15 rifles offered by Bear Creek Arsenal.
Perhaps the biggest advantage, though, is familiarity. You’ve practiced, plinked and competed with that gun throughout the year. You know how it performs, operation is intuitive and you’ve developed the muscle memory to work the trigger smoothly for precision. That confidence pays big dividends when it comes time to fill a tag, and more comforting than refamiliarizing yourself with that bolt action that collected dust for the past 11 months.
You may want to mount a higher-power scope on that AR-15 upper, but that upper receiver rail minimizes effort. Getting the gun on target takes about the same time as you would invest in checking zero on another, rarely used rifle. Keep backup sights mounted, if possible. The quarry we pursue have a habit of appearing up close, unexpectedly, where it’s almost impossible to located with a high-powered optic before it vanishes. Those “irons” will get you on target, fast—another modern sporting rifle advantage.
Ammo is Widely Available
The popularity of 5.56 NATO and .223 Rem. ammunition also increases the availability of appropriate loads and the odds are it’ll be less expensive. Compared to the 7 mm Rem. Mag. load I once preferred, it’s a downright bargain and nearly always on the shelf.
Acceptance: Will People Look at Me Weird?
Many firearm owners were somewhat skeptical about AR-15s when they were first growing in popularity, but today it’s widely accepted as America’s favorite rifle. It’s a rare range that doesn’t have several on the firing line.
My attendance at a pair of hunter safety courses put that change on full display. Years ago I attended one in North Carolina with my very young grandsons. The volunteer instructor asked everyone to state their name, what and where they were going to hunt that fall and the gun or bow they would use. A college student from out of state, with a full baseball scholarship as it turned out, said he was going after deer with his AR-15—legal in the state. There was an uncomfortably long pause followed by advice to, “Keep the gun in its case until you’re in the blind—some people don’t like those things.” Perhaps it was my age, but the response wasn’t the same when I answered elk, Colorado with an AR-10 in 7.62 NATO. The grandkids still laugh at the exchange.
I suspected the atmosphere would be the same when I chauffeured the youngest grandson to his class two years ago. Rather than commuting back and forth I monitored from the back of the room. This time there were ARs on the table each attendee had to safely handle. There was no urge to keep their presence discrete and advice about their operation and application was dispensed and accurate.
You will not be alone if you go hunting with an AR-15, but there are some considerations. First and foremost is to ensure you are in 100-percent compliance with regulations.
Is it Legal to Hunt with an AR?
In this day and age this sounds strange, but you need to determine if the use of a semi-automatic rifle is legal in your area. There are some sportsmen and states that frown the practice. Pennsylvania, for example, considered allowing them afield during the 2019-2020 big game season, but has yet to modify its regulations. Check if you live in such a restrictive region, or if your club or lease has a similar rule. The restriction is a rarity, but worth confirming rather than risking a citation and fine. [Find your state's hunting laws here!]
5.56/.223 Hunting Legality
The vast majority of AR-15s owned today are chambered in 5.56 NATO or .223 Rem. It is not legal in some states to take big game with those cartridges. That’s changing quickly, thanks to improved bullet performance, increased popularity and the above-mentioned acceptance by game and fish biologists. Check a current set of regulations before heading afield and, if in doubt, contact a state wildlife office.
When it comes to predators, fur bearers, varmints and small game, nearly every state in the nation allows the use of 5.56 NATO- and .223 Rem.-chambered AR-15s. In fact, the platform and cartridges have likely eradicated more destructive prairie dog towns out west than any other. The soft-shooting rifles reach distances with an accuracy that defies most rimfires, and doesn’t put the kind of strain on an ammo budget other centerfires do.
The fast-paced action of predator pursuit is another place hunting with an AR-15 shines. Those coyotes often require a nimble gun and that describes the modern sporting rifle perfectly. The minimal recoil makes follow-up shots fast and the gun provides enough accuracy song dogs hanging up at 200 to 300 yards—beyond with practice—are in range.
The 5.56 NATO/.223 Remington cartridge is not a great choice for rabbit, squirrel or other small game if putting food on the table is the goal. Rimfires or shotguns do yeoman work there, and the ammunition is usually less expensive than centerfire.
Regulations may also limit magazine capacity. That varies widely, although most regions with a rule allow no more than five rounds. There’s no shortage of aftermarket versions in that size, in a wide variety of cartridge choices. Order before the season opens to ensure it functions properly, though. Many state-compliant or hunting-specific ARs ship with them and it’s common to find them offered by those manufacturers as an accessory.
Other AR-15 Calibers
AR-15s chambered in 5.56 NATO or .223 Rem. are not legal for the pursuit of big game everywhere, but that plays right into another AR-15 asset—the fact that with a change of the upper receiver the gun can run a bigger-bore cartridge. The lower, along with its trigger, safety, pistol grip and even stock stay the same. It’s, once again, like having two guns in a single, familiar one.
There’s no shortage of chamberings available and different models, some of them exotic, come out every year. A trio of the most popular choices today include the svelte 6.5 Grendel, .300 Blackout and even .50 Beowulf. The latter is big enough to put down a black bear with proper shot placement. Keep in mind, however, the AR-15 isn’t renowned for delivering enough downrange energy to ethically take big game when distances start to stretch.
Practice is required, regardless of choice, along with knowledge of the ballistics. For the brushy and up-close hunts across most of the nation it’s ideal, but if you know you’re going long it may be time to step up to an AR-10.
The Best AR-15 Calibers for Hunting
5.56 NATO/.223 Rem.
The diversity of loads and bullets capable of stopping up to medium-sized game from an AR-15 is staggering. The performance they deliver is lightyears ahead of what was available only a few years ago, even from .223 Rem. cartridges. Federal Premium, for example, offers a line specifically for predators and varmints. Its offerings include cartridges with 43-grain Nosler hollow-points, 53-grain Hornady V-Max bullets and 55-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips.
If whitetail deer is on the schedule, Federal offers .223 Rem. with its 62-grain Fusion Soft Point bullet, another Premium load with 55-grain Barnes Triple Shok-X bullets, one wearing a 55-grain Trophy Copper bullet and more. Owners of AR-15s in 5.56 NATO, which can safely run .223 Rem., have no shortage of options when it comes to ammunition and bullet selection.
The 6.5 Grendel is soft-shooting, accurate and a great AR-15 choice when shots enter at the 300- to 400-yard zone. Don’t let the cartridge’s diminutive size fool you. It delivers match-winning precision with enough downrange energy for one-shot stops on whitetail.
Federal offers a 120-grain load in its Fusion line—cartridges tuned for deer hunting—and it’s a great choice. At 500 yards it hits with 588 foot-pounds of authority. The difference between it and the 62-grain .223 Rem. load at that distance is significant—204 foot-pounds to be precise. The additional energy significantly increases the odds of one-shot stops.
I’ve tested a variety of guns chambered in 6.5 Grendel and it wasn’t long before I became a big fan. It runs fantastic from bolt rifles and just as well, if not better, from an AR-15. I have the utmost confidence in its performance and given a choice consider it the hands-down winner from AR-15s if things may get long.
Low recoil and accuracy combine in the .300 Blackout. When shots will be 200 yards and in, the Federal Premium 150-grain Fusion load has all the energy required to fill a whitetail tag. It doesn’t launch with the same energy as the 6.5 Grendel—1,202 foot-pounds at the muzzle, compared to 1,801—but the larger wound channel makes up the difference.
Its knockdown power bleeds fast with distance, though, a factor that limits its effectiveness in most cases. Sticking with Federal’s ballistics results—rather allowing differences in manufacturer testing protocol to cloud the picture—at 200 yards the .300 Blackout bullet hits with 730 foot-pounds of energy. At the same distance the lighter Grendel load is carrying 1,183. At 500 the Blackout’s figure drops drastically to 388.
If your hunting area never presents shots past 200 yards and/or noise is a concern, a .300 Blackout could be the ideal solution. There’s no shortage of subsonic loads that eliminate the characteristic “crack” when the bullet breaks the sound barrier. As a result, game may not spook as quickly, which makes neighbors happier and follow-up shots easier. Add a suppressor and your quarry may not even move.
With that setup a good friend of mine secured permission a few years ago to eliminate some problem deer on an alpaca farm. The arrangement was a good one for the owners, who were worried about the noise stressing their domestic herd. He filled a freezer with venison and has been invited back every opening day since. Those slower-moving bullets, however, further reduce effective distance.
350 Legend & 450 Bushmaster
[Certain states have regulations regarding straight-walled cartridges. To quote Travis Pike in his article about 350 Legend, "Some states regulate cartridges and cartridge design. Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, and likely some states I'm missing regulate cartridges down to their designs. These states prohibit bottleneck cartridges, which make up the vast majority of rifle calibers. 5.56,308,6.5 Creedmoor, 30-06, and more. You’re limited to shotgun slugs or straight walled cartridges.
The reason these cartridges are restricted is due to the proximity of homes near hunting areas. Bottleneck cartridges travel and travel and can create some risk. Straight walled cartridges like the 350 Legend are not made for a substantial distance and are considered safer and legal for these states." Check hunting laws in your state here.
350 Legend is a fantastic low-recoil option for deer and medium-size game in these regulated states, and 450 Bushmaster works great for taking large game at short distances (although your shoulder will feel it a bit more). Read more about 350 Legend and 450 Bushmaster in these blog posts!]
The .50 Beowulf has heavier recoil than the other cartridges, although the AR-15’s gas operation keeps some from reaching your shoulder. Add a muzzle brake and it’s comfortably stout, although not exactly ideal for novices.
Its big advantage is in sheer size, power up close and the wound channel it creates. The bullet has a half-inch diameter—much wider after impact. It’s big enough to handle a bear, assuming proper shot placement at moderate to medium distances.
Not many companies are making the cartridge, however, not even Federal Premium. That makes securing ammo well before opening day mandatory and the lack of competition means it’s rarely on sale.
The energy it generates is eye opening, though. With a 350-grain bullet you can expect energy at the muzzle to be somewhere around 2,350 foot-pounds, nearly double that of the Grendel. As the distance reaches 200 exterior ballistics take their toll, though, and the figure drops below 1,000—where 6.5 Grendel retakes the lead.
If you’re filling a bear tag in thick brush, or deer hunting in bruin territory where shot distances rarely extend past 150 yards, the .50 Beowulf is a solid choice. Add semi-automatic operation on the familiar and reliable AR-15 platform, and it could be the optical freezer filling/self-defense combo. [See our article about 50 Beowulf here.]
There is no one-size-fits-all advice as to which AR-15 chambering is ideal for deer hunting—another resounding endorsement of the modern sporting rifle’s versatility. From thick brush and large bears, to ethically taking a trophy whitetail deer reliably out at 500 yards, it’s all possible.
The right decision requires an honest inventory of your hunting area, shooting preference and even current regulations. There are, however, more reasons than ever before to use that AR-15 for deer hunting. This year give it a try on opening day—I’m confident you’ll be glad you did.
[We would like to extend a huge thank you to Guy J. Saji for his hard work on this article! Shop our selection of related products by clicking the links in the post and check out other helpful guides like 308 vs 5.56 and guide to AR Pistols.]