I received some email correspondence a couple of days ago asking me about my opinions on "Modern Sporting Rifles" which is apparently the new buzzword for "AR-15 type rifles".
I've largely avoided gun control related topics here and plan to continue in that vein; so don't confuse the following public response to a private email with any sort of political stance about AR15s (and related type arms), gun control, or any other Second Amendment sort of issue. The content here is purely technical. With that out of the way….
I hate them.
Yep. You read that right. Hate. Me, the lover of all things that go bang and I hate the AR15.
Let me illuminate for a moment while some of you catch your breath before you pound out a nasty gram in your email.
I have had a considerable amount of experience with the AR type rifles. Enough to understand the design, the operation, as well as shortcomings of such equipment so don't confuse my preference as one born of ignorance because it simply isn't true. While the AR is perhaps at this writing the single most popular rifle in America and is being manufactured and sold by darn near everyone. Many of those folks are pressing the AR into service in every aspect of the shooting sports and that includes hunting. If the AR was kept in the world of 3 Gun and Doomsday Preppers I probably wouldn't even bother to hammer something out, it's when they enter the hunting field that my real interest is piqued.
An acquaintance recently asked me about my favorite AR for hunting. Well, uh, none to be exact. Back in the way back when I had a nice Colt Match rifle that I used to pot groundhogs out of farm pastures with and was shooting with a buddy who had his Dad's ancient Remington 700 in 22-250. It was old and I believe the first 3-4" of rifling was simply missing, it's Weaver steel tube scope was white on one side from rubbing on the gun rack in the pickup. I wasn't shooting that great that day and had missed several when my friend offered a couple of shots with the 700. I lined up on the next available groundhog and pretty well decked him without a lot of drama. For the rest of the day we traded off shots with the rifle. Even though my Colt was among the finest such rifles available then…it was easily outdone on some oversized marmots by a battered and abused Remington. My expensive Modern Sporting Rifle was completely shown up by a $100 piece of crap with a bad barrel. I could have easily out shot him in a 3 gun match and much rather had mine in combat…but we were doing neither. We were killing groundhogs.
That made me start thinking that as a hunter I was barking up the wrong tree. I drifted from the AR to the bolt gun and never once looked back.
Fast forward twenty five years and now the AR is the darling of the shooting world and many new models are being marketed specifically to the hunter rather than the shooter. Several of the younger hunters I've talked to have expressed a lot of desire for a "Modern Sporting Rifle" to hunt with rather than Dad's old relics… I gotta wonder when any of my bolt guns achieved relic status. My son was quite enamored with one after shooting some ptarmigan this year thus equipped and every sporting goods store has seemingly devoted half the rack to them. So for the contrarian opinion- here are some of the cons for using a AR in the field.
1) Trigger. AR triggers have come a long way but they are still basically inferior to what you can get on a bolt action rifle. Most of the triggers are of the two stage military type and are a mushy, creepy, heavy sort of affair. A good AR trigger is really a terrible bolt action trigger and what most folks find acceptable on an AR would send them running for the gunsmith on a bolt action. Really good triggers cost a bunch of money in an AR and if you have a bunch of money to spend…. which brings me to point two.
2) Cost. ARs cost a lot of money. Most quality models go north of $1000 pretty quickly and for a really good grade with the aforementioned decent trigger you can about double it. For $2000 you can buy a top shelf bolt action rifle (with a good trigger as standard equipment), a really good grade scope and some ammunition to boot. In these days I've worked with a couple of younger shooters who bought low end bolt actions from Ruger and Savage and spent less than $600 on a rifle, scope, sling and some ammo…and are getting MOA accuracy from the bench and success in the bush. There is no AR on the planet that will equal either of those rifles in the hunting field for even twice their price.
3) Weight. I'm a foot hunter and spend every hunting season walking dozens (if not hundreds) of miles over rough terrain. I try to carve out the balance between durability and lightweight in all of my equipment- rifle included. The AR-10 in .308 Winchester usually weighs in at about 10-12 pounds scoped. A common .308 bolt gun will be a third less than that and it's no trick at all to get one half that. Think five pounds isn't significant? Go do it and then come back. Sitting in a tree stand all day the weight isn't an issue, at 8000' I've seriously considered burning my camp so I won't have to carry it back down the mountain.
4) Ballistics. Since we're talking about shooting real live critters, the subject of ballistics must come up. The AR-15 is most frequently found in .223 and that is arguably unsuitable for a big game rifle. Before anyone writes me and tells me I'm full of beans- I've shot big game with several cartridges, including the .223 and I consider it suitable only for very small deer at very close range and only then with good bullets- certainly a specialist's weapon. A few varieties of new cartridge for the AR-15 action are available but most don't equal the .243 Winchester in either power or range and the meager .243 has long been regarded as the minimum reasonable power level for a deer or antelope rifle. I guess I can't get my head around using the bare minimum when shooting for blood. Many indigenous peoples make marvelous use of light caliber rifles around the world, but as a sportsman I can only consider that I have a better choice they may not. Besides, indigenous hunters seldom read gun rags, shooting blogs, or spend inordinate amounts of time thinking much about it. Indigenous subsistence hunters also have substantial time and more opportunity than the typical sport hunter so passing a shot that's a bit far or not ideal isn't a big deal to them.
To get to really big game you have to step up to the AR-10 action in the .308 Winchester family of cartridges. While I do like the .308 Winchester very much and have used it extensively as well as recently started work with the 7mm-08; I can't help but think for the general run of North American big game these are really seen as the sensible minimums rather than the ideal. My own results with the .308 on a biggish caribou made me want my .300 so bad I could taste it and the results compared to my partner's .338 were simply shocking. For the woods hunter after whitetails only the AR10 is likely just fine ballistically but it is really a lot of fuss for the power level to achieve what the common 30-30 has been doing for 120 years. For the Alaskan hunter after moose and caribou with the odd grizzly bear thrown in you'll want something with more range and power than you can rationally stuff into an AR action. There are a few ARs being developed that either house or approximate the .300 Winchester Magnum, but they're even heavier and more costly than the AR-10 at this point.
5) Repeat shots are vastly overrated. If you don't do it right the first time, the second shot usually isn't any better. The ability of a fast follow up shot is usually cited as a major advantage for the autoloader but I have to wonder- with better ballistics, better trigger, better ergonomics, and not sucking wind from hauling a 12 pound rifle around…would a second shot be required? With practice a good shot with the bolt gun can reload pretty darn fast and a good shot seldom needs number two. I have shot multiple times at game but if the first one doesn't connect, number two isn't very likely to either. In my experience, the repeat shots are usually good for entertainment value at the range, making a cacophony of noise, and scads of empty brass to reload. Killing stuff? Er, not so much.
I'm certain at this point some of you have already exclaimed, "Yeah but…." and I realize that many folks take this issue well beyond the technical discussion I've presented here and I'm good with that. If toting an AR into the woods gives you a sense of freedom or is aesthetically pleasing to you- then, by all means, carry on. Several friends of mine will occasionally take to the field with one- fully realizing the handicap they've actually placed themselves under. I, for one however, would love to see the shooting community to stop presenting the "Modern Sporting Rifle" as the widespread and inevitable evolution of the hunting rifle. It just simply isn't an ideal hunting arm for the serious sportsman in my (maybe not so humble) opinion. Looking around, I count dozens of serious and accomplished hunters as my personal friends, and they almost never carry one in the field- so maybe I'm not so alone as I thought.