Like most emerging trends, the concept of hunting with an AR-15 platform has plateaued from the frenzy it was a few years ago and the idea is maturing. While I have buddies who have taken sheep, mountain goats and even a leopard with an AR, that’s not the gun I would pick for those hunts. I love my ARs, I shoot them often, but for some types of hunting I think there are better guns. Not to say that an AR won’t work, it’s proven they will. But I think that there are better-suited rifles for something like a sheep hunt.
One place where AR rifles shine is predator hunting. They are accurate, fast on follow up shots and easy to load and unload. They adapt well to bolt-on accessories such as a light for night hunting. As they are modular in design, you can switch uppers, and consequently cartridges, easily and quickly. But what I like most about hunting predators with an AR is that, with the pistol grip and buttstock design, ARs are ergonomically suited for sitting with the gun up on sticks or on your knee while waiting for a coyote to respond to your calls. Sitting still is a function, in part, of comfort and it’s comfortable to hold an AR in a ready position for a long time.
Here is a look at several of the mainstream predator-hunting cartridge options for the AR-15 platform. This is an overview of varmint cartridges, so it does not include big-game cartridges that might serve double-duty for predators.
I usually don’t gravitate to small diameter bullets for hunting anything. I am a doubter of them and a fan of big bullets, but I have been shooting coyotes with a .17 Remington for longer than I care to admit and I am amazed each time I see one hit with this pipsqueak of a bullet.
The key is not to stretch the range too far. The .17 Remington needs high velocity to make fast kills and it runs out of steam pretty quickly. It drops below 3000 fps around 200 yards and after that it’s just another tiny bullet trying to do a grown-up’s job that is beyond its abilities.
The .17 Remington does foul the bore a bit; all .17-calibers do because the hole is so tiny. The faster you push the bullet, the more the fouling becomes a problem. Right now the .17 Remington is the epitome of velocity from a .17-caliber, factory-loaded cartridge, so, yes, it fouls. Better powders, bullets and solvents have reduced the magnitude of the problem from the days when Nixon was sitting in the White House. But bad reputations die hard in the gun industry and a parrot-like screech of “it fouls barrels” is sure to occur early and often in any discussion of the .17 Remington. In my view, that problem is overstated today. Clean the gun often with an aggressive copper solvent and it’s fine. The down side, other than being a bit high-maintenance: Factory ammo is pretty much limited to Remington and is a tad expensive.
The .204 Ruger is currently the highest velocity centerfire rifle cartridge in production by a major ammo maker. Hornady originated it and has the load with the fastest MV, the 24-grain NTX bullet at 4400 fps. No other factory-produced cartridge on the market approaches that speed. The 32-grain bullets usually run about 4200 and the 40-grainers move out at 3900. Hornady also has a 45-grain bullet with an MV of 3625 fps. Velocity varies depending on which company is loading the ammo. Hornady uses a progressive-burning powder that was developed for this cartridge and was proprietary to them until recently. That meant they were able to obtain a bit more velocity than the other companies. Now the powder is available to everyone, including handloaders, as CFE223.
My AR in .204 Ruger has a 24-inch barrel. It will put most bullets into less than half-MOA and it absolutely wrecks coyotes. In fact, it is one of my favorite cartridges for hunting coyotes with an AR-15. Again, it sheds velocity pretty quickly, but it can reach out a lot farther than the .17 Remington and still is effective.
However, Hornady, Wolf and Tulammo all offer newly manufactured expanding bullet ammo that should work well. Wolf and Tulammo have 60-grain HP bullets with an MV of 2960. Hornady loads a 60-grain V-Max at 2810. All of these loads use a Berdan-primed, non-reloadable steel case.
Soon enough the military wanted to move in a different direction with smaller ammo, so he reduced the dimensions on the gun to work with the 5.56X45mm cartridge and called that rifle the AR-15. The military adopted it, named the cartridge the 5.56 NATO and well, as they say the rest is history.
Remington brought out a commercial version of the cartridge, named the .223 Remington. The two are not interchangeable. A rifle chambered for 5.56 NATO can use .223 ammunition, but a rifle chambered for .223 Remington should not be fired with 5.56 NATO ammo. It will chamber and fire, but it is not safe. So check the stamp on the barrel of your AR to see which chamber you have.
The .223 Remington is one of the most popular centerfire cartridges on the face of the earth and is certainly the most popular choice for coyote hunters using ARs. It’s also the one that gives me the most trouble. I have had more coyotes that were hit with a .223 run off than with any other cartridge. Why? With small bullets velocity is very important to instantaneous kills on coyotes. The .223 is right on the ragged edge of “not enough” to start with, and with the shorter barrels favored on ARs the velocity drops even more.
To be fair, I hunt more with a .223 than all the other cartridges combined, so some of it is simply playing the odds. But not all of it. The fix? Pick a longer barrel to maximize its velocity. Then choose high-velocty ammo with good bullets.
During a recent hunt in Oklahoma I used Hornady Superformance ammo with a 52-grain V-Max bullet at a catalog velocity of 3465 fps. I chronographed this load in an AR with a 20-inch barrel and the bullet was moving at 3333 fps: still screaming. Superformance ammo uses a blend of progressive burning powders that is formulated to the cartridge and bullet weight to extract the most velocity possible. I have tested Superformance in a wide range of rifles and cartridges and it is always extremely accurate. This .223 load has averaged sub-MOA in every rifle I have tested, and the V-Max is one of the best varmint bullets ever made.