When it comes to hunting most big game with an AR-15 rifle, I cling to the “Big Bore, Starts With a Four” way of thinking. Sure, there are a lot of competent cartridges for the AR-15, but the best for big-game hunting fit into that niche.
The .458 SOCOM was developed for military applications after the fighting in Mogadishu in 1993. That battle left a lot of participants (on the U.S. side) disappointed in the performance of the 5.56 NATO cartridge and they wanted some serious thumping power from their M16/M4 rifles.
The .458 SOCOM came out in 2002, and while it didn’t gain widespread acceptance as a military round, it has proven to be a great hunting cartridge. It’s well-suited for just about any four-legged critter in North America. Wilson Combat’s Bill Wilson and his grandson both shot Cape buffalo with the .458 SOCOM in South Africa, so it’s even capable of dangerous game. It’s likely there is nothing on earth it can’t handle in the hands of an experienced hunter. Still, it’s best suited for hunting deer, bear or hogs.
The cartridge nearly matches the modern factory load performance of the .45-70 Govt., which has been in use since 1873, so its reputation as a big-game cartridge is well established. There is a wide selection of hunting bullets on the market from 250 grains to 400 grains. Heavy bullets are also available up to 600 grains for subsonic use.
The .458 SOCOM uses a lengthened .50 Action Express, rebated rim case that is necked down for a .458-inch bullet. Unlike most of the other AR-15 big-bore cartridges, which use a straight-walled design and must headspace off the case mouth, the .458 SOCOM has a shoulder to control headspace. This allows the bullets to be roll crimped in place if they have a cannelure. It’s also a more precise way to control headspace, which aids accuracy and reliability.
One of the bigger names in the development of this cartridge in the AR-15 rifle is Wilson Combat. They make two rifles in .458 SOCOM. One is the Hunter model, with an 18-inch barrel and a 1:22 twist rate. Wilson Combat’s testing shows better accuracy with 250- to 325-grain bullets with this slower twist rate. The most popular bullet for hunting was designed specifically for the cartridge by Barnes. The 300-grain TTSX shoots fine with this twist rate. (Let’s hope the new owners continue to make the bullet.)
I chose the Recon Tactical rifle that, in spite of the tactical name, I think is every bit as good for hunting while offering some other options. This model uses a 16-inch barrel with the industry standard 1:14-inch twist rate. It shoots fine with lighter bullets and can handle a heavy bullet if I wanted to fit a silencer and shoot subsonic. (Great for hog hunting.)
The muzzle on the Recon Tactical is threaded 11/16x24. It comes with a Q-Comp flash hider, so the barrel is in effect the same length as the Hunter model. However, the comp can be removed and replaced with a thread protector to make the barrel effectively 2 inches shorter. It’s worth noting that the cartridge was designed for a short barrel, so these carbine-length barrels give up little in ballistics to a longer barrel. The threaded muzzle also allows the addition of a brake or a suppressor.
The short, compact design of either rifle is a blessing inside a pop-up blind where I seem to spend a lot of time deer and bear hunting. The adjustable stock allows shortening for those bitter cold days when I am wearing a lot of warm clothes. I range tested the rifle with a powerful scope, but before hunting season opened, I added a Leupold Freedom RDS red-dot sight to the rifle. The result was a nice, light rifle for still-hunting or tracking deer. I found that by using a two-point sling with the rifle in front I could carry it easily and get it into action very quickly. There are of course sockets for QR attachments fore and aft to fit the sling. The .458 SOCOM uses the same magazine as the standard .223/5.56, which is another big advantage. The competition—.450 Bushmaster and .500 Beowulf—both require dedicated magazines.
The Recon Tactical features billet receivers, both upper and lower. The upper is a flattop design with a full rail, so mounting sights or optics is simple. The rifle is fitted with a Wilson Combat Recon Tactical Match Grade Barrel that the company makes in-house. I have visited the Arkansas plant and watched the barrel rifling being done; the machinery is modern and the operators are extremely competent.
The Recon Tactical uses a carbine-length gas system with a Wilson Combat adjustable gas block. This allows tuning the gas system to the big cartridge for peak performance and rifle life. The fore-end is a Wilson Combat 12-inch M-Lok with a full rail on top. The grip is a black Wilson Combat/BCM Starburst Gunfighter Grip. On the back is the Wilson/Rogers Super-Stoc adjustable stock with a lock to ensure nothing rattles. The trigger is the Wilson Combat TTU (Tactical Trigger Unit) M2. They say it’s a 4-pound pull weight on the website, but mine broke at 3 pounds, 15 ounces on my scale. The bolt carrier assembly is coated with nickel boron for smooth, reliable operation and easy cleaning. The gun uses a standard buffer with a 40-coil chrome silicon flat-wire buffer spring. The finish is a proprietary Armor-Tuff Finish applied over mil-spec hard-anodized on the upper and lower receivers. The camo pattern is very effective in a wide range of terrain and backgrounds.
The Wilson Combat Recon Tactical in .458 SOCOM may well be the best big-game hunting AR-15 I have ever used. It ain’t cheap, but you get what you pay for from Wilson Combat. The company can even make it California compliant.
• Type: gas-operated semi-automatic rifle
• Caliber: .458 SOCOM
• Barrel: Wilson Combat Recon Tactical Match Grade; 16"; medium weight; button rifled; 1:14" RH twist; fluted; threaded 11/16x24
• Magazine: modified Lancer 5.56 AWM; 7-rnd capacity
• Trigger: Wilson Combat TTU M2; Single stage; 3-lb., 15-oz. pull weight
• Sights: none; Picatinny rail integral to receiver for mounting optics
• Safety: two-position rotating lever
• Stock: Wilson/Rogers Super-Stoc adjustable stock with a lock; LOP 105/8"-14"
• Handguard: free-floating 10.4" Wilson Combat M-Lok
• Metal Finish: Armor-Tuff, mil-spec hard anodizing
• Overall Length: 36.5"
• Weight: 6 lbs., 13.5 ozs.
• MSRP: $2,450 (as tested); wilsoncombat.com