The AR is a proven hunting option. While many felt it was underpowered and out of place for years, it has become one of the most popular hunting options because of its versatility and multi-use capabilities.
With the availability of a wide selection of upper receivers, you can custom tailor the AR platform to hunting large game with little more than a headspace gauge and a conversion kit.
The question remains however – for a rifle that at times was not seen as a perfect fit for hunting, is the AR the right choice for going after very large game? Sure, it’s one thing to take deer from 100lbs to 350 lbs., but is the AR the optimal choice for hunting anything bigger?
Maybe it’s better stated: is it the right choice for you, and what are the parameters of a large game-capable AR build? This article will discuss those parameters and aims to help you decide if it makes sense.
Did you bring enough gun?
An AR is a gun that isn’t based on a monolithic platform – it’s held together basically by two pins and there is inevitably some play between the two receiver groups.
It’s not necessarily designed for accuracy or long-range precision – even if it doesn’t suffer any major shortcomings with regards to accuracy or precision as a result of not being purpose-built for it. There are also a wide variety of riflescopes designed specifically for hunting with built in holdovers and ranging for the perfect first shot.
With that in mind – it’s not a platform made to handle extremely large cartridges that are capable of taking the largest game animals in the world. But it is also no slouch.
With the “inert” lower receiver setup and a design that focuses recoil forces and pressure into suitable areas of the firearm, you can basically put any cartridge on top of that lower receiver, if you can figure out how to make it fire.
Some time back you could find bolt action upper receivers (mostly received as a novelty) with huge cartridges at the center of the build.
Even today, you can find very capable rounds like the .300 Winchester Magnum mated to the AR lower. A .300 Winchester Magnum is capable of reliably taking 95%+ of all game types (including dangerous game), in North America under certain conditions.
This article isn’t about a single one-off build, though, it’s more about what the AR can do in a mainstream capacity when it comes to large game targets in North America. Is it enough gun?
The AR has come a long way in the last 15 years – you can pretty much mount whatever you want on top of a lower receiver
The AR is no longer tied exclusively to the .223 Remington and 5.56×45 (which by the way ARE NOT the same cartridge – you should only fire the .223 out of a.223 or a 5.56 marked barrel or a barrel capable of firing the .223; you SHOULD NOT fire a 5.56 cartridge out of a .223 marked barrel). In this market, you can get more than a dozen, now mainstream loads in an upper receiver build.
In the case of the premise of this article – below are some compelling options for large game that still fall into the mainstream category and seem reasonable for game animals up to 750 lbs. (and even beyond under certain conditions).
While that size may seem large, it is not a comprehensive indicator that any large game can be taken with the AR platform. One could argue that any cartridge could kill any animal with the right shot placement – but that’s why we don’t judge the dispatching capabilities of a cartridge, or a firearm based on perfect conditions and placement – no one is going to get a perfect shot very often.
Is the cartridge able to comprehensively and cleanly dispatch an animal you intend to target with it? No matter how fast or how close you are to the target, a 55 grain bullet (like used in some mainstream loads for the .223) is not a reasonable bullet to use while hunting a 1,000 lbs. animal.
A very compelling option for the hunter that wants to shoot big game up to 600 lbs and up to 600 yards. Which seems like a very robust sweet spot. Sub MOA accuracy to 550+ yards and capable of putting significant payload on target at distance with the projectiles ranging from 90 grains to 139 grains, generally.
The option to have such an accurate load shooting out of a 16” or 18” or 20” barrel makes it a nice option to have.
It shouldn’t be confused with the 6.5 Creedmoor. It’s built for intermediate ranges and slightly beyond, where the Creedmoor is really built for longer ranges. The cartridge is shorter than the Creedmoor.
You can get more out of a shorter barrel when you are comparing apples to apples between the cartridges in the case of the 6.5 Grendel. It’s a lot of bang for your buck if you don’t need 850+ yard capabilities.
A wind-cutting and highly performant round that offers exceptional retained velocity on target – albeit with a smaller grain weight than some of the options here. Offerings include a 60 grain, 75 grain and 90 grain variant.
The higher velocity on point of impact and the extreme value of the projectile/round comparatively to the 5.56/.223 means that better terminal ballistics will provide better results in the field on bigger game. You could expect to take animals at up to 650 yards; up to about 400 lbs., reasonably.
A 5.56x45mm or a .223 Remington could be expected to perform on targets to 350 lbs. out to 350 yards or so, reasonably. Again, these are not the far reaches of the extreme parameters, but rather the realistic field performance under a variety of different conditions, if the shooter is experienced and understands the way the round and the firearm behave together.
The 6.8SPC, like the 6.5 Grendel was made for military purposes and made to shine in a terminal channel that focuses on intermediate energy at intermediate ranges. It compares favorably to the .308 in that regard, under certain conditions. This, with a smaller overall length and a small caliber bullet.
Nevertheless, you can still get fantastic ballistic results with grain weights from 80 grains to 120 grains. It is a fantastic round for ranges up to 450 yards and for targets up to 600 lbs. These are sweet spot numbers, not extreme capabilities.
A versatile round for deer sized game, the round offers some incredible suppression capabilities in a subsonic load. However, this load is only really suitable out to about 175 yards before you have to factor in some heavy drop considerations.
Interestingly, though, the full powered supersonic round offers much more capability, pushing it out to 75%+ of the operating terminal range of the .308 Winchester (approximately).
This makes it capable of dispatching 500lb+ game at 450yards or thereabouts.
Another tack driver, the .300 HAM’r is a viable cartridge for intermediate game and the lower end of the larger game spectrum. It has a very broad range from coyotes, to hogs, to deer, to elk, goats and rams.
It’s probably at the extreme end of performance when stalking something bigger than a medium sized Elk. The round is certainly capable of 1 MOA accuracy to 650 yards and probably capable of taking 550+ lb. game targets, consistently.
More loads should be coming to the market soon enough and with the favorable comparisons to the 7.62×39 and the .300BLK in supersonic configuration, this is a viable round for moderate and large game targets.
The only real drawback to the .350 Legend is the range, comparative to other options on this list. As a standalone option, the range isn’t a factor – as the cartridge was developed to achieve different tasks than the cartridges we have listed above.
The .350 Legend is an interesting option more in the vein of a .30-30, where you can squeeze excellent ballistics out of a shorter cartridge, with a hefty projectile that makes it very performant in a brush-heavy environment.
You can expect to get excellent capabilities on target out to 225-250 yards and to take game targets of more than 700 lbs. Under normal considerations and can expect great dense brush environment performance.
The stubbies (.458 SOCOM, .450 Bushmaster & .50 Beowulf)
Along the same lines as the .45-70 GOVT, but out of a 16” barrel, and channeling some of the concepts of the .350 Legend.
These are doorbusters in the Law Enforcement communities, perfect for shooting through cover. In that same way, they are performant in heavy brush areas as well.
If you could stalk the largest animals in North America to 125 yards or thereabouts, you should be confident in these rounds being able to dispatch the largest dangerous game on the continent. A 1000 lbs target is reasonable at that range.
Probably the sweet spot for the cartridges is about 50-125 yards and 800-1k lb. targets.
The Mainstream 308 pattern AR platform options
Again, there are many calibers you can “bolt onto” an AR, especially when you add the extra robust nature of the larger .308 platform variant, but the most mainstream options offer compelling choices for those who want to take a larger range of big game with more confidence and better on-target ballistics – given certain parameters.
Some of the smaller cartridges above compete favorably with the two options listed below, but they do not have the same powder behind the shot to begin with, which can add a lot of value with certain ranges, game types and conditions.
The fact that the 6.5 Creedmoor requires the larger AR308/AR10 platform doesn’t take much away from the extreme capabilities of the cartridge.
The 6.5 Creedmoor is purpose-built to drive tacks. Up to and including ranges of 1,000 yards. That’s extreme range for a cartridge that utilizes the two part core build of the AR platform. It is also utilizing a significant amount of powder behind a decently sized projectile (e.g. 120 grains, and 143 grains).
The combination of this extreme precision and the intermediate projectile heft means the 6.5 Creedmoor is capable of dispatching larger game easily. Certainly, a game target up to 750 lbs under realistic conditions is a potential target that could be reasoned. Because of the amount of retained velocity and ultimately, the retained energy as a result, at point of impact, this is a significant option for further targets.
Would it be a no-brainer on 1k lbs. moose or a grizzly? Not necessarily, but for a wide range of big game, including ram and goats (notoriously tough targets) on distant rocky hillsides, the 6.5 Creedmoor is a realistic long-range option.
The .308 is by no means obsolete – that is a proven fact. But there is a bit of pressure on the round when compared to some of the innovative cartridges developed over the past decade that compete very favorably in certain conditions or for certain tasks.
The availability of cartridges and specific variability of the hunting loads for the .308 Winchester makes it a cartridge that won’t be obsolete for a very long time.
You can find loads that shoot a 55 grain projectile and some that fire a projectile of more than 200 grains. Given the powder capacity of the case and the wide availability of components, this is still a legitimate hunting round even if it acts more like a “Jack of all trades” rather than a specialty cartridge relative to market competitors.
What are your state and local jurisdiction regulations regarding minimum caliber and platform for hunting of game?
You must understand your local and state regulations with regards to minimum calibers and “appropriate” calibers or cartridges for the game targets you seek.
Some of these may not be suitable for game in your jurisdiction based on the letter of the law. There is no excuse not to know these regulations – please protect yourself by understanding the specifics in your area.
Are you all squared away on the regulatory aspects?
- What are the kill zones on the animal?
- What is the effective range of the load you are bringing?
- What does the terrain look like and will it impact your shots?
- Do you need glass on your gun?
- Are there some esoteric cartridge or bullet limitations you need to be aware of?
- Are you familiar with the traffic and locations of what is behind your point of aim?
Having said all that – the AR is a fantastic moderate and big game gun, depending on the specific hunt and the specific buildout
In all fairness, the AR platform is most well suited to small and intermediate game targets, with the capability of being built as a longer range, larger game type of rifle. Parts, components and sets including full rifles and upper receiver conversions can make the AR into a special kind of rifle for hunting game of all types.
It’s about the most perfect option if you desire a multi-use firearm, or need to be able to move up and down the game target spectrum throughout the seasons without having to outfit several different firearms.
Last minute considerations
- Knowing the distance can be helpful – but knowing the drops in elevation and the terrain can be even more helpful as in certain calibers, the AR may not be suitable for certain shots or game at certain distances, or when wind directions are changing or drifts are coming from multiple places
- The .223/5.56 is not super effective in heavy brush or woodlands where a shot needs to be taken through dense foliage
- The maximum range for a large animal on the smaller caliber builds should be determined before your hunt, and you should decline a shot that isn’t likely to be a lethal one. This could mean limiting a shot to 150 yards in some cases for a .223, a cartridge that normally could be well suited far beyond that and even past double that distance. This may be due to wind conditions, brush conditions, drop of bullet or makeup of the load. Generally, this is an effective cartridge in mainstream hunting loads to 225-250 yards, but most shots would be reconsidered past 250 yards unless conditions dictate an obvious terminal shot.
- Velocity can be a massive equalizer. If you have a short range shot on a bigger animal, and can get a legitimate breadbasket or other terminal shot, the elevated velocity can have a dramatic positive impact on the terminal ballistics in a real-world way.
- Don’t go cheap on ammunition on a hunt for big game with small caliber rifles – buy premium ammunition matched closely to your target.
- Don’t do unrealistic things like hunt moose with a .223 at 350 yards just because the regulations don’t specifically tell you that you cannot. That’s not the type of thing that makes sense. It is poor sportsman behavior, and is detrimental to the view of AR hunting, and especially to the wildlife conservation and protection concepts.
- Yes, somewhere there is a story of just about every animal being killed with a .22LR regardless of size or aggressiveness, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to do so when you don’t have to. Do your best to exercise exceptional judgment during a hunt.
- Consider the build of the firearm you are bringing. If you are shooting a 7.5” barrel and trying to harvest a large buck at 225 yards, it’s not a good fit for the situation.
The idea that the AR was once seen as a slightly anemic rifle in the hunting world, and largely relegated to the target range in many hunter’s minds, seems absurd at this point. But with the proliferation of the parts and components and upper receiver conversion kits and a healthy dose of AR-centric ballistic innovation (thanks to the market popularity of this modular powerhouse), this is the rifle of choice for many hunters now.
If you pay close enough attention to how you outfit your AR rifle, you can build it to do just about anything in the field against any target, up to and including some dangerous big game animals in North America – certainly it is more than capable of use on 90%+ of the game spectrum in North America.