The tactical hunter: Hunting with a modern sporting rifle

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Modern sporting rifles aren’t just for three-gun competitions or long-range shooting, they’re fast becoming a preferred platform for hunters, too.

As one of the most popular rifle platforms in American history, it was only a matter of time before the modern sporting rifle—a catchall term encompassing AR-pattern semi-automatic rifles—transcended the tactical and competitive shooting worlds and began seeing considerable use in the hands of hunters. These rifles are thoroughly dependable, the controls intuitive, base models are inexpensive, and they’re infinitely customizable.

The platform is also extremely versatile: You can find modern sporting rifles chambered in a wide range of calibers, from affordable rimfire plinkers to thunderous magnums and everything in between—even pistol calibers and shotgun chamberings. In fact, by pairing one multi-caliber lower receiver with any number of upper receivers of different calibers, you can effectively have one gun capable of fulfilling a number of roles.

AR-pattern rifles have become a go-to tool for today’s hunter, but for the uninitiated, which chamberings and configurations are best suited to which hunting applications?

What calibers for what game?

Please note: The following are only a small selection of calibers among an exhaustive list of those available, and they certainly aren’t limited to the applications listed. But for those new to hunting with an AR who may be trying to decide on a caliber, this might provide a starting point.

For varmints and small game such as prairie dogs, raccoons, jackrabbits, et al., it’s tough to beat the enduring .223 Remington. It’s arguably the most widely used cartridge in the country, affordable, and is plenty potent out to several hundred yards. It’s also an excellent option for introducing new shooters or young hunters without the punishing recoil of larger calibers. With the right ammo, it’s even been known to take small deer. (Where legal: This round is at the very bottom limit of legal and ethical deer cartridges.)

For long-range shooting on open prairie, such as when pursuing pronghorn, consider something with a little more potency and range. Try an intermediate cartridge renowned for extreme accuracy such as the .22-250, 243 Winchester, 6.5 Grendel, or 6.8 SPC. These are still comparatively low-recoil rounds, but flat-shooting and better able to buck the wind than smaller calibers. The six-millimeters will work great on game the size of whitetail deer, too, as will the venerable .308 Winchester—an affordable and versatile choice. The .300 Blackout has also gained notoriety for its excellent performance when suppressed—an increasingly popular addition to hunting rifles.

Hunting in thick brush and need a heavy bullet less likely to deflect when punching through it? Consider a hefty .458 SOCOM or .50 Beowulf. Slinging 300- to 400-grain bullets at north of 1,800 FPS, these bulldozers are perfectly suited to taking down tough game like feral hogs.

For larger game like elk or black bear, consider any of the 7mm family of cartridges, or any of the number of short magnums available for the AR platform.

Are modern sporting rifles unsporting?

Despite their name, are modern sporting rifles truly sporting? Traditionalists might argue that using a magazine-fed, semi-automatic rifle for hunting isn’t ethical, that it diminishes a hunter’s focus on accuracy and taking only humane, deliberate shots by instead providing a high volume of ready ammunition to follow-up on poorly placed, hasty, or stretched shots.

The reality is, a hunter can make a bad shot just as easily with a single-shot rifle as with a semi-automatic. This issue correlates far more with a hunter’s familiarity with their rifle, experience in the field, and hunting ethics and discipline. And for the next generation of hunters, many of whom grew up target shooting or competing with modern sporting rifles, their familiarity with the AR platform ensures safer gun handling and accuracy.

Although they may never fully eclipse more traditional hunting rifles, the modern sporting rifle is here to stay. In fact, it could prove a crucial asset in the development of a new generation of hunters who may have already shown interest in the shooting sports by owning and shooting an AR-pattern rifle, but haven’t yet tried their hand at hunting. Owning this tool and understanding the fundamentals of its use is one less barrier to entry standing in their way.

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