AR Rifles in the Hunting Woods

They're accurate, they're customizable and they're fun to shoot. Why you're about to see more AR-style rifles in the woods.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

In truth, I came late to the black-rifle party, but it wasn't as if I didn't get a heads-up. In the late 1970s, like so many other shooters, I'd fallen under the sway of Colonel Jeff Cooper, the cult of the 1911 and the idea-or perhaps the ideal-of practical shooting. But the sport had just been born, matches were few and far between, and the only "custom" 1911s I'd ever seen were in the pages of Guns & Ammo.

That's when I met Jimmy Q, an explosive ordnance-disposal expert back from Vietnam. Jimmy was typically seen in a cut-off gray sweatshirt and mirrored aviator shades and lived in a one-room apartment over his gun store. He was also the first for-real "combat shooter" (that's what we called it back then, combat shooting) I'd actually met. He had one of those 1911s just like in G&A, and he was amazing with it. I knew a lot about hunting guns and not much else. Growing up in Tennessee, I'd had a lever-action .30-30 put in my hands about the time I said my first word, which I believe was "deer." I'd done a lot of shooting with Ruger Blackhawks, owned a 1930s vintage S&W double-action .38 for"self-defense" and purchased, for a deal that was definitely too good to be true, a first-generation S&W M59 9mm that worked only occasionally.

So I hocked the 9mm and a hunting rifle and put the money into a Colt Combat Commander 1911 .45 and a custom set of S&W revolver sights that cost me more than the gun, and off I went. Jimmy Q towed me along like the ice trail on the butt end of a comet, through competition, into police training, military special-forces training, simulations and role-playing-the whole world of what we now call tactical shooting.

At lunch one day in his apartment-he and his girlfriend had been teaching a bunch of us to rappel Australian-style off the top of his building-I opined with great conviction that the 1911 was by far the single greatest fighting machine created by man since the Scottish claymore, bar none, period, exclamation point, so there! Jimmy Q listened for a while, then cut me off.

"Hell, Michael," he said. "You're wrong."

He pointed at his beat-up AR-15 leaning against the wall, complete with two 30-round magazines duct-taped together for a quick reload. "That is the best gun in the world," he said with finality. "A gun just like it got me out of the jungle and back to the world, and I'll never be without one." I started the usual litany against the M-16/AR-15-unreliable, inaccurate, plastic, under-powered "poodle shooter," butt-ugly-until Jimmy Q stopped me again.

"Wrong on all counts," he said. "That is the Swiss Army knife of firearms. It'll do just about anything, and do it well." Then, pointing to the beautiful 1911 by his bed, he added, "The only reason I need that is to get me to my rifle."

Well, it took me 25 years to come around, but I have to admit that, yes, Jimmy Q was right all along. The AR-15 carbine, the bastard child of a nasty jungle war halfway around the world, is indeed the Swiss Army knife of firearms. The butt-ugly poodle shooter has morphed into not only the longest-lived battle rifle in history, but in civilian hands a mainstay for competition, self-defense and, most recently, many flavors of hunting. In fact, walking the miles and miles of aisles at the 2007 SHOT (Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade) Show made it clear that "black rifles"-rifles derived from military platforms, like the M-4/M-16, the AK-47, the M-14 and the FN-FAL-not only are the best-selling rifles in America, but are the unequivocal driving force in the industry today.

The numbers are staggering. AR-platform guns are approaching handgun-level sales and may soon surpass even Jeff Cooper's mighty 1911, which has ruled the sales roost in the firearms world for the last two decades.

What's the best-selling ammo in America? Try the .223/5.56, standard fodder for the AR-platform guns. Other top performers? Well there's the 7.62X39, food for the AK-47 and its hundreds of variants, and, of course, the .308/7.62 NATO, feeding the more traditional "battle rifles" like the M-1A, a hot seller, and the reborn FN-FAL. Last I heard, the best-selling "traditional" hunting caliber on the list was the .45/70, of all things

Why AR's Shoot So Well

It's fair to ask, What happened? How did ARs get to be the most popular guns in America?

Actually, lots of things happened, and, as usual, they happened a little at a time. First and foremost, AR-platform guns got better...incredibly better. From being the Vietnam War albatross, the AR has matured into one of the most versatile, accurate and easy-to-shoot platforms in the world. ARs own Camp Perry and 600-yard competition; they've helped fuel the huge boom in 3-Gun practical shooting and carbine-precision rifle shoots. Just last year precision-rifle instructor and ace gunsmith Dave Lauck achieved Col. Cooper's equivalent of running the 3-minute mile-the 20-20-20 Challenge. That's putting 20 shots into a 20-inch circle in 20 seconds or less...at 1,000 yards. Lauck achieved this amazing milestone with his own custom-built AR.

There is, of course, a lag time between reality and perception. I mean, I sort of knew that ARs had improved, but it wasn't until I hooked up with John Paul at JP Enterprises a few years ago that I realized how good "good" actually was. Don't spread this around, but John traveled the world as a rock-and-roll keyboardist before he found his true calling, building what might be called the ultimate AR-platform rifles. In fact, his personal "trajectory" is very similar to that of a lot of other people. He comes from a hunting and competitive shooting background and sold his house to open his own gun shop.

"Like many of my contemporaries, I had no time for the M-15/16-type rifles and considered them uncouth, inaccurate and socially unacceptable," he says. "One day, against my better judgment, I took an old AR-15 A-1 by Colt's Mfg. in on trade just to satisfy my personal curiosity. I soon realized that this so-called black rifle was really a diamond in the rough."

The first time I shot one of John's top-end competition guns, it was a revelation. The balance was perfect, the trigger was perfect, it made little bitty groups at long distances seem ridiculously easy-and it came in colors. John's CTR-02s, which use his custom-machined upper/lower receiver sets, can deliver 1a„4 MOA at 100 yards in the right hands. (Not mine, I assure you!)

Part of the reason for the AR as a born-again target rifle is that military guns are designed from the ground up to be quick to learn and easy to shoot. After all, some hard-as-nails drill instructors are going to have to beat marksmanship into yet another generation of 18-year-olds, and it makes sense that the guns used be as easy to learn as possible. Those ergonomics, coupled with ease of operation, light weight and the negligible recoil from the 5.56 cartridge, make AR-platform guns a blast to shoot. As an instructor, I used to use a Winchester 94 .44 Magnum "Trapper" loaded with .44 Specials for totally new shooters, and I've introduced a lot of newbies to the sport with that gun. No longer. Now I use an AR, one of my three. Newbies take to it like ducks to water. I usually have to pry it out of their hands at the end of the day.

Yes, But What Do You DO With One?

ARs (and other black rifles) are increasingly seen as an important part of not just the law-enforcement battery, but the civilian self-defense arsenal as well. I will readily admit I was a little skeptical of this trend. I had become, after all, a pistol guy. I taught self-defense with a handgun and carried one on a daily basis; I competed with handguns. I even hunted with a handgun.

What turned me around was taking a Gunsite carbine course, in which I learned just how efficient the carbine was in close quarters. The advantage of having a weapon in long use by military special forces and police special teams is that the top tactical minds of our generation have figured out the best ways to use AR-platform guns in all sorts of scenarios. In its usual 161a„2-inch barrel configuration, the AR is almost as handy as a handgun, but with a huge increase in firepower. I know what you're thinking-those little .22-inch-diameter bullets zipping right through walls-but ammunition technology has kept pace with the evolution of firearms. There are a host of low-penetration 5.56mm/.223 rounds for law-enforcement use and civilian self-defense, including my own choice, Hornady 55-grain TAPs.

"The AR is also adaptable to a wide variety of applications," says Dave Lauck, the 20-20-20 man, a former law-enforcement officer and a long-distance marksman. "It can be short and light with a fast-action optic and backup iron sights,a€'for close-quarters battle (CQB) or home-defense applications. The AR can also be customized into a precision rifle, capable ofa€'accuracy out to a thousand yards,a€'with correct barrel twist rates and sleek long-range heavy bullets. Competition, combat or home-defense, the AR platform can be set up to suit the need."

If you're uncomfortable with the .223/5.56, you can get carbines in 9mm or .45 ACP, no problem.

The more I've worked with the carbine, the more I've found myself "defaulting" to the AR for a self-defense role. There's an AR in the bedroom closet now, a Smith & Wesson M&P15A-yes, S&W makes ARs!-fitted with an Aimpoint red-dot sight and a SureFire light and loaded with 29 rounds of Hornady TAPs. I now find myself thinking that the function of my SIG 226 beside my bed is to "buy" me the six steps to the AR. Jimmy Q would laugh, I suspect.

Oh, the most popular classes at shooting schools and training academies across the country? Carbine classes.

Yes, But Can You Build It Yourself?

There's also a tremendously powerful "gadget driver" in our culture. Back in the 1950s and early '60s, when I was growing up in Tennessee, my father and other male relatives, all veterans of WWII and Korea, were obsessed with converting military surplus rifles into hunting arms. The "red book," Frank De Haas's manual on converting military rifles, was second only to the Bible, and the house was always full of Mausers of different stripes-German, Swedish, Turkish-in various stages of conversion. Eventually, though, the industry caught up with my dad, and he painfully admitted that the new Sako or Remington was every bit the gun his converted Swede 6.5X55 was. Almost...

But the gadget driver never goes away. And AR-platform guns are the ultimate "gadget" guns; they're Legos for grown-ups, a way to mix and match lowers, uppers, barrels, rail systeficient the carbine was in close quarters. The advantage of having a weapon in long use by military special forces and police special teams is that the top tactical minds of our generation have figured out the best ways to use AR-platform guns in all sorts of scenarios. In its usual 161a„2-inch barrel configuration, the AR is almost as handy as a handgun, but with a huge increase in firepower. I know what you're thinking-those little .22-inch-diameter bullets zipping right through walls-but ammunition technology has kept pace with the evolution of firearms. There are a host of low-penetration 5.56mm/.223 rounds for law-enforcement use and civilian self-defense, including my own choice, Hornady 55-grain TAPs.

"The AR is also adaptable to a wide variety of applications," says Dave Lauck, the 20-20-20 man, a former law-enforcement officer and a long-distance marksman. "It can be short and light with a fast-action optic and backup iron sights,a€'for close-quarters battle (CQB) or home-defense applications. The AR can also be customized into a precision rifle, capable ofa€'accuracy out to a thousand yards,a€'with correct barrel twist rates and sleek long-range heavy bullets. Competition, combat or home-defense, the AR platform can be set up to suit the need."

If you're uncomfortable with the .223/5.56, you can get carbines in 9mm or .45 ACP, no problem.

The more I've worked with the carbine, the more I've found myself "defaulting" to the AR for a self-defense role. There's an AR in the bedroom closet now, a Smith & Wesson M&P15A-yes, S&W makes ARs!-fitted with an Aimpoint red-dot sight and a SureFire light and loaded with 29 rounds of Hornady TAPs. I now find myself thinking that the function of my SIG 226 beside my bed is to "buy" me the six steps to the AR. Jimmy Q would laugh, I suspect.

Oh, the most popular classes at shooting schools and training academies across the country? Carbine classes.