AR PLATFORM PERFORMANCE By Craig Boddington

More juice from the lemon?

Warm, sunny midday, we were tootling around Zack Aultman’s place in southern Georgia in a four-wheeler. A decent-sized boar jumped up on the forest verge and started jinking across a clear-cut, running at top speed like a champion broken-field runner. Zack was driving and there was an AR15 between us. I knew it had a loaded magazine in the well, but I was a second slow on the uptake and the pig had already covered some ground before I got the rifle charged and up. The first shot felt good, but I guess the pig zig-zagged out of the way because there was no apparent effect.

Boddington and his friend Zack Aultman with a Georgia hog
Boddington and his friend Zack Aultman with a Georgia hog dropped in its tracks at about 200 yards with the .308 Arrow cartridge. Based on the 7.62x39mm with body taper removed, this cartridge seems to develop about as much bullet weight, velocity, and downrange energy as can be wrung out of the AR15 platform

I lost sight in some brush and figured I’d had my chance—and then the pig reappeared, still in the open and streaking off, now pushing 200 yards. Swinging hard, I got with the pig and a bit ahead. Lucky shots sometimes happen; at the second shot the pig somersaulted in a cloud of dust. The animal had gone down so fast—and so hard—that I assumed I’d broken the spine. Nope, by mysterious coincidence (or the pig’s incredibly bad luck), the bullet had struck center on the shoulder, and there was no exit.

My friend Zack enjoys a long deer season on his place, and has an ongoing problem with feral hogs. He’s also a bit of a rifle addict, so there’s no telling what he might have on hand. Other than to verify it was a “normal” AR with empty chamber and cartridges in the magazine, I hadn’t looked closely at the rifle when Zack handed it to me. Considering hogs are always in season and, knowing Zack, I assumed it was reasonably zeroed. Now we both paused and took a closer look, because the way this little rifle flattened that hog was impressive.

AR Bolt
Almost all rifle actions have limits on cartridge size. The standard AR15 bolt face is sized to the .223/5.56mm’s .378-inch rim diameter. The bolt face can be altered, but the AR15’s integral magazine well and magazine put a sharp limit on cartridge length.

Look, maybe that was a fluke…like my shot. No two animals react exactly alike upon receiving a bullet, and flukes can be both good and bad. So, when evaluating cartridge and bullet performance on game, it’s risky to make assumptions based on limited exposure. I make no definitive claim, but terminal performance gave us pause. The rifle was from Arrow Arms in nearby Macon, Georgia, and the cartridge was their proprietary .308 Arrow, propelling a 125-grain jacketed hollowpoint at 2814 feet per second.

The .308 Arrow, left, shown with its parent cartridge, the 7.62x39mm Russian.
The .308 Arrow, left, shown with its parent cartridge, the 7.62x39mm Russian. Essentially an “improved” version, the .308 Arrow increases velocity by removing body taper and using a sharper shoulder angle.

 There’s nothing magic about those numbers, slower than a .308 Winchester, also faster, and yielding more energy at 200 yards, than anything else I’ve shot out of an AR15 platform. The AR10 was developed for the 7.62×51 (.308 Winchester) cartridge. In the late 1950s, Gene Stoner and his team the AR10 scaled down the AR10 to create the AR15, lighter, handier, and intended for smaller, less powerful cartridges. The .223 Remington was essentially a parallel development, created in 1957 to fit the AR15 action.

Remington released the .223 Remington as a sporting cartridge in 1963, and in 1964 both the .223 (5.56mm) and M16 were adopted by the U.S. military. The .223 quickly became a popular varmint and target cartridge, but decades would pass before semiautomatic sporting versions of the AR15 achieved widespread popularity. During most of those decades, the AR15 and the .223 Remington (after 1980, 5.56x45mm NATO) were inextricably linked, with few other options.

During the last 20 years, much effort has been expended developing cartridges that increase, or significantly alter, performance from an AR15 action. Cartridges are often developed for specific actions…especially popular actions. And, most rifle actions have limitations. Over decades, Winchester developed several cartridges for their 1894 lever-action. Most were based on the .30-30 case because the ’94 needs a rimmed case…and the action has both pressure and cartridge dimension limitations.

The .300 AAC Blackout has become extremely popular.
The .300 AAC Blackout has become extremely popular. Although it offers the advantage of using standard AR magazines, it was at least partly designed for suppressed fire. Velocity is low, and Boddington considers it extremely marginal for hunting.

Even the versatile bolt-action has restrictions. Classic and current bolt-actions like the 98 Mauser, Winchester Model 70, Remington Model 700, and Savage 110 can be adapted to a wide range of cartridges, but cannot house the largest cartridges like the .338 Lapua and .378 Weatherby family (although there are extra-large bolt-actions that can).

Action length is always a consideration. As a detachable-magazine rifle with integral magazine well, the AR15 action is limited to cartridge length of 2.275 inches. This is a short centerfire rifle cartridge. Cartridge overall length specification is 2.825 inches for the popular 6.5mm Creedmoor. The Creedmoor (and the entire .308 Winchester-based family) fits easily into the AR10 action (because that’s the cartridge size it was designed for), but you simply cannot house that size of cartridge or that level of power into an AR15 action.

On the bench with a left-hand-eject AR from Wilson Combat.
On the bench with a left-hand-eject AR from Wilson Combat. The incredible popularity of the AR15 platform has led to much cartridge development. There are numerous options but, ultimately, the action size can yield only so much power.

There’s only so much juice to squeeze from a lemon. However, because of the incredible popularity of the platform, a lot of cartridges have been developed to squeeze just a bit more juice from the AR15. Cartridge length is the primary limiting factor. The .223 Remington case can be necked up or down, changing bullet diameter and weight, which dictates potential velocity. The .223/5.56mm rim diameter is .378-inch. Without altering bolt face, this is also a limitation, and you can’t alter the case shape much without going to cartridge-specific magazines.

chambering, ARs
Depending on chambering, ARs are suitable for a wide range of hunting. For sure, it’s a ball to use an AR for shooting prairie dogs!

Among others, the very fast .17 Remington is the .223 case necked down; the .300 AAC Blackout is the .223/5.56mm shortened and necked up, but designed so standard 5.56mm magazines can be used. The AR15 action can handle a wider or fatter case, which increases powder capacity. Winchester’s .350 Legend retains the .378-inch rim and, at 2.25 inches, is short enough. However, the rim is rebated (smaller than the base), and the base diameter is larger (.390 inches). Wider cases with rebated rims are also how they cram the .30 Remington AR and .450 Bushmaster into the AR15 action. Both of these use a rim diameter and bolt face of .473-inch, same as the .30-06. Performance is amazing from the little AR15 action. However, magazines must be modified (with a single-stack follower), and magazine capacity is greatly reduced.

Jason Morton and Boddington with a good Kansas whitetail
Jason Morton and Boddington with a good Kansas whitetail taken with a CZ 527 bolt-action in 6.5mm Grendel. AR15-compatible, the Grendel is a versatile hunting cartridge but, provided velocity is meaningful, no 6.5mm can hit as hard as a .30-caliber.

It’s probably not a coincidence of design that the AR15 action easily houses the 2.2-inch 7.62x39mm Russian. Propelling a 123-grain bullet at a bit over 2400 fps, the 7.62 Russian is obviously a long-proven military cartridge. It’s also a pretty good hunting cartridge, effective on deer and hogs at short to (very) medium range, with performance on game on par with the .30-30 (which is not damning with faint praise). With rim diameter of .447, the standard .223/5.56mm bolt face won’t work, and specific magazines are required, but the 7.62mm Russian is a fairly common and popular AR chambering. The 6.5mm Grendel, which I like very much, is simply the 7.62x39mm case necked down with body taper removed. It is much faster, propelling a 123-grain bullet 2650 fps. Now 20 years old, the 6.8mm SPC Remington is another option. Designed as a military cartridge to offer better terminal performance than the 5.56×45 yet with minimal reduction in magazine capacity, the 6.8 SPC is also an effective short to (very) medium range hunting cartridge. Based on the old .30 Remington, the 6.8 SPC has rim diameter of .422-inch. Although never widely adopted by the military, the 6.8 has its fans, but I never warmed up to it.

n Alexander Arms 6.5 Grendel
An Alexander Arms 6.5 Grendel in a prairie dog town. With light recoil and the aerodynamic advantages of 6.5mm bullets, the Grendel is a wonderfully versatile AR cartridge…but the 6.5mm (.264-inch) bullet doesn’t have the hitting power of a .30-caliber.

As a hunting cartridge, I considered the 6.5mm Grendel one of the most versatile options for an AR, and still do. Then, by chance, I ran into the .308 Arrow. It is nothing more, nor less, than the 7.62mm Russian case, blown out to remove body taper, with sharper shoulder, but retaining the .30-caliber bullet. It is thus essentially an “improved” version. A proprietary of Arrow Arms (www.arrowarms.net), the improvement is considerable, with Hornady offering cases and dies.  Arrow Arms loads are rated: 125-grain bullet at 2814 fps; 130-grain bullet at 2739; and 150-grain bullet at 2545 fps. This is still far short of .308 Winchester velocity; that’s just not possible from the AR15 action. However, these are very credible velocities: Much faster than the .300 Blackout, 7.62 Russian, or .30-30, and in the ballpark with the .300 Savage (also not damning with faint praise).

hogs taken at sunset with a .350 Legend.
A couple of hogs taken at sunset with a .350 Legend. Although chambered in bolt-actions, Winchester’s .350 Legend is AR15-compatible, sharing the .223/5.56mm bolt face. In any action type, it’s a fine short-range hunting cartridge, but lacks the velocity to be effective beyond about 200 yards.

Unlike many of the AR cartridges, the .308 Arrow was not designed as an alternative military cartridge, nor for use with suppressor; it was designed as a hunting cartridge, to wring maximum .30-caliber performance from the AR15 platform. Again, it’s dangerous to reach conclusions based on limited exposure. However, like so many Americans, I believe in .30-caliber performance…and I believe in at least moderate velocity. We probably have all the cartridges we need (maybe too many), so I don’t predict huge popularity for the .308 arrow. Even so, it’s a sound cartridge that really does squeeze a bit more juice out of the AR platform. I’m going to spend a bit more time with it.

TOP THREE AR CARTRIDGES

By

Craig Boddington

The two most popular actions in the U.S. must be John Browning’s Colt 1911 pistol…and Gene Stoner’s Armalite 15, long shortened to AR15 (which does not stand for “Assault Rifle”). Dozens and dozens of large and small firms make (and have made) firearms based on these actions. All self-loading actions have sharp limits on the size of cartridges they can accept. The .45 ACP cartridge was developed for and around the Colt 1911. Browning and his team must have done a good job because, 110 years later, the .45 ACP still rules the 1911 world. Although easily adapted to 9x19mm (and expanded to 10mm), the Colt 1911 frame has spawned few other pistol cartridges.

AR15 Rock River groups: Boddington’s “ranch rifle” is a left-hand Rock River AR in 5.56mm. It has served well from varmints to deer, and both availability and choices in ammo are strong suits of the .223/5.56mm.
AR15 Rock River groups: Boddington’s “ranch rifle” is a left-hand Rock River AR in 5.56mm. It has served well from varmints to deer, and both availability and choices in ammo are strong suits of the .223/5.56mm.

The AR15 action is also not new. Developed in the 1950s, it is fast approaching retirement age. Formal acceptance of the AR15 and its “final” cartridge by the U.S. military came in 1963. That cartridge was “Cartridge 5.56mm Ball M193, already released to the public as the .223 Remington. Then and now, the .223 is a great cartridge. It is not as inherently accurate as the .222 Remington, but the military specs required more velocity. This led to the .222 Remington Magnum…which led to the .223.

Old-timers (including me!) lamented the loss of the M14 and its 7.62x51mm (.308 Winchester), more powerful and offering greater range…at cost in rifle and ammo weight and recoil. Right or wrong, the deal was done, and for decades the AR15 platform and the 5.56mm/.223 Remington were inextricably linked. However, there has been much recent development in “AR-compatible cartridges.

Continue reading “TOP THREE AR CARTRIDGES”

PIG POWER by Craig Boddington

Just after sunset we came around a bend in the trail. The pig was standing in deep shadow under an oak, good-sized, solitary, probably a boar. That’s about all we could tell, and that was enough. Donna’s shot looked good, but the pig rolled into a little depression just out of sight. Donna and our rancher friend, Tony Lombardo approached and immediately backed up…fast!

44 hog: This ugly hog was taken in a wild melee with dogs using a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum. A big, open-sighted revolver is a great choice for hound hunting where shots are sure to be close, but not versatile enough in many situations.
44 hog: This ugly hog was taken in a wild melee with dogs using a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum. A big, open-sighted revolver is a great choice for hound hunting where shots are sure to be close, but not versatile enough in many situations.

The first shot was fine, but the pig didn’t accept that and was almost on top of them before it dropped to a quick second shot. It was not exactly a close call, but several exciting seconds! In fading light, we hadn’t appreciated that this was a really good boar, burly and heavy, with four inches of thick, sharp tusk showing above the gum line.  

AG110923: A good-sized Texas porker, taken with a Winchester Model 71 in .348. Big-bore lever-actions are dramatically effective on hogs and fun to hunt with, but the aperture sight on this rifle limits range and, more importantly, becomes almost when the light goes.
AG110923: A good-sized Texas porker, taken with a Winchester Model 71 in .348. Big-bore lever-actions are dramatically effective on hogs and fun to hunt with, but the aperture sight on this rifle limits range and, more importantly, becomes almost when the light goes.
Continue reading “PIG POWER by Craig Boddington”

THE VERSATILE LEVER-ACTION? By Craig Boddington

The lever-action is part of our heritage, as American as apple pie, motherhood, and John Wayne. In rifle tastes, many of us have gravitated to super-accurate, flat-shooting rifles; others to adaptable, fast-shooting (and also accurate) semiautomatics. I’m okay with these, but as I grow older, I find myself circling back to lever-actions! 

A very good blacktail buck, taken with a Winchester M88 in .308 Winchester. Though not designed for lever-actions, the .308 has been chambered to a number of lever-actions…and there are few things that can’t be done with a .308.
A very good blacktail buck, taken with a Winchester M88 in .308 Winchester. Though not designed for lever-actions, the .308 has been chambered to a number of lever-actions…and there are few things that can’t be done with a .308.

The Winchester 1894 and Marlin 336 alone account for ten million rifles! The majority of these, thus the majority of lever-actions, were chambered to .30-30. Although mild by today’s standards, the .30-30 remains a fine deer cartridge! 

No lever-action is an extreme-range platform. Depending on which action or model, lever guns are hampered by some combination of pressure limitations, action length, two-piece stocks, tubular magazines, and sight restrictions. Over time, many of these problems have been solved, or at least mitigated: All Henry, Marlin, Mossberg, and Savage lever-actions can easily be scoped, as can all Winchester 1894s since 1982, when “Angle Eject” came in. Historically, blunt-nosed bullets with poor aerodynamics had to be used in tubular magazines. Hornady’s Flex-Tip bullet with compressible polymer tip solved this, instantly improving ballistics. 

Boddington used a Winchester M88 in .358 Winchester to take this Shiras moose on a tough-to-draw Wyoming permit. Although definitely not fast, the little .358 is a powerful cartridge that hits hard with little recoil.
Boddington used a Winchester M88 in .358 Winchester to take this Shiras moose on a tough-to-draw Wyoming permit. Although definitely not fast, the little .358 is a powerful cartridge that hits hard with little recoil.
Continue reading “THE VERSATILE LEVER-ACTION? By Craig Boddington”

Why not a .270?

Here’s a riddle: What cartridge is faster, more powerful, and shoots flatter than a 6.5mm Creedmoor…with similar recoil? And, is chambered to more rifles, with a wider selection of factory loads and component bullets? 

270 lineup-light: Left to right: .243 Winchester, .260 Remington, 6.5mm Creedmoor, 7mm-08, .270 Winchester. All of these are great deer cartridges, but the .270 is far and away the fastest, most powerful, and most versatile of the group.

At the moment, it’s not true to say that everybody wants a 6.5mm Creedmoor. Right now, everybody wants whatever is ideal (or marginally suitable) for defending the hearth and home against virus-ridden zombie hordes. But I have to believe both happy and sane times will return, and we’ll spend more time thinking about hunting seasons past and looking forward to seasons ahead. I assume the Creedmoor Craze will continue, and everyone who wants a new hunting rifle will be longing for that amazing phenomenon, the 6.5mm Creedmoor. 

.270-general purpose: Left to right: .270 Winchester, 7mm-08, 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-06, .300 Winchester Magnum. All of these are acceptable elk cartridges, with the .270 and 7mm-08 good minimal choices, but fully adequate at moderate ranges.
.270-general purpose: Left to right: .270 Winchester, 7mm-08, 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-06, .300 Winchester Magnum. All of these are acceptable elk cartridges, with the .270 and 7mm-08 good minimal choices, but fully adequate at moderate ranges.
Continue reading “Why not a .270?”

44 Magnum: Not just for handguns!

Nobody said it better than Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry Callahan: “The 44 Magnum is the most powerful handgun in the world.” At that time this was true, but the .44’s reign as the most powerful handgun cartridge has long since ended. Today it is surpassed in power by several factory cartridges, including the 454 Casull, 480 Ruger, and both the .460 and .500 S&W. However, these cartridges also surpass the .44 Magnum in recoil.

44 handguns: The .44 Remington Magnum, designed as a handgun cartridge, has been chambered to numerous pistols and revolvers. Boddington’s T/C Contender with .44 barrel and his S&W Classic Hunter are shown with Garrett’s 310-grain super-hard-cat “Hammerhead” load…which will not cycle in all lever-action carbines.
44 handguns: The .44 Remington Magnum, designed as a handgun cartridge, has been chambered to numerous pistols and revolvers. Boddington’s T/C Contender with .44 barrel and his S&W Classic Hunter are shown with Garrett’s 310-grain super-hard-cat “Hammerhead” load…which will not cycle in all lever-action carbines.

The big .44, properly the .44 Remington Magnum, is a handful in a handgun! Some find it difficult to master, but in a heavy revolver it’s really not that bad. It remains my favorite handgun hunting cartridge, very accurate and plenty powerful enough for anything I desire to hunt with a handgun! For years gunwriter Elmer Keith had been experimenting with heavy handloads for the old .44 Special, using that case because the brass was thicker and stronger than standard cases for the .45 Colt.

Continue reading “44 Magnum: Not just for handguns!”

HOW ABOUT A .30-30? By Craig Boddington

It’s often said that the .30-30 Winchester has “taken more deer than any other cartridge.” Axioms like this are hard to prove and I can’t prove this one. Over the years, I’ve taken deer with numerous different cartridges…but only a handful with a .30-30.

Even so, I think it’s probably true. Introduced in 1895, the .30-30’s original 160-grain load barely hit 2000 feet per second, slow by today’s standards…but faster than any black powder cartridge. Compared to the large-cased cartridges of the day, the .30-30 was a tiny little thing. Early users quickly learned that its new smokeless propellant harnessed a lot of power and flattened trajectory. The .30-30’s also-new jacketed bullet penetrated well and offered a new dimension to bullet performance: Expansion.

In the euphoria over this newfound velocity the .30-30 was often used for large game, elk, moose, and even big bear. Undoubtedly, it still is, and with perfect shot placement (and, in its traditional lever-action platform, with fast repeat shots) it will get the job done. However, in 1895 and today, deer are America’s most widespread and popular big game. The .30-30 was quickly found extremely effective on deer-sized game…and remains so today. No one can estimate how many millions of deer have fallen to .30-30s. Winchester has made 7.5 million Model 94s, most of them in .30-30, and millions still in use. Add in hundreds of thousands of lever-action .30-30s from Marlin, Mossberg, and Savage; a few slide-actions, and a major sprinkling of single-shots. The .30-30’s rimmed case is probably best-suited to traditional tubular-magazine lever actions, but it was chambered to a surprising number of early bolt-actions!

Bruce Duncan with a big Idaho tom mountain lion and his battered Model 94 .30-30 carbine, short, light, easy to carry, for generations the odds-on choice for houndsmen.

Despite the many cartridges that are faster, shoot flatter, and harness more power, the .30-30 remains among our best-selling cartridges. Perhaps more surprising, it remains among the top cartridges in reloading die sales. Admittedly, this is partly because there are so many .30-30 rifles out there. However, I think it’s also partly because the .30-30 remains a useful hunting cartridge, with relatively light recoil and deer-killing efficiency.

Continue reading “HOW ABOUT A .30-30? By Craig Boddington”

Judging Speed Goats

Judging Speed Goats: Nick Oceanak

You’ve drawn a license for the fastest land animal in North America, the Pronghorn! Well that’s great but how do you know what to look for in a mature buck? The pronghorn is one of the most difficult animals to judge in all North America. I’m speaking in terms of antler size of course! Even after being a professional big game hunting guide in Wyoming for seventeen years I still misjudge pronghorn on the hoof. Now pronghorn are not antelope but are often referred to as such because they closely resemble the true antelope in Africa. So, I will use both terms as I refer to them in this article. We regularly call them “speed goats” as well (because of their similar features to goats and notorious speed).

A mature pronghorn buck harvested with a longbow.
A mature pronghorn buck harvested with a longbow. Photo credit Timberline Outfitters WY

So why are pronghorn so hard to judge? First, their antlers aren’t very large to begin with. Therefore, a difference of twelve inches and fourteen inches is hardly anything at 800 yards but a world of difference up close. Due to the far distances from which you will be looking at antelope, you’ll need to know what to look for. I’m a firm believer that score means very little and that the trophy is in the eye of the beholder. However, to better help you understand what to look for in the antlers of a mature pronghorn I’ll be talking about SCI scoring a little bit. It’s also a good way to convey relative size to other people. You get one length measurement on each side starting from the base and ending at the tip. Then you divide that number by four to find where you will take your four mass measurements. Finally, you get one prong measurement on each side. (ex. figure below)

Continue reading “Judging Speed Goats”

Beating Buck Fever

What we call “buck fever” is a strange malady that can do the most amazing things to people. In its minor stages, it causes shortness of breath and acceleration of pulse. This can quickly progress to ague-like shakes that would do a malaria sufferer proud. In its most advanced state almost anything is possible, but classic cases range from being physically unable to manipulate a trigger to ejecting an entire magazine of live cartridges onto the ground without ever firing—and being totally unaware of doing so.

Whitetail Deer Hunt
The closer I got to this buck the bigger he looked! That’s perfect; he came out about 200 yards down a cutline in Georgia pines and there wasn’t much time. I immediately saw he was a “shooter,” so I ignored the antlers and concentrated on the shot. I knew he was good—but he was a lot bigger than I realized!

 

Obviously. buck fever is not conducive to hunting success, especially in its more virulent forms. That said, and this is important: Buck fever can be a good thing! It manifests itself when you are in the presence of a magnificent game animal; it’s simply an extension of excitement, and you might even say that its presence denotes respect for that animal. As hunters, we’re supposed to be excited in the presence of game. If we are not, and are able to take a fine animal’s life with total dispassion, then I suggest it’s time to hang up the guns and bows and take up golf or tennis.

So the key isn’t that you avoid getting excited. Getting excited isn’t just okay; it’s a good thing. What’s important, and truly critical to success, is that you find ways to manage that excitement and hold it at bay long enough to do what you need to do. Naturally, this gets better and easier with experience, but field experience in the actual taking of game is hard-won and can take many years. Also, some of us are more excitable than others. I can’t compare my “excitability quotient” with anyone else’s, but after decades of doing this stuff I’m generally able to control the most serious manifestations of buck fever until the shooting is done—and then the shakes begin.

Continue reading “Beating Buck Fever”