By Matthew Breuer
It’s either a huge coincidence that AR-15s and predator hunting are two of the fastest growing things in the hunting world, or people already know that AR-15s and predator hunting go together like peanut butter and jelly. It doesn’t really matter what the answer is; all that matters is that you know what to look for when setting up an AR-15 for predator hunting, piece-by-piece.
The lower receiver is the heart of any AR-15. It’s the part of the gun that houses the trigger, hammer, magazine catch, safety, and is the pivot point that holds the upper receiver, pistol grip, and buttstock together. Without a lower receiver, you have no weapon. For this reason, the government requires that you follow all of the procedures to purchase a firearm to obtain the lower receiver. All of the other parts of an AR can be purchased off the shelf.
Lowers can be purchased one of two ways. Complete, or stripped. A complete lower will have all of the necessary parts needed in that portion of the gun to make it go “pew, pew”. A stripped lower is blank, and will need all of the pins, springs, trigger, and other parts purchased separately.
If the lower receiver is the heart of an AR-15, the upper receiver is the brain. The upper receiver houses the barrel, handguard, rails, barrel, bolt carrier group, gas system, and charging handle. It will hold your optics, and if you get really technical, it’s what decides how well your gun is going to shoot, how accurate it is, and how fast the bullet will spin. The upper is something you really need to invest some thought into. Like the lower receiver, you can buy one complete, or stripped.
Let’s talk caliber. The most common AR-15 is chambered in .223, which is an excellent caliber for predators of all sizes and shapes. It’s a flat shooter out to 300 yards, and ammunition is readily available. The nice thing about an AR-15 is the capability to simply take the upper receiver off, and replace it with another. You can quickly go from hunting predators with a .223 upper to plinking or hunting squirrels with a .22 upper with the push of two pins.
Barrels are important. Lengths of 16-20 inches are the most commonly found options. A 16-inch carbine-length barrel will provide you with a lightweight option, and will give you an accurate rifle right out of the box. An 18-inch barrel will give you some extra velocity, will most-likely extend the life of your gun due to less gas pressure building up due to the longer gas system, but will be heavier to carry and to swing on a moving target. Same goes for the 20-inch barrel. They are very accurate on a rest, project the bullet with speed, but are much heavier. It comes down to personal preference, and should hinge on what you’re comfortable with, or how it feels once it’s shouldered.
A rate of twist of 1:8 or 1:9 is sufficient for predator hunting, as a flatter shooting, lower grain bullet will be in use and 40-50-grain bullets are suggested for predators. Lower grain bullets are shorter, travel at a higher velocity, and typically expand faster. That’s a perfect recipe for hunting predators.
The handguard is another important piece of the predator rifle puzzle. Stay away from non-free-floating handguards. A non-free-floating handguard actually attaches to the barrel, making any contact on the handguard puts pressure on the barrel. This causes a variation in accuracy. While it may be small, it could be the difference in hitting a $70 coyote, or missing completely. Free-floating handguards are a must. From ¾ to full length is recommended, as you’re going to want room for a sling and either a mounted bi-pod or a place to set your gun on a detached bi-pod. Atop the handguard you’ll want a picatinny rail mount to set up your optics.
What kind of glass you want atop your AR-15 predator gun also comes down to what’s comfortable for you. I like to have options, and I like to be able to shoot fox at close range, as well as coyotes that hang up at 200 yards. A Bushnell SMRS 1-6.5×24 gives me great short to mid-range accuracy, and the new throwdown power change lever allows me to adjust magnification with ease, especially on those long cold mid-winter sits where taking off my gloves isn’t an option. My wife’s AR-15 is equipped with a Bushnell Trophy Extreme with a little more range, as she likes to let the predator settle, which usually happens at range rather than in tight. All of our optics sit atop Weaver SPR 30mm thumbnut mounts.
Stock and Grip
The butt-stock is all about comfort, and an adjustable butt-stock from MagPul or Blackhawk is highly recommended. I can collapse my AR stock down to the lowest setting and my kids can plink at the range, and I can extend it to full length when I’m shooting in light clothing. If I’m wearing bulky clothing on those cold winter night sits, I may have to collapse it down a notch or two based on how many layers I’m wearing.
Pistol grips come in all sorts of variations and colors. Find one that’s comfortable, and install it.
A few accessories that I’ve found which have made my life easier are a good set of shooting sticks and a tactical sling.
Bi-Pods are great when mounted on the front of the handguard, but are a little tricky to lift and move, especially on uneven ground or snow. I prefer to use the Short Bipod Trigger Stick from Primos. The trigger allows for instant adjustment, and self-leveling on uneven ground. They are light, quick to maneuver, and pack up small. They also allow me the choice of using a bipod, or not. With a set bipod I have to unscrew the mount and fumble around to get it out of the way. Not a speedy task in the dark.
A tactical sling can make or break a trip. Carrying your weapon from stand to stand can be tiresome, and a quality sling eases some of that fatigue. It also frees up both hands, which are typically used to carry calls, decoys, and if you’re lucky, harvested fur.
The final piece of the puzzle is certainly not the least important. With predator hunting gaining popularity at an astounding rate, manufacturers are now making predator/varmint specific loads. The new American Eagle Varmint & Predator 50gr. jacketed-hollow-points in .223 Rem are my bullets of choice. The 50-grain bullet comes out of the muzzle at 3,325 feet per second, and doesn’t really start to drop off until it reaches 250 yards. They come in 50 round bulk packs, making loading much faster, and if I need to shift I can simply grab and go without fumbling with plastic sleeves.
Once your AR-15 is built, and you’ve found that magic sub-1-inch MOA at the range, you’re ready to start making stands. In your spare time, practice setting up like you are afield. Figuring out where to set your gun while trying to manipulate the remote for the call is one thing, but shouldering your gun with stealth is another. Like any other type of hunting, the more your practice, the better you’ll get. The same goes for customizing your AR-15. The more you tinker, the better you’ll get. You’ll also find little tricks or accessories that make things easier for you. That’s all part of the fun of utilizing an AR-15 for predator hunting.