November 28, 2021

Your AR-15 For Hunting Deer, by Behind The Counter

Even a casual reader of SurvivalBlog over the last several years has seen a number of excellent articles on deer hunting. While deer can be a valuable supplement to food storage in more or less normal times, most of these articles have made commonsense arguments that it would be a serious mistake to plan on venison as a staple in a true TEOTWAWKI event. There are some rural parts of the Redoubt where deer may continue to be abundant at least for some time, but in the more populous Midwestern farming states, along the East Coast, and in the South, venison on the hoof will quickly become wary and scarce under the severe hunting pressure likely to occur in a long-term disaster scenario.

Nonetheless, getting a deer license and putting together a well-planned hunt does make a lot of sense in these tough times, especially if you resolve to use your intended defense rifle as your hunting weapon.
Did you have a large enough supply of ammo that you were able to maintain or even increase your handgun and rifle practice in the last 18 months? Lockdowns, social distancing, and other mandates may have kept you from even going to your local gun range. In short, you and your preps might benefit from having a focused task that serves multiple purposes. One good solution: Take your AR-15 deer hunting!

Never blessed with great self-discipline, I usually accomplish more if I have a clear end-goal and work steadily toward it. For example, I can fully appreciate the wisdom in assembling a bug out bag and keeping my BOB near the door or in my truck. In practice, I have settled for keeping some things in my truck and adding really useful survival items to my basement storage area where I could assemble a reasonably good BOB in a short time. Taking my BOB to the field several weekends each year would have been better and would test whether I had assembled the right gear. But, nope. However, much of the gear I will need to put together for my hunt are the same items that should be in my BOB. I am resolved to keep them all together except for the clothing which is seasonally driven.

A CLEAR GOAL

For me setting a clear goal helps a great deal. Here is how I framed my goal for this fall’s hunting season.
Use my AR-15 on a deer hunting trip to bring home a good supply of venison.
(Note: In reality, I am doing all the prep work for two hunters and two rifles since this will be my wife’s very first deer hunt. She will spend time with me at the range and in the field practicing with her rifle, but I get to do all the logistics.)

That was the goal I set in early May with the start of hunting season in Wyoming on November 1 – roughly six months to get everything ready-made more complicated than normal by all the supply problems related to firearms, ammo, and related gear. Those readers who are inspired to set a similar goal for 2022 should have 15 months or more to set up a hunt by the time this article is published. I am optimistic that supply chain issues will return to a semblance of normalcy, but the current administration’s calls for more gun control continue to spur record sales of firearms and ammo…

BASIC DECISIONS

In reality, my simple goal has a number of tasks or sub-goals that must be accomplished to pull off the big picture goal. A quick example is that I have to secure a hunting license for a specific hunt area. Since many top deer areas have strict quotas, this should be your first task. That decision will determine travel plans and reservations for a place to stay. Unless your entire hunt will be on public land, you will also need permission from the landowner. In my case the hunt areas in northeastern Wyoming are open during November. Sometimes this is the tail end of Indian Summer; other times, it could mean a full-blown blizzard. I need to pull together all of the necessary gear for a hunt that may see no snow and moderate temperatures but is likely to include early winter weather or worse.

Then, we have the choice of rifle and ammo. In every state, you need to make sure your rifle is “legal” in the sense that it meets the minimum caliber requirements and any other special factors. Then, you need to get you and your rifle ready to take a well-placed shot at a reasonable distance after being out in the cold for a number of hours. Assuming success, arrangements need to be made to get the field-dressed deer to a meatpacking plant where it can be processed.

One of my most important objectives is to spend time in the field carrying the weapon that I plan to use for self-defense. I admit that I have been remiss in putting in quality time practicing with any of my firearms this past year. To be hunt ready, I will need to select and procure the right kind of ammo and mount a scope suitable for distances out to 200 yards. Once the scope is mounted and sighted in, I will need to make sure that the load I plan to use can hit a deer’s vital zone out to 200 yards. (Just a quick aside. Are you able to sight in your rifle at 100 yards and 200 yards and then test it out to 300 yards? I changed memberships in local ranges so that I would have that option.)

FINDING THE RIGHT AMMO

Is my specific AR-15 legal for hunting trophy game? In Wyoming, the Game & Fish Department issued regulations in 2013 specifically addressing the desire of many hunters to take deer or antelope with their AR-15. The regs currently read: “Any center-fire firearm of at least .22 caliber (excluding .22 Hornet) and having a bullet weight of at least sixty (60) grains and firing a cartridge of at least two (2) inches in overall length and using an expanding point bullet…” Since my rifle is chambered for 5.56, I’m good to go …with the right ammo. That’s the good news.

There are three major elements to the bad news.
1. .223 /5.56 rifles are now allowed for deer hunting in 38 of the 46 states that allow deer to be taken by a rifle.
2. The Modern Sporting Rifle in its many variants is owned by millions of shooters in all 50 states contributing to the extreme shortage of any ammo in either 5.56 or .223.
3. Various states have no specific restrictions on these immensely popular rifles while others like Wyoming require a bullet weight of 60 grains and an expanding point design. Those two requirements immediately eliminate the two most common military loads and all their civilian counterparts – M855 (62 gr steel tip) and M193 (55 gr FMJ or full metal jacket). The M855 meets the minimum weight requirement, but the steel tip is definitely not an expanding bullet. The M193 fails on two counts – not enough weight and non-expanding.

Fortunately, the broad demand for suitable and ethical hunting cartridges has resulted in a wide range of excellent choices in factory ammo. But, AR-15 owners have been unable to find their plinking and target shooting rounds of choice much less deer hunting loads for more than a year. Dealer shelves have been emptied of any and all .223 / 5.56 choices. Unless your prepping supplies already include hunting ammo that you have previously tested in your rifle, you will need to source ammo in several different hunting loads, determine the most accurate one for your rifle, zero your rifle for the chosen fodder, and practice with it on the range and if possible in the field. Easily said, but doing so takes time to get everything organized and a commitment to spending time at the bench and in the field.

In “normal” times, you could drop in at your favorite sporting goods or gun store and walk out with 3 or 4 boxes that you could then take to the range. Not so easy post-pandemic. What’s the next step if you are still planning a weekend getaway with your favorite AR/MSR? There are several viable options including the various online auction sites for guns and gear such as gunbroker.com and gunsamerica.com. (Note: Do not expect to find any bargains.) Another viable solution is to turn to one of the search engines optimized for finding in-stock ammunition. My first choice is ammoseek.com which allows for a highly focused search on caliber, bullet weight, and manufacturer, but there are several others.

To start your search, you could do a search for any of the following ammo with expanding point bullets:
• Federal Premium 60 gr using the Nosler partition bullet or
• Federal Trophy Bonded with 62 gr bullets,
• Winchester’s 64 gr Power Point, or
• Black Hills ammo loaded with Barnes 62 gr TSX bullets.
You may also consider Hornady’s 75 gr Interlock ammo designated as 5.56. But wait! For sound reasons and ready availability of self-defense ammo, you had specifically chosen an AR chambered in 5.56. All but one of these starting points listed above are specifically designated for .223 and not 5.56.

SHOOT .223 IN A 5.56?

Is this a problem? Not really.
You can safely shoot .223 ammo in your 5.56, but the opposite may not be the case since true NATO spec 5.56 ammo is typically loaded to a higher pressure rating. Firing a full pressure NATO round in the shorter .223 chamber may cause excessive pressures. The external specs for the two cartridges are the same, but the SAAMI specification for throat or leade is shorter in the .223 than the 5,56. The “leade” is the distance between the mouth of the cartridge case and the beginning of the rifling. Rounds loaded to the SAAMI .223 spec but fired in a 5.56 chamber will have a further distance to travel before engaging the rifling. A longer jump may be a contributing factor in degraded accuracy.

In summary, shooting .223 ammo in your AR-15 marked 5.56 is not a safety issue but could result in accuracy issues. There is only one way to find out. Buy one or two 20-round boxes of several different hunting rounds and test them in your rifle. The process can be tedious and frustrating but will result in quality time with your AR-15. Whichever chamber your rifle has, it will likely show some preference (shoot tighter groups on a target) for one of the hunting rounds your purchased. On the other hand, if your shots are all over the target at 25 or 50 yards for a particular cartridge, it will be a much larger spread at 100 yards much less 200 yards. Drop that round from further consideration. In the real world of hunting, shot placement is far more important than pretty boxes or marketing hype. For initial sighting in and accuracy testing, we normally use a 25-yard target distance and recommend that distance until you have settled on your hunting load and your scope settings.

After you are satisfied at the short distance, move to a target at 100 yards and still measure your groups, keeping a record of the wind conditions and the measured group size. Finally, I set up an 8” and a 4” gong at 200 yards. I start distance testing with the 8” gong which is roughly the size of a deer’s vital zone. Once I can routinely ring the bigger gong, I move to the 4” gong. It is very rewarding to hear the slap of the bullet on an AR-500 target at 200 or 300 yards.

WHY GO TO ALL THIS TROUBLE?

As I was writing this, the Senate passed the administration’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill 50-49. In my view we are closer than at any time in the last twenty years to an economic collapse analogous to the scenario in Patriots. If the US and the global economy face a sustained period of runaway inflation followed by a worldwide depression, we might be confronting an updated reality of Rawles’ fictional vision. Should that happen, we may need all of our survival skills especially in those states where state and local governments may go out of their way to mandate all sorts of novel restrictions.

Setting a goal to go deer hunting with your AR-15 is an excellent overall prep for self-defense. Even if you have done this whole drill before, it’s worthwhile to do it again. In the process you will re-familiarize yourself with your rifle and build the confidence to take the shot when you have a target in your scope. You have just honed an important survival skill. Following through with the hunt will refine your skills in moving and working in the outdoors especially when the weather turns bad. Doing this now while you still have the opportunity to refine your choice of gear and supplement your bug out bag is a great opportunity.

WILD GAME AS MEAT ON THE HOOF

Assuming you get to execute your planned hunt, how much meat can you expect to take home? Translating a successful deer hunt into venison in your freezer is very straightforward. You may not like the answer. Unless you or you and members of your family can take at least two deer, the short answer is – not enough!
In my case, we are not looking for the biggest mule deer buck. Our goal is for my wife to have a successful hunt and harvest a good-sized whitetail doe that may weigh a max of 140 to 160 lbs live weight. Given that the field-dressed weight is roughly 78% of the live weight, the 160 lb doe becomes 125 lbs to take to the packing plant. After removing head, hide, and hooves (We normally remove the lower legs and hooves at field dressing.), the carcass weight drops to 94 lbs which is further reduced to get to the expected boneless weight or 63 lbs. By the time all the meat cuts are processed including venison sausage, the net realistic yield will be about 44 lbs or 28% to 30% of the live body weight. The same calculation for a slightly smaller doe starting at 140 lbs would be about 39 lbs.

Is it worth doing? Absolutely yes, but not for the price per lb of the meat. The real value is in practical skill-building. If you spend only $500 on any new gear, the factory ammo you test, and your trip expenses, the 40 lbs of venison will cost roughly $12.50 per lb. Steak at the meat counter looks like a reasonable alternative. Take home two deer on the same trip, and the price seems pretty reasonable dropping to about $6.00 per lb.

WHAT’S THE EXPERIENCE WORTH?

Not for saving money on meat! What’s the value of the skills you built or refined? If you ever need to use them in a TEOTWAWKI scenario, priceless. And it all started with the decision to spend some purpose-driven, quality time with your favorite survival rifle languishing in your gun safe. You may really enjoy the taste of venison. Even though my family were cattle ranchers, we ate more venison than beef by choice.

SHOT PLACEMENT

For many years, through good times and bad, the most popular deer calibers were the venerable .30-30 on the East Coast, in the South, and through much of the Midwest. The tried and true .30-06 was a close second in the East and was #1 in the West until the .270, .308, and .243 rose in popularity. They all worked but destroyed a lot of meat if the bullet did not go through the vitals, but hit a shoulder, for example. For several decades, gun makers and gun writers popularized bigger, better, and faster going so far as to recommend cartridges like the 7mm Remington Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum, or even the .300 Remington Ultra Magnum as the only sure way to put down a deer. Even sensible cartridges like the .243 or .270 were joined by magnum versions shooting the same bullets but at high velocities.

The result was a lot of hunters with an unhealthy flinch which often resulted in more meat damage. Large recoil and lack of experience with a gun that hurt every time the shooter pulled the trigger were probably the cause. Using a shoulder-mounted Death Star takes its toll on the shooter, especially a shooter that does not routinely practice with his artillery piece. When I was growing up, my parents ran a hunting camp for the duration of the antelope and deer seasons. I honestly don’t know how many deer I saw shot much less the larger number that were hung in our barn before being processed. One lesson I took away still stands today. Shot placement kills more deer and wastes less meat than any big caliber cannon. Practice, practice, practice builds confidence and comfort with a rifle. A relaxed trigger squeeze leads to good shot placement.

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