What Is the Best AR Caliber for Hunting?

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What Is the Best AR Caliber for Hunting?

August 15th, 2021

9 minute read

The popularity of AR-15 rifles has led to myriad new cartridges to fit the short action and slender bolt. Some re-purpose the AR-15 for big game hunting. But a gas-driven self-loader is more discriminating than bolt rifles that gulp any cartridge within simple length and diameter limits.

What are the top caliber options for hunting with an AR? First, let’s take a look at all of the caliber options that are available for the AR-15.

Hunting cartridges for the AR platform
AR cartridges that fit .223-length magazines. L-R: .223, .224 Valkyrie, .22 Nosler, 6.5 Grendel, 6.8 Remington SPC, .350 Winchester Legend, .450 Bushmaster

.223 and Variations

The .223 Rem cartridge arrived in 1957, specifically for the new AR-15. It sent a 55-grain bullet at 3,250 fps from a case a tad longer than the popular .222’s.

Adopted for military use in ‘64, it did its tour in Vietnam as the 5.56mm Ball cartridge, M193. A lot of ink – real and virtual – has been spilled over the round’s performance in that conflict. I’ll not rehash the issues here, but suffice it to say that it was not considered a hunting cartridge by many people.

Man using .223 for hunting deer
An all-around cartridge must serve you in an AR that, like this .223, helps you hit from field positions!

NATO approval came in 1980, with a new label: 5.56×45 NATO. A 62-grain boat-tail bullet spun with 1-in-7 rifling clocked 3,100 fps and excelled at distance accuracy. The U.S. Army dubbed this load the M855.

Case dimensions for the .223 and 5.56×45 are the same. The .223 registers 55,400 CUP (Copper Units of Pressure), per SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute); but military 5.56 NATO loads generate 58,500. Barrels for the 5.56 commonly get longer throats.

.224 Valkyrie for hunting
The .223, right, arrived in 1957. The .22 Valkyrie shows current trend to short “fat” cases, long bullets.

As bugs were purged from the AR-15 platform, the .223 cartridge was blessed with bullets that flew flatter, hit harder and nipped tighter groups.

I can’t name a cartridge served by a wider range of rifling spin rates! The first .223 barrels rotated bullets 1 turn in 14 inches. Not long ago I fired an early Remington 40X so rifled. Solid-copper bullets as light as 62 grains flew wildly and entered targets sideways. They were too long to stabilize with such slow twist. Nosler advises 1-in-12 for bullets as long as 60-grain Partitions. A 1-in-8 spin should work with lead-core BTHPs (boat-tail hollow-points) to 80 grains.

Now there are friskier .22s for ARs. The squat .22 Nosler holds 25 percent more powder than the .223 and welcomes long bullets with high ballistic coefficients. Federal’s .224 Valkyrie, supersonic with 90-grain Sierra bullets to 1,300 yards, is similar. Both were developed in 2017.

While many people may consider .22-caliber loads too light for larger game, they can be ideal for predator hunting with an AR-15.

The 6mm ARC

Following a spate of 6mm wildcats, Hornady’s new 6mm ARC (Advanced Rifle Cartridge) features one of the shortest cases developed for AR-15s. But with a .536 b.c., 108-grain .243 ELD Match bullets exiting at 2,750 fps still clock 1,971 fps at 500 yards! Ballistically, and especially in wind, the 6mm ARC trumps every AR-compatible .22.

6mm ARC round diagram poster
Positioned between the .308 Win and the .223 Rem, the 6mm ARC offers excellent hunting performance for the AR.

“The 6mm ARC does much of what larger cartridges can,” says Hornady, “and everything that smaller cartridges can’t.”

Beyond 6mm

Bigger bores offer up heavier bullets. For many types of hunting, a heavier bullet is desired be it from a bolt gun or an AR platform.

6.8 SPC hunting round
With little enduring support, the 6.8 SPC withered. Sent at 2,625 fps, its .277 bullets kill deer quickly!

Remington’s 6.8 SPC (Special Purpose Cartridge), on the .30 Remington case, fires 115-grain .277 bullets at 2,625 fps. Deer I’ve shot with the 6.8 SPC fell quickly dead.

At its 2003 debut, the cartridge used Large Rifle primers. Small Rifle primers replaced them – “More uniform ignition!” chorused Benchrest shooters. So, be careful if you are reloading range pick-up brass.

6.5 Grendel ammo for deer hunting
Based on the 7.62×39, the 6.5 Grendel (left) outperforms the .223 (right) on deer. Magazines have thin walls.

Another 2003 introduction, the 6.5 Grendel, is a necked-down 7.62×39, a 1943 Russian Army cartridge. Legions of hunters are sold on the Grendel’s 123-grain bullets at 2,610 fps.

While the Grendel is designed for the AR, the 7.62×39 is also available in the AR-15. Barrels for the 7.62×39 are nominally bored .309 or slightly larger. Hornady’s loads launch a 123-grain .310 bullet from a 20-inch barrel at 2,350 fps. It carries 840 ft-lbs to 200 yards. Handloaders using a typical .308-caliber bullet will often lose accuracy singe the projectile doesn’t engage the lands and grooves well.

.30 AR cartridge
With these 123-grain bullets from 20-inch barrels, the .30 Remington AR clocks 350 fps faster than the 7.62×39.

In 2011, a competitor appeared and remains very popular today for hunting and sporting applications. The .300 AAC Blackout (300 BLK) sent 110-grain bullets at 2,375 fps, 208- and 220-grain bullets at a subsonic 1,020. Mid-weight hunting bullets to 135 grains exit 16-inch barrels at about 2,100.

The 300 Blackout cartridge is very popular for hog hunting where ranges are typically less than 200 yards. Additionally, the suppression characteristics of the subsonic loads make hunting hogs with a can quite enjoyable. Make sure you read Tom McHale’s article comparing the 300 BLK vs the .223 Rem for hunting.

The .30 Remington AR, developed in 2008, has been largely overlooked. Its body is over half an inch in diameter and holds 44 grains of water. From 24-inch barrels, 125-grain bullets at 2,800 fps carry 19 percent more energy than a .30-30’s!

Straight walled AR hunting cartridges
Straight-case AR rounds, here the .350 Legend and .450 Bushmaster, are now legal for deer hunting in some areas previously designated “shotgun only.”

The straight case and .357 bullet of Winchester’s .350 Legend make it unique among AR rounds. Factory loaded with bullets of 150, 160 and 180 grains, and a 255-grain subsonic, the Legend is legal deer tender in some areas once designated “shotgun only.” A 180 Power-Point at 2,100 fps brings 1,240 ft-lbs to 100 yards. It’s 22 grains heavier, and more stoutly built, than Winchester JSPs for the .357 Magnum.

Accuracy testing of .350 Legend
Tidy groups from Springfield’s SAINT in the light-recoiling .350 Legend bode well for this deer hunter.

The .450 Bushmaster, introduced in 2008, also has a straight case. Factory-loaded with 250-grain .458 bullets at 2,200 fps, it will take game bigger than deer.

So too the .458 SOCOM (Special Operations Command) which hurls 405-grain Buffalo Bore hard-cast bullets at 1,600 fps from a bottleneck hull. Both deliver the punch (and kick) of .45-70 loads for modern lever rifles and far eclipse original .45-70 ammo.

Rim DiameterHead DiameterBullet DiameterPrimerCase Length
.223 Remington.378.376.224Small rifle1.760
.22 Nosler.378.420.224Small rifle1.760
.224 Valkyrie.378.421.224Small rifle1.600
6mm ARC.441.441.243Small rifle1.490
6.5 Grendel.445.443.264Small rifle1.515
6.8 SPC.422.421.277Small rifle1.686
7.62×39.447.447.309Small rifle1.524
300 BLK.378.376.308Small rifle1.368
.30 Remington AR.473.501.308Large rifle1.530
.350 Legend.378.390.357Small rifle1.710
.450 Bushmaster.473.471.472Small rifle1.703
.458 SOCOM.473.538.458Large rifle1.575

Ballistic Comparisons, AR-15 Commercial Loads

The following ballistic tables were built using factory-provided information. Not all manufacturers specify test barrel length. For valid comparisons, velocity data must be adjusted to compensate for barrels of different lengths.

.223 Rem 55-grain Hornady GMX

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity3250 fps2849 fps2482 fps2144 fps1834 fpsn/a
Energy1290 ft-lbs991 ft-lbs753 ft-lbs561 ft-lbs411 ft-lbsn/a

.22 Nosler 55-grain E-Tip

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity3300 fps2976 fps2665 fps2374 fps2103 fps1849 fps
Energy1339 ft-lbs1082 ft-lbs867 ft-lbs688 ft-lbs540 ft-lbs418 ft-lbs
.22 caliber hunting rounds for AR rifles
Are .22-caliber cartridges the best for AR hunting? Only if deer are your biggest game and the rounds are legal in your state.

.224 Valkyrie Federal 78-grain TSX

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity2850 fps2611 fps2285 fps2170 fps1966 fps1774 fps
Energy1407 ft-lbs1181 ft-lbs985 ft-lbs815 ft-lbs669 ft-lbs545 ft-lbs

6mm ARC Hornady 103-grain ELD-X

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity2800 fps2625 fps2450 fps2285 fps2120 fps1970 fps
Energy1795 ft-lbs1540 ft-lbs1375 ft-lbs1185 ft-lbs1025 ft-lbs880 ft-lbs

6.5 Grendel Hornady 123-grain SST

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity2580 fps2410 fps2247 fps2090 fps1940 fps1796 fps
Energy1818 ft-lbs1586 ft-lbs1379 ft-lbs1193 ft-lbs1028 ft-lbs881 ft-lbs

6.8 SPC 115-grain BTHP

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity2625 fps2365 fps2119 fps1889 fps1676 fps1484 fps
Energy1759 ft-lbs1428 ft-lbs1147 ft-lbs911 ft-lbs717 ft-lbs562 ft-lbs

7.62×39 Hornady 123-grain SST

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity2350 fps2040 fps1756 fps1503 fps1290 fpsn/a
Energy1508 ft-lbs1136 ft-lbs842 ft-lbs617 ft-lbs454 ft-lbsn/a
Note: Hornady specified testing was conducted with a 20″ barrel.
300 BLK vs. 450 Bushmaster
Dwarfed by the .450 Bushmaster, the .300 Blackout (left) is efficient, sends 135-grain bullets at 2,085 fps and offers heavier subsonic loads too.

300 BLK Hornady 135-grain FTX

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity2085 fps1811 fps1564 fps1350 fps1170 fpsn/a
Energy1303 ft-lbs983 ft-lbs733 ft-lbs564 ft-lbs435 ft-lbsn/a
Note: Hornady specified testing was conducted with a 16″ barrel.

.30 Rem AR Remington 150-grain Core-Lokt

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity2575 fps2303 fps2047 fps1812 fps1591 fps1394 fps
Energy2208 ft-lbs1765 ft-lbs1395 ft-lbs1093 ft-lbs843 ft-lbs643 ft-lbs
Note: Remington stated the ammo testing was conducted with a 24″ barrel.

.350 Legend Winchester 180-grain Power Point

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity2100 fps1762 fps1466 fps1230 fps1068 fpsn/a
Energy1762 ft-lbs1240 ft-lbs859 ft-lbs604 ft-lbs458 ft-lbsn/a
.450 Bushmaster vs. 243 ammunition
Despite its short case, the .450 Bushmaster (left) holds 10 percent more powder than the .243. Warning: it kicks harder.

.450 Bushmaster Federal 300-grain Soft Point

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity1900 fps1602 fps1346 fps1153 fps1028 fpsn/a
Energy2405 ft-lbs1708 ft-lbs1208 ft-lbs885 ft-lbs703 ft-lbsn/a

.458 SOCOM Buffalo Bore 405-grain Hard Cast

Muzzle Velocity100 yards200 yards300 yards400 yard500 yards
Velocity1600 fps1328 fps1128 fps1006 fps924 fpsn/a
Energy2302 ft-lbs1585 ft-lbs1144 ft-lbs909 ft-lbs767 ft-lbsn/a

So, What’s the Best?

I asked two colleagues with vast experience firing and gunsmithing AR-15s: “What if you could have just one…”

Silence ensued.

Then: “One AR? What alternate universe are you living in?” Both men conceded a ballistic edge to the 6mm ARC. Both also gave high marks to the .223, as it grew up with the rifle, benefitting from six decades of refinement and a plethora of new bullets, powders and factory loads.

“A magazine full of .223s is also lots lighter than one stuffed with 6.5s or .30s,” they agreed, adding that “the .223 and the Blackout use sturdy, cheap, military magazines.”

But not everywhere is the .223 thought a big game round. Like other centerfire .22s, it’s not legal for deer hunting where I live.

“The 6.5 Grendel is a hit with hunters around my digs,” said David. “Affordable Wolf steel-case ammo gave it a lift. Those long 110-grain FMJs, with a big air pocket up front, unhinges coyotes.” He’s used bullet of 90 to 144 grains.

.450 Bushmaster vs .458 SOCOM vs. .45-70
Both the .450 Bushmaster (left) and .458 SOCOM (center) pack a lot more wallop than the classic .45-70 Govt (right) loads.

“Bill Alexander, who developed the Grendel, was right to favor 123s.” He added: “If the Grendel has a liability, it is its thin-walled magazines, necessary to fit standard wells.”

“I’ve never had a 6.5 Grendel that didn’t feed perfectly with 6.5 Grendel magazines,” Patrick told me. “But I prefer the Blackout. Very pleasant with subsonic loads. With 115s it performs like the 7.62×39 but taps a much broader range of high-quality bullets.”  

Still, “best” depends on the task, and “all-around” is a vague concept until you know the extremes and can rank the attributes.

Hunting regulations matter too. Need a straight case? On this list, only the .350 Legend and .450 Bushmaster qualify! But bullets for the Bushmaster and .458 SOCOM are heavier than needed when not swatting elk or moose. You get steep arcs and brutal recoil.

.473″ of the Bushmaster vs. the .458 SOCOM
To bring its rim diameter to the AR-15-friendly .473″ of the Bushmaster, the .458 SOCOM’s (right) is rebated.

I’m sweet on the 6mm ARC, perhaps predictably. Hunting and in competition, bolt rifles were my lot for decades. I don’t use rifles at night and seldom fire them lickety-split. I don’t load them for self-defense. Cartridge weight matters not in five-round magazines.

The ARC won’t trump the Grendel or SPC at the distances I’ll fire on deer. But its efficient bullets will endanger plates too far to smack with its competition. If the ammunition is on back-order, and handloads with 100-grain hunting bullets cycle as smoothly in an AR-15 as the .223 and .300 Blackout, the 6mm ARC should top my roster as the best AR15 caliber for hunting!

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Wayne van Zwoll

Wayne van Zwoll

Over the past 40 years, Wayne van Zwoll has published 16 books and nearly 3,000 magazine articles on firearms, optics, ballistics and big game hunting. A competitive rifleman with two state smallbore titles, he's served as a coach and volunteer Hunter Education Instructor in five states. He has hunted worldwide, worked as a big game guide in the West and, with African Professional Hunters, hosted more than a dozen safaris. He's found time to run marathons and earn a Ph.D. in wildlife policy. Wayne lives in rural Washington state.

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