There will always be a lever gun in my closet, but there will always be an AR keeping it company.
By Richard Mann
When my father purchased his first deer rifle, I was only 8 years old. Up until that time, Dad hunted with either a borrowed rifle or his Winchester Model 12 shotgun. As with most honest, hard-working Americans, he eventually reached a point financially where he could purchase something he'd long wanted. I remember as if it happened yesterday going to the gun shop with him to pick up his rifle.
The rifle he selected was a Winchester Model 100 in .243 Winchester. It was similar in appearance to the M1 Garand and M1 Carbine he trusted his life to in Korea. Sure, the cartridge was different, but its operation and feel were familiar.
I watched my father make some incredible shots on groundhogs with that gun, and he always got his deer. Never mind the fact he never put a riflescope on it.
In this country, sporting rifles have historically been influenced a great deal by war. Rifles used during the American Revolution and the Civil War were later used to feed families. Soldiers who trusted the 1903 Springfield during World War I came home and customized those rifles. They also fell in love with the cartridge it was chambered for: the .30-06. The German Mauser won the respect of the American GI in both wars, and it was also heavily customized here at home. It's not surprising that today's veterans have an affinity for the AR.
For traditionalists who believe the spirit of a rifle can only be held deep within the marriage of hand-rubbed walnut and blued steel, the AR can be a hard pill to swallow. I'm no different. There has not been, and never will be, a rifle that can touch my soul and warm my hands like Grandpa's beaten old .30-30. But machines - rifles - evolve faster than we do.
With some things, we readily accept change. Few would give up their iPhone for a rotary phone, and I doubt anyone would trade their 55-inch flat screen TV for a black-and-white model. We warm quickly to advancements in luxury and convenience.
An AR is like a smartphone in that can do many things. Its versatility is unmatched. By simply changing upper receivers, you can go from a coyote-calling rifle in .204 Ruger to a 300-plus-yard big game rifle in .30 Rem AR. Or slap on a .22 Long Rifle upper, and you have a squirrel rifle.
You should also ignore all the hogwash about the .223 Remington - the original AR-15 cartridge - not being enough for deer. With the right ammo like the 62-grain Fusion, Remington's 62-grain Core-Lokt Ultra or any of the Barnes Triple Shock bullets, the .223 Rem is every bit as deer-capable as a .30-30 Win. Anyone who tells you different has never tried it or simply can't shoot well. And contrary to popular belief that the .223 Remington is not legal for deer hunting in most states, my last count showed 38 states now allow it.
There are other options, even if you don't consider the AR-10, which will handle any cartridge based on the .308 Win case. The versatility of the AR-15 allows options like the 6.8 Remington SPC cartridge, which for all practical purposes is the ballistic equivalent of the .250 Savage. There's also the .300 Blackout with .30-30 performance. And my favorite AR cartridge, the .30 Remington AR, is a ballistic twin to the honored and trusted .300 Savage.
When it comes time to teach a youngster to shoot, no other rifle can compare to the adjustability and versatility of the AR. Smith & Wesson's lightweight M&P 15-22 is a great starter gun due to its 4-pound heft and the ability to mount any optic with ease. You can switch between open sights, a red dot sight and a conventional scope in seconds. Both of my young daughters are learning on one.
My son took his first deer with a high-end custom bolt-action rifle that had been cut down to fit him. Normally, that wouldn't have been an option, but I had the gun on loan for an article. The next year, with no custom kid's gun to use, he switched to an AR and took his second deer at age 7. It was a one shot, one kill deal. Three years later in Texas, he got behind an AR and took a trio of wild hogs. He had grown, and the AR grew with him.
I've taken a truckload of feral pigs with AR-15s and AR-10s in a variety of chamberings. The controllability of the rifle and the fast follow-up shots have made up for bad shooting and in a few cases, allowed multiple kills. In low light when you need night vision optics, illumination or lasers, you'll find no other rifle that interfaces as well with those accessories.
But the AR isn't just a hog rifle. In 2010, I hunted with a Remington R-15 almost exclusively. I started in Wyoming by taking a pronghorn at 413 steps with a .30 Rem AR cartridge loaded with a 110-grain Barnes Tipped Triple Shock bullet. Then I headed to Texas and whacked a nice desert muley and a Del Carmen whitetail using that same rifle and Remington's 125-grain AccuTip. Finally, at home in the hills of West Virginia, I took my first Eastern black bear by spot and stalk with the same rifle. A 150-grain Nosler AccuBond punched through the bear's shoulders at 130 yards.
All that said, let me go on record as saying I've never picked up an AR and felt something stir deep in my hunter's soul. An AR has never helped recall a childhood hunting memory or left the scent of boot grease and a hunter's breakfast in my nose. When I pick up an AR, I feel something different - that I have a very capable tool in my hands, a precision engineered instrument capable of allowing me to shoot to my potential. I also feel firmly connected to an even more important American tradition.
Some argue an AR is not a traditional hunting/sporting rifle at all. Well, it depends on how you look at it. Would American settlers have thought a lever-action .30-30 was traditional compared to their Pennsylvania, Kentucky or Tennessee muzzleloading rifles? Would an Old West buffalo hunter think a Browning BAR or a Remington 700 compared to his Sharps rifle?
Look at it another way. Early hunters dressed in drab or plaid wool and canvas and wore leather boots. Some consider that traditional. Modern hunters head to the timber dressed in synthetic fabrics covered in high-tech camo patterns. They carry a GPS, take photos of game using trail cameras, and even use electronic calls. These hunters are no less traditionalists than those who carry an AR. Hunters have always gravitated to the tools that make them more successful.
The AR is traditional in the sense it carries on the custom of soldiers who came home from war wanting to hunt with a rifle similar to the one that kept them alive. It doesn't matter how the rifle looks, what it is made of, or what some old grouchy gun writer says. It is the American sporting rifle tradition.
When I shoot or hunt with an AR, I feel like a free American. It helps me connect with the idea that, at least for now, I can legally own a rifle. And firearm ownership is what differentiates a citizen from a subject.
No, there's no walnut or blued steel, and a cowboy never carried anything like an AR-10 or 15. But a cowboy never fought terrorists or owned a repeating rifle that can match what can be done with an AR.
The beauty of the AR (America's Rifle) is that buying, owning, shooting or hunting with one does not mean you have to give up on your other guns. I own more lever and bolt rifles than ARs. I still hunt with them, too, especially when I want to connect to something special in my past. There will always be a lever gun in my closet, but there will always be an AR keeping it company. The AR represents the evolution of the rifle and this country. It represents an American tradition. It represents freedom, and that's reason enough for me.