Michael Pearce

AR-style .223 works great on Kansas deer hunt

I was once skeptical of AR-style rifles as a hunting gun, and if the .223 cartridge was big enough for whitetails. Both proved me wrong Thursday morning on a doe hunt.
I was once skeptical of AR-style rifles as a hunting gun, and if the .223 cartridge was big enough for whitetails. Both proved me wrong Thursday morning on a doe hunt. The Wichita Eagle

I stand corrected. I was wrong, and I’ll gladly admit it and eat my words without any seasonings or sauces.

Actually, I’ll save both of those for the venison from the whitetail doe I shot with an AR-style .223 Thursday morning.

Raised reading such old school gun writers as Jack O’Connor and Jim Carmichel, I’d long “known” that semi-automatic rifles lacked the accuracy of bolt actions. Hey, the reason they had those big magazines was because it was rare to hit something with the first shot from an autoloader, right?.

And I’d been raised under the assumption that it took a bullet of at least .24, like a .243 or 6 mm, to take down a Kansas whitetail deer. After all, the first 40 -plus years we had Kansas deer seasons those were about the minimum calibers allowed by law.

Then, things began to change my way of thinking.

First, I started reading some pretty impressive reports to the accuracy obtained from AR-style semi-automatic rifles. When I noticed American snipers were using them in Iraq that really got my attention. After all, these guys could probably get about any rifle they want for their jobs of saving American lives by taking those of people who would love to kill them.

As per caliber, need to control the nation’s highest whitetail deer density up at Shawnee Mission Park brought up that the teams of specially-trained shooters used to reduce deer populations often use the .223, which barely seems half the size of the .30-06, .270 or 7-mm magnum that I, and most of my family and friends, mostly use on deer hunts.

And then I also started talking with my friend Richard Hale. As well as an Ottawa dentist, Richard is one of the most dedicated students of firearms and hunting I’ve ever met. His experience includes gargantuan bull elephants and Alaskan coastal grizzlies bigger than a lot of buffalo. Richard’s collection of squirrel rifles is more impressive than entire firearm collections of most very avid hunters I know. You name the caliber, going on up to what’s appropriate for all of Africa’s dangerous game, and he probably has several of the best made guns for that round.

So, his favorite cartridge for hunting whitetails? He’s shooting an ARish .223.

My question of accuracy was instantly answered when he started telling me of groups around three inches at 600 meters from his favored rifle. He swore the round coming from that custom gun is a deadly as it is accurate. Thousands of deer a year, he assured me, get taken with the .223 across America. For years it’s been legal in a lot of states, including most that border Kansas. Richard had successfully used the round dozens of times when helping on depredation programs in Kansas.

Ok, I’d told him, I know he’s a great enough shot to just use the round for taking neck and brain shots, instantly taking out animal’s central nervous system. But what about other shots?

I’d used a .22 rimfire to instantly euthanize 800 pound suffering steers on our farm, and watched hogs and beef dropped humanely at the processing plant in town. Still, that danged sure didn’t mean a .22 rimfire is a great big game load. I was almost as hesitant about the .223.

Richard assured me the load he uses, with a 77-grain Sierra Match King bullet, had no problems with body shots on deer-sized animals. Several times, he said, he or his family had put the bullet completely through the shoulders or other part of the body of a nice-sized whitetail.

With one permit for a whitetail doe remaining in my pocket, amid Thursday’s below-zero windchills we headed out so I could give the rifle a try. I’m not proud of the fact that I hadn’t fired the rifle before the hunt, something I preach against when I’m taking someone afield with one of my rifles. The previous evening Richard had given me a detailed tutorial on the safety system and how the rifle operated. He let me dry-fire the rifle a few times so I cold get a feel for the trigger. It was one of the better triggers I’ve ever tried.

We started shivering and watching a field of unharvested soybeans, then started sneaking around, letting the howling wind cover any sounds of our walking. A little after 8 a.m. we peaked around an intersection on a farm road and saw two does about 125 yards away.

I snapped the rifle’s bi-pod down and was quickly prone. By then Richard had judged the right doe to be the best. A shot to the neck was tempting on the doe quartering at us. Instead, I tucked the bullet just inside the closest front leg.

The suppressor on the rifle sounded no louder than an open book being slammed together. We knew the doe wouldn’t go far after bolting at the shot. We found it about 70 yards away, about the average distance for a good heart shot. The bullet appeared to have gotten both lungs, too, so the doe had probably gone down in less than five seconds.

Working the venison off the body, I found that the bullet hadn’t exited. That can make recovery tough because there’s often not a blood trail to follow. The bullet had probably been stopped by the thick hide back by the deer’s flank.

In a way that was disappointing, but not totally surprising. A few days earlier by young friend, Jacob Holem, had shot a doe standing at the same angle, at about half the distance with a much larger .25-06. It, too, didn’t have an exit hole or leave any blood. Some say the angle of the bullet striking the thick hide makes it easier to keep moving just beneath the hide rather than cutting through.

This spring, between turkey hunts and crappie fishing trips, Richard wants to take me to his long-distance range so I can test the rifle’s accuracy out to 600 meters or even further. That will be fun and educational. Maybe he’ll even let me shoot a doe or three with same rifle next January.

I still have no plans of replacing the .30-06 with which fill doe permits with a .223. But hey, if you’re wanting to do your whitetail hunting with the round have fun. I’m sure if you can your job, at least a 77-grain bullet from a .223 can do its, too.