By Craig Boddington
Honestly, I’m not crazy about the term “modern sporting rifle.” On the other hand, it’s like fingernails on a blackboard when I hear semiautomatic sporting rifles described as “assault rifles.” Unless one has a Class III license for a fully automatic firearm there is no such thing as a legal civilian-owned “assault rifle.” So while I deplore and abhor the misuse of any firearm, and, like all sane people in the world, I feel terrible about the Connecticut tragedy, I hate it when we can’t get the terms right. “AR” doesn’t work, either. There are dozens of manufacturers making semiautomatic sporting rifles-modern sporting rifles, if you will-that have frames and actions relatively faithful to the AR15 and AR10…but there are also significant variations as well as other semiautomatic actions.
Whatever you call them (so long as it isn’t “assault rifle”), there’s no question but that this type of rifle has become amazingly popular. In order to understand why you simply need to take one of these rifles to the range. My personal preference runs toward walnut and blued steel or, in tough country and bad weather, stainless steel and synthetic. I’m mostly a bolt-action guy, but I also like single shots and lever actions. In 31 years in the Marines I spent a lot of time with M16A1s and M16A2s (which, having fully automatic capability, are by definitionassault rifles)-but, lacking the sleek looks and smooth handling of the sporting rifles I have always preferred, I can honestly say I never got attached to them.
Until recently, as a California resident, I was not able to own (or bring in temporarily for testing) the majority of the modern sporting rifles. But I am not stating that I didn’t “get it.” At writers’ gatherings and shooting events I’ve had plenty of exposure to the modern sporting rifle. Now, as a Kansas resident, I’ve spent quality time on my home range with several different makes and variations. Heck, I even used one in .308 Winchester in the whitetail season just past.
We are all allowed our own personal preferences, and I seriously doubt that my gut-level preference will ever sway from good walnut and blued steel-most often in a bolt action. But I do understand the many modern shooters who are head over heels over the modern sporting rifle. What’s not to like? At the beginning they fouled quickly and weren’t very reliable, but chrome plating and the bolt-assist lever fixed that. For years they weren’t considered especially accurate, but good barrels fix that. The military-style carrying handle on the upper receiver was a bit of a problem for typical sporting optics and sights, but a rail mount fixed that, so today you can install whatever scopes or sights you want. Today’s modern sporting rifle is reliable, accurate, and a whole lot of fun to shoot.
As a sporting rifle in .223 Remington form it made its bones as a varmint rifle, but the .223 is a bit light for deer and isn’t legal for big game in many jurisdictions. The big brother on the AR10 and similar frames is fully capable…but, although I used such a rifle this past deer season, it’s a bit too heavy for use in steep or rough country. Now we have lots of options, with several excellent new cartridges designed to fit into the AR15 frame: For deer-sized game at medium range, 6.5 Grendel, 6.8 SPC, .300 Whisper, and more. For black bear and wild hogs at close range: .450 Bushmaster and .50 Beowulf. The larger AR10 frame can be adapted to pretty much the full range of cartridges based on the .308 Winchester case, which includes .243 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, and .338 Federal. It takes a bit more work, but the frame can also handle Remington’s 7mm and .300 Short Action Ultra Mags. Rifles from many companies have interchangeable upper receivers, allowing multiple calibers on the same basic stock and action.
So, while we don’t yet have a modern sporting rifle that is perfect for our largest bears or ideal for serious mountain hunting, there are options for most hunting purposes, from varmints at least through elk and moose. And if you’re a paper-puncher rather than a hunter, the world of the modern sporting rifle is your oyster. With good barrels and good ammo the accuracy can be amazing. In recent months I’ve had the chance to play with several of these rifles at my Kansas range, and they really will rival the accuracy of good bolt actions in similar price ranges. You’re not alone if you don’t understand the attraction…but before passing judgment spend a bit of time on a range with a modern sporting rifle. Or semiautomatic sporter. You’ll find there’s very little not to like!
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