Wednesday, January 9, 2013

2012 Deer Season - Part 3, The AR Deer

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my goals for the 2012 deer season was to shoot my first deer with my AR15. In my New Year's post, I let the cat out of the bag by sharing that I did indeed achieve that goal. Today, I tell the story.

My Thanksgiving weekends are usually made up of three main things - eating, watching football, and deer hunting. 2012 was no different. I deer hunted Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

Gary with his monster 11-pointer.
Myself and my hunting buddies, Dennis and Gary, were in the woods at 6 a.m. just before daylight broke on Saturday morning November 24th. We had barely gotten settled in good for the morning hunt when Gary shot at 6:30. I could see him in his treestand from my perch on top of a hill where I was tucked up under a cedar tree hoping to allude the eyes of any deer. It was the same perch I had shot the two does from on opening day of muzzleloader season just three weeks earlier. I watched Gary climb down out of his stand and a few minutes later he got on the radio letting us know that he had shot a monster buck. It turned out to be the largest deer, an 11-pointer, to ever come off the property we were hunting. I was proud of him. He has been trying and hoping for a deer like this for years. Gary was on Cloud 9. The deer was huge. I would have been floating, too.

Dennis and I decided to hunt for a couple of more hours. About 8:30, I see a deer coming toward me from the direction where Gary had been hunting. It's a good size deer, but it's a buck with 2-points on his left antler and his right antler is broken off about two inches up from his head. Apparently, the little dude got into a fight with a bigger buck, and it didn't turn out too good for him. I know immediately, I'm letting him walk hoping he will stick around for a couple of years and grow up.

Then, I hear something moving through the woods to my left. I know by the sound that it's a deer. I turn to my left and see a doe trotting through the woods headed toward this little buck. I know when she exits the woods, she will be about 70-75 yards away offering a perfect, easy shot. I had let the buck pass, but she's not gonna be so lucky. I've spent a lot of time studying ballistics on various .223 cartridges for over a year. I've also spent quite a bit of time at the range. Now, it's time for the payoff.

The doe stops beside a cedar tree I had ranged at 75 yards earlier in the morning. This is a piece of cake. I flip the safety off and squeeze the trigger. The AR barks, the doe buckles a little, and then takes off running for the cedar thicket below me. Crap. This is not gonna be a fun tracking job. The little buck wonders around in front of me, apparently not realizing what just happened to his "girlfriend." I think, "Dude, you better wise up, or you're not gonna live long enough to become a trophy buck."

When the AR bug bit me in the fall of 2011, I started doing my homework to decide which one would be best for me. I planned to use an AR for 3 things - target shooting, deer hunting, and home defense. Depending on who you talk to, you will get varying opinions on using an AR chambered in .223 for deer. I've read stories of guys using them effectively on large mule deer, so I figured it was enough for whitetails. I also knew from all the internet research I had done, and from talking to folks who had owned AR's for a while, that if I was gonna use one for deer hunting, I needed to use heavier weight .223 bullets in it. When I say heavier, I mean 62+ grains or heavier, not the standard 55. My research also showed me that in order to shoot the heavier bullets, I needed a faster twist barrel, such as 1:7, instead of the standard 1:9 in order to stablilize the heavier bullets adequately for the best accuracy.

I made a list of all the various AR manufacturers, including Armalite, DPMS, Bushmaster, Sig, Colt, Stag, Del-Ton, Rock River, etc. For each manufacturer, I went through and made another list consisting of the ARs they made that a scope could be mounted on easily, that weighed 7 pounds or less, had a 1:7 twist barrel, and had a lifetime warranty. I quickly eliminated all of them except Colt, Stag, and Sig. I then eliminated Colt, because they were more expensive and out of my budget range. That left Sig and Stag. I like Sig handguns a lot, so my first priority became to go look at a Sig AR.

I went and looked at two different Sig AR models - the M400 and the 516. I decided the 516 was too heavy and the M400's trigger was lousy. AR weight and trigger feel was very important in my decision. I've spoke of my muscular dystrophy many times on this blog. Due to that disease, I felt like the AR would be a great hunting weapon for me, due to the design's lightweight and compactness. It would be easier for someone like me to tote around in the woods and fields. Additionally, I wanted the trigger to be smooth, with no takeup, and pull weight to be less than six pounds. These characteristics would help with accuracy. I felt like if I was gonna use a smaller caliber round, like the .223, accuracy was even more important - bullet placement was everything. So, I was a little disappointed with the lousy trigger on the Sig M400. I knew I could change out the trigger, if I wanted. However, I had read horror stories about aftermarket triggers. Now, I'm down to the Stag.

Stag Arms had been making AR parts for the other AR manufacturers for years, but a few years ago they decided to start making complete guns. One of their newest models was what they referred to as the Model 3. It was a flat top which made scope mounting easy, only weighed six pounds, and could be ordered with the 1:7 rifle twist in something they called the "Plus Package." I found one at a local gun shop, looked at it, loved it, and ordered one with the Plus Package. Once I started shooting it, I loved it even more.

So, back to the doe. I had also done my homework on various .223 cartridges, as I mentioned earlier. I had settled on two possibilities for deer hunting - a 69 grain Remington and a 75 grain Hornady. At the range, the Remington provided the tightest groups. This round had worked well on deer for me in other calibers, so I decided to start with it.

Dennis, Gary, and I started looking for the doe. There was no blood where she was standing at the shot. However, she had lurched and stumbled when I fired before taking off running for the woods. I knew I had hit her and felt good about the placement. Dennis found some blood, a small amount, about twenty yards from where she had been shot. We began following the trail, finding a little here, and a little there. The blood trail was minimal at best. Occasionally, the blood trail would stop, and we would have to spend several minutes trying to pick it back up. After some 45 minutes of tracking the blood trail stopped. We couldn't find it again. I began to have flashbacks to the doe I had lost in 2010 after shooting it with my crossbow. I was beginning to feel sick. I couldn't bear the thought of losing another deer. I just couldn't.

The "AR Deer" - November 24, 2012
I said a few prayers, and a few minutes later Dennis yelled, "Dead deer !" He had found her ... finally. Thank God. We had been searching for an hour. I got over to her and saw that I had hit the deer perfectly - right behind the front leg, about halfway up the body. However, there was basically no entrance wound and the exit wound was smaller than a dime. When Dennis field dressed her, we saw that I had gotten a double lung hit. So, she shouldn't have run that far. What had happened ? Despite all the research I had done and found where others had great success with the .223, I didn't feel like my experience on this day was bearing all that out. Either the bullet didn't have enough punch, or this deer was just tough and had a great will to live. She had ran 100 yards from where I shot her before dying. I had never had a deer run more than 50 after being shot with other firearms. This was not acceptable to me.

I was relieved that we found her. I had accomplished my goal of getting a deer with my AR. She was my fourth deer of 2012 tying my personal best for number of deer shot in a single season. I had also gotten four in 2007 and 2008. However, questions remained about the .223's feasibility for deer hunting. I now had a decision to make, and three questions were going through my mind :
  1. Do I stick with it in hopes that this deer was just tough ? 
  2. Should I only take neck shots with the AR ?
  3. Should I try the 75 grain Hornady ?
After a ton of thought, prayer, and looking at ballistics charts again, my decision was to try the 75 grain Hornady next. If I had the problem again, I would re-evaluate ... again. I felt that the Hornady might be more successful, since it was a little faster and a little heavier. The problem was that my deer sightings had slowed down drastically. In the first four days of muzzleloader season, I saw 7 deer and shot 3 of them. Since I shot "The Election Day Buck," the two deer I saw on this day were the only ones I had seen. Would I even get another chance with the AR in 2012 ?

I sure hoped so. I needed to settle this ".223 Issue," but only time would tell.
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