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Rifle Test on a Prairie Dog Shoot
written by Jason Baird

Author Jason Baird puts an AR-15 style gun in a head-to-head contest against a bolt-action rifle on a South Dakota varmint hunt. Find out how each firearm fared on this family prairie-dog shoot.
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Prarie Dog Shoot
The prairie surrounding the lodge was grand -- beautiful rolling hills with very few trees -- perfect for challenging long-range shots at little targets. Photo by Jason Baird

A well-known outdoor writer was hoist by his own petard a couple of years ago, causing a firestorm of criticism when he wrote a blog piece about his dismay at folks using "assault rifles" for hunting. He ruminated that they aren't "sporting rifles," that their only real use was in terrorism, and that they should be "banned from the praries (sic) and woods."

Well, he soon went through a forced re-education process and recanted his view in order to regain some of his professional status. Beginning with his misuse of the term "assault rifle" (a select-fire weapon that can fire fully automatic bursts, as opposed to the semi-automatic rifles used for hunting),  and ending with his idea that these guns should be banned because of their mass-media-driven image, he had it wrong.

Ever since, I've had it in the back of my mind that I should try using an AR-15 type gun in a head-to-head contest against a "sporting firearm" bolt-action rifle (a design which, by the way, originated as a weapon of war) for varmint hunting.

The opportunity for comparison arose this summer, when my wife and I decided to attend her parents' wedding anniversary. My wife's sister and her husband have a hunting lodge in Winner, South Dakota, and the original plan was for everyone to meet at the lodge for the celebration. Winner is in the middle of good prairie dog shooting territory in the  state's central region, and we arranged to shoot the dogs on some nearby ranches while we were staying at the lodge. It turned-out that the anniversary celebration moved to another location, but my wife, a son and his fiancee, and another of my sons joined me for a couple of 'dog shooting sessions on those ranches. The prairie surrounding the lodge was grand -- beautiful rolling hills with very few trees except around farm buildings and homesteads, with a little scrub brush along the creek bottoms, and perfect for challenging long-range shots at little targets.

Our group favored the semi-auto guns due to the quick follow-up shots they allowed. Photo by Jason Baird

The prairie dog shoot was a first for each of us, and we weren't really sure how much we'd enjoy it. None of us had used an AR-type gun for hunting before, and our experience with this type of gun ranged from quite a bit to none at all. This was a good opportunity to see how shooters of vastly different experience levels adapted to using these guns for hunting.

I selected three guns to take to South Dakota. In deference to the aforementioned outdoor writer, I chose a bolt-action Winchester M70 in .223 WSSM caliber, with 62-grain handloads for ammunition. On the AR side, we had two semi-auto guns in .223 Remington/5.56 mm NATO caliber -- a Smith & Wesson M&P15 PC semi-auto and a Bushmaster XM-15 Varminter. I didn't have time to handload the volume of ammo I anticipated the semi-autos would need, so I bought 1000 rounds of 75-grain HP match ammunition for us to use.

We took two portable shooting tables (one with a rifle rest), plastic chairs, a laser rangefinder, binoculars, water, snacks and umbrellas with us on the shoot. Since one of the tables didn't have a rifle rest, I mounted a bipod on the S&W rifle for use with that table.

My wife and my son's fiancee didn't have much experience using scopes on rifles, so I spent a little time at the start of our first shooting session explaining how to use a scope. It isn't as easy as those of us who have been using one for most of our lives would expect. Also, I found that it is frustrating for a novice to try and fail to use something that everyone else seems to think is simple.

It turns-out that the little bit of time invested in explaining and demonstrating how to use a rifle scope paid-off; my wife had the longest successful shot of the hunt -- a kill at a rangefinder-measured 403 meters from the firing point. Not bad, for a novice using a "terrorist rifle" on a very small target!

Picking-out the little buggers at these ranges can be tough, but with the right equipment it is an enjoyable challenge. Photo by Barb Baird

There were no rifle or ammunition failures of any kind during the shoot. The semi-auto rifles were the favorites, hands-down, compared to the bolt-action rifle. Perhaps if my bolt gun had been a heavier, varmint-type action shooting .223 ammunition, instead of a lightweight gun firing super short magnum rounds, it would have fared better. I doubt it, because we favored the semi-auto guns due to the quick follow-up shots they allowed. Operating the bolt on a bolt gun tends to move the gun/scope system enough that the shooter often loses sight of the little targets through the scope, so follow-up shots were rare using the bolt gun.

The bullets we were using were well-matched to the twist rates of the barrels; as a general rule, heavier bullets are longer in a given caliber than lighter bullets of similar composition. Those longer, heavier bullets need a faster twist rate for optimum stabilization. If you have an older AR rifle with a slower twist rate that was designed for the 55-grain military ball round, that is why it won't shoot the newer high-performance heavy bullets as accurately as a faster barrel will shoot.

Any preferences among us for one semi-auto gun or the other focused on the barrel length and appearance, and the handguard appearance. Otherwise, there was no apparent difference between the AR-type guns. I think my son and his fiancee preferred the shiny stainless steel barreled S&W gun, and I preferred the longer, fluted barrel and vented handguard of the Bushmaster. My wife and other son didn't seem to have a preference.

Another thing that might have biased my opinion was the relative amount of "play" between the upper and lower receivers of the semi-auto guns. These receiver parts of AR-type guns are held together by their machining tolerances and two takedown pins. The Bushmaster had no "play" at all between the receivers, while the S&W had a bit of it. Also, the S&W gun's lower receiver was machined internally in such a way that the small rubber plugs that can be bought to wedge behind the rear takedown pin and the receiver would not fit. Nevertheless, the "play" had no effect on the gun's accuracy or operation as far as we could tell.

We had a very enjoyable shoot. The family time we spent getting ready for the shoot, shooting, spotting prairie dogs for each other with binoculars, and wandering the wide-open spaces of South Dakota left us with many unforgettable memories. I hope we can retrace our steps sometime.


Winchester Model 70 Super Shadow

  • Barrel: 22"
  • Barrel Twist: 1 in 10"
  • Trigger: Single-stage 3.5 lb
  • Composite stock
  • Overall Length: 41 "
  • Empty weight: 6 lbs.
  • MSRP $576.00
  • Accessories:Talley one-piece rings, Leupold Mark IV 4.5-14x40mm LR/T Target riflescope with Mil Dot reticle

S&W M&P 15 PC

  • Barrel: 20" stainless steel barrel in the white
  • Barrel Twist: 1 in 8"
  • Unvented  handguard
  • Overall Length: 38.5"
  • Empty weight: 8.3 lbs.
  • MSRP $ 1880.00
  • Accessories: LaRue Tactical SPR/M4 Scope Mount QD LT-104, Leupold VX-III 4.5-14X40mm Long Range Riflescope with Varmint Hunter's reticle, Magpul P-Mag 20 round magazines, Keng's VersaPod bipod

Bushmaster XM-15 Varminter

  • Barrel: 24" fluted 4150 chrome moly vanadium steel
  • Barrel Twist: 1 in 9"
  • Vented handguard
  • Overall Length: 42.25 "
  • Empty weight: 8.4 lbs.
  • MSRP $1360.00
  • Accessories: LaRue Tactical SPR/M4 Scope Mount QD LT-104, Leupold VX-III 4.5-14X40mm LR riflescope with Varmint Hunter's reticle, Magpul P-Mag 20 round magazines

AR-type rifle common features: semi-auto (only) 5.56 mm NATO / .223 Rem with detachable AR-type magazines, A2-type buttstock, rubber-coated pistol grip, two-stage 4.5 lb match trigger, no flash hider, fully-floated handguard, recessed crowned muzzle, and aluminum alloy receiver with forward assist

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