I’ll always have an accurate bolt-action .223, but the capabilities of a well built AR-15 have changed my thinking, as well as the contents of my gun safe. A few years back I maintained a 26″ Remington VSSF Model 700, as well as lighter “walking varminter” – a 20″ Model Seven. Both shot well and the M-700 was a true .5 MOA performer. However, experience with several varmint-type AR-15s confirmed reports of stellar accuracy – a surprising twist considering the supposed inferior accuracy of semi-automatics.
Around 15 years ago I owned a Bushmaster V-Match. It shot below .75 MOA with good .223 ammo. Later, we procured a couple Bushmaster 24″ Varminters as tactical over-watch rifles for agency use. Based on their performance I picked up a third personal Varminter. These are flat-tops with free-floated forends, decent triggers, fluted 1×9 barrels and non-threaded muzzles. All consistently shoot right around .65 MOA with good ammo like Hornady 55 grain, and even lighter 40 grain, TAP.
In 2004 a fellow firearms instructor and I drove 2100 miles for a prairie dog shoot. We brought lots of .223 ammo and several bolt-actions, including our heavy-barrel M-700s. We got in a bunch of shooting during a very entertaining three days.
However, when engaging hamster-sized targets at 300+ yards wind is a significant factor. A miss will will kick up dust, which helps determine the correct hold for follow-up shots. Relocating these small targets can be tough after running a bolt. It takes time, resulting in lost opportunities. At that point we’d been testing various precision AR-15 rifles. It didn’t take us long to realize the advantages offered by fast follow-up shots……..
Scene two, 2009: We were back in the Nebraska Pan Handle for a return engagement. I had my Bushmaster Varminter and Mike had a 24″ Rock River. We each had an ammo can full of 20-round magazines, which are legal for anti-gopher operations. Our plan was to load no more than 5 rounds per magazine in order to maintain cool barrels.
This lasted maybe 5 minutes. Brass was flying and sod poodles were break-dancing. The combination of accurate rifles, Leupold Varmint Hunter reticles, and quick follow-up shots noticeably multiplied the carnage quotient. We did stop for a while on day #2 to uncase our bolt-guns. After less than a box of ammo we were back on the AR-15s, hot barrels and all.
Having watched Mike shoot some incredible groups with his heavy-barreled RR (and because of experience with others), I bought a 24″ upper. It was special ordered with a slower, 1×12, stainless barrel, and has a Wylde chamber. That’s a hybrid SAAMI/NATO cut, and fixes much of the slop associated with a looser mil-spec chamber. Our interest leaned toward light, match-grade .223 bullets calibrated to the highly effective Leupold VH hold-over lines.
Like Mike, I wasn’t disappointed. Groups were on par with our pet HB M-700s, running .5 MOA. This begs the question: Why even bother with our bolt-action varmint rigs? That’s a personal decision. In my case, I condensed the inventory to one in-between, 20″ M-700 Compact Tactical (which was recently reviewed here). Interestingly, my slower-twist 1×12 Rock River fires lighter bullets with accuracy similar to the quicker 1×9 Remington. Go figure.
Since an AR-15 is the ultimate transformer, it’s easy to switch out upper receivers. During winter months I push out two pins and replace the varmint assembly with an 18″ coyote killing upper. Rifled 1×8, it too shoots darned well, in this case with slightly heavier and tougher bullets. The familiar Rock River two-stage match trigger probably doesn’t hurt. The shorter version doubles as a do-all rifle.
Between both iterations I’m able to enjoy year-round shooting, thanks to this accurate and highly adaptive system.