Pushing The Limits: The Long Range AR-15

The AR-15 is one of America’s most-popular firearms. But can it reach out and touch targets out beyond 1,000 yards?

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posted on August 22, 2022
long range AR-15

The AR-15 is an accurate, easy to shoot rifle that can serve a variety of purposes. One of the reasons for this popularity is because the typical AR-15 uses either .223 or 5.56 NATO ammunition. Both are medium-power rifle cartridges that have low recoil and work well out to 500 yards. However, an AR-15 doesn’t need to stop at 500 yards. With the right gear and ammo choices, it’s possible to create a long range AR-15 that can get hits past 500, 800 or even a 1,000 yards.

This ability to make a standard rifle into a long range AR-15 is due, in no small part, to the unparalleled flexibility of the AR-15 itself. An AR is built from the ground up to be an easily-replaceable system of components. This modularity means that an AR can be adapted to almost any situation, including long-range shooting.

The idea of a long range AR-15 may seem a bit strange at first. However, an AR is capable of getting hits out to 1,000 yards using high quality  .223 ammunition, and newer cartridges such as Federal’s .224 Valkyrie and Hornady’s 6mm ARC mean it is quite possible to get hits on-target beyond 1,000 yards with an AR-15.

Setting Up A Long Range AR-15

To find out just what a long range AR-15 is capable of doing, I signed up for a three day long range rifle class with Wyoming Tactical, and then set about creating an AR that would be equal to the task of running with other, purpose-built precision rifles.

zero target
The rifle and ammo produced a 0.62 inch group at 100 yards. That's sub-MOA accuracy, and should do the trick.

I started with a good foundation, a Wilson Combat Super Sniper AR-15 with a 22.5 inch barrel and a trigger that broke at just over 4 pounds. To improve my check weld on the stock (something that is absolutely vital when using a scope), I swapped out the collapsible stock that came with the gun for a Luth-AR MBA-3 buttstock to give me a comfortable location to rest my head.

I chose to chamber the gun in 224 Valkyrie rather than .233/5.56. 224 Valkyrie uses the same lower and upper as a .223 rifle, but the round itself is optimized for longer ranges than is commonly used by an AR-15. To make sure I was able to see my target at those longer ranges, I topped my rifle with a Leupold Mark 5HD scope with a First Focal Plane reticle marked in minutes of angle (MOA). 

Making The Shot

The first thing I noticed when shooting a long-range AR-15 was how much it felt like every other AR-15 I’ve ever shot. The other rifles I have that are set up for long-distance shooting are either bolt-action guns designed for precision rifle competitions or semi-automatic rifles built on the larger (and heavier) AR-10 platform. The Wilson Combat Super Sniper, on the other hand, looked, acted and felt like any other AR-15 in my gun safe. This gave me an immediate sense of confidence as I settled down behind my optic and started to work out just what performance I could get from a long range AR-15.

The ammo I selected for the class was the Federal Premium Gold Medal 80.5 grain round, topped with a Berger boat-tail bullet. Berger bullets have a well-deserved reputation for long-distance accuracy when in used in larger rifles, so I was curious to see how they would work in an AR-15. After measuring the velocity of my rounds, zeroing my rifle at 100 yards and then working up a starting point for adjusting my aim using a ballistics computer app, it was time to get to work and see what this rifle could do.

First up was engaging known-distance targets out to 500 yards to confirm that what my ballistics app was telling me was correct. I needed to make a few minor adjustments to account for shifting weather and atmospheric conditions, but after those were done, it was time to practice engaging targets out to 1,480 yards, or more than 6/10ths of a mile.

scope reticle
See that little white dot in the lower right quadrant of the scope? That's an 18 inch square plate at 1480 yards.

The rifle, optic and ammo selections I used handled this daunting task with ease. If anything, it was my ability as a shooter that was holding me back. However, when it came time to make shots far beyond 1,000 yards with my long range AR-15, I was able to make them just as easy and quickly as other shooters in the class who were running conventional bolt-action precision rifles. 

This Is Not For Everyone

There are a few caveats about using a long-range AR-15 for something other than range work. The bullet weights of the 224 Valkyrie, 6mm ARC and even .223 cartridges are significantly less than the bullet weight for .308, 6.5 Creedmoor and other larger precision rifle rounds. This means that while it’s possible to hit a target at 1,000 yards or more with a bullet fired from an AR-15, the amount of energy that bullet will have at those distances (and therefore the amount of damage done to the target) is going to be significantly less than larger, heavier bullets.

For instance, according to my ballistic app, the 80.5 grain 224 Valkyrie round I was using has 399 ft.-lbs. of energy at 1,000 yards, or about the same as a 124 grain 9mm +P round has at the muzzle. A 169 grain .308 bullet from an AR-10, on the other hand, has almost 600 ft.-lbs. of energy at that distance, or about the same as some .357 Magnum rounds. What this means is that while you may hit the target at those distances, take great care in choosing your target if you are using a long-range AR-15 as a hunting firearm, and use a round that can achieve an ethical and effective hit on your target.

Precision rifle is a fun and challenging sport, but it can get very expensive. However, the modular nature of an AR-15 means you probably have the beginnings of a long range AR-15 in your gun safe right now. If you’re looking for something different to do with your AR and want to see just how far you can push yourself and your gear, a long range AR-15 might just be your ticket.

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