Varminting AR-15s: Ruger, RRA, Remington, Windham Weaponry
In this match up of semi-autos suitable for walking-around critter hunting, Ruger’s SR-556VT is our pick for its accuracy, great trigger, and ease of cleaning. Rock River’s A4 comes in second.
Coyote hunting has become a popular hunting pursuit, with new specialized rifles and equipment coming out each year. The AR-15 platform itself has become a widespread coyote-killing choice due to its handiness, accuracy, and ability to execute rapid follow-up shots. These rifles usually weigh around 7 pounds (without scope) and have a slender barrel contour. But there is more than one way to skin a coyote, as we found in a recent test.
We shot four rifles we might consider as walking-around varminters, the first being the Remington R-15 VTR Predator Carbine chambered in 223 Remington, $999, which we bought at an Academy Sporting Goods store in Houston more than a year ago (SKU #421833447, UPC 00047700601069). A recent store check didn’t turn up any more of the all-black version tested here, but it is the same mechanically as the still-cataloged #60003 in the Remington line, which has an Advantage MAX-1 HD camouflage skin. This was our first look at the R-15, although we had tested the company’s R-25 in the April 2009 issue.
Our next rifle marks a company’s debut in these pages, the Windham Weaponry Model VEX-SS “Varmint Exterminator” R20FSSFTSKV, $1295, which was designated the WW-15 Varmint Exterminator when we began testing in May 2013.
The third was a more typical varmint rifle in the form of the Rock River Arms LAR-15 A4 Varminter AR1500X 223 Rem./5.56 NATO, $1215. This rifle was tested to provide a contrast between the more typical varmint rifle and the specialized walking varminters.
Next up was Ruger’s SR-556VT Autoloading Rifle #5914, which has a 5.56 NATO chamber and lists for $1995. It joins an ever-growing list of Ruger AR-style semi-autos, including the SR-762 308 Win./7.62 NATO, which we tested in the September 2014 issue, and the others in 5.56 NATO, including the SR-556 (January 2010) and SR-556E (January 2012). After testing was complete, we learned this rifle had been recalled. More on that in a minute.
All four rifles were of the flat-top variety with Picatinny rails that allow the easy mounting of optics. To keep things consistent, we used a proven Bushnell Elite 4200 4-16x50mm scope mounted in Rock River Arms one-piece rings with a Picatinny base. For accuracy, we tested each rifle with five 5-shots groups for each of three different ammo types: TulAmmo 55-grain full metal jackets, Federal 62-grain full metal jackets, and Black Hills 77-grain moly-coated match hollowpoints. Because these rifles might be used for high-volume shooting, we fired the rifles as quickly as we could while maintaining good technique and careful sighting. We did allow time between groups for cooling. At no time did the barrels on these rifles get hot enough to prevent grasping them firmly with bare hands.
Here’s how they did at the range and in the field:
Remington R-15 VTR Predator Carbine 223 Remington, $999
This 223 Remington rifle is based on the classic Eugene Stoner AR-15 design with its direct-gas-impingement action, split upper and lower receivers with standard safety, magazine, and bolt releases, and a box magazine forward of a vertical pistol grip. It possessed a free-floating forend and a light-contour 0.68-inch-diameter 18-inch barrel. Weighing 7.1 pounds unloaded, the rifle was light and well balanced. The rifle came with instruction booklet, action safety flag, trigger lock, and one 5-round magazine.
Fit and finish were consistently good, with the exception of a loose fit between the upper and lower receivers. While the rifle lacked a forward rail for a front sight, it did have two sling mounts in the front. This is a particularly useful feature on a walking varmint rifle because it allows the mounting of both a sling and a bipod.
While one shooter noticed a lot of spring noise when shooting, all testers agreed that it wouldn’t affect the rifle’s effectiveness. One major issue was the trigger quality. Even for an AR-15, the trigger was very gritty and stiff at 7.6 pounds. This made shooting good groups a challenge. In fact, our best groups came at the end of the testing session when we adapted our shooting technique to be more like what we would use with a double-action revolver than a precision rifle. While it seemed like the rifle wanted to shoot, the trigger prevented consistent groups, we thought. While this rifle shot and cycled all three ammo types flawlessly, its 1:9-twist barrel was much more accurate with the heavier 77-grain bullets. TulAmmo averaged 3.3-inch groups,
Federal averaged 2.7-inch groups, and the Black Hills ammo averaged 1.2-inch groups. Clearly, the Black Hills ammo is the only one that produced acceptable groups for hunting. Also, the velocity was consistently lowest in the Remington due to its 18-inch barrel, though the testers did not think the velocities would make a significant difference in the field.
Our Team Said: While there was much our shooters liked on this rifle, the poor trigger prevents the R-15 from being a great choice.
Windham Weaponry VEX-SS Model R20FSSFTSKV 223 Rem./5.56mm, $1295
Windham Weaponry operates from the old Bushmaster factory in Windham, Maine. Freedom Group bought Bushmaster in 2006, then moved Bushmaster production to New York in 2011, leaving behind the original Bushmaster owner, Richard Dyke, the Bushmaster factory property, and a pool of skilled, laid-off workers. In less than a year and a half, Windham Weaponry brought back almost 70 employees and established their name as a competitive AR-15 firearms manufacturers. In its standard rifle lineup, WW offers an interesting set of choices, including the Model 308 Win.–chambered R16FTT-MA-308, $1442; the carbon-fiber New York–compliant Model R16M4FTT-CF1-NYTHD, $1040; the VEX wood-stock series, $1480, and others.
This rifle is based on the standard AR-15 platform and is compatible with both 223 Rem. and 5.56 NATO ammunition. It ships with one 5-round magazine, safety flag, trigger lock, and instructions. Fit was generally good, except for a slightly loose upper/lower joint. The rifle had a consistent black matte finish. It had a free-floating forend and a slender stainless-steel 20-inch barrel with a 1:8 twist.
This 8.2-pound rifle had an unusual stock consisting of a large, foam-covered upper tube attached to a standard pad and a smaller tube forming a triangular brace. While different, it proved to be very comfortable. Probably due to this stock design, this rifle was exceptionally well balanced and easy to handle.
While shooting, we encountered several issues. Though the safety and bolt release levers worked fine, the magazine was sticky. The trigger was gritty as well, but not unusually so for a stock AR-15 trigger. When shooting, rounds shot from the rifle tended to drift up and to the right as the barrel heated up.
A bigger problem was that the rifle had failures to function with both the TulAmmo and Federal ammunition. Also, accuracy was consistently poor with the TulAmmo, averaging 3.2-inch groups. The Federal groups averaged a terrible 3.7 inches. Obviously, the rifle preferred the heavier Black Hills ammo, which averaged 1.4-inch groups.
Our Team Said: Don’t Buy. While handy and well balanced, the Windham’s lack of accuracy and multiple failures to function prevented it from being a player in this very competitive test. We never felt confident that we could rely on the rifle to deliver a precise shot on target.
Ruger SR-556VT Autoloading Rifle #5914 5.56 NATO, $1995
The Ruger rifle was an AR-15 type with a piston-driven design instead of direct gas impingement. It had a 20-inch 1:8 twist stainless-steel barrel compatible with both 223 Rem and 5.56 NATO rounds. The forend was free floating, smooth and comfortable to hold without gloves. The buyer can add Picatinny rail sections to the forend if he so desires. The testers noted that the controls were some of the smoothest and most positive they had ever encountered on an AR-15. We did have an issue with the bolt cover not staying closed.
One nice thing about this rifle is that it shipped with three 5-round magazines (instead of the usual one) as well as the standard safety flag, trigger lock, and instructions. The fit and finish were good, with a snug upper/lower receiver fit. We did notice the buttpad for the A2-style stock was a little proud compared to the rest of the stock. One tester stated he would prefer a collapsible stock. That would be easily accomplished if the buyer preferred it. The rifle has an oversized charging handle, and the stock featured two built-in compartments for storing cleaning supplies or small parts.
Another nice thing about this rifle was the slightly oversized trigger guard. One of our field shoots took place in near freezing weather, and our shooters graded this rifle as the most glove-friendly of the group. This is an important factor as coyote hunting often takes place in cold weather. The balance was a little front heavy because of the handguard and stainless tube. Even so, many shooters prefer a front-heavy rifle for off-hand shooting, but the buyer will need to decide if this aspect of the rifle suits his preferences. Downside: This rifle was noticeably heavier than the other walking varminters, and as a result it may be tiring over a long day in the field. The overall impression was that the Ruger is a very solid piece of kit.
The two-stage trigger was the easily the best of the walking varminters, with a 2.1-pound first stage and a second final stage of 3.8 pounds. At Ruger.com/SR556VTRecall, the company says, “We have determined that the disconnector in the two-stage trigger system on our SR-556VT modern sporting rifles was not properly heat treated by a vendor and that the disconnector can wear prematurely. This, in turn, can result in an unsafe condition in which the rifle delays firing (there is a delay in firing after the trigger is pulled) or doubles (discharging once when the trigger is pulled and again when the trigger is released). Although no incidents have been reported from the field, this is an important safety issue, and we are therefore recalling the rifles.” The company goes on to say the affected disconnector is used only in the two-stage trigger system found in the SR-556VT models, and no other models of the SR-556 are affected by the recall. But all SR-556VT rifles manufactured to date are subject to the recall.
The rifle functioned flawlessly, though the velocity was less than the Windham and Rock River rifles. The groups were generally good with the TulAmmo and Federal brands, with the exception of one unexplainably large 5.2-inch group shooting the Federal ammo. This was probably a shooter or ammo anomaly, but we have to report what we found. This particular rifle did not perform as well with the Black Hills ammo as the other three rifles with an average 1.7-inch group. However, this is probably still accurate enough for effective hunting at cartridge-appropriate ranges. One interesting item noted was that the first round for each group for all the brands of ammo tended to shoot to the left. Also, as with the Windham Weaponry rifle, the Ruger tended to string shots vertically as its barrel heated up.
Since the Ruger is a piston-driven rifle, we were curious about how difficult it would be to clean. The Ruger break down instructions were clear and the steps simple. First, remove the rear receiver pin as you would any other AR-15 and remove the bolt group. The cam pin was very easy to remove because the gas key was not present. We noticed that the bolt was fairly clean, with the firing pin being practically spotless. To remove the piston, you need to punch out a pin and rotate the regulator. While the process was simple, the parts were very tight, and you would need tools to perform this part of the breakdown. You can use a standard AR-15 bore guide when cleaning the barrel. Re-assembly was no problem.
Our Team Said: The good two-stage trigger is an advantage, and if the recall fixes the part without changing the trigger’s performance, then we’ll happily lift the “Pending” from its grade. While heavy at 8.5 pounds, this rifle exuded quality and shot consistently. This rifle’s cleanliness is a major plus. The testers were mildly concerned that if they wanted to make a change, there might be fewer forend options available since it is a piston-driven rifle. Keep that in mind if you find that you don’t like the forend.
Rock River Arms LAR-15 A4 Varminter AR1500X 223 Rem./5.56mm, $1215
The Rock River Arms rifle had a more standard format for varmint hunting and long-range target shooting with heavier bullets. Those design choices include a 20-inch stainless-steel bull barrel with a Magpul PRS stock and Enindine hydraulic buffer. The stock is of excellent construction and allows a great deal of adjustment. The Enindine buffer softened recoil noticeably. The Hogue Overmolded stock was very comfortable and shielded the hand from barrel heat. Fit was good, and the finish was very evenly applied to both the upper and lower receivers. All the controls were positive and operated smoothly. The rifle came with Rock River’s excellent National Match trigger. While the stock and barrel balanced each other out, this rifle was much heavier than the others and not well suited to carrying all day.
But those heavier build elements helped the Rock River easily become the best shooter of the group, with groups averaging 2.2 inches for the TulAmmo, 2.4 inches for the Federal, and 1.1 inches for the Black Hills ammunition. The groups also stayed very consistent throughout the shot strings. However, it proved very unreliable with the 55-grain TulAmmo, encountering several failures to feed. The testers determined this was due to the hydraulic buffer. This issue would be something for the buyer to keep in mind if he were interested in the recoil and cyclic-rate advantages of the hydraulic buffer.
Our Team Said: Conditional Buy. This rifle was the best shooting of the group as well as the most adjustable. It also handled a hot barrel the best. However, the rifle’s weight limits its portability. It also did not like the 55-grain ammo. If you are mostly hunting from fixed positions or expecting long strings of fire, it would be hard to beat the Rock River for ease of shooting and consistent accuracy. If you are stalking, you would be better off with the lighter Ruger. In this case, we’d give it a B+ for hunting from fixed positions, but only a C+ if you had to tote it all day.
Written by David Tannahill, using evaluations from Gun Tests team testers. Photography by Gun Tests staff. GT