When you consider guns that bridge the gaps between military, defense and predator hunting, the obvious ones that come to mind are the AR-15 and compact shotguns. But there’s a sleeper out there that offers predator hunters several advantages — Steyr’s AUG A3 M1. Advantages include great accuracy, boring reliability, quick take-down, ambidextrous set-up options, and an overall length that’s so short you almost feel guilty for not having to pay the $200 tax stamp like you would for a short-barreled rifle.
The AUG was nothing short of futuristic when it was introduced in 1977. Even now, almost four decades later, it has a cool factor that turns heads on the range. That look comes from its bullpup design, where the action is located behind the trigger. While it was hardly the first bullpup, the AUG remains the most recognizable if not iconic. Moving everything back in bullpup fashion provides a balance that belies the gun’s actual weight, a platform that points like your finger, and full-length barrel ballistics from a gun that’s around 8 inches shorter overall than the same-length-barrel AR-15.
With the exception of its bullpup configuration, the AUG is a basic, short-stroke, piston-driven semi-auto. It stays very clean even after extensive shooting, and the piston has two easily changed settings so you can tune it to different loads and conditions or for a suppressor. Because of the bullpup design, controls are in very different positions from what most shooters are used to, but, like with any gun, a little training and trigger time quickly make their use familiar. “[Some people] complain about mag changes being slower than with an AR, but that’s just a matter of practice,” says Steyr Arms’ CEO, Scott O’Brien. “I can definitely change my AUG mags faster than an AR because the magazine well is closer to my body, and the mechanism that holds the magazine has very positive engagement and it doesn’t require the user to smack the bottom of the magazine to seat it,” he explains.
What few complaints I’ve seen about the AUG have been largely addressed and resolved. One complaint was that it takes proprietary magazines, so Steyr introduced an A3 M1 NATO version that takes standard AR-15 magazines. There are some trade-offs, though. According to O’Brien, you “lose the ability to go lefty, and you lose the bolt release.” Plus, AR mags have traditionally been one of the weakest links in the AR platform, so unless you’re already heavily invested in AR mags, it’s worth considering going with the non-NATO variant that uses standard AUG mags. New ones go for about $20. They’re synthetic so they won’t bend, they’re darn-near indestructible, and they’re available in 10-, 30- or 42-round capacity.
Another overcome complaint regards scope mounting. The original AUG came with an integral low-power scope, so you were limited to that when it came to sighting options. Instead, the new A3 M1 is available with three sight set-up options. One is an optics rail with integral scope in either 1.5X or 3X magnification for fast, close-range and accurate mid-range shooting. The second option is a short rail for mounting a conventional red-dot-type sight for fast, close-range shooting, while the third option is a high rail for a conventional riflescope for accurate mid- to long-range shooting. Since I was setting up the AUG for predator hunting, I chose the high rail and found it positions the scope low enough for a solid cheekweld, but high enough that it doesn’t get in the way of operating the charging handle. One note on the charging handle: Steyr cautions to operate it palm up so you don’t cheese-grater your knuckles on the gun, rail or optics — and they mean it.
Another criticism was the lack of accessory rails or even places to add any. The A3 M1 I received has a 3-inch removable accessory rail at 2 o’clock on the forend. That might not satisfy those who want to attach a bunch of “tacticool” accessories, but for predator hunters, it will suffice for a light. Likewise for the aftermarket-gadget folks — this isn’t a gun where you can change forends, pistol grips or buttstocks, though you can choose between black, OD green and mud color stocks.
The last complaint I’ve heard has to do with the AUG’s trigger. It’s a sliding design as opposed to a pivoting one and has been described as one that “fights back.” On the sample gun, the trigger fought back to the tune of 12 pounds pull, but it broke cleanly. “The AUG trigger was designed to be heavy to prevent any sort of accidental discharge in a high-stress situation,” explains O’Brien. Many of the reviews I’ve seen on AUGs report trigger pull weights around 8 pounds, and while that is still on the heavy side, it is in the range of what I’ve experienced on rack-grade AR-15-type rifles.
The pull weight on the sample gun was probably an anomaly, but for those who want a lighter pull, I’ve heard from AUG users who reduce trigger pull by removing one of the hammer springs. None have reported any failures to fire from doing that, but a better solution is one of the several aftermarket AUG trigger kits available.
For accuracy testing, I topped the AUG A3 M1 with Nikon’s P-223 4-12x40mm riflescope. So equipped and with a full 30-round magazine, the gun tops the scales at 9 pounds, 13 ounces, but like AUG owners have experienced, the weight seems a lot less. The center of gravity is just above the pistol grip and the resulting balance really does mitigate the weight. It’s a nimble gun and easily points where you want it.
Ammunition for accuracy testing included Winchester’s Varmint-X 55-grain Polymer Tip Rapid Expansion loads on the light end, and Black Hills’ 77-grain OTM loads on the heavy end. Even with the heavy trigger pull, I was able to wring out an average 100-yard group size of 1.20 inches using the Winchester loads, with the tightest group being 1.15 inches. The 77-grainers needed a twist rate tighter than the AUG’s 1:9 inch and averaged between 2½ and 3 inches.
The AUG has a vertical forend grip that ordinarily might get in the way when shooting off a bench, but Steyr has designed this one so it quickly and easily folds forward and out of the way. Folded worked great when shooting off of a front pedestal rest and would work equally well in the field when shooting from over a backpack. In the vertical position, the forend grip is useable as an improvised monopod provided there is enough clearance at the rear for the grip and magazine; you can also clutch it against a shooting stick for a more steady hold.
Because where I live is blast-oven hot, I frequently experience groups opening up as a barrel heats up and have taken to swabbing the outside of test gun barrels with a wet rag between groups to keep them cool. I did not experience groups opening up as the AUG got hotter, but used my swabbing regimen as an opportunity to try the AUG’s quick take-down feature. Simply press a button while simultaneously twisting the barrel using the vertical forend grip and the barrel is free to pull off. It takes longer to type how it’s done than it does to remove the barrel. Return to zero was close, but not exact, so I would not recommend removing the barrel between sight-in sessions — especially if your terrain offers you long shots.
The report from this gun is very loud. It’s probably no louder than any other 16-inch-barreled .223 with a muzzle brake, but because of the bullpup design, the muzzle is about 8 inches closer to you than it is with non-bullpup rifles with the same length barrel. You’re definitely going to want hearing protection when shooting this gun.
“I think the ideal customer would be the hard-core predator hunter who wants a short, compact, clean-running and extremely reliable rifle,” says O’Brien. “He’s a forward thinker who is probably bored with the conventional and wants a rifle that is an extension of his body, something that is quick to the target and fast on follow-ups.”
O’Brien’s thoughts considered, I think it’s hard to get bored with an AR because you can tear them down and rebuild them into everything from a CQB defensive gun to a 1,000-yard target rifle. That said, O’Brien’s point about the AUG being short and compact resonates with me as a predator hunter because, just like a turkey hunter, I don’t want a lot of barrel wagging around. An AUG costs about the same as a high-end AR, and when you add in the dynamic balance, full-barrel ballistics and the cool factor, the AUG A3 M1 is a viable predator-hunting option for those who want something different, utterly reliable and clean running.