My new AR-15: Part 1
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
Someone new to the world of airguns encounters jargon, technical terms, confusion and mountains of urban legends. I know the feeling because, when I recently acquired an AR-15, I had the same experience.
I write this blog today about my experiences acquiring a firearm to help the new airgunner learn to make decisions about the airguns he doesn’t know and can’t actually handle before buying. Once you read the report, I think you’ll understand why I say it’s written for airgunners.
I never liked the AR
I was exposed to the U.S. Army’s M16 when it first came out in the 1960s, and the problems it had were so many that it didn’t make a good impression. For starters, I’m a rifleman, which means I care more about hitting the target than anything else. The M14 that was the standard issue at the time was doing that very well, but the new M16 proved incapable of hitting a man-sized silhouette at 300 yards. Since I wanted to qualify expert (having already done so with the pistol, the M14 and the .22 rimfire) with every weapon the Army gave me, I found this shortcoming to be a huge drawback.
I wasn’t aware of all the ballistic testing that had gone into the creation of the 5.56mm round before the M16 came out. I just knew from my first range experience that the rifle was inaccurate beyond about 250 yards. To a shooter who had already qualified expert with three other weapons, that was inexcusable.
Then there was the problem of cleaning the gun. The M16 required lots of cleaning and lubrication to continue to operate reliably. The M14 didn’t seem to need as much cleaning, though it did need to be lubricated, just the same. But the M14 was easy to field strip, clean and lubricate, while the M16 had some parts that were very difficult to clean in the field. Strike two.
I could go on, but you get the idea. I didn’t like the M16. And several years later, when I had about 100 of them in my company arms room in Germany in the middle 1970s, I grew to dislike them even more for all their petty maintenance and cleaning problems.
After I left the Army, I swore to never have anything more to do with the fully automatic M16 or its semiautomatic civilian equivalent, the AR-15. Occasionally, I’d see one at the range and watch the owner fumble with frequent jams, horrid accuracy and other problems that I remembered from my Army days. I thought the case was closed
Enter Crosman — the MAR177
Then, in 2012, Crosman brought out the MAR177, and I had to test it. But since the MAR is just an upper, it needs to be mated with a lower receiver to work — and that lower has to be an AR lower! You may remember in my review of the MAR177 that I actually built an AR lower receiver for the test.
Crosman’s MAR177 drove me to buy the firearm it copies, as I’ve done several times in the past.
When the test was over, the MAR177 went back to Crosman, leaving me with an AR lower. Crosman told me they had plans to bring out other MAR-type airguns, so I couldn’t get rid of the lower, yet. Until they did, I had nothing to use it with. Until I got a firearm upper of some sort, that lower was just an expensive bunch of useless gun parts. That’s when I began to think about possibly owning an AR-15 for the first time!
I didn’t know anything about ARs!
I had avoided the AR so completely that I now discovered I knew next to nothing about it. When I began to do research, including some done with readers right here on this blog, I found out that my information was old, outdated and generally no longer true. In short, I was like someone new to airgunning who didn’t know what he didn’t know and didn’t know where to turn.
I tend to rely on books to get spun up on something new. And I know that Patrick Sweeney is an excellent gun writer based on his books about the Colt 1911. They were a wealth of information when I decided to go full-on with the 1911 after receiving a nice one as a gift several years ago. So, I reckoned he would be just as good with the AR 15.
When I want to learn about something new, I turn to books.
Boy — was I wrong! Sweeney writes about ARs using jargon and repetition. He salts his chapters with pithy anecdotes from gun classes he has taught or references to law enforcement operations — neither of which have any interest for me. As I said — I’m a rifleman — not a zombie fighter! Sweeney and I don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to the black rifle.
However, in fairness to the author, he’s not writing for me. He’s writing to the majority of AR owners who think exactly as he does and want to know the latest and greatest tactical advantages the gun might offer. They number in the millions, where I’m just one.
And, among all the insider trivia, there were nuggets of useful information. Therefore, I read and decoded what was in those books until I had a good newbie-level of understanding.
The airgun comparison
And here’s where my plight will begin to relate to a budding airgunner. You may not know whether to get a spring-piston rifle with a steel mainspring or a gas spring, just as I didn’t know whether to get an AR with direct gas impingement or a piston-driven system.
I read and read and finally discovered several references to the fact that the direct gas impingement system would probably make the more accurate gun when all other things were equal. The reasons were explained in such a way that I could understand and internalize them. I also discovered that the makers of the piston-operated systems are working diligently to make their systems more accurate all the time — so the accuracy gap is closing with each passing day.
Returning to airguns, there are precious few airgun books for you to consult, but this blog is written for that purpose — to help explain the fundamentals of airgunning and to help you solve your individual problems.
So, you read and read, and one day you realize that all the gas spring guns I’ve tested are hard to cock. Maybe you don’t like that. And you’ve also read that many of the gas spring guns I’ve tested have only mediocre accuracy, while there are some with a coiled steel mainspring, like the RWS Diana 34, that are very accurate. From this, you’ve learned that you want a gun with a steel mainspring, just as I learned that I wanted an AR with direct gas impingement.
Looking at my plight again, I read about rifle barrel twist rates and discovered that the rifles with a faster twist are good for heavier bullets, and heavier bullets make for greater accuracy at longer distances. I like accuracy, and I like to shoot long distances. So, I knew that I wanted a barrel with a twist rate of 1:7 or 1:8 inches instead of the more common 1:10 and even 1:12-inch twist rate that many of the tacti-cool carbines seem to have. I also learned that Colt was at one time very concerned that buyers of their AR-15 would attempt to turn them into M16s, so they changed the pivot pin sizes for many of the parts on the lower receiver of their AR-15. Hence, there are a certain range of Colt AR-15 rifles that, while okay by themselves, will not accept common upgraded parts that all other AR-15s can use. Since parts interchangability is one of the AR’s strong suits, these Colts are seriously disadvantaged.
You read about airguns and discovered in this blog that, while there are a plethora of pellets from which to choose, only a few of them are the most consistently accurate. You learned which ones they are, and you know that you can either waste $30 buying the wrong bargain pellets that don’t work in most airguns, or you can spend half that much and get (far fewer) pellets that will drill a dime every time when fired in the gun you have decided to buy.
I read and discovered that using certain extruded gun powders will keep the AR-15 action clean for many hundreds of shots. And some of that kind of powder also develops very low breech pressures, so barrel wear is similarly reduced. The interior of today’s AR-15 is a far cry from the gummy wreck the M16 was in the late 1960s. And there are specialized tools that can clean those hard-to-reach parts in seconds, instead of the hours that it used to take us with toothbrushes.
AR-15 technology has changed over the years. Now, there are cleaner-burning gun powders and specialized tools to reach the places that are hard to clean.
After all your reading, you decided to buy an RWS Diana 34P. You know that you’ll have to learn to use the artillery hold, and you know that you want the rifle in .177 caliber to save the most money on ammo per shot — but you’ll be buying 10.3-grain JSB Exact domed pellets instead of the “bargain” pellets found at Wal-Mart. Yes, your pellets will cost you three times as much as the cheap ones, but your hit ratio will be even greater than that. So, this more expensive pellet is actually a savings.
I learned that a standard AR-15 is only good for about 3 minutes of angle (a 5-shot group of approximately three inches at 100 yards); but with the right barrel and bullet, the same rifle can be a sub-MOA rifle, too. I learned that instead of being confined to the rather short magazines that fit the rifle, I can load every round singly into the breech to give me the room to load much longer and more accurate ammo. If I buy the right upper receiver and barrel and load the right ammo for it, I can have an AR-15 that’s respectably accurate.
Where no man has gone
Like you, I’ve ventured into a world I didn’t understand. Like you, I found there are truths, lies and everything in between. But instead of rushing out and squandering my money on the first “bad boy” upper I found, I waited for the right one to come along. And it finally did! I found it two weeks ago on a Texas-based gun-swapping website.
The upper I found has a free-floated Saber Defense 24-inch stainless steel fluted bull barrel with a 1:8-inch twist. The extra long barrel means it’s an efficient powder-burner, which means it will take larger loads of slow-burning extruded powder and develop higher velocity for greater accuracy at long range. The extruded powder is both clean-burning and develops much lower chamber pressure than ball powders. Best of all, this rifle was built for 1000-yard competition shooting and has a .223 Remington chamber instead of a 5.56 or Wylde combination chamber. It was, literally, built for accuracy.
Not a gun most AR owners would want — my rifle has a free-floated, 24-inch bull barrel that’s chambered for .223 Remington instead of 5.56mm. I shouldn’t shoot military ammo in it; but with the right reloads, it’ll shoot rings around a stock AR. It’s exactly what I wanted. The scope is a Tasco Custom Shop 8-40X56mm that I used to compete in field target.
The bolt in this upper was hand-selected from 25 bolts for the best fit, and then the gunsmith handlapped those lugs that were not in 100 percent contact. My reading tells me this last step is unnecessary, but it’s comforting to know someone went to all the trouble to do it. It shows that he wanted an accurate gun! He also adjusted the gas flow so it doesn’t overpower the bolt. The result is a rifle that gently throws its empty brass in a neat pile about 8 feet from the gun at two o’clock. Of course, I’ll use a bass catcher [Note: Tom meant to write “brass catcher,” but this was so funny I had to leave it–Edith] to keep all the ejected brass safely on the bench with me.
The owner wanted to get rid of this upper because he discovered that it wasn’t competitive in a breeze at 1,000 yards. It worked well at 600 yards, but there the competition was too fierce for him — so he wanted to build an upper in a larger caliber for the 1,000-yard competition, where there are fewer shooters.
It has exactly what I wanted, though, so I made him an offer that he considered generous. We met at my range and each got to shoot the other’s gun before we traded. I not only got the upper, I also got the load he’d developed for 600-yard competition. I was out of the specific bullet used in that load, so I loaded a lighter bullet (68 grains instead of 77 grains) while I waited for the heavier bullets to be delivered. I went to the range last week to see what the new gun would do.
The sight-in target at 50 yards was shot with the most accurate ammo. Each round was loaded singly because they were too long to fit in the magazine. Next time, these will be my target loads! The hole next to the dime has seven rounds.
This target was shot at 100 yards with rounds that fed through the magazine. The top three were too high, then I adjusted the scope and fired the seven below. Clearly, this group is not as good as the rounds that were fed singly.
The first time out, I confirmed that the rifle wants to be loaded single-shot with rounds that exceed the magazine length. I also confirmed that it will shoot a 68-grain bullet very well. I’ve now acquired a large supply of 77-grain bullets, but this means I’m not wedded to them.
It’s nice to come out on top
Like you, I couched my expectations for the AR in terms of what I’d read and believed. Since that was but a fraction of all the information that was available, I felt confident that the little I did know was correct. And I was pleasantly surprised when the rifle (upper) exceeded my expectations the first time out!
That is what I want for each of you with airguns. I want your experiences to be pleasant and surprisingly good. I want them to exceed your expectations the first time out.
I can’t help those who act on their emotions and go for guns based on velocity claims or advertising hype. Just as the average AR sold today would not be considered an accurate rifle, the average spring-piston air rifle is also quite a handful to deal with. I can’t help those who buy their guns on impulse and refuse to take responsibility for their own actions; but if you’ll be patient, I’ll help you find the airgun that’s ideal for you.
Am I an AR guy? I don’t think so. If I told most AR owners how I operate the rifle — loading each cartridge single-shot and shooting 10-shot groups — I think they would be appalled. But has my opinion been changed by my experience with this one rifle? Yes, it has. I spent the time and did the research to discover the things that mattered the most to me and ignored those that didn’t. I focused on what I really wanted; and when it came along, I was ready to act.
I hope this blog can do the same for you.