My new AR-15: Part 2
by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier
Before I begin today’s report, I want you to know that I’ll be out of the office all this week. I’m traveling to Arkansas to film some episodes of the new American Airgunner. I’m asking the veteran readers to watch for new reader’s comments and to help them whenever you can. I know that you do this all the time anyway, but I wanted you to know that I won’t be able to answer questions as easily this week as I normally am. My wife, Edith, also closely monitors the blog. On to today’s report.
I’m writing this report as an airgunner who’s discovering something new — something that he’s wondered about a long time and finally decided to see whether the things he’s read were true or not. I’m writing it about a firearm because airguns are what I normally do. Firearms aren’t my regular beat, so anything I do with them is a stretch. I want to put myself on the same footing as someone who is new to airguns and doesn’t know what to believe.
The AR: What is it?
I could spend the rest of my life writing about the AR-15 and not exhaust the subject. It is without question one of the world’s most recognized and talked-about firearms. Love it or hate it — you cannot deny its success.
I was one who hated it. My experience began with the M16, which is the true full-auto assault rifle that civilians cannot obtain legally without going through many government hoops and paying dearly. The AR-15 is the civilian version of the rifle that lacks the full-auto capability. Full-auto operation is one of the main things that defines an assault rifle. So, an AR-15 is not an assault rifle — nor can it ever be, legally.
But it looks enough like the M16, except for the full-auto part, and it operates enough like an M16 that shooters have accepted it as a legal substitute. Some shooters aren’t even aware of the differences between the AR-15 and the M16 and use the model names, interchangeably.
My experience with the M16 began in the Army, and I documented it quite well in Part 1 of this report, so I won’t repeat myself. The bottom line is that the rifle isn’t as accurate as I want a rifle to be.
Over the years, I watched people with AR-15s, and all I saw was confirmation that it, too, was not a very accurate firearm. At least not by my standards. If I backed an AR owner into a corner, he would tell me about its high rate of fire, the interchangeability of parts and all the development that has gone into the rifle over its half-century life-cycle. Then, I would counter with the rifle’s 3-minute-of-angle accuracy and make a yucky face. And we would agree to disagree.
Yet, all the while I was watching from the sidelines, I saw occasional references to superb accuracy from certain rifles. When I tracked them down and eliminated all those that were based on 3-shot groups and 5-shot groups, I was left with a small but insistent core of reports that the AR really could shoot well. There were stories of half-inch 10-shot groups at 100 yards — stories that I wanted to believe, but simply could not. I’d shot too many M16s and AR-15s to believe that one could really be that accurate with 10 shots. Yet, like a child full of expectant hope, I never lost interest.
Then, I had an opportunity to make a trade of an AK rifle for an AR-15. That was the stimulus I needed to do the real research into the gun. About 20 years had passed since I last looked into the gun, and I discovered that things had changed dramatically. New propellants were discovered that made the rifle sing like never before. New bullets were developed that, combined with new rifling twist rates, made huge strides in the accuracy department.
The deal with the AR-15 fell through, but I had done the research and was now ready to make my move. So, when the right AR upper came along — one that promised the kind of accuracy I was looking for — I grabbed it.
You saw the potential for accuracy in the first report. Today, I’ll expand on that and tell you how I’ve learned to live with this rifle. The gentleman I got it from gave me a load that I tried immediately. I used both his recommended bullet plus another that I had on hand that was almost as heavy. My barrel has a 1:8″ twist rate, so it stabilizes heavier bullets. I don’t shoot the 55-grain bullets that many shooters use. I shoot a 77-grain boattailed spitzer and a 68-grain match hollowpoint that both stabilize in the rifle when a full load of powder is used.
On my second time out with the rifle, I shot three 10-shot groups at 100 yards. That may not sound like a lot of shooting, but I wait for the barrel to cool between shots, so it takes close to a full hour to complete.
I also load these cartridges to a longer overall length than the magazine will tolerate. This is something I learned from one of our readers, and the guy who sold me the upper confirmed it. Where most AR guys want the largest capacity magazine they can get, I’m loading each round singly and pushing the bolt release to close the bolt. I’m like a man who never takes his Ferrari out of first gear! AR owners would turn inside-out if they saw me shoot.
But I get results!
The first three 10-shot groups measure 0.913 inches, 0.827 inches and 0.562 inches. I’d say that was a success! I won’t bore you with the load details because every rifle is unique, but both the 77-grain and the 68-grain bullets were accurate.
Ten .223 bullets at 100 yards went into this 0.913-inch group.
Ten .223 bullets at 100 yards went into this 0.827-inch group.
Ten more .223 bullets at 100 yards went into this 0.562-inch group. This is what I’ve been looking for in an accurate rifle for the past 40 years!
I load the bullets longer than the magazine will tolerate because that way the bullet can be closer to the rifling in the bore when the cartridge fires. That improves accuracy. Looking at the three groups above, I think you would agree.
One problem with a semiautomatic rifle is that it throws the empty cartridge case far from the gun. With an AR-15, this can be adjusted somewhat by increasing or decreasing the amount of gas that flows to the bolt, and my rifle was properly set up to operate with the loads I was using. Still, the cartridges landed ahead of the firing line some 6 to 10 feet, and I had to wait for a cease-fire to go out and collect them for reloading. If the grass was tall, I might miss some.
So, I bought a brass catcher. Again, I did it my way. Most brass catchers attach to the rifle. The one I bought is separate. It’s large and catches anything the rifle cares to toss, as long as it’s in the right place on the shooting bench. Since buying it, I’ve shot the rifle about 70 times and it never missed one cartridge.
Another problem with semiautomatics is the cartridges must be resized their full length after every firing. This works the brass and shortens the life of the case. I’m using maximum loads from the standpoint that I can’t get any more powder into the case, but the pressures I’m loading are more than 10,000 psi below what a standard 5.56mm cartridge generates. I am at 42,000 psi, where 5.56mm rounds easily hit 52,000 psi.
I’m loading .223 Remington cartridges rather than 5.56mm military cartridges. The difference is that my commercial case is thinner and holds more powder, and the leade in the .223 barrel is shorter than the leade in a 5.56mm barrel. Because I work the brass by resizing and because I use maximum loads, I’ll be lucky to get 10 reloads from my cartridges — while I’ve gotten over 50 reloads from other cartridges in rifles that generate less pressure at firing and whose cartridges I don’t have to full-length resize.
I took the rifle out again last week and fired it with some new loads. The day I went, it was raining and I shot in pouring rain. A light mist doesn’t affect accuracy too much, but driving rain can play havok with accuracy at 100 yards. Perhaps that’s why the best group I managed to shoot that day measures a whopping 0.835 inches between centers. And, yes, that was sarcasm. I’m still very pleased with these results.
On the range during a driving rain. You can see my brass catcher. It never misses!
Best 10-shot group of this rainy day was a 0.835-inch group.
Am I pleased?
How could I not be pleased with these results? This is the level of accuracy I’ve been after for the past 40 years. Yes, something miraculous has happened. I’m shooting the best I’ve ever shot with an AR-15 — a rifle I thought was hopelessly inaccurate. I hope you realize that this does relate to airguns in a big way.
You may have a blind side to certain airguns like I did with the AR-15. You may hate spring guns or PCPs the way I hated black rifles. Maybe it isn’t ultimate accuracy that you want, but rather distance. Maybe you’d like to be able to hunt jackrabbits in the Texas panhandle, where a fleeting shot at 50 yards is the best you’re ever going to get. Or maybe you want accuracy, just like I did. Maybe you read about all these accurate precharged pneumatics, but just can’t believe what you’ve read; because when you see guys actually shoot them in front of you, they never do as well as they seem to claim on the internet.
Maybe you want the airguns that give one-shot kills. Maybe you’re tired of tracking game after you shoot it and wonder how all those airgun hunters are dropping as much game as they claim but you’re lucky to get one or two.
Whatever it is that you want, the way to get it is to do what I’ve done. Sift through all the reports looking for the kernels of truth. They’re there for you to find. And when the day comes that you have that pleasant experience where something goes exactly as you hoped it would, all your efforts will prove worthwhile.
By the way — writing a nice, flattering report about the AR-15 is penance for all my bad thoughts. I wonder now what I’m going to have to say about some airguns I also have thought ill of?