My new AR-15: Part 4

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Today’s report is both an object lesson, and a summary of what we’ve been studying for so long — the fact that ballistics, though often difficult to understand, are also precise and repeatable. It may not sound like that until I summarize at the end; but trust me, this is a lesson for all airgunners.

As the title says, this report is about my new AR-15. If you’re just finding this report for the first time and are interested in the AR, you owe it to yourself to read the first three parts of the report, linked above, before reading today’s message.

It was another very calm day at the range — perfect for testing a little experiment I’d cooked up. As you know, I do not shoot factory ammunition of any kind in my rifle. I did prove that it will function with standard factory 55-grain Remington .223 rounds in the last report, but the accuracy was horrible. I put 10 shots into about three inches at 100 yards. So I use the word “function” here to connote that the rounds fed through the magazine and action smoothly, as designed. I would never consider shooting them, other than for this test!

My load has been a 77-grain pointed bullet and a load of Varget gunpowder. That has demonstrated the ability to put 10 shots into less than one inch at 100 yards on many occasions. But another bullet — a 68-grain Hornady Match hollowpoint — produced the best 10-shot group I ever got with the rifle. It measures 0.562-inches between the centers of the two bullet holes farthest apart.

Group 3 AR-15
Ten bullets went into 0.562 inches at 100 yards.

The experiment
So, I dreamed up a little experiment. I would shoot another group with the same load, only this time I would also do some other things to improve the group. For starters, I would only select cases that had the same headstamp. Different companies make .223 ammunition, and their cases differ a little. Even though they all meet the specifications for the .223 Remington case, there are tiny variations that occur from the differences in the manufacturing processes each company uses. Add in the possibility of different materials at the beginning of the manufacturing process and you get small variations. The specifications allow for this, as long as the gross tolerances and performance specs are satisfied.

AR-15-different headstamps
These cases were picked up off the ground at the range, so they came from several different manufacturers and were made at different times. They’re not uniform at the lowest level.

Reloading cases with different headstamps, therefore, sets up the possibility for small variations in performance. Those differences probably don’t matter to a deer hunter; but to a guy trying to put 10 bullets in the same place, they can matter a lot.

So, I pulled 10 cases with the Federal Cartridge headstamp and set them aside for special treatment. Then, I selected a second lot of Federal cases and put them into a second group. A third group was comprised of cartridges with random headstamps.

Next, I trimmed all the cases to the same length — 1.760 inches. To this point, I hadn’t trimmed a single case, and semiautos like the AR-15 are known for stretching their cases.

Following that, I reamed the inside of the necks of the 10 special FC cases. I then loaded them with the 68-grain bullet and Varget powder that had produced the best group. The other cases I loaded with 77-grain bullets and Reloader-15 powder that has also shown a lot of promise. I wouldn’t call them control groups because they were reloaded with a different charge and bullet, but I was certainly interested in how well they did.

The moment of truth!
After warming the barrel with the 10 mixed cases (which got a 1.225-inch group), I started shooting the select cases with the good bullet and reamed case necks. The second bullet went into the same hole as the first. So did the third. When the fourth bullet enlarged the hole only a little, I suspected I was finally onto something. Shot 5 didn’t seem to make the hole any larger and I almost stopped shooting at that point. Never in my life had I ever put 5 shots from any rifle into 1/8 inch, which was what I estimated this group to be through my 30x scope sight. But fair is fair, so I pulled the trigger on shot 6. It went into the same hole, but enlarged the group noticeably. It was now about 1/4 inch between centers.

I was on a roll, and what a story this was going to make. So I lined up the crosshairs and fired shot 7.

“Oh somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.”

[From the poem Casey at the Bat by Ernest Thayer, 1888]

Shot 7 landed apart from the first six and thumbed its nose at me through my powerful scope. So, I put my head down and finished the group. Two more shots were also apart from the main group and had the ironic audacity to land together, as if to say they were in the right place and all the rest were wrong. And one bullet managed to nick the main group, enlarging it by a considerable amount. In the end, I’d put 10 shots into .859 inches — a decent group; but when compared to the 0.198 inches of the first 5 shots, not that respectable.

AR-15 group made by prepared cartridges
The first 5 rounds went into 0.198 inches at 100 yards. Seven of the 10 shots went into 0.43 inches. But the 10-shot group measures 0.859 inches because of those 3 shots that strayed.

What happened?
Here was yet another group that contained within it a smaller group of respectable size. But why had at least 3 of the 10 bullets gone so far astray? Hadn’t I done everything in my power to make these cases identical and as perfect as possible?

I had to wait till I got home to sort the 30 cases because my eyes were not good enough to discern those with the reamed necks. They were reamed on the inside and now the tiny scratches were filled with burned powder ash. But under the magnifying hood and strong lights at home I found them, one at a time. They all had the tiny scratches from reaming. But there was a problem. There were only 7 cases with the FC headstamp on them. None of the rest of the FC-stamped cases showed the signs of having been reamed. I looked among the odd headstamps, and there I found the remaining 3 reamed cases. Somehow, I’d mixed them up during the reaming operation and the non-FC-stamped cases got mixed in with the others.

Three! An interesting number, because it matches the number of bullet holes that are not in the main group. And that’s today’s lesson. It’s not a lesson about how to do something — it’s a cautionary tale about what not to do. That’s what we learned today. You can’t be too careful when you test things, and you have to check things twice and even three times before you pronounce them as good.

That is what I failed to do this time. And you know what comes next, don’t you? I have to rerun this test and next time make sure everything is done correctly.

I’ll make a prediction. If I do everything correctly as I’ve said here, I predict that this load will be able to put 10 rounds into a group that measures under 1/2 inch at 100 yards.

We shall see.

My new AR-15: Part 3

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Part 1
Part 2

Before we begin, I have some news about my buddy, Mac. Many of our long time readers know him from the work he’s done on this blog. Mac has been ill for several months and hasn’t been able to go to work for quite a while. He’s getting some medical tests done, but the prognosis doesn’t look real good according to his doctors. Mac and his wife, Elissa, can use your prayers.

Now, on to today’s report.

I was out at the range with my new AR-15 this past Tuesday. For those who aren’t familiar with what I’m doing, this series is about me acquiring a firearm I’m totally unfamiliar with and learning how to use it well. I have to go through the same confusing research on the internet and in magazines as a new airgunner who’s trying to make sense from the conflicting reports he reads about the airguns. Since I’m more familiar with airguns, I thought this unfamiliar firearm would be a way for me to identify with the new airgunner.

Today, the scope of this report expands to include a second rifle — my new Weihrauch HW52 in .22 Hornet. Here’s the situation. This is the fourth .22 Hornet I’ve owned, and my shooting buddy, Otho, has owned about a dozen Hornets in his lifetime. Until now, we’ve been unable to get any of these rifles to shoot. They just will not put even 5 rounds into a group smaller than about 1.5 inches at 100 yards.

Like the AR, I’ve researched the Hornet on the internet and what I found was a lot of people having the same problems we’ve been having. But mixed in with the complaints are a few writers who claim to shoot half-inch groups at the same 100 yards. These guys have given their load data, so it’s been possible (or almost possible — I’ll get to that in a moment) to follow in their footsteps. But in two years, I haven’t been able to get any of my rifles to give me a consistently good group.

You know that my standard for a group is 10 shots — not 5. That’s why I made the remark in yesterday’s report about talking with the guy at the range about group sizes. As I told him, anyone can get lucky and put three bullets close together. Sooner or later it will happen — even with the most inaccurate rifle! I’ve even seen people shoot 10 shots, then circle 3 that are close and call that a group! But to put 10 consecutive shots into a close group is an entirely different matter. A gun that can do that is a gun that can hit where it’s aimed.

So, I was on the range with my HW52 falling block .22 Hornet and a new batch of loads trying, yet again, to put 10 of them into a tight group. This time, however, I made a mistake. I forgot that I’d mounted a new scope on the rifle many weeks ago. After the first fowling shot at a different target, I shot three shots at the 100-yard target and wasn’t able to see the bullet holes. Well, the scope is only 10X, so I can barely see .22 bullet holes at 100 yards anyway. I thought they might have landed on the black lines where they would be impossible to see. But after 3 shots I remembered that the scope was new and I hadn’t boresighted the gun!

Weihrauch 22 Hornet on bench
This was the day I tested my HW52 in .22 Hornet. I was looking for that elusive sub-inch group at 100 yards.

My spotting scope told the whole story. Not wanting to believe my eyes, I walked downrange to look at the target close up. Sure enough, not one bullet had hit the target.

So, a quick bull was placed at the 50-yard berm, and I boresighted the gun (single-shots are often so easy to boresight!).  I proceeded to sight-in with factory ammo. Five shots later, I was close enough to shoot another group of factory ammo at 100 yards. Those five rounds landed in 1.25 inches — a good sign for what was about to happen. I was ready to shoot a real group. But I had only reloaded 10 rounds of the particular load I was interested in, and three had been fired already. So this would have to be a 7-shot group. Oh, well!

Long story short — I had a difficult time believing what happened next. Through the scope that can barely make out the bullet holes, it appeared there were just 2 holes on the target, and one of them was growing slightly larger with every shot. Was I really doing this with a .22 Hornet?

After the final shot I walked downrange again, and this time was rewarded with what I have been seeking since 2009 — a great group with a .22 Hornet. True, it’s only 7 shots instead of 10, but five of those shots have landed in a group measuring 0.296 inches. And all 7 shots made a 0.70-inch group. Compared to all that has gone before — this is real progress!

Want to know what I did that was different? All the research I’ve done has pointed to maximum loads of Lil Gun powder. Everyone says it’s the best for Hornets, but they all specify loads that are compressed. The heaviest load I’ve yet seen was 14 grains of powder — a load I cannot get into a case even when there is no bullet! I’ve tried loads up to 12.5 grains, which is about all the powder I can get into a case and still be able to seat the bullet. Lil Gun generates very low-pressure in a Hornet, making these heavy loads safe; but if you can’t even seat the bullet, it doesn’t make any difference.

This time, I tried going the other way. I used a load that is so light there was room in the case to seat the bullet without compressing the powder. I used 11.5 grains of Lil Gun powder that probably sent the 40-grain bullet downrange at 2,500 f.p.s. or so. But no problem because all the bullets seemed to go to the same place.

Weihrauch 22 Hornet 100-yard group
Finally, a decent group with a Hornet at 100 yards. There are only 7 bullets in this group, and 5 are in 0.296 inches. All 7 make a 0.70-inch group.

I’m not finished, because I need to return to the range with 10 more loaded rounds and shoot a complete group. But things do look promising. If I were a person who likes 5-shot groups, I’d be finished now, and guess which 5 holes I would pick? Do you think they’re representative of the accuracy of this load in this rifle? I don’t. This is a very good load, but those other two holes show a truer picture of what it can do.

The lesson
I swear what I’m about to tell you is true. The only reason I even tried such a low load in this rifle is because of another experience I once had with a .177 Beeman C1 carbine. I couldn’t get it to group, so I held the gun as loosely as I could — just to see how bad it would get. That was the day I discovered the artillery hold. And now I will add this .22 Hornet experience to the pile. Heck, by the time I’m 90, I might actually know something!

The AR
The title of this report says it’s about my new AR-15, and it is. After finishing with the Hornet, I pulled out the black rifle and shot two groups of a promising load. Do you remember that tight group that I shot in the pouring rain last time?

Group 4 AR-15
This 10-shot group was fired during a pouring rainstorm. It measures 0.835 inches between centers.

I had 20 more .223 rounds loaded with the exact same load, so I fired 2 more groups this day. The wind was virtually still, so it was ideal for shooting. The groups are both good, but not quite as good as the one shot weeks ago.

AR-15 first 100-yard group
Ten shots are in 1.340 inches, but 7 of them are in 0.380 inches. Read on to see what I think is happening.

AR-15 second 100-yard group
Here is the second 100-yard group from the AR. The load is identical to the one that shot the first group. This time, the whole group measures 1.081 inches between centers, and 5 of those shots are in a group measuring 0.336 inches.

So, why are these two groups that were shot on a dead-calm dry day so much larger than the group that was shot in a downpour? I have some thoughts about that.

Thoughts about why my groups aren’t better
When I loaded these cartridges, I noticed that several of the primer pockets were very loose. So loose, in fact, that the primers fell out of two of them. But I continued to load them anyway. Want to know how to make a primer expand to fit an enlarged pocket? Just put more pressure on it. It will expand in diameter as you squash it down farther than it wants to go. Think that might have some affect on the group size? It sure will since the priming compound will be crushed and will ignite at a different rate.

And why were my primer pockets so loose? Didn’t I tell you that my reloads created lower pressure than standard factory ammunition? If you look back, you’ll see that I did tell you that. But I don’t know how many times these cases have been reloaded. You see, all my brass thus far has been stuff I picked up at the range! No way to know how many times it’s been reloaded — if any at all.

But the salient fact in that last paragraph is that I’m using range brass. None of the headstamps on my cartridges are the same — or if they are, it’s only by coincidence! It’s as if I were to build a race car with a junkyard motor and then expect to run it in NASCAR. Or, dump a tin of pellets in a sandbox and pick them back out to use in a 10-meter match! In other words, there are a whole raft of things I’m doing wrong with my reloads, and yet they still give me great results. What would happen if I did everything right?

Does this rifle shoot factory ammo?
At least one reader asked me if my AR could shoot factory ammo in the semiautomatic mode because I’ve been loading these cartridges to a length that prevents their cycling through the magazine. I could care less if the gun does or doesn’t cycle, but the question piqued my curiosity enough to put 10 rounds through the rifle just to see. All 10 cycled through the magazine and action perfectly in the semiauto mode, and they all landed in a 3-inch group at 100 yards. Garbage in, garbage out.

This is a very long report, but I wrote it for the new airgunner who feels confounded by all the technology, buzzwords and other stuff that doesn’t make any sense the first time around. If you read all the parts of this report, you’ll see that’s exactly how I felt when I got into ARs. And I hope that by watching me struggle around with this rifle, new airgunners will be encouraged that they’re not alone and that things can be worked out in time.

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My new AR-15: Part 2

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

Part 1

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.

Group 1 AR-15
Ten .223 bullets at 100 yards went into this 0.913-inch group.

Group 2 AR-15
Ten .223 bullets at 100 yards went into this 0.827-inch group.

Group 3 AR-15
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.

AR-15 on range in downpour
On the range during a driving rain. You can see my brass catcher. It never misses!

Group 4 AR-15
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?

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 MAR77 complete rifle
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.

AR 15 books
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.

Varget CRT tool reloading book
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.

AR 15
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.

AR 15 target 1
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.

AR 15 target 2
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.