I don’t typically like writing about firearms on this blog, as there’s a lot of other outlets that do that, and I think that guns get WAY too much focus in the Survivalism and Preparedness community. They’re important and fun, but other stuff, like growing food and having a good store of tools, is just as important. That being said, like with all things, a baseline must first be recognized and then built upon, never detracted from- in order to maximize our capabilities.
Hanging out on the sidelines of a public range can be a hobby all to its own; watching the tacticool budget gun bunnies, the 500lb know-it-all benchresters, and even the undergrad Hipster, replete in leather buckle shoes and skinny jeans mastering his fundamentals with a .22. I’m not here to knock them at all, I enjoy the company (it beats the snot out of my other option I would have been doing that day), it’s just an observation. But another parallel observation was the sheer number of AR-15 type rifles on the line- every stall had at least one- and I think, at this point, it’s safe to say that Eugene’s garage project, once a taboo kinda-deal everyday folks thought ‘put you on the list’ has firmly cemented in its place as ‘Murica’s gun.
The fascination with the Stoner platform is largely due to it’s efficiency and ease of use, coupled with the fear of suspension of niceties and social issues reaching critical mass at some point down the road. A fear that is certainly not illogical. Regarding this however, there’s a few guidelines that don’t exactly transition from the hunting/range gun to a weapon you plan on defending yourself and posterity with- in fact, there’s a tremendous difference. Recognizing this need while honestly evaluating your skill and role within the Group/Tribe is paramount to building an efficient platform without dumping lots of money finding out what you thought worked in theory actually really sucks in practice.
The Rifle as a System
Much of the thinking (and writing) concerning combat-oriented weapons get hung up on the platform itself- and that’s a problem. The thing that goes Bang! is one part, but each component of your weapon is a piece of a larger system, each having a specific place and purpose, not there for winning the cool guy contest. The weapon, optic, ammunition, magazine, and sling are each interdependent- and this is a tough concept to learn just sitting on a square range. Some require more attention than others, with a few components being a matter of preference, but that preference only comes with experience built on an established baseline. All of this however is predetermined by our mission, and in this context, that’s a simple, reliable general purpose carbine that could be pressed into combat service from 0-600M.
If you’ll notice from the rifle pictured above, the weapon is kept pretty slick. Save for a couple of small add-ons (more on this in a second), it’s basically a bone-stock mid-length gas system gun. I strongly encourage a 1/7 twist barrel to stabilize both common 55gr and heavier 77gr SMKs. The mid-length gas system runs a little slower and cooler over the shorter carbine length. This means a little less wear on the bolt lugs in the long run, meaning a little more reliability. The maximum barrel length needed on a fighting 5.56 is 16 inches- there’s nothing a longer barrel will do for 5.56 that stepping up in caliber would do better. Everything else is basically what you’d expect from an off-the-shelf rifle. This is done for a couple of reasons. The first is that more modifications lead to shortcuts in training- bad, bad, bad. These take away from the muscle memory of running a stock weapon, and should the need arise to run one that’s not yours, you’re gonna have problems. The second issue is that modifications to the manual of arms or internal components leads to unpredictable reliability. This is the major qualm I have with homebuilt guns- if they’re sourced from a variety of makers, then there’s no established standard. Issues will result, being far harder to isolate and remedy amid various tolerances. So in short, every weapon of that type in an arsenal should match, both for interchangeability and mastery of the manual of arms.
Along with the focus on barrel twist is the need to wring the most accuracy possible out of our platform. To do this, while minimizing weight, I prefer a slim free-float tube (I can feel a certain former Sniper Instructor is slapping me in the back of the head as I wrote that…I can hear him screaming ‘Auto rifles CAN’T BE FREEFLOATED!!! ONLY ACCURIZED!!!’ while ‘helping’ us naturalize our ghillies) with a machined rail at the 12. I’ve never seen much need to go beyond 12 or 13 inches on a tube- everything longer, in my opinion, is just weight, as is extra rails. But to each their own in that respect, I like keeping as light of a weapon as possible for something I may have to carry long distances- even the diminutive M4 starts feeling like a cinderblock after multi day long range patrolling up and down mountains. It’s slick, but I can add rails if need be (I don’t ever foresee that need, unless someone has a AN/PSQ-23A STORM system they wanna donate). Generally I like everything centerline to the bore no matter the weapon, as close to the center of gravity as possible. This keeps the weapon balanced and the same when fired from either shoulder.
Notice the AR pictured doesn’t have iron sights. I haven’t used AR irons since my days of rolling in PT pits at Sand Hill, and in this day and age, with the overwhelming number of quality optics out there even at relatively low prices, I don’t think they’re relevant. Now in saying that, there is a value in training with irons. Not too long ago MSG Paul Howe did a video of a shoot and move drill of varying distances with only irons. A lot of the youtube comments were hilarious- filled with apparent tacti-range nozzles ridiculing him for using irons, while failing miserably to realize the point. If you could run that drill with irons, doing it with any sort of optics would be a breeze. And MSG Howe, by the way, is not a man I question when it comes to training, and sure as hell is not a man you’d ridicule to his face.
Most people running red-dot sights maintain irons as a backup, and that’s understandable, as I’m not running to chop the irons off my AKs with red dots mounted. But the AR-15, at least in my experience, is a different animal. If the round allows my engagement range to go to or beyond 600M, which heavy match 5.56 does, a magnified optic, even low powered, is the way to go. I like as simple and rugged as possible- and that’s Trijicon’s engineering marvel, the Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG). So while the ACOG may be a bit dated in some circles, I know for a fact the ACOG is bomb-proof. As in, blown up in an IED along with me, and still holds a zero. It’s a fixed four power, has very few points of failure, and requires no batteries.
I’m partial to the TA-01 reticle v. the TA-31 or the others since, because I have lots of experience with it, it’s fast, efficient, and I can rangefind with the reticle. The stadia lines of the bullet drop compensator (BDC) represent 19in (the average size of a man’s shoulders) at the associated ranges, allowing the shooter to rapidly rangefind and engage. The system works very, very well in practice, and while the BDC is tuned to 62gr m855, it’s perfectly acceptable to the heavier bullet weights with training on a Known Distance (KD) range to verify the drop.
On a general purpose weapon, a simple, rugged optic beats the tar out of irons, and is far easier for new shooters to master. If you don’t feel like coughing up Trijicon cash (the TA-01 actually is not that expensive for what you get, with the TA-01 being around $800, but, I digress), Burris makes a great prismatic optic as well, in 3x and 5x varieties. I owned the 3x for a few years, selling it to a buddy to fund another project (the rifle I bought it for was stolen in a break-in, so I used it on an AK with a TWS top cover after that). I really liked it, and would have no reservations about buying another one. Vortex makes one that looks identical, and given that its Vortex, is likely good as well.
The optic placement is very important. Not only is the eye relief/eye box critical to shot placement, it should be set right for your eyes with your nose to the charging handle, so that when you bring it up there’s no shadow at all keeping both eyes open. This is different between optics, so knowing where yours will be, repeatably, is critical. Associated with those fundamentals is bringing the weapon to your head, not vice versa, so training with someone beyond Bubba the Benchrester (or the clown spotting for Bubba claiming his shot went over the 30ft berm…think about that one, and yes, he really did say that) is recommended. A combat optic differs from any other in employment, so keep that in mind.
A sling’s just a sling, right? Well, yeah, technically. They are however a requirement for a combat weapon. I like to keep them simple- I absolutely hate anything other than two points of attachment. A single point sucks for anything other than in and out of vehicles, and a three point sling gets hung on gear, loosens up on its own, and pinpoints you as a clown (seriously, you’ll look like that cherry Joe who’s trying WAY too hard). A two point, with a simple tension slide to tighten it on the fly (helps with steady aiming and keeps your weapon from flopping around during movement), works great. Viking Tactics, run by CSM Kyle Lamb, and Larry Vickers, both veterans of CAG, have their marketed versions that are good quality but the basic design has been around for a long while. I bought the one pictured many years ago before attending a school, used it in Afghanistan on both the M4 and M249, and since have picked up a couple more for my other weapons.
Speaking of Afghanistan, there’s a little story. Once upon a time there was this TL who was 100% squared away, 100% of the time. He had one of those push-in QD sling swivel thingies, just in front of the delta ring on his M4. Then one fine day, about day three of one of our multi-day Long Range Patrols, the little rollers keeping the swivel in place broke. Thoroughly PO’d at this cheap POS, he slung it into the desert of Afghanistan, never again to be used, replacing it with a hasty 550 cord loop. Since then, him and all of his associated miscreants (us) discovered the Magpul one piece sling rings, which bolt on and are infinitely more rugged. It is the only add-on thing, besides a simple sling, I really think is essential as the GI-standard M4 sling ring, 1 each, causes shifts in zero if yanked on hard enough and usually gets thrown out when you put a 12in rail to accurize (yep, there we go, I can climb out of the cold mud now) your rifle. On my weapons it gives me a memory point for hand placement as well, and I placed it far enough behind the first rail to mount my tac light ( Surefire G2 in a Vltor offset mount I’ve had for eons) in order to maintain that muscle memory and sameness across platforms. While I don’t look like some sorta Chris Costa wanna-be range knob, the manipulation is efficient and repeatable.
In the tens (maybe hundreds, I dunno) of thousands of rounds I’ve shot in training (and the handful while deployed), the source of malfunctions I’ve observed from the AR platform have been overwhelmingly from magazine issues. To the contrary, there was one catastrophic bolt failure (two sheared lugs), but that was during a 5 day high round count class, at the very end, resolved by simply swapping the bolt. Getting back to magazines though, the AR mag was originally designed to be mostly expendable; and without a doubt, the first time one gets into a firefight, they will be. So have a lot of them. The aluminum GI mags have always worked well for me, as they’ve always been free and when the feed lips get bent on them I can throw them away and not shed a tear. The plastic ones from Magpul and a few others are ok too, but not above issues and are not the second coming, as the marketers would have you believe. The Magpul 7.62×51 SR-25 mags for example, suck (but that’s another topic, on a whole other animal), and the HK steel mags are neat, but I’ve always just kept with what I have boxes full of from my time in. The point is when a magazine starts giving issues, trash it…like the stuck up girl who turned you down for a date, it ain’t worth your time.
This is a baseline- something to be added to, but never detracted from. My experience has taught me that like everything, simplicity is best, and quality is King. For a general purpose weapon that one intends to use, the parameters are certainly different than those filling other roles. You’d certainly be very, very capable in keeping a stripped down rugged weapon that is practical for most purposes versus a rifle at home only on the range, provided you do your part in training. Because of this, it might be a good idea to take a step back and reevaluate the purpose behind your weapons, and reevaluate how to maximize your potential. You were granted a temporary reprieve, but socially as well as economically, things are not looking rosy. If you’re still fence-sitting, or still in need of that all knowing clue-bat, get on it. Simple, rugged, reliable, effective.