The Black Rifle Has Come of AgeBy Charles E. Speck
It was Col. Townsend Wheeling who said, “Only accurate rifles are interesting,” and I will agree. Someone else said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and that too, is a truism. While the black rifle doesn’t have the historical beauty of a well shaped, beautiful wood stocked bolt gun, there are ARs being built that, in this shooter’s eyes, are yet another form of beauty, both in their looks and accuracy. Unless you’ve been living under a rock and are in complete denial, you know the AR rifle is here and it is truly a modern sporting rifle. As a point of fact, I am very late in writing about this as many gun safes now have at least one black rifle in them. Truly the AR has proven its worthiness and acceptance as a sporting rifle and I’d like to share my observations, personal connections and why I enjoy shooting it. I don’t pretend to have all the answers nor know everything about the ARs, but just maybe, though, I’ll answer some of your questions that have kept you from joining in on the fun.
While I will be extolling the virtues of the ARs, my first encounter with the black rifle was not a good one. Back in 1963 while stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, I had been using the M-1 Garand and the M1 carbine, both of which you know are 30 caliber. One day we were taken to the range for our annual qualifying and were introduced to the “Mattel plastic gun”, as we then called it. It was so light, had such a tiny cartridge and the stock was made out of some kind of plastic! It was like a toy rifle, until you shot it. But, I was not impressed and neither were many others. It has taken me too many years to get over that encounter, but I have gotten over it and now know the black rifle has indeed become a modern sporting rifle.
It was later in the seventies (I think) that a good friend of mine, Jim Hallis, picked up an AR 15 and must have said “I think I can make this thing exceptionally accurate,” and he did. It wasn’t pretty, but it was accurate. I believe he was either the first or certainly one of the first in America to recognize the potential of the AR as a viable sporting and target shooting rifle.
What does AR stand for and when did the AR get its start?
I’m sure some of you know this, but for those in need of a history lesson, let me begin. Actually, it was the AR 10 that Eugene Stoner built first. But the military wanted a lighter weapon and a smaller cartridge. So the AR 15 was born by Mr. Stoner at Armalite in 1958. Armalite had built several bolt action rifles, shotguns and pistols that bore the prefix of AR. This was the 15th weapon they built. The AR stands for Armalite Rifle, not, as some believe, “automatic rifle” or “assault rifle”. Armalite subsequently sold its rights to the AR 15 and AR 10 to Colt in 1959. The trademark AR 15 or AR-15 is registered to Colt Industries. The rifle Armalite sold to the military was then given the nomenclature identification of M16.
Fast forward to today and there’s been a tremendous improvement in accuracy, functionality and looks due to a huge and growing market for what is sometimes referred to as the “Modern Sporting Rifle”, the AR 15 and the slightly larger AR 10. There’s even an outdoor TV show by that very name. The rifle, barrel makers and many others have taken note of this growth and demand for accurate and multi-functional black rifles.
I think one of the biggest reasons for the AR rifles’ growing popularity is the extensive list of cartridges that can be used in them; from the .17 cal. rim fire all the way to the 50 Beowulf! There’s even a plethora of wildcat cartridges, too. Another reason for their popularity is the growing list of after market accessories and builders of the modern sporting rifle. Companies like Brownell’s, Sinclair, Midway, Graf and Sons have a vast array of components and parts for the AR. Fine companies such as Rock River, DPMS, Armalite, Wilson, Les Baer and many more are making ARs in many configurations and cartridges to meet the growing demands. There’s even a company that makes fine wood stocks for them! All are very accurate, which is a key reason for their popularity. No one likes to shoot an inaccurate rifle of any kind!
The AR platform can be called modular and for this reason it is both cost effective and versatile. One lower assembly will do for many uppers as they are interchangeable. (Of course, only AR 15 lowers for AR 15 uppers and likewise for AR 10s.)You only need to register the lower with ATFE but can have uppers to go on it shipped or bought direct to you.
Another facet is the number of gunsmiths who build these fine uppers and or lowers. Add to that the growth of new shooters who are using the ARs, the number of forums and magazines devoted to it, and I can tell you folks, the black rifle has arrived and it is kicking butt!
It used to be that if a fellow came to a range with an AR 15, there was some snickering and the curious looks. Kinda like the hybrid cars. Not today! People at ranges and even deer camps are seeing that not only are there lots more of them, they can outshoot many of their bolt action rifles! I am privileged to own several custom built ARs and a couple factory made ones (and a hybrid car). I have shot half minute of angle, five shot groups with all of them. I’m certain I don’t have the only rifles that do that. But let me tell you about the rifles I own, why I like them and what they can do.
Some of My Custom Builds
Let me start by saying I use them to hunt varmints, deer, pigs and target shoot. I don’t have to lug my rifles very far so weighty rifles don’t bother me. I like what the weight does for keeping the target in the scope and being able to see impacts. After my first one, I “inadvertently” started a collection of black rifles. I also own some beautiful bolt guns, but I put a lot more time behind the ARs these days.
These are the cartridges I have in the AR 15s. From left to right: 223AI, 223 Rem., 20 TAC, and 17 HMR. With these I can give prairie dogs a very hard time all the way to 500 yards!
My first upper was built by Lee Mosher of Insight Shooting Systems in Pueblo, Colorado. Lee has made several uppers for me over the years and all will shoot half minute of angle or better. I was so happy with this one, I later had him make another in the same caliber, the 20 Tactical, or as I like to call it, the 20 TAC (driver). I wanted it to shoot prairie dogs and maybe groundhogs around home. It does that beautifully! It has a 26” stainless steel barrel with a .775” muzzle. Prairie dogs (and ground hogs) do not like it!
I have to say, the AR in a prairie dog town rules! It is so fast to recover that a second shot can be made without losing the sight picture. Goodbye number two target! Or, if you miss, (and I certainly do!) recalculating the shot and firing before the target moves is way faster than a bolt gun! This caliber is easy on barrels, too. But be careful, you could get mentally lost and with a 20 or worse, a 30 round mag, it could really get hot! That 20 Tactical round of mine is loaded with 39 grain Sierra Blitz Kings and not only is it accurate, it’s fast and explosive! Lee tells me he regularly takes coyotes with this, sometimes all the way out to 400 yards! This wildcat was born by Todd Kindler in Ohio. Many others have been made in 20 calibers, but this one is probably the best of all. Actually, the 20 calibers have been around a long time. P.O. Ackley spoke of several in his books Handbook for Shooters and Reloaders, Volume 1 and 2. A long time ago, another good friend of mine had a 20/250 that had a twist to stabilize a 50 grain pill that was lethal on groundhogs!
This picture is of a group I shot with the 223AI. If I had caught the mirage on the fourth shot, they would all be in one hole!
I asked Lee to build me another upper, but this time in one of his favorite numbers, the 223 A.I. Since I was spoiled with the 20s lack of recoil (and staying on target in the scope), I said that since this new cartridge was going to shoot a heavier bullet at about the same velocity, would he make the barrel heavier to compensate. He laughed, but said he just happened to have a gas block big enough to accommodate the request. I wanted the extra reach of the 55 grain bullet and it does it well. I won’t say what the load is, but I will say it has been chronographed at over 3600fps and all the while shooting under ½” groups at 100 yards!
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