The Black Rifle Has Come of Age
By 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!
I know, that’s 22/250 velocities from a 223 case! Yes, it extended the reach, much to the dismay of many prairie dogs! The build was superb in that it met all my requirements and then some. It has become a favorite rifle and I have named it “Wicked Wanda”.
Another tight group that was shot with the 20 TAC. I’ve shot several like this. It’s one fine cartridge and rifle!
This picture shows one of the fine uppers Lee Mosher built with one of my favorite additions, a Scope Shield Alaska scope cover that’s hanging from the forend for the picture. The Scope Shield Alaska scope cover is great with a handy “lanyard” to keep it from flying off and going missing. The barrel’s 26” length is evident in the picture as is the 11 degree crown. All of Lee’s meticulous attention to detail is hard to see, but the proof is in the shooting. It is a pure delight to shoot and beautiful to look at, too!
I said they come in .17 rim fire. Yep, Alexander Arms in Radford, Va. makes it in 17 HMR and I am one of the lucky ones to get it. It is incredibly accurate and so sweet to shoot! I can’t wait till my next trip to the dog towns to really have fun with it. Bill Alexander has done a lot of work to make this happen. It also took more time and grew a lot of grey hairs on Bill before it came to fruition. It’s not an easy task to make a semi auto rifle function with the fragile cased 17HMR, but Bill has succeeded where others failed. I have shot a five shot group at 50 yards of .148”! Still haven’t had much range time on it, but it surely won’t disappoint me. I’ve seen another of Bill’s ARs doing the same thing. This will serve me well for those short to intermediate shots in the dog towns. I may be surprised at how far it will shoot!
Ain’t it cute! But it’s an accurate, reliable and hard hitting 17HMR that pasture poodles will hate!
This target was shot with my Alexander Arms rifle in 17 HMR at 50 yards and has five shots in that teensy clover!
This was a group I shot with the Alexander Arms 17HMR at 100 yards! If only I could have kept all five grouped as tight as the four. Bummer. But, you can see the group of five still only measured .680 with the four going .369.Pretty good at 100 yards for a semi auto, huh?
How About the Big Guy, the AR 10?
So I have some varmint rigs, but what about big game hunting? The AR10s were made originally in .308 and I knew them to be fine rifles, but I wanted something else so I waited. My patience was rewarded when DPMS came out with the 260 Remington in a configuration that suited me: heavy but not too heavy to hunt. Plus, it too shoots sub minute groups with my hand loads! This is my pig and deer gun. I shoot 139 grain bullets at a modest 2755fps, but it will do it while shooting right at a half MOA. My friend’s son used his 260 AR10 to take a pig in North Carolina last year. One shot, DRT!
These are the two cartridges I have in the AR10s. On the left is the 6x47Lapua and at right is the 260 Remington. That 6x47 is quite a sexy looking cartridge and I hope to give PDs a hard time out to 600 yards with it. If my eyes were better it could be further!
My latest lust was started because two friends had the cartridge in bolt guns and it shot extremely well (and way out there) to tag the distant prairie dog. I wanted it in the modern sporting rifle. Lady Luck smiled on me and I found a young man in Wisconsin who said he could make it happen. Matt Salm is a Wisconsin National Guard Armament Technician, and was a Small Arms/Artillery Repairer for fifteen years. He has a small business making custom bolt guns and uppers for the AR10 as well as the AR15. Matt had to do some head scratching to make this work; but indeed he did. It came out looking wickedly beautiful and as I get more shooting in, I am more impressed.
The cartridge is a wildcat named the 6x47 Lapua. I wanted to shoot the 80 to maybe 105 grain bullets and it should be good as both a varmint and, with proper bullets, a good deer rifle. For this reason, we decided on a nine twist and a 26” heavy barrel. Because of the case size, Matt had to improvise the bolt and carrier to make it work. He also had fun finding a handguard and gas block to fit the oversized barrel! There were other issues to deal with and he expertly handled them. Like the rifles Lee Mosher builds, this rifle is a thing of beauty to this shooter! Yes, I asked him to make it heavy for the same reasons I gave Lee, and we also put a Vais muzzle brake on it. Ok, so I’m a Woosie! I don’t like un-necessary recoil and I don’t plan on carrying these over hill and dale. I also love the idea that I can keep the target in view at the shot. This will be my primary, ultimate long range rig for those really, really long prairie dog shots. I haven’t been able to get much range time in on this one, but so far it is a delight to shoot. I topped it with a Nightforce 8x32 scope and an American Gold trigger to get the most out of it and I believe they will. It took all of two shots to zero! One hit and one to get where I wanted it was all it took.
I was only zeroing, shooting un-proven hand loads, and chronographing that day, so the distance was only 25 yards to the target. But, two loads clustered three shots into a tiny clover with no paper between shots. This was done with no parallax adjustment as this Nightforce scope doesn’t start doing that until at least 50 yards. I also didn’t have much of an aiming point either. Later, at 100 yards I shot a .414” group and I know it will continue to shrink those groups as I get the loads and seating depths adjusted.
What Makes The ARs so Accurate?
The first thing that makes ARs so accurate is triggers. Without a good trigger no rifle can reach its potential. The first ARs and indeed, some of the later ones, had atrocious triggers. Full of creep, poundage and travel! All the things you don’t want in any trigger, be it in a bolt action or the semi auto AR. Because of shooting games using ARs, and (former) bolt rifle shooters accustomed to fine triggers, there’s been a push for better equipment. Several manufacturers have met that need in their own and differing ways. Makers like Geissele, Timney, Jewell, American Gold Trigger, and Rock River all make excellent AR triggers that make the rifles a lot more accurate and enjoyable to shoot. I personally love the Rock River’s two stage match trigger and the American Gold. They are, for all intents and purposes, bench rest triggers for semi autos. To install them, you simply pop out two pins, remove the old trigger and stick the replacement back in. It’s that easy and they make a world of difference in shooting comfort and accuracy!
This is a picture of “The Beast”, my AR10 Matt Salm built for me. Good looking rig, right? It has a 26” barrel and a .875” muzzle behind the Vais brake. It should shoot an 85 grain pill all the way to 600 yards to bring grief to PDs! (Did you notice the Scope Shield Alaska scope cover dangling from it? Or the awesome Night Force 8x32 scope?) Oops, I have left off one of my valuable pieces of equipment, one I don’t shoot without! It’s the 3BUCC shell catcher. That is a required item if you want to keep brass to reload or simply not to litter. Works great!
I finally got some quality range time. Two groups like this and one more. All three were less than .600” and this five shot group went .425” with the four into .179”. Not bad for an old guy with a gas gun. If only that one...
Another important component I believe that is critical to fine accuracy is a good scope mounted properly in reliable rings. One must remember that a scope on an AR gets recoil in two directions. I don’t believe you can mount a “cheap” scope in good rings nor a good scope in cheap rings and expect it to perform as well as a good scope in properly secured good rings. Read that again! If you’re looking for the utmost accuracy and repeatability out of your AR, you simply cannot cut corners. I didn’t get the groups pictured in this article without attention to the details of properly mounting a quality scope in quality rings. My favorite rings are TPS. I’ve never had to lap any of them and they come with important but very simple directions for mounting. Nothing moves in these mounts if you follow their directions.
The third key component is the barrel and chambering. Some would argue it is the first component, but I will say all three parts are about equal. You can have them heavy or light, long or as short as you like. I’m in the camp of long, cut rifled barrels. I’m not a fan of button rifled barrels; however, the factory built ones I have are button rifled and they shoot as accurate as my cut rifled barrels. But, if I’m ordering a barrel, it will be cut rifled. There are several small, quality barrel makers and there’s Kreiger. My 6x47 Lapua has a Brux barrel and the 20 TAC and the 223A.I. have LRB barrels. Their bores are as smooth as butter, take very little to clean up and shoot fantastically. Kreiger is probably the finest barrel maker today and theirs are cut rifled. I have five of theirs on bolt rifles. In addition, Krieger sets very high standards for the blanks before they accept them and then even higher standards for their finished work. You can’t go wrong with Krieger nor the other two companies, Brux and LRB.
These three components are, in my humble opinion, the most important parts of what will make an AR accurate, or not. All the other parts are simply what are needed for completing the rifle and the look the builder and owner are striving for. However, if the builder cuts any corners in the build, even the best components won’t matter. He still has to do all of his work properly. The ARs I own I fully enjoy shooting, and they will shoot a lot better than I’m capable of doing. They are lots of fun, very accurate, and interesting in their diverse configurations and calibers. Yes, the ARs are the Modern Sporting Rifle. If you haven’t shot one, what are you waiting for?
I have been blessed by God to have a wonderful life: a life of travel and the opportunity to meet many people who have became good friends. We live in a country filled with diverse beauty and incredibly interesting people. My advice is to get out there and explore our beautiful country and meet new friends. Travel by ground roads, not air, if at all possible! Enjoy the scenic beauty of the lands we live in, the places you travel through and the loveliness of your destination. Go with an open, uncluttered mind that will allow you to see and appreciate it. You will be richer for it. God made it for us to enjoy; I hope you will as I have. Remember too, that getting old is normal but growing up is optional! Try new things, and if you haven’t tried the modern sporting rifle, what are you waiting for? I encourage you to do so. So many calibers, so many configurations, so many choices. Ain’t life grand?
My thanks and appreciation to:
Jessica, my sweet niece who proofread this and gave moral support. I couldn’t have done it without you!
Phillip, my son, who also aided me in making the corrections that Jessica pointed out.
Lee Mosher of Insight Shooting Systems, Pueblo,Colo. Lee got me started and has remained a great friend. He builds very fine AR uppers!
3BUCC. Builder of the fine brass catchers for ARs. An indispensable item!
Scope Shield Alaska. Probably the finest scope cover made!
Matt Salm, a Patriot. One who built an excellent AR 10 upper.
Don Lahr, Precision Ballistics, LLC, for those fine 6mm bullets.
Bill Alexander, Alexander Arms and his staff for their support and for building a great little AR.
and Rock River and DPMS for building some of the worlds best ARs!
Charles E. Speck is a Virginia Christian clay and target shooter, hunter and reloader. He has been doing this for over forty years and says he is still learning! Charles has written a couple articles and had an article written about a gun he had commissioned called "The Patriot," which is the only gun ever to commemorate 9/11. Charles loves side by sides and accurate rifles.