AR-15 Lessons Learned, Part 1

I was initially going to title this “building the perfect AR,” as over the past few years I’ve spent doing just that, in my mind at least. Spending time on various forums devoted to ARs, reading through threads where people write pieces longer than this article on the merits of a $15 part, it’s easy to catch black rifle disease and start to fall into the trap of achieving perfection. After actually shooting my rifle as it has transformed though, the more I am starting to learn not which parts matter, but which don’t. In fact nearly nothing matters for the 99% of the population that doesn’t use an AR in any capacity outside of plinking, shooting paper in a serious manner, or taking the occasional grown man operator fantasy camp carbine course. Let me guide you through some of the many choices you can make that will have no impact on the enjoyability of your AR building odyssey

This Streamlight TLR-1s was on my AR for over 3 months, where it was used a total of 0 times. Now it’s on my Glock, where it can at least double as a makeshift reading light

1. Carbine vs Midlength
This is probably the most hotly contested, while being the most meaningless, so let’s start by getting it out of the way. Nobody has ever said “if only I had a midlength,” on the range, battlefield, or during any type of actual use of their weapon. Nobody can provide evidence of a gas port wearing out before the rest of the rifle solely because the gas system was 2″ shorter. Are 16″ carbines overgassed? With some ammo maybe, but fortunately there’s an easy solution: get a heavier buffer. If your gun runs well with the ammo you use there is nothing wrong with it, and since there’s a ton of 16″ carbines out there being shot every day without problems we can assume they all can do so if properly constructed. If you are buying a new barrel or upper and carbine and midlength are similarly priced and both fit your needs, which should you choose? Whatever makes you happy. Could a midlength conceivably provide benefits for a 14.5 and 16″ barrel? Possibly, but there is little if any evidence to prove it. That said, midlengths run great as well, and if you want to be taken seriously in a pic thread it’s the clear choice.

2. Barrel Length
With so many choices and so many different applications for the AR-15 this choice has spawned the most discussion by volume in the AR world. I’ll split it up into a few different applications, explain why it doesn’t matter what you choose, then accompany it with a handy flow chart.

The Accuracy Build
The SPR, Recce, SAM-R, Afghan, and there are probably 6 more with cooler names by the time I finished writing this, which is best? For an all out accuracy build, none of them. If you want to put the smallest groups on paper get the heaviest 20-24″ varmint/match barrel with a target crown, it’s going to be the most accurate choice. The various contours and lengths I mentioned first are typically built to mimic a military gun, and the builders of these then seem to enjoy arguing the definition of their rifle endlessly while not shooting it. Don’t get me wrong, you should build whatever you think is cool, in fact I just picked up a Noveske Afghan barrel because I think it’s badass, but I won’t fool myself into thinking it’s better than some other barrel profile because I saw a picture on miltaryphotos of a guy with an awesome beard holding one in Afghanistan. Beyond the simple choices let’s not forget fluting, golf balling, spiraling, etc. Many people will assure themselves it’s better for cooling and rigidity, but again, if you want accuracy get a 10 pound monster of a Krieger. Do you carry your bench rifle for miles then shoot 30 round strings at praerie dogs? Then maybe you can benefit from it. But 99% of the people with elaborate weight reduction on their barrel drove to the range in this.

The Fighting Rifle
I can’t even type that or “gunfighter” with a straight face, seeing as most people who use it seriously are overweight, live in an area of the Midwest or South where the most common crime is cattle theft, and have round counts only rivaled by their post counts on certain forums. What these rifles should be called is “carbine I shoot standing up occasionally rather than solely from the bench.” There’s really only 3 choices in my mind for this, if you have an SBR lower 12.5″ carbine, if you don’t care about changing muzzle devices then 14.5″ carbine or mid, and if you want to change muzzle devices to match your velcro hat for that day 16″ carbine or mid. For profile it doesn’t matter as long as it’s not too heavy for you. The only thing I would really avoid is an M4 profile, because it serves no purpose and has the worst weight to rigidity/accuracy of any of the choices. Pencil profiles are great if you have a free float.

Normal Guy Gun
Though most people wouldn’t want to admit it, this is what they have. Maybe sometimes you shoot cans at 25 yards, sometimes paper at 200 yards, go out and have some fun with friends, who knows, maybe you actually… though this is hard to say and may get you laughed out of your circle of Delta Force friends… enjoy shooting. If that’s the case, you should tell nobody and keep this secret to your grave. Secondly, you should choose your barrel on looks alone. Think 20″ M16 clones are cool? Get that. Like those old Colt pencil 20″ with A1 handguards? There ya go. 8.5″ SBR? Good choice. If a barrel exists it will put rounds downrange, it doesn’t really matter if your pistol gas system won’t lock the bolt back on the last round every one and a while, whether you want it to look good in pictures, shoot huge fireballs, remind you of the gun you carried when you were in Nam, just do what makes you happy.

“Mil Spec”
I’ve touched on this in the past, but I’ll go into it one more time. First, almost nothing that claims to be “mil spec” is actually mil spec as hardly any companies have access to the TDP (Technical Data Package). Yet many companies still have good if not better reputations for making high quality ARs than the few companies that manufacture M4s for the US Government. How could this happen? It’s because the mil spec isn’t the be all end all. There are some good parts of it, encouraging HPT/MPI testing which is great for quality control, keeping dimensions in a small range so nearly all quality parts will always be compatible with eachother on your AR. But some of the best products coming out today couldn’t be farther from the mil spec – polygonal stainless barrels, ambidextrous lowers, redesigned uppers without useless forward assists, different length buffer tubes, incredible triggers, the list in endless. Since you aren’t a moron that might say “good enough to shoot dem terrorists thats all I need” you want some of this awesome new stuff, so you must forget about mil spec forever and introduce “made by a reputable manufacturer” into your vocabulary. You probably know most of them, but I’ll make up a list for a future installment. Next up – Part 2: Things That Do Matter, and Part 3 AR Accessory Special, or Learning to Accept Empty Rail Space.