Archive for the ‘Marksmanship’ Category

Preparedness: Defense of Home and Country (Product Review)

Sunday, July 14th, 2019

Accuracy Begins Here

I make no bones about the fact that I believe in the full exercise of the Second Amendment, and while I realize there are those who will consider my views “extreme,” or some such thing, it’s in largest measure because they desire the approval of a cooing media. They’ve been conditioned to seek the approval of the popular culture and media, hoping to be labeled as “reasonable.”  I’ve never looked for validation among statists.  More, while they try to pretend that AR-15s have no use in self/home defense, the evidence strongly suggests otherwise, and more evidence came in on Wednesday. This being the case, I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about one of the things I’ve always enjoyed, from the pellet rifles of youth, to when I was a young man in the Army, or in all the years since: Marksmanship.  The US Army taught me to be a fairly good shot, and perhaps owing to the eagle-eyed vision of my youth, (which seems to persist at distances, despite the arms-length affects of presbyopia in middle age,) I’ve always enjoyed being able to get the most out of any given rifle type.  A couple of years ago, I decided to build a custom AR-15.  I won’t bother you with the entire parts-list, but what I do wish to talk about is what I consider the heart of any such rifle: The barrel.  Bearing in mind that my experience with this type of firearm is extensive, having first handled an M16 at a tender seventeen years of age, I believe my opinion is informed by sufficient experience to offer some value to readers.  In this instance, I want to talk about barrels in general, but in particular, I wish to discuss a particular brand of barrel that has proven to me to be superior to others. The offerings of Wilson Combat seem to be as good a barrel as can be had for the money, and then some.  As I recently noted, speaking to another self-defense enthusiast on the subject, I’ve spent more for a barrel but I’ve never gotten more out of one.

The particulars of the barrel I selected were these:

  • 18″ Length
  • Chambered in .223 Wylde
  • Rifle Length Gas System
  • Bull barrel profile
  • .920″ diameter at gas seat(this has been superseded subsequently with a .875″ diameter gas seat.)
  • 5/8″-24 threaded muzzle(this has been superseded subsequently with 1/2″-28 threading.)
  • 1:8 RH twist
  • 416R Stainless Steel
  • Straight Flutes
  • Weight 42 ounces(Slightly lower in latest version)
  • M4 Style feed ramps

It’s a heavier profile, but because at my age, I’m not going to be running, jumping and dodging much. If I must, the extra weight won’t be nearly the problem my knees will be. On the other hand, I always consider weight a negative because almost no fight is from a purely fixed position.  I selected the .223 Wylde chambering because it is a good compromise between 5.56 and .223.  It can fire both cartridges safely, approaching the maximum potential of both.  The 18″ length was chosen because it is easier to wield if one must move in somewhat confined spaces, like an interior hallway, or through doorways.  I prefer the full(rifle) length gas system because it’s going to provide the best pressure and therefore muzzle velocity at the selected barrel length.  1:8RH twist seems to stabilize the 62gr rounds I prefer in most instances very well.  The shallow fluting lightens the load a bit from what it might otherwise be, and given the larger surface area, should augment cooling. The heavy profile should make for as rigid a barrel as you’re going to reasonably place in this particular performance envelope.  416R stainless is extremely resistant to corrosion.

Of course, when we talk about barrels, it’s hard to ignore the parts to which barrels attach, or which attach to or surround them.  In this case, a very lightweight, slim, free-float rail of 13″ length was used.  The upper receiver is standard DPMS forged 7075(as is the lower.)  The muzzle brake is a custom unit manufactured to my specifications by Larry Sperlich, of Pasco, WA. His custom brakes are exceedingly effective, and since he generally manufactures them from 303 stainless, like the barrel, they resist corrosion very well. (Larry will work with you to create the brake you desire. He does phenomenal work, so you can consider this an unqualified recommendation of his brakes. You can contact him via Ebay as seller Drhard1972.)  You’ll enjoy his work. These brakes are made from solid stainless round stock, so they can be on the heavy side, but then again, you’re quickly repaid for the extra ounces with recoil reduction and excellent muzzle control augmentation. Again, it’s a little extra weight that I’m happy to bear given the return.

Where the rubber meets the road when considering any barrel comes down to its inherent effects on the rifle’s accuracy.  This is best measured from a bench rest, and after zeroing the sights at a standard 25m(83 feet) with a standard type US Army zero target, it was interesting to note that the three-round group appeared as a single hole on the paper.  After relocating to a 100 yard lane, shooting a variety of ammo just to get a feel for accuracy, I shot the following brands/type/weights:

  • PMC Bronze .223 55gr FMJ
  • Silver Bear .223 62gr HP
  • Silver Bear .223 55gr FMJ
  • Federal Lake City 5.56 55gr FMJ (XM193BK)
  • TulAmmo .223 75gr HP
  • Wolf .223 62gr FMJ

I knew my first shots would leave a lot of copper on the sharp edges of the new lands in my spiffy new barrel, but I wanted to be “gentle” on it.  All of the zeroing was carried out with the PMC Bronze because it’s a good, average round, serving as a decent baseline for comparison.  In short, it’s neither the best nor the worst, but it does have a brass case, and their manufacturing process tends to lend itself to a basic level of consistency.  As expected, this ammunition provided for MOA groupings at 100 yards.  Occasionally, I’d have a “flyer” that either owed to some inconsistency on my part(maybe a jerk here or there when I’d break steady-hold discipline for some reason) or perhaps to ammunition variability.  In all, twenty rounds of the PMC at 100 yards yielded decent results.  I then moved on to the Silver Bear 55gr. This provided poorer results. I found that roughly 1-1/2 MOA was the best I could consistently obtain. The wind was calm/negligible on the day of testing.

The Wolf was slightly better than the 55gr Silver Bear, perhaps 1-1/4 MOA, while the TulAmmo 75gr managed to perform on par with the 62gr Silver Bear, with which I was able to manage a consistent 1 MOA at the 100 yard distance. The Lake City 55gr did roughly as well as the PMC, perhaps a little better, with one group managing 3/4 MOA.  (Conveniently, I was using one box of ammunition per sheet, and due to few other shooters on the range, I was using the target in my lane plus the one adjacent to my left that was unoccupied.  This permitted me to put up two sheets per trip downrange, and test two ammo types at a time. For context, as I was shooting, there was only one other shooter on the twelve available 100 yard rifle lanes, so no problems about range courtesy.)  To date, I’ve tried several other brands of ammunition, but my best results have been with the 55gr bullet varieties, particularly the XM193BK types. I will say that the TulAmmo 75gr ammo shoots reasonably well, and that the 1:8 twist rate of this barrel seems to stabilize the heavy round much better than I expected.  On one particular day of shooting recently, I managed 1/2-3/4 MOA on four consecutive groups shooting the Federal Lake City 5.56 55gr. FMJ ammo.

One of the downfalls of the 5.56/.223 caliber to me is the rapidly increasing instability with distance traveled, particularly in heavier rounds. Consistently, the worst performance I receive is with so-called “Penetrator” 62 grain green-tip varieties, but I think that owes to variability in the symmetry of the placement of the steel core within the bullets.  For standard bullet types, at 200 yards, the first signs of instability are already showing, and at 300 yards, if you hadn’t noticed it beforehand, you will certainly find that it becomes more inconsistent, and this owes to the inherent instability of the round.  All of this has made me very curious about a new caliber that has arrived on the scene, which is .224 Valkyrie.  The idea is to provide a rounds of greater weight than .223/5.56 and to be able to carry supersonic velocity beyond 1000 yards.  So far, reports from the field on this particular round are promising.  It’s been out for around two years, and in that time, it’s gained quite a following.  It’s not uncommon to hear of consistent performance at 1000 yards.  I will be investigating that caliber soon enough, and I was heartened to learn that Wilson Combat now offers several barrels in that caliber.

It’s useful to note that while Wilson Combat no longer offers the exact barrel I purchased, their replacement in their lineup that has several potential advantages over the one I own. It is identical to mine in all but the following ways:

  • 1/2″-28 muzzle threads
  • .875″ gas seat
  • Slightly lighter at just about 40 ounces

Obviously, at the slightly smaller diameter forward of the gas block shoulder, it’s also going to be slightly lighter.  Additionally, because they now manufacture this with the 1/2″-28 threads, there are many more muzzle brake/flash hider options for the .223/5.56 caliber rounds.  One of the things that drove me to find a custom manufacturer of muzzle brakes had been the difficulty in finding a brake with the 5/8″-24 threads and bored for the smaller caliber.  This means you’ll have many more options for muzzle devices, although I maintain that you’d be hard-pressed to beat the performance and price of Larry’s.  I now buy all of my muzzle brakes from him. His work is just that good.

I’ve fired a large number of .223/5.56 rifles over my lifetime.  It’s a good round within its proper performance envelope, which for most people with average to good skills is going to mean it will be effective out to 300-350 meters, although it can be pressed beyond that.  What makes the round particularly effective, apart from good basic marksmanship, is a good barrel and a decent trigger.  There are many drop-in triggers available, and I prefer a single stage trigger in the 3.5-4.0 lbs breaking force.  If your barrel is good, and your fundamentals are sound, a decent trigger with a low-weight pull will enhance your accuracy.  What I can also tell you is that you will hear all sorts of bragging about the accuracy of various rifles, barrels, shooters, and so on.  The truth is that any barrel in the .223/5.56 caliber that will consistently shoot 1 MOA or better at 100 yards, and 200 yards, is an excellent barrel.  If it will do so in hot and cold conditions, in cloud and shine, with a variety of ammunition, it’s a particularly excellent barrel. I have no reservations about recommending the Wilson Combat barrel in .223 Wylde, and based on the clear attention to detail in all their products, I suspect you’ll find similar results.

Here’s the latest variant of the barrel in question, with the three improvements mentioned above”

They also have a 20″ variant of the same basic barrel, that ought to provide comparable performance, with a touch more muzzle energy:

It’s also useful to note that at distances under 400 meters, unless I’m specifically setting up a scope, I prefer Troy folding iron sights.  I generally substitute a KNS precision front sight post (.034) for better precision on my iron sights, or as I commonly do, I turn down a standard front sight post to 0.40. Here’s the parts list:

For what it’s worth, my philosophy of use with this barrel is on a defensive weapon used where mobility is limited, and maneuverability may be hampered.  Alternatively, a young and nimble, physically fit shooter should not suffer any significant mobility penalty, and may not mind the added weight given the enhanced accuracy over more run-of-the-mill AR-style barrels. It’s a handsome barrel, and can be coated with all the usual flavors of Duracoat and Cerakote, although I’d advise slightly roughing the surface with some 400 or higher grit sandpaper. In my case, I used Tactical Black by Duracoat, but I masked off the fluting for a two-tone appearance.

To date, the barrel has not failed to deliver extraordinary accuracy, and I can’t say enough about it. It will certainly lead me to try out this offering by Wilson Combat:

In .224 Valkyrie, I’ll be looking at longer-range accuracy.  I view it as a potential lightweight precision long-range rifle.  It utilizes the same upper and lower receivers, the same bolt carrier group, though with a 6.8 SPC bolt, and followers for 6.8 SPC in the otherwise stock AR-style magazine.  Essentially, for a caliber change, you need only barrel, bolt, and magazine followers.  The ballistic efficiency of the caliber is excellent, and I’m anxious to give it a try. Key to the Valkyrie’s long range performance is the extraordinarily high ballistic efficiency that permits the round to remain supersonic as far as 1300 meters.  That’s a significant advantage over cartridges like 6.5 Grendel, that is good for 750-800 yard in supersonic flight.  Another key is a barrel in 1:6.5 or 1:7 twist to stabilize the round.

Like anything else in the free market, as more shooters adopt the .224 Valkyrie cartridge, the cost of ammunition is likely to come down, right now averaging between $0.50 and $0.70 per round, although that’s based on the 75gr FMJ Federal that it most widely produced and available. I recently found a sale on this ammunition for as low as $0.42 per round, so it is coming slowly down, at least in the entry bullet weight. As you step up to the higher bullet weights, prices go up as well. One of the problems with a new cartridge is that it takes time for the round to gain broad acceptance(if it ever does,) and then it takes time for manufacturers to begin to make it in sufficient amounts to bring the equilibrium price down to a more bearable level.  The thing about this round is that equipped with a 6.8 SPC follower, a standard AR-15 magazine can happily accommodate 25-27 rounds in the same space 30 rounds of .223/5.56 will occupy.  Unlike some other rounds squeezed into the AR platform, you don’t lose much in capacity by adopting Valkyrie, but you will apparently gain much in accuracy at middle to longer range.

What I can say in an unqualified manner is that I have been extraordinarily pleased with the Wilson Combat barrel. One of my favorite drills with the rifle involves timed circuits of my 5-target paper. Essentially, I start at top-left, and go clockwise, ending at the center. Basically, from the first shot, I get three seconds to acquire and engage each of the four targets. What I’m really interested in during this drill is that I will generally start at the top-left, and continue to shoot until 20 rounds are expended. What I’m hoping to obtain is accurate, consistent engagement of targets. At 100 yards, I get three seconds per shot, but at 200 yards, I give myself 4 seconds per shot.  I also vary the pattern, going from top-left to bottom-right to top-right to center to bottom-left.  This sort of drill gets you accustomed to acquiring and engaging targets under time pressure.  It also means if you have a malfunction, you need to clear it and move on in timely fashion. Fortunately, with this rifle, I’ve yet to suffer any malfunctions, but practicing for them is still important.  This can be a lot of fun, and it’s a good way to find out how you’re managing your steady-hold discipline.  One of the things you’ll learn, if unaccustomed to the AR platform in general and the .223/5.56 NATO round in particular is that the zeroing procedure creates a rifle that will shoot high at 100m, 150m, 200m, and 250m, while being bang-on at 50m and 300m.  This is because the zeroing procedure developed by the US Army relies on the ballistics of the round, inasmuch as the round’s flight between the muzzle and 300m is represented by an arc. On the M16A1, the rifle I grew up with, the use of the rear dual aperture sight, flipping up and down between long and short range, is the method for maintaining the appropriate sight picture and corresponding strike of the bullet.

For those unfamiliar with the Army’s zero procedure for an M16, it’s done using a reduced-size silhouette target printed on a grid.  The target is placed at 25m(roughly 83 feet,) and the idea is that by using the iron sights, you shoot three-round groups and adjust the sights to move the strike of the bullets to the center of the target, while using the long range(smaller) aperature.  What this creates is a condition in which the arc of the bullet’s path will cross the line of sight to a 300m target at approximately 25m and again at 300m. I prefer to equip any AR-15 with folding back-up iron sights, usually Troy Industries’ offerings, before I mount any optic.  My notion is that iron sights are really my primary, and that any optic I’m using is something I consider a temporary “upgrade” the use of which may not be possible under some less than optimal circumstance.  I therefore always zero my AR builds with iron sights, and go through several cycles of folding and unfolding the sights to verify a return to zero.  Troy’s sights are pretty solid units, so I don’t sweat the return-to-zero so much, but it’s always good to check/test.  What I frequently customize on the Troy sights is the front sight post.  I nearly always replace the front post with a KNS Precision sight in .034 size, or I simply turn down the stock front sight post using a drill and a small flat file, as I did when I was a soldier.  I have always found that the smaller I make the post, the more accurate my shooting becomes. As was [re-]popularized by Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot, the reliable marksman’s adage has ever been: “Aim small, miss small.” At any distance beyond 300m, the standard AR front sight post will begin to obscure a standard silhouette target, and while I’d be unlikely to be taking too many shots at more than 300m, it’s worth the extra stretch in effective range.  I find it also gives me a better way to gauge distance to a target.

Of course, with the original M16, M16A1, and M16A2, the length of the barrel was 20 inches, which has a definite effect on range, muzzle velocity/energy, and accuracy.  I always considered it foolish when the Army decided to downsize the M16 series into the M4 series, with the shorter 16 inch barrel, but I understood the rationale: They knew that very few soldiers would be taking shots at enemies 300m distant on the modern battlefield, but would instead face combat at distances between 25-200m much more frequently.  The shorter barrel makes for a lighter burden, and is more compact for confined spaces of corridors, alleys, hallways, and other more urban-oriented environments.  Also, as a practical matter, if one finds oneself needing to defend one’s convoy from the cab of a moving vehicle, the longer M16 would be far more unwieldy.

That’s one of the reasons I like the 18 inch barrels offered by Wilson Combat: They retain most of the ballistic advantages of the longer barrels, but they are much more easily maneuvered in tighter spaces.  That said, I still prefer the longer barrel of the standard rifle length.  Perhaps only because that is what I became accustomed to in youth, or perhaps because of my long reach, I find I am very comfortable with it. It helps that I’m a rather taller person, so that a rifle like the standard M16 already seems somewhat compact to me, particularly measured against the M14s and M1s of the generations I followed into uniform.

One of the best aspects about modern firearms is the ability to customize, particularly with the AR platform.  What makes the AR-15 platform so attractive to so many is that it’s an easy weapon system to master.  It’s relatively light and compact, and there is an almost endless array of parts to tailor your AR to your particular uses and tastes.  Myself, I’m willing to sacrifice a little lightness in favor of a better, somewhat heavier barrel, because I know it will pay accuracy dividends, and besides, one can nowadays save weight in other areas, perhaps using exotic, carbon-fiber hand-guards.  My point to you is that it’s possible to make your AR-15 uniquely your own, but for me, beginning with a really well-made barrel is essential, and the offerings by Wilson Combat are fantastic.

A large number of people buy(or build) expensive, fancy, high-class firearms, but seldom take them out to shoot. I realize it can be difficult, especially depending on where you live and what the legal environment looks like, but I must say that buying or building a nice rifle, followed by simply throwing it in the gun-safe, only to pull it out to admire every now and again isn’t a very good way to attain or maintain proficiency. Shooting skills are perishable.  Learning and mastering the battery of arms for a given firearm is also easily forgotten, and muscle memory doesn’t last indefinitely.  My point to readers is that in this increasingly uncertain world, don’t let your skills go without exercise.  If you’re going to build an AR-15 type, or intend to buy one with an eye toward customization, start with a good barrel. From my decades of experience, where your hardware is concerned, the barrel is the single most influential piece of hardware in your accuracy puzzle.

Editor’s Note: I NEVER receive any benefit for reviews of products. I don’t take any, and never would. The products endorsed in this article were purchased for my use, by me for my use, and those manufacturers had no input in what I’ve said about them here. Period.

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