Saturday, April 23, 2016

Optics: List of Recommendations

One major advantage of the AR platform is the ability to easily and reliably mount optics. Another chief advantage of the AR platform is SAWC. If we are concerned with the SAWC of the gun, that doesn't go out the window when we consider optics. There are many optics manufactures that produce extremely high quality optics, but are too heavy for what they provide. (Nightforce and US Optics are two prime examples.) If you find an optic worthy of their name, but they managed to make it a reasonable weight, go for it! But, remember, every ounce counts.

The thinking in favor of using these extremely heavy optics is maximum dependability - like if you were fighting in Iraq or Syria, jumping out of Helos, jumping in and out of APCs, etc. First off, very few people who are buying their own optics are actually doing those things with their own optics. Secondly, how much more dependable or durable are these heavier optics than, say, a Vortex or a Burris? I mean, if you shoot it or run over it with a tank, the brand, quality, and weight really doesn't matter. The best way to determine durability for real-world use is, if you drop the gun and it lands on the optic, will the optic still work and did it hold zero? Based on that definition there are numerous manufactures that fit the bill. Of those manufacturers, who has the best warranty? For my scopes, it seems to always come down to products by a handful of manufacturers, notably including: Vortex Leupold, and Burris. For Red Dots, obviously the aforementioned manufacturers also make the cut, but I would add Aimpoint and Trijicon.

So, what specific optics do I recommend for an AR15? Well, I tend to break those down into 2 categories based on cost: is it either more or less than $500, basically. If you're outfitting multiple guns and have middle-class income, paying more than $500 is a lot to ask. If you're only going to outfit 1 or 2 guns and you want the very best available, something above $500 might be possible. "Buy once, cry once," as they say. If you're going to pay over $500 of your hard-earned money for an optic, it better be extremely durable and have valuable features you can't find on lower-priced optics. Then, I sub-divide those categories by Red Dots (Typically zero magnification) and Scopes (Magnified). Which one you need depends on POU and you may possibly need both. I will note which Red Dots I would advise as the primary optic and which ones will be best used as a secondary to the scope.

So, really, what do I recommend? Bear in mind that this is for an AR15, chambered in 5.56, not a Georgia Precision rifle in 300 Win Mag, so these are not meant for extreme long-range. Here's the list, which I plan to update periodically for new products and changes to products:

Under $500:
  • Red Dots
    • Primary: 
      1. Vortex SPARC II - Tough Red Dot (Shockproof, waterproof, fogproof) that weighs 5.9 oz in a compact size. This isn't the best Red Dot money can buy, but it has Vortex's VIP warranty and a pricepoint at $200. The battery lasts a long time (not like Aimpoint, but really good), it has both an automatic shut off set at 12 hours (not so short it cuts off while you're shooting) and an on/off button to be sure you aren't wasting battery life. I also like the temperature range of this optic. Some brands have poor operational temperature range, like Holosun, but this will work in most environments.And, it exactly co-witnesses with iron sights.
      2. Burris AR-F3 - This is a small, lightweight option that is designed to co-witness your iron sights. At 4.6 oz, it's one of the lightest weight options available at a very reasonable price. The 3 MOA dot is a little large for my taste, but for bumps in the night, this is great for fast target acquisition. The overall design does a good job of not cluttering your field of view. This also has the definitive push-button on/off selector that I require - I need it to turn on when I tell it to and I need it to stay on, regardless of light conditions. And, I like the peace of mind, knowing that it is actually off before I put it away.
      3. Aimpoint Pro -A little heavy for a Red Dot, coming in at 11.6 oz, but it's super durable and it's not any heavier than your typical scope. You also get the benefit of up to 30,000 hours of continuous use - that's some battery efficiency there. (Compare to 5,000 hours for the Vortex SPARC II.) This also has an operational temperature range that is beyond outstanding - by far the best range of the budget Red Dots. All that is good considering this is pretty close to the $500 limit. In fact, you can buy two SPARC II sights and some extra batteries for the same price. The good thing about this is the ultra-dependability of these sights - if you want the very best so that you can bet your life on it, even though you're on a budget, you're getting the premium dependability for a reasonable price with this optic. So, would I recommend this over the other Red Dots? If I were in Iraq or Alaska, I'd prefer this Red Dot due to operational temperatures. In most of the US, I would be just fine with the AR-F3 or the SPARC II, plus I'd save weight and money. I think it's great to have at least one of these Aimpoint sights, but it's not needed for self-defense in most areas.
    • Secondary:
      1. Vortex Venom - The Venom is all of 1.1 oz! That is incredible. It's also waterproof, shockproof, and fogproof. So, what is a "secondary" red dot? If your primary optic is a scope, this is a great 45 degree offset option for close-range because of the weight and size. This will help when you are transitioning between close and long-range targets. (For instance, the red dot can have a 25 yd zero, while you zero your scope at 100 yards for distance shooting.) This could be a primary red dot as well, but Vortex does not make an exact co-witness mount for this. If you're ok with a 1/3 co-witness with your irons and want the lightest weight possible, this is a good choice for that as well. (I prefer that my red dot and my irons verify each other - it's helps my distance shooting with a red dot to be able to line up the front sight and the red dot through the rear aperture.)
      2. Burris FastFire 2 - Basically, this is the Burris competition for the Venom. This is very similar to the AR-F3, but without the co-witness mount. You should still be able to co-witness this optic if you want, but it is intended to be used on top of the scope mount or on a 45 degree offset for a secondary optic. I prefer the Venom due to weight and dot size, but have no issue with this for CQB uses. It's a great option with a great warranty. If you're more familiar with Burris or prefer a larger dot, this is for you.

  • Scopes
    1. Vortex Diamondback 3-9x40 - Shockproof? Check. Waterproof? Check. Fogproof? Check. Check. It has excellent glass for the price and it is only 14" and 11oz. Such a good scope for the money and the warranty is outstanding - it is hard to find a better value. The biggest drawback is that it is Second Focal Plane - which means the reticle's marked adjustments are only accurate at the highest magnification. However, for fast adjustments to point of aim, doing a hold-over with the Dead-Hold BDC Reticle is easy.
      •  Note: If you're shooting beyond 50 yards, Ballistic-Dot Reticles give a quick point of reference to adjust your aim for longer distances. I would prefer a simple MOA grid reticle for precision, but that costs more money. The problem with Ballistic Dot reticles is that each load and barrel length has a different velocity and, therefore; a different trajectory. So, it's unlikely to get a reticle that matches your specific load/gun. Now, you can adjust the ballistic dots on many of these reticles, but then you shoot another type/load of ammo and the holdovers are off again. However, when you have a split second to take a shot, these are much faster than turning knobs and more accurate than just guessing because it gives a point of reference. If you need precise MOA adjustments, the turrets will provide that for you.
    2. Burris MSR 3-9x40 -  This checks all the Boxes: Lifetime Warranty, Shockproof, Waterproof, Fogproof, etc. It comes with non-critical eye relief and a Ballisic Plex Reticle, which is solid for adjustments on the fly. The scope comes with uncapped turrets, which makes for faster sight adjustments. It also has a good, tactile dial for zooming in. It is an excellent value and you would be happy to have it on a 5.56 or .223 caliber weapon. It's only drawback is the lack of an illuminated reticle. If you need one of with an illuminated reticle, you should be looking in the $500+ range. Excellent scope for the money.

Over $500:
  • Red Dots
    • Primary: 
      1. Trijicon MRO -  These are all the rage. They might also fall into the under $500 category if you get them on sale. At 4.1 oz, it's very light. a 2 MOA dot is also a nice. (I prefer 1 MOA dot size, but this is still excellent, especially for CQB.) Of course, it's shockproof, waterproof, fogproof, and extremely capable of long-term use - a hallmark of Trijicon products. The battery will also work for 5 years of continuous use. Yeah, you don't even need to turn it off - you'd have to replace the battery every 10 years if you were storing it on a shelf, but this provides 5 years of continuous use. That is mind-blowing. It also uses 7075 T6 aluminum - which is stronger and harder than the typical 6061 aluminum that is used in sights and scopes. If you're willing to spend a little more, this is a truly excellent sight.
    • Secondary:
      1. Aimpoint Micro T-1 - 3 oz and a 5 year of continuous use battery life. Shockproof, waterproof, and fogproof. You can also use this as a primary and, frankly, this is the best red dot money can buy, IMO. (I prefer these over the T-2, actually.) Usable in temperatures ranging from -45°C and +71°C. The weight, battery life, temperature range, and dependability make this an awesome choice, especially for set ups where this is the primary (only) optic. The problem: they aren't cheap. As a secondary optic, they're a little heavy, but they still have great benefits, like a mind-blowing 5 years of continuous use for the battery. You may not need this good of a secondary optic (if you even need a secondary optic at all), but anyone who has one should use it with extreme confidence.
      2. Trijicon RMR - This is a rich man's Vortex Venom. Why spend the extra money? 4 years of continuous use battery life and the company reputation. Is that worth it? I don't know, but I would rather not spend $600 on a secondary red dot. If money was no object, I'd consider this solely based on the battery life because optic batteries are the kind of thing that can get you killed when they fail you. Between this and the Aimpoint Micro T-1, I'd prefer this as a secondary optic due to weight, but the Micro is more versatile (For use as a primary) and more technically impressive. I won't own any of these because I view the Venom as a reasonable alternative at a much lower price point. But, if you have one, the RMR is more premium in terms of precision adjustments and having a more precise 1 MOA dot. In my experience, these are preferred by competition pistol shooters because of the added accuracy potential of the 1 MOA dot and the precision measured optic.

  • Scopes
    1. Burris XTR II 2-10x42 - First, it's extremely heavy-duty, but a reasonable 22.7 oz with a 13.5" length. Secondly, it's First Focal Plane, which means the markings on the reticle are accurate no matter what magnification you're using. The key difference in price of scopes is the glass - not just quality, but the reticles offered. In this case, I love the SCR-MOA reticle. I prefer MOA, so this is a great reticle for me. The ability to use this reticle for a precise holdover, instead of turning knobs, is such an advantage. And, another key advantage (which should really be standard on all scopes) is that the turrets and the reticle match eachother! (They both use MOA in this case.) So many scopes have MOA turrets with a Mil-Dot reticle, which is completely retarded. (A prime example of gun products being made by people who don't shoot.) 
      • Note: I don't have an issue with Mil-Dot, it's just not my preference. I just won't waste my money on a scope that makes me convert from one to the other. There are great Mil-Dot reticles out there, just be sure to get one with a scope that has Mil-Dot turrets.
    2. Trijicon ACOG - Most people can use these with both eyes open, which is pretty useful. I prefer model TA01NSN for the back-up irons that it has built-in, so that you can have something to aim with, even if your reticle is filled with cracks and you can't see through it to co-witness your standard back-up sights. This allows for fast transition to irons, without having to take off the sight or flip up your back-up irons - a potentially life-saving advantage. Having this magnification will be helpful when shooting 100 yards away, as shot placement will be more precise, while still providing the iron for close range. The illumination used in these is also worth noting. These sights use Tritium, which doesn't require a battery and would work almost indefinitely (many people get the Tritium replaced after 10 years as it starts to fade), even after an EMP. Excellent quality, shockproof, waterproof, and fogproof - at 14.6 oz. Normally that weight would drive me away from such a limited power scope, but I really like this optic after considering two factors: 1. this gives a secondary iron sight for CQB and eliminates the desire for a secondary red dot (like a Vortex Venom) and 2. a typical scope weighs 14 oz anyway and this is a magnified optic as well. After considering those points, these actually make much more sense than buying a 1-4x or 3-9x scope with a offset red dot because this would save weight and be more reliable than such a set up. If I had unlimited money, I'd use these on most of my AR15s. The problem is I don't have $1300 to spend on the optics for each gun.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Should I Build or Buy an AR?

Do you really want to build an AR?

When I told friends and family that I would be building an AR for the first time, it was pretty much only my father who asked me if I knew how to ensure the thing didn't blow up in my face. Once I explained that I did know and what it entailed, he didn't have any other questions. I build computers, fences, furniture, and many other things myself - because I want them made a certain way. So, aside from my dad, no one asked me if I knew what I was doing. They assumed I did. No one asked me if I really wanted to. They knew I did.

But, do you really want to?

There are a ton of things to know, some more important than others, like the specs for how tight to torque the barrel nut (Min 30 ft-lbs; Max 80 ft-lbs), for instance. But, it's more than knowing specifications. You have to choose parts, which means you need to know what parts you need and which particular design is best. For instance, which handguard/rail and which gas block do you want? Perhaps, even more importantly, are they compatible with each other? Are they compatible with the barrel you've chosen? There really are a ton of things to know.

That said, I found it to be extremely rewarding. During the process, I learned so much about my guns. I learned how important staking a Castle Nut is and why. I learned the differences in materials and which is actually better. I learned how the gas and buffer system relate to one another. And, more than any of that, I know there are no cut corners on my gun. Everything is just as I prefer it - and that is what really makes it all worth it. At least to me. As the old adage goes: if you want it done right, do it yourself.

Here are the top 10 things, in my opinion, for you to consider before going down the path of building an AR:
  1. Is it worth it to you to buy the proper tools? You need a bench, a bench-vise, a Castle Nut tool, a Torque Wrench, Vise Blocks, numerous Star and Allen bits, pin punches, a good hammer, and some heavy-duty grease. If you'll only build one, that's a lot of expense for just one rifle.
  2. Do you know enough of the parts and how they fit together to be able to  purchase them all and fit them together? You can buy parts kits and watch Youtube videos, but it will take hours to digest all the info you need.
  3. Do you know what you want from your gun or how each material or design effects the performance of the gun? Hint: the internet is full of clowns with no clue who speak from ignorance, simply parroting what they read on another forum.
  4. Do you have a place to put a work bench and these extra tools or a place you can work on them without getting noise complaints from the apartment above you? Having a place to essentially build a work area is important.
  5. What are the applicable State and Federal laws about what are permitted features of the gun? This is extremely important for our Comrades in California. Anywhere on the Left Coast, actually, and places like Chicago and Washington DC.
  6. Are you building it to do it cheaper? You should comparison shop before trying to save money by building it yourself. Aero Precision will be tough to beat on price for their pre-built rifle with no furniture, exclusively at Brownells.
  7. Are you just doing it to learn about your rifle? This is no doubt the best way to learn about your rifle, but it can be the school of hard knocks.
  8. Are you mechanically inclined enough to understand how these parts fit together? A lot of guys do not know how to properly torque things and they have serious malfunctions because of the weird ways some guys install their triggers, to name a couple common issues.
  9. Is there a gunsmith you know that you can go to if you get stuck and need help? This is key. As long as you have this for a back-up plan, all the money you've invested in the project will likely not go to waste.
  10. Are you going to purchase go/no-go gauges to ensure headspacing? If not, or if you don't know how to use them, I urge you to consider paying a qualified gunsmith to check the headspace and even test fire it before you take it on the range and try it yourself. (Or, buy a factory-built upper and build your own lower to avoid that issue.)
I'm definitely one for lists. Keeping with my tradition, if you want to know some common build questions and get some good info, here's some food for thought for you.
  • Barrels - What type of barrel do I need? There are 3 uses I can Identify for a barrel: combat, distance shooting, and competition shooting. 
    • Combat - If you want to defend yourself with this gun, anywhere from 0-300 yards, I would recommend a Cold Hammer Forged barrel with chrome lining, chambered in 5.56 or .223 Wylde. (You won't find such a barrel in wylde atm. Criterion is the closest thing to offering that.) Why Chrome? Man has not yet devised a way to make a barrel more durable for rapid fire than to Chrome-line it. Melonite is fine, but it will wear down much faster than Chrome, because the nitriding just doesn't penetrate that deep into the metal, and you probably wouldn't want it to. It would make the surface very hard, but the barrel itself would shatter more easily if the barrel was melonited throughout the material. Why Cold Hammer Forge? It increases the sectional density of the metal. It also ensures consistent rifling from one barrel to the next. If you find a Cold Hammer Forged barrel you really like, you can get a nearly identical rifling on the other barrels being produced by that company.
    • Competition Shooting - This is simple. You want stainless steel for this. Why? Predictable rate of wear and the most precise rifling. You can melonite it, but that can throw off point of impact. Since you might be lugging it all of 40 feet, it's acceptable to get a heavy bull barrel. Basically, whatever improves accuracy and consistency.
    • Hunting/Outdoors - This is where melonite shines, in my opinion. Your rifle will be exposed to the elements, at night in many cases, and you probably aren't going full auto on a deer or any 400 yard target. For corrosion resistance and general durability, melonite is an outstanding choice. Stainless isn't bad here and neither is a chrome-lined barrel, but stainless Is less durable and more visible, while a chromed barrel doesn't have the resistance to the elements on the outer surface that a fully melonited barrel has. When stealth matters, particularly in low-light conditions, melonite's black color will be great.
  • Forged or Billet - Which is right for you?
    • Forged is my preference, mostly due to cost. I do like Billet because it can be made lighter than forged by taking off less-needed metal and any machine shop can potentially make it, which makes it real hard for the government or a terrorist to shut down that part of the industry. (What happens if someone shuts down the 12, or so, forges and cut off the supply of AR15s? Both military and civilian, potentially.) Either will work well. I only caution you to be careful with the weight of a Billet Receiver - sometimes, they can be way too heavy or the weight-savings can be too aggressive and you really don't want the receiver walls to fail. Typical forged receiver weights are a good baseline - about 10 ounces for an upper. Don't vary much from that and you should be ok. (The lower handles significantly less stress and will generally be fine, structurally.)
  •  Match Triggers - Do I need one and are they worth it?
    • No, no one needs a match trigger, but it sure helps for competition shooting and distance shooting. I would recommend a drop-in, single-stage trigger like a CMC or Wilson, assuming this is meant to defend life and liberty. For competition, I've heard great things about AR-Gold triggers and I know Geissele makes great triggers, as well. If you don't want to shell out $250+ for a decent trigger that pulls crisply and is ultra-reliable, I highly recommend ALG's QMS trigger. Nothing will be more reliable in your rifle than the "mil-spec" triggers, but a few competition versions can match that reliability with added benefit. I typically go mil-spec, unless the rifle is purpose-built for distance shooting.
  • Brands - What brand should I choose for parts? 
    • Well, some brands make great rifles, but getting their stripped receivers are a real problem, such as with Daniel Defense. My advice is to get Wilson Combat (Forged), Aero Precision, or Spike's Tactical - any of those are great, they're easy to find online, and you should be very happy with the quality, especially Wilson Combat. Any reputable company should be perfectly fine, especially if it's forged. For other parts, I generally stick to BCM, Spike's, ODIN Works, Daniel Defense, Mission First Tactical, and V-Seven. For specific recommendations, check my Builder's List for my favorites. I stay away from some brands due to reputation or my personal experience, but I don't want to call them out by name.
  • Length of Barrel - What length should I get?
    • To me, its not worth paying $200 and waiting several months, on top of having an attorney draft a trust for you to get a barrel below 16". Now, if you want to get a 14.5" barrel and have the muzzle device affixed to it permanently, that's a way around the unconstitutional NFA rules. But, that reduces the velocity of the round (due to the shorter length), you're probably having to pay someone to do that for you to ensure it satisfies the law, and you're probably not going to be able to re-use the muzzle device on a new barrel. Anything less than 16" is really just extra money for no real improvement in performance. That said, I would only go above 16" if you were building this rifle for distances beyond 300 yards, in which case I recommend either an 18" or 20" barrel. Any longer than that is not practical if you need to use it in a typical US building code hallway. (As in a home-defense situation.)
    • But, what if there were no NFA? (Or, if I were willing to pay the money and wait.) If there were no NFA, I would probably have a 10.5" barrel with a suppressor on my bedside gun, but definitely no shorter. Barrels below 10.5" are prone to reliability issues because, in many cases, it just doesn't get enough gas to properly cycle the weapon before the bullet exits the barrel and it doesn't load the next round or has problems loading the next round. (Also known as a "dwell time" issue.)