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 and Leupold, and Burris. For Red Dots, obviously the aforementioned manufacturers also make the cut, but I would add Aimpoint and Trijicon, among others.

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:


  • 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 around $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, but this will work in most environments. And, it can exactly co-witnesses with iron sights or be adjusted to a lower 1/3 if you'd like. This is honestly one of the most rugged optics I've ever owned, so for any Marines out there, I would strongly consider this option.
      2. Holosun HE503CU - This sight is meant to remind you of the Eotech "Doughnut of Death." It is solar recharging, has IP67submerssion rating, up 50,000 hours of continuous use on a single battery, and it's extremely lightweight at 3oz. At $350ish, these are cheap enough to afford and provide you with great performance for your money.
      3. Bushnell TRS-25 - A very cheap, but solid, option. You can typically pick these up for $75 or so, depending on the political climate. They have a lifetime warranty and are excellent optics for the money. A gun snob might turn up their nose at this, but they work very well and are simple to use. These have adjustable brightness and an affirmative "off" setting, so you will know when they are off. (Which, helps if you are putting them in storage or setting them aside and don't want to waste the battery.) At about 4oz, they are very lightweight, as well.
    • Offset:
      1. Vortex Venom - The Venom is all of 1.1 oz! That is incredible. It's also waterproof, shockproof, and fogproof. And, it has Vortex's warranty, which is such an asset. So, what is an "offset" 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 you would need an additional mount to provide "co-witness" height for the optic. If you want the lightest weight possible, this is a great contender for that title.
      2. Holosun HS507C - This Optic, has all the features of it's bigger brother up above, but in a tiny package, making it a perfect secondary/offset optic. It is solar recharging, has IP67submerssion rating, only 1.5oz, and again offers the "Doughnut of Death" dot pattern. At $300ish, it's a reasonable price for a great optic.

  • Scopes
    1. Vortex Strike Eagle 1-8x24 - Shockproof? Check. Waterproof? Check. Fogproof? Check.  It has excellent glass for the price and it is only 10" and 17oz. Such a good scope for the money and the warranty is outstanding - it is hard to find a better value. This optic is an amazing value, offering a quick-turn magnification knob and clear glass. As a Low-Power Variable Optic (LPVO), it is ideal for use in CQB and medium-range shooting. The biggest drawback is that it is significantly heavier than a red dot. It is also 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 BDC Reticle is easy. For greater distance with a budget optic, such as reaching out to 800 yards on a .308 rifle, use a larger magnification member of this family of scopes.

  • Red Dots
    • Primary:
  1. Aimpoint Micro H-2 - 3 oz and 5 years of continuous use battery life. Shockproof, waterproof, and fogproof. Usable in temperatures ranging from -30°C and +60°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. And, never forget that Aimpoints are almost indestructible.
  2. Holosun HS512C - This sight is meant to remind you of the Eotech "Doughnut of Death." It is solar recharging, has IP67submerssion rating, up 50,000 hours of continuous use on a single battery, and it's very rugged. It's also a Holographic sight, which significantly reduces Parallax and downrange illumination helping you shoot accurately from off-platform shooting positions and avoiding giving away your position. For under $500, this is a great choice.
    • Reflex:
        1.  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 based on the battery life, number of mounting options, and company reputation. In my experience, these are preferred by competition pistol shooters because of the added accuracy potential of the 1 MOA dot and the high quality manufacturing/reliability of this optic.
        2.  Leupold DeltaPoint Pro - Known for quality, high-end glass, durability, and a great warranty, Leupold Optics are always a good investment. Honestly, having said that, with what Holosun and Vortex are offering in terms of price, battery life, features, and/or warranty, companies like Leupold are going to need to up their game to be able to compete. But, this offering is a reliable 2oz optic with great warranty, durability, lots of mounting options, and great optical clarity for under $500.

    • Scopes
      1. Vortex Razor HD Gen III 1-10x24 - This is, quite literally, the best thing Vortex has ever made. The glass is amazing and the magnification range is the best available on the market for an intermediate-range weapon like and AR15. If you have the money and the need to buy (arguably) the best Low Power Variable Optic on the market, this is it. There is no downside, from weight to performance to durability to warranty, you won't be sorry to own this optic. 21oz for an optic with this type of glass and 10x magnification is extraordinarily light. Oh, and it's First Focal Plane, so you get accurate reticle data at any magnification. Just a great optic, and it better be for $3500.

    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 online 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 and Palmetto State Armory will be tough to beat on price.
    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. I know Geissele makes great triggers, as well, and they are the industry standard for quality. 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), Palmetto State Armory, 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.)