The Latest in AR Trends, and My Thoughts on Each (for whatever it’s worth…)
Like any industry, the firearm industry has its trends, and even its share of fads. This is especially true in the tactical, or “tacticool” community, where things change as fast and as often as Kate Upton changes outfits for the SI Swimsuit edition. Hey Now…
Tactical, “Tacticool” Trends:
The Navy’s MK 12. A few years back, the MK 12, all variants and copies, were hot. With an 18 inch barrel, the MK 12 is short enough for most CQB work and doesn’t compromise balance, maneuverability or handling too much. Yet, the slightly longer barrel length (when compared to a “standard” AR, with a 16 inch barrel) lends itself to a rifle length gas system, (for lower perceived recoil and better reliability with a wider spectrum of loads), allows for a longer sight radius (the distance between front and rear sights) which aides long range accuracy. The longer barrel also allows for a longer powder burn time before the bullet exists the muzzle, which improves bullet velocity, and terminal ballistics. I get it. Too bad anything MK 12 was priced through the roof, and for whatever reason, 18 inch barrel ARs have yet to really catch on. (Though perhaps this is itself a currently changing trend. See trends in competition.)
Today it’s Short-Barreled Rifles (SBRs). SB-whaaat? In the eyes of the Law, any rifle with a barrel less than 16 inches is considered an SBR. If legal in your state, you must pay the BATF a special tax of around ~$200 to own one. That’s $200 beyond the cost of the rifle. To get around the official SBR designation and still have a “tacticool”, SBR-like rifle, it’s popular to use a 14.5 inch barrel and a permanently attached muzzle device long enough to bring the overall barrel length to just over 16 inches. (Permanently attached muzzle devices are considered part of the barrel and counted when measuring barrel length.) Frankly, I don’t get it. Sure, if your job is clearing houses, dwellings, or caves, then it makes total sense. Otherwise, for most civilians, and unless you just want it because, “it’s cool”, I don’t think the SBR makes much sense.
When you shorten the barrel of a gun, any gun, there is less time for gun powder to burn before the bullet exits the muzzle. Less powder burn time results in less bullet velocity. Less bullet velocity results in less kinetic energy, or terminal ballistics. Bullet velocity also has an effect on bullet drop, and Point of Impact (POI). It’s simple physics, and this is one case, where less definitely isn’t more. When talking 55 – 77 grain .22 caliber bullets, I’ll take as much oomph as possible, thank you very much… I didn’t even get into the fact that barrel length largely dictates gas system length. Gas system length affects both perceived recoil and reliability, or at least the flexibility to reliably run various loads of ammo. (That’s why a lot of carbines specify the strict use of full power, 5.56 ammo. ARs with carbine length gas systems may not function reliably with lighter powered .223 ammunition.) Also, the shorter sight radius associated with shorter barrels makes it harder to be accurate on long range targets. The slightest change in sight picture or sight alignment at the gun can translate into big changes on the target. This gets magnified as target range increases. Finally, you may want to change-out muzzle devices (if legal in your state.) That’s a more difficult task when the muzzle device is permanently attached. Yes, we’re splitting hairs, but to me, that’s too much compromise to save 1 – 1.25 inches in overall length when compared to a “standard” 16 inch barrel with 1 inch muzzle device. (And honestly, as a civilian, how often will you or I be clearing rooms, or otherwise engaged in a CQB situation with our ARs??… Hopefully Never!) ARs with the “standard” 16 inch barrel, or slightly longer 18 -20 inch barrels work great for most civilians.
Trends in Barrel Twist Rates. It’s like the AT&T commercial, faster is better. If you plan to routinely shoot heavier bullets, like 77 grain match bullets, then faster rifling, like a 1:7, or 1:8 twist rate will be a better choice. In general, the faster twist rate gives you more flexibility in terms of the ammo you can accurately fire from your AR. Options are good. However, don’t rush to throw out all those ARs with 1:9 twist barrels, especially if you’re predominantly punching paper with with 55 – 62 grain bullets. You never know, that 1:9 twist might just surprise you with some heavier bullets.
Trends in Action Type. DI still works just fine. Not long ago you couldn’t get away from the Direct Impingement (DI) Vs. Piston debate. Bottom line: Shooting generates heat, and guns are mechanical devices. The heat has to go somewhere, and all mechanical devices require some level of cleaning and maintenance to reliably function properly. The military has been using select fire DI guns for over 50 years. For most civilians, with semi-auto ARs, DI is just fine.
Trends in Gas System Lengths, and Buffers. Rifle Vs. Mid Vs. Carbine? H, H2 or H3 Carbine Buffer? Carbines can be picky. Rifles with carbine length gas systems result in higher perceived recoil when compared to rifles with mid and rifle length gas systems. Also, if the gas system and the buffer aren’t paired well, it could result in reliability issues, or at least limit the ammo you can run. On a rifle with a carbine length gas system, you might need to run nothing but full power 5.56 MIL spec ammo for reliability. This may or may not be an issue for you, as it’s pertinent to someone building a rifle, but at least now you know. If you buy something off the rack, be confident your manufacturer did their job, and put the right parts together.
Trends in Competition Shooting. 3-Gun competition is hot . 3-Gun specific ARs are Smokin’, and with good reason. ARs have been hugely popular on the competition circuit for many years. This is nothing new. This popularity is a result of the AR’s reliability, ease of use, low recoil, standard 30 round count, the plethora of available accessories, and the rifles inherent good accuracy, which can be made outstanding. What is (relatively) new, is the action shooting sport of 3-Gun, and man has it caught on! Everything that makes the AR perfect for more traditional bullseye competitions, plus the AR’s well balanced, highly maneuverable, quick handling characteristics make it perfect for high action, run and gun type sports like 3-Gun. Stag Arms was first to recognize this trend, design, build and market a rifle just for the needs of 3-Gun competitors. Rock River Arms, DPMS, Bushmaster and many others have since followed suit. Most factory 3-Gun ARs have 18 inch, upgraded or match grade barrels, upgraded triggers and other components aimed to give you the edge in competition.
Trends in Hunting. In many states, it is not legal to hunt deer, or larger sized game with the the 5.56 NATO, .223 Remington as they are considered too light, or small, for ethically harvesting such animals. That said, those cartridges are just about perfect for hunting predators, like coyote and fox, whose numbers seem to be exploding everywhere across the country. (Read into that however you like…) Many manufacturers have models designed and marketed specifically to the wants and needs of predator hunters.
Trends Caliber Selection. We Americans love our big, 30 cals. Anyone else notice how much more popular the .300s have recently become in the industry rags? On my last trip to the newsstand, the .300 Blackout, .300 Whisper and the [smaller] 6.8SPC seemed to be everywhere. Hmmmm, I wonder if the 5.56 ammo shortage has anything to do with this?? If you do go with something different consider ammo costs, availability and what NUTNFANCY calls SWAC, for Size And Weight Constraints. This isn’t a big deal if you’re shooting close to “base”, or going afield with 5 – 30 rounds for a day of hunting. However, if your lugging your AR, along with hundreds of rounds of ammo for long periods of time, over long distances or over harsh terrain, it’s a valid consideration. Honestly, and unless your using your AR to hunt deer and larger sized game, the standard 5.56 or even .223 is just fine. The 5.56 NATO and .223 Remington cartridges are low recoiling / easy shooting rounds. They are effective defensive rounds. They are relatively inexpensive to shoot as prices are coming back down, and they are relatively in abundance, making them easy to find just about anywhere in the United States.
Trends in Color. Like household television sets from the 70s, color is in! Sure, black is timeless, you can’t go wrong black, and the AR-15 is known as “The Black Rifle”. However, “Pimp My Ride” style paint jobs and finishes have finally hit the AR-15 scene; and actually the entire gun scene. Whether it’s done through changing the furniture, adding accessories or painting, adding color to your AR-15 is big. Flat Dark Earth, Foliage Green and OD Green are some of the more popular choices, though I’ve seen hot pink, tiger stripes and various camo patterns. Manufacturers have taken note and in some cases offer rifles or parts with special color coatings. DuraCoat, Cerakote and even the good ole rattle can let you get the job done after purchase.
Trends in Accessories. Good stocks, especially collapsible stocks, triggers, tactical lights, lasers and pistol grips are always “IN”. Since popular thinking recently changed on how you hold the handguard of your AR to drive or control the rifle, the once extremely popular Vertical Grip (VG) is now “OUT”. In a similar vein, the once very popular quad rail is also “OUT”, replaced by slimmer, lighter and smoother handguards. (Though if you do run a quad rail, rail covers – in various colors – are definitely in.) There are also most definitely trends in muzzle devices. The best device for recoil control and minimizing AR Bark seems to constantly change. Honestly, run what you like, and what works for you and how you use your AR. Don’t be afraid to go against popular thinking. Trends and fads be damned!
So there you have it. You’re now up to speed on the latest and greatest in AR Trends.
Be Aware! Be Prepared! Be Safe!