Pat’s Product Review: No-Name AR-15s

Over the past several months, I have been asked by many SurvivalBlog readers which AR-style rifle is the best. And, many readers mistakenly believe that some civilian brands of ARs are 100% “mil-spec.” When I explain to them that their civilian ARs, no matter who made them, are NOT mil-spec, and the facts to reinforce my argument, I don’t hear back from them.
So, let me explain why civilian ARs are not 100% mil-spec. Some AR makers mistakenly (intentionally?) advertise their ARs as being mil-spec, when in fact, they are only partially made up of mil-spec parts. Even Colt, who makes the M4 for the military, doesn’t produce a totally mil-spec AR-style gun for civilian use. One point of my argument is that, mil-spec guns are made to be select-fire, whereas, civilian M4gerys are semi-auto only. Secondly, mil-spec guns of the M4 variety usually have a 14.5″ barrel, and civilian guns, must by law, have at least a 16″ barrel. Additionally, if you look at the bolt carrier in most civilian ARs, they are not of the full-auto design, nor is the fire-control group. I could go on and on, but I don’t wish to receive hundreds of e-mails from readers wishing to debate this topic.
I’ve also heard from SurvivalBlog readers, who claim that only ARs made by the big-name gun companies are worth having, and the smaller, no-name ARs aren’t worth having – that they’ll blow-up in your hands, or they’ll fail when you need ’em the most. I’ll not argue that some ARs are better made than others, I concede that fact. However, just because your no-name AR only cost you $600, as compared to someone who has a similar Colt that easily cost twice that much, doesn’t mean they have a “better” AR than you have. Also please note, when I use the term “AR or AR-15” I’m using it as a generic term – everyone calls their AR-style guns by different names..
Most folks are shocked to learn, that most big name gun companies simply don’t manufacture every part they use in their guns – they contract many parts out. And, when it comes to ARs, and their parts, almost all of the AR makers have many of their parts made by someone else – who is also selling the same parts to a competitor down the road, or to a no-name AR maker. So, odds are, some of the parts in your brand-name AR, are from the same vendor that sold the same parts to the no-name AR maker. Once again, I’m not saying there aren’t better parts in some guns, or that some barrels are more accurate than others. Sometimes you get what you pay for, other times, you are over-paying simply because of the big name gun company selling a similar AR.
Over the years, I’ve probably owned more no-name ARs than those made by the well-known makers of ARs, and that’s a fact. I can only recall having a problem with one AR that I’ve owned over the years. This gun was made by Olympic Arms – however, someone put a different bolt/bolt carrier in the gun – they assumed, as do many folks, that it was simply a drop-in affair – it’s not! The after-market bolt and bolt carrier were over-sized and caused functioning problems. This was not the fault of the Oly Arms, it was the fault of the idiot who just dropped the parts in. I finally got the parts fitted properly, and the gun was 100% reliable after that.
I decided to do a mini torture test, on an no-name AR that I recently purchased at my local gun shop. This gun was manufactured by Superior Arms, and I had to do some research on the company. They’ve only been in business a few short years, but most of the reports I read on their guns were very favorable. This gun was used when I got it, well-used. The only thing I did to the gun was clean it and lube it, and check the orientation of the gas rings on the tail of the bolt – everything looked great.
I contacted long-time bud, Jeff Hoffman, who runs Black Hills Ammunition and requested 1,000 rounds of his 5.56 mm NATO factory seconds ammo, 55-gr FMJ. This ammo normally isn’t available for sale to the public. What we have with the Black Hills Ammunition factory seconds are reloaded rounds, and the cases might have tiny dents, or are discolored for whatever reason – they were picked out of the final inspection and classified as “seconds.” To be honest, you’d have to look very closely at a lot of the rounds to see why they were pulled during the final inspection process – which is a testament to how well Black Hills Ammunition inspects their finished products.
The reason I specifically requested the Black Hills Ammunition factory seconds was that I wanted to see if the Superior Arms AR would be up to the task of shooting this ammo. I figured if there were gonna be any problems, the factory seconds would cause them. Before heading out to do my mini torture test, I loaded thirty, 30 round magazines, which gave me 900 rounds of ammo to burn through, without having to reload more mags. Yeah, I know, I had 1,000-rds of ammo, but I just plain ol’ got tired of loading magazines, my thumb was sore!
Instead of going out to one of my usual shooting sports near my home, I headed deep into the Cascade Mountains – far from where people could hear my shooting. I didn’t want someone calling the local sheriff and reporting there was a shooting war going on near their houses. So, I was at least 15-miles from the nearest house for my testing.
The Superior Arms AR was clean and lubed at the start of my testing and no further cleaning or lube was done during my testing. I started out burning through the first couple of mags firing as fast as I could. I knew I couldn’t keep-up this pace for long – unless there was a Zombie hoard coming my way. So, I slowed down my pace, and towards the end of my 900 round test, my trigger finger was pretty tired, to say the least. It took me about an hour and 15-minutes to burn through all those magazines – maybe a little longer. Like I said, towards the end of the shooting, my trigger finger was tired, and the gun was extremely hot – even the trigger.
During my testing, there was not a single malfunction or failure with the Superior Arms AR, and no problems with the Black Hills Ammunition factory seconds that I was using. Every round went off when the trigger was pulled, and every round sounded the same – no dudes or any problems of any kind. So, what did I learn in my mini torture test? Well, that it’s a lot more work than I thought it would be – starting with loading all those magazines, and then shooting all those rounds in one shooting session. I thought the gun might malfunction or have some kind of problem when it got extremely hot – but there were no problems to report with gun or ammo.
As an aside, the area I was shooting in, was about a 35-minute drive from my house – and the gun’s barrel was still very warm when I got home – so that hummer really got hot during my testing. Needless to say, it took quite a while for me to get the gun clean after that shooting session. Everything inside the gun looked good to go, for another shooting session, too. Oh yeah, I’ve gotta get back out to the area where I was shooting and police-up all that empty brass – one of these days. I suspect it’ll still be there when I get to it.
So, what did I learn? Well, this was only one gun, from a no-name AR company – so I can’t speak for all the other no-name ARs that are out there, as to if they’ll hold up to this sort of mini torture test – but I’m betting they will – assuming you start with a clean gun, that is properly lubed and in proper working order. I’ve gone out and shot 200-to-300 rounds at a time through an AR in the past – and that was fun. However, this shooting session was work, and it just killed me to “waste” all that Black Hills Ammunition .223 ammo, too. Jeff Hoffman has been supplying my ammo needs for 20-yrs now and always fills my requests when I tell him I’m just gonna “waste” ammo. Black Hills Ammunition are good people to give your business to.
My Superior Arms AR has the 11″ barrel on it, with a permanently attached 5.5″ flash suppressor on it. On a good day, I can hold about a 3″ group with this shorty barrel. And, a couple days after my shooting session, I tested for accuracy again, and it was still about a 3″ group gun – which is about as good as you’ll get with the shorter barrel. I just happen to like the look of this set-up with the shorter barrel and longer flash suppressor on it. I also know that it reduces the effectiveness of the .223 round much beyond the 150 – 200 yard mark, too.
So, if you are on a limited budget, don’t think you have to settle for second best when you look at buying a no-name AR. Check the gun over carefully – take it apart – and if a gun shop won’t let you do that – take your business some place else. Try the charging handle – see if it operates smoothly, and try the trigger-pull as well – not that most ARs are known for outstanding trigger pulls. Don’t be afraid to buy a no-name AR just because your best buddy has a $2,500 AR of some type that he is always hyping. Odds are, when you go out shooting with your buddy, your no-name AR will shoot just as well as his expensive AR does – if not better.
There’s nothing “wrong” with ARs made by the big name gun companies – and I’ve owned quite a few spendy ARs over the years – some shoot better than others – but not a whole lot better. Sometimes it depends on the ammo you’re using – many guns will shoot one brand of ammo better than another – so don’t be afraid to experiment if you aren’t getting the accuracy you’d hope for. I want to give an example of a big name AR maker – I recently purchased one of the Carbon-15 ARs that is made by Bushmaster – I liked the look of the gun and the light-weight. However, this gun simply would not group – it was more like a shotgun – it “patterned” instead of grouping. I traded the gun back to my local gun shop the next day and told them about the gun. They sold it at a gun show, and told the new owner, that the gun didn’t group well – he still bought it!
The only ARs I tend to shy away from are the parts gun -you know the ones I’m talking about. Someone bought an upper receiver parts kit, and then a lower receiver and put it all together themselves – those guns scare me at times – I’ve owned a few – they worked, but I still wasn’t 100% sure they would keep working, or had any knowledge of the person who assembled the gun – if they knew anything about how ARs work.
So, if you’re on a budget, take a look at the no-name AR that might be half the price of the big-name AR next to it – you might be surprised how well-made the no-name AR is, and how well it shoots, too. – SurvivalBlog Field Gear Editor Pat Cascio