There are a lot of varying opinions on what make up the best combat weapons for a TEOTWAWKI situation. My group has chosen the AR-15/M4 platform as our battle rifle, and I’m going to explain the why. For various reasons, some people have a negative opinion on the AR-15 platform, and I’ll address that as well. Finally, I’ll show that all rifles aren’t created equal and what you need to do to any rifle to make it function like one of the best.
First, let’s look at the intended role for a battle rifle. I believe this is an area where some people may expect too much from one rifle. Here are our requirements along with our reasoning for each one:
Min Range – 0 Yards:
We don’t expect engagements up close and personal, but it must be planned for. As a result, a short barrel is preferred to make navigation inside buildings and in the woods easier. The minimum legal limit in the U.S. without dealing with NFA restrictions is 16 inches. This is what we shoot for, with a maximum of 18 with a flash hider. The other factor in this is weight – a light weight rifle is much easier to handle.
Max Range – 500 Yards:
This is the furthest that we expect to engage targets with our battle rifles out to. This is largely limited to eyesight, and proper target identification. The standard for a “marksman” by organizations such as the Appleseed shoots or manuals such as “Fred’s Guide to Becoming a Rifleman” is to be able to hit a man at 500 yards from any position, including standing. I know this can be accomplished as I can do it, but expecting much more, especially under stress isn’t very practical. Beyond this range, I’ll be reaching for my scoped bolt-action 308. At this range, a 55 grain .223 round has 169 lb-ft of energy, which is more than enough energy for adequate penetration.
Largely due to the 500 yard max range, pistol calibers just won’t cut the mustard. There isn’t much of an advantage for pistol caliber carbines anyway as they still must have the 16 inch barrel, most only hold 30 rounds max, and the weight savings isn’t significant. As far as what caliber, that is strictly a matter of preference. Obviously, more is better, but we feel the .223 is adequate for our needs.
Accuracy – 2 MOA to Max Range:
While less is better, 2 minute of angle (MOA) accuracy is all that’s required to hit a man at 500 yards. Thankfully, almost any rifle is capable of this, even with surplus ammunition. The AR-15 shines in accuracy as most rifles are right around 1 MOA right out of the box, so this isn’t an issue.
Large Capacity, Detachable Magazine:
It is important that the weapon have a significant amount of ammunition per magazine to minimize reloads. Then, when reloads are required, they should be as fast as possible. We recommend 30 round magazines, usually down-loaded to 28. The quality of magazine is important too, but I’ll get to that later.
This goes without saying. Our standard is 20,000 rounds without a failure, which the AR platform can do.
Ammo Cost and Availability:
Common calibers are critical. Calibers commonly in use by military / law enforcement are best as you may be able to get ammunition from them.
Ease of Use:
Ergonomics are an important determination in a weapon. If you cannot manipulate the controls quickly and easily, even with gloves on or with your hands numb from cold (or both), then you have a problem. This is where the AR shines. This is the major factor that knocked out our other potential candidate – the AK-47.
AR-15 Reliability History:
Most of the issues surrounding the reliability of the AR-15 weapons system were an effect of the issues surrounding the initial fielding of the weapons. Immediately after the weapons reached combat troops in 1964, jamming issues began to be reported. Dupont could not mass-produce the nitrocellulose-based powder to the specifications demanded by the military, so the US Government turned to the Olin Matheson Company and their nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin ball propellant. This different propellant had two side effects – it left behind more soot, and it raised the full automatic rate of fire from 850 to 1,000 rounds per minute. These issues caused the jamming and mis-feed issues.
The propellant issues were identified and solved, as well as changes to the buffer system and the addition of a chrome-lined chamber and barrel. Essentially, all the reliability issues the plagued the weapon are mostly gone. However, it is important to utilize the proper components and procedures in assembly to ensure a reliable running rifle.
The Technical Data Package (TDP):
All of the minimum military specifications on what materials, tolerances, and assembly methods are contained in what is known as the Technical Data Package (TDP). It is interesting to note that most of the commercial rifles sold on the market do not meet these specs. These aren’t extra things either – they are the minimum specs.
Obviously, it’s important to choose weapons that have been constructed properly. My personal favorite is Bravo Company (BCM). They adhere to the TDP, and even surpass it in some areas. They are also a great source for parts. Colt is the only other manufacturer that meets the TDP today. If you are curious about a rifle you already have, or one you are looking at, you can see how they all stack up here.
Another great resource for the AR platform is M4Carbine.Net. It is frequented by the industry professionals that know how to make the AR run like a champ. I will warn you that if you post something that is wrong, they won’t be polite about it. As I mentioned, these are the professionals, not the mall ninjas that frequent some bigger forums like ARF.com.
If you have an AR that is not built to the TDP, don’t feel bad. I didn’t buy one that was built properly either. The bright side is that it’s not hard to make any AR run properly – there are just a few things that need to be addressed, and most aren’t expensive.
Buffer System – Required:
The first thing to look at is the buffer. This is the gold-colored cylinder that sits against the recoil spring in the buffer tube. It is a tungsten-filled mass that is designed to help slow the recoil of the bolt and carrier. The key is to run the heaviest buffer that you can without causing malfunctions, etc. If you are running a carbine-length gas system (7”), then you should normally use an H buffer. The buffer is denoted with an “H” on the face. If you are using a mid-length gas system (9”), then a regular buffer is usually fine (no mark). There are two grades of buffers above an H buffer – H2 and H3, with the H3 being heaviest. Each buffer is around $45.
Buffer Tube Staking – Required:
The castle nut that secures the buffer tube to the rear of the receiver should be staked into place. This is done by using a slightly dulled cold chisel to peen material from the receiver end plate into a notch on the castle nut. Without this being done, the nut will loosen over time and allow the stock to rotate, etc. This will eventually wear out the tube or can damage the lower receiver. It’s an important, but basically free fix that very few manufacturers do correctly.
Gas Key Staking – Required:
The gas key is the protrusion on the top of the bolt carrier that engages the end of the gas tube. The key is held to the carrier with two socket-head cap screws. It is important that the gas key is staked or peened so that the screws cannot work loose over time. Many state that Loctite is sufficient, but Loctite fails under heat, so it is a poor fix. Mechanically locking the fasteners is the best answer. This can be done with a slightly dulled cold chisel (what I use), or through special tools like the Michiguns MOACS. As a result, this is another free fix.
Extractor Upgrade – Required:
One of the biggest improvements that can be made to the AR platform is to replace the spring, insert, and o-ring on the extractor. This upgrade replaces the existing 4-coil spring and blue insert with a 5-coil spring, a black (harder) insert, and an o-ring. This greatly increases the force of the extractor. If you can move the extractor with your thumb, then it definitely needs upgraded. All guns can be improved, but it is critical with guns utilizing the carbine-length gas system due to the sharper recoil impulse. This is another inexpensive upgrade at $5.
Gas Rings – Regular Replacement:
This is an on-going check that should be performed. It is critical that the gas rings be sealing properly to the inside of the carrier for the unlocking feature to work properly. To test the rings, remove the bolt and carrier from the rifle. Remove the bolt from the carrier, and clean everything. Re-assemble the bolt to the carrier and extend the bolt. Place the bolt and carrier assembly on end, bolt face down, so that all the weight is resting on the bolt. If the carrier drops down on the bolt, you need new rings. I recommend McFarland single-piece gas rings, and they can be purchased from BCM, Brownells, etc. They aren’t expensive at $12 for a set.
Magazines – Required:
Good magazines are critical to making the AR function properly. At this point, there are three magazine makers that I trust:
- Magpul P-Mags – These are “plastic” magazines, that typically run between $10 and $20 each. They are what I currently run, and I consider them the best mags on the market. The feature I like best is the snap-on cover that keeps dirt out of the magazine as well as keeps the magazine spring pressure from widening the feed lips, etc. These can be left loaded for very long periods with no effects. The P-Mags are offered in regular and windowed. The windowed allow you to see how many rounds are inside. I use the windowed ones, but either are fine.
- Lancer Magazines – Another “plastic” magazine. These are basically as good as the P-Mags regarding durability and are comparable in price. These mags are “clear” so you can see the rounds inside. Some have argued that the enemy can see your round count too. But if they’re close enough to count the rounds in your magazine, then you have bigger issues.
- Aluminum [G.I. contract] Magazines with Magpul No-Tilt Followers – The follower is the critical piece of the equation. By taking normal GI mags and installing the Magpul followers, very reliable mags can be made. It is important to check the mags for feed lip issues, especially when left loaded. These are the least expensive option, as most people already have the GI mags. The followers typically run about $3 each, but can be found as little as $1 each on sale.
Lubrication – Regular Maintenance:
All firearms require lubrication to work properly, and the AR platform is no different. Typically people have an inclination to either lube too little or way too much. It’s better to have the weapon too wet vs. too dry, but applying lube to specific points is all that’s required:
- Place a couple drops of lube in each of the vent holes on the side of the bolt carrier. This will lube the bolt and bolt cam.
- With the bolt retracted, lube the side of the receiver opposite the dust cover.
- Lift the upper receiver off the lower, and lube the face of the hammer and the bottom of the bolt carrier.
- If you see a shiny spot, then it is getting wear and probably needs lube.
Regarding the type of lube, almost anything will work. I personally use MILITEC-1 and have been very satisfied with it.
Cleaning – Required in Moderation:
Many people believe that the AR-15 must be completely disassembled after shooting to clean everything. There are also beliefs that the rifle will not function more than a couple hundred rounds without cleaning. Both of these are false provided that you are not shooting corrosive ammunition. Most of the regimented cleaning is a holdover from the dark days of corrosive ammunition and doesn’t apply today. Now, all over cleaning will do is prematurely wear your gun. Cleaning an AR-15 should take no more than 10 minutes. If you are taking longer, then you are just wasting your time.
Use a chamber brush to clean the chamber and the lugs. For the bore, I use a bore snake. Two pulls through with your choice of cleaning solvent, and it’s clean.
Remove the bolt from the carrier, and clean the carbon off the cam pin slot, the inside of the carrier (chromed carriers really help here) and the bottom of the carrier. If there is excessive carbon on the rear of the bolt, then scrape it off. Use a toothbrush, etc. to clean the bolt lugs.
That’s it. When you are re-assembling the rifle, it’s a good opportunity to check out those gas rings…
Regarding the frequency of cleaning – I clean about every 3,000 rounds. Maybe a little more often if shooting a lot of Wolf or other Russian ammo, but I don’t clean often by about anyone’s standards and I have yet to have a cleaning-related malfunction. The key is the lubrication. If you don’t shoot that much, maybe clean once or twice a year and call it good.
Chamber Reamer – Recommended
It has been identified that many barrels, even from reputable manufactures such as Colt may have slightly tight chambers. This isn’t a big deal for 99% of the rounds on the market, but if a round is made toward the upper end of the specification, it can cause malfunctions. I have usually seen this manifest as the bolt not closing into battery fully. Sometimes, it requires a hammer to get the bolt open again, which isn’t good, especially in a combat situation. As a result, I recommend reaming all barrels with a 5.56 reamer from Michiguns. It’s not cheap at $250, but it will cut many barrels. My own reamer has been used to cut at least 10 chambers and it still looks new. I have yet to use it on a barrel and not remove material, so I think it’s definitely a worthwhile upgrade. This reamer does not substitute buying a 5.56 barrel in the first place.
Bolt – Optional:
As part of the TDP, a magnetic particle inspected (MPI) bolt is required. While all bolts will fail eventually, having a bolt that was MPI tested is a measure of security. MPI bolts typically run between $50 and $100 depending on who is running a sale.
Maintenance and Spares:
Now that we have your AR running right, it’s important to have the parts on hand to fix any issue that may arise. Having an entire extra rifle on hand is ideal, but most can’t afford that. As an alternative, here are the minimum parts you should have on hand to fix common issues:
Extractor-Upgraded (3) $15
Gas Rings (6) $24
Trigger Group $70
Charging Handle $45
Spring Kit $50
The foregoing describes what it takes to make an AR-15 or M4 run properly. I highly recommend you do further research on what options are available to customize the rifle to fit you. Once you have added forends, stocks, lights, optics, etc. I recommend you shoot it as much as possible to prove your combination. Nothing will identify weaknesses with your tactics and techniques or the weapon like lots of practice.