So, now that the rifle is built, it’s off to the range to test it!

Wrong.

Sure, you could always stop by a store on the way, and pick up whatever box of bullets they have on the shelf. Not my style, and not what I recommend. But let’s just say that someone in my spot did that, and didn’t do any research before testing their weapon, the most likely result will be disappointment.

If you don’t know much about ballistics, you’ll probably just shop for price. The lowest price 5.56 rounds are always the 55 grain (weight). Most will fire just fine, and give you a day of fun at the range for about a quarter a round. Well, fun, unless you expect any reliable accuracy.

From my reading, lighter bullets just don’t fire well out of most rifles, including AR’s. The only positive you get from light bullets are reduced recoil and higher velocity. The 55 grain 5.56 is more likely to be influenced by variances in powder load, and actually being blown-off target by the wind. When they do hit, they are susceptible to “key hole”, (not hit tip first) and fragment, losing their jacket. Not a problem for target shooting, but a big problem for hunting. Who wants to spend hours hunting for bullet fragments in their venison? Or shredded meat from a tumbling bullet?

But, for target shooting, it simply translates into much less consistent groups. When testing a rifle, that’s frustrating as hec.

I opted for the 62 grain NATO M855 round. These are the renowned “penetrator” rounds, with a mild steel core. The green-tipped bullets are not “amour piercing”, but they do retain their mass upon impact. Not a concern when putting holes in paper, but the denser rounds are more ballisticly consistent. They were just a few cents more per round. And you get what you pay for.

I also purchased a couple of boxes of 68 and 75 grain hunting rounds. Just because.

Why so much blathering about bullets? I mean, the name of this article is “The Black Rifle”? Well, my philosophy is that all firearms are simple bullet delivery systems. The gun must be reliable, and consistent. But the bullet is the variable that makes or breaks the shot. Spending $1,000 on a rifle, then going to the range with a $4.00 box of ammo is insanely stupid. Cheap ammo has it’s place, mainly in back of Bubba’s trailer park, shooting beer bottles at 15 feet. I’ll get off my soap box now.

And one final note on ammo: 5.56 NATO vs .223 Remington. If you own an AR, you can shoot the .223 caliber in your rifle. It is less powerful, so you’ll get a bit less recoil and noise (desirable for varmint control). And of course, the .223 will be less accurate.
But NEVER shoot 5.56 ammo in a rifle designed to shoot only .223 (like a Mini 14).
The pressure of a 5.56 round in a .223 designed chamber is not safe.
Both rounds are physically similar, but not interchangeable. Unless you got a hec of a deal, or that’s all there is, I wouldn’t bother shooting .223 in my AR.

Besides ammo, there is a bunch of stuff you need, and stuff you should have.
Ear and eye protection are non-negotiable. If you don’t have them, you don’t shoot. I have a set for every member of my family. A few months back, I went to the range and realized I left my protection at home (shooting pellet rifles in the back yard). The have loaners at most ranges, but you really don’t want their “scratch n’ dent” specials.

Paper targets are a must. Some ranges have those available as well, along with a staple gun to set up targets down range. I bring my own. I also bring a spotting scope, because 100 to 200 yards just seems to get father each year. Binoculars are fine, too. I also brought a chronograph, so I could tell if my rounds were flying at the manufacturer’s advertised speed.

Oh, I forgot earlier to mention magazines (or ‘clips’ if you’re an illiterate Washington Post opinion writer). Don’t forget them. For my home-built AR, again I rolled “old school” with the mil-spec aluminum mags. Most folks swear by a type of plastic magazines called P-Mags. I bought three 30 round aluminum mags. The rifle already had a polymer lower receiver, fiberglass stock and plastic hand guards. That’s enough plastic.

The last thing is a rifle case. The AR is rather small, and there are a ton of cases available that will fit. I had a spare laying around, because I am a gun nut. I also decided to bring another rifle with me, my 1938 sporterized Mosin Nagant. I took the muzzle break off of it, so it’s 49 “ length would fit in the base guitar case I bought for it.

When transporting a rifle (or any weapon), cover the damn thing up. Most people know what a rifle case looks like. You go in for a cup of coffee at the convenience store, and come back to a shattered window and missing gun(s). And speaking of windows, I’m not a fan of advertising your affinity for guns on your car (i.e. “I Love Colt”, or “Pro 2nd Amendment”). Bumper and window stickers can invite thieves to rummage through your vehicle looking for the gun you hid. Be proud of your sport. Just don’t be stupid.

Wow. That was a tangent and a half. Back to the range trip…

The day I chose was cold and clear. Very little wind and dry. It had just snowed, and the air was fresh and crisp. It was also a Monday. I won’t go to our local public range on a weekend any more. On weekends, it’s God-awful crowded, and many there are untrained yahoos that don’t know the basics of range etiquette.

I arrived right after the 9AM opening, and reported to the range officer. After signing in and paying my range fee, he asked what I was shooting. I told him I was testing a new rifle, and the RO (Range Officer) asked if I’d like to start at the 50 yard line. I smirked at him. “Nah, the 100 yard is fine.”
Confidence or cockiness? We’ll see.

There were just a handful of shooters there. Quieter days like this, you’ll normally see the old guys at the 200 yard line with their high-end bolt action rifles with $1,000 scopes. Mostly, they stand around, take a shot every five minutes, make adjustments, repeat. Considering the rounds a lot of them shoot are $3 apiece, I get it when they take their time.

After waiting for a cease-fire on the line, I set up my target, chronograph, and spotting scope. The cold was making my fingers a bit numb, but a quick rub resolved that. I don’t do gloves. I need to feel the trigger, the grip, the rifle itself.

I started with my antique Mosin Nagant rifle. Since I had modified the barrel by removing the muzzle compensator, it changes what is known a ‘barrel harmonics”. Especially in longer barrels, the bullet traveling through the bore causes a vibration that can affect the terminal ballistics. That Nagant barrel is 28”, opposed to the AR length of 16”. A factor for the old rifle, not so much for the little black one.

It didn’t take long to “re-zero” my Nagant. The cheap Chinese scope I have mounted on it is adequate and simple. I regularly get 2” groups with that 80 year old rifle. And at 200 yards, it’s still fairly consistent. Admittedly, not a precision weapon, but better than many give it credit for. But the Mosin Nagant is renowned for being hard-hitting. I chrono’ed the heavier rounds at 2300 fps, and the lighter ones at 2500. There are ballistic calculators on-line you can crunch those number on with 183 gr and 149 gr bullets. Let’s just say that you can drop very large game with a Nagant.

Now, we can contrast this with my new AR. It’s really apples to oranges in most respects. The Nagant is a relic of a day gone by, when ruggedness and simplicity were the paramount values. The AR platform was the child of American ingenuity, milking the most firepower out of the smallest package. Round for round, it’s no contest. So is 30 rounds vs 5.

But, I am a “round by round” guy. I needed to see what the AR could do. MY AR.
The initial shots at 100 yards hit about six inches high and to the right of the target center. Five rounds provided a fairly consistent pattern. I first adjusted for windage (left to right), and got my next group a few inches above the bulls eye. A few more adjustments for elevation, and a few more shot groups later, I was consistently 1.5 inches above dead-center. Sure, I jerked one or two, but that was me, not the rifle. Anyone that can’t tell the difference needs to slow down and pay attention.

I had adjusted the elevation as much as I could, at the moment. The A2 style front sight post can be further adjusted, but it’s a real hassle at the range (you have to get your face right up near the muzzle, and the RO doesn’t like that). Safety first.

Regardless, after about 50 rounds, the results were above average. I had to make my expectations reasonable, since this was not my M16A2 from 1985 with a 20” barrel. And my new AR did not have an optical scope like my behemoth Russian rifle. It just plain shot well. Performance and function. The only issue was about round number 20, I had one “failure to feed”. Since the magazines are new as well, this is the most likely culprit.
The rifle is barely broken in.

Finished with the 62gr, I decided to shoot the 68 and 75 grain rounds I bought. I won’t say I was disappointed at their performance, but I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t see any real accuracy improvement. As I mentioned, heavier bullets generally perform better. But in my minimum length barrel, not so much. But because they were heavier, with a standard lead core (opposed to the 62 gr steel core), they would be preferable for hunting. For target shooting in my rifle, not worth the extra money.

The chronograph captured the expected numbers. The 62 grain rounds averaged 2900 to 3050 fps. The 68 gr clocked in around 2800. The heavy 75 grain slowed to an average 2550 fps. These are pretty much what the manufacturers claim. For reference, I didn’t shoot any 55 grain, but they have a reported speed of 3200 feet per second. So, there’s your extreme spread.

The 7.62x54R vs 5.56x45 round for round comparison is not even close. While only slightly slower, the lightest 7.62 is over double the weight of the heaviest 5.56 round. This equates to a monster difference in “muzzle energy”. 2068 foot pounds for my old Nagant rifle, vs 1083 for the AR. (Note: The AR numbers are higher on Wikipedia, as they test out of a 20” barrel. But less than 10% of AR owners have a 20” barrel).

I can already hear the AR fanboys screaming from their mother’s basement. There are a lot of other factors that make the 5.56 deadly, but the numbers don’t lie. The one thing I’ll stipulate is a factor called “transfer of energy”. The larger 7.62 does tend to “over penetrate”, whereas a properly configured 5.56 bullet will make the most of it’s (measly) 1083 foot pounds of stopping power. This circular argument next ends up with the 7.62 defenders arguing the same thing, that heavier, soft point ammo negates the over-penetration. Grab a bag of popcorn and check out the flame threads some time. It’s quite entertaining.

That was a lot of number crunching, but regarding shooting the rifle itself: It’s pretty boring. The puny recoil on the AR is almost completely absorbed by the huge recoil spring and buffer. It makes this annoying “twang” sound after every shot. The good news is for beginning shooters, it’s not very intimidating. Most AR style rifles come with a bird-cage “flash suppressor”. Frankly, there’s not much there to suppress. For all the armchair commandos that plan on clearing rooms at night, I suppose that’s a big deal. They do sell expensive, more advanced “muzzle breaks” as well, to control the barrel from climbing after a shot. My take is, if you can’t control that amount of recoil, you seriously need to work out.

On my rifle, I mounted what’s called a “flash can”. The device utilized an inner conical cavity to focus the muzzle flash and concussion away from the shooter, toward the direction of the target. It’s more of a courtesy to anyone shooting at my flanks, making the AR a bit quieter.
This is NOT to be confused with a “silencer” or “suppressor” that utilize a hollow canister and a series of baffles. These cost an average of $500 plus you must purchase a $200 ‘tax stamp’ from the BATF to register it. My flash can was $15.

My AR is actually surprisingly heavy. I didn’t get the precise weight. I remember my unloaded A2 weighing 7.5 pounds. This felt at least that heavy, even with the shorter barrel. One would think with all those polymer and plastic parts it would feel lighter. But, I am getting older.

Overall, I was satisfied with my new AR’s performance. I can reliably hit targets at 100 yards. After I break it in some more, perhaps I’ll take it out to 200 yards.
Or will I?

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It works. Now, what do I do with it?