Ruger SR-556: my latest AR-15

With Ruger’s foray into the AR-15 market, many have taken notice. Some because Bill Ruger always said there was no reason for civilians to own “high-capacity” semi-auto rifles. Others because this seems like an awfully late arrival to the party. After all the noise died down we discovered that the rifle was in fact a very nicely built, well-appointed, great shooting gun. I tried shooting one twice and was very much impressed. When it came time for a new AR-15 it was the obvious choice to me. Yes, I really wanted the Masada/ACR but we know what happened there.

I got my SR-556 from a local dealer at a very good price then installed my Magpul CTR stock, GripPod forward vertical grip/bipod, sling mounts and the Aimpoint CompM3 and away we went. The gun is awesome. The weight at 8 lbs unloaded is a full pound heavier than my Bushmaster but this is to be expected with a piston system and a 10-inch quad rail. I think you get what you pay for with weight. This is “good weight”, so to speak since I would want a quad rail anyway and the 2-stage piston system is superb.

I don’t notice any difference in the recoil impulse from any other 5.56 AR-15. Also the inside of my buffer tube shows no signs of the dreaded carrier tilt problem. In fact I can’t see any markings at all in there. After about 1k rounds the gun still shoots beautifully. My accuracy using the CompM3 is dependent on my vision, which is simply not that great. I can get 2″ groups at 100m from the bench, which frankly is better than I’ve ever done before with those optics. At 25m all five shots touch so I’m very happy. With a scope I suspect one could do much better at distance.

The gun runs very cool and clean. Yes, I can touch the bolt carrier immediately after a mag dump. The upper receiver, bolt carrier group and the chamber appear almost as if the gun hasn’t been fired. This is just amazing and very welcome compared to the sooty mess that is the normal direct gas impingement system experience. The only “gotcha” is that the gas block, piston and regulator valve do in fact get quite dirty. The good news there is that they are very easy to disassemble and clean. This contrasts sharply with the usual AR cleaning regimen.

I personally do not like the Troy Industries rail covers as they make the quad rail too big. I really like the Ergogrips Low Pro rail covers for taming the quad rail. They make it really comfortable to grip, they protect your weak hand from getting cut on the rail edges and they cover up those annoying white indexing labels on the rails.

Ruger SR-556 stock configuration

I also am not a big fan of the standard M4 buttstock. I hate when they rattle and I don’t like the lock release because it is so obtrusive. The Magpul CTR is the best stock I’ve ever used for a multi-use carbine. It locks up solid, there is nothing on which to snag clothing or other material, it has a built-in quick-release sling mount and it is beautiful to look at. This is essential kit for any AR that I own.

The Hogue grip is just wonderful. I really like how sticky it is. I have not noticed it catch on clothing or tactical vest but it does provide a very solid connection between my strong hand and the rifle. I would not change it.

As I’ve already mentioned the Troy battle sights are outstanding. I had originally intended to swap them for Magpul MBUS sights but when I tried the Troys I was hooked. Also, they are just as light as the MBUS sights. No-brainer there.

So my initial impressions of the SR-556 are very positive. It is everything I love about the platform without the thing I disliked the most: the DI system. I expect I will have this rifle as a permanent member of the collection.

UPDATE Fall 2010: I’ve lately switched to the Eotech 5.12 over the CompM3.  Also, I neglected to mention the sling, which is detailed here.

USPSA: Formula 1 of shooting sports

I have always enjoyed shooting but when I tried bullseye competition it was never much fun. In fact I found it very stressful and I would often finish feeling more tense than when I started. If shooting wasn’t fun then I really had no reason to do it so I left that pursuit behind. Some time later when I first encountered “practical shooting” I felt that it was probably not a good idea for me to even try it. I watched some guys at my local range practicing stages and while I was intrigued I kept thinking about my bullseye experience.

While trying to resolve a problem with an AK-47 I was put in touch with a fellow who turned out to be the local US Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) guru. What started as a 10-minute meeting to help me with the rifle turned into an hour-long session describing practical shooting, showing me his guns and his reloading gear and even heading out to his backyard range to try out his Open gun. With this kind of introduction I could hardly resist.

A friend had a Ruger SR-9 and suggested I borrow it to try out this new facet of shooting. I took a simple Fobus holster and a nylon mag pouch and showed up at the next practice session. After getting the thorough safety briefing which is the hallmark of USPSA activity I watched the other shooters figuring out how to manage the stage then we all took turns shooting it. When it was finally my turn and the Range Officer said, “Shooter make ready.” I was pretty excited. Then the timer beeped and everything changed.

It is rare in my experience that a single event or a single place and time can be identified as the beginning or end of something in my life. Usually things happen slowly over time with very gradual change. When that timer went off it felt like a thousand volts were shooting through my body. I drew my pistol and engaged those dozen or so targets as if I was in a trance. Time stretched out like in a car accident. I had never experienced anything quite like it. When the RO said, “If finished, unload and show clear”, it took a moment to “come to”. I was exhilarated. I realized immediately that this was my sport.

I have been shooting Production class, still shooting a modified (legally) Ruger SR-9, for a little more than a year. I’ve learned a lot about the sport and been lucky enough to shoot matches at several clubs throughout New England. I’ve made a lot of new friends doing so and also brought along a bunch of shooting buddies to join in the fun. The combination of speed, power and accuracy required has been a really enjoyable challenge. I also started reloading ammunition as a result of the required high round-counts (more on that later).

Most importantly, I still get that huge rush every time that timer goes off.

Shooter make ready!


AR-15 Backup Sights: evolutionary process

With the proliferation of flattop rifles it is inevitable that backup iron sight (BUIS) systems will become more important to shooters and manufacturers. On my first AR-15 I had a front sight base (FSB) that was the traditional A-post design. This design integrates the gas block and the FSB as a fixed unit. I took off the removable carry handle and purchased a simple rear sight so that I could co-witness the iron sights through the optics. I found out quickly that this really wasn’t the best solution. With a cheap Eotech clone on the rifle, the FSB was so high that I had to raise my cheek weld much too far just to see over it. Eventually I took the plunge and replaced the FSB with a low profile gas block from Doublestar. This was really nice because it allowed me to put my optics as low as possible. This makes the zero much more consistent across the first 200 meters. So, what to do for iron sights?

I tried some different BUIS systems and I frankly didn’t like how bulky and heavy they were, not to mention how expensive. Having been a fan of Magpul products I was delighted when they introduced their Magpul Backup Sights (MBUS). I bought a front and rear set from eBay for about $110 and was immediately convinced these were the best option for my rifle. The sights are polymer so clearly they would not withstand the same level of abuse as their metal cousins but for my purposes they were good for 99% of any situations I could envision. Besides, anyone who has seen the PMag torture test videos can understand that with Magpul the bar is set very high for product performance.

I found the sighting adjustment to be an easy task and deploying the sights could be accomplished with only one finger. Likewise, folding them back down was also a one-finger operation. I was sold: these were the right sights for me. Eventually those sights went with the gun when it was time for a replacement. I have since used these sights several more times.

I recently purchased a Ruger SR-556 (more on that later) and before it arrived I ordered another set of MBUS sights for it. My plan was to remove the Troy Industries sights and install the Magpul units instead. The only gotcha for this scenario is that the gas block on this gun is just too hot to use for mounting the MBUS front sight. Yes, plastic does melt when it reaches barrel temperatures. When I received my rifle the Troy sight on the front wasn’t even mounted on the gas block anyway so the sight radius would be unchanged. Just for fun I shot the rifle with the Troy sights and was amazed at how much I liked them. The sight picture is like an H&K with those round front “ears” fitting perfectly into the circle of the rear aperture. Hmm. I had a feeling that I was about to trade down in terms of the sight picture. Nevertheless, I had already purchased the MBUS sights and figured that I was already comfortable with that sight picture. Besides, who needs all that weight?

I removed the front Troy sight and made a startling discovery: the sight is extremely light. Oh boy, now it was really interesting. All my reasons for using the MBUS were gone! One last hurdle remained: the “Ruger” moniker shone bright white on the front beveled edge of the Troy sights. I honestly loathe having bright, distinct logos on any “tactical” gear. If the idea is to be unobtrusive then why on Earth would I want to announce my position with bright white letters? I struggled for several minutes before deciding to return the Troy sight to the gun and give those a try. If I get really OCD I can just use a Sharpie on the lettering.

I have put quite a few more rounds through this setup and while most were using optics I have used the Troy sights enough to feel that this is the right setup. I will keep the MBUS sights for another rifle but for The Beast (my pet name for the SR-556) the Troys are wonderful. They also take up surprisingly little space when folded down.

So, for me I think both are great products. If I had to start from scratch I can almost certainly say that I would opt for the less expensive Magpul sights but damn, those Troys are nice!

Smoke ’em if you got ’em!


AR-15: piston or DI?

Having owned a number of AR-15 rifles I have a few comments about operating systems that may be helpful. First, the Direct Gas Impingement (DI) system can be perfectly effective. Second, all piston guns are not created equal and in some cases may perform worse that their DI counterparts.

I had an Olympic Arms tactical carbine that I purchased new and put somewhere between 15-20k rounds through before replacing it. After initial cleaning that gun NEVER had a failure to feed, failure to fire or failure to eject. I did have the bolt break in half at about 10k rounds (Oly had me return the entire rifle so they could check it and it returned fully repaired) and the barrel was pretty beat by the end but as far as the gas system, I never had a single problem. DI is a brilliant idea in terms of the weight savings and lack of moving parts. It also puts force behind the bolt allowing the energy to push forward on the bolt and backward on the carrier. This lets the carrier go directly backwards. Very clever and if it weren’t for the fouling would be perfect.

For decades everyone has understood that using a DI gun requires proper cleaning and lubrication. If this is done the gun will work long and hard without a problem. Like most things in life, once you get used to the process the cleaning and lubing is done without much thought or effort. However, objectively speaking it does take a fair amount of time, effort and cleaning solvent to really clean up the gun after several hundred rounds have been fired. The area of most concern is the portion of the bolt aft of the gas rings. This is the area that gets most of the carbon fouling which can build up very quickly. I have found that dropping the entire bolt into a container of Hoppe’s No. 9, tail first, can help tremendously in softening all the carbon. It can then be scraped and scrubbed off. You should of course remove the extractor first before doing this since the rubber bushing under the extractor spring doesn’t like solvents.

So, our DI guns can and do work very well but they do require some effort to keep in good working order. So, why even think about pistons? They add weight and cost to an already-expensive gun and in some cases it appears that they may not be as reliable as the DI platform.

Much has been said and written about the dreaded “carrier tilt”. This is a condition in which the piston’s force is transferred via the push rod to the bolt carrier key in such a way that the force driving the carrier rearward tends to force the rear of the carrier downward. This makes sense given that the original AR design was never meant to accommodate these off-axis forces. Most major manufacturers of piston AR systems have addressed this issue by creating bearing surfaces either on the carrier, inside the upper or both. This keeps the carrier in position as it travels rearward and saves the wear inside the bottom of the buffer tube. From what I am seeing, H&K, Ruger and POF all have addressed this issue adequately.

A word must be said at this point about conversion kits. I can’t say that I’m a fan because in most cases the kit is not sufficient to address the carrier tilt problem. Perhaps some manufacturer will produce a kit that will be very specifically tailored to a particular gun that will lend itself to CT mitigation but I just haven’t seen or heard of such a system yet. I would say that if a piston system is desired then start from the ground up with a fully-engineered solution.

So, if the piston gun has accounted for TC and is otherwise well-made, what advantages does it provide over a DI gun? The biggest is of course that the gun runs much cooler and very much cleaner. The nickel-silicone of the H&K and the chrome of the Ruger are amazingly slick, require little lubrication and clean with a dry cloth. The carriers can be removed immediately after a mag dump for inspection or replacement in the event this is necessary.

Another advantage of most piston systems is that they provide for pressure adjustment. This means that the operating pressure can be increased or reduced to accommodate weather conditions, ammunition variations and the condition of the gun. Some users of the Ruger SR-556 have noted that after break-in they can reliably run the gun at the “1” position on the gas regulator. In the Ruger system “0” is no pressure (suppressor use), “1” is low pressure, “2” is normal and “3” is high. If the gun can run with less pressure then it will save wear and tear on the entire system. Most users will likely leave the setting at 2 and never notice any difference but it is a nice feature.

So, if pressure adjustment isn’t valuable to you and if you don’t run the gun hard, is there really any reason to consider a piston system? The answer, like almost everything, is “it depends”. The real benefit for me is that the gun is so much cleaner that I 1) don’t have to clean nearly as often and 2) the time to clean is cut by %50 or more. What would take at least 20 minutes with a DI gun takes less than 10 minutes with my piston gun. To many people this might not matter but to me it is significant.

So, there you have it. I have in fact gotten rid of all my DI ARs at this point. Will I have a DI gun in the future? Almost certainly I will but I must say that I am spoiled with piston systems. It’s surprising now to see just how dirty a DI gun is after using primarily piston guns for a while.

What should you use? that will depend on what factors weigh more heavily for your situation. Hopefully my experiences will be of assistance.


What am I doing here?

Having been told I should blog about various interesting things within the firearms universe, I have finally decided to do just that.

Welcome to Firearms4U!

First I have to say that I do not consider myself an expert. I have had no military or police training, nor am I a gunsmith. I have no monetary interest in any of the manufacturers that I discuss. What I do have is a lot of experience with a fairly broad array of modern firearms. I have tried a lot of different systems, have read an enormous amount about these items and have come to a lot of conclusions that I think might help others trying to sort out what works for them and what doesn’t.

So, if I had to write a Mission Statement it would sound like this: “Firearms4U strives to provide insight into the world of modern firearms by giving real examples of guns, accessories and ammunition found to work particularly well.”

I hope my postings are of value and I welcome any and all feedback so long as it is 1) constructive and 2) meaningful.

Thanks and enjoy the show!