Pistol review: Sig Sauer 226

My friends Kevin and Bill are long-time Sig fans and after some teasing about me being Ruger-centric I decided to try one out and see what all the fuss was about. Bill loaned me one of his 226s and I checked it out over the last week.

To be fair, I had shot Kevin’s 229 and this 226 previously but only a few times. The plan now was to really put some rounds through it and get a good sense of the pistol. My experience was a mixture of confirmed assumptions and surprises.

The 226 has been around a long time and it is no accident that it remains a popular pistol. With its metal frame and slide it is a durable, solid pistol that feels massive and does a good job mitigating recoil. It looks good too. I shot factory 115 gr Georgia Arms ball ammo and my own handloads (124gr JHP from Montana Gold, 4.1gr Titegroup, CCI small pistol primers using mixed brass) and found that from a recoil perspective it was very pleasant to shoot. Two other things struck me immediately: first, the grip is fat and second the pistol is really accurate. Ergonomics being all the rage recently this pistol is not a great fit for my small hands. I found it uncomfortably large compared to my SR-9 and my 1911. Nevertheless I found that I was very accurate shooting at 10 yds.

The first day shooting the 226 was shared with my friend Neil who was at the range fighting with his new PPK. Just for fun he tried the 226 and was astonished at how much he liked it. In fact he shot most of the ammo I brought and was contemplating a trip to the gun store to pick one up on the way home.

The 226 has an exposed hammer, a de-cocker and no manual safety. This means that to fire a round left in the chamber requires the first shot be taken as double-action. This is not a simple task for those of us accustomed to DAO guns or the locked-and-cocked 1911. I’m told that you get used to it but there’s no question that the first shot is going to be either slower or less accurate or both. I just don’t see how you can get around that.

So I figured I would try the gun again after our next practice just to see how it felt on a second day and then I would write the review. Yesterday when I got to practice I was very unhappy to discover that when I reassembled my SR-9 after cleaning that I had left out the take-down pin. I then remembered that I had brought along the Sig so I used it instead. The results were impressive.

Bill, Mike and I shot “Can you count?” and “Mini-mart” from the USPSA classifier book and even with the double-action first shot I was able to really move through the first stage very fast. The trigger’s short reset and short, crisp single-action pull make up for the first shot. The big surprise for me was my accuracy. Sure, these are not long-shot stages but as anyone who has shot with me knows, I tend to get wide when I’m blowing through stages. Interestingly enough, on this day I had quite a few runs that were all Alpha hits and I had no Mikes and no No-Shoots. I broke into the six and seven hit factors, respectively. You can’t argue with success.

After about 200 rounds we concluded the practice and I gave the pistol back to Bill. It is worth noting that I was using a nylon holster that was loose on my normal leather belt. Once the front fiber optic sight caught on the holster during a draw and cost me at least .5 seconds. I suspect with a Bladtech DOH I would have done even better.

So, am I (like Neil) headed to the gun store? I don’t think so. I certainly was surprised at how this gun performed under stress. My groups looked really good. But I couldn’t shake the ergonomic issue. Not only that but the double-action first shot costs, regardless of how nice the remaining shots are.

I always think of Jack Bauer when I see that pistol and for many people it is the perfect competition and/or carry gun. For me it is a fun gun but not for serious business.

Your Mileage May Vary

Ruger SR-9: big bang for the buck

In October of 2007 Sturm Ruger introduced their first striker-fired polymer-framed pistol, the SR-9. Although they had a recall for early models, the pistol has been very successful. I’ve been shooting them since early 2009 and have been highly impressed.

At 1.18 inches thick, the SR-9 is very thin. It is also light at 26.5 oz. The pistol was obviously designed for self-defense/concealed carry purposes with its 4.14″ barrel and sleek design. With a street price well under $400 and the Ruger name, this pistol was bound to be popular. What surprised me is that it is in fact a really nice pistol for USPSA Production division.

As mentioned in my earlier USPSA post, I first starting shooting this pistol when one was loaned to me by my friend Jeff. I wound up shooting it so much that I felt compelled to buy it from him due to the wear on the gun. Frankly after several months I had grown quite fond of it also. This model was post-recall (mid-2008) which meant that it already had the trigger safety. I did a lot of polishing and some spring replacement due to the heavy trigger. The trigger as originally tested was about 8.5 lbs. which way too heavy for a competition gun. After some work and several thousand rounds the trigger was at about 6.4 lbs. but smooth. For anyone interested in how to do this stuff, Rugerforums.com is a great resource.

Fall 2009 I purchased a second SR-9 which had the improved trigger. It was still a little gritty when first received but after an initial cleaning it was much better. The pull measured 6.5 lbs. I sent it off to Dwight Clark of CGS, LLC in Orrville, Ohio (330-466-1257) who changed the striker spring and did a lot of polishing 0f the internals. The result was a 4.15 pound very smooth trigger with a crisp break. I replaced the main spring (13.5 oz.) with a Glock 11lb spring. This setup runs perfectly with 124 JHP Montana Gold bullets with 4.1gr Titegroup powder and CCI primers.  This is the gun I still shoot in Production and after 8k rounds it continues to perform well.

I made a couple of other Production-legal modifications that I would recommend: I installed a red fiber-optic front sight (Hi-Viz) and grip tape. When the sun hits that sight it looks like an electronic red-dot and is highly visible. This is perfect for my vision which is somewhat compromised in my right eye.

Grip tape is essential for me as it really locks the grip to my hand and works wet or dry. This is nothing more than standard Diamond skateboard tape. One suggestion on the tape: after getting the pattern just right and cutting the tape, cut another strip about 1/2″ wide to run the length of the backstrap. I put this on the grip before installing the main tape so that I have a base upon which to superglue the two edges that meet at the back. Any hobby shop will have the “rubberized black cyanoacrylate” that you apply to the back of the thin strip before pressing both ends of your main tape onto it. This creates a permanent connection of the tape to itself but doesn’t change the grip. The whole thing can be removed just by cutting it off.

One gotcha with this highly-tuned pistol/ammo combination is that I have to be very diligent about seating the primers on my handloads. If the primer is the least bit high the striker only has enough energy to push the primer fully into the primer pocket and leave a light strike on the primer itself. The resulting unfired round will always fire if loaded again. I’ve never had a failure to fire (FTF) with my match ammo but I occasionally have one while using practice ammo.

After being so pleased with the pistol I was delighted when Ruger announced a compact version to be sold in January of 2010: the SR-9c. I bought one right away and was delighted to see the improved 6.0 lb. trigger it sports. This is my primary CCW pistol and as such I would not want a trigger any lighter. I have left this gun unaltered other than shooting several hundred rounds and a little polishing of the visible bearing surfaces. That and removing that infernal magazine disconnect safety is all I’ve done. The geometry is identical to the SR-9 so my natural point-of-aim is perfect.

So, is the SR-9 the best pistol on Earth? Certainly not but I think it is every bit as good as a Glock 17 for significantly less money and it has the “proper” 17 degree grip angle, like the 1911 and it has a reversible backstrap which was nice for my small hands. Also, the longer this pistol is on the market the more good aftermarket parts and accessories will be available. For USPSA shooters it offers a low-cost way to get started in the Production division and can be turned into a very competitive little shooter!

Three-Point Slings: my favorites

One of the nice things about this blog is that it gives me a place to point folks when they ask me for advice about firearms-related items. While I do not consider myself a true expert I do have significant experience with lots of these systems. The result is that I can post what I really like and why. Tactical, three-point slings are a very important part of any long gun setup for me and so deserve careful consideration.

I’ve always used slings to carry long guns and also for steadying the weapon during firing. It was only in recent years that I began to try anything other than the classic two-point sling. For me the single-point sling is not very useful. I do have one on my Kel-Tec SU-16c because that gun is very light, small and can be carried with the stock folded under my strong arm. For my other long guns I find it is just too much weight on my neck to be comfortable and there’s just not enough control of the weapon. Once I tried a three-point sling I understood why they are so popular: nice weight distribution, the gun can drop across my torso without any guidance and it still offers great support for firing.

BlackhawkUniversalSwiftSling
Blackhawk Universal Swift Sling

My first three-point sling for an AR-15 was a Blackhawk Universal Swift Sling. It is a fine sling that offers good features and costs around $40. It offers the usual 1.25″ nylon webbing and decent plastic hardware but I did have a failure with one of the buckles. As many of you know I am a big fan of the Blackhawk folks but in this application I felt I wanted something a bit more robust. I do tend to be pretty hard on gear.

After looking around a bit I found a sling that I have not been able to break and that I like a lot: The Wilderness Giles Tactical Sling. The folks at The Wilderness are very conscientious about their products and it shows. The Giles design has been around for decades but this incarnation seems unbeatable. The nylon webbing is the toughest I’ve seen in 1.25″ and is non-reflective and makes almost no noise during adjustment and the hardware is very tough. Getting one with the quick release buckle is essential in my opinion. I would wager that many folks would be very happy with this sling and find it meets all their needs. After using one for a long time I was still thinking that there was a better sling out there for my particular needs. Eventually I got my hands on a Spector SOP sling and I now believe I have found the perfect sling for me.

Specter SOP Sling

Specter is another outstanding company that has put a lot of time and energy into developing not just a few models but a whole family of three-point slings. The Special Operations Patrol (SOP) sling is based on their CQB sling which is a fine sling using excellent materials and featuring a weak-side transition clasp that can be activated with the weak-side thumb (or any other digit) without losing attachment to the weapon. This is critical when one needs to quickly transition to the weak side for say, shooting around a corner. After the weak-side need passes the weapon can be transitioned to the strong-side quickly and the sling locked back into its original configuration instantly. While a number of vendors have a similar feature I have found the Specter implementation to be the best. The CQB is also very quick and easy to adjust for different carry needs without removing it from the weapon or needing to re-thread any buckles.

The difference in the SOP is that it switches to 1.5″ webbing. This makes a big difference for me in terms of comfort. It might not sound like much but that extra .25″ does distribute the weight better for me. The SOP uses transition webbing at the front and rear so that you have a 1.25″ loop for attachment to the sling mounts. My first use of the SOP was with a standard AR-15 that had round handguards and a standard stock. The heavy-duty loops wrapped completely around the stocks and was very secure. Later versions I’ve used have been “universal” units made to work with 1.25″ swivel mounts. The inclusion of a quick-release buckle make this unit the ultimate three-point sling for my applications.

A word should be said here about why I find this beefy setup to be best. With my Ruger SR-556 weighing in a about eight pounds, and the addition of a GripPod, sling mount, optics and tactical light, the working weight of my primary carbine when loaded is over ten pounds. That’s significant weight to have hanging and banging around my neck and shoulders. If I was carrying a stripped down Colt patrol carbine I would likely be happy with the Specter CQB but given my choices for the setup the SOP is a distinct improvement. What works best for you might be different of course.

Lastly, I want to mention sling mounts. Many rifles sold today don’t have the bottom-mounted sling swivel (or the vestigial bayonet lug) which is fine with me. Three-point slings don’t work well with those because it makes the gun tend to roll forward as it hangs freely. Having the magazine jabbing me in the gut is no fun, especially if I am going prone or otherwise encountering an immovable object. I think that the forward mount should be at least even with the bore axis. In fact I prefer it to be above-axis by about an inch. Yankee Hill and GG&G make good mounts but I really like the Daniel Defense units. These

Daniel Defense Heavy-Duty Sling Swivel

of course require a quad-rail but that is becoming standard anyway. With the Magpul CTR stock on all my carbines I already have a mounting hole right in the stock, ready for another Daniel Defense favorite: the Heavy-Duty quick-release swivels. These push-button swivels are very tough and will not come loose unless you really push in on the release button. I’ve never had one come loose by accident. They also have a built-in limit of about 120 degrees of travel arc so that the sling can’t get twisted by spinning around in the mount. Another nice feature of using these mounts is that I can attach or remove the entire sling quickly. This allows me to swap slings between guns too.

So with my Specter SOP on DD mounts I’m very happy. Will I find something better in the days ahead? That’s a tough question, but for now I really feel I’ve got the best setup going.

Reloading: how I found my way to the Dillon XL650

Once I got the USPSA bug my round count per month went up dramatically so it was inevitable that I would start reloading. The question then was: where to start? Conventional wisdom says to start off with a single-stage press and learn the subtleties of reloading before moving into a progressive press. This is certainly not a bad idea but life is short and I was lucky enough to get right into the big leagues.

After months of ammo shortages our local sensei offered to let several of us use his Dillon Super 1050 to load a bunch of 9mm one weekend if we would get our own 1) bullets, 2) powder, 3) primers and 4) prepped cases. I said, “sure” and started collecting money and placing orders. CZ Custom was our bullet source for 115gr FMJ bullets, Powder Valley sold us the TiteGroup powder and I bought a bunch of Wolf primers on eBay. This was fall of 2009 and reloading components were still tough to come by but we eventually got everything and scheduled a weekend for the reloading party. I spent many hours washing, drying and cleaning brass so that we were ready for our scheduled 6k rounds (2k each for three guys). We headed to Glyn’s house and that’s when the fun began. Over the course of that weekend I learned an enormous amount about reloading in general and the characteristics of the 1050 in particular. I was hooked.

After burning through those 2k rounds in short order I realized I needed to come up with my own solution. Glyn’s generosity was admirable but if I wanted to tune my own 9mm load I really needed my own setup. I began the process that so many of us follow: search the Internet and drink from the fire hose. In hindsight I should have stuck to Brian Enos’ forums since not only is that the best source of information on USPSA shooting in general but the reloading forums there are superb. I owe a lot to the excellent information shared there.

I toyed with the idea of a Lee Loadmaster since it is a progressive, auto-indexing press that would allow me to really crank out the rounds and it was very cheap. I think the press with set up for one caliber (dies included) was around $250. I think there were other items needed like a powder measure perhaps but I don’t remember with certainty.

At this point my friend Bruce, who has been reloading for decades, shook his head and said that if I bought a Dillon press I would never regret it. Remarkably I listened to his advice and began bracing myself for the wallet-draining that was to come.

Dillon Precision has been the leader in progressive presses for a long time and there are many reasons why. The foremost is that they are utterly dedicated to their customers. It doesn’t hurt that they have the best engineered presses on the market either. Their Square Deal presses are a low-cost solution that allow entry into progressive reloading with minimal cost. The downside there is that they use non-standard dies and they are limited to pistol cartridges only. I wanted to reload not only 9mm but also .45acp and .233, so that was not an option.

Dillon’s three main offerings are the 550, XL650 and the Super 1050. The 550 is a 4-stage press with manual indexing. My sense is that this press was designed for the medium-volume reloader whose interest was primarily in a very precisely loaded round. It is an excellent press but would not suit my needs since I was interested in high-volume. The Super 1050 is the top-of-the-line, 8-stage, auto-indexing press already mentioned. It is Dillon’s most sophisticated offering. It is also very expensive. A single caliber setup can cost $2k, depending on options. One drawback to the 1050 is that it is considered a commercial press which means that Dillon doesn’t give it their “no B.S. warranty”. In other words, as things break on the press Dillon expects the customer to pay for parts and/or repair. For a true commercial reloader this is reasonable but for my purposes I wanted the comfort of knowing that whatever goes wrong they will cover. This left me with the XL650 as the obvious choice.

The Dillon XL650 is a 5-stage, fully progressive press with a removable toolhead and optional case feeding system. The basic press is around $540 with the case feeder adding another $250. The press comes with one caliber kit, matching primer feed system and dies. This means that for around $1k you can start reloading your cartridge of choice. If you want to quickly switch calibers then you will want to purchase not only the necessary caliber kits and dies but also additional toolheads. This allows for the permanent mounting of the dies, powder feed, etc. right in the respective toolheads for each caliber.

I decided to get setups for 9mm, .45 and .233. In addition to the toolhead items, the case feeder requires a different collator plate for each caliber. Once all three calibers have been set up I can now switch from one to the other in about 20 minutes. All dies and adjustments remain untouched. This is a huge time saver considering how long it would take to remove, install and adjust dies in a single tool head.

Having used Glyn’s 1050 with a Mr. Bullet Feeder it wasn’t long before I yearned for the same setup. I eventually added a Mr. Bullet Feeder to my system, allowing for one-handed operation. Given that the bullet feeder requires a station and the fact that I wanted to use the powder check die (seeing a pistol go kaboom is an eye-opening experience) I got hold of an RCBS seat/crimp die for station five. I have found this to be an ideal setup for 9mm. I can produce 250 rounds (one full bin) in about 10-12 minutes without breaking a sweat.

There is an awful lot to reloading and safety cannot be shortchanged. Never reload without eye protection and never, EVER have more than one powder type in your reloading area. I’m not kidding.

This post is meant to give the reader an overview of my reloading experience and to hopefully share a bit of what I have learned. If you are considering reloading get hold of a reloading manual and read the whole thing. If you can, get yourself a mentor or three. Kevin, Bruce and Glyn have helped me tremendously.

If you are considering a Dillon press, do yourself a favor and talk to Brian Enos. I bought mine through him and he was a wealth of knowledge and helped me get precisely the setup I needed and wanted. You won’t be sorry.

Combat Optics: who shall be king?

With the explosive sales of AR-15 and similar rifles in the U.S., the accessory market is likewise booming. One area of particular interest is that of combat optics.

The magnified rifle scope has been around for generations and is still widely used by hunters and military/law enforcement snipers. It provides a tremendous advantage in making long shots accurately. The non-magnified or “1x” optics are a recent development.

Given that most combat engagements are at short distances (less than 200 meters) the value of a red dot 1x optic is great. Both eyes can and should be kept open so the the visual field is unencumbered, allowing for better situational awareness, and the target acquisition time is extremely short. The current offerings for this type of sight are broad, ranging from $40 units at Wal-Mart to $800+ units closely matching military models.

A word should be said here about the Trijicon ACOG sight. ACOG stands for “Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight” and it is a remarkable product. The classic ACOG was originally offered in a low-power magnification configuration (3-4x) with both tritium and fiber optic illumination. This allowed for an illuminated, highly-visible reticle in day/night/indoor/outdoor conditions in a very rugged package that required no batteries or adjustment. The product line now includes offerings from 1.5x to over 5x magnification and with a dizzying array of illumination and reticle options. They are not cheap, going for $1-1.5k. For medium-distance engagements this sight is awfully hard to beat. It is however not a 1x sight and for close-quarter battle (CQB) it loses out to the true 1x sights.

The key feature for good 1x optics is that they offer unlimited eye-relief and are parallax-free. Eye-relief is the distance from the optic that the eye can be and still keep the full sight image. With magnified scopes the shooter’s eye must be kept at a certain distance from the scope in order to see the entire downrange image. With 1x optics the shooter’s eye and the optic can be any distance apart. This allows for “Scout” configurations where the sight is far forward on the rifle. For CQB the advantage is that the sight picture will be accurate more quickly as the weapon is shouldered. Similarly, parallax-free means that as the shooter’s eye moves around behind the sight, the sight image and the point-of-aim (the dot or other reticle) are still accurate and distortion-free. Again, this allows much faster target acquisition since the sight image is accurate as soon as the reticle is visible to the shooter, even when the weapon is not fully shouldered. This early acquisition is crucial for quick shots.

The two leading companies in the 1x arena currently are Aimpoint and Eotech. Many others have imitated the design, some well and others not so much. My first 1x optic was an Eotech clone bought on eBay for around $80. It was modeled on the 5.11 model which uses N-type batteries. It was reasonably useful but was lacking in design such that there was quite a lot of parallax and the reticle was not very bright even on the highest setting. In bright snow the sight was useless and unless my eye was centered behind the sight the point-of-aim was way off. Caveat Emptor!

After trying out a few real Eotechs I finally replaced the clone with a real model 5.12 which is non-night vision and uses two AA batteries. The difference was dramatic. The Eotech is made in Ann Arbor Michigan and was the first common holographic weapon sight. The use of a holograph allows for complex reticles to be placed on the glass of the sight with great precision. The majority of Eotech sights use a large 65 Moa ring and a 1 Moa dot in the center as the reticle. The ring guides your eye much like the ghost ring of some popular iron sights. This allows the 1 Moa dot to be found very quickly and overall shot time to be really quick. From my experience this is the very best reticle for CQB.

Among the short list of shortcomings for the Eotech were 1) battery life, 2) mounting options, 3) controls and 4) size/weight. The fact that the holograph requires a laser means that the run-time will necessarily be shorter. For non-military use this is frankly not much of a consideration. The Eotech can run for a month or two continuously. The good news is that the unit turns itself off after 2 or 4 hours, depending on the way it was turned on (left or right button). It is likely that most shooters will need to replace the AA batteries due to chemistry limitations rather than actually running them down.

The Eotech mounts on a mil-std-1913 rail with a built-in clamp on the bottom of the housing. It works perfectly on an AR-15 and will co-witness with iron sights. If considering another rifle then the sights might not work as well. On my Kel-Tec SU16C  the Eotech sits too high. The good news is that with this integrated clamp the sight does return to zero nicely when reattached to my AR-15.

The 5.12 controls are just OK. They are push-buttons on the back of the housing which is a problem if you want to use a magnifier behind the sight. The buttons are also tough to manage with gloves, especially thick ones. I find it takes a bit more work to turn them on and adjust the brightness than knob-activated sights.

Weight/size are also a small negative for the 5.12 since it is a little heavier than others but the visual field is very large so it can be argued that it’s a good trade-off. The AA models are longer but they offer extremely common batteries and a very simple, quick and easy battery change.

Are these major problems? Not for me but I did want to at least mention them. The overall impression for me is that for an AR-15 this sight is superb and well worth the $400 price tag. Nevertheless I felt compelled to get my hands on an Aimpoint to see how it compared.

I found a used CompML2 on eBay for around $325 (new around $400). The sight came with a Burris Xtreme mount of the 1″ variety which was too high for my tastes. I have noticed that lots of folks put their optics up at the 1″ mark and I can’t understand why. Perhaps they have a standard A-post front sight base (FSB) and this keeps the optic above it. In any case I bought a 1/2″ version of the Burris mount which keeps the sight nice and low allowing a nice tight cheek weld. It also allows the Troy backup sights to co-witnesses right in the center of the optic.

Using this sight with its 2 Moa dot has worked really well. The dot can be dialed up to very high brightness, which also makes it look bigger if that is required. The control knob has very positive clicks for feedback and can be operated even with thick gloves. The battery life is supposed to be 5 years on one of the brighter settings which far outshines (pun?) the Eotech. This is nice but hardly a huge factor for me. The field of view is smaller too but in some ways that helps to find the dot fast. Many people have reported that they felt the CompM series to be more rugged than the Eotechs but all I can say is that both have worked really well and taken quite a beating from me without (almost) any failures.

I eventually replaced this sight with a CompM3 after accidentally damaging the sight. The sight was still functional but the cracked front lens was a distraction. The M3 adds night vision which will likely never be used by me. Otherwise it is functionally identical.

The negatives on the CompM2/3 are 1) it doesn’t come with a mount, the glass is somewhat small and 2) the simple reticle doesn’t compete with the Eotech “circle of death”. It is however light and the battery life is amazing. The durability issue is unsettled in my mind.

So, which do I use? Well at this moment I have the Eotech on my main AR-15 but for the last few weeks I have been running the CompM3. I keep going back and forth. The Aimpoint is easier to turn on and off and may be more rugged but in actual use that Eotech sight picture is unbeatable.

Another significant question for many folks will be, “Do I really need a $400 sight at all?” It’s a fair question. If you are betting your life on it you might say yes, especially if this is for military use. However, I use a $40 Tasco red dot on my Kel-Tec that I have found is ideal for use on my “truck gun”. Would this be my choice in a SHTF scenario? No but it works great for a low-cost, relatively dependable rifle that if stolen from my truck would not break my heart or the bank.

As for the Aimpoint/Eotech question, you’ll have to decide that for yourself.

USPSA belts, holsters and mag pouches: what works for me

After shooting USPSA Production division since early last year I have settled on a belt/holster/mag pouch combination that I am very happy with. This Spring I duplicated the setup for my 1911 for Limited/10 class and find it to be perfectly workable there also.

The CR Speed company’s “Hi Torque” belt is the hands-down top choice within USPSA circles. It is a two-part system that uses an inner belt (normally threaded through the belt loops of pants) and an outer belt that can be attached simply by pressing it onto the already-attached inner belt. Double-Alpha has a similar product but some prefer it due to differences in stiffness or lack thereof in the inner or outer component. I have found the Hi-Torque to be just right for me. The inner belt is actually quite comfortable as a normal belt. It contains the “loop” portion of the fastening system. It is soft to the touch and doesn’t grab fabric. I have often worn the inner belt on match days as my regular belt which saves me having to switch before and after the match. The outer belt is very stiff and contains the “hook” fasteners.

Once attached securely this makes an excellent foundation for holster and mag pouches. One note: always order the belt 2 inches larger than your actual waist/pant size.

The holster I use is also widely considered the best choice among USPSA Production class competitors: the Bladetech Dropped and Offset Holster (DOH) with Tek-Lok attachment. This system combines BladeTech’s excellent OWB holster, molded to specific pistol models, with a Tek-Lok belt attachment and the DOH extension. The extension moves the holster out and down from the normal position. This puts the pistol two inches lower and about an inch out from the belt. It also cants the pistol so that the grip is even a bit further out. This allows a much easier draw with the pistol closer to the draw hand and away from belt and clothing. The Tek-Lok attachment is adjustable for belt width and allows for a very tight grip on the outer belt. The holster itself is adjustable for retention but I’ve never touched mine and it works perfectly: just enough bite to keep the pistol safely holstered but loose enough to draw quickly and cleanly.

For mag pouches the most popular choice is also from CR Speed: their Versa Pouch system.  While this system is undoubtedly superb I personally have chosen a different solution: the Blackhawk carbon fiber mag pouch. I was able to purchase six of these units for the price of two Versa pouches. As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m not afraid to spend money on shooting-related items but this was one of those rare instances where I just knew there had to be a comparable solution for less money. The Blackhawk pouches are very sturdy and come with a belt clip that slides into the back of the pouch with a Picatinny rail. I first used these with the Serpa holster on a Drop Leg platform, also from Black Hawk (more on the Serpa later). The pouches work well for my Ruger SR9 mags as well as a number of other 9mm and .40 S&W pistol mags I’ve tried.  The spring that retains the mags was stiff when I got them but after leaving mags in them for a week they were perfect. I’ve never had a mag fall out even running at full speed, but they draw without a hitch. I wanted a tight fit on the belt so I opted to use 1/4 inch wood screws to attach the belt clips to the belt. I then slid the pouches onto the belt clips (remember the rails?) and this gives me six mags as close together as possible.

One last thing on the mag pouches: I found that I wanted the mags just a little higher than the default so I created small wood inserts about 1″ x 3/4″ x 3/4″ to sit in the bottom of the pouches. This raised them to the perfect height and helped ease the spring tension a bit more. For my 1911 setup I found that a standard Lego 2×8 piece (let the jokes begin) was perfect for creating the necessary mag lift. Yes, I realize that the time spent attaching and modifying these pouches probably negated any savings over the Versa units but…sometimes you just have to do things. It’s sort of like Male-Answer-Syndrome.

So, the CR-Speed belt/Bladetech DOH holster/Blackhawk pouch system works very well for me in both Production and Limited/10. I suspect it will for you also.

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!

William

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!

William

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.

William