March 16, 2012
December 5, 2011
If you had to choose one gun to fill every role that you need a firearm to fill, what would you choose? This question came up at the office the other day and quite a few of us immediately responded with “AR-15 of course.” The others don’t get to explain their reasons for being on Team AR-15, but I do; that’s why my job is awesome. Take a quality 5.56 NATO caliber, 16-inch AR-15 carbine with a red dot and a flashlight, and that gun will be ready for (almost) anything.
Caliber 5.56: Sure you can buy AR-15s in different calibers, but 5.56 is by far the most common and the least expensive choice, and it does get the job done. Per dollar spent I can buy a whole lot more 5.56 than .300 Blackout or 6.8 SPC or whatever whiz-bang caliber they will come up with next week. This means I can train with the gun more often, making me a better shooter. If I own the coolest .458 SOCOM setup you’ve ever seen but I’ve only put 50 rounds through it in the past six months, I’m not as good a shooter as I should be, and I’m not going to be very effective no matter how good the gun is. But what about its terminal effectiveness? What about all those stories about Somalis getting shot and then getting back up in Mogadishu? The truth is, 5.56 has a good track record of stopping power when the velocity of the round is high enough and shot placement is good. The citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan (both friend and foe) view the M4 carbine with almost superstitious respect. One returning soldier said that they think our troops are equipped with “magic death rays”, partially because our guys actually hit their targets and Taliban/insurgent medical capabilities are so poor. Back here in the states, they knocked the 5.56 round for many years as being too small to hunt with, but that’s simply not true. A friend of mine in Missouri has been taking deer every year for over a decade with an old 16-inch Colt A2, and he says new hunting ammo choices available for the past few years make the round more deadly than ever before.
Parts is parts: If I could only have one gun to depend on, I would want to be able to get quality, standardized replacement parts easily and cheaply from a variety of sources. I would also want a high degree of certainty that those replacement parts wouldn’t be needed for a long, long time. A quality AR-15 with a chrome lined barrel gets me both of those things. Everyone likes to talk about how robust the AK-47 is (and yes, it’s an excellent gun), but the AR-15’s design is also very easy on its parts. I like to keep an extractor and extractor spring on hand but honestly I’ve never worn those pieces out, I’m doing it “just in case.” AR-15 parts will last an incredibly long time, especially if you actually bother to maintain them. Here come the AK-47 fans again—what about the legendary reliability of the AK in dirty environments with no cleaning at all? Well, if I suddenly found myself transported to a West African jungle firefight with a muddy weapon, ok, I might opt for an AK, but weapon selection would be pretty low on my list of worries at that point! Fortunately I live in the USA, where we have plenty of gun oil to go around and no shortage of shop rags and paper towels either. Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that the AR-15 will run with good reliability even in awful conditions, especially if it is well oiled.
But how does it shoot: I’ve covered caliber, parts availability, and reliability, but those things can be said of a few other guns as well, (the Ruger Mini-14 comes to mind). What sets the AR-15 apart is how it shoots. Even the standard single stage trigger is crisp with a relatively short travel and light pull. You can upgrade the trigger to “amazing” if you want to sacrifice some parts commonality, but a good quality standard one is fine by me. The AR-15’s safety is located in the perfect position to be easily moved both “on” and “off” by the shooter’s thumb or trigger finger. It is the fastest, most intuitive safety on any rifle, and that’s why so many newer designs are now copying it. Correct specification magazines will drop free from the magazine well without having to be pulled out, and the AR-15’s bolt hold open feature and straight-insert magazine design makes reloading faster than any other rifle design. In carbine form, the AR-15 doesn’t weigh much, and a collapsible stock makes the rifle short and compact. A weight of around ten pounds is pretty standard, with a few accessories added. An AR-15 carbine with a 16-inch barrel is a handy, light rifle that can be carried around for hours and then brought into action very quickly. The in-line stock design means that felt recoil is minimal, especially in 5.56 NATO chambering. The last aspect of “how it shoots” is accuracy, and again the AR-15 really shines. Sure, there are heavy-barrel “target” or “varmint hunting” variants built to squeeze maximum accuracy out of the design, but even a standard chrome-lined carbine barrel should hold a group of no more than two inches at 100 yards with quality ammunition. I’ve seen good shooters with hand-loaded ammo and quality scopes hit man-sized targets at 600 yards using good quality 16-inch barrels (if you’re reading this, hi Don!).
The AR-15 is enjoyable and rewarding to shoot. Ammo and parts for it are affordable and easy to get. It has a proven track record with military forces using it in conditions I hope I never find myself in. It is a proven choice for recreational target shooting, self-defense, hunting, competition, and defeating tyrannical governments around the world. It is my heartfelt endorsement for One Gun To Rule Them All.The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!’s blog, “The Shooter’s Log,” is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!
November 27, 2011
The United States Special Operations Command is using a new 5.56 NATO cartridge, and now the Marine Corps is trying it out as well. Some folks refer to it as the SOST round, others call it the OTMRP round, the phrase “barrier blind ammo” has been tossed around the internet, and the official Navy designation is Mk 318 Mod 0. No matter what name you use, it seems that everyone except the US Army wants to load their rifles with it.
In response to the 9/11 attacks, our country went to war in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. It didn’t take long for the troops to complain that the 1980s era 62 grain M855 ammo used in their M4A1 rifles was ineffective. In 2002 a big report detailing these problems was written up by the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana and sent to the Pentagon. In 2003, America opened a second front in Iraq, and more information began coming in. The new war stories, combined with additional scientific testing, began to weigh on the Pentagon, and in 2005 they issued a formal request to the ammunition industry for “enhanced” ammunition. Intimidated by the complicated military procurement process, nearly every ammo maker in the country turned away. The Federal Cartridge Company was the only business to respond to the government’s request.
The Navwar/Crane and Federal/ATK bunch worked together quickly. This “Special Operations Science and Technology” team knew what they wanted and how to get it. Performance objectives for the new ammo were as follows:
- Increased consistency from shot to shot, and from one lot of ammo to another, regardless of temperature changes.
- Accuracy in an M4A1 rifle always better than 2 minute of angle (2 inches at 100 yards, 3.9 inches at 300 yards).
- Increase stopping power after passing through “intermediate barriers” like walls and car windshields.
- Increased performance out of short-barreled carbines such as the FN SCAR, while at the same time decreasing muzzle flash.
- Keep the cost as close to the old M855 as possible.
It was a tall order, but the first prototype batch of ammo was delivered to the government in August 2007. Increased velocity and decreased muzzle flash were accomplished by tweaking the type of powder used, but the real magic was found in the bullet design. The bullet was named the Open Tip Match Rear Penetrator. The front of it is a hollow point backed up by a lead core, but the lead core only goes about halfway down the length of the bullet; the rear half is solid brass. When the OTMRP bullet hits a hard barrier, such as the windscreen of a car being driven by a suicide bomber, the front half of the bullet smooshes (that’s a technical term) against the barrier, breaking it so the “penetrator” half of the bullet can fly through and hit the target beyond. This “barrier blind” bullet acts like two bullets in one, the second brass bullet flying exactly through the hole made by the first lead bullet.
Special Forces often use modern hollowpoint ammunition forbidden to the rest of the military. They do this by classifying themselves on paper as “counter-terrorist” forces which can follow law enforcement guidelines rather than military law. To be fielded by an entire branch of the military, the new round could not be classified as a hollowpoint by the Pentagon. Federal Cartridge helpfully pointed out to Pentagon lawyers that the SOST bullet uses a new “reverse drawn” forming process. The base of the bullet is made first, the lead core is placed on top of it, and then the jacketing is pulled up around the lead core from bottom to top. They said the bullet isn’t a hollowpoint, it’s an “open tip”, and the reason why the tip is open is just a byproduct of the manufacturing process, and has nothing to do with the terminal ballistics of the bullet’s stopping power in soft tissue. The lawyers bought the explanation, and with a wink wink here and a nudge nudge there, officially classified the new round as “Mk 318 Mod 0″, legal for the military to use according to the laws of warfare. In completely unrelated news *cough*, the round is said to be devastating against bad guys. The front half of the bullet fragments very consistently, creating what has been described as a “snowstorm” of lead in the first few inches of soft tissue. The solid copper rear of the bullet then penetrates around 18” of ballistic gelatin while tumbling. Ouch. The SOST bullets peform this way even with the reduced velocity of a 10.5″ chopped barrel. No wonder the Marines decided to buy “a couple million” rounds of the ammo to try out as part of a 10.4 million round ammo purchase in September 2010.
The only branch of the military not to show any interest in the new round at all is the US Army, which is instead deploying its new M855A1 “Enhanced Performance Round,” also known as the lead-free or “environmentally friendly” round. The Marines also bought 1.8 million rounds of this ammo as part of the same September 2010 order mentioned above. The M855A1 is a solid copper bullet topped with a 19 grain “stacked cone” alloy steel penetrator tip. The Army touts the fact that the M855A1 can penetrate 3/8-inch thick steel at 400 meters and also has “barrier blind” properties. Some observers say that the Army is dead set on buying ammo from the development program it paid for, and won’t buy ammo developed by the Navy no matter how good it might be. Others say that with budget cuts coming soon, the Army is anxious to advertise itself to influential Congress members as the most environmentally friendly branch of the armed forces. Perhaps the Army’s testing has convinced them that M855A1 really is a better round—all we know for now is that they aren’t interested in Mk318 Mod 0.
Interested in trying the SOST round? You can! BVAC makes a round which they advertise as being “Made in the USA to the same specifications as Mk 318 Mod 0”, and Federal has released a civilian version as well under the not-catchy-at-all name AB49. Because an executive order by President Bill Clinton banned the sale of “surplus” American made military ammo, Federal advertises AB49 as “loaded similar to Mk 318 Mod 0.” But lets not kid ourselves the way the government does. In all likelihood there is only one assembly line producing this ammunition for Federal Cartridge. When the assembly line is finished making its allotment of ammo for the government’s order each week, it runs for awhile longer making some extra for public sale. The official government NSN number for the ammo is “FC-10C801-013.” That number is stamped on each cardboard box of Federal AB49. Hint, hint, civilians.The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!’s blog, “The Shooter’s Log,” is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!
September 20, 2011
The rifle has some major advantages over the pistol or shotgun when used as a defensive firearm. The rifle is far more powerful than a pistol and offers a quicker reload than the shotgun. With standard magazines holding 20 or 30 rounds, the rifle offers a capacity advantage as well (I have some 33 rounders for my Glock, but those are the exception, not the rule). As a shoulder fired firearm, the rifle’s practical accuracy in rapid fire trumps the pistol, and its relative lack of recoil allows for faster follow-up shots than the mighty 12-gauge shotgun. The rifle can be fired more quickly and more accurately than any other defensive choice available.
However, one of the big advantages of using a centerfire rifle cartridge for self-defense brings a serious concern along with it. The rifle’s ability to stop bad guys, penetrate barriers, and defeat “soft” body armor becomes a double-edged sword when the legal liability of over-penetration is considered. Fortunately for civilians using the rifle as a defensive arm, a wide variety of ammunition choices are available, especially in the very common .223 Remington and 5.56 NATO calibers. At this point, I should mention that these two calibers are NOT the same even though their external dimensions are very similar. Rifles built to withstand the significantly increased chamber pressure of 5.56 NATO can also shoot .223 Remington ammo without difficulty, but the reverse is not always true. Know your firearm and use the proper ammunition for it.
Likely the worst choice for defensive ammo is the inexpensive Russian-made, steel-cased full-metal jacket stuff that we have all used as practice ammo at one time or another. It’s affordable, and I have converted thousands of rounds of it into smoke and noise over the years. However, its full metal jacket bullet is a simple pointed nose design with a thick copper jacket around its lead core, which will not expand or fragment when it hits the muscle and bone of the bad guy. These bullets tend to travel straight through whatever they hit and keep going for quite awhile afterward before eventually tumbling. Remember, if the bad guy dies from blood loss in a hospital hours later, it doesn’t matter—we are shooting to stop his aggression right now! This ammo offers minimal stopping power combined with maximum legal risk. We must plan being legally liable for everything struck by the bullets we fire. A bullet which drills a .223 caliber hole straight through the bad guy before blowing through the wall behind him is the worst combination possible.
A slightly better option, while still being crippled by the full metal jacket bullet design, is the 5.56 NATO military specification M193 round. The 55-grain bullet is similar in outward appearance to other FMJ rounds, but features a thinner copper jacket around the lead core. When the bullet hits with sufficient velocity (greater than 2,600 feet per second or so), the extreme pressure of striking the target is sometimes too much for the thin jacketing to keep the bullet together. If the jacketing breaks at the cannelure (the groove around the bullet where the casing crimps to hold it), the bullet will fragment into several smaller chunks which spread out in all directions. They are unlikely to pass all the way through the bad guy’s body with enough force to do damage to anything else behind him. A 5.56 NATO round which fragments inside the chest cavity of a bad guy is very likely to stop him right there. Unfortunately, the fragmentation of the M193 round is not a consistent sure thing at all; even under strict testing conditions, only a certain percentage of rounds will do it. There is no evidence that the military wanted a fragmenting bullet design or was even aware that it could fragment when they adopted the M193 bullet way back in 1964. The fact that it does sometimes fragment is really an accident of bullet construction techniques rather than the feature for which it is now known.
The other military specification round, the 62 grain M855 (USA) or SS109 (NATO) loading, can also fragment like the M193 does, but it doesn’t fragment as often or as violently as M193. The bullet design of the M855 is complicated, featuring a full metal jacketing over the pointed lead bullet and a steel penetrator core at the bottom. It is slightly heavier than M193 but offers less velocity. This ammunition was designed in the 1970s specifically to penetrate one side of a Soviet steel helmet from a distance of 600 meters, which seemed like a great idea at the time. In the real world, M855 has had some disappointing results. In the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu (Blackhawk Down), Delta Force soldiers reported frustration with shooting enemies multiple times only to see them get up and run away. The combination of their short barreled (10.5-11.5 inch) CAR-15 type rifles and M855 ammunition did not produce enough velocity for the bullets to fragment; they traveled straight through the Somali fighters.
In recent years bullet technology has grown tremendously. The old soft tip hunting ammo designs have been overtaken by hollowpoints offering expansion along with good weight retention. These rounds form a mushroom shape which limits over penetration and devastates soft tissue, while holding the bullet together instead of fragmenting. Most recently, ammo makers have started capping their hollowpoints with a plastic ballistic tip. When the bullet strikes the target, the plastic tip is driven backwards inside the hollow of the bullet, helping the bullet expand reliably and more consistently. Ballistic tip ammunition offers a good mix of penetration combined with reliable expansion and weight retention. Though sold for years as hunting ammunition, manufacturers have also begun to offer ballistic tip loadings specifically for law enforcement or personal defense. For most common defensive applications, this is the pinnacle of bullet technology at this time.
Inexpensive steel cased ammo intended for plinking and training is a poor choice for use when lives are on the line. Military specification loadings are better, but their performance is inconsistent compared to the latest generation of ballistic tip hollowpoints. When loading a rifle for defending your life, choose your ammunition carefully.The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!’s blog, “The Shooter’s Log,” is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!
June 17, 2011
A few days ago, Tam (if you’re not reading her blog, you should be) put together a list of the various calibers she keeps on hand to shoot through the various guns in her collection. It’s a pretty extensive list, as it should be for a collector of obscure firearms. My own list is a little more mundane, but it also fits my collection of guns which are all primarily uses for competition and heavy shooting. That means that instead of a lot of different calibers, I have a lot of rounds of just a few calibers. On hand right now are the following calibers:
Continue reading “Ammo Stash” »