Notes on Setting Up the Modern Fighting Rifle
(This conversation is not intended to instigate a debate on the merits of the Stoner platform versus anything else, nor is it intended to foment discussion on 5.56 versus 7.62. The first has been completely dispelled, in the realm of this blog at least, by the refusal of all those opposed on principle to Stoner’s design, to accept my standing challenge on the “Last Word” page. The second is simply not open to discussion here. I KNOW 5.56 kills people, dead. I know 7.62 kills people, dead. I choose 5.56 because it kills people, dead, plus I can carry more of it, meaning, when necessary, I can kill more people, dead. Additionally, because it has less felt recoil, I can kill them faster, because shot-to-shot recovery is faster. Are there guys out there that can recover from 7.62 as fast, or faster, than I can from 5.56? Perhaps, but those guys don’t need any advice on setting up their fighting rifle. Most guys can’t recover from 5.56 as fast as I can from 7.62. I choose 5.56 because it works, for me. I don’t moderate comments, but I WILL delete comments that hold no merit to the conversation, on this article, if the only thing you have to say is along the lines of “Stoner was stoned!” or “Mouseguns are for pussies!” –J.M.)
I get asked a lot, during classes, about why I set up my rifles the way I do, and what I recommend for others. In the last Combat Rifle class, I was specifically asked to write an article for the blog on how my rifles are set up (for the record, with the exception of sniper rifles and SDM rifles, every M4 in my household is set up the exact same way, even if they come from different makers. HH6 was taught/is being taught, to run an M4/combat rifle by me, so there’s no deficit in having all of our rifles set up exactly the same way –J.M.).
To start with, I prefer rifles with a 14.5-16″ barrel. This gives ample ballistic energy to ensure maximum performance of the 5.56 round’s engineering out to the common combative range of <200M (i.e. specifically, yaw of the round, upon impact, leading to fracture at the cannellure, leading to massive hemorrhage due to multiple wound channels, or at least a larger, more catastrophic wound channel), but still ensures the weapon is handy enough to not “get in the way” in tight confines, whether those are the trees and brush in the forest, or the doors and windows in a built-up area.
I also prefer a 1:7 twist, which pretty much rules out most commercial grade AR-15s, with their 1:9 twist, except Colt. The reason behind this is, a) we run 62-grain, M855 “green tip” exclusively. The round, engineered as SS109 by the Belgians, for performance in the Minimi machine gun, while not as apparently “devastating” as the lighter, 55-grain M193 that preceded it, offers improved penetration. It was specifically designed to penetrate Soviet soft body armor of the era, and a steel helmet, at 600M (1/8 inch of steel). While some (most notably, in my mind, Paul Howe), have pointed at it’s failure due to overpenetration of malnourished individuals such as confronted in Somalia during the Battle of Bakara Market in 1993, others have noted that it does the job just fine, if you do yours. Personally, I’ve never had the round fail to kill people when I did my part and shot them where they needed to be shot. Additionally, and of equal importance, is the 1:7 twist offers me the ability to load up to 77-grain MK262, if I so choose, further improving the range of the caliber, if for some reason I can no longer get M855 to to the trick.
Some really well-regarded instructors, including some I consider friends and all-around good guys, prefer a muzzle brake over a flash suppressor, because they run suppressors on all their guns. If you are going to ask permission to mount a “can,” or blow off the permit system and run a can without the permission slip, a muzzle brake offers a lot of advantages over a flash suppressor, in the recoil mitigation department. I don’t do either, yet, so I run flash suppressors (an important note that apparently some people just don’t fathom, the flash is suppressed from YOUR point-of-view, not the enemy’s. That would involve putting something in front of the muzzle……think about it for a moment….), to protect my night vision. Further, well designed flash suppressors can actually function like a muzzle brake by reducing muzzle flip during the recoil cycle. We run either standard -A2 style birdcages or the YHM Phantom flash suppressors on all but one weapon (that one has a Noveske “Flaming Pig” device, for a very specific reason that is irrelevant to this article). For my money, these two designs, or variations thereof, are the best choice. A lot of guys really like the various 3-prong type flash suppressors, but I’ve never been a fan of the harmonics involved. That’s a ME thing though, in all honesty.
As far as barrel profiles go, I prefer either a government profile, or a pencil barrel (sniper platforms and SDM rifles excepted, wherein I prefer a medium-heavy barrel), for the weight advantages. Are there trade-offs in accuracy? Maybe, but the fact that all my guns will shoot MOA or better tells me it’s negligible.
All of our fore-ends are either free-floated, or on the way to being free-floated (we have one rifle that doesn’t have a free-floated fore-end, and that is solely an economic shortcoming. As soon as I can afford to replace it, I will….probably this weekend actually, since I finally got the rails in and just need to put them on). The accuracy difference is relatively minor, until you start looking at realistic practical shooting considerations, such as resting the rifle on something like a position of cover, to enhance accuracy. I am a HUGE fan of Troy Industries rail systems, specifically the Viking Tactics variants, from SGM Kyle Lamb. I’ve tried YHM rails, and had really lousy luck with them, although I know guys who love them too. My problems have involved difficulties in getting the rails lined up on their proprietary barrel nut, to the whole fucking thing twisting in my hand, in the middle of a shooting drill…..I haven’t completely written them off, but I doubt I’ll be paying retail for another one, any time soon.
For sights, I’ve previously advocated for a 1-4x variable-powered optic. That hasn’t changed, but just like then, it’s a METT-TC consideration. In most of Wyoming, 300 meters is rock-chucking distance, so 4x gets used, a lot. In western Montana or northern Idaho, 300 meters is a LONG, LONG way in the timber, and while the advantages of target identification are inarguable, the speed of a red dot sight may overwhelm it. On the other hand, there’s really no excuse for NOT running an optic. I don’t care how fast you THINK you are with your irons, or how accurate you THINK you are with your irons, it is a scientific, inarguable reality that, with proper training, you will shoot faster and MORE accurately, with an optic than with irons, all other things being equal. No, the optic won’t make your shooting fundamentals better, and it won’t overcome shitty trigger control or body position. It will allow you to acquire the sight picture faster, and in most cases, to aim more precisely. I don’t have a preference, as long as the optic comes from a serious, well-known, proven manufacturer (I bought a Vortex Sparc on a whim once, because I’d just set up HH6’s M4 and needed a red-dot for it, and that was the ONLY one I could find locally. It started shorting out after less than 100 rounds, so it got given to a friend’s son for his airsoft rifle…and even THAT made it short out). Aimpoint obviously has a well-deserved reputation for quality, considering the tests they have passed as the M68 Close-Combat Optic (CCO), and a lot of guys really like the T-1 and H-1s. I know I kind of like them too, but can’t afford one currently. EoTech’s I’ve always been really, really, REALLY ambivalent about. For awhile, they had a bad reputation because the battery terminals would work loose under recoil. SF legend Mike Pannone developed a cheap, easy fix for that, and it really works well (although having to add a field-expedient fix to a $500 piece of equipment should NEVER have to happen!), and EoTech has apparently remedied the situation with their new generation of sideways mounted batteries. I will say, the more I use the EoTech, the more it grows on me. With the 1MOA center dot, I can literally shoot a 15-round, one-hole, smoking fast, at CQM ranges. With that 65-MOA outer donut, getting a CQM sight picture in the center of the upper thoracic cavity or hips is stupid fast.
I’ve been a fan of the Trijicon ACOG since I was first introduced to it as a young Ranger private, in the mid-1990s. The sight is ridiculously tough, needs no batteries (although tritium only has a 12-year half-life), and has a ranging reticle out to 800+ meters, meaning hold-overs are retarded simple. That’s assuming though that, a) you’re running the round it was engineered for, and b) under the same environmental conditions it was engineered for.
I’ve also been an advocate of 1-4x optics with ranging reticles, even recognizing the same shortcoming in them. A lot of that is laziness on my part, because I hate doing the math to develop new range cards every time I move. A 1-4x with a mil-dot reticle works just as well, assuming you’re not the lazy piece-of-shit I am.
I don’t care how robust your optics are (and let’s face it, modern, well-made optics are damned near as robust, if not more so, as the weapon they’re mounted on), you need a back-up sighting system. A lot of guys have started doing the 3-gun gamer thing and mounting a miniature red-dot sight on their gun as well as their primary optic. There’s nothing wrong with that, but traditionally, and to most of us, still, back-up sights means back-up iron sights. I’ve used chopped-down -A2 style carrying handles, MagPul’s MBUS, and a host of others. We’re currently running the MBUS, but I just got a smoking deal on MaTech rear irons, courtesy of a class participant, so as soon as they arrive, our primary rifles will have those mounted as rear BUIS (they work, because we’re at a modest elevation now, and we run the M855 the aiming marks were engineered for. Minute-of-angle accurate? Maybe not, but it’ll put me within 2 or 3 MOA).
A fighting rifle had better have a white-light mounted on it. Show up at my class without a white-light mounted, of AT LEAST 80 lumen (and really, 200 should be your minimum. I’m with Pat Rogers that 500 is more efficient, but can’t drop $600 on a flashlight right now, either), and I will give you shit about it for the duration of the class, since you’ll be ineffective for 3/4 of the time right now (winter in the northern Rockies means LOTS of low-light/no-light). I prefer to mount mine with the VTAC off-set mount, on the right side of the gun, in the 2 o’clock position (I run a very aggressive c-clamp grip on my rifle, meaning I can activate it with my support side thumb), but HH6’s rifle has it mounted with a simple scope ring, at the 9 o’clock position, so it can be activated with the first knuckle of the support hand (her thumb doesn’t reach all the way across).
The last vertical grip mounted rifle in our arms room just lost it’s VFG today. It was HH6’s gun, and was used as a reference point for her, where to mount the gun. The “dildo” grip firing position has been obsolete for years, as we’ve learned the realities of what allows you to shoot quickly and accurately. Even Army SOF has gotten away from mounting VFGs from the reports I’m hearing from guys I trust.
I prefer the M16 bolt-carrier group (BCG), if for no other reason than, when the time comes to do so, I can drop my uppers onto the bad guy’s select-fire lower and still have it function reliably. That having been said, most of our guns still have AR-15 BCGs.
All of our fire-control group parts are bare-bones mil-spec stock. I dropped in lighter springs on my personal rifle for a little while, but went back to the mil-spec because I didn’t trust the tolerance stacking issues. I really, really like the Geisselle triggers, but don’t run them for a couple of reasons, which will be discussed below (and the cost is a prohibitive issue for me). There’s nothing stopping a guy from getting expert with a stock trigger, if he’s willing to do the work and get it done.
Our stocks are all mil-spec style M4 collapsible stocks. I dig MagPul’s basic MOE stock, but I absolutely HATE the SOPMOD stock from LMT. I just run the M4 stock because of familiarity.
Slings….ah, slings…I fucking hate slings, and 90% of the time, I don’t even bother using mine, except when I’m teaching a class and need my hands free a lot. That having been said, slings have an important place, when used properly. I don’t know of any serious gunslinger or instructor who still advocates a three-point sling. I’d go so far as to say, if a guy is advocating the three-point sling, he’s full of shit and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Run away, as quickly as you can, from any such instructor (I‘d be willing to be proven wrong, but I doubt it’ll happen). Single-points have been popular for a long time, and I’ve been a fan. I ran one for a long time. I think the biggest selling point for single-point slings, for most people, is the cool-guy CDI (chicks dig it) factor. Guys see Chris Costa, or Travis Haley, or Kyle Defoor running them, and want one. The reality is, I HATE single-point slings. Every time I drop the gun, whether to transition to my sidearm (doesn’t happen nearly as often as a lot of training courses make it seem like does), or to go hands-on with someone, the fucking rifle nails me in the nuts. Ever tried to run forward getting slapped in the dick at every stride?
A quality two-point sling, such as Larry Vickers’ design, available from Blue Force Gear, or the VTAC two-point from Viking Tactics, are the way to go (we run the VTAC version, because it’s smaller, thinner, and lighter. If I was running a SAW again, I’d go with the padded version), in my opinion. I can transition easily to sidearm, edged-weapon, or hands-on, without worrying about TMO’s future siblings, I can sling the weapon all the way around behind me if I need to squat or kneel down to provide aid to a casualty, or to crawl up a wall, and with the good designs, they’re easily adjustable whether I’m wearing my plate carrier or simply walking around the guerrilla base camp. Additionally, while I’ve NEVER seen a sniper actually sling up with his rifle in the field, I’ve seen (and used), a tightly adjusted two-point sling to stabilize my rifle for precision shots.
I tape a CAT-T to the stock of all of our rifles. While we run them on our war belts and plate carriers as well, the stock of the rifle is a really convenient place to keep one more, and I’ve got it, even if, for whatever reason (bump in the barnyard, in the middle of the night), I don’t have the war belt or PC on.
One of the biggest draws of the Stoner platform, is it’s inherent modularity, and the ability to do some really “cool” stuff to it. Drop in enhanced triggers, heavier or lighter buffers, different length gas systems, or even piston systems, rails on top of rails, lights, lasers, grips, bipods, scopes and more can be aded….
The problem is, as any first-year engineering student will tell you, is tolerance stacking. A machine, any machine, is engineered to run within certain parameters. As soon as you change something, such as increasing the suspension lift on a pick-up truck, you’ve changed the engineering of the machine. One change isn’t that big a deal, and probably won’t negatively impact the performance of the machine greatly. But, as you continue to change the original engineering (let’s stick with the truck example), by adding different sized tires, and you start impacting fuel mileage and roll-over characteristics. Then, you change something else, such as pulling off the body and replacing it with a different body style. Then you pull the motor and throw in a different motor. Pretty soon, you’re no longer driving the same machine that the original engineers designed. When it gets a shitty 4MPG, and rolls over on a highway turn at 25 MPH, you’ll still blame the engineer though.
Same, same with a rifle. Stoner designed a rifle. Colt and the Army Ordnance Board changed the design and the weapon failed. When it was put back together the right way, it ran. Further engineering changes have been well-thought out, well-engineered, and tested changes. You can change anything you want on YOUR rifle, from drop-in triggers, to different barrels and adding whatever doo-dads you want. Just recognize that, whatever changes you make, you’re changing the design of the weapon.
Secondly, look at what you’re training and preparing for. It’s cool to have say, an AK47 with a left-side charging handle (Travis Haley recently had Jim Fuller build him one, reportedly). That’s cool. Except….where else, in the entire world, are you EVER going to pick up and run an AK with a left-side charging handle…….?
I preach, and practice, to run your weapon as bare bones stock as possible, because, I want to be able to pick up the same platform, from anyone, anywhere, and run it, with the same manual of arms, as I’ve trained with. Yes, this applies to southpaws too. I know it’s easier to run a Stag-L than a regular AR, but how many people do you know run one? Where are you going to get a replacement when yours dies?
In essence, what I look for in a rifle set-up, is a weapon that is as light as possible (seriously, the only other thing I would consider adding to my rifle would be an IR laser for use with PVS-14s, if I could afford it), because I know I will be carrying it for long periods of time, and I don’t want to carry a weapon so heavy it impacts my performance. Additionally, I want to run as stock as rifle as I can, without impacting my performance.
Finally, it is a machine, made of metal and plastic. Machines wear out. Stockpile replacement parts for your rifles. I had an extractor go out on a loaner rifle at the last Combat Rifle class. That rifle has somewhere around 30K rounds through it, and the extractor finally just shit the bed. It happens. It’s not a failure of the rifle, but a failure of my preventive maintenance schedule.
While this article is Stoner-specific, the principles apply whether your choice is a Stoner, a Kalashnikov, an M1A, or a FAL. Keep it as light as possible, run a sling when necessary, have a white light mounted, and keep it as stock as possible.
Freezing his ass off,
Somewhere in the MountainsEdit to Add: Since it evokes commentary in every class I do……I lubricate my rifles with copious amounts of whatever motor oil happens to be on sale at the gas station when I’m enroute to the class, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t cleaned any of our primary rifles in at least five months…..somewhere in the vicinity of 7000-8000 rounds per weapon….and they still run flawlessly……motor oil is designed to do what? Protect and lubricate high-velocity, reciprocating pistons in a machine (your car)….what is your bolt carrier group? A high-velocity, reciprocating piston…..it’s interesting to me though….I change the oil in my Jeep more frequently than I clean my rifle…..shit. Now I have to spend some time this weekend cleaning rifles.