By Scott Powers
The Tactical Target Rifle.
The AR15 as a sniper rifle? While the debate continues on the acceptability of the .223 Remington cartridge for sniping purposes there is no doubt that the rifle designed to launch it is certainly up to the task, at least within Clearly Defined Limits. The AR15 in target, match and varmint configurations is probably the most accurate semi-automatic rifle in the world. Only custom tuned rifles can match its out of box accuracy. Some can not maintain this level of accuracy for very long while others can do so but at prices that place them completely out of the budgetary range of LE or civilian shooters. The AR based accuracy rifle on the other hand, is both affordable (by comparison) and easily created. I will not attempt to address the suitability of this .224 - 5.56mm projectile for sniping purposes in this article. There are far more knowledgeable authorities than I that can better debate the issue. All I will say is that within given limits, the round is usable. I would not consider it viable where glass penetration is an issue nor where Long Range was the norm. But it does appear to be affective at Law Enforcement ranges. It will certainly do nasty things to the human body out to a respectable distance. The real issue has more to do with how it performs against objects like body armor, glass or cover. In terms of terminal ballistics, a 150 yard head shot taken with a 62 grain or 69 grain .223 would certainly do the job. Some Law Enforcement specific loads may even do better. This would seem to place the round into the realm of LE sniper operations. With in the military, an heavy barreled M16 variant mounting a Flat Top upper and decent optical device would certainly make a respectable spotter's rifle as it provides rapid fire for team protection and has acceptable stopping power at combat ranges. While it is not ideal for the primary weapon, it is an excellent choice for the team where the odds of discovery are high. The spotter can carry a large combat load in comparison to a .308 rifle and it is far more controllable when the need for rapid fire becomes apparent. As a backup, it can also suffice for sniping out to and beyond 400 yards when necessary.
The issue of cartridge suitability aside, the rifle itself makes for a very accurate and versatile platform. When equipped with a true match grade bull barrel and a flat top upper receiver, the AR15 can provide some astounding and consistent accuracy out to several hundred yards. I do not want to go into High Power competition here, but I must bring up this one example: A friend had a Space Gun built to compete in the Match Rifle class. The AR is called a Space Gun in this class due to its appearance. Very Otherworldly or Sci-Fi modern. With Palma type sights and a long sight radius, he became a Master in one season. No small feat and part of the credit must go to the extreme accuracy of his rifle. For tactical use, you can build an AR as easily as you might construct a rifle for plinking. All that is required is a good trigger, a free floating system for the barrel, a flat top upper receiver, high quality barrel and sighting system. For this endeavor, if you are building from scratch and plan on this rifle being a dedicated target/tactical rig, there is no reason to locate and pay a premium for a Pre-ban rifle. You will not have to concern yourself with the flash suppressor/bayonet lug issue at all. I have covered some of the needed items in the prior articles, but will go over them again here as this use is the meat of this series - after all, this web site is called Sniper Country.
The variety of target barrels for the AR15 seems limitless. In fact they are the hardest thing to write about as there are so many that it is nearly impossible to list them. The least expensive is Wilson. I can not say anything about their accuracy as I have no experience with them. DPMS, Armalite, Bushmaster, Krieger, Obermeyer, Olympic Arms, Douglas, the names go on and on. The thing to look for no matter who you choose to purchase a barrel from is construction. You want a barrel that is machined to perfection, or as close as one can make it. This of course means no chrome lining as chrome is seldom consistent in thickness for the length of the barrel. I do not believe anyone has found a way to line a barrel and still keep the coating within precise tolerances for the full length of the bore. A better choice of course is stainless steel. But whether chromemoly steel or stainless steel, the barrel should be of high enough quality that any mistake made during aiming is a function of shooter skill, not barrel construction. For this application I would prefer a straight taper bull barrel. This can be done nowadays as there are custom gas blocks that allow full diameter barrels to be employed. A standard A2 style heavy barrel that tapers down at the front sight post is not ideal. When you order the bull barrel the gas block is usually part of the assembly. Make sure you ASK! The topic of Broach cut, Button cut or Hammer Forged bores rages on. I have no answer. They all seem to do well. I have an Olympic barrel that is button cut. Very accurate. I also have a hammer forged barrel on my 700 PSS that is also very accurate.
The question of barrel length is often raised when discussing a tactical rifle. Target barrels for the AR can be found in 20", 24" and 26". Some companies also sell bull barrels in shorter lengths. 16" and 18" specifically. My feeling is that there is little need for a barrel longer than 20" on the AR15 sniper rifle designed for actual tactical use. Why? A longer barrel may marginally boost your velocity, but the trade off is a very long rifle which can be quite ungainly in the field. This is not an issue for a target grade Match rifle, which travels from your trunk to the range but this is not the case with the tactical rifle. With a tactical rifle all angles must be considered. It will need to fit in the trunk as well as be portable in the field. It must be portable and balanced with a slightly nose-heavy feel, but it needn't be so barrel heavy that its weight becomes unreasonable. An LE sniper might need to use a hide of limited space and exposure. A very long barrel could preclude this. He might also need to operate within the confines of a building. His rifle just might become his means of defense if things go south. A long rifle inside a building is not an ideal tool. When carrying the rifle in the field that long barrel may turn into a dirt scoop if the shooter is not wary. When you analyze the issue of barrel length for an AR15 sniper rifle, one thing becomes clear. The maximum range is going to be limited to that of the typical Law Enforcement engagement. You simply do not NEED the extra velocity the longer barrel might achieve. As the typical engagement distances in LE run from 45 to 250 yards, why on earth would you worry about netting that extra 40 to 60 feet of velocity? Penetration? Forget it. It will not make that much difference with the .223 cartridge. Flatter trajectory? The .223 shoots very flat for several hundred yards and the downside of a long barrel hardly outweigh this perceived advantages. The reality is that a shorter barrel is probably more functional for Law Enforcement sniping activities than a long barrel designed to help increase the sight radius on a match rifle. When you weigh all the advantages of the 20" barrel and compare them to the disadvantages of the longer tubes, for FIELD USE, there is little left to consider. We are not talking about varmint shooting (well not the furry kind) and we are not talking about high power competition here. Those static sports can be well served by a longer barrel, but frankly a cop or tactical shooter just doesn't need it. In fact, a case could even be made for shorter barrels.
Free Float Tubes.
If you want an AR for extreme accuracy and plan on using either a sling or bipod, you should consider a free float tube. As noted in part one of this series, the free float tube replaces the barrel nut with its own and a tube is screwed onto this nut. This leaves the barrel completely free of contact with any other part of the rifle, isolating the barrel from all external forces. You can put sling swivels on the tube, mount bipods, lights, or lasers on the tube and nothing will affect the barrel harmonics. Like barrels themselves, float tubes come in a staggering variety. Again, DPMS, Badger Ordnance, Armalite, Bushmaster, and just about every other company out there offers some form of free float tube. These generally consist of a replacement barrel nut threaded to accept the tube, the tube proper, and an Allen screw for retention. Some tubes consist of three major parts, other only two. All work as advertised. Float tubes are generally round in cross section but Badger now offers a unique tube that is slab sided. You can view this in our review of the Badger Ordnance Tactical Latch. Tubes come fluted, knurled or plain. You can even get them in snazzy un-tactical colors. Look for tubes that provide sufficient space to allow barrel cooling if you plan on shooting a lot in practice. A tube with a small diameter will not allow air to circulate as well as a wider tube of greater size. Installation will require a special tool. You will want to purchase this at the same time you order the tube. This tool replaces the standard Barrel Nut wrench.
Flat Top Upper Receiver.
There is only ONE option for the AR15 sniper rifle. The flat top upper receiver. You can not beat the versatility as it will allow a variety of options. The standard A1 or A2 upper can be used effectively, but they are hardly ideal. They force you to mount the scope up to 4 inches over the centerline of the bore and getting a good cheek weld is next to impossible without the assistance of a separate cheek piece. The height of the scope over the bore is the biggest downside. This can cause some interesting problems if you cant the rifle to one side or another. With the flat top receiver you will mount the scope low enough to avoid this potential nightmare but you will still need to keep the scope high enough for proper cheek weld and sight picture. This will require either high or extra high scope rings or a small riser device that elevates the scope (with standard rings) to the proper height. Mounting low rings directly to the flat top upper will force you do drop you head sideways over the buttstock. This is hardly comfortable or conducive to precision shooting. The riser device will cost you about $40. There are cheaper ones on the market. But you have to check quality. The riser clamps onto the flat top and the scope rings clamp onto the riser. GG&G offers top notch risers in the hundreds of dollar range. You'll have to research what is available and decide what fits your actual needs.
Badger Ordnance makes excellent rings in an ultra high style. These can clamp right onto the flat top receiver, thereby saving you the hassle of finding a riser. These rings are outstanding in quality. See our review. The nice thing about these rings is that they can be removed and replaced with little worry about zero. They are in the Mk4 pattern and as long as you re-torque them properly, they will get you close to zero if not exactly on it. This is ideal if your department has to switch to NODs as part of its mission. Tailoring the optics to mission specific needs can only be done with quality rings. Cheap quick detachable rings will not cut it. Leupold Mk4 rings also are an excellent option, but the quality is not equal to Badger. The Mk4 ring set may not be tall enough in its standard height. You will need a riser. Millet also sells high rings for the AR type mount. These are more for the budget minded and are somewhat complicated in function, being windage adjustable via set screws. These are not for those planning on removing the scope often. Weaver type rings will also suffice. But if your goal is total performance, spent the money on a Mk4 type system. You will not regret it.
When you assemble your rifle you will find the bull barrel nose-heavy. This is a good thing but you can balance the rifle out a little by adding a weight to the buttstock. The easy route is to order a lead insert for the compartment in the buttstock. Or make your own and save the $20. The rifle will be very heavy with both the bull barrel and the stock weight, but it will settle very well once in position and the hold will be rock steady. Follow-up shots are a breeze with this combination as the rifle will hardly move in recoil. You will want to add a sling swivel stud to the free float tube. Make sure that the stud does not come into contact with the barrel. One way to set this up is to drill and tap a hole into the tube and back it up with an 1/8 inches steel plate, also drilled and tapped. Screw the stud into this plate, through the tube and check for barrel clearance. Remove the stud and cut off the excess as needed.
Optics are not within the purview of this article but here is something to consider. As always buy the best you can afford, BUT you will want to research your actual use before making your purchase. If you are Law Enforcement and know that due to your locale, you will never EVER have to shoot a perp over 200 yards, or if your department policy does not allow you to shoot over a certain distance, you have no need for an internal ranging device like the mil-dot reticle. Instead you will want a tried and true duplex reticle and use the savings for better glass. A cheap scope with a mil-dot is not as valuable as a crystal clear scope with excellent light transmission and a duplex reticle. Of course, if you just have to have both, by all means, get them. A top of the line scope WITH a Mil-dot reticle is hard to beat for versatility, but understand that it is seldom needed for 80 percent of the shooting you will do! Spend the money wisely where it is needed most. Go for quality glass first and foremost. Ranging devices can be added later (Premier Reticles and others) but you are not going to improve the quality of the scope you purchased by replacing its lenses! Also you must consider the cartridge. If you are shooting a .223 you will not be using it against a perp at long range. Long range being defined as 600 yards and beyond. Chances are you will not be using it at medium range which for the purpose of this article will be considered 350-500 yards. Under 250 yards, a mil-dot is simply a luxury you do not need to pay for.
Triggers have been covered in another part of this series. Please refer to it for details. I will add that the stock trigger is totally unacceptable for a sniper rifle. Bordering on 8 to 10 pounds and sometimes creepy, the stock trigger can hardly be thought of as an accuracy enhancer! Again, look to JP enterprises, Armalite and Krieger-Millazo. While I prefer a single stage, a two stage might fit the bill better here as there is a definite stopping point after the take-up. You could sit on that point for an hour if needed, with only a slight pull left to trigger the firearm. Not that this would be a good practice in real life, but you at least have that break point to play with. Still, I prefer the JP single stage trigger. It all comes down to what you are used to. I prefer the JP because I am familiar with it and it can be tuned down to a very low pull weight. I am sure the two stage triggers can also be tuned.
One of the nice things about the AR design is the manner in which it is headspaced. When a barrel is assembled, the headspace is set via a nut that serves as the locking lugs of the chamber. You as the builder have no control over this and most people just assume that the chamber is milled from the barrel. It is not. The locking lugs are screwed onto the barrel and the tolerance is so tight that a visual observation would lead you to believe that the lug and barrel are made of one cohesive unit. What this means is that in a brand NEW unfired rifle you can take ANY new bolt machined to the proper specification and use it in ANY barrel built to the proper specification. The only thing you as the builder can control is the torque which you apply to the barrel nut that holds the barrel assembly to the upper receiver. This is why most people of common sense can assemble an accurate AR in their garage. The rifle design allows you to follow a sequence of assembly that requires no machine work as found when attaching a barrel to a bolt action. The rifle can literally be screwed and pinned together, resulting in a piece capable of outstanding accuracy. All you need do is purchase the quality parts to assure a good shooting rifle. A custom gunsmith might be able to make you an AR of marginally better accuracy, but not by much! This is not to say his services are not worth it, but that the original AR design is such that it doesn't take a special knowledge of gun craft to assemble a good rifle. With no special knowledge I put together an AR that will shoot sub half MOA for under $700 in 1994 dollars. My friend bought a brand name custom target grade service rifle for $1200 that is no more accurate. Something to think about come budget time.
When you start looking at parts, particularly barrels, always remember you get what you pay for. If a barrel seems unreasonably inexpensive, chances are there are reasons. The barrel is the ONE and ONLY item on the AR15 that controls inherent accuracy. I do not care if the upper and lower receivers have slop. I do not care if the buttstock is loose or the buffer rattles. I do not care if the lower does not match the finish of the upper or if the receivers came from brand X or brand Y. Nor do I care if the bolt carrier is supposedly National Match or not. The barrel is what makes and breaks this rifle. I have used the same complete rifle, purchased from garbage parts back in the 1980s as a test bed to prove this. The only thing I have changed over the years is the barrel and the bolt. With each different barrel the rifle became a new animal altogether. With a cheap chrome lined mil-spec barrel this rifle shot 1.3 inches on a good day. With the latest barrel, an Olympic Arms, it now shoots sub half moa. I did not changed any other item until I got into high power competition. With the addition of the free float tube accuracy tightened up a little more but not a great deal. The barrel, as always, is the thing. When you order a barrel for your tactical rifle, keep in mind the bullet you plan on using. This will dictate the twist rate. Avoid the 1:7 twist of the standard military barrel. Look at the 1:8 or the 1:9. The 1:9 twist is the best for overall use. The 1:8 (sometimes 1:7/8ths) is best for long heavy bullets. The makers offer all twists upon request.
If interest is great enough I may come up with a Part 5 to this series detailing actual assembly. This has been covered to excess on other sites and I have little to add as the actual process is so very basic. Part 3 was originally intended to cover assembly but the direction of this site centers on Tactical (sniping) shooting and this seemed more appropriate considering the wealth of information on assembly already available. At best I could only offer a few extra tricks. Good luck and keep them in the X-Ring!
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