Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Incitatus (The Remarkable Reliability Of An AR-15)

Much is said of the supposed unreliability of rifles in the AR-15 family. For those who know the rifle only from articles posted to the internet, it's obvious that the weapon is a massive failure. It's fragile, jams constantly, "shits where it eats", and chokes up completely when exposed to any sort of extreme environment.

Well, that's what I believed once, anyway. The reality of the matter is that the AR-15 is a tremendously well designed, mature, and very reliable family of weapons. My first exposure to how very wrong I was about the AR-15 came when, frustrated by substandard alternatives, I broke down and bought the closest thing to a military M4 I could get - a Colt 6920, which I named "Incitatus" as a jab at Colt's logo, its high price ($1400 at the time), and what I felt must surely be my own growing insanity.

I shot the weapon and kept shooting it. From the beginning I fired imported Russian steel cased ammunition through it almost exclusively, almost begging it to choke, so that I would be proven right once and for all. I kept pushing it further, firing it in more and more testing conditions, in sub-zero temperatures, covered in dirt, through wind and rain and through some very nasty dust storms in New Mexico. I almost never cleaned it, and it usually saw at least a thousand rounds from the last time before I lubed it. It didn't matter. Nothing stopped it. In the span of about a year, I fired nearly 5,000 rounds of (mostly) steel-cased ammunition through the rifle, and once it failed to lock back on an empty magzine. I never had another malfunction of any kind.

After all this, my old opinions of the rifle were thoroughly destroyed. So, this was the rifle the troops were using. It was a damned good one. It was almost freakishly light in comparison to its stablemates, extremely reliable, and accurate enough for me to pluck the highest score three times in a row at Appleseed events.

I stretched its legs, too. Far from the Internet wisdom that says the AR-15 is "only a 300 yard weapon", I consistently made hits with that same crappy Russian ammo out to 400, 600, and finally 900 yards before it began to struggle. What was all this I heard about the M4 being unsuitable for the fighting in Afghanistan? With the TA01NSN ACOG I'd bought a couple years earlier secondhand, Incitatus had very long legs, indeed.

Later, upon hearing me gush a bit over my rifle, a classmate of mine who had served with the Army in Iraq and had a bad experience with the M16, challenged me to a bet: I would choose the worst of his bringback magazines, and try to fire a full 30 rounds through my Colt. If it didn't malfunction, he'd buy me a pack of beer. We chose a particularly nasty example that had bent feed lips, was more of a parallelogram than a box, and had broken all the welds along the spine and been re-welded - poorly. It was time for a range trip.

Out to the wooded foothills of Colorado, we went. After a long dirt trail, barely traversed by my friend's '86 silver Toyota Camry, we stopped, and broke out our rifles and handguns, and began shooting. I gave my friends a background on the bet, and my girlfriend fired up my handheld Casio camera to record proof.

The rifle and magazine ran like a champ... Through a total of about 150 rounds, in fact. By the end of the range day, I never got the magazine to cause the rifle to malfunction.

I've read a lot of forum posts, blog posts, and magazine articles that bash the AR-15. For a while, I was convinced they all couldn't be wrong. I've since learned, not only how reliable an AR-15 can be even through neglect and tough conditions, but also not to jump to conclusions based only on an opinion I read somewhere.

Having said that, I'll leave you with a few blog posts and online articles that buck this trend, and talk about the virtues of the AR-15:

A blog post by Andrew Touhy on how cleaning your AR-15 is a waste of time.

An article by Mike Pannone on the reliability of the AR-15 platform, the "shits where it eats" myth, and problems with maintenance in the service.

Weaponsman weighs in on Congressional criticism of the M4.

A report on early M16 reliability in Vietnam, from Weaponsman.

Weaponsman on why the SCAR-L was not adopted.

The forward assist on the M16/M4 is useless, says Weaponsman.

M16 improvements from 1968, from Weaponsman.

M4 improvements, from Weaponsman.

US small arms reliability, from Weaponsman.

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to say that was pretty enlightening to read given the abuse you put that weapon through.
    So I wanted to also to provide some conjecture as well with reguards to the m16/m4 series of weapons.
    Now we all know that the biggest diffrence from the weapon you tested and what is issued is the option of fully automatic (be it a 3 round burst or otherwise) fire.
    I, much as like with you, used to despise the weapon for that "flaw".
    But when one takes a look at the conditions that a solider in the field puts his weapon through and the sometimes very high number of rounds that are expended in very short times. I often wonder if the failure is not so much do the design, but rather just the plain simple fact that its being drug around for days, uncleaned, under great mechanical stress (due to the a fore mentioned full auto firing) of such things as heat and thus also dirt, and possibly the use of too much lubricant, were not to blame for said stoppages.
    Add to dirt in mags and the shear number of these rifles in service. Well just by mathematical odds you are bound to have a few 100 (if not 1000's as I am not currently aware what the standing number of small arms are in use with the marines and army total up to) that fail at some critical point.
    Even the well vaunted AK series of weapons can still fail. Its a simple fact of any mechanical system.

    I do believe there are ways to still improve the weapon with out the need for the WAY over valued piston conversion kits being sold. In the end, however, its still very good and better than what many military's issue their troops (take the French and the and the Famas or the L85 when it was first introduced for that matter).
    I just wish we could move on from a weapons platform that is now looking at its 52nd birthday in the armed forces.
    Even the AK has gotten a pretty hefty redesign (I sight the AK-12) and many other military's have adopted rifles that are pretty advanced even by western standards (I sight the QBZ from China or the VHS from Croatia).
    I think it should be about time we took a serious step forward and not keep saying "good enough". Its talk such as that gave us the use of the .45-70"s and Krag Rifle's to go against Mauser's (San Juan Hill) and the delay to adopt a machine gun during WWI that left us using the utter failure that was the Chauchat.
    "Good Enough" today eventually leads to devastating losses in the future.