AR-15 rifles continue to be churned out by more and more manufacturers. Frankly, the modular concept of the AR platform means that rifles can be built to specific price points, more easily, we think, than traditional bolt guns or other actions. And we recently found two such guns that illustrate how perfectly pitched the product price can be made to appeal to a specific customer.
The Ruger SR-556E “Essential” #5912 5.56mm NATO/223 Rem., $1375, is what Sturm, Ruger calls its value-priced two-stage piston-driven carbine. The major similarity between it and the SR-556FB (January 2010) is the carryover of Ruger’s two-stage piston and multi-stage regulator. The major difference is, rather than a quad rail, the Essential has a round aluminum handguard with a full-length Picatinny rail only at 12 o’clock, so the rail and the flattop receiver align. The handguard is also drilled and tapped to accept sections of rail or handguard covers, available at www.ShopRuger.com, which allows the user to configure the handguard to his or her requirements while minimizing size and weight. It’s also a significant cost savings over the quad rail.
Adcor Defense’s B.E.A.R. Elite is the second generation of that company’s modern automatic rifle line. Based in Baltimore, Adcor rolled out the original B.E.A.R. (Brown Enhanced Automatic Rifle, designed by and named for Michael J. Brown, executive vice president of operations at Adcor Defense) with a free-floating gas-piston system attached to the rail. This allowed for a free-floating barrel. Other features were a key-locked rail system, an ambidextrous forward-placed charging handle, and a polymer dust shield that protects the ejection port from debris.
The B.E.A.R. Elite tested here offers several enhancements to the original (hereafter, we’ll spell it “Bear” so those capital letters don’t scream on the page). The Bear Elite features an FN Manufacturing 1:7 twist hammer-forged, hard chrome-lined barrel with M249 rifling profile, a Magpul MOE Mil-Spec rifle stock, and a Magpul MOE rifle grip. Both the Bear and Bear Elite are available in several barrel lengths, optics ready or with sights, and in fully automatic for law enforcement. Our test gun here is the optics-ready (no sights) 16-inch-barrel Adcor Defense Brown Enhanced Automatic Rifle (B.E.A.R.) #201-2040 E, $2214.
The charge we gave our test team was to compare a highly-rated gas-piston gun to the two new entries, so we chose the Ruger SR-556FB 5.56x45mm NATO-223 Rem., $1995. It’s obviously very similar to the 556E — but much more expensive. In contrast, the Bear Elite offers an interesting set of potential upgrades, but it is $200+ more expensive than the SR-556FB.
How We Tested
We bought most of our ammunition and a lot of our test gear at www.Brownells.com. Below, we’ve sourced that gear with the Brownells nine-digit code and the price, except where otherwise noted.
Our test ammos were Ultramax 223 Remington 52-grain Hollowpoints #223R1 ($28/50; #105-202-338), which had a stated muzzle velocity of 2950 fps. Ultramax commercially-remanufactured ammunition uses previously-fired picked brass. SAAMI specifications are strictly maintained throughout the production process, from roll sizing each case, to setting primer depth, overall cartridge length, and pressure. Powder charges are measured to half-grain accuracy for consistent results.
The next ammo was Hornady Superformance Varmint 53-grain SPF #HDY8025 ($19/20, #105-201-195), which is promoted as delivering 100 to 200 fps increases in velocity. They use polymer-tipped Hornady V-Max bullets to reach a stated muzzle velocity of 3240 fps.
Last, to have an ammo common with our 2010 test, we used Monarch ammunition, which is sold at Academy sporting-goods stores. It cost $4.99/20, or 25 cents a round. It is loaded by JSC Barnaul Machine-Tool Plant in Barnaul, Russia. The 223-stamped FMJ ammo with a Cyrillic-character headstamp has lacquered steel cases and non-corrosive Berdan primers. The website is www.ab.ru/~stanok.
We didn’t get the stated velocity figures using the Hornady, but the Superformance did create noticeably higher velocities, running 3039 fps in the Ruger and 2999 fps in the Bear, compared to the Ultramax at 2758/2720 fps respectively, and Monarch at 2812/2748 fps respectively. However, the Ultramax was hands-down the accuracy winner, as we note in the accuracy tables at right.
For accuracy testing, we shot both guns off a Bench Master rifle rest ($137, #270-100-000), using 30-round Magpul PMag magazines from the manufacturers, along with additional 30-round steel magazines from Brownells ($10 on sale, #078-000-107) and a 60-round magazine from Surefire. We used Birchwood Casey’s Shoot-N-C #34205 12-inch Sight-In 5 Targets ($12.40, www.BirchwoodCasey.com). For the 50-yard accuracy tests, we fitted an Insight Technology MRDS mini red dot sight with an adjustable 3.5-minute-of-angle dot and an EOTech XPS2-0 Holographic Sight ($479, #100-004-277).
We bought the SureFire high-capacity MAG5-60 magazine for $129 (#152-000-096). There is also a 100-round version; both are compatible with M4/M16/AR-15 variants and other firearms that accept standard STANAG 4179 magazines. Constructed from Mil-Spec hard-anodized aluminum, they are supposed to feed smoothly and reliably due to non-binding coil springs and nesting polymer followers. The long-lasting springs are cadmium coated for low friction and excellent corrosion resistance. They require no lubricants and can be easily disassembled without tools for cleaning. We’d seen these mags at several 3-Gun competitions and liked the concept, in part because the 60-rounder is not as bulky as joining two 30-rounders together — it’s 1.66 inches thick, and it fits in most dual-mag pouches we tried. Empty, it weighed 6.5 ounces. Full, it went a hefty 2.14 pounds.
Seated at a bench, we dropped a partially loaded mag from the Bear onto the firing line, which stuck the Surefire’s follower in the down position. We also dropped a nearly-full mag from shoulder height onto the concrete firing line, which knocked the mag floorplate off, putting the mag out of service temporarily. We found that the Surefire fed well once in the gun.
On the guns, we had a lot to consider in terms of overall fit and finish, accuracy, and utility. Here’s what our testers found over nearly a week of shooting:
Ruger SR-556E “Essential” #5912 5.56mm NATO/223 Rem., $1375
In the gas-piston systems, gases from the barrel vent into the gas block and then against a piston, which in turn strikes an operating rod that replaces the gas tube. That’s why gas-piston AR-15s are said to operate cooler and cleaner than gas-impingement systems. When the company rolled out the SR-556 in May 2009, it was the company’s first foray into a crowded segment, but we saw the company put careful thought into the initial model build. But the early SR-556FB was pricey — $1995. We wonder if Ruger hit price resistance with the first gun and responded with the Essential, which on list price is $620 less. A search on www.GunAuction.com showed one “Like New” SR-556FB in 6.8 SPC that sold for only $856, and a lot of reserves set at $1475 didn’t attract a single bid. One 556E #5912 like our test gun sold for $1017.
Like the original gun, the SR-556E had a heavy contour, 16.12-inch chrome-lined barrel forged from Mil-Spec 41V45 chrome-moly-vanadium steel. The 0.700-inch-thick barrel had a 1:9 twist rate and was capped with an AC-556 flash suppressor. Both barrels are threaded 1/2-28 and are capped with Ruger’s flash suppressor. Both guns had six-position telescoping M4-style buttstocks. Dimensionally, we saw very little difference between the two Rugers.
On both guns, the barrel and gas block were chrome lined, while the bolt, bolt carrier, and extractor were chrome plated. The piston-driven transfer rod was electroless nickel/Teflon coated. The flash hider and the exterior of the barrel, gas block, and regulator were manganese-phosphate coated. All aluminum parts were Mil-Spec hard-coat anodized.
The SR-556E still offered the basic features that make us grade the Ruger SR-556 a success. We noted during cleaning that the two-stage piston operating system was very clean. The multi-stage regulator allowed the operator to tune the rifle to the specific ammunition, though in our tests we didn’t use that feature, other than to ensure that it worked. The regulator, piston, and piston bore are chrome plated, making them easy to clean and difficult to foul. We had no stoppages of any sort. Also, the transfer rod is nickel-Teflon coated for durability and trouble-free operation. Again, we had no issues related to the gas system’s function.
The balance of the Essential rifle is hard-coat anodized or black-oxide treated, and from our detailed cosmetic inspection, we have to say it was evenly applied, with no light spots or other blems. The 41V45 barrel provided reasonable accuracy, nearly on par with the more expensive Adcor’s standards. The Ruger Essential outshot the Adcor with Hornady Superformance 223 Rem. Varmint 53-gr SPFs, with the Ruger’s five-shot average group size at 50 yards measuring 1.1 inches to the Bear’s 1.4 inches. With the Ultramax 223 Rem. 52-gr. hollowpoints, the Ruger’s five-shot average group size at 50 yards was 0.9 inches, compared to the Bear’s 0.7 inch average. With the Monarch 223 Rem. 55-gr. FMJBs, the Bear won the rubber match, beating the Ruger 1.1 inch to 1.5 inch in average five-shot-group size. The original SR-556FB shot 1.5-inch groups with the Monarchs at 50 yards using a Sig Sauer red-dot sight.
So, with so many similarities, where were the $600+ dollars in extra goodies? To start, the SR-556FB came with a one-piece 10-inch Troy Industries Quad Rail Handguard, which along with the rail on top of the receiver produced almost 50 inches of rail surface. The handguard was pinned to the upper receiver and provided a mount for the piston-driven transfer rod. Three Troy rail covers provided a comfortable gripping surface. However, we liked the smooth surface of the Essential’s handguards as well as or better than the quad-rail’s feel. But to gain enough functionality, we would want to add some rails to the tapped holes on the front of the gun. Those custom-drilled pieces are available at www.ShopRuger.com. We’d probably pick the 3-inch SR-556E TR3 Picatinny Rail #18090, $15, for the sides and the 5-inch SR-556E-TR-5 Picatinny Rail #18095, $25, for the bottom rail. Longer rails are available. All are made of black-finished aluminum and come with installation instructions and all installation hardware. We would also consider adding flush-fit screws to the empty holes in the handguard for cosmetics sake, and we’d knock off the extremely sharp edges on the front and rear faces of the handguard. All in, the quad-rail would add $150 net to the 556FB’s cost above the Essential’s handguard, we’d estimate.
On top, the SR-556FB came equipped with Troy Industries Folding BattleSights (thus the FB in the name). They co-witnessed with Mil-Spec optics, and were easily removed or replaced. The windage-adjustable rear sight includes two apertures, and the protected HK-style front sight is elevation adjustable. The Essential didn’t come with sights at all, so add $100 for the front Troy sight and $120 for the Troy rear sight.
The SR-556E also features an A2-style pistol grip, ships with one 30-round Magpul PMag, and is packed in a soft-sided carry case. There’s no price difference because of the case; the SR-556FB also came in a padded Ruger-branded carry case with hook-and-loop fasteners and internal magazine pockets. (Psst: The SR-556/SR-22 Tactical Bag #19025, $25, is a great case for the money.) The E’s A2 pistol grip wasn’t as good as the FB’s rubber Hogue Monogrip, in our opinion, but the price difference is probably small. The SR-556FB comes with three 30-round Magpul PMags, two more than the Essential for a $40 difference.
Our Team Said: We’ve now got a pretty good idea why the Ruger Essential exists. It’s as accurate as the original 556 rifle from Ruger with one common ammo, the handguard may be more comfortable than the original’s quad rail, and it seems most of the difference in hard costs are the Troy sights. Maybe we’re missing something, but we could only locate about $425 in hard equipment costs that separate the Ruger guns. That means the 556FB is drawing about a $200 premium over the Essential. We don’t want to mark down the Ruger SR-556FB in retrospect, but we think most people will pick the less expensive Essential and save a pocketful of money.
Adcor Defense – Brown Enhanced Automatic Rifle (B.E.A.R.)
#201-2040E 5.56mm NATO/223 Rem., $2214
Adcor Industries, Inc., was founded in 1990 by Demetrios Stavrakis, the son of a Greek immigrant who had started a machine shop business in the 1960s. The company’s core strength is precision metalworking in its 50,000 square-foot facility, where it makes precision radar components for the F-16 and bottling-industry parts. A subsidiary, Adcor Defense, makes several versions of the Elite rifles, in barrel lengths of 10.5, 12.5, 14.5, 16, and 18 inches, along with other model lines. When we looked on www.GunAuction.com for pricing, we found no listings for the Bear Elite rifles. Elsewhere, we saw no bid activity on guns with reserves set as low as $1399. We did find a Bear Elite for sale at nearby AJC Gunshop (www.ajcgunshop.com) for $1664.
The Elites are unusual in a lot of ways. In the Bear, the gas block is attached to the rail rather than the barrel. Having the gas block separate from the barrel allows the barrel to be free floating, which should improve accuracy. However, as we noted above, the Essential shot as well as the Elite with one of our test ammos, and all the accuracy results were fairly close.
Next, an ambidextrous forward-placed charging handle/forward placed assist permits the operator to charge, clear, or forward assist the weapon without losing engagement with the target. The operator reaches forward and pulls back on a handle (which can be located on either side of the weapon) without losing sight of the target. If the carbine jams, the same handle clears the carbine with a single pull. The handle is equipped with a spring that returns the handle to a locked position after use, and the handle folds forward into a recessed area to keep it out of the way. To use the handle again, the operator reaches forward, swings the handle outward and back in a single motion. The handle does not move back and forth when the weapons fires, but only engages when the operator charges or clears the weapon. It also allows the shooter to work the bolt without raising his head. In particular, this feature helped our shooters in prone. Usually, we have to roll onto the left side to clear a stoppage. The forward handle allowed us to keep the rifle on target during stoppage drills.
Some shooters will point out that the forward charging handle sits right where they like to mount a thumb-activated light, and the charging handle gets in the way. But you can move the FCH to the other side of the rail system.
Adcor says the design of the Elite’s gas-piston system and operation rod eliminates carrier tilt. Carrier tilt results from sloppy or loose tolerances in the receiver. When the op-rod in a piston system impinges upon the carrier lug, it does so off axis, causing the carrier to be thrust upward into the upper receiver at the forward end and thrust downward at the carrier’s rear, or tilting. These forces transfer into the upper receiver and receiver extension, resulting in accelerated wear, especially on the receiver extension. In the Bear, Adcor addressed carrier tilt using an op rod attached to the carrier bolt with screws. Stress is absorbed in two recoil lugs in the carrier bolt. The op rod threads through a small opening in the rail, keeping the assembly straight, thereby limiting carrier tilt.
Next, a spring-loaded dust cover mounted on the carbine’s bolt carrier keeps contaminants out of the area between the receiver and bolt. On the Adcor, each time the weapon fires and the bolt carrier returns to the ready position, the dust cover moves into the ejection port opening, flush with the outside geometry of the carbine. The cover seals the ejection port when closed, preventing foreign material from entering the action, and it also wipes any debris out that does enter the receiver when in use. In our testing, we had no stoppages of any sort.
The key-locked rail system mounts seamlessly to the upper receiver. The design ensures proper alignment of the rail with a redesigned boss, spline, and groove system. The rail will not loosen over time, Adcor says. The upper handguard supports the piston system, and with the piston rod, guides the carrier. It also is dovetailed into the lower handguard, which can be easily detached from the upper guard to expose the gas system for maintenance.
The Bear wears a Magpul telescoping six-position buttstock and Magpul pistol grip. The grip has a storage compartment inside. The rifle also comes supplied with two Magpul P-Mag magazines.
The race between the Bear and the SR-556FB and SR-556E is interesting. We’ve had no function problems with our Rugers so far, but we read that carrier tilt is a common user complaint in forums. We don’t believe anything we read online without checking it for ourselves, but the potential problem is worth mention. At this point, we can’t give an edge to either the Bear or the Rugers because it will likely take thousands of rounds to induce a stoppage, and we haven’t gotten there yet.
Component-wise, the rail system on the Bear is a coin flip with the SR-556FB in terms of real estate. We admit the Bear’s design looks invincible, but the Rugers’ seem just as solid. One advantage we did note is that the front and rear edges of the handguards are chamfered and not sharp like the Essential’s are.
In terms of backup sights, neither our optics-ready Bear nor the Essential came with a set, but there is a Bear model that does, and, of course, the 556FB does.
As far as furniture, we think the Bear has a clear edge over both the Rugers with its Magpul MOE stock. The Magpul’s adjustment lever is protected inside the stock frame, and its rear buttpad is rubber rather than diamond-cut polymer on the Rugers. Also, we like that the Magpul has less pitch than the Ruger butt does. In the grip area, we think the Magpul MOE grip and the Hogue grip on the 556FB are better than the 556E’s plain A2.
The Bear gains a big edge for its forward bolt latch. Neither of the Rugers have that feature, and our team liked the forward latch a lot because it improved operation by allowing us to work the action and keep the gun on or near the target without having to drop the muzzle.
We recognize the value of the Bear’s free-floating barrel, and perhaps with other ammo on a better day, that feature would have shone with better accuracy. As it was, we had a series of switch-wind days that caused us to move into 50 yards to shoot. The Bear was slightly better head to head with the Essential, and shooting the ammo common to all three guns, it was noticeably better than the two Rugers. Part of the Adcor’s accuracy could be due to its better trigger. Both of the Rugers came in at 9.4-pound break weights, substantially more than the Bear’s 8.0-pound break. Also, the Rugers didn’t have as distinct a stop-then-go break point. Reset feedback on all three was a coin flip, our testers said. Still, on a gun in the Bear’s price range, we think a much better two-stage trigger should be part of the package, or at the minimum, a lower-weight one-stage trigger.
Our Team Said: The Adcor Bear had a unique feature set that gave it an edge over two pretty good Ruger SR-556s that cost hundreds less. When we look at the guns irrespective of price, we give the Bear a pretty high grade, marked down mainly because of the lack of a better trigger. But if we factor in price, it might drop to our third choice in the real world, behind the SR-556E at near half the actual counter cost, then the SR-556FB.