June 2001

Lightweight AR-15 Carbines: Is One Of These Right For You?

We liked the spirit of the Spirit Light-Weight, and mastered the Bushmaster Shorty, but at more than $2,300, the Wilson UT-15 Urban Tactical simply cost too much for us to recommend.

One-hand operation is possible with these
short, handy weapons, but not recommended
if you want to hit your target. Pictured here
is the Wilson with 1-4X Leupold.

There seems to be an unending interest in what Jeff Cooper calls “mouse guns” these days. Yes, lots of folks want AR-15–type rifles, and of course, want the best possible deal on one. Today’s trend is toward smaller and lighter versions of the U.S. military’s .223-caliber “black rifle.” Why carry a ton of iron when a pound will do?

Well, not a pound, but one doesn’t need 8 or 10 pounds when 5 or 6 pounds will do. The cartridge has negligible recoil even in single-shot handguns, so except for needs of strength and perhaps stability in holding from offhand, why have the rifle weigh so much? If you want to carry a rifle weighing 8 or 10 pounds, it might as well be in .308.

Lightweight “combat” rifles make lots of sense. After all, that’s the chief reason for going to a tiny caliber like the .223 in the first place. This makes it possible for the grunt to pack more ammo for his lighter rifle, and logistics of supply are also easier all along the chain. One easy way to reduce rifle weight is to reduce the barrel length. A length of around 16 inches provides a significant weight reduction from the more normal 20-inch length, especially when coupled with a shorter handguard. That 16-inch length is legit for anyone to own. If you’re a law-enforcement or military type, and think you need one, even shorter barrels are available, down to 12 inches, or even shorter. This may be going too far, though. One penalty paid for such a short tube is vastly increased noise from burning more of the powder charge in the air. Also, the shorter (12-inch) barrel makes its noise closer to the shooter’s ear. Velocity is also reduced, but the whole concept of a very-short-barrel rifle embraces short-range utilization, and velocity reduction may not be much of a problem up close.

Are the lightweight AR rifles reliable? Do they perform well enough? To find out, we acquired three relatively light AR-type rifles from Bushmaster (Quality Parts Co.), American Spirit Arms Corp., and Wilson Combat/Scattergun Technologies. All had nominal 16-inch barrels of varying design, all incorporated the basic AR-15 action and operating system, and all had a flat top-rail that would take a detachable carry handle with adjustable rear aperture sight, a scope in many different mounts, or about any sighting or night-vision system ever designed for the rifle.

The Wilson M-4T Tactical Carbine came with a nifty scope-mount system that included an aperture sight mounted beneath the rather high scope tube. The Bushmaster Shorty Carbine had a quick-detachable carry handle (A3) with mil-spec aperture, and packed in the box along with it was one of the finest optical sights we’ve seen, the Trijicon ACOG. The letters stand for Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight. The American Spirit Arms Light-Weight Flattop Rifle had a non-collapsible stock, and no rear sight whatsoever for its flat-top rail, though one is included normally. (We knew we wouldn’t need one, so didn’t bother to get it with the gun.) We used the Wilson’s 1-4X Leupold Vari-X II “Shotgun” scope and Tactical Targeting System base to test the accuracy of all three rifles, and then tried the ACOG on the Bushmaster and Spirit guns to see if there were significant differences. There were, but accuracy was not one of them.

All three rifles had some sort of muzzle brake, which to our eyes look better than a plain straight tube. However, these increase the sound level to the shooter, and no rifle of this caliber really needs a muzzle brake in semiautomatic mode. Perhaps a brake would help in full-auto fire, but that’s another story. All three rifles had the requisite forward-assist button, which we’ve never found to be particularly useful. In fact, every time we’ve tried to force a round into a chamber either with one of these assist buttons or by letting a bolt fly forward a second time onto a stuck case, we’ve ended up with a big mess on our hands. The easiest means of dealing with a stuck case seems to be to pull rearward on the bolt and get the round out of the rifle, and then look to see what the trouble was.

Although we tested all the rifles with the Wilson’s 1-4X Leupold scope, we would not put that type scope and mount onto such a rifle, if we owned one. First, the scope base made carrying the rifle difficult. Next, a handy rifle like any of this trio ought to be fast to get into action, and the clumsy, high positioning of the Leupold scope in the Wilson mount didn’t help us shoot fast. We much preferred the standard configuration of carry handle with fully adjustable aperture sight for the greatest convenience in the field. However, when we tried the ACOG we changed our tune somewhat. More on that later.

We tested the three rifles with two Black Hills loads and some surplus Russian fodder. The Black Hills ammunition was the company’s 60-grain soft nose and 68-grain Match rounds. The surplus ammo was normal 55-grain ball in steel cases.

Click here to view the Accuracy and Chronograph Data

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Each maker of these AR-15–type rifles offers a big assortment of accessories, most of which will fit any rifle made to this pattern. If you have Brand A and you don’t find what you’re looking for in Catalog A, try Catalog B. One of the very best sources for all sorts of parts, accessories, scopes and mounts for any AR-15–type rifle is Brownells, ([641) 623-4000; www.brownells.com). Here’s what we found.

Wilson UT-15 Urban Tactical, w/Armor-Tuff, $2,340 as tested
What you get with this unit, per the Wilson catalog (www.wilsoncombat.com), is a forged flat-top upper receiver, and a forged lower, fitted with a match-grade fluted barrel with muzzle brake, free-float aluminum handguard, a nicely shaped hand grip (by Ergo), a good trigger, and Parkerized steel components. Note that these latter are not coated in Armor-Tuff. That finish is on the action and barrel only, and costs you $125 more than plain Parkerizing on everything. We didn’t think the cost of Armor-Tuff was worth it for the limited coverage, though it looked very good.

Click here to view the Wilson UT-15 Urban Tactical features guide

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The Leupold 1-4X Shotgun Vari-X II scope added about $400 to the cost of this rifle. The TTS (Tactical Targeting System) mount/rear-sight assembly with Weaver rings lists at $218. Take off those items (which reduced the rifle’s weight by 20 ounces, down to a weight of 6.7 pounds without sights), and the cost comes down to a base price of $1,724. That’s an awful lot, we think. We could not see, from the Wilson catalog, that it was possible to reduce this price further, except by choosing Parkerizing instead of Armor-Tuff for the finish. That gets the price down to $1,600, still steep in our view.

The trigger pull was a dream, by far the best of the three. It broke cleanly at just under 3 pounds. We had the devil of a time opening the sticky butt trap. On the Bushmaster it opened easily; the Spirit’s buttstock didn’t have a trap.

Wilson claimed an accuracy of 1 MOA, which we could not achieve. We even tried a different scope of higher power, but our best 100-yard group was 1.6 inches with the 68-grain Match ammo, and the best average groups were 1.9 inches with the Russian surplus load. A couple of groups fired with a handload gave 1.6-inch average size. Something seemed to be wrong here, but we couldn’t find out what it was. Wilson has an outstanding reputation for standing behind its products, so if we owned this rifle and sent it back to them for accuracy corrections, we have no doubt the rifle would come back to us matching their claim, or vastly surpassing it. Still, we can only grade the rifle based on what we found in the test, not what might happen afterward.

Wilson’s little aperture sight beneath the scope was cute, though we could see no real need for it unless the scope were damaged. If you don’t like apertures, an optional square-notch rear was available on the TTS scope base. This little sight had its windage adjustment in the scope mount, plus a clever provision for elevation adjustment, all of which placed the scope much higher than it needed to be without the accessory iron sight.

Bushmaster XM15-E2S “Shorty” Carbine, $1,880 as tested
This rifle had a base price of around $885 with its V Match flat-top upper, and nominal 16-inch fluted barrel. The design of the muzzle brake made this barrel effectively 2 inches longer than the Wilson and Spirit barrels. This contributed to the muzzle-heavy feel, which was not objectionable, though more pronounced than on the other two rifles. The price-escalating add-ons included: A3 carry handle ($90); flip-up front sight assembly ($100); match-grade trigger ($120); Ergo pistol grip ($25); 30-round magazine ($35); muzzle brake ($30); and Trijicon ACOG sight ($595). Take off the ACOG sight and you get a price, with all the goodies, just under $1,300. With just the carry handle, the price would be about $975. Some of the extras were needless but nice, particularly the folding front sight. Ditto the “Ergo” grip. Clearly anyone wanting one of these rifles has a great many options to get it set up exactly as desired.

Click here to view the Bushmaster XM15-E2S ?Shorty? Carbine features guide

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The Bushmaster “Shorty” was the loudest of the trio, thanks to the muzzle brake design. The two-stage trigger pull was clean, and broke at 5.8 pounds. We found it easy to use, but would have preferred it around 4.0 pounds.

The rifle was finished in black Parkerizing. It had a tubular, knurled forend that “floated” the barrel for improved accuracy. The barrel and muzzle brake were both slightly longer than those of the Wilson, so the Bushmaster’s muzzle weight was slightly heavier.

The buttstock was straight mil-spec, dull black. The barrel was fluted, with the same 1:9 inch twist that the Wilson had. We particularly liked the folding front sight. A push-button on its right side permitted it to be folded rearward against the top of the barrel, which got it pretty much out of the way so it wouldn’t snag trees, etc. Another push on the button and the front sight could be flipped up into action, if something were to go wrong with the scope.

We got better accuracy from the Bushmaster than we got from the Wilson, with the 60-grain Black Hills fodder averaging 1.4 inches. The Bushmaster didn’t like the 68-grain Black Hills Match ammo, putting several shots outside the main group each time we tried it. The average with those 68-grain bullets was 3.0 inches, and the Russian ammunition shot just worse than that.

Perhaps the best element of the Bushmaster was the accompanying Trijicon ACOG scope, a tiny 1.5-power device. Its pale-orange “dot” was illuminated by either a tritium gas internal element, which gave a distinct aiming point in very dark light, or by an external, light-gathering, plastic element that gave a bright dot in the brightest sunlit conditions. This scope was extremely fast to use. The trick was to keep both eyes open, and on shouldering the weapon the scope sight was almost not noticed. The eye saw a small, pale-orange dot superimposed on the target. There was a small vertical line beneath the dot to help avoid canting, and for precise longer-range holdovers. The ACOG was greased lighting in use. The small amount of magnification clarified the target slightly, and as soon as the shooter saw the dot where he wanted it, he could fire the rifle to very good effect.

The ACOG was not great for precision shooting, as the dot covered a lot of territory on the target. However, good work could be done by using the little line below the dot, which would cause the shots to strike high. For serious target work, the click-stop adjustments could be altered to make the rifle shoot to the top of the line, and that line was small enough to give all the precision one would want with a 1.5X scope.

The scope attached to the top of the carry handle by means of a tightly fitted base that was a mild press fit into the handle, and a single screw that came up from the bottom, passed through the carry handle and threaded into the sight base. Unfortunately, it was impossible to tighten the Allen-headed screw until we drilled a hole into the base of the handle so we could get an Allen wrench onto that screw. This was something that ought to have been done at the factory. Our drilled hole did not weaken the handle by much, if at all.

There was a longitudinal hole through the scope mount to permit normal use of the iron sights. Because the irons were so easy to use, it would make sense to have the front sight in place all the time, which means you don’t need to spend $100 for the nifty folding sight. The front sight did not intrude on the scope’s vision to any extent.

With the scope in place, the carry handle could be used easily, so the shooter was not aware of the light (5-ounce) scope until he shouldered the weapon. We though this ACOG unit was the way to go if you want to scope your battle rifle. Its only drawback is its relatively high cost of $595. However, the TTS base and Leupold scope that came with the Wilson rifle cost more than that, and were far less practical in the field. Several types of reticle and degrees of magnification for these ACOG sights are available from Trijicon. The ACOG was fast, unobtrusive, appeared to be very well made and sturdy, and best of all, it helped us make fast hits. In fact, we thought it was faster than the aperture sights. Its adjustments were covered with caps that were touted to be waterproof, but we didn’t test that feature. We pointed the ACOG close to the sun, and the orange dot was still clearly visible in spite of the strong front lighting. At the other end of the spectrum, if we could see our target in the darkest night, we were assured of being able to hit it. In the dark the dot was muted so it didn’t mask the target.

Elsewhere, there were no functional surprises with the Bushmaster. It worked perfectly in all respects.

American Spirit Light-Weight Flattop Rifle, $800
This Scottsdale, Arizona, company ([888] 486-5487) offers a good selection of complete rifles, plus kits and many accessories. Its brochure is worth having for a quick look at what’s available for AR-type rifles. Complete rifles start at about $800, and kits begin at about $650.

Click here to view the American Spirit Light-Weight Flattop Rifle features guide

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Although the stock of our test rifle appeared to be collapsible, it was not. This rifle, like the other two, had forged receiver parts. There were no markings on the relatively thin barrel. Its twist appeared to be 1:9, as well as we could measure. It was fitted with a short muzzle brake with three slots. The rifle came with a 10-round plastic magazine of very light weight. It felt flimsy, but worked well. The rifle’s forend was the common, ribbed mil-spec variety. The pistol grip was also standard mil spec, and we liked it just as much as the $25 Ergo grip on the other two rifles. It also worked better for smaller hands. If you don’t like the finger-positioning rib, file it off.

We would have got this rifle with integral carry handle if we had ordered it for ourselves. We used the Wilson TTS mount and Leupold scope to test accuracy, but also tried the ACOG on this little rifle. This was even handier than the Bushmaster, having a weight of only 6.8 pounds with the ACOG on the carry handle. Bare of sights, the rifle weighed only 5.9 pounds. With the ACOG, this was a fast handling, no monkey-motion rifle with adequate performance.

On the range, the American Spirit Arms rifle shot an average group of 1.6 inches with the 60-grain Black Hills ammunition, with the smallest group just under an inch, actually the best group of the series. So much for fancy fluted, free-floated barrels, eh? We did feel some movement in the forend, and over this test series came to prefer the solid feel of the free-floated, tubular knurled forends over the common ribbed one. However, within the scope of our limited testing, this one shot more than well enough for a fighting carbine.

This rifle was definitely hampered by a heavy trigger pull of right at 7 pounds. Trigger jobs are easy on this rifle design, so this wouldn’t be hard or costly to fix.

We couldn’t fault the American Spirit Arms rifle. We didn’t much care for the non-collapsing stock, but it was lighter than the standard mil-spec stock. However, the rib at the front of the plastic assembly on the back of this stock hit us on the face when we mounted the rifle. Shooters with short necks wouldn’t be troubled by it, but we were.

Gun Tests Recommends
We know many shooters who don’t like aperture sights, and we know that most shots fired through these rifles by most shooters will be for accuracy on a piece of paper. A flat-top receiver lets you scope one of these rifles very inexpensively with low-cost Weaver rings and the scope of your choice. This may be the way to go if you must have a scope and don’t need, or don’t like, the carry handle. With a flat-top receiver, the carry handle can be added later if you change your mind. Also, the flat top rail lets you mount nearly anything, including night-vision or infra-red scopes.

Although the rail makes a lot of sense, we wouldn’t have one. We like the integral carry handle. We also like aperture sights, and believe that setup is the fastest, lightest, and cheapest way to use one of these rifles in the field, where only fast hits count. And to that end, we’d love to have that little Trijicon ACOG sitting on top of the handle, no matter the cost.

Bottom line is, a good AR-15 clone ought not to cost over a grand, unless you really like gadgets. There are a great many makers to choose from, and no end of accessories for ‘em. so it’s really a buyer’s market. With those caveats in mind, here’s how we scored our trio:

Wilson UT-15 Urban Tactical, with Armor-Tuff, $2,340 as tested. Don’t Buy. Other than the mediocre accuracy, there were no surprises, and everything functioned perfectly. But we would not buy this rifle; it was just too expensive for what you get. The American Spirit Arms rifle offered just as much for a lot less money. The Bushmaster offered just as much in the base rifle with carry handle for under $1,000. Though Wilson makes great guns and does nice work, in our view this one didn’t seem to offer enough value for its cost, in spite of its outstanding trigger.

American Spirit Arms Corp. Light-Weight Flattop Rifle, about $800. Buy It. It had all the right features, was well made, worked properly, and had enough accuracy. The going rate for a carry handle is about $90, so the price for this rifle—as we’d get it—would be around $900 or a bit less. Actually, some of our shooters thought they’d like to try putting together a kit, and that would save $150 right off the bat.

Bushmaster XM15-E2S “Shorty” Carbine, $1,880 as tested. Buy It. We could find no significant differences in quality of workmanship among the three rifles, though one or two small points about the Wilson, aside from its trigger, were done better than on the other two. We didn’t like the Bushmaster’s muzzle brake and thought its trigger could have been a bit lighter, though it was very clean. All in all, the Bushmaster was a good rifle that, with minimal extras, ought to be available for under $1,000.