July 2004

A Brace of Odd .223 Autoloaders From Robinson’s and Bushmaster

Want something a bit different in your next AR-15? Robinsonís modular M96 goes head to head with Bushmasterís Bullpup.

Ray Ordorica takes a shot from offhand, for which the M96 was well suited. It had a fine, controllable two-stage trigger, great sights, was comfortable to shoot, and had at least enough accuracy for battlefield conditions.

Most, but not all, AR-15s look exactly alike, and they’re all expected to perform to the standards originally set by the Colt and its many clones. All are expected to be reliable and reasonably accurate rifles that work with all the many loadings of the .223 round. Once in a while an odd rifle comes along that looks to be a fresh break from the ordinary. We recently found two examples that were totally different from what you’d normally expect in this type rifle. For this test we gathered two .223-caliber autoloading rifles that accept all commercial or mil-spec AR-15/M16 magazines. But neither test rifle looked anything like just another clone of the “black rifle,” that’s for sure.

One was Bushmaster’s short “folded” design, called the Bullpup, which had its breech right next to your face with the rifle held in the normal firing position. The rifle was a composite of aluminum, steel and plastic. And then we tried the innovative, modular, barrel-swapping M96 Expeditionary Rifle design by Robinson Armament, which looked a little like an AR-15, but was essentially a totally different design. We ran them through our tests, and here’s what we found.

Bushmaster Model M17S Bullpup .223 Rem., $765

Right off the bat we were impressed by the fact that this design was really all you need for efficient utilization of the .223 cartridge. The rifle was compact, slick looking, and seemed to be totally modern in its design concept. It was, however, too heavy for the round, as was the Robinson, we hasten to add. But the Bullpup did have an integral carry handle, topped with a sight rail for easy mounting of accessories, so it was at least a portable design. Also, if you want a lighter AR-15, Bushmaster makes ‘em, but not in this short design.

The main rifle body was formed of aluminum in the form of a rectangular tube with rounded corners. It appeared to be an extrusion, because it had no obvious machining marks on its outside or inside, but it had some integral lugs machined into its lower surface to hold the front carry-strap swivel, and to accept the lower trigger/magazine/grip assembly. If in fact it was machined, the quality of the work and subsequent finish was outstanding.

There were some longitudinal ridges on the outside of the main tube that really didn’t help us get a good grip on the gun unless the gun was held in a horizontal position. If the gun were held vertically, it wanted to slide out of our hands. The front of the main tube was capped, at an angle, with a steel plate that had an extension which served as the forward receptacle for the barrel. The rear of the square tube was capped by an extension of the large, complex, molded plastic piece on the bottom of the rifle that served as the pistol grip. That molding also held the trigger, magazine opening, mag controls, and the safety. It also served as the butt plate. On top of the main tube was a carry handle, made of black plastic, and affixed to it was a scope-mounting rail made of aluminum.

So far, no problems. This was clever designing and decent execution. The finish was a fairly uniform matte black on all visible surfaces. Quality of workmanship seemed to be very good to excellent in everything we could see.

The rear of the plastic carry handle was also the bolt knob. Pulling it rearward operated the bolt in the normal manner, and we’ll have more to say on that, a bit later in this report. What was not normal was that the breech opening (ejection port) was behind the pistol grip, about six inches forward of the butt plate. This means the magazine opening and all the mag controls were also far behind where one is used to finding them, and we confess this took some getting used to. Most of us never got used to it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t adapt to it easily. However, all the operations for inserting and releasing the magazine (both rifles accepted all normal AR-15 or M16 magazines) was just like you’re used to, from handling your AR-15. The bolt hold-open was also normal. In fact, the rifle had an ambidextrous magazine release, which some of us found to be handy. The safety was in the form of a sliding bolt with a red area to indicate Fire, visible when the safety was shoved fully to the left side of the rifle.

The trigger had to trip a sear that was far to its rear, and we could hear the motion of a pushrod of sorts inside the rifle as we pressed the trigger during our initial evaluation. We found that during shooting, we could still hear it as we experienced the horrendously stiff and creepy trigger. The poor pull was a great hindrance, we felt.

The Bullpup came with a 10-round magazine (and a sling) that we filled with a mix of odd ammo, and repaired to the range to sort things out before our formal bench tests. Right off the bat we had a problem. We had to cramp our head into an awkward and uncomfortable position to get a look at the sights. The sight radius was only 4.6 inches. The front fixed sight was molded into the top handle, and the rear was in a dovetail slot for windage adjustment. Both had excellent proportions. The sight picture was pure Patridge, with adequate room on the sides of the notch to readily find the flat-top front post. But with the head held in the normal position, the eye was so close to the rear sight that it was impossible to get a decent sight picture. It was also almost impossible to get our face low enough on the tube to align the sights. With the shoulder shoved forward and the head pulled back, we could get an almost workable sight picture, but we all decided the Bushmaster’s fixed iron sights were almost totally useless, despite their excellent shapes. We managed to shoot

a three-inch, five-shot group at 25 yards

, and called ourselves lucky. A poor trigger pull did nothing for our confidence or for our groups. More on accuracy later. The Bushmaster catalog specifically states that the Bullpup is designed for scope, night-vision, or dot-type aiming devices, so we can’t fault it for its questionable fixed sights. At least it had them.

Takedown was easily accomplished by driving out the two rear-most, spring-detented, cross pins and pivoting the lower unit around the front pin, which acted as a hinge pin. This permitted withdrawing the bolt assembly from the rear of the tube for maintenance/cleaning, and also let you clean the barrel from the breech, and clean the hammer and other parts within the lower unit. With the lower unit opened, it was possible to see some of the clever machining that had been done to the anodized aluminum tube, and to observe the remainder of the design. The barrel was rigidly attached to the main square tube by a bolt at the rear, and was fitted into a tube at the muzzle. The 21.5-inch, chrome-lined barrel was thus secured firmly, with little possible movement, within the main square tube. This, we thought, spoke well for the potential accuracy of the piece.

Operation of the bolt was effected by relatively normal gas bleed-off that impinged on a spring-loaded operating rod. This rod activated a bolt carrier restrained by double springs. As the carrier was driven rearward by the operating rod, it unlocked the bolt, which then followed the carrier in the normal manner. Extraction was relatively conventional and ejection was by a sprung plunger. In our limited firing, everything worked well, and it was our collective opinion that normal maintenance, as detailed in the brief operation manual that accompanied the rifle, would keep everything working properly.

Peering down into the trigger guard and examining the construction, we could see the assemblies were housed in what appeared to be an exceptionally strong plastic molding. There was a thin section just behind the trigger guard that could present a weakness problem, but only when the rifle was opened for cleaning. Everything else about the Bullpup appeared to be strong, rigid, and fully functional. A thin steel rod transmitted trigger motion to the sear. It seemed to us that the trigger’s main problems came from the rod and in the way it was bent to activate the sear. When disconnected, both the trigger and sear moved easily. But with the rod connected, there were hitches and odd creep. Perhaps some simple tinkering would result in a better trigger. We didn’t tinker.

Getting the bolt back in was just a bit tricky. We had to look through the bottom of the main tube to steer the bolt head into its place at the back of the barrel, and then everything dropped easily into place. Closing the bottom molded piece and shoving the two pins back into place gave us a functional rifle once again. The takedown system was fast and easy, we thought.

If ever a rifle was made for an ACOG fast-acquisition sight, this was it. With the gun held normally, the eye aligned well with the area just over the sight rail. That is how this rifle ought to be set up, we decided, and of course Bushmaster suggested some sort of rail-mounted sighting device. However, having no ACOG on hand, we decided to put a scope onto the Bushmaster. This was not entirely fair to the Robinson rifle, but that one was a different-type horse altogether, as you shall see. Our main purpose here was to see if the Bullpup had decent inherent accuracy (which we thought it would have, based on its rigid barrel mount), and we sure could not tell with its fixed sights. Accordingly, we installed our 12X Leupold test scope and, with the gun sighted in, proceeded to shoot for group at 100 yards from the machine rest. We tested both rifles with two types of Black Hills ammunition, 62-grain FMJ and 68-grain match ammunition. We also shot Russian-made Wolf ammunition, with 55-grain FMJ bullets.

With the rifle in a solid bench rest we still had major problems with the trigger. It was next to impossible to hold the odd-shaped and very-much-less-than-ergonometric rifle still while we wrestled with its poor trigger. That notwithstanding, we proved what we had suspected. With its barrel thoroughly secured to the main tube, the little Bushmaster has the potential to be a tack-driver. Several groups were under an inch, but the trigger got to us and we shot some groups over two inches. Still, the rifle had shown us that it was capable of phenomenal accuracy.

Robinson Armament Co. M96 Expeditionary Rifle, $1,600

Our initial evaluation showed us a very well made rifle with a lot of aura and some mystery to its makeup. The rifle came with two barrels, the mounted one of 20.25 inch length for the Expeditionary Rifle, and one of 16.2-inch length that let us convert this rifle into the Recon Carbine. There was no magazine, and the operator’s manual even stated that it didn’t come with a magazine. But any AR-15/M16 mag would do, the manual told us, so we used the Bushmaster’s 10-shot one. It worked perfectly throughout our testing. At 8.4 pounds empty, the Robinson was no lightweight. At this weight the rifle could utilize a more powerful cartridge, we thought, like the .308, with no recoil problems. However, some shooters like this much weight in the .223 caliber. The rifle was entirely business-like in its appearance, we thought. It was attractively finished in matte black. Some of the finish appeared to be bluing, some Parkerizing. Everything about this rifle was steel, except for the magazine-release button and the stock. The rifle made good use of stampings and welding, and all that work was fully functional, though not totally lovely.

The first thing we did with this rifle was clear it by tugging back on the bolt handle, which was a non-folding protrusion on the left side of the action. But there was no way to hold the bolt open, we found. We stuck a finger into the mag well and pressed upward at the right spot and drove the last-round bolt stop upward to catch the bolt. This seemed like a major omission from the design, we thought.

Our examination of the rifle revealed seven detented cross pins running through the action, which we’ll get to. There was no immediately obvious way to mount a scope, but there were two sets of flanges on top of the perforated receiver, and we guessed these could be for an accessory mount, which didn’t come with the rifle. There were ambidextrous mount points for a sling on either side of the forend, and a fixed, rear sling-mount point on the left side of the butt stock. There was no butt trap. The trigger area and hollow pistol grip looked and felt like typical AR-15 stuff. The magazine well held the mag securely, with no trace of the looseness commonly encountered with detachable magazines. The plastic forend was ribbed and gave us a good grasp on the rifle. The safety was on the left side, and could be operated with a stretch by the right hand’s thumb. Lefties could easily move it with the trigger finger, probably more conveniently than right-handers with the thumb.

The muzzle had a beautifully machined integral brake. The front-sight assembly (gas block) was large and again beautifully machined. On top of the front-sight base were two opposing screws that gave windage adjustment to the well-protected and dovetailed front-sight post. The front post was adjustable for elevation in the conventional (mil-spec) manner. One exciting discovery was an adjustable gas bleed, as on a FAL, in front of the front sight, at the entry to the gas tube. This was locked in its setting by a sprung detent pin that permitted easy adjustment with only the fingers.

The rear sight was contained within a perforated sheet-steel guard that in turn was held to the rifle by two detented cross pins. The entire rear sight could thus be removed and be replaced with an appropriate sight rail or other accessory. We left it in place, because we had great interest in seeing how well the Robinson would shoot with its iron sights. Our initial few shots to verify the sighting and function gave us promise of good things to come in the accuracy department. The rear sight itself appeared to be a standard military-type, two-aperture unit, but it had a tiny aperture and also a huge one. The big one gave a ghost-ring effect, and is what we’d use in a battle-type scenario. Its hole was 0.20 inch in diameter. The small hole was about 0.060 inch in diameter, and promised to let us wring out the rifle well enough with the iron sights. Windage on the rear sight was by a click-stopped wheel on the right side, marked with an R to show direction of movement. Each click gave about 1/2-inch movement at 100 yards.

There were a few idiosyncrasies to the Robinson that bear mention. One was that, as mentioned, there was no way to hold the bolt open, short of sticking your finger into the mag well and fishing for the bolt stop, like we did. Another is that if the bolt were closed and the rifle had been dry fired and the safety then moved to the On position, it was impossible to cock the rifle. This latter condition is mentioned in the manual. The former is not. Another item we noticed is that parts of the manual were written as though its author were addressing a small child. Some parts were so oversimplified that they would perhaps insult some shooters’ intelligence. However, all of it was correct, and it’s possible some shooters have never read such basic descriptions of how an autoloading rifle works.

Unfortunately, the description of how to change barrels begins with a request to press in on the barrel-release button, but that button was never identified in the manual anywhere, nor does the vague photo help locate it, if you’ve never seen the rifle before. Once you know where that button is, its obvious, but we guarantee you’ll be lost awhile. The instructions tell you to manually hold the bolt partly open while pressing on the barrel-release button with the same hand, and then use the other hand to wrestle the barrel out of the action. A manual bolt detent would go a long way toward helping this clumsy situation, we felt. In another section of the manual, its author took 44 words to say “cock the hammer,” so that’ll give you some idea of the manual’s problems.

With some help from the manual we finally found the takedown pin. Driving it out until it stopped permitted us to open the rear of the rifle by hinging it downward around another cross pin just behind the magazine well. The rear-most pin was for butt stock disassembly, and we left that one alone. The takedown pin was just in front of that one. So we now had only two cross pins to identify, one of which had to be the barrel-removal pin, we figured. We were wrong. But first, the bolt.

Getting the bolt out of the rifle ought to have been simple, and it was, once we got past the gibberish and indefinite pronouns in the manual. We eventually discovered that its removal required only an inward press on an oval button on the side of the bolt, going in through the ejection port with a suitable tool. We used a small screwdriver. Holding the button down with the screwdriver (or other tool), tug slightly rearward on the bolt. That frees the bolt and its odd-shaped carrier so they can slide out the back of the rifle. We found the inner parts were beautifully machined and finished, and everything worked with great precision. We were vaguely reminded of a German-made HK-91 we had inspected long ago, and that’s a high compliment to Robinson. With the guts removed it was possible to clean the barrel from the breech without further disassembly. Reassembly of the bolt into the action once again required simply inserting the assembly into the action, pressing the same appropriate tool against the bolt button, and pushing the bolt slightly forward until it locked into place. However, if it was desired to clean the bolt and its carrier, further disassembly was required, involving yet another cross pin. The manual explained this well.

In fact, the manual went into good detail about how to disassemble nearly every part of this modular rifle, including things that normally don’t need to come apart. In spite of our complaints about its wording, the manual was quite thorough, and also warned about things you should not do, because they might damage the partially disassembled bits of the rifle.

Of the remaining two detented cross pins, one was for the disassembly of the forend (handguard) from the bottom of the rifle, and the other was one of two that permitted the removal of the magazine receptacle from the rifle. So where was the barrel removal button? It was a relatively large, flat panel located underneath the rifle, surrounded by the rear part of the removable handguard. We found it when we took off the handguard, at which time it became obvious what it was.

Barrel removal was elementarily simple, with one slight modification to the manual’s instructions. The manual never mentioned blocking the bolt open while removing the barrel. Instead, it had the shooter using three hands, or the equivalent in manual dexterity, to simultaneously hold the bolt open, press the button, and wiggle the barrel out. We locked the bolt of the rifle open by inserting a finger into the magazine well and pushing upward on the magazine-driven bolt catch. That gave us two hands to do two jobs: press and hold the barrel button, and pull out the barrel.

Barrel removal was so simple that it would be the method of choice to clean it, we thought. However, we don’t know if repeated removal and replacement of the barrel would affect accuracy by wearing the mating parts excessively. The barrel came out very easily. Also, we could feel noticeable motion of the barrel within the fully assembled rifle, which didn’t promise us anywhere near the accuracy we had expected and received from the Bushmaster with its totally rigid barrel. Of course, the Bushmaster was not modular, so with a design such as the Robinson, some sacrifices may be inherent.

The shorter barrel assembly, that converted this rifle into the Recon Carbine, included the front sight and gas block, and also a shorter gas tube and activating rod. The manual told specifically how to interchange these items. We could see no reason to shoot the rifle with the shorter barrel. Velocity would be slightly less, and once we found out the Robinson’s accuracy potential with our test fodder in the longer barrel, there was no reason to expect anything better from the shorter setup.

With the rifle fully assembled, we shot a few rounds from kneeling at 25 yards, and noted it had an excellent trigger pull and outstanding sight picture. We easily placed five shots inside of an inch at that range, and looked forward to our bench testing. We found the Robinson to be a most comfortable rifle throughout all our test shooting.

We shot from our machine rest at 100 yards, and in short, the Robinson gave us groups on the order of three inches. No matter how well we held, and no matter that it was a comfortable, reliable rifle with an excellent trigger pull, the Robinson didn’t amaze us with its accuracy. However, accuracy didn’t tell the whole story here. The Robinson was more of a useful rifle, we thought, for almost any purpose, than the Bushmaster. We could hold and shoot the Robinson with great ease and confidence. It was fast, and plenty accurate enough to let us get hits on realistic-size targets at any range. We could not do that as well with the Bushmaster, not as we had it set up and not with that rifle’s poor trigger.

The ease of changing parts on the Robinson made it unique, we thought, in the world of .223 autoloaders. If you have a need for such versatility or the need to swap parts, including the barrel, quickly, this is your clear choice of all rifles of the AR-15 type we’ve seen. For some situations we can imagine, The M96’s modularity and quick barrel swapping would make it worth whatever it costs. The workmanship was generally excellent. The rifle worked very well, with no failures of any sort and no problems to feed, fire, or eject. We’d have liked more accuracy, but we thought the Robinson had enough accuracy for battle conditions, and certainly enough for lots of plinking fun. The barrel-swapping feature must include a loose-enough fit so you can get the barrel out of the rifle without tools. That means it can’t be as tight as you’d find on, say, a varmint rifle, so you can’t expect similar accuracy. This system would be well suited to a fully auto rifle, we thought, where barrel-swapping ability would far outweigh accuracy demands.

Gun Tests Recommends
Bushmaster Model M17S Bullpup, $765. Buy It. In the final analysis, we didn’t like the feel of this rifle whatsoever. None of our shooters ever got totally comfortable with it. Only by long and dedicated association, we felt, would this rifle become acceptable to those well schooled in conventional firearms. But we could not fault the rifle for our limitations and past experiences. The British army, for instance, uses a similar design (Steyr AUG), and it works well for them. The scope was a vast improvement over the auxiliary sights, but some sort of quick-point, heads-up, sighting equipment would be better than a scope, we thought. A glance at the photos shows how clumsy the rifle looked with our big scope mounted as far forward as we could get it. Even so, the rifle still tended to make us kink our neck in shooting it. We also didn’t like the fact that with the bolt locked open, there was no spring pressure on the bolt-cocking lever. If we carried the rifle by the handle with the muzzle pointed down, the rifle’s weight came onto the bolt-cocking lever, and it would give way and slide back, and we’d nearly drop the rifle. Essentially there was no solid back end to the handle, and we felt there should have been.

The trigger rod needed redesign, we felt. It alone seemed to be responsible for the outrageous trigger. However, if that were fixed —it might be really easy to do so, or it might be tough — the Bushmaster would come into its own, and its fine accuracy would encourage the owner to get thoroughly used to this design. The Bullpup worked perfectly throughout all our testing. There were absolutely no mechanical problems, and with a good trigger and proper fast sight, this could easily become someone’s favorite rifle.

Robinson Armament Co. M96 Expeditionary Rifle, $1,600. Buy It. We liked this rifle a lot, but we’d have the manufacturer change a few things. We’d suggest a major edit of the operating manual for starters, and also suggest the manufacturer figure some way to incorporate an exterior button to permit holding the bolt open. While this latter isn’t entirely necessary, we have come to like that feature. We loved the trigger. We’d put an extension on the safety for easier use by the right thumb, but that’s a personal thing. We were very impressed by the high quality of fit and finish, and with the clever way the rifle is made. We think if the buyer of this rifle could be happy with, say, 2-inch groups (which we felt the Robinson could achieve with a bit of tinkering and proper load selection), the Robinson would be all the .223 autoloader anyone would ever need or want.