June 2008

Accurate AR-15 Rifles: Buy the Fulton Armory, Rock River Guns

This was a tough test to judge: Four varmint/predator rifles from Bushmaster, Fulton Armory, Rock River, and Stag Arms went head to head, and only minor differences separated them.

After our article on "Compact AR Carbines" (October 2007) and a related article on "AR-15 Adjustable Stocks" (March 2008), some of you warned us that we had opened Pandora’s Box. Your prediction proved true, as we were besieged with other requests to visit additional limbs on the AR family tree: New caliber performance match-ups, more accessories testing, and national-match gun comparisons were just a few of the suggestions that popped up.

This month we chose one of the most popular requests, the AR-15 varmint/predator rifle. We quickly found that choosing four guns to test wasn’t going to be easy. It seems almost every manufacturer out there is turning out some version of this genre. Rock River Arms alone lists four different models in its catalog, and that’s before barrel and option selections!

Accurate AR-15 Ri?es

Our quartet of accurate 223 Rem. ARs included, from top, the Rock River Arms Varmint A4 Model AR1520X, $1085; the Bushmaster Stainless Varmint Special PCWVMS 24-9SS, $1325; the Stag Arms Model SA6L Left Hand Super Varminter, $1095; and the Fulton Armory FAR-15 Predator Varmint Precision 003020, $1995. Of the four, we preferred two A-graded guns: The Fulton model, which was the most accurate and costliest gun in our test, and the Rock River Varmint A4, which we accorded a Best Buy recommendation because it cost half as much as the Fulton unit. The Bushmaster Stainless Varmint Special did everything we asked it to do, just not quite as well as some of its competitors. The Stag Arms gun was a treat to shoot on the bench, but its front-heavy weight made hard to shoot off-hand.

There is also a fundamental difference in the definition of the varmint hunter. To some, a varmint hunter is someone who blazes away at prairie dogs and other such small targets from a rest. In parts of the South, varmint hunters are calling in foxes, coyotes, bobcats and other predators. This often requires carrying guns through thickets of brush, and a rest, if available, is a handy tree branch. The guns manufactured for these uses also have this same variety in their construction.

Since we had so many choices, we decided to narrow the field by setting the following parameters: a barrel length between 20 and 24 inches long, constructed of stainless steel, and capable of shooting the most popular ammo weight of 50 to 55 grains.

We got a quartet of guns that matched these specifications from Bushmaster, Fulton Armory, Rock River Arms, and Stag Arms, along with some options they felt the varmint/predator hunter would like.

How We Tested

We knew this test would prove to be hotly contested, so we chose topnotch mounts and scopes for this showdown. AR-15s tend not to fit standard gun cases when set up with the high mounts required to clear the charging handle, and still provide a solid sight picture.

With this in mind, we went to LaRue Tactical (www.laruetactical.com) for the exceptional LT104 30mm QD Lever Mount, $195. This allowed us to position the scope well above the charging handle, yet remove the scope for transport, and re-attach it via two quick-throw levers. Despite being assembled and disassembled numerous times, we never lost zero on the rigs. LaRue has a huge following in the sniper community, and our experience reinforced why this is the case.

Our lone exception to this mounting protocol was the Bushmaster, which came with two riser blocks already installed on the gun. We chose No. 49865 Leupold QRW 30mm Quick Detach Mounts for a robust, portable mount.

Next, we researched scopes and settled on the Super Sniper 16X42 Model SS16X42, $300, a brand marketed and manufactured to the specifications of SWFA, a large distributor of most major brands of optics (www.riflescopes.com). We selected this scope for several reasons. It was a fixed power, so we didn’t have to worry with testers fiddling with the magnification, and inadvertently affecting accuracy scores. Next, although fixed power (16x in this case), the Super Sniper had parallax adjustments for given distances present on a rotating indicator dial, along with a fast-focus eyepiece. We had planned on getting 10X scopes, but SWFA had shipped all they had to the Army for their Designated Marksman Program.

After mounting the scopes, each gun was given a good general cleaning, carefully lubricated, trigger pull weights checked on a digital gauge, and then it was off to the range.

An exceptionally volatile Texas spring brought a series of gusty winds, heavy rain, the occasional hailstorm, and a few tornados thrown in for good measure. As a result, we went underground. Our friends at Bass Pro Shops in Grapevine, Texas, graciously granted us permission to use the store’s 100-yard shooting tunnel. We found it an excellent choice for extreme accuracy testing, plus it was a designated tornado shelter to boot. We spent the better part of two days recording data in what Bass Pro employees affectionately call "the Dungeon." Our time there also allowed us to schedule testers to come in and fire away, including a young lady who broke away from her teacher’s job to "school" us, by posting the second best group of 0.49 inch in our tests.

For testing purposes we selected three mid-range bullet weights with different price points: The Remington Express 55-gr. Pointed Soft Point R223R1, $19/20 rounds), Winchester Supreme 55-gr. Ballistic Silver Tip SBST223B, $21.48/20, and Black Hills Match New Production Red Box 50-gr. VMAX ($40/50). We were somewhat constrained in our ammo choices due to a lack of enough rounds of ammo to run our tests properly. The bare shelves at Bass Pro were a shocking sight, and a testament to how difficult it can be to find ammunition these days.

Once we began firing, we took the time to swab each barrel after each ammo change to ensure carbon build-up did not influence the gun’s accuracy with the new ammo. Interestingly, Bushmaster’s directions require barrel cleaning after every 20 rounds, for the first 60 rounds, to ensure proper break-in. The other gun barrels come lapped from the factory and do not require this break-in procedure. Fortunately, our established test protocols took care of this requirement on their own.

The second part of our testing took place under blue skies at the Arlington Sportsman’s Club, one the largest private gun clubs in Texas with over 1300 members and offering a full range of shooting opportunities (www.arlingtonsportsman.com). Most of our testers were competitive shooters, and they were very picky about what they liked, and didn’t, on the guns—exactly what we wanted.

Bushmaster Stainless

Varmint Special

PCWVMS 24-9SS, $1325

Bushmaster’s Varmint Special Model PCWVMS 24-9SS featured a 24-inch-long 1:9 twist heavy sporter stainless barrel, not a bull barrel like those found on the other guns in the test. No other stainless barrel options are offered, although Bushmaster does have a 4150 chrome-moly vanadium steel version of this gun called the Bushmaster Varminter.

The gun arrived in a plastic carrying case, with a safety block that can also used to remove the takedown pins attaching the upper and lower assemblies. Also included were an owners manual, two-stage trigger assembly and adjustment procedures, lock, maintenance instructions, 25-meter zeroing target, and break-in instructions for the stainless barrel. The other competitors were already "lapped in" at the factory, and required no such break-in. This process alone will add another $30 to $50 dollars to the $1325 price tag.

Our testers said the Bushmaster was handsome and svelte at 8.84 pounds, due to its lighter-weight barrel, and a vented, free-floated forend that included a sling/bipod stud mounted. The Varmint Special included a standard A2 stock with a trapdoor, and added two half-inch scope riser mounts attached to the receiver’s front Picatinny rail.

The handle was a palm swell adjustable pistol grip, which featured a large base that can be adjusted via a hex wrench to set the proper trigger pull angle. This handle received mostly positive reviews, although our female tester found it a little too large.

When we took the Bushmaster to the range, some of positive feelings dissipated when bullets started flying downrange. No matter what load we tried, it lagged behind the guns in our test. We’re not saying the gun was chopped liver—it turned in an average of 1.2 inches over the many groups we fired with our three ammo selections. Also, it digested everything we fed with nary a malfunction. If you are Bushmaster fan and are looking for a gun that can shoot off a rest or pop an off-hand shot at a loping coyote, this gun may fit the bill.

Fulton Armory FAR-15

Predator Varmint Precision

003020 223 Rem., $1995

Fulton Armory is one of the top providers of M1, M1a, and M14, competition guns, and Clint McKee (the owner) and Walt Kuleck (sales manager) have also written books on firearms, including The M1 Garand Complete Assembly Guide, The M14 Complete Assembly Guide, and The AR-15 Complete Assembly Guide.

Their gun arrived in a plain cardboard box, with no gun case, just the gun sandwiched between two sheets of foam, along with a set of tools and directions for the Geissele trigger, and a modified version of their The AR-15 Complete Owners Guide.The FAR-15 inside was a striking gun, complete with a Magpul, PRS Precision adjustable sniper stock, $245, which provides exact cheek-weld and LOP adjustments. Other accoutrements included a target-gray stainless barrel ($35), a tac-latch on the charging handle for easier access when a scope is used ($20), a pre-installed Harris bipod ($80), and a side-cocking module ($125). Rounding out the features were a Krieger heavy 1:13-twist barrel ($390) and a Geissele adjustable two-stage trigger ($200). All of these options bring the gun to a wallet-emptying $1994 retail price.

The side-cocking module deserves a little more explanation. In lieu of the standard charging handle, the side-cocking module replaces the bolt cover and fits into the side of the gun by machining away the brass deflector. The bolt remains open after the last round is fired, but the shooter releases it by hitting the traditional bolt-release lever or tugging backward on the side-cocking module. Even the two lefties in were impressed with this feature.

When we took the gun to the range, it was the first gun the testers reached for when the guns were laid out on a desk. The gun was termed a "Sexy Beast" by our female tester. In particular, they liked the Magpul stock, side-charging handle, and target handle. The testers’ preference for the Fulton gun was further enhanced when rounds started being sent downrange.

The Fulton turned in the best overall grouping at 0.89 inch, despite some balky performance by the Remington ammo we used that none of the guns could group under 1 inch. The two lefties in the test felt they might have improved their performance, but for the handle that felt it was installed backwards, or as another tester described it like trying to hold a "prickly pear." Southpaws should order any handle but this one if they decide on the FAR15.

We felt the Giessele trigger was the best out of all the guns tested, but was also the hardest name to pronounce. Perhaps the greatest praise was directed toward the side-cocking mechanism. Although it eliminated the brass deflector, we had no problems with the ejection pattern. One tester felt the handle should be black to reduce glare, because his ADD caused him to focus on the "neat little handle" running back and forth.

You might wonder why we listed the prices of each option at the beginning of this review. The reason is that the base price for the FAR15 is $900, and every gun is bench built, so each shooter can pick and choose the options he can afford. As configured, our testers said the FAR15 was a first-class performer that richly deserved the "A" grade we gave it. Its balance and weight will suit both the bench blaster and the predator hunter.

Rock River Arms

Varmint A4 Model AR1520X

223 Rem., $1085

The Rock River A4 won some points from us when we uncrated it to find a blue plastic breakdown case with foam storage areas for extras, like scopes. It also had an owners manual, assembly tool and lock. It also included an optional scout rail to raise the scope height, but we found it unnecessary with the LaRue mounts.

Rock River warned us that the gun’s upper and lower fit tightly together, and that was indeed the case, requiring some extra force even with the supplied tool. We began wondering if we would like the breakdown case nearly as much after our assembling difficulties.

The Rock River Varmint A4 sported a heavy bull 416SS air-gauged barrel, but it was only 20 inches in length. The shorter stainless barrel gave us better balance in the heavy barrel category, allowing us to shoot off-hand with reasonable accuracy. The A4 also featured a Hogue-style grip, which received no negative comments.

Rock River seems to understand the hunter when they put together this gun. The A4 had a winter trigger guard, which allowed gloves to be used with the gun. The safety lever also sported a rounded knurled knob for easy activation. Of course, lefties complained it was in their way.

The Rock River also turned in the tightest group in our test at 0.57 inch with the Black Hills Ammo. The gun shot 1 inch overall, but without the inconsistent Remington ammo (1.52 in.), it would have shot gaudy numbers.

Our testers felt that the gun had the versatility to shoot prairie dogs off of a rest, but was light enough to tote through mesquite thickets in search of coyotes. Rock River, like Fulton, also offers many options to customize your gun, and even offers four different models if the A4 isn’t your cup of tea. Overall, we found its price (a little more than half that of the Fulton gun), the extras, and its performance at the range ranked it as a Best Buy.

Stag Arms Model SA6L

Left Hand Super

Varminter, $1095

We knew from the moment we hoisted this bad boy out of its case where Stag Arms had invested its money. Stag’s first entry into the varminter category sported an extra heavy 24-inch 416SS Shaw barrel that made the gun extremely front heavy, and a rifle you definitely want to shoot off the bench. Our gun sported an Ergo grip, comfortable but woefully undersized for hoisting the gun around. Interestingly, a couple of our shooters who were primarily bolt-gun specialists liked the handle for bring unobtrusive. Newer models are sporting a more robust Hogue grip.

We chose this lefty model to balance the group, assuming left-handed shooters would prefer a gun set up for them. The other guns were so strongly right-handed that having an available left-handed model is a big plus for southpaws, which we too-often forget in our evaluations. This gun is also available with the same components in the right-hand Model 6, and we believe our comments about the left-hand configuration will apply to the Stag gun set up for right-hand shooters.

To start, the Stag sported an ambi-safety, and produced the same complaints from righties that it interfered with their grip. We also found the left ejection pattern did not bother righties.

Elsewhere, we also found the two-stage trigger to be quite good in our test firing, much better than their standard trigger in our tactical carbine test in October 2007. This was a gun that transformed itself on the bench. It felt comfortable to the shooters, settled in nicely for repeat shots, and turned in a second best 0.940-inch overall average group.

Several of our bolt-action shooters didn’t have an issue with the Stag’s weight, since they lugged guns heavier than our test model. Still, the balance of the gun kept it from receiving our highest mark. If Stag used a vented forend to reduce weight, used a stock with more butt weight to balance the rig, and used a shorter barrel, this gun might have won.