August 2008

Semi-Autos for Self-Defense, and Fun: Pick Arsenal’s AK

The leader on the front nine was unquestionably Century Armsís C15 Sporter AR-15 clone, but a massive stoppage killed our enthusiasm for it. Rugerís KMini-14/5 was solid, but ho-hum.

Many shooters want a lightweight, handy 223 carbine for self-defenseóand that means reasonable accuracy, a good trigger, shooter friendliness, and ease of handling. In self-defense use, reliability is paramount, but the gun has to have enough accuracy to hit what itís aimed at.

There are several potential solutions to this firearms problem, one of which is the Ruger KMini-14/5 Ranch Rifle ($894), and we canít ignore the hoary AR-15Ėtype rifle, which in this test will be a parts gun assembled by Century Armsóthe $795 C15 Sporter.

Arsenal SLR 106FR

Oh, Arsenal! How will we shoot you? From the shoulder? From the hip? Around a corner? From top to bottom, we found that the folding stock on the Arsenal SLR 106FR offered a variety of shooting options that the Ruger KMini-14/5 and Century Arms C15 Sporter 223 Rem. rifles did not. The Arsenal wasnít perfect by any meansóit came in third in the accuracy portion of our tests, and we didnít like the sightsóbut it was fun to shoot. Initially, we thought the Century AR-style gun would win, but a round got stuck in it.

More interesting to us initially was the AK-based Arsenal SLR 106FR, $925. Mikhail T. Kalashnikovís famous assault rifle is the basis for the Arsenal gun. Likely more than 75 million AKs have been produced by more than a dozen countries, including Albania, Bulgaria, China, East Germany, Egypt, Finland, Hungary, Iraq, Israel, North Korea, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Africa, and the former Yugoslavia.

Chambered originally for the 7.62x39mm cartridge, the Kalashnikov assault rifle was adopted by the Red Army in 1949. In this country, the rap against AKs has been their sheet-metal receivers and bad triggers, but Arsenalís rifles seek to cure those problems. The Arsenal rifle is built on a Mil-Spec hardened 1mm-thick stamped receiver. The rifle has a 90-degree gas chamber, a chrome-lined chamber, and 800-meter rear sight, and a rear sight block calibrated for the 5.56mm cartridge.

The SLR-106FR incorporates a Warsaw Pact scope rail that will accept all scope mounts designed for this type of rail. The compact folding stock allows the SLR-106FR to be used in close quarters. This requires a cutout in the left side of the folding buttstock, which pivots to the left. The similar SLR-106F lacks the side-rail scope mount.

Ruger KMini-14/5

The fire control group of the SLR-106FR features Arsenalís new two-stage trigger, hammer, and disconnector. The company claims these units eliminate trigger slap, which our tests supported. Arsenal also claims the initial trigger-pull weight is 3 pounds, with an 8-pound let-off. Our gun didnít meet those specs.

Of course, the Ruger and the Arsenal actions have long histories of being chambered for other rounds, while the AR-15 was, in some sense, built for the 223 Rem./5.56mm NATO round, though it, too, has bigger chamberings in its current design. But for self defense, the 223 is plenty nasty out to hundreds of yards.

Here, we worked in closer, shooting our guns at 50 yards with the attached open sights, along with extensive handling and rapid-fire work. Our test ammos were Wolf (Russian) 55-grain full metal jacket rounds, Remington 55-grain Metal Case rounds, which have a full copper jacket for reliable function, and Hornadyís 60-grain TAP law-enforcement rounds, which feature a red polymer tip on top of a hollowpoint bullet.

Century Arms C15 Sporter 223 Rem.

The Century gun came with a 10-round magazine, while the Arsenal and Ruger came with 5-rounders. To make our shooting more fun, we purchased extra magazines for each gun. We bought two clear-plastic 30-round Arsenal magazines for $36 apiece, and two Ram-Line 30-round combo magazines that functioned in both the Century and Ruger guns. They were $30 apiece. For the AR, we also bought some 30-round PMAGs by Magpul for $15 apiece.

All in we fired more than 300 rounds per gun in accuracy shooting, chronographing, and handling, so we got to know them warts and all. Hereís what we found:

Ruger KMini-14/5 223 Rem, $894

Ruger Mini-14s are centerfire autoloading rifles that operate with a Garand-style breechbolt locking system, a fixed-piston gas system, and self-cleaning, moving gas cylinder. They are chambered in .223 Rem. (or 6.8mm Rem. SPC for the All-Weather Mini-14 Ranch Rifle). The similar KMini-30-P is chambered for the 7.62x39 round. The new heavy-barrel Mini-14 Target Rifle has an adjustable harmonic dampener, grey laminated target stock, non-slip grooved rubber recoil pad with three spacers to change the length of pull, and itís available with a Black Hogue OverMolded stock.

Our test gun came with an adjustable ghost ring aperture rear sight, an unprotected blade front sight (newer versions have ears), a curved metal buttplate (newer versions have a rifle-style buttpad), integral sling swivels, an instruction manual, a lock, a five-shot magazine, and scope rings. It felt handy, we thought, particularly without a scope, and it was a solid and attractive little rifle.

Our test gun measured 37.25 inches in overall length, with half of that being an 18.5-inch 1:9 right-hand twist matte stainless barrel. Between the blade front sight and rear ghost ring was 21.4 inches of sight radius. The stock had a fairly short 12.7-inch length of pull, and 1.2 inches of drop at the comb and 2.0 inches of drop at the heel. Unloaded, it weighed 7.25 pounds and measured 2.6 inches at its widest point, across the action handle.

At the range, the Ruger turned in middle-of-the-road velocities and accuracy. The Ruger average velocities were 3033, 3066, and 2950 fps, with the Wolf, Remington, and Hornady rounds respectively. Those readings were behind the C15 Sporter in each case (3092, 3092, and 2971 fps), but ahead of the AK (2890, 2894, and 2782 fps).

With the Wolf FMJs, the KMini shot 2.0-inch groups to the C15 Sporterís 1.6-inch groups and the Arsenalís 2.4-inch groups. The Ruger was bested by the C15 with the Remington 55-grain load, shooting 1.9-inch groups at 50 yards with open sights, compared to the C15ís 1.3-inch groups. Both beat the Arsenalís 2.7-inch groups. With the TAPs, the groups tightened across the board, with the Ruger and the Arsenal shooting 1.8-inch groups, both behind the Centuryís 1.3-inch groups.

The Rugerís hardwood stock lacked checkering, and we didnít like the smooth metal buttplate, which was difficult to keep in the shoulder. Also, we didnít like that the top of the stock near the buttplate was squared off, and we thought the Ruger delivered the most recoil, probably a function of its stock design and fittings.

The black ghost ring rear sight offered a great sight picture, contrasting well with the tall stainless front blade. It lacked protective ears found on the other gunsí sights. The trigger pull on the Ruger was excellent, breaking at 2.7 pounds. We had one failure to extract about 150 rounds into the test.

Arsenal Inc. SLR-106FR

223 Rem., $795

The SLR-106FR is a U.S.-made AK-74 variant that comes with a magazine, cleaning rod, accessory case, drift pin cleaning jag, bore brush, combination tool, oil bottle, cleaning rod, and a web sling.

The SLR-106FR is 922(r) compliant, meaning it contains 10 or fewer foreign-made parts, according to Arsenal documents. Those parts include the major Bulgarian-made items, such as the barrel, receiver, and bolt. To make the gun U.S.-compliant, Arsenal takes a Bulgarian gun and adds six U.S.-made parts: the hammer, trigger, disconnector, buttstock, pistol grip, and handguards.

Our test SLR-106FR had an overall length of 36.8 inches with the AK74-type compensator installed. Without the compensator, the overall length was 34.5 inches. The folded length with the compensator installed was 27.4 inches. Without the compensator, the folded length measured 25.2 inches. The barrel length with the compensator installed was 18.5 inches; without the compensator, the barrel length was 16.25 inches. The six-groove barrel had a 1:7 right-hand twist. The rifle weighed 7.3 pounds without a magazine.

The front sight base was the SLR-105 type, with 24x1.5 right-hand threads. It also uses a front-sight post that is adjustable for both windage and elevation. The small U-shaped rear notch cut into a wide rear blade, combined with the curving ears on the front sight, was difficult to read, our testers said. We thought it was the worst sight of the test, and it likely contributed to the gunís indifferent accuracy results.

Also on the front of the gun, the upper and lower handguards, made from high-tech polymers and dyes to resist cracking and fading, looked and fit great. The company said, "Several months of research and development involving great expense, went into the design and manufacture of these heat shields, ensuring that we can provide the enthusiast with the absolute best in cooling performance. Its heat dissipation performance is unmatched!" But after 200 rounds of rapid-fire shooting in our test, the lower forearm grip, which had an aluminum heat shield under it, got too hot for us to handle.

The compensator is the SLR-105 unit, but with the mild 223 round, we didnít see a need for it to shoot the gun accurately and fast. Pushing in a spring-loaded pin under the front trunnion allowed us to remove the compensator easily, after which we could remove the cleaning rod, which was threaded to accept a supplied jag. Also, the bayonet lug will accept a bayonet, provided the compensator is installed.

The pistol grip for the SLR-106FR is designed for use on rifles with the grip-reinforcement plate. According to Arsenal, they are matte black and are shallower in depth than the old-style pistol grips, and they fit flush with the grip reinforcement plate. Our testers said they thought the grip was too thin at 0.9 inches wide. Nice feature: The grip angle allows the rifle to stand straight up when the stock is folded.

The polymer folding stock is made in the U.S., and it is a direct replacement for the skeleton folding stock with the 4.5mm pivot pin. The hinge and rear latch mechanism is the heart of this folding stock, and we think it is a good one. A button on the left side of the receiver releases a catch, allowing the shooter to fold the stock to the left, where it latches to the front of the receiver. We worked the folding mechanism dozens of times, and we agreed that the tolerances were tight and the swing radius was dead on. This feature gave the Arsenal a decided edge over the other guns.

However, when the stock was fully extended, we found we didnít like the stamped-metal buttplate. Though it was ribbed to keep it from slipping off the shooterís shoulder, it was still too slick, and the trapdoor spring pushbutton that allows the shooter to unlatch the stock from the forward catch mechanism was irritating, we thought. A plus: The rotating sling swivel on the front of the buttstock allowed the rifle to be slung and carried folded or extended.

Loading the Arsenal Magazine

Loading the Arsenal magazine required a rocking motion. The Century was faster at this task.

The magazines used in these rifles are the 5.56 NATO polymer mags produced by Arsenal, Bulgaria. Distributed by K-Var, they are available in 5- and 10-round black units, as well as in green, featuring the Arsenal logo. They are also available in 30-round black waffles, and 20- and 30-round versions in clear waffle. The two 30-rounders we bought were the clear-waffle units, and they worked flawlessly. In our view, 20-round magazines in both the AK and M16 rifles offer the best combined handling characteristics for bench or field shooting.

The bolt carrier, bolt group, and gas piston were manufactured in Bulgaria. The bolt carrier has a slot designed to clear the magazine lips on the caliber 5.56x45mm magazines. A spring-loaded firing pin replaces the inertia firing pins found on most AKs. A mechanical drag installed in the trigger mechanism delays the hammerís fall until bolt bounce had settled down. AKs are famous for their reliability, and our unit went 265 rounds before we had a single failure to extract. It was much easier to clear than when the C15 Sporter locked up.

Our Arsenal gun did not have a hold-open device, so after the last round was fired, the bolt group traveled forward into battery without chambering a round. On a war-zone gun that must be peasant-simple to operate, this feature makes some sense. However, on a civilian gun marketed in the U.S, we donít like this feature on a safety basis. Weíd prefer that Arsenal machine in a hold-open button.

Also, to reload the gun, the shooter must hit the magazine-release catch in front of the trigger guard and pull the magazine forward to get it out of the gun, then tilt the fresh magazine forward into the well and rock it backward to get fresh rounds loaded. In this area, the other two guns were clearly faster.

The fire control system has a two-stage trigger; after an initial take-up of 3 pounds, the final pull weight was 8.1 pounds. We would prefer less let-off weight.

Century Arms C15

Sporter 223 Rem., $975

Black rifles, mouse gunsóthese are two of the names given to our countryís current military rifle and its semi-automatic civilian clones, which are commonly called AR-15 types. This test gun, made from Coltís parts, had a 20-inch heavy barrel, 1:9-inch rifling, with a flash suppressor on an A2-style AR15 platform. It came with a 10-round magazine, shell deflector, flash hider, bayonet lug, carry handle, adjustable iron sights, a pistol-grip stock with traps in the butt, a tapered forend and all matte-black furniture.

Our test gun measured 39.5 inches in length. Between the post front sight and rear aperture, we taped 20 inches of sight radius. The stock had a 13.5-inch length of pull and a straight stock with no drop at the comb and no drop at the heel. Unloaded, it weighed 8 pounds and measured 2.4 inches in width.

We had high hopes for the Sporter, mainly because our familiarity with it would offer no surprises. However, on that point, we were mistaken.

Items we liked on the gun included what we thought were the best sights of the test. Elevation adjustment on this Colt was in the front sight and rear sights. Adjusting the front required depressing a plunger and rotating the square post as needed. The rear sight was click-adjustable for height and windage. This worked well, and we liked the sight picture afforded by the rear aperture and front post.

Elsewhere, we also liked the familiar black stock and forend. The grooved and checkered pistol grip with a single finger ledge felt great carrying the gun, shooting it off the bench, or firing it in action situations. Because our testers have shot so many ARs, theyíre familiar with the controls, and we were far faster loading and unloading this gun than the AK.

But on this parts gun, we thought the overall fit and finish were loose, and the gun rattled a bit. We noticed Century had installed an Accu-Wedge in the receiver to tighten the gun up and improve its accuracy. There was some slop in the sight housing, play in the safety we didnít like, and the bolt housing looked like it wasnít finished. Also, the trigger pull showed some creep in front of a 5.9-pound let-off.

But the killer problem for this gun was a massive stoppage at round 235. The gun failed to extract a casing, and it jammed the action. Testers were unable to pull the bolt back because of this failure, so we took the rear receiver pin out and pivoted the receiver open. Next, we used a cleaning rod inserted in the muzzle to force the stuck casing and the jammed bolt to the rear.

Once we got the gun back together, it worked fine, but we had lost confidence in it nonetheless.