April 2009

AR-10 Shootoff: We Shoot Three Big Brothers of the AR-15

Models by ArmaLite and Fulton Armory had solid performances, and our shooters would buy either of them. The Remington R-25 proved to be a misfire in multiple categories.

The AR-10 has led an interesting and strange life since its birth in the 1950s. It has never achieved the popularity of the AR-15, even though it was Eugene Stoner’s first rifle built on his gas-impingement system. Initially spurned by the U.S. Army for the legendary M-14, the AR-10 was banished to relative exile, occasionally appearing in the hands for small foreign militaries, or in a few cases, the revolutionary. Raul and Fidel Castro were said to have ended up with a few of them, courtesy of a captured Batista government arms shipment.

ar-10 range tests

Our first group of SWAT testers shot from makeshift field positions at 100 yards on a “frizzly” winter day. On a separate day, another group of shooters cranked off rounds from bench rests. They liked the ArmaLite AR-10T, $2124, top, a match-barreled Target model with a 1-MOA guarantee, and the Fulton Armory Titan FAR-308 $2,058, bottom. The Remington R-25 in the middle had misfires with all three of our test ammos.

Today we find the AR-10 finally emerging from its diminutive brother’s shadow. The shooting community’s renewed love affair with all things AR has led to a demand for heavier calibers like the AR-10’s 308 Win./7.62 NATO. In fact, one of our test guns, the Mossy Oak-covered Remington R-25 ($1,532), was introduced specifically with the hunter in mind.

The other guns in our test are the ArmaLite AR-10T ($2,124), a match-barreled Target model with a 1-MOA guarantee, and the Fulton Armory Titan FAR-308 ($2,058), a gun with a distinct tactical look. The gun consumer’s embrace of new shooting technology has forever blurred the distinction between tactical and practical shooting. Whether on a rooftop watching a perpetrator, eyeing a bull’s-eye on the shooting line, or a big buck from a deer stand, all have the same basic requirement: the bullet should hit where it’s aimed, and stop the target.

How We Tested

We began our tests by selecting a scope to match our rifles. Since the guns could be used for multiple shooting activities, our scope choice mirrored this philosophy. Sightmark is a relative newcomer to the riflescope business, but the company has introduced a series of optics that incorporate clear glass with features normally found on much more expensive scopes. Our choice this time was the 3-9x42 Triple Duty (Tactical, Hunting, Competition) model. The scope features locking a 30mm tube, target turrets, adjustable diopter, 1/8-in. click adjustments, and an illuminated red/green mil-dot reticule with 10 levels of brightness.

We secured our scopes with LaRue Tactical LT104 30mm QD Lever Mounts (www.laruetactical.com). Their solid construction coupled with adjustable quick-throw levers allowed us to position the scopes well above the charging handle, while allowing us to remove the scopes for transport in standard gun cases, and re-attach them without losing zero. Our testing was conducted in two different sessions. Our first group consisted of designated snipers from a local police department’s SWAT team. Their department issues 308 bolt actions for sniper duty, so they had ingrained expectations on how this caliber should perform throughout a variety of conditions. Their testing was conducted shooting prone at 100 yards, during a particularly fickle week of Texas weather. In a five-day span, conditions varied from 33 degrees and frizzle (freezing drizzle) to 74 degrees with 20-mph south winds. Not a week in paradise for our testers, but certainly a good environment for testing a rifle’s reliability.

We next traveled to the Arlington Sportsman’s Club, a large organization based in Arlington, Texas, consisting of more than 2,000 members. Our second session of evaluation utilized a group of competitive shooters and hunters. This time our shooting was conducted from bench rests, firing hundreds of rounds at the 100-yard mark. Our weather was a bit more cooperative on this occasion, mainly swirling winds from 5 to 20 mph.

In both rounds of testing we used a Federal Power Shok 150-grain soft point, along with two loads from Silver State Armory, 168-grain and 175-grain Sierra OTM bullets. For those not familiar with Silver State Armory, www.ssarmory.com, the company operates a manufacturing plant located in Pahrump, Nevada. They have gained a considerable following for their work in developing the 6.8 SPC caliber, and now offer 5.56 and 7.62 ammunition in a variety of loads.

Here’s what we learned.

ArmaLite AR-10T 308 Win./7.62 NATO, $2124

ArmaLite is the birthplace of the original AR-10. The company has changed ownership several times since Eugene Stoner designed the first AR, then to meet the U.S. Army’s requirement for the then-new 7.62 NATO. Late to the evaluation, the prototype AR was initially impressive, but failed in a later torture test. At the end of the trials, the Army chose the M-14 instead.

Those initial problems long since corrected, the current ArmaLite, Inc. is home for a variety of AR-10 models, including the AR-10T we employed for our tests.

Upon uncrating the AR-10T, we were pleased to find it was housed in a real gun case, not one of the puny, wobbly versions we often find. It was a lockable Plano Pro-Max with well-made hinges and latches that snapped together smartly. With room to store our scope, it’s actually a case that we would use to transport the rifle. We removed the enclosed paperwork to find one of the of the better owner’s manuals that we’ve seen. Instructions for the AR-10T’s care and maintenance were outlined in a step-by-step fashion, and accompanied with black-and-white picture illustrations. It was also in an 8.5- by 11 inch format, making it legible even to older eyes. We then removed the rifle and began a general inspection.

Sporting a 24-inch triple-lapped stainless-steel match barrel, our ArmaLite was a two-tone version with black metal and green stock, pistol grip, and smooth forend. Despite the two-tone effect, the gun looks were best described as "plain," our testers said. Fashion statements aside, we began looking at other aspects of our gun’s fit and finish.

We noted immediately that gun’s hard plastic buttpad did not quite line up with the stock. It appeared the molding was slightly askew. There were marred areas of plastic surrounding the recessed top mounting screw. It appeared that a screw had been removed and re-inserted in a failed attempt to realign it. The rifle stock was a fixed A2 design, with the standard hard-plastic hollow pistol grip. We were surprised and somewhat puzzled to find a fore end made of woven fiberglass rather than aluminum. The AR-10T also had provisions for a sling, with front post and rear sling loop.

The receiver of the ArmaLite was a flat-top Picatinny rail design ready for scope mounting. No iron sights were provided, but the gas block had a topside rail to allow BUIS (back up iron sights) to be added if needed. We also noted that the AR-10T lacked a forward assist, a feature that we feel isn’t a necessity for us civilians.

Putting the rifle on our scales revealed it to be a hefty 10.6 lbs., the heaviest gun in the test. Hoisting the gun up to our shoulders found this weight amplified, due to the long barrel’s heavy influence on the gun’s balance.

Once we got the AR-10T to the range, two different camps emerged regarding its handling and performance. Our sniper team, which did most of their shooting prone, found the 24-inch barrel too front heavy and unwieldy. They said it affected their accuracy, particularly in follow-up shots. Vertical stringing was also noted as the barrel heated up in controlled-fire exercises. Our testers in this round voted the ArmaLite the least accurate of the three guns.

This is where we have to digress for a moment. An addendum in the ArmaLite owner’s manual details a breaking-in procedure for this particular barrel. It is ArmaLite’s position that to maximize barrel life a regimen of regular cleaning should be exercised during its first 100 rounds. They also state that "the barrel should thereafter be cleaned every 20 rounds for best match accuracy. Accuracy continues to improve for several hundred rounds." After the initial cleaning cycle, we did not follow the 20-round rule, as we wanted our tests to approximate in-the-field conditions for activities other than just match shooting. Despite our deviation from the second part of ArmaLite’s recommendations, we found the groups continuing to tighten as more rounds went downrange. It is interesting to note that the other two guns did not require the "seasoning" recommended by ArmaLite. We also did not see as dramatic a shift in their accuracy either.

Our second group of shooters found themselves the beneficiaries of the ArmaLite’s breaking-in period. The testers in this round of firing saw their groups tighten until the vertical stringing all but disappeared. We also believe this group’s shooting technique helped the AR-10T’s showing. By using a bench rest, the gun’s unwieldy nature was all but eliminated, leaving our shooters free to concentrate on just putting the sight on target.

We conducted each gun’s accuracy testing in the last portion of our shooting from the bench rest. By the time the gun smoke cleared, the ArmaLite had settled firmly into a second place finish for accuracy, averaging slightly more than 1.3 inches in our combined tests.

Despite the two group’s disparity in grading the ArmaLite’s accuracy, there were other aspects of the AR-10T in which opinions were almost an exact match.

Neither group cared for the gun’s balance. A shorter barrel or a more substantial sniper-style stock would improve the gun’s handling. Nor did our testers like the slick fiberglass fore end. All agreed a lightweight vented aluminum would provide better purchase for the front hand, and eliminate more weight from the front of the rifle. We also weren’t thrilled that ArmaLite uses their own proprietary magazines for their AR-10s. You’ll need to buy your spares directly from ArmaLite.

The AR-10TN balanced the scale with some positive attributes as well. It digested nearly everything we fed it. We had one feeding issue, a stovepipe with the Federal ammo that we cleared and continued to fire. Its two-stage National Match trigger was smooth and crisp. ArmaLite’s lifetime warranty also scored points on our book. If improvements were made to its balance and perceived heft, the gun could move up in its overall rating.

Fulton Armory Titan FAR-308 308 Win./7.62 NATO, $2058

Fulton Armory is a small manufacturer located in Savage, Maryland, known in the competitive shooting market for its reproductions of the M1 Garand, M1 Carbine, and M-14 models. Their AR-15s aren’t chopped liver either: Fulton’s FAR-15 (5.56/223 Rem.) was our gun of the year in 2009. Now the Titan FAR-308 was in our crosshairs. To ensure neutral opinions on this gun, none of our testers had participated in last year’s review of the FAR-15.

We started our examination by un-boxing the Titan to review its contents. No criticism could be made about their gun case, because there wasn’t one; just a foam-lined cardboard box. Within the box came the gun, owner’s manual, and a webbed sling for attaching to sling-looped supplied gun.

Fulton’s owner’s manual was illustrated and relatively straightforward, though not as detailed the book from ArmaLite. One note in the book stuck out: No barrel break-in was required for the Titan.

Moving to the main event, we examined the gun from stem to stern. The first feature noticed was the unique side-cocking module. The dust cover, forward assist, and brass deflector are removed, instead featuring a handle that may be used to work the gun’s action in lieu of the charging handle. All of our testers liked this feature, even a couple of southpaws in the group.

The 18.5-inch target-grey stainless-steel barrel was topped with a Bennie Coolie Compensator. Wrapping the barrel was a free-floating vented black-aluminum tube fore end. The FAR-308 also came with a non-adjustable two-stage trigger. An Ergo Pistol Grip was the last option on the rifle, as the stock was of the standard plastic A2 variety with a hard-plastic buttpad. This combination totaled a little bit more than two thousand dollars ($2058). Our testers were in agreement that FAR-308 had the most striking look, "tactical cool" as one of them phrased it.

The Titan tipped our scales as the middleweight of our group, registering 9.3 lbs. While still weighted forward, our testers said the shorter barrel and lighter weight gave the gun better balance and a livelier feel.

Our trips to the range gave the team ample time to access the shooting capabilities of the gun. At the conclusion of the tests, we found that, unlike the Armalite, our two test groups were in complete agreement. All of our testers preferred the Fulton FAR-308 over the competition. The remarks were remarkably similar: "accurate," "balanced," "easy to shoot," and "low recoil." Two of our SWAT team members gave it their highest compliment, stating they would plunk down their own cash to buy Fulton Titan FAR-308.

The empirical data tended to back up the comments, as the Fulton proved to be the most accurate with all three brands of ammo fired through it, including an average the 0.9 inch group size with the Silver State Armory 175-gr. Sierras. The Bennie Coolie Comp did noticeably reduce felt recoil and allow follow-up shots to be performed with relative ease. However, those shooters at each flank of the shooter were well aware where the recoil had gone, getting a palpable jolt of expended gas thrown their way after each shot.

Remington R-25 No. 60032 308 Win./7.62 NATO, $1532

Remington’s R-25 is one of a series that represent Remington’s foray into AR-type rifles. The 308 version will eventually be augmented by 243 Win. and 7mm-08 chamberings. The 223-caliber R-15 was released first during 2008. All of Remington’s R-series guns are designed to target the hunter, with each version wrapped in a film of Mossy Oak Treestand. Although the guns’ lower receivers are stamped with the Remington logo, they are manufactured by two sister companies, DPMS Panther Arms and Bushmaster, all owned by Cerberus Capital Management.

The R-25 308 chambering is a DPMS product, at least according to the label we found upon opening the case containing our test rifle. In fact, our first criticism began with the R-25’s Remington rifle case. We’ve had guns arrive in flimsy cases, cardboard boxes (including the aforementioned Fulton Armory), but never in an unpadded case. The gun was allowed to slide around inside the smooth plastic of the case, and had caused some of its cool camo finish to be rubbed off on in the process.

We moved forward with a more extensive examination of our Remington test gun. It tipped the scales as the lightest gun in our review at a measured 8.7 lbs., courtesy of a lightweight vented aluminum fore end and a fluted steel barrel. It also features a Koelbl Single-Rail Gas Block, enabling the mounting of back-up iron sights, front and rear sling swivel studs, a four-round magazine, and a single-stage trigger set at 5 lbs.

Further examination of the barrel, a quick trip to the owner’s manual, and a call to Remington, confirmed an observation: although listed as a chrome-moly barrel, the R-25 isn’t chrome lined. We’re used to our ARs with steel barrels incorporating this feature to add corrosion resistance and durability. Although a deer hunter isn’t going to put 100 rounds downrange on a hunting trip (at least we hope not), we found it odd that Remington would leave out the chrome plating on a $1500 gun.

A trip to the range gave us further disappointment. Our R-25 absolutely, positively, hated to fire our 175-grain Silver State loads. Soft-striking the primer, it would not complete a five-round group without emanating the ominous "click" on one of our rounds. We managed to collect an unlucky 13 rounds suffering from this malady until we moved on to other loads.

The Silver State 168-grain and Federal 150-grain rounds fared better, but still gave us three and one failures to fire, respectively. After our testing, we did contact Silver State regarding our issues with the R-25. They informed us that the 175-grain rounds were manufactured using a harder military primer. This might have gained the Remington some ground with us had the other guns experienced this same problem; however, our other guns ate the ammo just fine. This also did not explain it the Remington’s timid primer-strike on the other four rounds that failed to ignite.

ArmaLite AR-10T 308 Win.

Fulto n Armory Tita n FAR-308 308 Win.

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

Remington R-25 308 Win./7.62 NATO

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD