Black rifles, mouse guns, great machines, useless junk — these are a few of the names given to our country’s current military rifle and its semi-automatic civilian clones, which are commonly called AR-15 types. Let’s first clear the air by stating they are certainly not useless junk. The design, which some consider fragile, is instead war-proven and more than adequate for its purpose. They don’t have the punch of a .308, but ammo for them is lighter and cheaper. They work, last a long time, are easily maintained, and are in many ways delightful.
Moreover, these AR-15/M16 clones can be set up to be absolute tack drivers, and in that guise have made a serious name for themselves at Camp Perry, location of the annual National Match competition. Common versions are accurate enough for most purposes. The most common target configuration of this military-look rifle has a flat-top receiver to make it easy to mount a suitable scope. This, however, is at the cost of the carrying handle, and that handle can be mighty useful. Several makers offer detachable handles that have the same configuration as the original design, adjustable sights and all, and we’d surely have one if we had a flat-top rifle. However, we prefer having an integral handle, so we don’t have to go looking for it when we want it.
Attaching a scope to the carry handle is easy if you’ve got one of the now-discontinued Colt units, which has an integral single-lever mount. There are also military-specific mounts available for attaching scopes and other items such as night-vision devices or high-intensity lights to the carrying handle of your AR15. A2-type “Weaver” bases are available to fit these handles from numerous sources, including Bushmaster, and sell for $40 to $60.
In response to many requests by readers, we address here black rifles by three makers. They are as close as we could get them to the same configuration. We had the loan of a personally owned pre-ban Colt AR-15 A2 Sporter II in near-new condition with flash hider, 20-round magazine, bayonet lug (whoopee), and Colt scope. We also acquired a new ArmaLite M15A2 and a new Bushmaster XM15-E2S. These three rifles were very similar in overall appearance, all of them having the carry handle, adjustable iron sights, pistol-grip stocks with traps in the butt, and tapered forends. The ArmaLite had dark green plastic, but the others were all black. The Colt’s forend was shiny black, but its buttstock and metalwork were matte finished. All of the exterior surfaces of the other two rifles were matte finished. All three had 20-inch chrome-lined barrels.
Please note that Colt’s, Bushmaster, and ArmaLite still offer pre-ban configurations of these rifles to bona fide law enforcement personnel. These rifles have bayonet lugs, flash hiders, and if desired, telescoping stocks. Also note that we are aware there are other makers of AR-type rifles, and we plan to test some more of them for you in the near future.
Takedown and manipulation were identical on all three units. In fact, the bolts and charging handles were completely interchangeable among the three. Be aware, however, that you must never fire your rifle with the wrong bolt in place. The combination might have incorrect headspace, and that would result in a dangerous situation. About the only obvious differences among the three were in the muzzle treatments, the trigger pulls, the color (green plastic ArmaLite), and the lack of a forward assist on the Colt. (The Colt bolt carrier did have the forward-assist serrations.)
We used the Colt 3×20 scope on all three rifles. While not a target scope, it gave a sound basis for accuracy comparison. (We verified our relative accuracy results with the iron sights, but did not record those results.) We used Russian, Malaysian, and Winchester ammunition. The Malaysian and Russian ammunition used 55- and 57-grain FMJ ball bullets respectively, and the Winchester was loaded with 50-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips. Our Colt rifle had 1:7 inch twist. The others were 1:9. We wondered how much of a difference in accuracy we’d see with heavy bullets, so we assembled some carefully researched handloads (assembled on a Dillon RL 550B press) that used the 75-grain Hornady A-Max Match bullet. Here is what we found.
Colt AR-15 A2 Sporter II
Our recommendation: Colt’s suggested retail price to cops for the pre-ban-style rifle is $600, which makes it pretty obvious Colt’s is leaning more toward pleasing police and military personnel than civilians, who have to pay a suggested retail of $1,040 for the closest Colt to this configuration. That’s the price of the Match Target Model with standard-weight barrel. Good used pre-ban Colts like our test model currently sell for $1,500-$2,000. Are they worth the extra cost? Not unless you have collectible or other needs for the flash hider, 20-round magazine, and bayonet lug.
Current Colts have 1:9-inch rifling, but ours had the fast 1:7 twist designed for NATO ammunition which was supposed to have a heavier bullet (62 grains) than normal (55 grains). Apparently this particular heavy-bullet NATO ammo didn’t materialize in any great quantities worldwide, so the fast-twist callout has been eliminated, and most AR15-type rifles today have 1:9.
Our test rifle didn’t have the forward-assist button or raised, protective ridges around the magazine release, as did both of the other test rifles. Finally, the Colt lacked the raised bump that is supposed to keep ejected brass out of the face of lefties. Our left-handed tester didn’t complain about shooting the Colt, though empties sailed close to his face on the way out. These all seemed to be worthy additions, and new Colts have them.
Another difference between older and newer Colt AR-15 rifles is the ease of adjusting the windage on the rear sight. Ours had a wheel with a series of holes. The recommended method is to use the nose of a bullet to change windage. The bottom hole in the adjustment wheel had a spring-loaded plunger to lock the setting. This worked well, and once the sight was adjusted there was no chance of its changing, unlike the situation with current mil-spec sights. Elevation adjustment on this Colt was in the front sight. This required depressing a plunger and rotating the square post as needed. All three rifles utilized this front sight adjustment, but both the Bushmaster and ArmaLite also had a dial adjustment for elevation, which we’ll describe later. (New Colts have this too.) Although we could move the Colt’s front sight with the tip of a ball cartridge, we thought a dedicated square-socket tool would have made the task easier. Bushmaster sells a tool for $8 that easily adjusts both front and rear sights of this type.
Our Colt had a 3×20 Colt (Japanese) scope with Duplex reticle and dial-up elevation knob reading from 100 to 500 yards. This well-made scope also had an adjustable ocular, and protected sighting-in adjustments for elevation and windage. The scope provided fast and easy sighting, and we thought it to be a worthy addition to any rifle of this type. The iron sights are visible with the scope mounted.
Overall fit and finish of the Colt were very good, although the shiny forend didn’t mate well with the rest of the rifle. The trigger pull, at 6.5 pounds, was heavy but crisp. All of the rifle’s functions felt precise, a quality shared by all three of the test rifles. Blindfolded, it was difficult to tell which of the three we had in our hands based on manipulation of the controls.
On the range, our Colt punched out battle-acceptable groups with all ammo. It did the best with Winchester ammunition, with five-shot groups averaging 2.3 inches at 100 yards. There were no malfunctions of any kind, not much of a surprise. With the handloaded 75-grain match ammunition, the Colt managed disappointing 3.5-inch groups.
Our recommendation: This attractive, green-stocked $992 rifle (or black stock for the same price) stole our hearts right out of the box. By far the best looking because of its color and muzzle brake, this one also had a great trigger pull. Like all three rifles here, it was hard to fault. It came with a single seven-round magazine, black carry strap, and an excellent manual. It also had a lifetime warranty. Buy it.
Our test gun’s fit and finish were very good. The black matte-finished metalwork was somewhat better finished overall than the Bushmaster’s, in our view, and the adjustable-sight clicks were more positive, we thought. The ArmaLite’s excellent trigger broke cleanly at 5 pounds and had minimal overtravel. There was no apparent creep. It was by far the best trigger of the test, and we’re sure it went a long way toward biasing our test shooters toward this rifle.
There were what looked like polished-out moulding marks visible on the sides of the ArmaLite’s green buttstock, but they could not be felt on the face. The seven-shot magazine left little of itself sticking out the bottom of the action, and if it ever were to get stuck, the shooter would have a hard time ripping it loose. However, it always came out easily in our testing.
The screwed-on ArmaLite muzzle brake helped keep the sights on target after the shot, but by no means was it a flash hider. We fired the rifle at night and had no trouble seeing the flash. The brake made the rifle louder, but not a lot more so than the GI flash hider on the Colt. By comparison, the Bushmaster made the least noise from the shooter’s viewpoint, directing its entire blast downrange. In rapid fire, the effect of the ArmaLite’s brake was noticeable. The rifle didn’t budge from the target, making double-taps very fast and effective.
On target, the ArmaLite shot best with the Winchester ammunition. It has been our experience that military-type semiautomatic rifles shoot best with best-quality ammunition, and all three of our test rifles shot best with the Winchester premium ammo. The ArmaLite averaged 1.4-inch groups. It also did well with our 75-grain bullet handload, putting them into 1.9-inch groups on average. We suspected the ArmaLite had a slightly tighter chamber than the other two rifles, and that was confirmed when we tried the Ciener .22 LR conversion (see sidebar).
Our recommendation: The $895 Bushmaster was a decent and reliable firearm with accuracy equal to our Colt, and Bushmasters are sometimes easier to find than any other brand of AR15, and often less expensive. We’d buy it second after the ArmaLite, but we would expect to have to do some work to the trigger.
What? No muzzle brake? The muzzle of the Bushmaster was uncluttered, showing off its recessed crown. The last 0.6-inch of barrel was slightly smaller than the remainder. The rifle was a uniform matte black all over, giving it a business-like appearance. Like on the other rifles, its fit and finish were very good. As we said before, it was hard to see differences between the three. Numerals stamped into the top-front portion of the Bushmaster’s barrel indicated a 1:9 twist rate, and told us it had an “HBAR,” or heavy barrel. It was the heaviest gun of the test, but all that weight didn’t make it shoot better than the lightweight Colt.
We found coarser turning marks on the outside of the Bushmaster barrel than on the ArmaLite. Also, the Parkerized metal finish was blotchy here and there, while those of the ArmaLite and Colt were more evenly applied. The big differences were in the balance and the trigger pull. We didn’t like the extra weight of the Bushmaster’s heavy barrel and really didn’t like its trigger pull.
Underneath the handguard, the Bushmaster’s chrome-lined barrel actually increased in diameter in a series of steps toward the receiver. The other rifles’ barrels got smaller as they got closer to the receiver. The Colt’s barrel was extremely narrow inside the handguard, but the ArmaLite’s was nearly the same diameter as at front, diminishing slightly in size right in front of the receiver. Colt and ArmaLite apparently keep the barrel dimensions within mil-spec so that a grenade launcher may be attached to the rifle, but Bushmaster will also fit such a barrel if required by the police/military purchaser. Bushmaster representatives say they currently have 85 different configurations of barrels available.
The Bushmaster’s takedown pin was stiff, but got easier to use during our tests. All the other controls—except the trigger—were indistinguishable from the other two rifles.
The Bushmaster came in a hard Doskocil case (no extra cost) with three fairly large 10-round magazines (the two extras were $15 each), carry strap, sighting-in target, Bushmaster catalog, and a decent instruction manual. The manuals for both the Bushmaster and ArmaLite were far better than the brief instruction sheets that come with the average bolt-action rifle. They went into great detail about how to clean the rifle, what to use, and how to get the job done. We’d like to see this sort of information in Winchester/Remington/Ruger, etc., bolt-rifle manuals. The Bushmaster catalog is well worth having. It lists every sort of imaginable accessory and spare part, with prices, for all AR15-type rifles.
The Bushmaster, like all of these rifles, had two rear aperture sights mounted on a rocking base. The idea is to use one for close-range shooting and the other for more distant targets. The close-range aperture can be quite large, but usually isn’t. Our Bushmaster had a large ghost-ring rear aperture, which was the fastest and most satisfactory of all three rifles.
The Bushmaster’s trigger was rough and heavy, breaking at 6.5 pounds. It had a lot of creep. We thought this was odd, because this Bushmaster is listed in their catalog and on their website as a target rifle, and for that purpose its trigger was unacceptable. We found it difficult to get the most out of the rifle with this poor trigger. Our Colt had the same pull weight, but was a far better trigger.
On the range, the Bushmaster didn’t produce target-rifle-like groups with anything. It did best with Winchester ammo, groups averaging 1.8 inches. Our heavy-bullet handload made patterns, not groups, a bit over 8 inches in diameter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there was an inherent problem with the rifle. It just didn’t like our load.
Gun Tests Recommends
We have no idea why we got such diverse and unexpected results with our carefully handloaded 75-grain ammunition. Only the ArmaLite shot it well enough to justify additional experimentation, in spite of the Colt’s nominal twist-rate advantage. We plan further tests and will report any conclusive results.
The prices given in this report are manufacturer’s suggested retail, and depending on where you live, you may pay a lot less or a whole lot more for one of these rifles. As this is written, California gun-buyers are going nuts, with typical prices for AR15-type rifles easily breaking the $1,200 mark, as buyers hurry to get one while that is still possible. Elsewhere, we’ve seen them going for around $750 to 800. Shop around for the best prices on rifles and magazines. High-capacity magazines sell for anywhere from $20 to $60, again depending on your state (of desperation). Pre-ban (undated) high-capacity magazines are legal, we’re told, in post-ban rifles, though it’s not permitted to own a post-ban-dated magazine that holds more than 10 rounds. (Go figure.) Be sure to check the Internet for current price information on guns, accessories and ammo. We suggest ar15.com and weaponsworld.com, to mention just two very informative websites.
ArmaLite M15A2, $992. We could not find fault with the ArmaLite, and in fact liked it very much indeed. It was heavier than the Colt, but steadier in offhand shooting. We thought it was, overall, the best rifle of the test, and that good trigger went a long way toward that choice. A very knowledgeable fellow recently turned down a great bargain on a high-dollar 1911 .45 auto because it had creep in its trigger, and he’d had enough of poor triggers. We’re in much the same boat. Yes, you can pay to get a good trigger, but why should you have to? The ArmaLite was the best looking, best finished, most accurate rifle of the test, and it had a great trigger. Buy it.
Bushmaster XM15-E2S, $895. Conditional buy. The Bushmaster looked like it was missing something with that bare muzzle. Only you can decide if you want all that weight out front. We felt the Bushmaster should have made up that 1.5-pound weight penalty over the Colt with outstanding accuracy, but it didn’t. It wasn’t a bad gun at all, it just wasn’t the ArmaLite.
Colt AR-15 A2 Sporter II, $600 (law enforcement), $1,040 (similar factory configuration), $1,500 to $2,000 (used pre-ban models). If you’re a cop, Colt’s suggested retail price for a pre-ban-configured rifle of $600 is very attractive. The suggested retail price of current civilian Colts close in appearance to the ArmaLite and Bushmaster is $1,040, about $50 more than ArmaLite and $150 more than Bushmaster. Street prices will make some difference. All our test rifles worked very well, so we can’t see going out of your way to get a Colt.
With Colt’s less-than-friendly pricing toward civilians, we would strongly recommend looking elsewhere for your black rifle. Pre-ban guns like our test Colt are worth a look if you want a flash hider and high-capacity magazines, but ArmaLite and Bushmaster have made these too. After-market high-capacity mags are also available, and you probably don’t need a bayonet mount. The flash hider? Well, we like that feature and would try to get a rifle that had one legally mounted, if at all possible.