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The basics of buying an AR.

Posted on July 1, 2013

Impulse buying is not usually the smartest move. Those chartreuse jeans you and your friends thought looked so cool in the store seem a bit glaring in the midday sun. And perhaps that 375 Super Magnum bolt-action that looked like the irresistible bear buster in the store has become an irresistible shoulder buster on the range.

But of any firearm you could buy on impulse, an AR-platform rifle could be your safest choice.

AR-style autoloading rifles are the ultimate in versatility because they’re modular. You can change the barrels to shorter, longer, fatter, thinner, round, fluted, triangular... You can change the cartridge you shoot from .204 Ruger through .50 Beowulf. You can change the hand guard (for-end stock) from fat to narrow, solid to perforated, smooth to Picattiny rail, aluminum to wood. You can change the butt from fixed to adjustable. Add a pistol grip with an internal storage slot. And then there are all the add-ons like multiple sights, night lights, vertical fore-end grips, flash suppressors, muzzle breaks and more. This is why we refer to ARs not just rifles, but platforms.

But there are still some things you need to consider when buying. First, do you want the traditional gas impingement operating system or short-stroke piston operation? The original system bleeds a bit of high pressure gas (from burnt powder expanding in the barrel while driving out the bullet) through a narrow tube atop the barrel and back to the bolt carrier. While this drives the bolt back and activates all the recycling mechanisms instantly and reliably, the heat of these gases, plus their high carbon content, both heat up and dirty the action. The new piston systems confine gases to self-cleaning piston/chambers which then mechanically drive the bolt to cycle the rifle. The bolt stays cooler and cleaner.

Lovers of the traditional gas systems argue that the original rifles were designed for optimum performance with direct gas pressure applied to the bolt carrier. The timing of the whole system hinges on this, and the gas drives the bolt straight back. Shooting it “wet,” meaning lots and lots of lubrication, allows you to fire hundreds, even thousands of rounds without malfunction. With lots of lubrication (oil,) the mechanism essentially becomes self-cleaning – at least clean enough to function.

Fans of piston systems argue that it makes more sense to keep the action cooler and cleaner. Traditionalists counter that piston systems generate more felt recoil and change the timing of the cycling mechanism. In addition, the pounding of the piston on the front of the bolt carrier imparts a pivoting energy to the bolt carrier, possibly weakening it and the receiver. Whether this is a serious issue or mere nit-picking will be seen in time, but to date piston driven ARs have been running to rave reviews. The more legitimate question may be one of price. Piston ARs often retail for nearly double gas-impingement versions.

Second, ask yourself why you want the rifle. Plinking? Serious target shooting for accuracy? Speed shooting contests like 3-gun? Predator hunting? Varmint hunting? Big game hunting? Each of these calls for different cartridges and barrel lengths. Go with shorter barrels for speed and maneuverability, longer barrels for maximum velocities. Heavier barrels also increase accuracy, but slow a rifle in use.

If you truly want to hunt deer, bear, etc. with an AR, make sure it’s legal in the states you hunt. While many states allow autoloading rifles, few jurisdictions permit more than five rounds per magazine. Also realize that you’ll be severely compromising your ballistic potential with a standard (.223 Rem.) size AR receiver. Magazine length means you can’t load rounds longer than the .223 Rem. You’ll need to get a larger size (usually designated AR10 or 25) receiver to shoot .308 Win.-length cartridges, which significantly improve hunting performance. Remember, many traditional rifle users consider the .308 family of cartridges a bit undersized for big game, since the 308 case is a shortened version of the 30-06, and the 30-06 family was considered puny enough to inspire the belted magnum clan. Stepping down from big game rifles that can handle 7mm Rem Mag. and 300 Win. Mag. rounds compromises long range trajectories and energy.

When contemplating an adjustable vs. fixed stock, remember the adjustable will best accommodate any changes in shooter style, body shape, clothing bulk, sight height, etc. But adjustables may also make rattling noises, while the fixed stock will not. Determine if extensive Picatinny rails really provide something you need or are merely adding weight and an uncomfortable carrying/holding platform.

What about that forward assist plunger? Some ARs are sold without them. Is that smart? Depends on how clean you maintain your rifle. The function of that plunger is to force the bolt closed if, for whatever reason, the spring tension behind the bolt fails to close on a round. This is usually a result of a dirty gun. Plungers add bulk, weight and a klutzy look to an AR, but practicality may outweigh this. I think skipping the assist plunger for looks is sillier than putting lipstick on the proverbial pig.

Finishes – black, green or camouflage – contribute virtually nothing to performance. The day I meet a deer or coyote that spooks when it sees a black rifle instead of a green or camouflaged one is the day I surrender my hunting licenses. But I like the looks of a Mossy Oak brush camo much better than black, so that lets me check off one from my list of choices.

It pays to study ARs and all their myriad parts before buying, but if you need to purchase in a hurry, rest assured you’ll be able to modify the rifle piece by piece as time goes by.