Leader of the Pack: Rock River Arms Fred Eichler Predator Review
August 27, 2012
Rock River Arms' new Fred Eichler Series LAR-15 Predator joins a growing number of AR-platform rifles and carbines specifically configured for the serious coyote and bobcat hunter. Sporting a medium-weight 16-inch stainless steel barrel, it represents the top of Rock River's current four-model line of ARs specifically configured for coyote pursuit.
It was developed and field tested with the extensive help of Fred Eichler, host of the television show Predator Nation. The Fred Eichler series embodies not only the basic functionality of the AR platform that has made it so widely popular with predator hunters in the first place but also an impressive set of individual custom touches that elevate it to a pack leader among this category of guns.
Anyone who is at all familiar with AR-15 rifles understands why they are virtually perfect predator hunting tools and why predator hunters were early leaders in the mass migration of AR-platform carbines and rifles from the world of tactical, military and law-enforcement applications into full status as "modern sporting rifles."
For a predator hunter, an AR combines inherent precision accuracy with reliable instant multi-shot follow-up capability in a way virtually no other firearm type can. Plus, the AR's most common and available chambering is .223 Remington, which is the most popular predator hunting cartridge on earth. Not to mention that most predator-configured ARs weigh less than nearly any other type of dedicated predator rifle on the market. No surprise then that not only Rock River but virtually all other major AR-platform manufacturers offer predator-configured models.
The flexibility of an AR's design is probably its strongest appeal to this market. There's hardly a coyote hunter walking who hasn't encountered the need for a precision 250-yard shot at a standing wary dog and then had another bolt and run from close-in cover where he'd approached without being seen — often in the same minute.
An AR configured like the RRA Fred Eichler Series lets you deal instantly with either situation without lifting your head from the stock or moving your finger from the trigger. Need immediate, rapid follow-up shots? Your only limit is the number of rounds you can legally have in your magazine. Name another type of predator rifle which can deliver that capability.
It's worth pointing out that "predator" ARs are different from "varmint" ARs. Barrel length for true predator ARs run from 16 inches to 20 inches, as opposed to varmint models that generally sport longer and heavier-profile barrels. Hence a typical predator AR weighs as much as four pounds less than a long-barreled varmint gun, because it is meant to be carried place to place quickly and easily over a lot of different ground, and it's designed to swing and handle more rapidly and easily from the shoulder.
Other features that mark a predator AR — at least the highest-quality models — include a precision two-stage trigger that allows the shooter to adapt instantly between opportunities for careful long-range shots as well as sudden close-range encounters with rapidly moving targets.
For the same reason, most well-designed predator AR packages also include the capability to mount multiple optics: a variable scope with a high-magnification along with one of the many non-magnifying reflex sights or dot sights now available on the market, plus a night-vision rig (if needed and/or legally allowed). Nearly all true predator ARs also have free-float handguards and multiple-position buttstocks to allow ready multi-season use wearing different layered clothing.
Rock River's new Fred Eichler Series Predator has all these basic features and more. At the basic level of cartridge compatibility, the barrel has a .223/5.56mm Wylde chamber, which allows the gun to safely handle both commercial SAAMI-spec .223 Remington ammunition as well as somewhat higher-pressure, tighter-tolerance 5.56mm NATO ammunition.
The gun also sports a 1/2-28 threaded muzzle brake that Rock River calls "directionally tuned." Many predator hunters scoff at muzzle brakes or flash hiders on .223 ARs, pointing out correctly that .223 recoil is hardly intimidating or distracting. Maybe so, but when taking a carefully aimed long shot at a small target through a scope set at high magnification, I like to be able to keep my quarry in the scope to see the result and make quicker follow-up if needed. Even with the minimal muzzle jump of a .223, I usually can't do that unless firing an extremely heavy-barreled rifle, so I really appreciate an effective muzzle device on a predator-configured AR.
Another Fred Eichler Series advantage is the uniquely configured free-float handguard surrounding its 16-inch barrel. There's a lot of misunderstanding out in the world about the relative "inherent accuracy" of long barrels and short barrels. In reality (all other things being equal), short barrels are inherently more accurate than long barrels because they are stiffer, don't flex and vibrate so much while bullets are passing through their bore and experience less muzzle displacement shot-to-shot due to variable harmonics.
So even a carbine-length AR that's intended for precision long-range engagement of small distant targets (as the Fred Eichler Series certainly is) can certainly benefit from a free-float handguard.
Plus, the Fred Eichler Series handguard is longer than normally found on a 16-inch true-carbine AR, due to the fact the Eichler design employs a mid-length gas system. Mid-length gas systems are generally considered somewhat more reliable and consistent than true carbine-length gas systems because of the greater space allowed for the gas-pressure curve to peak and smooth before venting into the gas block.
The Fred Eichler Series handguard is long enough to cover this longer system (including the low-profile gas block itself), which gives the shooter more flexibility and "reach" in how he positions his hand. Plus, it is stylistically unique as well — featuring coyote "paw print" heat vents all around its circumference, as well as Fred's trademark initials. Some people think that's too cutesy. I think it's cool.
The handguard is topped by a full-length Picatinny rail and also has short forward rails at the three, six and nine o'clock positions for accessory attachment. Polymer rail covers for the shorter rails are standard equipment.
I've heard comments that it makes no sense to have a full-length Picatinny rail on top of any AR handguard on a hunting rifle because nobody would ever want to put any accessories directly in front of a receiver-mounted scope in the first place. I don't agree.
For one thing, a full-length handguard top rail allows use of a scout scope or non-magnifying reflex-type optic, both of which are viable options for a predator AR. For another, night-vision and thermal-imaging devices are becoming an increasing part of the serious predator hunter's toolkit, and most such items are designed to be located directly in front of a receiver-mounted scope.
Another great feature that comes standard with the Rock River Fred Eichler package is an oversize latch on the charging handle. These little devices are underappreciated by most shooters — until they need to make a quick chamber-clear on an AR that's wearing a high-magnification scope with a large-diameter eyepiece bell or while they're wearing heavy gloves or mittens on a winter hunt. Thanks, Fred.
There are two available buttstock options on Eichler Series rifles: a fixed RRA Operator A2 stock or six-position RRA Operator CAR stock. Both come standard on the rifle in tan color, both have superior cheek-weld designs, both have multiple ambidextrous quick-detach sling-swivel points, and both feature an integral ribbed rubber buttpad that unlatches to slide downward and reveal two waterproof O-ring sealed internal storage tubes for batteries or small cleaning equipment.
All Rock River Fred Eichler rifles also come with Hogue's excellent textured rubber pistol grips, also tan colored. The overall two-tone black-and-tan finish of these guns makes for an excellent field configuration, by the way.
Fred Eichler package guns come with a 100-yard 3/4 m.o.a. accuracy guarantee. This is fairly ballsy when you think about it, since accuracy always depends on the shooter and the ammunition. So what accuracy-enhancing features will you find on the Eichler Series rifles that give Rock River Arms sufficient confidence to make such a claim? Two things: the trigger and the barrel.
For me, the trigger is the first thing I'm interested in whenever I first handle any new rifle, no matter what type of gun it is. Given rifles with equally good barrels and bedding (and most current high-end AR guns are pretty darned good in those regards), the better the trigger, the better I shoot.
But even if a gun has the best-quality barrel in the world, if it has a crappy trigger, I won't shoot it very well. I won't find out about barrel quality until I get it to a range and start playing with different ammo varieties and bullet weights. But I'll know all I need to know about the trigger the instant I touch it.
We all know what a "standard" AR trigger pull feels like. But the Fred Eichler package comes with an RRA National Match two-stage chrome-surfaced trigger mechanism with a Parkerized non-reflective external finish. (Plus there's a winter trigger guard to accommodate gloved hands.) Very slight, light takeup, then a crisp clean break at a measured five pounds. It's as fine a "custom-grade" trigger pull as I've ever felt on a production-issue AR.
As for Eichler Series barrels, well, here's where things get kinda interesting. The medium-heavy 16-inch barrel is bead-blasted stainless steel and is cryogenically treated. Cryogenic treatment is something of a hot topic among accuracy-freak rifle shooters these days, and the claims made and positions taken on both sides are nearly as extreme as those of the warring parties in the never-ending gas-piston versus direct-gas-impingement argument.
Proponents of cryogenic processing observe that all barrels are produced by boring and machining, which causes stress in the microstructure of the metal, and that different types of forgings and castings cool at internally differential rates, also inducing residual stress. Heat treating also leaves residual stress. This hidden stress is what causes an individual barrel to bend or warp as it heats up from firing, resulting in "random" stringing, walking, or wandering of your shots. This is one reason why good three-shot rifle groups are easier to get than good five-shot groups. A barrel may seem to shoot well but not as well as it could for as long as it should.
Cryogenic treatment is the process of deep freezing a barrel to around -300 degrees and keeping it there for a predetermined time with periodic thermal cycling to relieve residual stress from the barrel material and permanently stabilize its grain structure at the molecular level. The one-time cryogenic process claims to relieve this stress, provide more consistent groups, less friction, heat and wear for improved barrel life and easier cleaning — and about 50 to 60 fps increased velocity.
Those are the claims. Are they valid? Theoretically, yes. Enough to make a difference in your rifle barrel? That's the tricky part. There have been mountains of research studies done under "controlled" conditions, all seeking a final answer to whether or not cryo does any real good. Some say yes; some say no.
The only point of commonality seems to be an agreement that the amount of residual stress present in a sample barrel to begin with is what really determines where you'll see any improvement. Some barrel-manufacturing processes (and some barrel-blank manufacturing processes) introduce more stress than others.
If you have a really stressed barrel in the first place, you'll probably see a definite improvement. If not, then probably not so much. One thing for certain is that the cryo process doesn't hurt anything. And it might help. So if a rifle manufacturer chooses to put such barrels on its guns and the customer is willing to pay the premium, then the performance of all those guns ought to be as consistent and optimum as possible.
All Rock River Fred Eichler Series barrels are cryo treated, and after mounting a Bushnell Elite 4200 6-24x42 scope on the rifle and testing it at 100 yards, all I can tell about my review sample is that it shot really, really well — well enough to make me believe Rock River's 3/4 m.o.a. accuracy claim, at least with the loads it liked best. And it probably would have done better with the ones it liked least if there'd been a better operator behind the trigger. I'm sold. It's in all ways a truly "match-grade" setup for the serious coyote hunter. It's the leader of the pack.