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Smooth Operators

Smooth Operators

The new Operator series from Rock River Arms offers tons of features at an excellent price.

At the time of the last presidential election, in most parts of the country AR-15s could not be had for any amount of money, and those that did make it to dealer shelves went out the door in minutes for 40 to 50 percent more than they were selling for a year earlier. Now, every dealer I know has racks and racks of AR-15s on his shelves now that the supply finally caught up to and surpassed falling demand.

In addition to increased production by established AR companies, every firearm manufacturer that has a pulse seems to be making some version of an AR-15 now. Half of those rifles are piston guns, as those are now all the rage, with the advertising point that gas-piston operated ARs are inherently more reliable.

The Elite Operator has a unique fore-end that features a smooth oval shape toward the rear and rails forward of that.

Pay no attention to the fact that piston guns are heavier and more expensive than the original, direct-impingement types or that modern ARs don't have the same reliability issues Eugene Stoner's design experienced when it was first introduced more than 40 years ago. Piston guns are being marketed as the better mousetrap.

Into this less than welcoming climate, Rock River Arms didn't introduce just one new rifle but an entirely new series of rifles. The company's Operator line consists of three different versions of Rock River's well-respected direct-gas-operated LAR-15. They all share some common features, and the rifles take their name from the new Operator stock Rock River Arms has introduced.

Rock River Arms started out building very nice 1911s, and years before it was cool, the Corona, IL, company got into the AR-15 field. Its rifles were so well-made that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency chose Rock River to produce its issue rifle — available currently as the LAR-15 Pro-Series Government Model.

Rock River Arms is currently selling the Operator rifles as a package deal, with the rifle of your choice equipped with its National Match two-stage trigger, any one of four rear sights, a one-inch or 30mm Hi-Rise scope mount, two 30-round magazines and a case. These packages start at an incredibly economical price of $1,200. Like I said, timing is everything.


All three rifles feature flat-top receivers and 16-inch chrome moly 1:9" twist barrels with 5.56 NATO chambers, tipped with the RRA Tactical Muzzle Brake.

I was able to test the Elite Operator and the Entry Operator, but the Tactical Operator shares many of the same features.

The Operator buttstock itself is a six-position CAR-type assembly.

The Elite Operator is the most unusual-looking member of the group.

Featuring a mid-length gas system, it has a unique handguard, RRA's Half-Quad Free Float. The forward half of this aluminum handguard has standard quad rails, while the rear half of the handguard is a smooth oval, theoretically giving the user the best of both worlds. This longer aluminum handguard adds weight to the Elite, making it the heaviest member of the trio, but it still tips the scales at just eight pounds.

Both the Entry Operator and Tactical Operator are equipped with the standard short gas system and plastic M4-type handguards. The Entry Operator's barrel features an M203 cutout for that military profile, while the Tactical Operator's barrel is its standard medium-weight barrel without the cutout.

All three rifles are equipped with Rock River's winter trigger guard and the ERGO Sure Grip. While I prefer a hard pistol grip, I have long advocated use of pistol grips such as the ERGO that add a little material to the backstrap of the rifle. Standard AR pistol grips are too small for anyone who doesn't have child-size hands, and they encourage poor shooting technique by placing the second joint of the finger on the trigger. Aftermarket grips such as the ERGO correct that problem.

The rifles are equipped with the RRA Star safety/selector, which sticks out a bit more from the receiver than a mil-spec safety. It is not ambidextrous. The safety worked just liked it should, but I like the looks of the mil-spec design better — probably because it's what I'm used to.

The Operator stock is an adjustable CAR type with a watertight housing in the butt capable of storing AA or CR123 batteries.

When I first picked up the Entry Operator and tried the trigger, I was really surprised. As a general rule, factory triggers on AR-15s are horrible. Not so the Operator's trigger. It's a crisp, light, two-stage trigger that breaks right at four pounds — -not what I was expecting at all.

This was before I realized that all the Operator rifles come equipped with Rock River's well-respected two-stage National Match trigger system, which includes a lightened hammer. (The company's National Match trigger kit sells separately for $120, if you're thinking of upgrading the trigger on your current AR.)

The Operator buttstock itself is a six-position CAR-type assembly with watertight storage compartments and multiple sling attachment points. The stock has a ribbed rubber buttpad that slides down with a push-button release to reveal the two storage compartments, sealed with O-rings. Each will hold either two AA batteries or three CR123 lithium batteries.

As part of the package you have your choice of any one of four rear sights: a traditional bolt-on A2 carry handle; a stand-alone rear sight; a RRA Dominator2 with an elevated rail designed specifically for use with the EOTech Holosight; or the RRA tactical carry handle that features an elevated rail just below the level of the sights.

The mil-spec magazines supplied with both the Entry Operator and Elite Operator I tested were manufactured by NHMTG (Colt).

For range work I equipped the Entry Operator with a stand-alone rear sight behind an Aimpoint Comp ML2, and the Elite Operator with a Dominator2 rear sight paired with an EOTech 512 (AA battery model).

For accuracy testing I used a Trijicon 4x32 ACOG.

The Entry Operator proved a fast-shooting, fast-handling rifle, courtesy of its dimensions and its excellent muzzle brake.

Function Testing
The first concern always, with any kind of firearm, is reliability, and both Operators functioned without a hitch. Some volunteers and I fed them ammo from Wolf, Winchester, Remington and Black Hills, with varying bullet weights and types, and the rifles digested it all. We used the supplied magazines for testing as well as some surplus magazines I found lying around, along with a few MagPul PMags.

You never know if you're going to like a gun until you shoot it, and I was very curious how well the RRA Tactical Muzzle Brake would work. It looked well-designed, not to mention cool, but that was no guarantee it would actually work.

It worked exceptionally well. When engaging targets at 10 yards with the Entry Operator equipped with an Aimpoint, I found that under full recoil the Aimpoint's dot moved upward one inch on the target before dropping back down to its original spot. This is excellent performance from a brake.

Manufacturer Rock River Arms (309)792-5780
Model: Operator Series
Type:direct-impingement AR semiauto
Capacity: accepts AR-15 magazines of any capacity
Caliber: 5.56 NATO chamber
Barrel length: 16-inches chrome moly, 1:9" twist
Overall length: 37 inches
Weight: 7.2 pounds (Entry and Tactical), 8.0 pounds (Elite)
Handguard: (Entry and Tactical); Half-Quad aluminum free float (Elite)
Stock: RRA Operator CAR compartment stock, ERGO SureGrip pistol grip
Sights: post front; windage-adjustable rear aperture
Trigger: RRA National Match, 4 pounds pull
Price: $1,200 (Entry and Tactical), $1,325 (Elite)

One of our club members is an FBI special agent, and he tried the Entry Operator on some IPSC targets at urban engagement distances. From the side it did not appear that the muzzle was moving upward on him at all, even during rapid fire, and he commented that the brake seemed to work really well.

Between the efficient brake and the light trigger, how fast I could hit targets inside 25 yards with follow-up shots was solely a test of how fast I could pull the trigger.

Curiously, when running the same drills with the Elite Operator equipped with an EOTech, I experienced the same result — even though that rifle/scope combination is noticeably heavier. This may be an indication that the rifle's weight doesn't affect the felt recoil as much as the RRA brake design does.

The RRA Tactical Muzzle Brake provided terrific recoil reduction without pushing muzzle blast and concussion significantly.

Now, I realize that even without brakes .223s just don't recoil all that much, especially when compared to bolt-action sporter-weight rifles chambered in big game calibers. That said, these rifles are designed for use in competition or self-defense, where rapid, accurate follow-up shots might sometimes be the difference between winning and losing. And in a self-defense situation, second place is not where you want to be.

Also, we shot the Operators alongside another AR-15 with no brake, just a standard A2 birdcage flash hider, and the Operator's brake did not seem to be noticeably louder. This is an important consideration when using a rifle indoors.

In comparison, the JP muzzle brake's performance is the standard against which all others are judged (it provides an estimated 95 percent reduction in felt recoil), but the downside to that style of brake is the huge increase in noise and muzzle blast. Standing to the side of someone shooting a rifle equipped with a JP is concussive punishment.

The light, two-stage trigger was a real asset in speed drills, but not as much as when shooting the Operators from the bench. If you've ever had to wrestle with a heavy, gritty AR trigger when trying to shoot groups, you know just how difficult that can be.

Accuracy Results | Rock River Arms Elite Operator
Load Muzzle Velocity (fps)Standard Deviation (fps) Group Size (in.)
Black Hills 55-gr. SP 2,910 12 0.99
Black Hills 60-gr. V-Max 2,880 16 0.87
American Eagle 55-gr. FMJ 2,810 24 1.05
Black Hills Match King 69-gr. HP 2,780 21 1.03
Hornady 55-gr. V-Max 2,935 13 1.11
Black Hills 52-gr. HP 3,042 18 1.12
Notes: Accuracy results are the averages of four five-shot groups at 100 yards from a sandbag rest. Velocities are averages of three shots measured with an F-1 Alpha chronograph 12 feet from the muzzle. Abbreviations: FMJ, full metal jacket; HP, hollowpoint; SP, softpoint.

It's easy to get great groups from a mediocre rifle if it has a great trigger, but put a tack-driver with a gritty eight-pound trigger in anybody's hands, and they'll be lucky to stay on paper. The Rock River Arms Operator rifles are not just inherently accurate (that's one plus to the AR design), they're equipped with quality triggers that enable the user to get the most out of them.

The fit and finish of these rifles was excellent — definitely a step above the standard, rack-grade, Parkerized mil-spec AR on the market today — although they're barely more expensive than those types. The Elite Operator's upper and lower receivers fit together so tightly I needed a tool to work out the push pins, while the Entry Operator was a little looser.

While the Rock River Arms Operators don't have pistons or monolithic fore-ends or flip-down front sights, they have everything you need in an accurate, reliable semiautomatic rifle- — at a price that not too long ago would have been unheard of.

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