September 23, 2010
The author sets out to find whether free-floating an AR-15 makes it shoot better.
I was observing the training of a medium-size agency SWAT team that was upgrading its equipment after it had come into some money, and since the team knew it may never see a similar level of funding again, the crew wanted to get the best gear available. A young sergeant came up to me and asked "So, what do you think? Should we spent the additional funds to get the high-end carbines with the quad rails and free-floating barrels, or should we buy the standard models and just add rails where needed? I'm told that the free-float guns are far more accurate."
To be honest, the question caught me off-guard; I had never thought about it. The truth is, I'm not much for modifications unless they prove their worth, and few have done so, in my opinion. I had heard that free-floated AR-15s were supposed to be more accurate than stock guns. After all, free floating the barrel of a bolt-action rifle has proven to be far superior so, logically, doing so to the gas-powered AR would offer similar enhancement.
However, I had never seen it demonstrated before my eyes so I didn't truly know. What I have seen is a number of ARs that have been exceptionally accurate and dependable while others would better serve as jack handles. More troubling is that I've seen both good and bad guns from the same manufacturer, so I wasn't comfortable offering a blanket endorsement that free-floating a barrel would make an AR more accurate.
The author started the test with a standard Stag Arms Model 3 and Aimpoint sight system. The gun came back from the Stag Arms plant sporting a JP Enterprises/V-TAC free-float fore-end and a different gas block.
For weeks afterward I thought about the question and even contacted some of the sharpest people in the business who work with the black rifle daily. Their opinions were mixed.
I spoke with a number of trainers who see the AR-15 continuously, in the hands of shooters with a variety of skill levels, and all told me that a free-floating barrel would make no real difference in a fighting carbine. All said the necessary accuracy for this application was well within the capability of the factory AR-15 with the trapped barrel and two-piece fore-end. In all fairness, it should be noted that high-end custom guns receive additional modifications beyond a free-floating barrel, which likely justifies their higher cost.
While communicating with these experts, I read reviews in several magazines and trade journals that continued to report that the AR-15 with a free-floating barrel was far more accurate than the standard design. In the end, I decided that I had to find out for myself.
The goal was not to pass judgment on custom guns but to know how much more accurate an AR-15 would be if its barrel was free-floating. So I brought the question up to Mark Malkowski, president of Stag Arms (stagarms.com), one of the nation's largest manufacturers of AR-15s.
While many readers may know Stag Arms as the company that makes the AR for left-hand shooters, the truth is that Stag has been in the business of making AR-15 components for decades, and many well-known manufacturers use Stag parts. Some complete rifles you see are actually Stag Arms guns that carry someone else's brand. In other words, Stag knows ARs.
The slots in the V-TAC fore-end dissipate
heat while allowing for adjustment in
the placement of accessory rails.
After listening to my proposal, Mark agreed that it would be fun to find out about free floating. My regular carry carbine is a Stag Arms Model 3 that will shoot 1.5- to two-inch groups with boring regularity at 100 yards. I asked Mark if he would modify my Model 3 to a free-float barrel if I gathered the needed components — figuring that since the gun came from Stag, if it were modified in the same place, a certain consistency would prevail as opposed to sending the rifle to a custom gunsmith.
Mark agreed that he would do nothing more than install a free-float fore-end and gas block and would then return it to me with no further modifications.
So I set out to get the components. Larry Weeks at Brownells (brownells.com) was equally enthusiastic about the project and put me in touch with the company's excellent technical staff, who gave me a number of ideas and options for what would work for my test.
After several discussions, it was decided that the JP Enterprises/V-TAC modular free-float handguard/rail system would be the best choice. This system provides the tactical or competitive shooter with maximum flexibility to set up a rifle the way he wants without having a bunch of sharp, unnecessary rail surfaces on the forward end of the gun.
In addition to floating the barrel, the V-TAC fore-end also eliminates pressure points from bipods or sling mounts that can pull on a fixed barrel and affect accuracy, something that many tactical/defensive shooters do not consider.
Also, having a long fore-end on an AR-15 can protect the barrel from banging against barricades, walls, cars, range props or other objects that can affect the barrel and thus accuracy. This is the reason that I opted for the longest fore-end that I could get so that it would cover as much of the 16-inch barrel as possible. The vented V-TAC fore-end would also vent built-up heat better, which would certainly aid accuracy during heavy shooting sessions.
The fore-end came with several four-inch sections of rail for the addition of white lights or vertical grips, as well as a trim piece of rail to mount a flip up-iron front sight. Since the V-TAC fore-end is also taller than the standard gas block rail, I added a Forearm Flip Front Sight from Yankee Hill Machine to my Brownells order. While I prefer a quality optic on an AR-15, it's wise to have backup iron sights.
Since the gas block would be covered by the extra-long fore-en
d, Brownell's also included a Midwest Industries low-profile, one-piece gas block.
Once I had all of the components in hand, I headed to my gun club to conduct the pre-modification portion of my test. I had originally intended to shoot the Stag Model 3 for groups at both 100 and 200 yards, but the 200-yard range at my club was undergoing renovation, so I had to settle for a 100-yard test alone.
Since the Model 3 is a 16-inch carbine intended for combat applications, I resisted the temptation to put a high-magnification sporting scope on the gun and instead went with something that was more in line with the gun's intended function.
In the case of this particular rifle, switching to a free-float fore-end resulted in an accuracy improvement of 50 percent. This half-inch group was fired with 75-grain Hornady
I opted for the U.S. Army's current issue Aimpoint M68 CCO (Close Combat Optic)/M68 3X Magnifier combination ( www.aimpoint.com ). The M68 system comes with a quick-release mount that allows the magnifier to be removed, literally, with the twist of a wrist, which makes this a perfect sighting system for situations where both close combat and long-range shots may be required.
I also like the Aimpoint system because it is simple to use. You just place the dot where you want to shoot and press the trigger.
For targets, I used three-inch Shoot-N-C dots from Birchwood Casey as they would offer a nice contrasting background for the red dot of the Aimpoint.
I selected Hornady 75-grain TAP boattail hollowpoint (www.hornady.com ). This new 5.56 load is designated the T2 because it was designed especially for enhanced performance in carbines.
Used extensively by Special Forces Units in Iraq and Afghanistan, the T2 load differs from other loads in that it takes into account the direct gas action system of the AR-15 and its sensitivity to ammunition.
The T2 bullet has a unique ogive shape designed to facilitate feeding in M4 weapons systems. A cannelure was added to the bullet to facilitate case-mouth crimping and resulted in bullet push/pull forces that meet or exceed mil-spec standards. Hornady also uses a mil-spec primer (due to the free-floating firing pin) and crimped it in the case to preclude primer back-out and thereby limit unintended discharge.
The standard 75-grain Hornady TAP load has proven to produce one-minute accuracy out of 20-inch AR rifles, so I had little doubt that it would prove to be quite accurate in the short-barreled Model 3.
I benchrested the Model 3 on my Blackhawk Battle Bag and shot a series of five-shot groups. The temperature was 77 degrees with a negligible breeze that was coming from the rear. My best group measured 11â'„4 inches, my worst, 21â'„4.
I then sent the gun off to Mark at Stag Arms and waited for its return, which didn't take long. Stag installed the new gas block and fore-end in a day, and I was back at the range later that week to resume testing.
The first thing that I noted about the Model 3 as I took it from the shipping box was that it was noticeably heavier. This was due to the aluminum versus the plastic fore-end, which is also twice as long as the standard two-piece plastic unit. I also noticed that the trim profile of the JP/V-TAC fore-end was more pleasing to my hand.
I headed to the range the next day as the temperature was 79 degrees with a slight breeze that was coming in from the left side. This breeze was blocked by the range's side berm, so I doubted that it would have any effect on a 100 yard shot. After rezeroing the Aimpoint, I shot a series of five-round groups with the same lot of Hornady T2.
This time my best group measured 1/2 inch, an improvement of more than 50 percent. There's no reason to suspect that other rifles or other fore-ends would give significantly different results, so in my opinion, free-floating an AR-15 barrel does increase its accuracy at a noticeable level.
But to answer the SWAT sergeant's question about whether a free-float barrel is worth the extra money for his team? I would have to say "no." In the tactical environment in which his team is likely to operate — engaging chest-size targets anywhere from five to 50 yards — I think they could use funds to purchase other items team members might need.
Is it worth it to the sportsman who uses his AR in three-gun competition, hunting or who likes to outshoot his buddies on the range on Saturday? You bet. Here the added accuracy can mean the difference between first and last place or connecting on a distant varmint.
Accuracy will always be mission specific. In the end, only the shooter can decide how much accuracy he needs or wants for a given purpose. Can a gun be too accurate, provided reliability is not affected? I think not.