Updated: Oct 30
Did the AR-15 platform already hit its period of peak performance and is the shooting world just starting to catch on?
The AR-15 has been around, and in civilian hands, since 1964 and over the years it has undergone some significant changes and "upgrades". Some of the most notable enhancements to the platform have been the addition of free-float handguards and flattop upper receivers, allowing the easy addition of lights, lasers and the latest holographic or red dot optics and scopes. It is no doubt that these additions have become mainstream as battlefield advancements have changed the course of warfare over the decades. This is in no small part to the normalization of the 1913 picatinny rail on most firearms and their accessories along with more compact and wearable night vision optics.
With these advancements in technology the average consumer AR-15 has taken a drastic change in appearance and a hit to performance via additional weight. The addition of quad rails and accessories has pushed the average carbine from just under 7lbs to 10lbs or more. This added weight comes with a performance penalty of weapon handling during target transitions and shooter fatigue. But does this added penalty outweigh the potential benefits for the average consumer looking for a carbine for home defense or defense of one's country? Does the average civilian have the need for a solid rail platform for an infrared aiming device to be used with a PVS-14 night vision optic on a helmet mount? While there are some that have decided to invest in tools such as these, many need only to mount additional items such as a light or forward grip on their weapon. Could it be possible that a simple "retro" style carbine could be better suited for most general purpose roles in these workspaces?
While accessories can be useful, many times they are unnecessary and can make the gun much heavier.
~ The "Retro" Rifle ~
To answer that question we need to first define what a "retro rifle" actually is. Most people have a particular image pop in their head when they hear the phrase "retro rifle" and its not the same for everyone. For some it could be a 20" M16A1 from the jungles of Vietnam while for others it could look like a mid 90's Bushmaster dissipator style rifle or even a 1993 Mogadishu "Gordon Carbine". A few might even realize that a 20 year old rifle is actually an M4 carbine and would be saying at this point "What are you talking about?! Flattops and quad rails ARE retro!" but I believe these types are the outliers when discussing retro versions of the AR-15.
What we think of when we hear "20 year old rifle"...
What a "20 year old rifle" actually looks like...
For our purposes let's define our "retro rifle" as a carry handle variant (A1/A2 or C7 style Upper Receiver) with a fixed front sight tower in a barrel length of 16" or less (we will discuss optimal barrel lengths in an upcoming article). Rifles such as this were widely used as patrol rifles for law enforcement and served our military well for many years. Given that the intended use for this style of rifle would be home or national defense, at the civilian level, these "rifles" would be better classified as "carbines" intended for close to intermediate range thus we will use that as our intended distance envelope (CQB to 400 meters). Carbines in this size are readily available and pack plenty of punch to get the job done for most any civilian.
~ The Case for the Carry Handle ~
While the carry handle sighting system may look rather antiquated to many, it has some notable points that should be evaluated before passing it off as anything more than a piece of nostalgia from a bygone era. Whether using the A1 or A2 variants of the rear sight, they are both very robust and the sight apertures are very well protected (just look at the image below of the carry handle on this service member's rifle!). The rear sight also has a dual aperture setup allowing the shooter to choose between a larger aperture for faster shots up close or a smaller one to allow for a higher degree of precision on more distant targets. The sights also allow for easy marking to change zeros between different types of ammo (1 zero with XM-193 55gr ammo and another with M855 62gr ammo potentially). This can be an important factor to consider if you have training and "duty" ammo that is different weights. If going this route, the A2 rear sight has a distinct advantage of being adjustable for windage AND elevation while the A1 rear sight is only adjustable for windage.
Carry handle sights can take an amazing amount of abuse & still function!
~ The Front Sight Base ~
While many rifles have been adorned with the ubiquitous "BUIS" or Backup Iron Sights, they all fall short of the robustness of the original Stoner design. With its forged construction, dual taper pins, and large protective ears, the original Front Sight Base (FSB) is the standard to which all other sights are to be judged. The front sight base also allows for a number of ways to attach a sling with either the original sling mount at the 6 o'clock position or with a side mount such as the Rock River Arms or in a pinch even a loop of paracord will do. There are also accessories that place picatinny rails on either side of the front sight base to allow for mounting items such as a weapon light.
~ Handguards or "Rail-Estate" ~
Handguards have been one of the areas were an evolution of the AR platform has certainly taken place. Today's handguards can offer a whole host of advantages for some uses and the decision to employ one of these updated forends typically comes down to two things: the search for better accuracy and the need for additional accessories on the gun.
It should now be widely known that swapping to a free-float style forend, or "tube", allows for a rifle to be more accurate. This is due to the forend isolating outside forces, such as resting on a barricade or sling pressure, from the barrel. The downside to many of these free-float tubes is that they tend to be heavier than standard handguards. For our carbine with an intended range of up to 400 meters, a 2 MOA gun will more than adequately do the job. Thus free-floating the barrel, in this instance, is unnecessary.
For most shooters, the necessary additional accessories may be a weapon light or forward grip. Depending on how the end user wanted to attach these items there are various options that do not require the used of a quad rail style forend. As discussed in the front sight section, a weapon light could easily be mounted on either side of the front sight via an inexpensive adapter. Additionally, a short length of picatinny rail could be added to the standard handguards as well. Another option is to replace the standard handguards with a set of Magpul handguards which allow the use of their M-Lok accessories. The advantage to going this route over an aluminum "quad-rail" handguard is that the handguards tend to be lighter, smoother, and get less hot during extended courses of fire.
A cantilever light mount and vertical grip on a Magpul handguard
~ Close Quarters Engagements ~
One area where advancements in technology cannot be ignored is the optics department. Red dots have allowed for rapid target acquisition under stress due to allowing the shooter to "threat focus" vs having to concentrate on the sight picture itself. As humans, we have the innate ability to focus on an object of danger during our "fight or flight" response and this allows us to "hyper focus" on removing or escaping that threat. Unfortunately this also means we are using most all of our brain power to focus on the task at hand (fighting or fleeing the danger) and we regress to "lizard brain" and lose most all of our finer motor skills. Skills such as trigger manipulation, breath control, and the ability to focus on the front sight of our weapon. Thankfully we tend to point very accurately at the object of our focus and shoot "over" our sights at most CQB distances. While this has proven to be a very workable solution, the use of a red dot optic, along with a focus on planting the presentation and use of these optics through focused training into our "lizard brain", can be faster than any other sighting system on the planet. The split second verification that your "sights" are on target and can be "bounced" there for successive shots before transitioning to the next target pays massive dividends in speed and accuracy.
Another option outside of the irons vs red dot discussion is the use of magnified prism optics and scopes such as the Trijicon ACOG. These types of optics can be used in a manner similar to a red dot due to something called the Bindon Aiming Concept. Essentially you shoot with both eyes open and the brain will stitch the unmagnified and magnified images together with the focus adapting to the image that has a bright reticle. With some practice this can become very natural (especially considering that under fight or flight you will be wide eyed and focusing on the threat with both eyes) and fast. These types of optics can have additional benefits at distances beyond CQB as we will look at below.
Up close, the red dot and illuminated optics, via the Bindon Aiming Concept, are king.
~ Hitting Targets Further Out ~
Moving beyond CQB distances we will explore how the carry handle equipped carbines compare to their flat-topped brethren. Since our carbine's working envelope is set at 400 meters we don't need a lot of magnification and this negates the only real advantage that the flat-top has over the carry handle and that's the LPVO (Low Power Variable Optic). When considering the ability to effectively engage a target at these moderate distances, the shooter will rarely find the need for more than 3-4x magnification. This lower power also helps the shooter transition to the Bindon Aiming Concept in my experience. There are many excellent choices for magnified carry handle mounted optics but the three best, in the author's opinion, are the original or retro Colt 4x scope, the 3.5-4x Trijicon ACOG and the Primary Arms SLx 3x MicroPrism optic. All of these optics will integrate directly into the carry handle without any additional parts or adapters.
The Colt style 4x scope have been around for a long time and works very well. Instead of having a graduated reticle it uses the well known duplex style reticle and a elevation turret that, when zeroed at 100 yards, can be dialed up to make impacts out to 500 yards. Of course this style of bullet drop compensation will have to be confirmed with the end user's setup and ammo the same as any BDC reticle.
The Trijicon ACOG has been used very effectively by our military for the last 20+ years and has a proven record for robustness and reliability. While this option is on the pricier side which some variants being over $1,000 they pack a lot of features in a lightweight and compact package. The BDC reticle uses a fiber optic tube along with a tritium illuminated center reticle to ensure that the reticle is always daylight bright and fast to find. The reticle works as intended and is also configured to allow for the range finding of man-sized targets meaning the shooter can get a quick range to the target and effectively engage it in a matter of seconds without any additional equipment. Some of the stories that have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan have shown just how effective this setup can be.
The Primary Arms SLx MicroPrism with a 3x zoom and ACSS 5.56 reticle is fairly new to the market when compared to the heritage offered by the other two optics, but to discount this optic would be a big mistake. The ACSS reticles have taken much of what we have learned from fielding the ACOG in battle and gone a step further. The ACSS Raptor reticle features a large horseshoe surrounding a BDC style reticle topped by a center chevron aiming point. This reticle features windage hold points and has range finding features built into it as well and unlike tritium, which has a half-life and will eventually become dim, the MicroPrism has 13 illumination settings that run off a single common CR2032 style battery. Primary Arms is always advancing their line of optics and if you'd like to learn more about them you can read up on their new line of 3x and 5x prisms here:
The simple nature of a carbine designed for moderate distances lends itself to fast yet simple optics such as these and can make for a very effective and lightweight package.
~ A "Heads-Up Display" ~
The ability to run a simple and robust magnified optic on top of the carry handle is, in itself, not groundbreaking or or even special but the ability to have the iron sights directly beneath it, fully accessible at all times, can be a huge advantage. We have already discussed the robust nature of the sights themselves and this alone puts them head and shoulders above BUIS but the fact they don't have to be "deployed" means they are always instantly available. This means with a minor shift of our chin/cheek position we can got from one sighting system to another. Many modern optics mounts are becoming taller and taller with some being dubbed as "skyscraper" mounts with the reasoning that an upright head position allows the shooter to bring the rifle up to the eye without the need to move their head thus allowing for a fast "snap" of the rifle up and engaging the target. These heights are very close to where a carry handle optic naturally sits on the carbine.
We have previously touched on the use of dual sighting systems for zeros for different ammunition but lets expand that to another caliber besides 5.56 that could really benefit from this, the 300 Blackout.
The 300 Blackout is able to fire both supersonic and subsonic ammunition from the same magazine with wildly different trajectories. This almost always forces the owner to pick whether they are going to be sighted in for one speed of ammunition or the other or relegate subsonic distances to CQB exclusively. Now imagine if we setup the carry handle irons for a 50 or 75 yard subsonic zero and the optic (a 3x prism in this case with a 300 BO specific BDC style reticle) being zeroed for supersonic 125gr ammo. It's not hard to see the potential benefit in this scenario.
~ Retro Rifles - Function or Fad ~
Now that we have explored some of the benefits and methodology to a "Retro Rifle" what are your thoughts? Does a lighter weight carbine with a carry handle optic sound like it would fit your intended use or can you think of other ways to equip such a rifle to make it fill the specific role for you? Maybe even a low profile mount that used a compact RMR as an optic for a passive night vision rig or a cantilever mount running a Meprolight M21 such as is popular with the IDF in Israel? Let us know below in the comments.