Product Review: Ruger SR556
Not just another AR clone
When we decided to review the Ruger SR556, PoliceOne Editor Doug Wyllie suggested I compile a list of all the manufacturers currently producing an AR15 clone. An easier task would be to compile a list of makers who don’t build an AR. For more than 30 years, Ruger’s various Mini-14 rifles have been the only serious American competitor for an officer wanting a .223/5.56mm semi-automatic patrol partner. Ruger tried to make inroads into the police and military market with their AC556 and GB models that featured flash suppressors and even select-fire capability. During my patrol days in Wyoming, our department had several stainless steel AC556 select-fire rifles for those officers who didn’t rack up a personal patrol rifle, and the little Rugers were rugged and reliable weapons ... but not the most accurate.
So, I was very curious to try out Ruger’s AR clone. I wondered if the SR556 would be like many Ruger weapons, rugged and reliable, though not necessarily the most refined. I found the SR556 to be VERY refined. Ruger certainly took their time to build their clone and they put that time to good use. From the distinctive Ruger-style flash suppressor borrowed from the Mini-14 GB model, to the six-position collapsible stock, this AR is a class act.
Like several other builders, Ruger chose to abandon the original gas-tube AR15 action, replacing the dirty piping system with a piston mechanism that keeps the action free from burned powder soot. When kept clean and well lubricated, a traditional gas-tube AR can be a very reliable weapon, but when you factor in the powdery sand our troops are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lubricated bolt/carrier is a grunge magnet that can cause serious and frequent malfunctions. Despite firing several hundred rounds through the SR556, with no cleaning, the bolt/carrier assembly in the Ruger was almost as clean as when we started the test. Taking an even more refined (and costly) step toward reliability, Ruger chose to hard-chrome plate the entire firing system. The bolt, carrier, chamber, bore, and gas-piston system are all hard chromed, which will ensure a smooth, clean and very long-wearing weapon that requires minimal lubrication. The gas piston has three settings, allowing you to adjust the weapon for loads of differing power levels. Under worst-case conditions, you an even “turn up” the gas if the weapon begins to malfunction due to extremely dirty conditions or degraded lubricants. The gas piston system is easily removed for maintenance.
The SR556 combines a list of top-flight components from some of the best AR parts suppliers. The flat top receiver combines with rigidly affixed Picatinny handguards to provide a long top area for optics mounting that allows extreme flexibility. The flip-up Troy Industries front and rear sights are excellent, solid and easily adjustable. Additional Picatinny rails on all sides of the handguards will allow you to mount as much cool stuff as you can carry. The rifle’s pistol grip is a soft, over-molded model from Hogue Grips. The rifle comes complete with three 30-round polymer magazines from MAGPUL. Older polymer magazines were not a good choice for keeping several loaded magazines ready to go, since the spring pressure tended to spread out the feeding lips over time. The MAGPUL magazines include a top dust cover that snaps in place to keep a loaded magazine free of debris and, at the same time, depresses the top rounds just enough to take the strain off the feed lips. You can keep loaded MAGPUL magazines in your GO bag for months, with no fear. Merely snap off the dust covers and you are ready go.
The SR556 does not have a front sling swivel or a needless bayonet lug, since most operators will add a single-point sling, and bayonets are a thing of the past. The Ruger SR556 does not come with a single-point sling mounting point, but a single-point mount is available as a factory accessory, as well as a nice selection of slings, fore-grips, flashlights and other goodies … all from top builders and marked with the Ruger logo.
So, how did the SR556 shoot? Great! The operation of the action was noticeably smoother than several other AR brands I have used, probably because of the chrome plated system components. We experienced no malfunctions of any kind, despite various loads, including some rather grungy stuff that had been lying around for a long time. The trigger was, frankly, pretty lousy. The trigger bottomed out my trigger pull gauge, so it exceeded eight pounds of pull and had a good deal of creep prior to let off. But, few AR rifles come from the factory with a good trigger, unless they are fitted with a match-grade assembly. I have a Rock River two-stage match trigger in my H-BAR, but match triggers aren’t a good choice for a patrol rifle. Most standard AR triggers need some work by a competent gunsmith, and the SR556 should tune up just fine.
My aging eyes simply aren’t good enough for accuracy testing with iron sights anymore, so I mounted an optical sight to shoot some groups. Snapping on a Safariland RR-CQLR-1 scope, I punched a few groups at 100 yards. The Safariland scope, like the SR556 rifle, is intended for a patrol/combat mission with a magnification range from 1x to 4x, so I didn’t expect the combo to deliver sniper-grade accuracy, but it did. Despite the moderate 4x optics and a heavy, creepy trigger, I got consistent 1.5-inch three-shot groups at 100 yards with an assortment of soft-point and hollow-point loads. Shooting some M193 (55 grain) full-metal-jacket loads, the groups expanded the groups to about 2.5 inches, which is normal. Before wrapping up the session I fired a single group using my favorite “magic bullet” load. My buddy Jeff Hoffman at Black Hills Ammunition produces the single most accurate .223 load I have ever fired in any weapon. Black Hills’ 52 grain Match Hollow Point load is not suitable for police duty use, since it almost detonates on contact, giving very shallow penetration. But, from either fast-twist or the older slow-twist barrels, the 52 grain load has consistently produced the smallest groups in any .223/5.56mm rifle I have tested. The Ruger SR556 punched a beautiful three-shot group with the 52 grain load that measured almost exactly one inch center-to-center. Using my eyes through a 4x scope and a creepy trigger, that group proved to me that the SR556 is a real tack driver.
Everyone who fired the Ruger AR clone was impressed with its smooth operation, but spoke the same single word at first impression — “heavy.” At eight pounds, the SR556 is not much heavier than other piston operated clones, and actually weighed exactly the same as my 20 inch H-BAR, but the weight seems heavier. When you add a flashlight, sling and fore grip, the package will be beefy, but not really much heavy than a comparable rifle from another builder, I just like light-weight patrol rifles.
The Ruger SR556 is a combination of an innovative gas-piston system, deluxe accoutrements and the refinement of full chrome plating in the barrel and operating system. With a retail price of $1,995, this is not a low-bid competitor, but getting a similar package of features anywhere else wouldn’t cost much less. Ruger came late to the AR game, but they “done it up good!”