Law Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn
by Dick Fairburn
With the M16/AR15 family of rifles becoming the long gun of choice for US police agencies, it is surprising to find a lot of mis-information still floating around. Since its inception, the “black rifle” has been both praised and maligned. It may not be the perfect battle rifle for combat troops ... but it is a nearly perfect patrol rifle. At the risk of being compared to those goofy guys on TV, let’s bust a few AR myths.
They jam all the time.
Myth — BUSTED. (for law enforcement use).
A well maintained AR is one of the most reliable gas-operated weapons available for police use. The design vents powder gasses directly into the action. This makes for a simpler and lighter action, but at the cost of a very dirty bolt area. After extended firing, lubrication combines with the soot of burned powder gasses to make a black gooey mess in the action. When you add in the powdery sand our troops are experiencing in Afghanistan and Iraq, malfunctions can be a problem. For police use, however, these rifles are very reliable given reasonable maintenance, good ammunition and good magazines.
Good magazines are essential. Used military surplus magazines are commonly available, but I wouldn’t stake my life on them, they don’t usually DX a good magazine. Personally, I prefer the straight 20 round magazines because they are handier when firing from the prone position or when using available cover and also because I have never had a straight 20 fail me (even some beat-up military surplus ones). The straight 20 rounders are harder to find lately, and the bent 20 rounders don’t seem quite as reliable to me. Good 30 rounders are fine if you feel the need for more rounds, especially the newest ones with improved followers. It is best to load all magazines a round or two short (18 in a 20 rounder or 28 in a 30 rounder) to make them easier to seat in place with a closed bolt. If you get a double-feed malfunction it is almost certainly caused by a bad magazine - throw it away.
Some people have experienced extraction problems (leaving a fired round in the chamber or action) with the AR, but I have rarely seen this myself. Using mil-spec extractors with a clean, sharp edge should fix this problem and adding a “D-fender” D-ring under the rear of the extractor strengthens its grip and should fix any extraction problem for a few dollars. The D-fender is available at www.fulton-armory.com (and possibly other sources).
The .223/5.56mm round won’t even stop a charging butterfly.
Myth — BUSTED. (with some provisos).
When used within reasonable limits, say 200 yards, the .223/5.56mm round strikes a hard blow on a human target. The late gun guru Jeff Cooper called the round a “poodle shooter,” but I have to respectfully disagree with the Colonel on this one. As a Deputy Sheriff in Wyoming, I shot a number of 60 to 200 pound critters with 55 grain FMJ loads and few traveled more than a couple of steps before going down. For the record, these were feral dogs or severely injured livestock and game animals - often after they had been hit by a vehicle. The weapon used was a 20 inch AR15 and the shots were usually under 100 yards. Although I can’t resist mentioning one long-range, running shot I miraculously pulled off in front of a game warden who had ordered me to kill a large feral dog chasing a deer. From that day on he called my AR the “dog-a-matic.”
The key thing to remember about the AR’s ability to stop fights, is that the round was designed to operate at high velocity (about 3150 feet-per-second for the original M193 55gr FMJ load from a 20 inch barrel). When FMJ bullets drop below 2500 feet per second (say - 200 yards for a 20 inch barrel), they fail to break up and end up acting just like a .22 caliber long-range cordless drill. And, a .22 caliber wound with no additional terminal effects doesn’t stop determined adversaries. This explains the miserable performance our troops are seeing when they use the M855 62grain (green tip) FMJ loads in their M4 variants with a 14 inch or shorter effective barrel length. These loads drop below the critical wounding velocity very quickly (at distances beyond 50-75 yards) and do little to stop an enemy unless the brain or spine is hit. If you’re shooting a short barrel, you need a soft or hollow point projectile.
They aren’t accurate.
Myth — BUSTED.
Even a pedestrian AR will produce head shot accuracy to 100 yards, if the shooter can deliver. Many battle-grade AR’s will approach sniper-grade accuracy right out of the box. In the search for still more accuracy, some AR builders use barrels with a .223 Remington chamber. That is a BAD idea. The commercial chambers are tighter in the neck and throat areas to increase accuracy, but can cause severe pressure problems when fired with 5.56mm mil-spec ammunition. The mil-spec 5.56mm chamber still produces adequate accuracy and will tolerate any ammunition. A hybrid version known as the Wylde chamber, combines the tolerances of the mil-spec chamber and the accuracy of the .223 chamber. Many top makers like Rock River Arms use the Wylde chamber.
Along the same accuracy lines is this related myth: The newer Fast-Twist barrels can only be used with heavier bullets.
Myth — BUSTED.
The exact opposite is the truth. Slow-twist barrels (M16 = 1 turn in 14 inches, M16A1 = 1 turn in 12 inches), can only be used with lighter bullets. Firing a bullet heavier than 60 grains from a slow-twist barrel, will cause bullets to quickly de-stabilize. This heavy bullet/slow twist combo will often cause tumbling sideways hits within the first 25 yards of flight. Lighter bullets, however, often shoot marvelously small groups from the newer fast-twist barrels (M16A2 and M4). For years I have used Black Hills Ammunition’s 52 grain Match hollow point load to accuracy test new rifles. It has consistently given me the best groups in all barrel twists.
The AR’s over-penetrate and are dangerous in an urban environment.
Myth — BUSTED.
As a general rule, the hollow point ammunition in your sidearm will out penetrate your AR in humans and lightweight construction materials (sheetrock, siding, etc.). Most loads from an AR suffer from under penetration, not over penetration. The Federal Tactical Bonded loads are the unquestioned King of terminal performance for an AR, but are very expensive. The Tactical Bonded loads will easily penetrate laminated auto glass, which can shred many AR projectiles (including FMJs). At the same time, the high velocity of AR projectiles allow them to easily burn through soft body armor and even mild steel plates. In one test, AR loads easily defeated the mild steel snow plow blade a SWAT team had previously thought to be good cover.
These rifles require a lot of expensive add-on accessories to be truly effective.
Myth — BUSTED. (though some Walter Mitty types will disagree).
In my opinion, ALL patrol rifles must have iron sights. If you choose to add an optical sight, that’s OK, but make sure the optics can be quickly removed without tools to give you access to the backup metallic sights. A quality tactical sling is also mandatory. A weapon mounted flashlight is not required, but is highly desirable. Beyond that, adding accessories can become a cycle of diminishing returns. There is an absolutely unlimited list of add-ons available for this rifle platform, most of which, in my opinion, are of questionable practical value. Remember, the more things you screw on your rifle, the more complicated you make it to learn and therefore operate well under stress. One of the nation’s leading trainers, Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch, told me once that most of the “stuff” mounted on rifles brought to his classes is dis-mounted by the end of the week because the items broke, got in the way or came loose.
Get a good, reliable rifle, some reliable magazines and a sling, a good flashlight with a solid mount and lots of practice ammo. If the trigger pull is especially lousy, have it touched up by a competent gunsmith. DO NOT add any type of target trigger that contains adjustment screws which can work loose. If you like one of the vertical fore grips that are in such vogue these days, try one. The one with a built-in expandable bipod looks like a really neat idea to me, but I haven’t used one enough to vouch for it.
This list of AR myths could go on and on, but this covers the big ones. Smarter men than me have said, “if a problem can’t be solved with a sidearm, you need a rifle.” For most of my street time I had both a shotgun and an AR in the car ... I only pulled the shotgun once on a search warrant service on a very dark night when I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the rifle’s sights. The AR rifle series is not a perfect system, but it has been in front-line military service now for more than 40 years. It will serve you well on the streets for the rest of your career.