General

Low Power Variables vs Low Power Fixed Magnification

With my recent purchase of the newest generation of ACOG, and my ignoring the similarly priced low-power variable market, I thought it would be worth posting some of my thoughts on the two competing segments.

Browsing optics discussions on various gun boards would have you think that the age of the low power fixed magnification optic are gone. As one SME in the shooting world put it, “The ACOG was the perfect optic for pre 2004 conflict.” Even in my own article about different types of optics, I opined that low power fixed magnification (which I dubbed Class II optics) represented the skill set of the last generation of riflemen, before our focus turned to more close quartered combat.

Low power variable (LPV) optics have dominated the market in recent years. What started as a new concept useful for competitive shooters slowly worked its way into military units with the leeway to purchase whatever they wanted. Usage by these military units caused the civilian market to take notice. This started cycle whereby many companies entered the market and began innovating and driving prices down through competition.

The downside of the LPV has always been a combination of cost, weight, and durability. The added mechanisms required to change magnification meant introducing complexity and weak points. Combat-grade optics designed to survive harsh conditions necessitated extensive engineering, which increased cost. Up until very recently, you were unlikely to find a combat-worthy LPV for less than $2K. Competition in the market has brought that price closer to $1K, though, which directly competes with the ACOG market.

With that in mind, why would anyone choose to go with a low power fixed magnification optic when it is possible to get a scope of comparable durability and optical quality for about the same amount of money?

Understanding Intangibles

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For the sake of this discussion, I’m ignoring the market segment below $800. For now, I am purely talking about comparing optics like the ACOG and SpecterOS 4x to LPV scopes like the Vortex Razor and Nightforce 1-4x. Below $800, there are a lot of great LPV options from SWFA, Trijicon (the TR-24 has come down in price quite a bit), Leupold, and others. In that price bracket, there isn’t really much a difference between the fixed magnification and variable magnification scopes.

Once we cross into the realm of “enthusiast,” “prosumer,” or “professional” optics, things get more interesting.

We can list out all the specs on the various optics in these categories, examining weights, fields of view, illumination, reticles, parallax adjustment (or lack thereof), and other tangible items. The truth, though, is that those things simply don’t matter as much in this bracket. In this category, it has much more to do with personal preference.

In the category of low power fixed magnification, optics tend to be lighter, brighter, more compact, and simpler in use. Most of the ACOG line, even the tiny TA-33 that weighs a scant 7 oz, have objective lenses wider than the average LPV (24 mm). That makes a difference in low light conditions, especially when it comes to target identification. Small sizes reduce snag hazards and overall bulk.

LPV scopes tend to be slightly more versatile for the roles they can be used in, and they often have more refined reticles, but come at the expense of increased weight and size. In general, I find the illumination to be weaker (and more short lived due to smaller batteries), but that is with a sample size of three. I know there are some LPV options out there that are exceptionally bright (especially if they are fiber optic powered). LPV scopes might be friendlier to those with poor eyes, as things like parallax and ocular lens focus can be adjusted.

These are not absolutes, as there are some overlapping features depending on models in question, but this is a pretty good guideline to understand.

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So who should choose what?

Having spent a lot of time with both LPV and fixed magnification, I can’t really see myself doing without either. Were I to be stuck with one rifle and scope for every task for the rest of my days, I would probably tend towards the variable market. But, since I’m not, I like having the option of taking a lighter and more compact scope with wide field of vision for some tasks. I like the simplicity of shouldering the rifle and firing, without worrying about fiddling with magnification settings or turrets that might have been bumped off of my zero.

In general, I would say the difference between users is this:

  • If you want magnification, but tend to stick to the 1x end of things (either via RDS or leaving a LPV at 1x), then stick to a LPV. I would avoid an RDS with magnifier arrangement.
  • If you tend to want magnification all the time, or have an LPV you leave on the high setting most of the time, and prefer the simplicity of shoulder-and-fire function while keeping a more compact package, consider a fixed magnification scope. You can always pair it with a mini RDS if you want to have that multi-role capability with minimal additional weight.
  • If you want magnification most of the time, precision is a priority, and you intend on fiddling with windage and elevation a lot, go with an LPV designed to do it. These will tend to have better reticles (MRAD/MOA) and matched turrets.
  • If you don’t know where you fall on this continuum, then it doesn’t really matter what you pick. In this case, I would consider getting a more inexpensive LPV and see how you tend to use it. As I said before, the sub $800 bracket has a lot of great options to start with and allow you to explore your preferences.

When I started this journey a few years ago, I was sure that I knew exactly what I wanted. I did my homework on internet, and I purchased quality optics. Ironically, one of those scopes doesn’t get used anymore and the other has been relegated to more of a backup role. The more experience I gain, the more I prefer the simplicity of grab-and-go without knobs and such to fiddle with. For that reason, I’ve been sitting strongly in the camp of fixed magnification scopes.

 

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General

On Iron Sights and Optics

I’ve been a pretty staunch advocate of the fixed front sight base, even if one plans to run a magnified optic. That’s not to say that I’m absolutely married to the idea of keeping it in all circumstances, because I’m not. I do, however, think that most people are discounting them these days because they see a lot of pictures of rifles without them, they look cool, and there are a lot of folks out there talking about the inherent benefits of low profile gas blocks.

In this post, I simply want to discuss the relationship of optics and iron sights on a rifle. There are really three ways to look at this: 1) Cowitnessing, 2) Sight shadow, 3) Necessity.

Cowitnessing is the practice of getting a sight picture with the irons while looking through the optic. This only works on non-magnified red dot sights that are mounted in alignment with the irons. The intent here is that the user can quickly align the irons in the heat of the moment in case the red dot sight fails. Some people also use cowitnessed iron sights as a quick way to check the zero on their red dot (I do not agree with this practice, for reasons I will get to). Cowitnessing is further divided into two general categories: absolute and lower third. With an absolute, looking through the irons will align with the red dot right in the middle of the optic. Everything is aligned in a straight line. With a lower third, the optic is mounted slightly higher than the sights. This latter configuration provides a slightly less cluttered sight picture for the red dot, but allows the shooter to drop his or her head slightly lower and still get an iron sight picture through the bottom third of the red dot sight. Larue Tactical has a good depiction of the two methods using their mounts.

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I mentioned that some folks will check their RDS zero by seeing if it aligns with the iron sights, and that I do not like the practice. The reason I don’t like it is because the sight’s zero can move slightly as the dot moves around the window. I know red dot sights are often sold as being completely parallax free, but it is not true. It is best to zero the irons and zero the red dot separately. When you do that, you also have the option of choosing different zero distances for each system (if it makes sense for you). That might mean a bit more mental work and practice up front, but could offer some more versatility later.

However you choose to do it, you absolutely need to zero your irons. Red dots can and will fail you. Rain, fog, mud, battery failure, and other factors will all disrupt your sight picture through a red dot. To be fair, such occurrences (except for battery failure) will also limit your ability to use the cowitnessed iron sights, so I suggest keeping the RDS on a mount that you can quickly remove, if needed.

As I previously said, cowitnessing only works on sights that have zero magnification. As soon as you introduce lenses that bend light, cowitnessing is no longer an option. As much as it may appear that you can cowitness through a 1x-4x sight set at 1x- you cannot. This is a picture through my TR24 set at 1x behind a the rifle length FSP on the Musket.

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“Well, that looks pretty cowitnessed to me!”

I assure you, it doesn’t work. The reason is that the TR24 is still bending light in such a way that the sight appears to have no magnification. The image is still being taken at the objective end of the scope, a full twelve inches in front of my eye, and about eleven inches in front of where a rear sight might be. The way light moves through this arrangement is simply not the same as how an RDS or bare sights work. If you attempted to cowitness (assuming you could fit a rear sight behind the scope), you are really just aligning the rear sight to a picture rather than a physical front sight.

This is where people start recommending ditching front sights with magnified optics. In truth, a physical front (and rear) sight serves no purpose when you are employing a magnified optic. They exist only as backups. Furthermore, as you can see above, the front sight will be somewhat visible through the scope. How visible it is really depends on the field of view of the scope, though. This is the same configuration, but with the scope set on 4x.

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From this perspective, you really can’t see the front sight at all. That is because the TR24 has a fairly narrow field of view. This next photo is on the same rifle but with my fixed 4x ELCAN, which has a much wider field of view that better includes the front sight.

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This is for illustrative purposes only, and is not definitive. In actual use, the front sight is not that visible through the ELCAN. Your eye focuses and captures light differently than a camera lens, so the blur at the bottom is much less obtrusive in actual use than this picture would have you believe. That said, it is still there and quite detectable if you are looking for it.

Here is another photo I found through an ACOG that is closer to how it appears through the ELCAN.

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The important thing to remember is that if you are doing your job and focusing on the target, you will hardly notice the dark blur. The higher the magnification goes, and narrower the field of view goes, the less visible the front sight becomes. At 10x, as with my 2.5-10x scope, I don’t see the post at all.

That said, a fixed FSB can sometimes reflect light back into the objective. When I’ve run 10x scopes behind an FSB, there are some circumstances where reflected light briefly distorts my sight picture (though not enough to actually cause a problem). For most users, under most circumstances, this simply isn’t something to worry about.

That brings me to necessity. Do we actually need backups? When you see optics mounted behind fixed sights on military rifles, it is because that is how the rifle is issued to the user. Military users don’t have much leeway on how their rifles are configured, so they “make it work.” On civilian rifles, it is mostly done either because the user purchased a complete rifle with FSB and just ran with it, or they are copying the look of military weapons. For most people choosing a configuration with a lot of leeway, going without fixed sights (or even backup) will probably work just fine. For new users, the uncluttered sight picture offers a slight boost in speed.

I will readily admit that I prefer using optics without FSB shadow (both RDS or magnified), but I’ve come to accept the trade off. The fixed front sight tower is simply the strongest front sight solution available. If I choose to move back to irons, then that sturdy front sight will be there for me. But that is me. 

Just because you see everyone slapping backup sights on optically-sighted rifles doesn’t mean you need to as well. Analyze your situation, your needs, and make a decision. If you have an optic that has short eye relief, like a TA31 ACOG, it is okay to delete the backup sights in order to position the scope for comfortable shooting. As far as I’m concerned, backup sights are a nicety, not a necessity. I’m sure some will argue with me on that, but it really comes down to personal preference.

As always, look at how you actually use your rifle and what your needs are.

 

General

New Steiner Intelligent Combat Sight

The Firearm Blog recently broke a story about Steiner’s entry into the intelligent optics market. The Intelligent combat Sight (ICS) appears to be a pretty solid entry into Category V optics that I wrote about last year. Here is a quick video about the scope.

 

Interestingly, the optic housing looks suspiciously like something made by ELCAN, even though the companies are unrelated. It even has similar external adjustment mechanisms and backup sight configurations. While ELCAN is owned by Raytheon, Steiner is owned by Beretta. Of note, Beretta also owns Burris Optics, which is known for their Eliminator series that seems to have similar functionality to Steiner’s ICS. With a weight 27 ounces, it’s no lightweight- and the ranging mechanism on the left side certainly adds some bulk.

At $3500+, it is certainly outside of my price range, but still a fraction of what the TrackingPoint M600 system costs at nearly $10K (including the AR-15 pattern rifle). To me, this signals that the steady march of technology continues to bring prices down and improve ruggedness across the market.

Steiner has recently made splashes with the release of its M332 and M536 combat sights, which seem to offer great glass and ruggedness for half the price of an ACOG. If the trend continues, I really do wish them (and others) luck with bringing more options to bear.

General

AR-15 Guide for First Time Buyers, Ver 2.0

I decided it was time to revisit one of the most popular posts on this blog: my advice to first time AR-15 buyers.

For a variety of reasons, the AR-15 platform is now the best selling rifle platform in the United States. With that popularity comes competition for your money, and unless you know how this market works, you are very likely to waste money in the process of buying one for yourself. This guide is intended for folks who are relatively new to shooting and are looking through Google, message boards, and other places for help on what to buy. If you have plenty of experience shooting, you will still find this guide useful- but you will be able to skip some of the advice since you probably already have a good grasp of what you are looking for.

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Before getting on with it, I want to explain where I went wrong with my first AR-15 (pictured here). I purchased a stripped lower and immediately started scouring the internet for what I should do with it. Over the course of about 10 months, I purchased each part individually as well as the tools to assemble them. I built a $3,000 carbine that the internet would be proud of. It was a sleek, bad ass looking, SHTF-ready general purpose carbine. It made a fantastic range toy that impressed everyone around me. However, once I actually started using it in local three gun competitions, its shortcomings became immediately apparent to me and I knew it was going to cost me more money to do some things over again. I then built a second carbine taking things back to basics (as I will advocate here). After shooting with that for a bit, I went back to my first AR and rebuilt it using lessons learned from my actual usage.

This brings me to my two fundamental laws of purchasing gear:

  1. Let the mission dictate the configuration
  2. Buy Once, Cry once

Let me explain these.

Let the Mission Dictate the Configuration

As simple as it sounds, this is the most difficult law for people to grasp. The AR-15 is so customizable that most buyers will immediately begin tailoring it to some perceived need even before they fully understand how they are going to use it. It took me years to understand one fundamental truth: a very generic weapon will do reasonably well at just about any task the AR-15 can be used for. The more specialized you make an AR for any particular use, the worse it will perform at others.

The last thirty years have seen an explosion in the possible configurations of an AR. We’veQyFiZ gone from the classic M16A2, to the M16A4, the M4A1 Carbine, the Mk 12 SPR (and it’s shorter cousin, the Recce), the Mk 18 CQBR, and a myriad of others in between. As the internet has filled with pictures of each of these, and the warriors who carry them, there is a certain element of, “I want that!

This sentiment is understandable, these guns all look amazing and they all exist because they have proven useful and reliable. But here is what you have to keep in mind: these configurations all exist to serve as compliments to one another. The M16 series offers the best all-around ballistic performance on an open battlefield, but its extra length will be more difficult when moving in cramped spaces. The Mk 18 and its 10.5″ barrel are great in cramped spaces, but it produces skull-rattling concussion and loses a huge amount of velocity (which limits its effective range). The Recce and SPR fit more into an intermediate category, but their precision optics and stainless barrels make them more useful for precision and less useful for volume of fire (for more information about how barrel length and material affect performance, please read my post on barrels). Everything is a trade off. It’s not a big deal, though, if the taxpayers are buying your weapons for you and you have a squad to outfit with a variety of weapons to compliment each other. It’s a different story if you have to buy them yourself and it may be the only rifle available to you in times of need.

maxresdefaultWhat does this mean to you? As I said before, a generalized weapon (such as the M16 or M4A1) will do reasonably well at any task you throw at them. The specialized weapon configurations really only shine when put in the hands of a skilled and practiced user. Put another way, a NRA high-master shooter will still shoot a chrome-lined M16A2 better than the average joe will shoot a fully customized national match rifle. Special parts and configurations only matter when comparing two skilled users who can take advantage of the capability. If you are a new shooter, you have not gained the skill and experience to even know how you will be employing your weapon, much less take advantage of the nifty gizmos you want to attach to it.

So what do I recommend for a first time buyer? I’ll get to that in a minute.

Buy Once, Cry Once

Don’t be cheap. There is a lot of competition for your discretionary income, and that means there is a lot of marketing dollars spent to sway you to one product over another. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to listen to gun store lore that says Brand X is “just as good as” Brand Y even though it is significantly cheaper. There is no such thing as a free ride. Every reduction in price must be paired with some other reduction in cost to the manufacturer. Typically, these costs will appear in material selection, quality control procedures, manufacturer tolerances, or other areas. If you are interested in the components of a quality AR, please read this post on technical specs.

Like most things, there absolutely is a point of diminishing returns. In the AR world, that point starts at about $1400. In my opinion, the sweet spot is between $900 and that $1400, where you are getting very high quality weapons that you can depend on for protecting your life, your family’s life, and performing in competition. Am I saying that a $500 Model 1 AR is going to fall apart tomorrow? No, not at all. But I am saying that the methods the manufacturer took to get the price point that low could affect the reliability and long term durability of the rifle; and you would have no way of knowing it was a problem until it becomes one (and that usually happens imgresat the absolute worst moment). If you know this weapon is purely a range or hunting toy that you will not bet your life upon, then no problem. If, on the other hand, there is the slightest chance that you might need this weapon to function in a desperate moment- that extra few hundred dollars is cheap insurance.

This doesn’t just apply to rifles, either. I have seen many a shooter buy a cheap red dot sight only to have it break in a couple months. By the time they have bought their third replacement, they have spent as much money on those three optics as they would have spent buying one quality optic up front. If you think a component is worth having, then its worth buying a high quality one at the start. That quality component will last the life the weapon, and probably a couple weapons after it.

Recommendations

Now that I’ve discussed my guiding principles, lets discuss what your first AR should look like. First, you are going to start with a basic configuration that will serve pretty well at just about any task you might have. I suggest only buying a complete rifle, or buying a complete lower and upper separately. At this point, do not attempt to piece together a rifle one part at a time (as I did). You will end up spending more money than you think on tools and shipping. Even then, you don’t have the technical knowledge on properly assembling parts together (especially mounting barrels and checking headspace). Sure, you could take it to a local gunsmith- but unless they truly know what they are doing, you will always wonder if the job was really done right. In that instance, you might be tempted to blame poor performance on the gun rather than yourself. That attitude will only drive you to spend more money on gear rather than ammo and practice. Buying a properly assembled quality rifle up front means any shortcomings are probably yours rather than the weapon’s.

Once you have your new AR, I suggest only spending enough money to get it up to the status of “minimum capable” for whatever it is you want to do. Once there, spend the rest of your money on quality ammunition and some training. Shoot the thing so much that it becomes second nature to you. Compete with it in a variety of styles from CMP/High Power to USPSA. Burn out the barrel. Once you have gone down this route, it will become very obvious where you should spend your money to best suit your needs. By this point, you will have expended enough money in ammunition that the cost of the widget in question will seem….paltry.

All of that said, here is my basic “minimum capable” recommendation for first time buyers. I will discuss variations afterwards.

  • 16″ Lightweight mid-length chrome lined barrel with a fixed front sight base
  • Either plastic handguards (Magpul MOE, Standard Round, BCM) or a quality free floated rail
  • Quality collapsable stock, without being too fancy, containing a H2 carbine buffer and spring (alternatively, I’m a big fan of the VLTOR A5 system)
  • Quality pistol grip of choice
  • Quality (but not fancy) trigger. The fanciest I would suggest at this point would be an ALG ACT or BCM PNT
  • Quality rear sight, with or without adjustment (Magpul MBUS/MBUS Pro, LMT L8A, Daniel Defense A1.5, Larue Lt 103, or even a carry handle from BCM or Colt)
  • If you have the money to buy an optic at this time, then go ahead and grab one that suits your needs- just remember to buy quality (Aimpoint, Trijicon, ELCAN, Zeiss, etc.)
  • Bonus: If you plan on using the weapon for defensive purposes, then you really should mount a white light on it (InForce WML, Elzetta, Surefire, etc.) and learn how to use it properly (i.e., only use in momentary bursts of light)
  • Bonus: You should get a sling.

The rifles below are a selection of various configurations I’ve used that roughly meet the criteria I laid out. The closest two are the one on the top left and bottom right. The top left, with FDE furniture, was my second AR and built with all of the lessons learned from building the first rifle. The second rifle, on the bottom right, was the first iteration of my marksmanship training rifle; it was nearly identical to the FDE rifle except that it had a 20″ barrel and a different stock. That longer rifle is now the one on the top right. The only significant changes are the addition of a free float rail, a muzzle compensator, and a Trijicon TR24. I made these changes only after shooting the rifle for several thousand rounds in a variety of circumstances.

There are many quality manufacturers out there, and I don’t have time to go down the pro/con for each one of them. So, to be blunt, I suggest that your first AR-15 should come from Colt, BCM, Daniel Defense, or Sionics Weapon Systems. These manufacturers all follow a good spec and stick around the same price point. Going much below these manufacturers in price should cause you to ask questions about what was done to reduce costs. Going much above their prices (as with Noveske, KAC, LMT, and others) should make you question if you are paying for a name or features that you are unable to take advantage of. Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying its impossible reduce costs without sacrificing quality (supply chain management is one method of doing so). But I am asking that you don’t play that game with your first rifle since you don’t know a lot about the marketplace.

How did I arrive at this spec?

What separates the first iteration of this guide from the new Version 2.0 is that I have softened my stance a bit on a few things- particularly handguard and stock selection. Let me briefly explain each of theelements, and why I chose them as suggestions for a first timer.

I said a 16″ lightweight chrome lined barrel with a mid-length gas system because I gas-systemsbelieve it will be the most versatile for most people getting started in shooting. Heavy barrels really only shine in applications with high volumes of fire or an increased need for precision over the course of long strings of fire. Neither of those describe the average newbie. I used to suggest a 20″ barrel as well, and it is still a very viable option, but I don’t want to limit folks who might start using the carbine indoors for defending home and hearth.

I still suggest starting with a fixed triangle front sight base as opposed to the new trend of low profile gas blocks and rail-mounted front sights. The traditional triangle post is the sturdiest front sight and gas block you can use. If something has enough force to damage it, then there was probably enough force to destroy the whole rifle along with it. The fixed front sight is useful for point shooting, and works great for times where speed is of the essence. If you decide down the line that you want to mount a longer rail, then you can pay $40 to have it shaved down, or do it yourself, and still have one of the toughest and most rugged gas blocks available.

DSC_0339I still suggest most people should start with plastic handguards, but I’ve come around on the subject. There are many free float handguards on the market that are lighter than even the classic plastic ones. While most newbies will not really be able to take advantage of the accuracy benefit inherent in free floated barrels, it will be there for them in the future once they have practiced enough. The caveat, of course, is that you should do your research and buy quality. I take no sides in the Keymod vs M-LOK debate (though I have been using keymod), both will do the job well enough.

I used to suggest a plain collapsable stock like a Magpul MOE or standard Colt. I’ve backed off of that and will now say to pick a quality stock of your choice. BCM makes a great one, and Magpul makes several options. I suggest collapsable to better suit various shooters’ body mechanics. I’m also a fan of fixed rifle stocks, such as the A1, A2, and Magpul MOE rifle. If your primary usage is outdoors or at the range, a fixed stock has a lot of benefits in durability and smoother functioning (due to the longer action spring). Just remember, if you go the rifle route, you will need a different spring and buffer system than the carbine recommendation I made earlier. It’s up to you to do the homework on weight vs capability and how it affects your weapon. Remember, you should always strive for the lightest component that meets your needs and maintains reliability.

190261When it comes to triggers, I fully understand the temptation to jump for a $200 Geissele or Wilson Combat. I run Geisseles in all of my rifles at this point. However, I will admit that I did that before I could really take advantage of it. I’ve been shooting quite a few rifles with the ACT and PNT triggers, and they are all actually quite nice. They serve as fantastic interim triggers while you decide what route you wish to go in the future: combat two stage, light single stage, or any other variation. Once, and if, you go the route of fancy trigger, you still have a quality backup trigger in the parts bin. If you wish to know more, here is a post all about AR triggers.

When it comes to optics, I used to only suggest red dot sights. However, I realize that RearQuarter1many folks might not have eyes made for irons and red dots anymore. Some folks already know they want to go with magnification. For red dots, stick to the Aimpoint CRO, PRO, or T2 series. The Trijicon MRO has been getting a lot of attention lately as well. For magnified optics, the options are wide and varied. I’m a fan of Trijicon ACOGS and the ELCAN Specter series, but there are many more out there. You’re going to have to do your homework. For a quick overview of the market, here are my thoughts on optic selection.

For bonus items, I mentioned white lights and slings. In my opinion, no defensive rifle should be without a white light. It follows rule #4, knowing your target and what is behind it. Without a light, you might just be shooting at shadowy figures that may or may not be family members. As far as slings go, there are a huge number on the market tailored for various needs. You need to decide if you need one to serve more as a shooting aid, a retention device, or just carrying the rifle in the field. Pick one that suits your desires.

The Final Word

As I stated at the beginning, a generalized carbine will perform well at just about any role that can be expected of an AR-15. The more you start specializing it through fancy barrels, triggers, optics, rails, stocks, and accessories, the worse it will perform at all the other roles you didn’t specialize for. More so, those specialized guns only make a difference in the hands of a skilled user.

Until you have developed the experience and skill, then you really don’t know how you will prefer to use the rifle and what you can do to make it better for you. Until then, it’s all just theory and trying to be cool on the internet. Don’t do what I did.

General

New ACOG on the Market

It seems that Trijicon quietly released their newest addition to the ACOG lineup. The TA-110 builds upon the technology used in the TA02, which was essentially a battery powered TA01/TA31.

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The TA-110 is effectively a battery powered LED TA-11. Why is this interesting, you ask? I always felt that the TA02’s success was hindered because the usefulness of its battery power was irrelevant next to the eye relief drawbacks of TA-01/31 series. The TA-11, on the other hand, negates most of those issues and was among the most popular competition optics on the market because of its balance of field of view, magnification, and eye relief.

Had the TA-110 been on the market last year, I very well may have purchased it over my ELCAN SpecterOS 4x. As it stands now, the ELCAN still fills my battery-powered fixed magnification combat optic niche, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. However, I still plan on picking up a fiber-optic powered TA11 to fill the no-battery role.

Something else to keep in mind is that the expansion of Trijicon’s battery powered ACOG line to the TA-11 means that a version of extremely popular TA33 might be just around the corner.

The addition of battery power increases the weight of the TA-11 from 14 oz to 16.8 oz without mount. That’s not light by any means- but it’s not a terrible increase, either. Whether the weight penalty is worth it to you depends on your uses.

General

New Army TC 3-22.9: Marksmanship

You may have seen it published on a few sites, but it looks like the Army released a newly revised marksmanship training manual. The previous edition, FM 3-22.9, was released in 2008. The newest one appears to have made some welcome changes.

Note: Don’t get wrapped up in the terminology of FM (Field Manual) and TC (Training Circular), they are effectively the same thing.

Firstly, at 236 pages, the new manual is nearly half as long as the old one. This means that someone figured out that efficiency and ease of reference are valuable qualities. The new chapter structure is more intuitive and geared towards the practical employment of the M4/M16 platform. The first few chapters (1-4) are about the weapon system itself, the various accessories, and their usage. The remaining chapters (5-9) are about the employment of the weapon, with each chapter focusing on the elements of good marksmanship. What follows is a quick breakdown of each chapter. I highly recommend checking out and saving the complete document. I plan to revamp sections of my marksmanship skills posts (which remain unfinished) with portions of this publication, as I find it just that useful.

Chapter 1: Overview

Chapter 1 details several fundamental elements that will be built upon in the remainder of the manual. The chapter details safe weapons handling (Cooper’s four rules), as well as common terminology for weapon condition and employment (i.e. weapons hold, weapons tight, and weapons free). The chapter also introduces descriptions and effects of items such as overmatch, engagement range, visibility conditions, and terminal ballistic performance.

Chapter 2: Rifle and Carbine Principles of Operation

Chapter 2 is a fairly detailed description of the M4/M16 platform’s various components and a description of the firing cycle. The diagrams here are actually very useful, much more so than the 2008 edition. Of note, this new manual has a section dedicated to how the weapon cools itsel  and how the dissipation of heat will affect the shooter’s sight picture. As you will see below, Chapter 2 of this publication stripped out all of the accessories discussion of the previous edition and turned them into their own chapters and appendices.

Chapter 3: Aiming Devices

Chapter 3 details the various sighting methods available for the M4/M16. In particular, it focuses on Iron Sights, Optics, Thermal Sights, and Lasers/Pointers. There is a very good description of both Minutes of Angle (MOA) and Mils, as well as useful diagrams of the various reticle types commonly found on combat rifles. There is a much better description of the electromagnetic spectrum than the previous manual, as well as how ambient conditions (rain/fog/smoke) will affect the ability of thermal/image intensifiers to function in their respective spectrums.

Regarding optics and sighting devices, the chapter has detailed descriptions and tables for the various iron sights and optical devices. These sections have pro/cons for these sighting system  as well as reticle descriptions. With red dot sights, there is a useful diagram for holdover reference. 

Chapter 4: Mountable Equipment

Chapter 4 is a quick overview of other mountable equipment such as underbarrel grenade launchers, shotguns, bipods, vertical foregrips, and white lights.

Chapter 5: Employment

Chapter 5, in my opinion, is where the rubber really starts to meet the road. The chapter describes the expectations of each individual rifleman in regards to making hits count. It talks about the shot process and the supporting elements of it: stability, aim, control, and movement- each of which have their own chapter. There is also a section talking about target detection, identification, and prioritization. Included in this latter section is a paragraph concerning identification of friendly forces.

Chapter 6: Stability

Chapter 6 is lengthy, and has many elements to it. It starts with a description of steady hold factors and all the components that make up a good shooting position to include relaxation and natural point of aim. The chapter also describes various weapon carry positions and their associated advantages/disadvantages.

What is really interesting in this chapter is the description of the firing positions. Each has a nice diagram describing the various elements of the position. Of note, the new manual brings back the squatting position, or “rice paddy prone.” The new manual also includes all three sitting variations, as well as both traditional and reverse kneeling positions. The previous edition only included standing, kneeling, and four variations of prone (unsupported, supported, roll-over, reverse roll-over). This, in my view, is one of the most visible indicators that the new manual is more about successful marksmanship in the field and not just about passing the qualification course.

Another interesting tidbit in this chapter is that the details of unsupported prone position note that the rifle magazine can be rested on the ground as a monopod for added stability, and that doing so will not result in malfunctions. This is something that we’ve been hearing from instructors for years, but the Army never caught on. It appears that oversight has been corrected.

Chapter 7: Aim

Chapter 7 begins with listing the elements and actions that the shooter must keep in mind to make a successful shot: weapon orientation, sight alignment, sight picture, point of aim, and desired point of impact. It also discusses the importance of aiming for the center of visible mass (CoVM), which may appear as a head popping up over a wall or be an entire torso.

The remainder of the chapter covers each of the above elements in more detail, to include various sight pictures for each of the different aiming devices listed earlier. It also covers common aiming areas, aiming under adverse conditions, and weapon orientation. There are also many tips on using sights for rangefinding and windage correction. This chapter is actually very useful, and much more thorough than its predecessor. 

Chapter 8: Control

The emphasis of Chapter 8 is essentially what the shooter can influence themselves in order to make a successful shot. These include trigger control, breath control, workspace management, rate of fire, follow-through, malfunctions, and even transition to secondary weapons (if present).

Chapter 9: Movement

Chapter 9 is relatively short, and covers walking forward, back, laterally, and turning.

Appendix A: Ammunition

This section is exactly what it sounds like. It details the various components of an ammunition cartridge, as well as different bullet designs. There is a lot of detail about each of the issued 5.56 cartridges, their usage, and how to distinguish between them.

Appendix B: Ballistics

This section is actually a very good discussion of both internal, external, and terminal ballistics. The diagrams and discussions are much more detailed than the previous publication- particularly terminal ballistics and effects on various materials at range.

Appendix C: Complex Engagements

This section builds upon items originally covered in Chapter 7 by giving examples of circumstances that make good hits on target more difficult, and then working through solutions to those problems. Subjects include determining lead on moving targets, windage, angle of attack, adverse weather, and range correction are all covered.

Appendix D: Drills

This section opens with a discussion of mindset, something completely left out of the previous edition. It then goes on to discuss drills designed to enhance a shooters mindset, efficiency, tactics, and flexibility.

Appendix E: Zeroing

This last section is a very thorough explanation of the zeroing process. Additionally, this section talks about coaching of shooters.

General

When to Zero Your Optic

My last post emphasized the importance of a predictable zero to hit probability at a variety of ranges. It was only slightly less important to the task than raw marksmanship skill and wind calls.

Breach Bang Clear recently put up an interesting article that got me thinking about the subject.  I’ve also seen some forum postings lately asking about zeroes. One post in particular assumed that zeroing a red dot sight on one rifle and then moving that optic to another rifle meant that the optic would have the same point of aim/point of impact (POA/POI)- they wanted to know the best QD mount for doing this. Other users corrected this person, but it is reasonable to think that many relatively new shooters out there don’t understand this concept.

First off, to answer the question I saw in the forum, every zero is unique to the combination of sighting device, rifle, and the ammunition. When you see optics mounted on QD mounts, the intent is not that the optic can be moved from one rifle to another while maintaining zero. Rather, as in my case, the user might have more than one optic zeroed for a given rifle/ammunition combination and wants the ability to swap optics as needed. A good QD mount means there is little to no shift of the zero as the optic is dismounted and remounted.

I don’t want to rehash what Breach Bang Clear wrote. So I’ll simply that part of this post  by saying that if you want to maintain maximum accuracy, then you should rezero every time there is a significant change in the conditions that your previous zero was established in. What kind of conditions? If you change the type of ammunition, or even a different lot of ammunition from the same manufacturer, you might need to rezero; if the temperature or barometric pressure changes (including changes in altitude), you probably will need to rezero; if you rebarrel the rifle, or move the optic to a new rifle, you will need to rezero; if you change the torque values on the mounting screws, you will probably rezero.

What is the cost of not being this dedicated to maintaining a solid zero? Well, that depends on your required level of precision. I cannot say how much your zero might drift if any of these conditions change. Some will have more of an effect than others, but all will have an effect.

So what else is there to this “predictable” zero? Your zero is not just your chosen POA/POI. If you need to shoot at different distances, then you should also know what the difference will do to your POI. For instance, the BDC markings on an ACOG are not a guarantee. A predictable zero means that you take your optic/rifle/ammunition combination and actually shoot at each of the ranges on that BDC to see where they actually hit. Once you know that, then you have a more predictable zero.

Also, keep in mind that ballistic calculators (as handy as they are) aren’t much better than the BDC. It’s still a notional idea, and you will have to go out and see for yourself what your bullets actually do during flight. That is why generations of precision shooters have kept data books and logs of every shot fired in a variety of conditions. This, rather than just plugging numbers into JBM or their chosen ballistic app, allows them to predict what their shot will do from experience and real data.

I’ll admit that I’ve been lazy in this regard. For the most part, the weather where I live doesn’t change all that much. I really only zero when moving optics from rifle to rifle or when I change ammunition. I also keep track of how much of a change it is for each. For instance, I know it is a 5 MOA increase in elevation POI when switching from ADI 69gr SMK to Privi 55gr FMJ with the 20″ musket. I don’t quite have the talent to worry about much more specific than that. A change in lot of ammo or air density might affect a change in POI that is less than my natural ability, so I probably wouldn’t notice. But an F-Class shooter…yeah, they’d know.