Remember in the movie Full Metal Jacket when Drill Sergeant Hartman makes the platoon name their rifles and Private Pyle names his M14 "Charlene" (a name that I have not run across since the movie, probably just a coincidence...), well I generally don't do that. I figure that since Jesse Ventura took the coolest name of all, "Ol' Painless" in the movie Predator for his mini-gun that all other attempts would be pointless. Well, I made an exception. But first a little background. When I first started this little hobby of mine of creating a personal collection of firearms a few years ago, financially owning an AR was not in the picture. Besides I used AR style rifles on and off in the military for over 20 years so what was there left to learn about them? I bought my AK instead and spent a year or so learning how to shoot it and, like a lot of self proclaimed gun nuts, spent some more time and money customizing it with additional "tacticool" add-ons.
Guys like to tinker with stuff - fact. I don't know why it comes to such a surprise to some to the lengths some people will go to customize their weapons. Most people, like myself, who blog about weapons probably will never use them in their intended roles. Those that do go in harms way with a rifle do not generally speak loudly of such events or brag of their experience in such endeavors. For the rest of us, shooting is an enjoyable sport that we often try and personalize by customizing our weapons to look in such ways as we find pleasing to us. Yes, I am a so called "Mall Ninja" of sorts at this point in my life. So what of it? I enjoy shooting and I actively support gun rights and issues affecting the shooting community. So I guess maybe me supporting some of the same companies that also support our "operators" overseas helps all of us. It's my purchasing of Magpul accessories that enables them to have an R&D department to test and improve the PMAGs being used by our troops. Not that anyone is or has called me out as a "poser" or what have you, just pointing out my view on it before it becomes a point by someone else.
The "basic"rifle I had wanted had ballooned with a high powered optic and riser, heavy metal quad rails on the forearm, a thick rubber recoil pad on the rear and a vertical fore grip that I had a hard time using. Given a few more days or maybe a week, a bipod would have surely followed. But, hey, it looked cool....tacticool. Then somebody in my head (or maybe it was online, its hard to keep those two little worlds straight) said something that made sense..."If it doesn't work for you...ITS NOT COOL". Wow. Right there I understood the error of my ways. Instead of being a lightweight carbine that was fun to shoot, I had turned my firearm into a heavy beast that took more time to put in position to properly shoot than it did to disassemble. I had 4 rails that I used to hold one attachment, one that I wasn't using anyway. And do you remember what the title of the post was that it was in to begin with? "If the SHTF.." In that post I outlined a few scenarios in which I actually saw myself having to possibly use this carbine to defend myself and my family. Each one of those scenarios had some type of movement involved in them. Man, this was NOT the rifle that I would want to have to carry in such an incident. It was back to basics again and a rethinking of what I wanted from an AR.
1. A lightweight, mobile carbine
2. Something that was very ergonomically friendly to use
3. Something with optics that weren't cumbersome to use.
4. A carbine readily adaptable to a variety of scenarios.
5. Something reliable and easily maintainable.
Doesn't sound like a lot, and it isn't to be truthful with you. Hey, I can't think any service weapon the military has a bid out on that probably doesn't have these 5 qualities written up somewhere on the spec sheets. I read an article about a "basic fighting carbine" that the author made an argument for a carbine with basically the same specs that I just went over. Too much excess on a carbine doesn't make it better, just heavier and more expensive. What I eventually came up with is what I like to call "The Black Mamba" AR.
HA HA! See I got back around to that entire naming thingy from the first paragraph eventually. Yeah, I mostly don't see the point in naming rifles, but since what I came up with closely resembles the configuration of the off-the-shelf available S&W M&P15 MOE edition rifle, I wanted to set it apart a bit..not that I will be building these and competing with S&W at any point in the future. The name "Black Mamba" is really all about color. I decided to keep the color scheme all black instead of going with the trend of having a black rifle with sand/dark earth colored furniture. I wanted a name with black in it to emphasize this color scheme. Black Widow came up first but "widow" sounded somewhat feminine to me so my next choice was "mamba" . The black mamba snake is a very fast and efficient predator that delivers many deadly strikes when attacking. That name seemed perfect for the "fighting rifle" I was trying to create, so the name stuck.
The majority of upgrades to the rifle are Magpul accessories available on the M&P MOE edition. The MOE is a hell of a rifle and had it been available for miltary/LEO purchase and/or been in stock when I was bought my rifle, I probably most likely would have gotten it to begin with.
As you can see, there are a lot of things to like about the M&P MOE rifle. I didn't start out to purposely copy it, but after looking at what Magpul had to offer in the price/quality ratio, it was easy to see why S&W went with them. and I did the same.
So lets take a look at the rifle..
To some this will look like a basic AR, and they are right. I did not set out to recreate the wheel, just make the wheel as round as possible to work as effeciently as possible. Lets take a look at the rifle and its customized parts and costs (all prices are approximated w/o shipping)
The Rifle: Smith & Wesson M&P15 Patrol Carbine ($900)
Its hard to imagine, but up to a year or so ago S&W did not make an AR patterned rifle and now is producing one of the better designs out there. The M&P15 uses the "classic" direct gas impingement system instead of the "newer" gas piston systems being put into AR rifles lately, it is a system that I am familiar with and know how to maintain. Not that pistons are bad, quite the opposite. Most tests show them to be superior to a system that "poops where it eats" so to speak, but properly maintained the rifle should function more than well enough for my use. Some of the other key features of the rifle are as follows:
- milspec bolt and bolt carrier group with MPI and shot peened construction.
- 16" chrome lined barrel with 1:7 rifling and a A2 style flash suppressor
- milspec receiver extension (the "buffer tube") and 6 position collapsible stock
- flat top receiver with Picatinny rail and removable carry handle with A2 style rear sites
- A2 style fixed front site post, which I prefer for a couple of reasons.
There is nothing wrong with the stock butt stock on an M4. There is nothing wrong with the stock tires on a Mustang either, but I know plenty of people who go out and get better ones on them . Such is the logic that went into getting new furniture for my carbine. My bud Kevin has a Magpul CTR stock which is the higher end stock that Magpul makes...for about $100. For about $60 I got a good looking stock without the friction lock that makes the CTR stand out. It is a much sleeker design than the standard M4 stock, doesn't have the annoying rear sling swivel on the bottom and the locking lever is inside the butt stock frame instead of on the bottom where it may possibly be bumped and unlatched. Really, its just the users choice on this one. Sling and Adapter: Blackhawk Storm Single Point Tactical Sling ($25) and Yankee Hill Carbine Ambidextrious Sling Mount ($17)
The most challenging part of this project was getting the sling adapter onto the butt stock. For those that have not tried it before, taking off the receiver extension (almost universally and incorrectly called the "buffer tube" by most people) is a royal pain. Luckily "Kevin the Bud" had the proper vice and also a special spacer wrench made specifically for the AR to make this happen for me. I tried on my own using improper methods and only succeeded in slipping with the tools and smashing my finger into the bench. Not fun. The right tools make all the difference. The AR wrench will set you back about $30 if you need one. As for the sling, its single point which has it advantages and disadvantages compared to both 2 and 3 point models. I like the fact that it is the easiest to transition from shoulder to shoulder if need be. Being that until a few years ago I shot with my right arm, and maintain at least minimally proficient on that side, that being able to switch over rapidly is a big bonus for me personally. The sling is comfortable for the most part and has bungee built in for added give if needed. I plan on taking a carbine course next year and hopefully it will do well.
Pistol Grip and Trigger Guard: Hogue Over Molded AR pistol Grip ($20) and Magpul MOE Polymer trigger guard ($9)
If there is one part of your weapon that you want to modify to y0ur satisfaction, it should be your grip. Whether on a pistol or rifle, that is the portion of the weapon that you will spend the most time in contact with. I have seen countless people post about how they hate GLOCK pistols simply because of the way they feel in their hands, regardless of how well documented GLOCK service pistols show a very high level of reliability and durability. If you don't like the way it feels, chances are you won't use it. This Hogue grip is made of a fairly soft and tacky rubber and has a very tactile feel to it. I first thought the finger grooves would be annoying, but they fit almost perfectly and I have taken to this grip very well. If any part of this rifle were to be changed at this point, it would most likely be this grip for a Magpul MIAD grip, but at more than twice the cost of the current grip it is not very likely at the moment. As for the Magpul trigger guard, well it seems quite trivial and was the cheapest "upgrade" on the rifle. Why bother? Well, why not. It is a little know fact that on a stock M4 trigger guard that you can use bullet tip to depress a catch on the front right part of the guard, near the magwell, that will release it and allow the trigger guard to lay flat against the grip. Why? Well if you are stationed up in Alaska at Ft. Greeley or training at the NWTC and are using thick trigger finger mittens to keep frostbite at bay, it will make perfect sense. For the rest of us the regular trigger guard will usually suffice. The added hump in the bottom of the trigger guard gives a little more room for a gloved finger to comfortably get into the trigger area to function. With the prevalence of "combat gloves" being worn today this is a nice touch for less than $10 to your rifle.
Magazines: 2 Magpul 30 round PMAGs ($18) and 8 - 30 round USGI mags ($13) ($140 total)
Hey, magazines aren't part of the weapon! I beg to differ. In computer programming and systems design there is an old adage "GIGO" - Garbage In, Garbage Out. It means that putting something worthless into the beginning of a process results in a worthless outcome. Why would I spend all of this money on a rifle only to use unreliable means to feed the beast? Answer: I wouldn't. the 8 USGI mags will work, I know it because I have used them before but the 2 (and soon to be more) polymer PMAGs are what I am excited about. These mags are "all the rage" in some circles due to their durability and the patented follower that all but eliminates the possibility of the follower tilting inside the mag and not feeding rounds. In addition each magazine comes with a dust cover that can be used to store full mags with no pressure being exerted on the feed lips (the most common cause of magazine double feeds). When taken from storage and put into use the dust covers can be attached to the bottom of the mags so they are not lost. I found a small length of 550 looped under them while in this mode makes for a quick and dirty mag puller to help remove mags from loaded mag pouches (feel free to credit me with this discovery at your discretion). Most of all, these mags are gaining a reputation for durability in combat conditions. There are videos on the net showing these mags being run over by trucks and still working. I submit the following to you as proof (real GI's testing them in Iraq!) ..
Eventually, I plan on running all PMAGs with the rifle.
Front Hand Guards: Magpul MOE Hand Guards ($30)
Probably one of the best feeling hand guards I have ever felt on a rifle. These polymer guards come as a upper/lower configuration with the lower half being wider and flater than the top with a triangular cross section reminiscent of the old M16A1 hand guards of yesteryear. What you will find is that the flat bottom sits very well in your hand for shooting (the round hand guards were a request from the USMC - who actually designed the M16A2 - to enhance the ability to do rifle and bayonet combatives). You have the ability to mount optional Picatinny rails on it via the provided mounting holes to mount whatever it is you feel that you may need to. I may eventually mount a small rail on the right side to mount a flash light to. The other thing I found while trying them out at home is that the forward portion of the bottom half of the guard near the front site post flares out slightly and the front edge of the bottom guard bevels in slightly. This is partially so that a front sling swivel can fit there but I found that if I use a more forward grasping hold on the rifle (as is being taught these days to compensate for the added weight of equipment on the barrel of the rifle) that this grove makes an excellent memory point for the placement of my support hand index finger. Now how that will work out with round going down the barrel and my finger there has yet to be seen. Possibly by using Nomex gloves this will work. Anyway, a great upgrade to the stock hand guards for around 30 bucks!
Rear Back Up Iron Sight (BUIS): Magpul MBUS ($55)
OK, big thanks to Kevin here as the site shown here is actually his. Mine is still on back order and hopefully will be here soon. I am pretty excited about this sight as there was a lot of "buzz" about it at the last SHOT show. They are made of polymer, are spring loaded and deploy by pushing either of the wings on the side or pressing straight down on top of them. It is a back up sites and as such does not have any elevation controls other than a flip down "small - long range" and "large - close range" apertures. It does come with a windage dial for zeroing. It is more than adequate for back a back up ssight and by all reports so far is more than durable enough for its intended use.
Optic: EOTech XPS-2.0 Holographic Weapons Sight (HWS) ($420 after $50 rebate)
Alright, the "pièce de résistance" for the carbine, this thing set me back almost half as much as the purchase price of the M&P15. Was it worth it? Damn straight skippy it was. This thing is AWESOME!! Thanks EOTech! Although I have yet to shoot it on the rifle yet, it is not hard to tell why our troops overseas are using these against Al Quaeda and the rest of that lot over there. The basic principle of the EOTech is that it projects a virtual hologram of a reticle into infinity that allows you to aim with a very minimal (in most cases a practically non-existent amount of) parallax. In a layman's terms, this means put the targeting image on what you want to shoot regardless of where it is in the aiming window and pull the trigger. You WILL hit what you are aiming at. This is probably overkill for what I plan on using this rifle for, but just in case I need to use this thing for real I would be glad to have it. After this purchase I am putting the credit card away for a while! (like I haven't said that before!) I have the new XPS model that uses a transverely mounted CR123 battery which shortens it compared to older EOTech designs. In addition it supposedly gets about 600 hours of run time per battery. Depending on if you use the "down arrow" or "up arrow" to turn the unit on, you will get either 4 or 8 hours of use before it will automatically turn off, respectively. To turn off manually you simply push both buttons together for a moment. This model does not have night vision capabilities, which is cool with me since I don't own any. The standard aiming reticle consists of a 1 MOA (minute of angle, 1" at 100 yards) dot surrounded with a 65 MOA circle. The circle may be used to rough estimate distance of a grown man as a approx 5'5" person would fill up the ring (65 MOA + 65" at 100 yards) and only half at 200 yards and so on. I have been told that the lower edge of the ring by the tic mark is a 7 yard aiming point, but I have not been able to confirm this. Once zeroed at 50 meters this site can effectively be used to engage targets at combat ranges out to 300 meters with a center hold. Ranges of less than 50 and more than 300 would require a hold over/under. The big advantage to these sites?....SPEED. You can much more quickly acquire targets using this system than iron sites. Again, this thing is awesome. I am sure it will be great when I take that carbine course in the spring.
Please note the camera distorts the reticle, which is much clearer and larger in real life.
Final tally for the project.......$1,676!!!
Wow, that's a lot of money. But then again this hobby of mine isn't cheap and you get what you pay for and I know what I got is quality because I hand picked it.
As you noticed, I chose a lot of parts from Magpul. They make good stuff of high quality and it is competitively priced, many times much lower that the alternatives. I like them, I use their stuff and I recommend them. If nothing out check out their banner on their home page, lots of cool stuff going on there!
Other setup "modes"
In addition to the set up above there are also 2 other ways to run the rifle that doesn't cost anything additional and doesn't add to the cost of the rifle:
1. "Light Fighter Mode" with just the backup sights with the EOTech removed for when it may be out of service or when a very light, basic carbine is called for.
2. "Long Range" mode utilizing the A2 style carrying handle and rear sights complete with the elevation drum. I may use this if I choose to shoot it at another Appleseed event and want some more precise iron sights.
So, there you have. My almost $1,700 "basic" carbine that does what I think I set out to do -create a fighting rifle without the clutter found on many modern carbines that I can use effectively. Its basic, just like a circle. Like I said I never set out to re-create the wheel, just create as perfect of one as I could. The story goes that In 1508, Pope Julius II was looking for someone to paint the ceiling of the great Sistine Chapel. Despite coming highly recommended, the Pope asked Michelangelo for proof of his talent before he was commissioned. Deftly the artist replied by drawing a perfect circle, free-hand, and handing it to the Pope. Just one circle, perfect in all means..
** DISCLAMER** Again, here we go. I am in no way associated with any companies of whose products I have reviewed (Smith& Wesson, EOTech, Magpul, et al) nor do I expect to get any type of reimbursement for my stated views and opinions of this blog.