*AR-15s for Serious Use*
By: By Forest
Manager of the Maryland AR-15 Shooters Site
18 November 2001


I have seen a lot of postings about unreliable AR-15s from people who intend on using them for "serious" purposes. Most often these problems can be repaired or were avoidable in the first place if you know what to look for when choosing an AR-15. My goal with this article is not to upset those who made "less than ideal choices", but to inform those who are considering relying on an AR-15 with their life. If your rifle is not one of the ones I list as being reliable enough, there will be a paragraph dealing with how to upgrade it to spec. The rifles I discuss may not be true ‘tack drivers’ but all are capable of 1 MOA groups with the proper ammo, or sub 2 moa groups with decent quality ball ammo. There are four things to consider if you want a ‘reliable’ AR - the rifle itself and what features it contains, your magazines, your maintenance/cleaning, and your ammo selection. We will trade-off some accuracy for reliability, and ‘cosmetic looks’ for functioning and durability.

Before I move on, let me ask you to please keep in mind that laws can (and do) change rapidly and dramatically. While I've done my best to make sure the information in this article is accurate as I type it, in 3 years the laws could (and hopefully will) be much different. The same is true for manufacturers. The best manufacturers today may be outclassed next year by some new up-and-coming start-up. Improvements in machining tools, sold for lower prices in the future, could bring the quality standards of the entire industry up almost overnight. So while laws and top manufacturer's names may change in the future, the reasons a part should be made a certain way probably won't change very much... 'The reasons a part works' is what I'm hoping you'll take away from this article.

Required Features

Too often people judge rifles by ‘fit & finish’ or form over function. For a serious rifle you must ignore the superficial cosmetics and go to the working parts. First off what is needed for a "serious" AR-15? There are several features that should be considered, these features are all present in Military M16s, but not in all civilian AR-15s. In order of importance (IMHO) they are: M16 sized chamber, chrome lined chamber, mil-spec heat treated fire control parts, chrome lined bore, a chrome lined bolt carrier, and standard sized fire control pins. The ‘serious’ AR should have a forged lower receiver and a forged front sight for maximum strength.

One other feature a working rifle should have is a lightweight (not HBAR) barrel, a minimum of 14.5" of barrel length (flash hider/muzzle brake not included), and 1:9 or 1:7 twist. We will talk more on this in other paragraphs, and how to get one if you already have an HBAR.

4150 barrel steel is a "nice to have" feature, as opposed to the lower grade, less expensive 4140 steel. It’s not a critical feature, but the barrel will last longer.


Feature Compliant Manufactures

Of all those features, only one manufacturer currently gives you all these features, while two others come close. If you buy a rifle (or kit) from someone other than those listed you are taking some chances with reliable operation and long-term wear. The least ‘compliant’ of the Big Three manufactures surprisingly is Colt! Colt no longer chrome lines the bores of their rifle (gives a bit more accuracy), and their fire control pins are usually (90% of the time, as of this writing) non standard (limits parts availability). Lately they have also been a bit cheap on the trap door buttstock and buffer, but at least are now offering the rifle with two push pins to separate the receivers. Note that older rifles may have the chrome lined bores, and may not have the front take down pin. Colt usually has the best quality control (though they have been slipping a bit lately), but the worst customer service (good thing they usually make the rifles right the first time!). Colt is a good choice if you are looking for the most accuracy possible in a working gun.

The next manufacturer to consider is Armalite, but only those rifles with the chrome-lined chambers & bores. Note I said Armalite, NOT Eagle Arms, while they come from the same factory the Armalites have the chrome lining in their barrels. Don’t let the clerk try to sell you the more accurate rifle with the stainless barrel - You want reliability over accuracy. The only point where the Armalites fall short is in the chamber. Armalite has repeatedly promised, during the last 2 years, they were going to the M16 spec chamber in their chrome-lined barrels... Well recently they admitted it had not yet been done (but its coming soon…). Armalite is the only one of the ‘Big Three’ to not use the mil-spec 4150 steel in their barrels. The tougher steel is nice, but not critical in this rifle, as the chrome lining will help extend the wear. On the plus side they do have a lifetime warranty and better quality control than the last of the Big Three.

The last of the Big Three is Bushmaster. Bushmaster is also the ONLY one to offer all of the desirable features, and is the closest to the rifles used by the US military. You want to select a model that has a chrome lined bore (this leaves out the DCM rifle and the new Varmint rifle). Bushmaster also offers several ‘lightweight’ barrel options for post ban rifles (16" M4 barrel {best}, the M4/AK barrel, and the M4 Dissapator [16" barrel with rifle sight radius]). They also offer all their HBARS in fluted form for a modest weight reduction. By the way in 1999 Bushmaster made more AR-15s for the commercial market than ALL the other manufacturers (in the US) combined. With such a large number of rifles produced sometimes little things get by. The biggest complaint is that the barrel is improperly torqued, resulting in a rear sight that is all the way to one side when zeroing. I don’t worry about it, if you do then send it back. Bushmaster has great customer service and is quick about fixing any glitches or problems. Note even the Big Three occasionally turn out a lemon - it happens to the best of manufacturers. All of them will take the rifle back and get it fixed (though it may take a while with the Colt). Just be sure to maintain them properly and you should have minimal (near zero) problems.

Upgrading a Non-Compliant Rifle

OK so you already have an AR and want to upgrade it to make it more reliable. First lets talk about part suppliers. Many are indicating the parts they get are ‘FN’ Manufactured (they hold the current M16A2 contract for the US Army). BEWARE OF ANYONE SELLING "FN" PARTS/BARRELS/RECEIVERS - AVOID THEM LIKE THE PLAGUE. FN is prohibited from selling rifles or parts on the commercial market. FN can not legally produce AR-15s, so all their fire control parts are M16A2 (thus not legal in a typical AR-15 as of this writing). Any parts that are ‘truly’ FN produced were either stolen, or were factory rejects that were sold as scrap. Buying stolen items is never a good idea, and using what may be factory rejects isn’t smart either. Do you want to bet your life that ‘FN’ barrel you bought doesn’t have some sort of flaw in the steel? Another point to consider. Most AR parts are not marked as to the manufacturer, many shady dealers sell their parts as ‘FN’ knowing no right minded person will buy ‘factory seconds’ or ‘ cheap imported parts’. A word to the wise - stick with the big three for parts.

First thing to consider upgrading is the barrel (replacement cost about $200). While this might seem like a good sum of money, you got to think what is your life worth? Plus you could always sell the old barrel on the ‘net and recoup some of your costs. A new ‘in spec’ barrel gets you a chrome-lined M16 sized chamber, a chrome lined bore, a forged front sight, and often a lightweight profile. There are only two brands to consider Colt or Bushmaster. Many of the Colt aftermarket lightweight barrels are chrome lined (completely), and their military (A2 or M4) barrels are fully lined. The biggest difference between the two is the twist rate. Most Colts are 1:7, this will stabilize 55gr and 62gr rounds, and will stabilize the M856 tracer and the 80gr match loads. Unfortunately under rapid/heavy fire the barrel will ‘burn out’ quicker than the now common 1:9 barrels. Bushmaster is a big proponent of the 1:9 barrels as they’re optimal for 62gr loads (i.e. M855/Nato SS109) and will handle 40gr varmint loads up to 75gr match loads. It should have a longer barrel life given the same shooting conditions as the 1:7. Now when selecting a barrel you DO NOT want an HBAR. The AR is intended as a lightweight rifle, and the extra weight offers little function in return. The difference between an HBAR 20" rifle and the same rifle with an A2 barrel profile is 1 pound - that is an empty HBAR rifle weighs the same as a fully loaded (30 rounds) A2 barreled rifle, quite a difference.

Pre-Ban Options: For the pre-ban rifle Colt makes barrels in A2 (20"), M4 (16"), and lightweight (16") profile, all in 1:7 twist. For a carbine I’d go with the weight savings of the lightweight over the 16" M4 - though neither will allow you to use a bayonet. Bushmaster makes pre-ban barrels in A2 profile, M4 (16"), M4 (14.5" with welded on Phantom flash suppressor), and a lightweight profile. For the carbine I’d recommend the M4/Phantom combination because it WILL allow you to use a bayonet. Avoid the surplus A1 barrels. The A1 barrels 1:12 twist will prevent you from being able to shoot the 62gr (and heavier) loads. If you must have an A1 profile barrel - then send it to a gunsmith for reprofiling (see Upgrades to All Rifles).

Post-Ban Options: In post ban form Bushmaster offers a 16" M4 barrel (best post-ban carbine barrel), a M4/AK barrel (14.5" M4 barrel with an AK muzzle brake - skip this), and a M4 Dissipater (16" barrel with a 20" barrel sight radius, .2 lbs more than a 16" M4 barrel). I’d stay away from the fluted barrels, their weight loss is minimal compared to the profiled barrel, and for roughly the same price you can turn an HBAR into the barrel profile of your choice. Of course for a post-ban rifle you can use a pre-ban barrel with some changes. Remove the bayonet lug (or just its ‘ears’), and permanently attach a BATF approved muzzle brake (like the Wilson Combat or Kurt’s Kustom brake). Instructions for the BATF approved method of hi-temp silver soldering a muzzle brake onto a threaded barrel can be found at the Maryland AR-15 Shooters Site. Most smiths (Kurt included - see next section) can do the pre-to post change with little work.

Low on funds? Ok you want to upgrade your barrel but you are low on funds for the moment. What can you do the help improve reliability for now? Polish the chamber! You will need some JB Paste or Remington Bore cleaner, polishing compound, a drill, and either a mop (large enough to fit the chamber) or a chamber brush and some patches. First use some of the JB Paste on the mop (or a patch wrapped around the chamber brush) and put it in the chamber. Use the drill to polish the chamber (not too much!). Then repeat using finer polishing compound. This will open up the chamber a tiny bit, but more importantly allow easier round extraction.

If you are unsure about the quality of your parts you can buy internal parts sets from Armalite, Colt and Bushmaster (cost around $60). This will ensure that your parts will not ‘wear out’ prematurely (you can keep the old ones as emergency field spares). Be sure your bolt carrier is chromed lined (in the area the bolt resides), if it is not lined or the hole is not round (i.e. oval) then replace it with a quality (in-spec) unit.

Parts to Avoid (Other than FN)

There are several parts out there that are sold as ‘upgrades’ and ‘better than spec’. Most of these parts are intended to separate you from your money with little to no improvements offered, and a possibility of reduced reliability. These parts include Chrome plated bolt carriers, Chrome plated bolts, TiN coated parts (bolt carrier, fire control), and Titanium firing pins.

Save your money and keep the rifle reliable - use standard parts from quality vendors.

Upgrades to All Rifles (especially HBARS)

If you have an HBAR barrel on your rifle you need to consider a weight loss program. The AR-15 was intended as a lightweight rifle, carrying around the extra weight just leads to early fatigue. As said before an empty HBAR 20" rifle is the same weight as a 20" A2 barreled rifle with a 30 round magazine. Heck a 20" A2 barrel is LIGHTER than a 16" HBAR barrel. Since you already have a rifle with an HBAR what can you do? The cheapest way to get the barrel down to ‘fighting’ weight is to send it to a smith and have him put it on a lathe and turn it down to the proper diameter then reparkerize the barrel. This should affect accuracy minimally if done right. Any decent AR smith should be able to reprofile and reparkerize your HBAR barrel to a military profile for much less than the cost of a new barrel. Kurt Wala of Kurt’s Kustom ( http://www.kurts-kustom-firearms.cityslide.com/pages/page.cfm/64927 ) does this at his shop (16" HBARs to M4 or lightweight, 20" HBARS to A2 or A1 profile) for a very reasonable rate (HBAR 20" to A2 is $55). I prefer the A2 to the A1 profile for my 20", while being a few ounces heavier it keeps its accuracy longer when shooting a lot.

Another area people want to upgrade is their extraction. This is especially an important thing to look at for carbines with their shortened gas system. There are three ways to do this. The first is the mil-spec way, by replacing your current extractors (with the blue insert in the extractor spring) for the newer extractors with the black insert. The black insert was originally developed for the M4 carbine, but works in all AR-15s and is the only replacement part the military is now buying. Cost is $4 from SAW LE Sales (http://www.SAWLESALES.com). The other two methods are designed to be used with the older blue insert. They are the Armforte Defender ($14) and the Olympic Arms EXring ($1.49). Basically they work the same, they go around the extractor spring and add more force to the extractor. Personally the easiest and best way is to get the mil-spec part, but having a few EXrings on hand as spares isn’t a bad idea.

Trigger upgrades are something most people want for a more accurate rifle. That is fine; just remember your ‘upgraded’ trigger should not have any screws to adjust. Screws have a tendency to come loose at the wrong time (Murphy principal). There are several ways you can upgrade your trigger and still keep the rifle ‘military’ reliable. The first is to just polish the trigger pin and smoothen out the pull. The other was is to get one of the replacement triggers that do not have screw adjustments. If you want a double stage type trigger consider either the Armalite or Rock River Arms trigger. If you just want a better single stage then look to the one offered by Accuracy Speaks.

Speaking of triggers you know that open area just behind the trigger guard and in front of the pistol grip? Yeah the one that can give you blisters if you carry your rifle all day (like at an urban rifle class). Well you can solve the blister problem either by stuffing a foam earplug in there, or spending a couple of bucks and buy a Gapper (available from many sources). The Gapper fills the void and prevents the blister. This doesn’t affect reliability or durability, but it does make holding the rifle for long periods much easier.

Other Part Notes

There are three other parts you should be aware of. Normally these parts are made of aluminum, but in some cases plastic is used. Depending on the part that could be a good thing. The first part is the Trigger Guard. Traditionally that part has been aluminum. Bushmaster currently uses plastic (they claim it is allowed by the mil-spec). Personally I prefer the plastic. The aluminum can be bent in such a way that it blocks the trigger (not a good thing!). If the plastic is bend beyond the breaking point it snaps; it may be broken - but it won’t block the trigger. The next part that is often replaced by plastic is the magazine release. Aluminum is preferred here, but it is not a big issue. The Delta Ring is the final part that is often replaced by plastic. This part is subject to being hit on rocks and should be aluminum for maximum durability. The chief problem is it is very difficult to replace (you will need to remove the front sight post). Best bet is to get it replaced when you have your HBAR reprofiled.


Magazines are a critical part in the reliability of any semi-automatic firearm; this is especially true with an AR. To insure reliable feeding DO NOT PURCHASE aftermarket magazines. These may be used for training purposes just fine, just don’t rely on them with your life. There are only 3 magazines I would consider for a reliable AR. USGI 30 round aluminum, USGI 20 round aluminum, or 30 round US produced Thermolds (not Orlites). Theoretically the steel FNC 20 round magazines (European military issue for the FN-FNC 5.56mm rifle) should also be fine, but I have not found any for sale in the US. USGI 20 round magazines include those used by the military (alloy follower) and the Colt commercial magazines (with plastic follower). The military ones are a bit more reliable due to their alloy follower. The 20’s in general are considered more reliable than the 30’s due to their straight walled design. The 20’s weak point is the feed lips, they are unsupported at the rear and will tend to wear out (spread) earlier than the USGI 30s. The USGI 30’s are the most common magazine. Thermold magazines, a hard black plastic magazine, were intended to replace the USGI aluminum ones. I find the 30 round versions made in the US to be very reliable, the 20 round version are not so reliable and should be considered 2nd tier (along with the Orlites - softer black plastic) suitable more for training. I have reports from soldiers in the field that the Canadian produced Thermolds (have a maple leaf stamped on them) are less than durable. Their lips wear out quickly, and they cannot be stored loaded for long periods of time (the stress bulges the magazine at the feed lips resulting in double feeds). I have not noted these problems with the US produced magazines (marked Master Mold), but I don’t have nearly as much field time with them as my source.

When buying magazines there are some items you should inspect, and some you should ignore. Here is how to check for a magazine.


Like with all things if you feed it garbage, don’t expect high performance. Ammunition like Wolf (steel cased) usually feeds fine in ‘in-spec’ rifles. It is cheap blasting/training ammo, though it is very dirty and underpowered. However to insure full reliability and performance stick with mil-spec (or close to it) ammo. Even the clean/accurate commercial ammo (like American Eagle) should only be regulated to training as they lack the flash retardants and muzzle velocity of the military loadings. Military spec (M193) ammunition includes Winchester Q3131 (made in the USA), Winchester Q3131A (made in Israel by IMI), and IMI M193 and IMI M855 (62gr). Of all these I prefer the Winchester Q3131A it is of higher quality (IMHO) than Q3131 and it generally costs less than the IMI M193 (though it’s the same stuff). Stay away from the 1999 lots of Winchester Q3131 (USA produced). I’ve found there was poor quality control and different lots have had problems (including popping primers). Some of the lots were known, but others have just been discovered (2 years after production). As a rule its just best to avoid the 1999 lots for maximum dependability. Another good inexpensive load is the South African military ammo (in the brown ‘battle packs’). It seems identical to M193, and if nothing else its cheap, CLEAN, practice ammo that shoots to the same point of aim as M193. This stuff is 20 years old so I wouldn’t be using it for long-term storage, but it shoots well.


Keeping the Rifle Clean

Many people think that the AR is only reliable when it is spotless. The rifle should be cleaned, but it does not have to be spotless. A typical cleaning should take no more than 15-20 minutes and 6 to 8 patches for the bore! Any more and you are probably over cleaning it (not necessarily bad, but it really doesn’t help). First off, follow the Operators Manual (-10) for cleaning AND lubrication (you can down load it for free from http://old.ar15.com/books). Many people want to clean and lubricate the rifle like it was a match rifle. That would be fine if it were such a beast, but we are talking about a reliable weapon, not a range toy. Be sure to use CLP (either Break Free CLP or Remington Nitro CLP - be sure the bottle says ‘CLP’). DO NOT use any other lubricants or solvents, these can react with the CLP and really gum things up. A good quality 'Teflon Impregnated' lubricant allows the Teflon to get into the pores of the metal over time, which greatly reduces wear and the difficulty of cleaning dirt and fouling off the parts. The parts run a little smoother every time you use a good quality Teflon Impregnated lubricant! Eventually the parts become so slippery (WITHOUT being sticky) that you find you only need a tiny amount of lubricant (if any at all). Eventually you're able to almost just wipe down your parts without the need for constant scrubbing! Additionally, if you're unable to clean your weapon for some reason, it'll still run trouble free once the pores of the metal parts become saturated with Teflon on a microscopic level. Areas to pay attention to include the chamber, locking lugs, end of the gas tube, bolt, extractor, cam pin, and bolt recess (in the bolt carrier). Be sure to lubricate the ejector on the bolt face (instructions are in the -10). These are the areas most critical for reliable operation of the rifle.

When cleaning the barrel you should only need 6 to 8 patches. If the patches come out a little gray that is OK. CLP is constantly pulling carbon out of the pores, even if you were to get a white patch, if you ran a patch down the bore the next day it would come out gray (from stuff the CLP pulled out of the fissures and pores). If you do need to clean out the copper (rarely needed - only when the groups start to open up, about 2000-3000 rounds) be sure to strip the barrel and upper receiver of the copper solvent by using Gun Scrubber or similar degreaser.

If CLP is not available then LSA would the second choice. When changing lubricants to or from CLP remember to strip off the old lube with Gun Scrubber or another degreaser to prevent gumming.

Closing Comments:

If the AR is properly set up, uses good magazines, good ammunition and is properly cared for; it should be an extremely reliable system. Just keep it as close as possible to the same specification the military demands for its rifles. To those that don’t have spec rifles but are saying "my rifle works fine - thank you". Great for you, you got one of the lucky ones; or you have not sufficiently pushed it in a bad environment. Does having a ‘Spec’ guarantee you will not have a malfunction?? Of course not! (Otherwise we wouldn’t need immediate action drills!) However, it will significantly reduce problems. You may want to keep a bad magazine or two so you can still practice malfunction drills, as they will most likely not occur during range time with a top tier AR. Leave the match barrels and such to the DCM shooters and gun game players, give me a ‘serious’ AR.


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