A Love Affair with the ArmaLite

Those three little words can make or break your day. When the one you love lets you down it isn’t a good feeling. However, just the same—you need to do your maintenance!

The AR-15 rifle is a low maintenance firearm compared to the many self-loaders that preceded it, although it wasn’t the first low maintenance military rifle. The M1 .30 Carbine earned that distinction. However, non-corrosive ammunition and modern manufacturing have gone a long way to ensuring the rifle is actually low maintenance— just because it doesn’t demand the rigors of an M1 Garand or an FN FAL. An AR-15 rifle that doesn’t shoot well isn’t as great a mystery as the Mary Celeste of Judge Crater but sometimes the correct answer demands all of your concentration. On the other hand a more pleasant mystery is why some rifles shoot so well with minimal effort. As an example, a military intelligence officer I know well has tightened his personal AR-15 rifle with the little red block and he has also fitted a good ATN scope with illuminated reticule. The 16-inch barrel carbine shoots better than it has any right to. My personal Bushmaster is a good shooter and the Daniel Defense rifle even better. As far as accuracy goes nothing in the arsenal touches the AR when it comes to off-the-rack military rifles. And I own a number of pretty decent blue steel and walnut rifles. I also own other .223 caliber rifles. Recently, I was firing my 24-inch heavy barrel bolt gun in a leisurely session. This bolt-action rifle is fitted with a 20-power Nikon optical sight. The piece will consistently group the Fiocchi 55 grain JSP loading into a three-shot group of about .4 inch at 100 yards. With the off-the-shelf ‘canned heat’ FMJ loads offered by Fiocchi, the Howa never strays over an inch for three shots at 100 yards. The pretty little Remington 799 is not as consistent with its lightweight sporting barrel. The Bushmaster plugs along with three-shot one-inch groups with some loads and only a little larger with others. Will a coyote know the difference? Of course not. The Daniel Defense rifle is even more accurate.

I am well aware we are all about the pursuit of accuracy; accuracy being perfection and the best example of accuracy being zero deviation. A good marine chronometer is a device you can bet your life on and so is an accurate AR rifle, but the reason the AR is so accurate is not often understood. There is a great difference in accuracy potential between the AK-47 and the AR-15, largely because these two adversaries are of a different generation. The AR was designed in a way that is can be built in small shops while the AK was built for mass manufacture. The design of the AR-15 rifle lends itself well to accurizing, and accurizing is simpler and less demanding of time and skill that improving the bolt gun. But you can take the AR and defend your life against a take over robbery or armed gang, or even deliver fast repeat shots on predators. The black rifle is a better all arounder than we would have thought when it was first introduced.

While I admit a certain affinity for blue steel and walnut, the practical applications of a gun that is assembled rather than carefully hand fitted are obvious. The AR-15 rifle is assembled and the design is such that extremes of heat or cold or firing the rifle until it is hot do not affect accuracy. The bolt locks solidly into the barrel time and again with each cycling of the action. The barrel does not depend upon free-floating or any consideration other than being locked into the receiver. Unlike quite a few sporting and military rifles, it is difficult to affect the zero of the AR by cleaning or even disassembly and reassembly. One of the Bushmasters was fitted with a Compass Lake trigger some time ago. This is one of the few improvements really needed to spruce up AR-15 accuracy. Good ammunition is essential. While I have spent a few hours on the bench with Forster precision dies for the .223- and noticed the improvement in accuracy by careful load practice-there are a number of excellent factory loads that truly deliver. One of these is the Fiocchi load previously mentioned. Most of the bolt guns are rifles for varmint weight bullets. The heavy bullets tend to be darned accurate in a quality AR. The FMJ bullets are plenty accurate for meaningful practice. Remember, the bolt locks into the barrel, not the receiver. The locking lugs of the AR are well designed. The only ones I have seen broken are locking lugs that seem to have been flexed by use of a poorly designed forward gripping handle. This defect has flexed the barrel over time and allowed the bolts to hit a bit off-center. The Daniel Defense forend is immune from this problem with its forward gripping handle. I do not really need the high-tech Daniel Defense multifunction forend but the gun shoots great and the option is nice to have. Back to the lockup- there is no design that offers more consistent lockup than the AR-15 bolt design. And the lockup is consistent with each and every shot delivered from a bolt that tends to move back to the same position with little lateral or radial play.

Barrel twist rate is important to handloaders more than sport shooters, but should be understood, particularly when it comes to the AR-15 rifle and the wide choices in ammunition. Let’s consider a 1 in 9 inch turn. The barrel simply turns the bullet one complete revolution in nine inches. (Bullet weight isn’t as important as length but weight and length are pretty much linked except in the case of the all copper Barnes bullets.) A fast twist can move the bullet around as fast as the water twists in a pail and work up a lot of heat. The 1 in 9 twist is good for the popular 69-grain bullets. I have also used the HSM loaded 80-grain bullet and this one is pretty darned accurate but really needs a 1 in 7 twist. So, study the likely needs before choosing the gun and twist. Varmint shooting or deer hunting? Personal defense? If you are a defensive shooter, you darned well better use the heavy bullets not the varmint bullets or the darned things will be blowing up on zippers and leather coats. The 1 in 7 barrel twist is versatile and will handle all weights including the 80 grain pretty well. If you are a fan of the legendary Black Hills 77 grain Open Tip, the most proven Tango killers of all time, then you need the 1 in 7 barrel twist. Among the few problems likely is shooting the new breed of 36-grain bullets in the faster rifle barrel. In the 1 in 7 you may you may suffer a blown up bullet. Bullets coming apart aren’t actually a result of extreme velocity but rather a result of jacket damage from the too fast twist.

Let’s discuss the difference between the 5.56mm NATO and the .223 Remington cartridge. The difference is in the chambers, with the .223 Remington chamber the tighter of the two with a minimum leade. The NATO specification chamber is the more versatile and in simple terms, the safer as far as pressure spikes go. In short firing higher pressure 5.56mm loads in the short .223 chamber may raise pressure, period, and sometimes result in a blown primer. An AR-15 rifle really should have the 5.56mm NATO chamber and the piece will shoot admirably with this chamber. You really should understand this issue and be certain that you are feeding the rifle the proper loads. Again, this issue is more of a problem for handloaders. Now, sometimes a rifle doesn’t shoot as well as we would expect. There are cures for this problem as well. One of the major problems with AR rifle accuracy is fouling. Folks do not like to clean their barrels and many assume that jacketed bullets eliminate the necessity of frequent cleaning of the bore. Don’t laugh; I see this often. Sometimes the cleaning is done with a light oil and cotton only and no solvent. Use a cotton patch with the proper solvent and you can find the problem easily enough. I have yet to see a truly shot out barrel in an AR, although I am sure some exist. Fouled barrels are a dime a dozen. Clean the barrel and you find that the groups will shrink. Another problem is a dent in the muzzle brake or on the crown. A good AR rifle is not inexpensive but just the same sometimes folks give them rough treatment. A rough crown is easily repaired. A combination of a rough crown and a fouled barrel will limit the useful accuracy of any rifle.

A rough trigger may be learned but an inconsistent trigger is murder. There are certain brands of ammunition that have earned a reputation for dirty powder and subsequently the AR’s get soaked with unburned powder. In fairness it isn’t all about the dirty ammunition. Some brands, such as Wolf, are so inexpensive we tend to fire prodigious amounts of this ammunition for fun. Of course the rifle gets dirty. You might fire only a hundred rounds of more expensive loads while you may burn up two or three hundred rounds of Wolf at one session- that is only ten 30- round magazines, just a start for some of the more interested shooters. At least that is my take on the situation and inexpensive ammunition that always goes bang is going to be in demand. In the case of the AR-15 rifle the unburned powder and powder ash ends up in the trigger mechanism. The grit ends up creating a situation in which the trigger isn’t consistent. It will weigh so much with one press and so much with the next, which is pretty difficult to handle at anything except close range. Take a spray can of aerosol cleaner and blast the trigger action. The AR is tailor-made for such down and dirty cleaning. Get out the cleaning kit and do the business next, sure, but begin with spraying the action clear and you will see an immediate improvement in the trigger action. There are a few little tricks to the AR-15 rifle that will result in a long life, an accurate rifle and good shooting. Just be certain the shooter is doing their part.

AR-15 Rifle Check

It is going to be a bad day if the rifle fails in the hunting field, embarrassing in competition and terminal in a personal defense scenario. There is a need to understand the operating procedure of every piece of gear. The AR-15 is a great rifle, accurate, reliable and ergonomically well designed. But it is far from immune to malfunctions. A simple check will prevent problems. Some problems are accessory related, such as worn magazines and ammunition failures. While serious, these problems are more easily rectified that a major malfunction. Most of the tests to not require the rifle be fired. These are not corrections but checks—you will have to correct the problem by taking the rifle to an armorer or gunsmith. Most faults are minor and the rifle may be put back into action quickly. A self-loading rifle is a machine of irreducible complexity, one major part fails and the show is over.

Checks —

The first step in the check is to clear the rifle. Remove the magazine and set it aside. Rack the bolt to the rear and lock it in place. Check the chamber for a cartridge by both visual and tactile means. Press the receiver pin from left to right and the upper and lower receiver will separate. Back the cocking handle out and remove the bolt. Take a look at the hammer springs. Both should be on the sides of the trigger pivot, intact and unbroken. The hammer and trigger pins in the receiver should be a flush fit with the receiver. If they are not then a securing spring is out of place. Examine the lower receiver for dirt, crud, brass shavings and unburned powder. A good blast with aerosol cleaner is in order. Moving to the bolt and bolt carrier, check the carrier key for movement. There should be absolutely no movement. If there is the carrier needs to be restaked. Check the bolt. The lugs should be good and sharp and clean and unbroken. They should be oiled as well if the rifle is a ready piece for deployment. No chips and cracks are allowable or the bolt must be replaced.

Check the Ejector —

The ejector should not move at all with hand pressure. The extractor needs a bit of flex but a tool is needed to check this flex. The gas rings should be checked. One of the neatest tricks I have ever used to check the gas ring is to stand the bolt on its head on a flat surface. If the carrier collapses toward the flat surface then the gas rings are worn. They should be replaced. Next, reassemble the rifle for operational testing. This testing demands attention to detail. The rifle is expected to behave differently in different testing and you must be certain you understand the procedure. First, double check the rifle again to be certain it is clear of ammunition. Cock the bolt and let it drop. Place the safety lever on SAFE. Press the trigger, exerting ten pounds or more of pressure. Move the safety to the fire position. The hammer should not drop. The hammer must not drop as you move the safety lever to the fire position. Next, recock the rifle. You should hear a reset or light click as the hammer resets on the disconnect hook and into the sear notch of the trigger. Next, hold the trigger down and work the bolt to check for proper disconnect function as the rifle is cycled. The trigger should reset after it is released. Now, hold the trigger down and rack the bolt, gently and slowly releasing the trigger. The trigger should not reset as it never went out of disconnect. Now, rack the bolt to the rear and release it, allowing the bolt to run forward with a crash. The hammer should not fall.

Fit and Function—

The stock should have no wobble in it. It must be a tight fit or cheek weld and accuracy will be non-existent. The upper and lower receiver should be tight. A match rifle will be tighter, but a loose carbine will not be very efficient. Even if you have one of the folding stocks with a little wobble in it, the buffer tube must not have play. My personal Bushmaster with Vltor stock is a model of good function, and while there are others including the original A2 stock, the Vltor is good business. Move to the barrel band and the front sight. They must not be loose. These are often overlooked but may be trouble spots. The AR-15 is a reliable firearm, but be certain that you know what you are doing when you check this rifle out and when you use the AR-15 for serious use.


Always use good quality ammunition and magazines in the rifle. The magazine is the feed device and the ammunition is the fuel. While there are many types of inexpensive ammunition available, simply watch for pressure signs and clean often. When it comes to terminal effect on game specialized loads such as the new Black Hills Varmint Grenade are good choices. The Black Hills 77 grain Open Tip is another fine choice for long-range use. Choose wisely and remember that while a rifle may be accurate enough with one load or the other there is always the sweet spot in accuracy.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

1 Comment;

  1. Any questions? A critical publication all AR15 owners NEED to have (along with the MFR’s owners’ manual), is a copy of an Army “10” manual, or operators’ manual for the M16 (the M16-M16A1 manual has no restrictions as to “distribution”).
    All you need to know as far as maintenance, lubrication, cleaning, is there. In short, everything. As always, one can add to the standard, but as long as one does not stray very far from the M16 operators’ manual, you’ll be fine.

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