There are a number of muzzle devices available to the AR-15 shooter, ranging from a $5 A2 flash hider to exotic suppressor mounts in the $400 range. I've collected some of the more popular examples and taken video of their performance at night on two different rifles - one in 5.45x39 and one in 5.56x45. The video will do most of my talking.
Within the week, I hope to complete a similar comparison during the day, which will focus on different attributes of the devices.
I must apologize - several video files were corrupted and I was unable to add them - namely, the performance of the PWS FSC556 on the 5.56 rifle and the performance of the PWS TTO on the 5.56 rifle while night vision equipment was being used. However, their performance with the 5.45 rifle is in the video.
Edit 1/2/10: I've completed a video taken from the shooter's perspective, or as close to it as I could get.
Some people need the most rugged and reliable product they can find.
Other people want the most rugged and reliable product they can afford.
Still more people just want a product that looks cool and functions fairly well.
I can't tell you what your needs are, or where you fall on this scale, but I can tell you what this product does, and what it might be good for. As always, in the interests of full disclosure, I was given this "Micro Dot" by Primary Arms for the specific purpose of abusing it. In the past, I was given a Bobro Aimpoint mount for T&E by this same vendor (Marshall at Primary Arms - and he hasn't asked for me to return it yet...I'm not going to give it up easily).
The first thing you need to know about this optic is that it is a semi-clone of the Aimpoint T-1 - or maybe I should say H-1, since this has no NV-specific settings and is not waterproof to the same depth. This particular model has a threaded "killflash" that is of surprising quality and effectiveness. Thus, the optic looks a little longer than a regular H-1.
The original price for the optic was $109 plus $29 for a riser, but because the factory messed up and the units aren't purged with nitrogen, the price has been dropped $30. If you want the model without the killflash, the adjusted price is $59 plus $29 for the riser.
I'll start with my negative comments.
- The "QD" lever included with the riser, which is a copy of the American Defense lever, is not very well constructed. It's small and difficult to manipulate. It's not constructed of the best materials. It is, however, a good enough copy of the ADM lever that real ADM components will drop in and offer a functional level of fit. Frankly, I'd just buy a Daniel Defense mount for $70 or so, instead of the included riser - although it has been hollowed out and if you happen to have spare ADM components, it'll work very well. I'm told that the next iteration of these red dots will have a thumbscrew mount.
- The LED inside the optic is a little high and blocks a small portion of the field of view. This also precludes proper cowitness when using aftermarket mounts.
- Battery life seems to be about a week, maybe 8 days, of continuous use. This isn't really bad, per se, it's just something to be aware of. The unit takes commonly available CR 2032 batteries. For a training rifle, this should not be an issue.
- As I said before, the factory messed up - they drilled the mounting screw holes too deep and the units may have fogging problems if the standard "low" mount is swapped for a different mount. Several people, including myself, have attempted to induce fogging. I put it in a bathtub under running, scalding water, then into a freezer, then back into the tub. I noticed no fogging on the inside of the optic. The front glass under the killflash did fog, but that was on the outside, and I had no problems wiping that clear after removing the killflash.
- The dot does not stay on between brightness settings. Also, it rotates continuously. There is no "stop" at 0.
- Yes, it's made in China.
- This optic is quite durable. You can see this here.
- It maintained zero after the above abuse. I don't know if my "custom fit" ADM throw lever has anything to do with it (yes, the nut is sticking out of the mount, it works fine). Standard Aimpoint Micro mounts should work for this optic.
- Adjusting the brightness takes a good grasp of the knob. An errant blow to the knob will most likely not change the brightness. Clicks are tactile and barely audible.
- The killflash, battery cover, and adjustment caps have good threads and were easy to install and remove, even after big dents were put in them. The adjustment and battery caps/covers have O rings. The unit seems water-resistant as far as my bathtub was concerned. I may take it on a dive trip later this week.
- The dot is clear and crisp. On setting 11, it is definitely bright enough to use when the sun is out.
For those who have an Aimpoint Micro on a work gun, this may be a cost-effective alternative to spending another $500-600 to put one on a .22 or 5.45 training rifle. Alternately, you could use a .22 conversion in your work rifle and swap between an Aimpoint Micro zeroed for 5.56 and a Primary Arms micro zeroed for .22. It's definitely durable enough that you won't have to worry about it being damaged from a minor impact. I have had similar good luck with a Primary Arms M3 clone, which I compared with the Vortex Strikefire here.
I firmly believe, and so does the man who runs Primary Arms, that duty/deployment use calls for a real Aimpoint. Primary Arms does sell real Aimpoints. If your needs call for the most rugged red dot available, buy an Aimpoint. If you need an affordable duplicate for training or other purposes, consider the PA Micro Dot.
"What AR-15 should I buy?"
I used to have a copy and paste response for this whenever someone on AR15.com would ask. Two questions.
"What is your budget, and what do you want to do with it?"
It's easier to come up with an answer to the first question, I've found: many would respond "As little as possible."
Well then, I would say to myself, what was your answer to the second question? I would cringe when I saw something like "patrol rifle". A plinker or range toy does not require the best of everything - unless one simply wishes to avoid as many potential issues as possible. Using the cheapest stuff possible, however, is simply not advisable for a police officer who needs a patrol rifle, or anyone who wants to put more than a few tin cans on the line.
Needs vs. Wants
The question I want to ask these people is "Do you really need an AR-15?"
No, I'm not approaching this from the perspective of a gun grabber. For many people, though, buying an AR-15 is an unnecessarily large expense. If I wanted a rifle to have fun with, shoot varmints, teach new shooters, etc, I'd buy a .22, bolt action or semi auto. I would most likely save $500 or more on the initial purchase price, and get 20 times as much ammunition for my money. You won't be turned away from any indoor ranges with a .22, either. I can honestly say that the best purchase I have ever made was a $39 bolt action Romanian .22LR rifle. For smiles per dollar, nothing else comes close.
If I just wanted a cool looking rifle that I could theoretically use for more than the above purposes, but I wanted to spend the smallest amount of money possible, I'd buy some sort of AK variant. 5.45x39 ammunition is very cheap right now, and 5.45 AKs can be had in the $400-500 range. 7.62x39 AKs are also affordable, and the ammunition is generally cheaper than .223 Remington/5.56 NATO. As much as I love AR-15s, I'd take a $500 AK over a $500 AR.
But if I needed a reliable, accurate, easy to use, versatile, and compact rifle (carbine), the pool of suitable weapons narrows dramatically. The weapon at the top of the heap, in my mind, is a good AR-15.
Saving Money vs. Spending Money
The problems start when people see an AR on the shelf at a local gun store for, say, $750. And they could probably swing $750 for that rifle. What does it come with? One magazine, a sling from the 19th century, and a photocopy of a US military manual for the M16. Many "flat top" AR-15s don't even come with a rear sight. Okay, so you buy a cheap Chinese-made UTG rear sight for $30. Now you need ammunition. Enough to fill the magazine will probably run about $10-15. What's that, you say? You actually want to shoot more than 30 rounds? Okay, there's a 500 round case of "Military Contract 55gr 5.56mm" in the corner for $180. Great. Now you've put close to a $1000 dent in your bank account (or credit card).
For that $750, you could have bought a Ruger 10/22 and over 22,000 rounds of .22LR at Wal-Mart. Or a 5.45 AK and 2160 rounds of surplus ammunition. With the extra money you spent on 500 rounds of .223, you could have bought another mountain of 22LR or a small hill of 5.45. Alternately, you could buy some jewelry for your wife or girlfriend, in an attempt to placate her after bringing home a firearm.
If you just want something that looks like what "them boys overseas" carry, fine. Just don't think that your spending days are over with the initial purchase of the rifle, unless you plan to do nothing more than hang it on the wall and stare at it. If so, then it doesn't really matter what you buy.
Okay, you've decided that you need (or really want) an AR-15.
You decide to browse some internet forums in order to learn more. There, you find all sorts of conflicting information. Some people say Brand X; others say Brand Y. Still more say that a blend of Brands X, Y, and Z is the best combination.
Then there are things like the "tier system" and a mysterious "chart" that many people seem to intensely dislike.
It would be impossible for me to answer this question in one easy to digest blog post.
I will say that the best thing you can do is to buy a quality upper receiver assembly. Most of the potential problems one might encounter with the AR-15 are eliminated with a good upper assembly. There are a number of companies offering truly top notch upper assemblies for very good prices at the moment - Daniel Defense, Spike's Tactical, and Bravo Company, to name a few. You can take that upper assembly and, in seconds, install it on a complete lower assembly, which will normally run about $230-300 for "average" parts, and the end result will be a high quality rifle for under $1000.
Sure, you could walk into a gun store and spend $750-1000 on a Bushmaster or Rock River AR, but you'd be paying an extra 11% in the form of a federal excise tax over the cost of buying the upper and lower separately. You're trying to save money - right? So why pay an extra 11% if you don't have to? Put that 11% to work in the form of higher quality parts.
There are resources for those who want to learn more. Generally, a "tacked" post at the top of forums like AR15.com and M4Carbine.net is full of reliable and useful information. "The Chart" offers a comparison of the features offered by various models of M4-type weapons. Reading the "after-action reports" of various carbine courses - available on various forums - will provide insight as to how certain weapons perform with rapid firing schedules.
I know it seems as if I've tried to talk people out of buying ARs, and honestly, I have. However, there are requirements that other weapons will meet and exceed for less money than an AR-15 - and there are requirements that the AR-15 will meet and exceed that the others cannot even meet. Only you know exactly what your specific needs/requirements are. Base your purchase on those needs, and best of luck with whatever you buy.
Whenever the subject of home defense, patrol/duty, or "SHTF" comes up on various forums, a line is drawn in the sands of the internet.
On one side are the KISS (Keep It Simple and Stupid or Keep It Simple, Stupid!) aficionados, the guys who feel that anything that uses batteries or has glass does not belong on their weapon. Beyond that, the definition is hard to pin down, because some like lightweight carbines, and others prefer 20" HBAR rifles. The one concession that most will make is that a sling is generally a good idea - but preferably a sling fashioned from shoelaces, an old seatbelt, or carefully woven back hair. Occasionally, 550 cord is acceptable.
I count myself as a member of the group on the other side of the line - while the KISS folks refer to me and my ilk as "tacticool", there are real and concrete reasons why we prefer to have more than just iron sights on the weapon. I'm unaware of any definition for this second group beyond the fact that the vast majority of people who have current combat experience fall into it. I'm using the term "tacticool" mainly in jest.
The third group stands right in the middle. These are potential black rifle purchasers as well as new police officers and servicemen looking to get the most from their duty or issued weapons. This group is who I intend to address throughout this article - I don't expect to sway any KISS proponents.
I figured that the best way to do this would be to address KISS talking points that are continually raised in defense of their choices.
KISS Talking Point #1 - "There's less to go wrong with my weapon if I don't have any battery-powered stuff."
Rebuttal - Many people base this opinion on clunky and outdated devices that they saw in service years ago or heard about from a friend. The simple fact is that optics such as Aimpoints and ACOGs have seen incredible damage, and still manage to function afterward. ACOGs may not have batteries, but the KISS folks still shun them for one reason or another. A small-caliber bullet to the right spot on an AR-15 might render it a single-shot weapon; Surefire ads show flashlights that work after having been shot with such ammunition. Nor is recoil a factor. All of the above devices have been used on of M249 and M240 machine guns, and lived.
As for battery life, well, I've personally owned Aimpoints that were left on for close to a year. Certain Surefire LED lights will give you useful light for at least a whole night. It's always a good idea to check and replace batteries at normal intervals, especially if you regularly use a weapon for duty or other situations such as perimeter patrol on a ranch.
KISS Talking Point #2 - "We didn't need those things in (insert name of war here) to win."
Rebuttal - Technology has often been crucial in deciding the victor of a conflict throughout history. Heavily armored knights were thought to be the most powerful and decisive force a regent could field until the battle of Crecy, where English longbowmen cut down French knights in spades. Trebuchets brought about the destruction of many a fortification, but later they disappeared in favor of cannon and other forms of gunpowder-propelled artillery. The last known uses of trebuchets occurred only in situations where access to gunpowder was limited or available cannons did not have sufficient range. In other words, in a fight between the "tough" knight and the "delicate" archer, the king with the archers won; certainly, an early cannon was far more dangerous, accident-prone, and unreliable than a trebuchet, but field commanders always chose the cannon, if they could.
No one is claiming that technology is the only factor in a conflict. However, it can bring about a more expedient end to a gunfight, battle, or war. Certainly, we didn't "need" nuclear weapons to win World War II, but their availability in 1945 undoubtedly saved many lives.
On an individual level, an Aimpoint and Surefire won't win the fight for you, but they will provide you with opportunities to gain the upper hand, if you are willing and able (trained) to take advantage of them.
KISS Talking Point #3 - "All that crap hanging off the rails will just weigh you down."
Rebuttal - A Surefire X300 weighs just 4 ounces. An Aimpoint T1 in a good mount weighs about the same. Some free float rails weigh less than the standard handguard and barrel nut.
I'm all about eliminating excess weight, but 8 ounces for an exceptional amount of added capability is a very worthwhile trade-off to me. I've had quite a few ARs that weighed less than 6 and a half pounds unloaded, but they weren't lacking in functionality - an optic, a flashlight, and a sling were on all of those weapons.
KISS Talking Point #4 - "A flashlight will just make you a target."
Rebuttal - This is one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. Anyone dumb enough to walk around with their weaponlight on if they knew that they were moving to contact would probably be dumb enough to shout, "Hello! Are there any bad guys out there? I'm coming to get you!"
I don't want to get into a discussion of how to use a white light in a tactical situation, because that can turn into a long and painful dissertation. I will say that I am unaware of any organization that does this sort of thing on a regular basis that does not have white lights on their carbines. There are ways to use your weaponlight without becoming a target, and I suggest that you take a course that has a low light portion to learn more.
Furthermore, lights are absolutely vital for identifying your target. Don't be this guy. If your home defense plan involves "firing your shotgun at a dark shape" - don't laugh, that's an actual quote - then, well, I'm going to bite my tongue now.
As an individual, you will probably not be able to radio Arty for some "lum" rounds. What you can do is equip yourself to identify your target before using deadly force.
KISS Talking Point #5 - "The enemy doesn't use this stuff."
Rebuttal - We kill bad guys more often than they kill good guys. Basing your equipment decisions off the choices of people who lose essentially every engagement with American forces is foolhardy, to say the least.
KISS Talking Point #6 - "The Israelis use KISS rifles."
Rebuttal - Israel's new Tavor bullpup rifle comes with an ITL MARS reflex sight that also has visible and IR lasers. Among the listed accessories is a flashlight. What the Israelis were doing X number of years ago is rapidly becoming less and less relevant.
KISS Talking Point #7 - "After a nuclear war, batteries won't be available, and electronics will be fried."
Rebuttal - It's unlikely that EMP would affect small devices like Aimpoints, but even if it did, the owner of a rifle with a now-defunct Aimpoint and Surefire could simply remove those items from his or her rifle and carry on, no worse off than the guy who started with nothing on his rifle. Every one of my rifles has a rear back-up iron sight, or both rear and front in certain cases.
In conclusion, I'm not advising people to go out and buy every rail-mounted accessory under the sun. I am saying that a light, an optic and a sling add negligible amounts of weight, while greatly increasing one's ability to fight up close (and at distance), at night (and during the day), and from non-standard firing positions - not every shot fired in anger is taken from the prone.
I have a feeling that many KISS aficionados are limited by their budgets. I'm not criticizing them for that, or talking down to them. If you can't afford something, fine. Browsing my blog will turn up quite a few money-saving suggestions. However, I'd recommend spending your time trying to find deals on lights and optics, not trying to come up with "less is more" justifications.
I'm going to be honest. If I had never been given a PWS muzzle device, I probably would never have bought one. "Nearly $100," I said. "What does it do that's worth $100? I thought the Smith Vortex was too expensive at $50." Well, I would soon find out.
At the 2008 SAR West show, PWS was handing out their FSC 556 muzzle device like Halloween candy, so I gladly took one. Since then, I've fallen in love with it. I've moved it around between a half dozen rifles before heading to the range, especially when I'm going to introduce new shooters to the AR-15. It does a wonderful job of keeping the muzzle down between shots, but unlike traditional muzzle brakes, it's not exceptionally loud, and it doesn't throw huge fireballs. Frankly, the FSC 556 seems quite comparable to the standard A2 flash hider in terms of flash reduction.
But this article isn't about the FSC556.
It's about the TTO, or "Todd's Tiny One" (I'm not going there). In a nutshell, it's an FSC556 without the flash reducing "tines". Why would you want to buy such a thing? Well, it's short. It's very short. It's shorter than an A2 flash hider, in fact. But like the FSC556, it does an amazing job for something so small (and also like the FSC556, it was given to me for free).
I normally have the FSC556 on my 5.45 rifle, because the action of that weapon seems much more violent than a comparable 5.56 carbine, and the FSC does a splendid job of taming that beast. Comparing the FSC and TTO back to back at the range, I noticed little, if any, difference between the two.
If you have a rifle that you're trying to keep as short as possible, this would be a good option for you. Many folks go with 14.5" barrels that have permanently attached devices in order to maintain the legal barrel length of 16". If you put a Smith Vortex or a YHM Phantom or a PWS FSC556 on a 16" barrel, it's effectively become a 17.5" barrel. There are functional benefits to having a slightly shorter weapon. If you've ever tried to exit a vehicle quickly with a rifle or carbine, you know what I'm talking about. Beyond that, some people prefer the looks of a shorter device. Admittedly, the functional difference in the length of the TTO compared to the FSC is quite small - however, if you're concerned about the flash hiding tines snagging on something, the TTO's smooth "face" should make you feel warm inside.
If you've ever used a muzzle brake or compensator, you probably are of the opinion that they direct a lot of noise and blast back towards the shooter. Well, I am too. And in my opinion, the PWS compensators do increase the noise and blast ratio of the weapon compared to standard devices. The difference isn't horrific - my initial thoughts on the FSC556 back in 2008 were distorted by the fact that I did a significant amount of shooting under a shade port with a tin roof - but there is a noticeable increase.
As for the effects on other shooters, well, it depends on how twisted their knickers are. I've had disgruntled shooters chase me away from "their end" of the range at the sight of a 16" midlength upper with an A2 flash hider - the actual quote was "You're going to shoot next to me with that 18" barrel? And that muzzle brake?" I had yet to put a round downrange.
However, in over a year of shooting the FSC 556 and/or TTO at various public and private ranges, I have yet to receive any complaints or even sideways glances of disgust. I've attended rifle matches with the FSC 556 - matches that expressly prohibit muzzle brakes - and no one said anything. Furthermore, I can confidently say that the design of both devices has no negative effect on accuracy, because with the aforementioned 5.45 rifle equipped with the FSC 556, firing surplus Russian ammunition, I've been able to hold 3 to 5 MOA at 600 yards with iron sights. At 100 yards, it shoots about 3 MOA with either an A2, a Smith Vortex, or the TTO/FSC556.
On another note - I would like to say that sometimes I see competition rifles get out of hand. To me, tactical rifle competitions are a place to hone skills for the real world, not simply go beyond what's practical for a millisecond-faster split time. I wouldn't take any rifle to a competition match that I wouldn't grab off a rack before going to a potentially bad place or situation. In my opinion, the PWS compensators are in keeping with the spirit of what tactical rifle matches should be.
So, in the end, are these PWS muzzle devices worth $100? To me, the answer is yes. My initial concerns about noise and flash have been, shall we say, dampened. The TTO and FSC556 perform their intended tasks without any drama. If I had to choose between the two, I'd get the FSC556 - if only because my primary home defense carbine has a PVS-14 night vision monocular, and flash reduction is a priority with night vision devices. However, for realistic competition use, or really any use during daytime, the TTO is the best compact muzzle device on the market.
Giving credit where credit is due, this device is the brainchild of Jeff C./USMC03 on various forums. His website is 03designgroup.com, and he is a fantastic resource for this sort of thing.