June 20, 2017
Properly built ARs can be lightweight, reliable, versatile, and accurate tools for hunting everything from varmints to predators and even deer and feral hogs. In this test, we focused on lightweight ARs, those that we considered ideal for predator hunting. Predator hunting demands accuracy, fast-handling characteristics, a good trigger, and handy dimensions. The good news is that the current trend of ARs set up for tactical and 3-Gun match use fit this bill pretty well, which gives predator hunters a pile of options. With a market awash in such carbines, which one should you choose? We picked four examples and ran them through extensive testing to find the right gun for the job.
Designed in collaboration with Viking Tactics (VTac) founder, retired Sergeant Major, and Guns & Ammo contributor Kyle Lamb, the CA-15 VTac is a premium custom carbine built with high-performance components. The most striking features of this AR are the barrel and free-float foreend tube, both of which are constructed using carbon fiber. The wrapped 416 stainless-steel barrel and Keymod forend maintain strength and stiffness while cutting significant weight thanks to Christensen's use of high-tech materials. Carbon fiber's added benefit of aiding in heat dissipation is icing on the cake. This carbine was plenty light, without feeling flimsy.
The VTac carbine was the most accurate in our test, had our favorite trigger, and boasted superior ergonomics. Recoil and muzzle rise were minimal, which kept the reticle on target, not a bad thing on a running coyote. Apparently, rifles designed for taking out bad guys are very wellsuited for chasing four-legged predators.
This was the most expensive example in our lineup, but the billet receiver, carbon fiber components, and high-performance triggers don't make for a low-budget build.
Did we mention this thing looks cool?
ROCK RIVER ARMS
One day we will probably test a Rock River Arms rifle that doesn't give excellent accuracy and performance, but that day hasn't arrived. This factory carbine produced 100-yard groups that were nearly as good as the Christensen Arms CA-15 VTac but at less than half the price.
We've tested pricier options from RRA in the past, so this year we decided to see how a more basic model would perform. This no-frills carbine came equipped with a six-position M4-style stock, USGI flash hider, Hogue pistol grip, and two-stage military trigger.
Our only real complaint about this carbine was that it produced the most felt recoil and muzzle rise of the four models tested. From a value perspective, this carbine would be very hard to beat.
HM Defense is a small, Ohio-based company that has set itself apart from the AR pack in two ways. They build nearly all of their components in-house on their CNC equipment (pretty rare considering the vast majority of AR parts are made in a handful of forges), and they've integrated patented innovations into the decades-old AR design. HM created the first-ever Monobloc AR, which incorporates both the gas block and muzzle device into the integral steel of the barrel. This means the gun contains fewer parts, the gas block will never come loose, and the overall length of their carbines are an average of 1.5 inches shorter than the competition without requiring paperwork from the ATF.
The Commander MB5 has a military feel, but it sports a slick free-float handguard, attached via a heat-sink barrel nut, and a great aftermarket trigger by Velocity (available as an upgrade). This little carbine was reliable and handled well thanks to its compact overall dimensions.
Accuracy results were middle of the road, but we've shot better groups with this rifle in the past; it's certainly capable of sub-MOA performance.
MG Arms is known for skeletonizing guns to remove every ounce of unnecessary fat, and this AR is no exception. The barrel is of a thin contour, and sections of the receiver, bolt carrier, and even the grip have been cut away to keep mass to a minimum. The handguard is constructed of carbon fiber. The Taranis II departs from the traditional AR charging handle and safety, instead adopting a reversible reciprocating side-mounted charging handle and a push-button safety.
The lightest firearm in our test, the Taranis II received top marks for ergonomics. This carbine showed signs of real accuracy potential, but fliers opened up nearly every group by a significant margin costing it key points.
Besides our extensive live-fire testing, we measured each trigger using a Lyman Digital Trigger Pull Gauge. The gauge measured the raw pull weight and we measured five trigger breaks from each carbine to test for consistency. Subjectively, we evaluated the intangibles that can make or break a trigger pull: creep, crispness, reset.
The good news is that all of our test guns had pretty good triggers, ranging from above-average to exceptional.
Our favorite was the Christensen Arms, which uses a $210 TriggerTech VTac unit. This trigger broke like the clichéd glass rod at 3.5 pounds, was the most consistent from shot to shot, and had an extremely short reset. The MG Arms had the lightest trigger in our lineup — a Timney set at just under three pounds that, points-wise, we considered a tie for first place. The HM Defense MB5 had a nice trigger with a very clean break, measuring just over three pounds. The Rock River Arms sported a military-style twostage trigger that broke at four pounds, six ounces with no discernable creep. Though we found it to be a good workable trigger, those who prefer a single stage should take note.
To evaluate the mechanical accuracy potential of each rifle, we fired four consecutive three-shot groups from a solid benchrest at 100 yards. One of the virtues of a hunting AR is versatility, so we used two loads: one designed for varmints and one loaded with deer-sized game in mind. The varmint load was Hornady's 55-grain V-Max. The deer load was Federal's 62-grain Fusion MSR. The same 12X Leupold target scope was used on each rifle, mounted in a Bobro throw lever Picatinny mount, which made trading scopes an easy process. Each rifle was shot under the same conditions, by the same shooter, on the same day, in random order.
The Christensen Arms VTac produced the best 100-yard groups, slightly edging the Rock River Arms Lightweight Mountain Rifle for first place with an across-the-board average of 0.80 inch. The Lightweight Mountain Rifle shot almost identically with an average of 0.87 inch. The HM Defense came in third with a respectable 1.28 inch aggregate.
The MG Arms did well in the accuracy department but showed potential for doing even better with some very impressive groups offset by some with real fliers. The Taranis II's average was 1.20 inch but, based on the smallest group that the little carbine produced, we felt that the gun had more potential than it displayed.
Reliability is key for an AR. Why bother hunting with a semiauto if it's not going to feed? We implemented the standard from previous years' testing as far as reliability scores, with each failure costing the rifle a point. Fortunately, only one of our test guns had any reliability issues whatsoever. The MG Arms Taranis II had our only reliability hiccup in the entire test. Halfway through a magazine of Hornady V-Max ammo, the gun went "click" instead of "bang." A light primer strike had failed to ignite the primer, costing the carbine a point thanks to our zero-tolerance policy.
The other ARs in our test fed without issue through the four consecutive three-shot groups fired from each gun.
In this highly-subjective category, we did our best to keep things fair. Weight and balance were considered along with felt recoil, general handling characteristics and fit and finish.
The Christensen Arms was our favorite overall, weighing in at just over five pounds thanks to extensive use of carbon fiber in its components. Though this carbine was light, it felt solid and well-balanced and pointed and handled like a true custom. Its mid-length gas system resulted in the softest recoil impulse of the lot, and it was easy to keep the reticle on-target for rapid follow-up shots.
The MG Arms Taranis II was light, handy, and compact and would make for a very comfortable walking gun. Its side charging handle and push-button safety break from the traditional AR setup but were intuitive to manipulate. Its ported muzzle kept recoil and muzzle rise to a minimum, despite the carbine's light weight.
The HM Defense Commander MB5 was simple, durable, and compact with solid handling characteristics. The Rock River Arms LAR-15 features were more on the MIL-SPEC side when it came to ergonomics, with a carbine-length gas system that made it the hardest gun to keep on target during recoil.
This test evaluated guns at four distinct price points, and cost was not necessarily a predictor of performance. Everyone's budget is individual, and value is a highly subjective term. That said, we did our best to weigh performance and price and scored accordingly. Your own budget will dictate what features you're willing to pay for.