This competition .223 outdid products from Bushmaster and Colt’s in a target-shooting shoot-out.
To our knowledge, the AR-15, which is the semiauto, demilitarized version of the military full-auto M16, hasn’t inspired any soldier/poet to praise it or pay homage to it. Instead, unlike Maj. Gen. Rupertus (whose poem, “My Rifle,” appears on page 3) most civilian shooters have had a decidedly love/hate affair with their ARs. Most factory-run versions of the gun aren’t noted for pinhole accuracy, and the .223 ball ammo they digest doesn’t find wide application in any field venue like varminting or big-game hunting. In many ways, the AR-15 suffers now from the same image problem as military-spec .45 ACPs once labored under: They always shoot, but they don’t always shoot that well.
But like the tuned-and-tweaked 1911-style handgun, which is now considered a fine competition arm, upgraded AR-15s are increasingly on a collision course with accuracy. The U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit has employed the M16 successfully in national high-power competitions, and knowledge about how to accurize the civilian version of the gun has spread like foreign money at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
If you doubt the trend, check out the quality of some tuned production guns being manufactured these days. These picked-parts products feature basic accurizing jobs that, when paired with good ammo, turn a 3-inch AR-15 into a sub-MOA performer. Examples of these guns include a trio of AR-15 match service rifles we recently tested: the $1,375 ArmaLite Model M15A2 NM, the $895 Bushmaster Model XM15 E2S, and the pre-ban Colt Model AR-15 A2 Sporter, which commonly retails on the street for $850. With the help of an experienced high-power shooter who shoots the AR-15 in DCM matches, we recently compared these three .223s for accuracy, features, and reliability. Additionally, we wanted to investigate how much difference in performance there was in widely-priced products in the segment, and we hoped we would find the less expensive Bushmaster and Colt products offered enough bang for the buck to recommend them over the ArmaLite, which costs an additional $500. But after our testing was done, we concluded we would buy the ArmaLite because it is competition-ready out of the box. The Bushmaster and Colt products shot very well, but we thought they lacked important features found on the M15A2 NM.
How We Tested
On all the test guns, we mounted a Colt 4X scope on the carrying handle. To test the guns’ innate accuracy, we used three different types of ammunition in the AR-15s: Winchester 50-grain Silvertips (Lot MB 82), the Hornady 55-grain V-Max round (Lot 03.062.97.8862), and Winchester’s 69-grain hollow-point boattail (Lot 05LE02). In the accuracy portion of the test, we fired all guns off a Ransom Master Rifle Rest, which sat on a concrete bench.
Our shooting sequence was to shoot 10 five-shot groups on a Speedwell International Benchrest target at 100 yards. The test guns were allowed to cool down after each 10 shots to air temperature. We cleaned them with Pro Shot copper solvent and patches after each test lot of ammunition, using an Otis Products flexible cleaning rod. To assess reliability, we kept record of any jams, extraction, or ejection malfunctions.
Finally, we asked a nationally competitive high-power match shooter to fire the guns side by side and comment on their feature sets, looking carefully at the elements of trigger pull, sight design, and windage and elevation adjustments. Here’s how each product fared in these evaluations:
Physical Description. The $1,375 ArmaLite comes equipped with a 20-inch stainless-steel 1:8-twist heavy barrel. It has a National Match two-stage trigger and sights. Its free-floating barrel sleeve is DCM legal. The overall length of the gun is 38.3 inches, and it weighs 9 pounds 8 ounces. The Geneseo, Illinois-made gun comes with a satin-black hard anodized finish. Trigger pull weight for the ArmaLite was 4.25 to 4.5 pounds. Its length of pull was 13.75 inches. ArmaLite is the only company in this test to offer true National Match sights on a factory-built rifle. Its sights offer 1/4-minute clicks in windage and 1/2-minute clicks in elevation. It has a two-piece elevation knob with an adjustable elevation scale marked in clicks. The ArmaLite also uses the small-diameter apertures preferred by the Army Marksmanship Unit. The barrel free-floats inside the barrel sleeve, which is ported for ventilation.
Accuracy Evaluation. As the accompanying table shows, this gun shot best with the Hornady 55-grain V-Max fodder, amassing 0.73-inch groups on average and a best group of 0.44 inches. The gun’s overall average across the three test brands of ammo was 1.12 inches.
Operation Evaluation. We think that the ArmaLite Model M15A2 NM is match-ready out of the box. In particular, we liked this gun’s trigger. Its two-stage movement was smooth and had less pull weight than the other triggers we tested. Also, this rifle is DCM-legal in the Service category, and has a floating cylinder, a feature not found on the other AR-15’s.
Nonetheless, we uncovered a few minor problems, beginning with the rear sight. We felt its adjustments were mushy and not very crisp. Also, the labeling on the windage and elevation adjustments were not distinct and initially could cause confusion when trying to make these adjustments.
Colt Model AR-15
A2 HBAR Sporter
Physical Description. The pre-ban HBAR Sporter is no longer a listed catalog item for Colt. The gun’s flash suppressor and bayonet lug are two features that current assault-style rifles don’t feature because of their militaristic connotations. However, plenty of these guns are still floating around in gun shops, gun shows, and national gun-sale publications. Though their prices vary, they often sell for around $850. Just before these guns were banned from manufacture, they often sold for $1,100 to $1,300, as shooters tried to stock up on the products.
Because of their popularity and availability, we included the Sporter to see how a pre-ban product fared against the pricier ArmaLite and the similar Bushmaster. The Sporter comes equipped with a 20-inch stainless-steel 1:7-twist heavy barrel. It has a one-stage trigger and adjustable sights. Its free-floating barrel sleeve is DCM legal. The gun is 39.25 inches long and weighs 8 pounds 13 ounces. The American-made gun comes with a satin-black hard-anodized finish. Trigger pull for the Colt was 4.25 to 4.5 pounds. Length of pull was 13.75 inches. Its sights offer 3/4-minute windage clicks and 1/2-minute elevation clicks. It had a two-piece elevation knob with an adjustable elevation scale that was clearly marked.
Accuracy Evaluation. As the accompanying table shows, this gun shot best with the Hornady 55-grain V-Max ammo. These rounds produced 1.03-inch groups on average and a best group of 0.55 inches. The gun’s overall average across all three rounds was 1.27 inches.
Operation Evaluation. The Colt HBAR’s 1-in-7 twist barrels allows the shooter to use heavier bullets. The front sight was thicker than on some other match-style sights we’ve examined, but the post was not as wide as on the Bushmaster. This particular gun tended to be muzzle heavy, which means you might want to weight the buttstock for match shooting. In addition to the Colt having the smoothest action of the three guns, its trigger was crisp and consistent. The gun did not feature a floating cylinder. We did like the clear, crisp adjustments the sight knobs featured.
This rifle shot very well, despite the somewhat wide front sight. Still, it needs to be upgraded with a floated cylinder, thinner front-sight post, and 1/2-minute adjustments for windage. These modifications would cost approximately $375 to $400. We wouldn’t suggest making any modification to the Colt trigger.
Physical Description. The $895 Bushmaster we tested was made by Quality Parts Co. of Windham, Maine. It is the A3-type rifle with a flat-top upper receiver, a 20-inch chrome lined, 1:9 rifled barrel. It measures 38.25 inches in length and weighs 8 pounds 12 ounces. The Extra Heavy Competition Barrel is a full 1 inch thick under the hand guard and is also available in 1:7-inch or 1:8-inch rifling. The barrels are machined from chrome-moly vanadium barrel steel. The gun carried the A2 ribbed forend to keep the “standard issue” look, rather than the free-floater type normally installed on the company’s DCM Competition model. The Weaver rails on the flat-top upper receiver of this model will accept any type of rail mount scope or optic device. We ordered it with the new A3 Removable Carry Handle, which retails for $79.95, so that we could mount the Colt 4X scope on it. The A2 rear sight incorporated into this particular handle features 1/2-MOA elevation adjustment and an 0.040-inch micro-aperture flip sight, which retails for $24.95, to finish off the performance modifications. Also included were two Bushmaster 10-round magazines at $9.95 each. It comes standard with one magazine and a web sling.
Accuracy Evaluation. As the accompanying table shows, this gun shot best with the Winchester 69-grain HPBT, which notched 1.27-inch groups on average. The gun shot its best group of 0.62 inch with Winchester’s 50-grain Silvertips. The gun’s overall average across all three rounds was 1.33 inches.
Operation Evaluation. The first thing we noticed about the Bushmaster is that it can only be shot as a Match rifle, not a Service rifle, because of the detachable handle. Also, even though this gun was not weighted in the butt, it was evenly balanced. This was not true of the ArmaLite. The barrel is a match-style heavy barrel that is heavier than the standard HBAR barrel. We noticed that the front-post sight is very wide. In our tests, it was generally wider than the aiming black of the target we were looking at, which didn’t help sight alignment.
In addition, we thought this rifle is difficult to shoot under match conditions because of its heavy trigger, which on our model was measured at 8+ pounds of pull. These factors in combination forced us to hold a sight picture nearly three times as long before we were comfortable making the shot. Even then, we saw alignment problems where with the same sight picture, our shot impacts could vary between a 9 at 3 o’clock and a 10 at 9 o’clock.
If you were going to start with this rifle and work your way up, there are some modifications that would need to be made. Around $350 to float the cylinder and modify the trigger pull would help substantially.
Performance Shooter Recommends
If we were buying an AR-15 for competition today, we would choose the ArmaLite Model M15A2 NM for its overall match-readiness, smooth trigger pull, and accuracy. Straight out of the box the ArmaLite shot an average group size of 1.12 inches and needed no upgrades. Of course, you’ll pay for this turnkey performance: $1,375 MSRP. But we think the ArmaLite is worth it.
The Colt Model AR-15 A2 HBAR Sporter and the Bushmaster XM15 E2S were similar in features, price, and accuracy. To make either gun completely match ready, the owner would need to modify them to the tune of several hundred dollars. However, the HBAR had a great trigger and shot very accurately, so it would require a little less tweaking than the Bushmaster. Of the three guns, this older model features a great mixture of price and shootability, making it a best buy. If you can find a never-shot or lightly used Sporter, we would buy it. Understand, however, that it will require upgrading in crucial areas to be fully competitive, in our view.
We recognize that the $895 Bushmaster Model XM15 E2S isn’t tuned to the level of the ArmaLite, but our goal in including it rather than the more expensive Bushmaster DCM Competition Rifle ($1,195) was to see if a currently shipping, lesser-priced product had what it took to compete with pricier parts guns like the ArmaLite. In this case, you get what you pay for, we think. The XM15 E2S Bushmaster has some flaws, in our estimation. Its trigger pull is specced to break at a DCM-legal 3.5-pound first stage and a 1-pound take-up weight in the second stage. Instead, our trigger broke at 8+ pounds. This is too heavy and could drastically affect your shooting. Also, the detachable A3 handle, while convenient, means the high-power shooter can’t shoot both Service and Match events (unless your local club ignores the fixed-handle rule) with the same gun. If you have a knack for and the desire to accurize your own gun, the Bushmaster isn’t a bad pick—it’s just not one we would make.