Like many of you out there, I’ve seen the video of Travis Haley (then in the employ of Blackwater) sniping Iraqi insurgents in Najaf in 2004.  And like most of the kids and young men who saw Mr. Haley tagging Jaish al-Mahdi at around 800 meters, I wanted a rifle just like his because I thought it was badass.

          Of course, back before 2004, the rifle was pretty cutting edge. The A.R.M.S #59M SIR handguard with its bi-level system provided a rigid and reliable free-float handguard. The #22 quick-detach 30mm scope rings allowed the user to rapidly mount or take off a scope. The #32 bipod adapter allowed for the attachment of a Harris bipod to the handguard. All of those parts were made by Atlantic Research Marketing Systems, which is a very deceptive name for a company that makes weapons components. Companies like A.R.M.S., PRI, Lewis Machine and Tool and Knight’s Armament dominated the market.

          Since the Assault Weapons Ban was thankfully allowed to die in 2004, the civilian market has opened up and business has boomed. There are now all sorts of modifications for the AR-15. Competition is good for the consumer. It’s driven prices down and quality up. Instead of paying $200 for an LMT SOPMOD stock, you can now buy one that’s virtually identical from B5 Systems for $90. Instead of shelling out $400 for an A.R.M.S #58M (a bi-level mid-length rail system), you can get a bi-level CASV-S handguard made by Vltor. Again, it’ll cost you about half, with an added bonus that there’s a couple of quick-detach sockets already built into the handguard. Oh, and it’s 4.7oz lighter than the #58M.

          That brings me to another significant advancement in the last few years: weight. Today’s accessories are lighter and therefore easier to carry and manipulate in the field and on the range. The science on accuracy has found that shorter, rigid barrels can be just as accurate as longer barrels. Take the rifle that Travis Haley used as an example. It was heavy. Really heavy. Even if you were to replace the fixed stock lower with a collapsible stock, it would still be a boat anchor by today’s standards.

          The A.R.M.S. handguard and scope rings, Bushmaster heavy 20-inch barrel and front sight weigh in at a total of about 84 ounces. Now, you may think that’s not so much. Only a little more than 5 pounds, right? Well, replace those components with modern ones, and you get a significantly lighter, shorter and more balanced rifle.

          Start with a Midwest Industries 15-inch Gen 2 free float handguard. It’s 40% the weight and less than half the price of the A.R.M.S. rail. The Midwest Industries handguard is incredibly thin, allowing the user to wrap his hand around it in a “rope grip.” Furthermore, it comes with a bipod stud, meaning that you can attach a Harris bipod directly to the handguard. This makes a bipod adapter redundant.

          Of course, you’ll need a low-profile gas block to fit underneath that handguard. You could get a full-sized one, but you don’t need the extra weight. Why not go with a micro gas block? Put a pair of Magpul MBUS sights on the handguard, with the front sight as far forward as possible. This will give you a sight radius equal to, or slightly greater than, a 20-inch barrel with a standard A2 front sight.

           For a scope mount, go with an American Defense Recon mount. The extended eye relief of its single-piece design achieves the same effect as the bi-level feature of the A.R.M.S. handguard, but at a lower weight. A Lothar Walther fluted medium profile barrel made from stainless steel will easily outshoot a Bushmaster chrome-lined heavy profile 20-inch barrel, though it will cost nearly twice as much.

          That’s okay, though. You can afford to purchase an expensive barrel. In fact, the newer build described above would cost the same as the components on Travis Haley’s rifle. Even more important, the modern build weighs a full two pounds less, is four inches shorter, has a longer sight radius and is more accurate. In fact, you can add a hand stop (helpful when pulling the carbine into your shoulder), a flashlight and a light mount to and you’ll still be a pound and a half lighter than the old-fashioned rifle.

          A pound and a half. That’s 24 ounces of water you could carry instead. It’s the weight of a jar of peanut butter and a packet of crackers.  It’s the weight of an extra loaded magazine and Gerber multi-tool.  The point is, it’s not just some inconsequential weight. Having a more accurate carbine that’s got better balance and is easier to manipulate is something any shooter can appreciate. Having extra water, food or ammo in place of unneeded weight could turn out to be priceless.

By: Allen Cosby

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53GR is an avid shooter, hiker and tinkerer. Introduced to guns at an early age, the hobby became a passion in his early twenties. After two years in Iraq as a contractor for a defense company, he developed an unhealthy addiction to military surplus gear. Though he's currently in treatment, the prognosis is that the condition is chronic.

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