Looks Goofy—Shoots Spooky
By John Connor
Columns like this are supposed to have a story, a moral, a point of some kind. In this case maybe it’s “an illustration of the flexibility of the AR platform.” More likely it’s “Even a blind squirrel can sometimes find a perfect nut.” And a better title might be “I’m not easily tickled—but this tickles me to spontaneous incontinence.” If I could break-dance without resulting in total paralysis, I would.
My go-to gunsmith and I live 1,600 miles apart now, but thanks to FedEx and Verizon, we can still conspire, plot and frustrate our wives. It seems we’re both “bad influences.” During one tele-bull session, we were bemoaning the piles of orphaned AR parts littering our shrinking shops and wondering what the heck we could do with them. We came up with ZIP. But then…
“K”—who doesn’t want to be named because he’s swamped with work already—bumped into Rob Sutton of X-Caliber Barrels. It’s a new outfit (shipped their first barrel in mid-2015). But the crew packs tons of experience, and initial reviews from rifle builders are outstanding. Rob asked, “So, you haven’t tried one of our barrels yet?”
Rob later delivered an 18-inch beauty: .223 Wylde chamber, 1:8-inch twist, mid-length gas system, with a black nitride finish on the 416R stainless steel. Hefty but not heavy, owing to deep spiral fluting cut fore and aft of the gas port. That lowers weight, stiffens the barrel and significantly increases cooling. K scoped it and declared it “immaculate.” A barrel like that from X-Caliber runs under $400.
Between the chat and delivery, K found a dirt-cheap deal on upper and lower receiver sets. They were factory overruns made by I.O. Inc. That stopped K cold for a moment. I.O. Inc. got off to a rough start in the US and their reputation was, let’s say, less than stellar. The jobber said quality had really improved. A major industry publication had assessed 10 receivers from different makers, and gave I.O. Inc. very high marks. K still doubted, but took a chance. He was pleasantly surprised. Now we had the core of a rifle—or perhaps a clumsy paperweight.
Five rounds of Hornady Steel Match at 100 yards: 0.6875-inch.
John can’t shoot that tight. Must be juju.
Marines Call It “Gear Adrift”
I had three variants of Hiperfire triggers for testing. Their Hipertouch single-stage triggers feature changeable dual coil “toggle” springs and an architecture unlike any we had seen before. Two were installed on duty carbines and I loved them: crisp, clean and safe. The third was a model 24C competition rig, which has a straight trigger with ridges to anchor a vertically adjustable red plastic Hipershoe. I hadn’t found a home yet for the 24C, so…
K came up with an ArmaLite low-profile gas block. I found a FailZero bolt. I had two complete FailZero bolt-and-carrier groups, and they were accounted for (no idea where this “odd man out” came from). No carrier? No problem. A startup outfit briefly offered some nickel-boron coated carriers cheap and K had grabbed one. An orphaned stainless firing pin completed our BCG.
K keeps Spike’s Tactical melonite-coated gas tubes on hand, so we were good there. I pulled a plain-Jane free-floating handguard from a box of debris. I’d hastily picked it up for $30 on a clearance sale. The US flag-motif pistol grip was a free sample from Strike Industries some years ago—and not bad at all.
K dredged his junk drawer and produced a dust cover, forward assist, receiver pins, mag release, Rock River enlarged triggerguard and assorted springs. I countered with a UFO rifle-length receiver tube, buffer and spring. To mate with that tube, we needed a non-collapsible rifle-length buttstock. I had only one, the deformed-looking thing in the photo. It was a pre-production prototype of US Tactical’s “Back-Up 20,” a design which holds a 20-round magazine in a spring-loaded compartment. Odd and heavy, but comfy and stable. The last UFO part was an unmarked charging handle with an oversized skeletonized tab, origin unknown.
Now, what to thread on the exit end of the bullet-pipe? I found a plastic Brownells pouch marked “compensator,” containing what looked like an elongated miniature septic tank. Turns out it hadn’t been carried in a few years.
K pre-treated the internals with FIREClean, and the monster was complete. All of its clattery-slidey parts clattered and slid appropriately. We christened it FrankenGun and wondered… Is…it…ALIVE? Moohoohahaha!
That’s Mac’s “What the…?” look—before shooting FrankenGun.
Lightning Flashes, Thunder Crashes, And…
K and three “Shootin’ Coots”—all gentlemen of seasoned years—met at the range with an array of rifles for a casual fun-shoot. K explained that first he had to function-check this monstrosity and try for some groups. K shot it. Then they shot it. Their other rifles were forgotten. K called that evening, tickled as a shoat in a slop trough.
“You won’t believe this until you shoot it,” he said. FrankenGun functioned smoothly and perfectly at all angles, with loads from 55 grains to 77, repeatedly punching out 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch 3-shot groups at 100 yards. His only frustrations were, first, they used a 1-4X tactical optic with fairly thick crosshairs, and, second, they were shooting on NRA 100-yard smallbore targets. Thick black crosshairs on an 8-inch black bull doesn’t favor fine precision. Still, results were eye-popping. K’s pals were floored; they demanded he build duplicate FrankenGuns for them. He told them he could build AR’s using matching X-Caliber barrels but couldn’t guarantee any magic. He packed FrankenGun carefully and hit FedEx the next day.
Hearing of their results, I had my qualms. I’m not a precision shooter. K and the Shootin’ Coots are excellent riflemen with extensive competition experience. So, I tried to stack the deck.
The optic I mounted was a pre-production prototype for the Pride/Fowler Rapid Reticle 2.5-10x40mm RR-900—a proven tactical winner but not a purebred target scope. I grabbed a stack of “Victory Rifle” targets from Precision Plus Targets; the best I’ve found for sighting in and grouping. Ammo (all .223 Remington) included Hornady Steel Match 75-grain BTHP, Federal Premium LE “Urban Tactical Rifle” 55-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip, Speer LE Gold Dot 64-grain GDSP, and Winchester PDX1 Defender 77-grain Split Core HP. Fine ammo, but none are intended for benchrest accuracy. They’re practical and tactical; that’s just how I roll. I also brought my cousin Mac—to witness my shame and laugh at me, I guess.
We lucked out and got a clear day with light breezes. No Lead Sled, no bolt-in rest, no sandbags; we just laid FrankenGun’s handguard in the U of a Boyt screw-stand and snuggled up. Then juju happened. There’s no room for a “stats chart,” but here’s the bullet: The Hornady Steel delivered 3-shot groups averaging 0.75 inch and one fantastic 5-shot group measuring 0.6875! Federal Premium LE duplicated those 0.75-inch 3-shot groups and a 5-shot of 1.1875. Speer LE Gold Dot ran .9375 to 1.0 inch groups, and Winchester PDX1 groups ran from 0.75-inch to the largest, a 1.125-inch group. You folks with gold cups on your walls might not be impressed, but consider first that all groups were measured edge to edge, not center to center; second, the nature of FrankenGun’s dubious pedigree; third, the shooting was done by spastic combat monkeys.
Mac was stunned. I was speechless. We loaded mags with old military M193, then tootled giddily over to “Steel Valley.” With minimal ranging, we happily, easily pummeled plates from 100 to 500 yards, until sunset. There were two tickled shoats in the slop trough that night.
A week later I found one 20-round box of Federal Gold Medal Match 69-grain BTHP—actual target ammo. Back to the range! Five 3-shot groups ran 0.5 to 0.625 inch. A 5-shot group measured 0.625-inch with four shots overlapping. FrankenGun. Hooda thunkitt?—Connor OUT
X-Caliber Barrels & Mfg.
3465 US Hwy 2 West
Kalispell, MT 59901
High Performance Firearms LLC
4255 White Bear Parkway Ste 1700
Vadnais Heights, MN 55110
P.O. Box 4301
San Dimas, CA 91773
Mountain Plains Industries
1088 Macon Loop
Lynchburg, VA 24503