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When the M-16 was first introduced to the Army during the Vietnam War, it was not readily accepted. On one hand, this is common, as military personnel aren’t quick to give up their old guns. But on the other hand, rumor has it that some of the plastic parts for the original M-16, specifically the buttstock and forestock, were manufactured by Mattel, and showed up with the famous “Made by Mattel, it’s swell” logo molded into the stock.
I don’t know if that rumor is true or not, as I missed the Vietnam War. But I was trained on the M-16 in boot camp, some years later and carried one throughout my years in the military. Now the M-16 has been replaced, or more accurately upgraded, and has become the M-4, incorporating the lessons learned through years of use in the field.
Shortly after the first M-16s reached the field, the Armalite company came out with the civilian semi-automatic version, known as the AR-15. Today, this rifle, in all its variants, is the most popular sporting rifle on the market.
Who knew, when the M-16, AR-15 and M-4 hit the market, that they were based on the most versatile and adaptable gun platform ever? Yet today, there are so many models of this basic gun on the market that they defy counting. Not only are these variations different from a cosmetic point of view, but from a functional one, too. You can find AR-15s that are set up for short-range CQB or long-range sniper fire. There are even a couple of models out there that are classified as pistols, because they are built specifically for one-handed shooting.
But does all this variation make sense to you and me in a survival situation? Is it just eye candy, or will any of it actually help us survive?
To answer that question, we must first look at what survival shooting consists of. Basically, we can break this down into two separate things:
- Hunting for food.
- Defending yourself and your family.
Those two types of shooting are quite different. To start with, it’s rare that you’ll have animals walk up to you, asking to be converted into dinner. Hunting generally means long-range shooting, and in most cases, from 100 yards to 200 yards. While there are many hunting shots that are much further than that, the vast majority fall into that range.
On the other hand, defensive shooting is all short-range. While there are some who talk about shooting enemies at long-range, they haven’t taken into consideration the legal ramifications of that. It’s all but impossible to prove that anyone you shot at 400 yards was an “imminent danger to life and limb” unless they were shooting at you with a sniper rifle.
With that in mind, what we really need is a gun that’s good at close to medium range. While that’s still a lot to try and do with one gun, it’s much more doable than trying to build a gun that’s useful for both CQB and sniping.
Probably the most important thing you can do to make your AR-15 into a survival gun is make sure that you have good optics on it. Amazingly, many people spend a lot of money on their gun, but go for a cheap optics package. This isn’t limited to AR-15 owners, as it’s a common problem with big game hunters, as well.
Even so, there are several options to consider. For distances out to about 100 yards, a Red Dot or Reflex sight is the fastest and easiest to use. That gives you the ability to get on target faster than any other optics system you can put on a rifle.
But these sighting systems are limited range. Using a Red Dot at 200 yards is a lot like trying to use iron sights at that distance. At that point, you need a telescopic sight.
There are two ways of handing this. One is to use a system like the EOTech one, where you have a Red Dot sight with a telescopic sight that’s designed to work with it. While pricy, that gives you a lot of flexibility in one optics package. The other is to put an adjustable telescopic sight on your AR-15. While that’s not as quick to use as a Red Dot, it does give you the ability to work at multiple ranges.
Another thing you should definitely consider is to keep the iron sights on your gun, even when switching over to something more sophisticated. There are offset mounts you can buy for iron sights, which allow them to sit to the right of the telescopic or Red Dot sight. That way, you’ve always got something that you can use at close range, even if your battery goes dead in your other optics package.
One of the great upgrades that the newer AR-15s offer is a quad rail. This allows you to mount a plethora of accessories to your gun, some more useful than others. But probably the most useful of all (besides the optics) is a foregrip. Holding the forestock in the traditional manner is really not all that ergonomic, so your wrist will get tired after a while. A foregrip gives you a much more natural, comfortable way of holding the gun with your support hand.
I’ve got a foregrip with built-in laser sight and tactical flashlight. While I must admit that the laser sight is of limited use, it is nice having the ability to quickly acquire a target, even before raising the gun to my line of sight. The tactical light is handy for building clearing operations. Both can be turned on intermittently or left on, providing a lot of flexibility.
Keep in mind that any light you mount on your AR-15 will be able to be seen by any bad guys at a much greater distance, than it will reveal them to you. So you don’t want to walk around with a tactical light on, like you see in the movies. Rather, you want to turn it on briefly, catch a snapshot of what’s in front of you, and then move immediately, before anyone can shoot at where you were.
Some people mount a bipod on the rails of their AR-15, but that’s more of a sniper rifle accessory. Unless you are planning on doing long-range shooting, a bipod is nothing more than extra weight to carry around.
While the sling may not seem like an important upgrade to your AR-15, you’ll discover its true utility if you ever have to bug out. Carrying a rifle at the ready or even at port arms for hours is tiring. Those tired arms translate directly into inaccurate shooting. You can’t shoot accurately when your arms are shaking.
The newer one-point and two-point slings that they have available for the AR-15 allow you to carry the gun slung over your chest, rather than over your shoulder. A gun carried over your shoulder is not ready for use in the least. The seconds that it takes to unsling it and move it into firing position are critical. But with the gun slung across your chest, it only takes enough time to lift the gun into position.
4. Barrel and chamber
One point of discussion for many is what caliber is the best. I’m not even going to enter into that discussion, as most of what people say is nothing more than their personal opinion.
Barrel length is important, though. Since we’re talking short- to intermediate-range shooting, you don’t need to have a long one. The 16-inch minimum that the ATF requires for rifle barrels is enough. Please note that 16 inches includes the flash suppressor, only if you have it permanently attached to the barrel. That means welding it in place. Sticking with an 16-inch barrel prevents you from having to get a permit from the ATF for a “short-barreled rifle.”
5. .22LR conversion
While caliber isn’t important for most hunting or defense, there is one place it is important. That is, hunting small game. If you go with a 5.56mm/.223 chambered barrel, you can also buy a .22LR conversion kit for your AR-15. This kit consists of a bolt and magazine, allowing you to shoot the much cheaper and lower velocity .22LR ammo. With it, you can use your AR-15 for hunting small game, which will probably be much easier to find than large game.
What would you add to our list? Share your AR-15 thoughts in the section below:
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