Gun Review: ArmaLite AR-10

Most folks knows Apple computers started in a California garage. Less well known: the modern small arms industry was born the same way. “America’s rifle,” the AR-15, owes it genesis to not one but two post-War California aircraft company employees and backyard gunmakers: Eugene Stoner, Design Engineer for Whittaker, and George Sullivan, Chief Patent Counsel for Lockheed. When Sullivan convinced the gun enthusiast running Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corporation to set-up ArmaLite, Stoner and his patents formed the basis of the new venture. The California-dreamin’ start-up applied advanced aeronautic plastics and alloy technology to the business of making guns.

The original plan: hunting rifles. After the AR-5 found favor with the military, Stoner and his crew set their sights on the Big Kahuna. In 1955, the Army was looking to replace the M1 Garand  with the Springfield Armory T-44 (an updated Garand) and the T-48 (a version of the FN FAL).

Stoner’s AR-10 was a revolution. It featured an integral carrying handle with an internal charging handle mounted within. Because the bolt locked into a steel extension on the barrel, not the receiver itself, the AR-10 could be built with aircraft-grade aluminum receivers. Where the T-44 and T-48’s stock and other furniture were wood, the AR-10’s was plastic. The gun weighed less than seven pounds.

In the end, the AR-10 didn’t make the cut. The T-44 was adopted as the M-14 rifle in 1959. The AR-10 fell victim to its own weaknesses (normal in early models of any product), prejudice within the Army Ordnance Corps, and the other rifle makers’ political juice. So Armalite scaled down the original AR-10 design and built a lighter and smaller second gen AR-15 in 5.56 x 45mm caliber. Ultimately, Stoner’s bosses sold the design to Colt Industries.

After a fortuitous luncheon meeting and a product demo (blasting watermelons), General Curtis LeMay of the USAF ordered 15,000 of these “cute” little AR-15 rifles for the USAF. Over 10,000,000 M-16s/M4s/AR-15s later, provided by a number of different USGI approved manufacturers, the AR family of weapons is to the free world what the Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK) series of weapons is to many of the bad guys we face on the world’s battlefields: the symbol of what we stand for.

The AR-series of weapons is also one of the longest running American service rifles (killing bad guys since 1966) in history. It’s still going strong with its latest variant, the M4. But that’s the subject for another story.

With today’s modern battlefield stretched out across the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, the 7.62 x 51 NATO class of weapons are making a comeback, thanks to their extended range and increased one-shot knockdown potential (when the 147-gr NATO projectile finds its mark). Armalite is still making its AR-10 in many different flavors and shipping them overseas for the good guys to defend our freedom, 55-years after they lost the competition to the M-14.

Although ArmaLite still makes the “original” military model AR-10 with the front sight post and built-in rear carry handle and iron sights, Armalite also manufactures a complete mix of other models, some with an A4 style upper (flat top with Picatinny rails for adding optics, lights, lasers, grips, etc.), short 16-inch carbine barrels, stainless steel bull barrels, different color furniture (black and green), free float handguards and lots more.

The AR-10’s a little heavier than the standard AR-15. There’s more metal; especially with our test AR-10T with stainless steel bull barrel. The magazine well is also about a half inch longer to accommodate the larger 7.62 x 51 NATO round and the bigger and heavier magazine required to feed this auto loader. The bolt on the AR-10 is also HUGE compared to an AR-15’s, to better handle the harder kick of that potent 30-caliber round.

The action spring and buffer are similar to the AR-15’s; the gas tube above the barrel terminates in the upper receiver and connects to the gas key atop the bolt carrier group; the charging handle is in the same place and works identically; the takedown pin, pivot pin, safety, bolt catch release button and magazine release button are all in familiar places and do the same things.

The AR-10’s bolt differs from the AR-15’s. The three separate gas rings located on the front side of the AR-15’s bolt are replaced by a single gas ring, wrapped three times around the bolt on the AR-10. Another noticeable difference: the firing pin on the AR-10 is spring-loaded. It requires a slightly different hand position to snug it back into the bolt.

Other than those minor differences, if you are familiar with the AR-15 platform and operating system, you will be eminently familiar with the Armalite AR-10. Just get ready for a slightly louder bang when you pull the Armalite’s most excellent two-stage trigger.

We tested this Armalite AR-10 late one afternoon at the Freeport range on Long Island. We were limited to shooting at 50-yards. That said, sighting-in a 7.62 x 55 NATO M-14 or AR-10 weapon is easy and rewarding; a 20-inch barrel firing a 30-caliber round yields fairly flat shooting results. Most of the cognoscenti know that by zeroing-in the weapon at 45m, the ballistic curve determines that it is also zeroed again on the backside of hte slope at 200m, with a midpoint of approximately 1.5-inches high at 125m or so.

Bottom line: by setting our sights for 45m, we could determine what this weapon would produce at 200m. But that brought us to the next challenge. Sights.

Since it was an A4 design with a low-profile gas block rail (no front sight post) and a Picatinny rail on the upper (no carrying handle with built-in rear sights), our Armalite AR-10 did not come with any means of accurately aiming our stash of Winchester 7.62 x 51 and .308 WIN ammo downrange.

Scrambling to make something happen, I took one of my “old reliable” A4 upper optics: a Trijicon 1 x 24 ACOG red dot reflex sight meant for other pursuits. I figured it would do in a pinch. It did not disappoint.

Our test rifle had made the rounds with a bunch of other gun writers. So I field stripped the weapon. After giving the BCG and chamber a good cleaning and lubing it with Break Free CLP (like all D/I gas ARs, this AR-10 likes to run wet), I put her back together with no extra parts (always a plus!).

After attaching the Trijicon ACOG via its sturdy two screw frame to the AR-10 A4’s Picatinny rail and positioning it for maximum visual ergonomics for my aging dominant right eye, it was time to send a few practice rounds downrange and to sight her in before the big test.

Using milsurp NATO ammo from Belgium, South Africa and Germany that ranged anywhere from 20-to-30 years old, I tested the feeding and functionality of this AR with low-grade stuff, just to see what she could do. After blasting 80+ rounds without a hiccup, it was time for the “real” challenge with our supply of the latest and greatest COTS (commercial off the shelf) 7.62 x 51 NATO and .308 WIN hunting ammo, generously supplied by Winchester.

The only problem with using a 4.5 moa reflex sight when attempting to do precision work: there’s a mismatch of sorts between the tool and the expected result. Additionally, we were sling-less and our bench was bare. No sandbags, lead sleds or any of that stuff.

So we did an accuracy test the old-fashioned way, testing the hold quality of my sitting position and how quickly I could recover my sight picture after each jolt of this potent 7.62 NATO jackhammer and the 4.5 moa dot covering half of the target’s black area.

With local AR aficionado and TTAG contributor Brett Solomon providing the spotting duties, we proceeded to sight her in and made the final adjustments to the windage and elevation screws on the Trijicon, sighting this AR-10T in for the 147-gr NATO ammo.

Not all manufacturers of auto-loading 7.62 x 51 NATO weapons give you a trigger as sweet as this Armalite’s two-stage version. It had a smooth take-up and a crisp finish, time after time. The Armalite folks claim the first stage has a 2.5-pound pull in the take-up stage; with 4.5-to-5 pounds of pull in the second stage. I didn’t have a spring scale with me to double check these specs; the numbers felt right from a touch and feel standpoint.

With its 20” triple lapped 1:11.25” twist stainless steel bull barrel and rudimentary optics, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from an accuracy standpoint. After a few minor sighting adjustments, we printed a 5/8” inch group for five shots that looked like two clover leaves of sorts with Winchester’s 147-gr FMJBT NATO ammo.

Given our aforementioned delimitations, this excellent result backs up Armalite’s claim of 1” moa at 100-yards. Keeping the sights locked in for the NATO ammo, and then using some of the .308 hunting rounds to observe the apparent POA/POI differential, most of the lower powered .308s were hitting a bit low and left, which is what you would expect.

The 150-gr Winchester Power Point printed a very nice 10-shot group, as did the 168-gr Ballistic Silvertip. By the time I eventually got around to shooting the 180-gr Power Point, my shoulder was a little sore and my hold wasn’t the best, as reflected by the results on target.

The “hottest” round of the bunch was the 168-gr Ballistic Silvertip. Each time I squeezed the trigger, it felt like a 12-gauge going off. If you’re hunting big North American game, this ammo should drop it with a single well-placed shot.

I was expecting the 168-gr Hollow Point Match ammo to run the tightest groups with the ArmaLite AR-10—which it did not. It may have at greater distances. Proof positive that each rifle will tell you which ammo it likes best. It’s your responsibility to figure that out before you’re shooting for real.

The best thing about this Armalite AR-10T is as the name implies: it’s an AR. It’s eminently modular. You can mix and match whatever upper you want with the lower  “rifle.” This plug-and-play concept explains the growing popularity of AR-style weapons, both with consumers and the military forces of the free world.

Accuracy and reliability with our AR-10T were a 10 out of 10, right out of the box. After sending approximately 250 rounds downrange, I can attest that the AR-10 went bang every time I pulled the trigger.

The ArmaLite AR-10’s build quality was also 100 percent, with a super tight fit between the upper and lower; absolutely no “shimmy shake” between the two major components. The triple lapped stainless steel bull barrel had a lot of mass to dissipate the heat after quick follow-up shots, which enhances its accuracy potential. The M4 style feed ramps (a smooth transitional cut into the lower and the barrel extension) were a nice touch and further enhance smooth feeding and reliability.

On the down side, the oversized barrel also made the ArmaLite AR-10 a bit muzzle heavy when pointing it down range. It almost requires a bipod to neutralize this quirk (which is easily added to the free float tube without compromising accuracy and/or barrel harmonics). Other AR-10s (the standard military A2 model) don’t exhibit this “muzzle heavy” problem; they’re g2g when shooting offhand. The 10-round magazine supplied with  the ArmaLite AR-10 was also a little balky and a PITA to load. However, it fed reliably.

The ArmaLite AR-10 is a joy to shoot. With a list price of $1,892, you can add one to your collection without breaking the bank, and you can’t beat Armalite’s [non-transferrable] lifetime warranty. But more than that, buying an AR-10 makes you the proud owner of a genuine piece of history and American gun-making genius. It’s fully-functional weapon that still shows the world, and the bad guys, how it’s done.

RATINGS (out of five):

Style * * * * 1/2

Timeless original AR style…only bigger. Form follows function wonderfully on this weapon.

Ergonomics * * * * 1/2

Once again, typically AR. Everything is in usual the place where you would expect it. The AR-10 just uses a bigger projectile and makes a louder noise when it goes bang.

Reliability * * * * *

250 rounds and counting; everything and anything, all the time, every time.

Customize This * * * *

Our AR-10 had a Picatinny rail on top of the upper receiver in the usual A4 configuration. Would love to have seen additional rails at 0/90/180/270 degrees on the free float handguard, like found on some competitive models (like Rock River).

Overall Rating * * * * 1/2

Still found doing business where good guys clash with bad guys around the world over 50 years after it’s introduction. Timeless design and reliability. Gotta get me one of these.