Gun Review: ArmaLite M-15

A few months ago, through the collective efforts of RF and the good folks at ArmaLite, my modest gun safe found itself home to the greatest collection of avant-garde military firepower in the history of Dumm-dom. Translation: for a few weeks, I had a shitload of Evil Assault Rifles, er, Modern Sporting Rifles, in my closet. I was as happy as a clam in sand. Before I offer you my stop – start review of the ArmaLite M-15, I need to share this moment with TTAG’s Armed Intelligentsia . . .

ArmaLite’s AR-15 variant—the M-15 A4 Carbine—was a central part of this zombie-killing collection. It took me several shooting sessions, many hundreds of rounds of ammo, and a trip to the factory for repairs, but I can finally pronounce that . . . gotcha! Average time on site needs must . . .

Overview

The M-15 A4 is ArmaLite’s nearasdammit entry-level flattop AR carbine. The lower half features an M4 collapsible buttstock and a forged lower receiver. The upper half offers a flattop forged receiver, a mid-length handguard and gas system, a chrome-lined 16” heavy barrel, a rail front gas block (no sight post, no bayonet lug) and an A2 flash hider. The chamber boasts elongated M4-style feed ramps for more reliable feeding with heavier bullet weights. Not that you’ll want them . . .

All steel surfaces are phosphate-finished to milspec standard. You can have any iron sights you like with the gun (i.e. the gun comes without them). That’ll be at least another $75 for a set of aftermarket BUIS.

The whole package weighs a hair over seven and a half pounds without a magazine or optics. Our T&E gun featured olive drab furniture. According to the Armalite website, so do the rest of them.

Fit and finish are top-notch, both inside and out. Unlike G.I. M-16s and many lower-grade civilian ARs, the M-15 receiver halves mate together precisely and securely, with tight-fitting action pins and no play between the upper and lower receivers. I searched in vain for any machining marks inside or outside the gun. I found a single milling mark on the inside of the M-15’s lower receiver.

Ergonomics

All of the M-15’s controls are in the standard AR positions, and all of them function with solid precision. There’s no stickiness in the magazine release, no rattle in the charging handle when it’s locked forward, and no stickiness in the safety lever. (There is some shake & rattle in the polymer stock furniture, but that seems common to most ARs.)

Southpaws need not apply. While the M-15’s charging handle is ambidextrous, the magazine release sits on the right side of the gun, the safety and bolt release are San Fran (they live on the left). FN tweaked their SCAR’s safety and magazine release by adding a handful of new parts, producing a wonderful switch-hitter’s rifle. I’d like to see more AR builders follow FN’s example; it’s a hell of a lot cheaper and easier than building entire ‘mirror image’ AR.

The M-15 handles and shoots much like any other quality AR-pattern carbine, although the heavy barrel and longer handguard do inflict a one-pound weight penalty. It may already qualify as a ‘classic’ design because of its ubiquity, but I’m not a huge fan of the M4 collapsible stock. I don’t find it particularly comfortable nor stable. Then again I don’t need to adjust my buttstock to fit the hard Kevlar vests our soldiers and Marines wear.  The heaviest shooting gear I wear is a parka with a fleece liner.

Trigger

All M-15’s are equipped with two-stage triggers. Our tester’s trigger broke cleanly at about six pounds. If you think this is too heavy for a tactical carbine, think again. The M-15’s go pedal was extremely smooth and crisp, with no creep or overtravel Armalite ships this rifle with a Goldilocks trigger: not so heavy that it throws off your aim, and not so light that it gets the job finished quicker than a jackrabbit on a date. I’m sure it contributed to the rifle’s excellent accuracy.

Recoil and Muzzle Blast

The M-15’s recoil is mild, just like any .223 carbine’s. Muzzle jump is more pronounced than that of a SCAR or AK-74. Those rifles and others feature highly effective muzzle brakes, which substantially reduce or eliminate muzzle climb. The M-15 does not.

Muzzle brakes come at a price: they subject your shooting buddies to substantially increased noise and muzzle blast. The almost-recoilless SCAR is one loud sumbitch; nearly as loud as an 18” barreled .308 battle rifle. AK-74s direct powerful gusts of muzzle gas at your range companions, and when you shoot corrosive Soviet-surplus 7N6 5.45×39 ammo those fumes smell a lot like cat pee.

The M-15 doesn’t go in for any of this; it wears an old-school A2 flash hider that does just what it advertises. It hides the flash, and it spares your buddies the head-splitting concussion and cat-piss aromatherapy that muzzle brakes deliver.

Ain’t No Clang In That Thang!

Many ARs create an odd “clanggg” sound when fired, caused as the buffer spring bounces around inside the buttstock buffer tube. It’s not loud, but it seems to vibrate right through my hearing protection and straight into my brain. It makes the gun sound like a Red Ryder BB gun, and maybe I’m weird but I find it uniquely irritating.

I don’t know how ArmaLite solved this problem, but the M-15 clangs less than a roomful of square-dancing cowboys. I didn’t try to remove the buffer tube to find out how they did it (after a bad experience with an FN-FAL recoil buffer spring, I don’t f*ck with them unless I have the proper tools). The ArmaLite M-15 rifle makes the one sound a real rifle should make. Bang.

A Word About Weight

With a lightweight optic and no accessories weighing it down, the M-15 handles quickly and points instinctively. We didn’t mind it being a bit muzzle-heavy during our testing, since the extra heft up front kept it steady on target.

If weight is a concern for your tactical rifle, you’ll want to be sparing in your choice of weapon-mounted gadgets. Instead of a six-pound, two-ounce M4, the M-15 weighs 7.5 pounds empty. A loaded 30-round magazine adds another pound. Now you’ve got an 8.5 pound rifle. It’s not a candidate for The Biggest Loser, but it’s no Bob or Jillian either.

And now you wanna add an Eotech? Add another 11 or 14 ounces. And a doubler? Add another four ounces. A carbine should wear a sling, and that will add another six or eight ounces. Your weapon light and mount will add another four ounces. If you gotsta, gotsta have a quad rail and verti-grip, it will cost you another half-pound. Need a bipod? Another half pound.

A half-pound here and a half-pound there (and there, and there) and pretty soon your tactical carbine weighs twelve or thirteen pounds; double the weight of an empty M4.  The Moral Of This Story is that you don’t want to be the guy lugging around the 16” carbine that weighs more than a loaded, sling- and bayonet-equipped M14 with a 22” barrel. You’ll feel like a complete tool, and more importantly you’ll get tired really quickly.

Reliability

Thanks to the twin joys of free ammo and tight deadlines, press guns tend to see a lot of use in a short time. I have no idea how many thousands of rounds our M-15 had fired before it came into my hands, but I know it was well-used because the shell deflector already wore the dings and scars of hard use, and the charging handle’s anodized finish was well on its way to being worn off.

Whenever and however it may have happened, our T&E rifle was initially shipped to us with a damaged left feed ramp. ARs have two feed ramps, one for each stack in the magazine, and the left one caused a failure to feed when every fourth or sixth round got stuck on its way to the chamber.

We discovered this problem on our first day at the range. The bullets were getting pretty scored up, but the mainspring still had almost enough strength to force the round into battery anyway. I could sometimes clear these jams by just shaking the rifle and pointing the muzzle down and letting gravity do the rest. We gave up on nursing the M-15 through our run-and-gun firing course, but we managed to do some accuracy testing despite the FTFs.

Our first range day with the M-15 was something of a bust, with only 100 or so rounds downrange. I gave the gun a very thorough cleaning afterwards, and I lubricated it until it was swimming in oil. It didn’t fix the burred feed ramp, but the oiled-up action had much less friction and it let the mainspring chamber the rounds reliably. This remedy got me through a successful day at the range the following weekend, and we shot another 150 rounds without a single malfunction while testing it for accuracy at longer ranges.

The feed ramp problem didn’t seem to affect accuracy, but we still needed some run-and-gun testing so I called ArmaLite to arrange a repair. When I emailed them the pictures of the jam and the chewed bullet ogive, their machinist immediately understood the problem and he speculated that it could have been caused by steel-cased ammo. I cleaned it again and sent it back to the factory for repairs. I wasn’t getting any special ‘gun writer’ treatment here; all new Armalites come with limited lifetime warrantees.

I got the rifle back about a month later (yes, it was the same gun, and yes I’ve learned to check), and we headed to the hills for some run-and-gun testing as soon as we could.

All roads to our favorite shooting quarry were blocked by fallen trees and snowdrifts, but we persevered and found another quarry with steep gravel banks and plenty of tin cans to blast. Oh, the things we do for the sake of journalism . . .

We burned through about 450 rounds, shooting in a cold drizzle that occasionally turned into a downpour. The M-15 performed flawlessly. Andrew, a former infantry captain and an AR owner himself, was impressed with its handling and reliability. He ran it through a very improvised run-and-gun course several times. He’s got a very quick trigger finger and he’s a riot to watch in action, but I regret that I have no photographic proof of his efforts that day.

I tried to take home videos from the safety of our picnic shelter, but Andrew’s camouflage raingear seemed perfectly designed to frustrate my cinematic efforts. In my tiny camera he blended into the scenery, and the videos were completely useless.  I think he wore the Mossy Oak “Rainy Oregon Shooting Quarry” camo pattern.

The drizzling rain prevented me from risking my phone/camera by getting too close to the action, but I got some shots of Wayne having fun. Astute readers may remember him from the Chiappa Rhino write-up back in October.

While its post-repair functioning was perfect, it appears that the feed ramp has not been completely smoothed out. This photo shows the scratching that the bullets still show after chambering, and it’s not nearly as ugly as it was before but it still shouldn’t be happening.

But this leaves me wondering . . . if rifle is still 100 percent reliable and exceptionally accurate after an imperfect repair, is there a problem? And if a ‘problem’ doesn’t cause a problem, is it still a problem? One good range day can’t prove that any rifle is service-grade reliable, but this gun is well on its way to earning my trust.

Accuracy

Using the same mix of cheap factory and commercial reload ammo that we used to test the FN-SCAR 16S a few months ago (when the Armalite jammed) we also tested the Armalite M-15 for accuracy a few weeks later.

Other variables held constant from the failed run-and-gun testing: the same ammo, the same magazines, and the same shooter. Only the weather had changed (it was 40 degrees and raining, instead of 24 degrees and sunny) and the rifle had been meticulously cleaned and lubricated between shooting sessions. We fired approximately 150 rounds through the Armalite, and experienced no malfunctions. The numbers below represent the average of several 5-shot groups each.

50 Yards (Eotech) 50 Yards (9x) 100 Yards (9x)
55-grain FMJ 2.6” 0.79” 1.56”
64-grain BTSP 2.30”

We didn’t have enough 64-grain ammunition to test at shorter ranges. Considering that ammunition’s lackluster performance at 100 yards I don’t think we missed much. The results are clear, and the ArmaLite M-15 has shown its preference for lighter-weight bullets. This is not a criticism of the M-15; in fact it’s an advantage, since the 55-grain ammo is the cheapest and most common 5.56x45mm ammo available.

ArmaLite advertises that the M-15’s 1:9” twist is appropriate for 52-69 grain bullets, but the 64 bullets seemed to be under-stabilized. The smallest group with the 64-grain bullets was 2.1” and was strung out vertically. There was no stringing with the 55-grain groups, and the smallest group was 1.3”.

The M-15 was also much less sensitive to barrel heating and cooling than other tactical carbines. The pencil-thin SCAR barrel loses accuracy quickly under sustained firing: it’s smallest cold-barrel group was 0.5” smaller than the average, and a full inch smaller than its largest hot-barrel group.

The mechanically superb Heckler & Koch HK93 will string its shots as much as 6” off zero under sustained firing. The M-15, on the other hand, only lost or gained about 0.2” as the barrel heated up or cooled off. Richard Roundtree said it first, and I’ll say it now: solid!

All in all, the M-15 exhibited outstanding accuracy for a rifle of its type. If accuracy is a priority for you, its fully rifled heavy barrel (.75” diameter at the gas block) is well worth its extra weight.  If I could test several brands of match-grade 55-grain ammunition, I would probably find one that prints 1.2 MOA with this rifle.

If you check the ArmalLte website, they advertise the M-15 as a 2-2.5 MOA gun. If a used and abused press gun can shoot 1.2 MOA with the cheapest box of commercial reloads at the gun show, ArmaLite needs to update their web page!

Don’t Call It An M4!

As I mentioned in my preview video, the M-15 has several features that distinguish it from the currently fashionable M-4 styled carbines on the market, and I dig all of them.

1.  A 16” fully rifled barrel.

M4s and their civilian clones may wear 16” barrel tubes, but only the first 14.5” is rifled. The last inch and a half of a civilian M4 is an over-bored barrel extension whose sole raison d’etre is NFA compliance; it does nothing for velocity or accuracy. The M-15 is the same overall length and it gives you a smidge more velocity and accuracy.

2.  No grenade-launcher barrel cuts.

I know they look cool, but there’s just no excuse for civilian M4 barrels to be turned down to a pencil-thin diameter just forward of the gas block. You and I will never get to sling an M203 grenade launcher under our AR carbines, but we can all benefit from the additional strength and heat stability of a full-profile barrel.

3.  A mid-length gas system and handguard.

I personally prefer mid-length or even full-length AR handguards because they allow room for longer gas systems. The AR-15’s gas system was originally designed around a 20” barrel, and engineers had fits trying to downsize it for the original CAR-15 and later M4 versions.

Larry Vickers always recommends full-size 1911s because smaller versions tend to become less reliable the more they deviate from the engineer’s original vision. I think this holds true for the AR pattern as well. Longer AR gas systems run cooler and cleaner than shorter ones, they’re gentler on bolts and bolt carriers, and they suffer from fewer timing problems.

Click here for a detailed engineering discussion of these issues if you’re technically inclined: the takeaway is that longer gas systems are more reliable and more durable than shorter ones.

In addition they’ll give you a longer sight radius for your backup iron sights, and they also give plenty of room for longer handguards so you won’t fry your support hand on the hot barrel. As I’ve repeatedly done with AKs, HKs and Galils.

Summary

The Armalite M-15 is a well-executed modern AR-15 variant. For a few hundred dollars more than a generic M4 clone, the M-15 gives you a solid gun with high-quality materials like a chrome-lined barrel and an all-forged alloy receiver. It weighs a pound more than a civilian M4, but that pound of barrel steel gives you <1.5 MOA accuracy, exceptional heat stability, and slightly higher velocity from the same overall length as an M4.

Our test rifle seems to have been damaged before we ever laid hands on it, and it certainly gave us one bad day at the range. On the other hand, malfunctions dropped to zero as soon as I lubed the rifle thoroughly, and we already know that all AR’s are sensitive to proper lubrication.

So I can’t say it’s perfectly reliable, but it’s halfway there. It’s gone over 600 rounds without a hiccup, and once it hits 1,000 malfunction-free rounds I’d be prepared to pronounce it completely trustworthy. Any gun can break after untold thousands of rounds in the hands of trigger-crazy gun writers.

Specifications
Caliber: 5.56x45mm NATO/.223 Remington.
Barrel: Chrome-lined 16” full-contour, 1:9” twist.
Overall Length: 32” fully collapsed, 35.6” fully extended.
Weight: 7.56 lbs empty.
Action: Direct gas-impingement (internal piston) semi-automatic.
Finish: Hard-anodized alloy receiver, manganese-phosphate barrel, O.D. green stock furniture.
Capacity: 30 rounds with supplied magazine; any other size you like.
Price: $1,050.00 list.

 

RATINGS: (out of five)

Accuracy: ****1/2
A 16” tactical carbine that gives you 1.5 MOA with dirt-cheap commercial reloads? That’s a keeper in my book.

Ergonomics: ***
Quick handling, a grownup-sized handguard, a crisp trigger and solid, positive controls are great. The handy M4 buttstock may be uncomfortable, but it can be replaced easily and at least it doesn’t go clang.

Reliability: ****
How do you balance one bad range day against 600+ rounds without a single hiccup? I’m adding a star because this rifle has been heavily used and abused, and your new M-15 won’t be.

Customize This: *************1/2
As modular as Lego’s. If anybody makes it at all, they make it for the AR. I subtracted half a star because it doesn’t have a quad-rail. That’s a joke.

Overall Rating: ****
Much more than an entry-level M4 flattop, at little more than an entry-level price. If you like ARs, you’ll like the ArmaLite M-15 A4 Carbine.