By Zach De Jesus
I remember being a child spending hours looking through my dad’s NRA magazines the way other kids my age were probably looking through their dad’s Penthouse magazine stashes. Of course, I couldn’t be bothered with boring articles about hunting round ballistics and politics, but I drooled over the ads. By todays standards the AR-15s in the Armalite ads were neutered varmint rifles at best, but I didn’t know any better. I would just stare and try to calculate how many lawns I’d have to mow until I could convince my dad to buy me one.
By the time I was actually old enough to own an AR-15, Armalite had all but disappeared from the spotlight. Other exciting companies were pumping out post-ban beauties and the only time I’d hear the name “Armalite” used in a sentence was when someone was correcting the misconception that the “AR” in “AR-15” stood for “Assault Rifle”.
In 2014, Three Gun Nation Pro Series winner, Tommy Thacker, took the reigns as President of Armalite. Tommy promised to pull from his extensive experience in the firearms industry and as a world-renowned competitive shooter to revamp Armalite’s otherwise stagnant product line. He wasn’t kidding. The new M-15 joined a PWS piston powered line and a 3-Gun specific line that is fairly stunning.
I originally saw the M-15 18″ Tactical on the wall of my local gun shop. Admittedly, by this time, the AR-15 market had become saturated with companies clamoring to draw attention to their version of essentially the same product and it took some unique features to stand out from the masses.
The M-15 Tactical did that for me. At first glance I could tell that this was something good: A full featured gun, taking advantage of the latest progressions in AR-15 technology but with a price tag commiserate only with competitor’s guns that offered substantially less.
First, one of the most eye-catching features is the included muzzle device. Armalite decided to top the barrel with an OSS Bannar flash hider/muzzle brake combo device.
The thing looks like a cross between the internals of a jet turbine and a pine cone. Although it provides mediocre performance compared to any number of other devices, combined with the rifle length gas system, it creates a buttery smooth recoil impulse. It’s also not bad at turning the head or two of the concerned range patron that thinks you somehow horribly damaged the end of your barrel.
The barrel, is an 18” Cerakoted, 1:8 RH twist, stainless steel barrel, sporting a very much in vogue .223 Wylde chamber. When compared to it’s 16” brother with a chrome lined 1:7 twist barrel, you realize that the 18” model was specifically built for the accuracy and intended to fill a DMR type role.
The barrel is surrounded by Armalite’s new 15” free float “Tac Hand Guard”. The hand guard runs a full length picatinny rail across the top and Keymod holes along the sides and bottom. The hand guard weighs in at only 11 oz and each of the Keymod holes double as a QD sling mount giving you more positions to plug your fancy sling into than you could ever want.
After discovering this hidden feature, I excitedly tried mounting a QD sling to every other Keymod rail I could find and have been consistently disappointed. Does no one else take advantage of this!? It just makes so much sense!
Under the hand guard runs a rifle length stainless steel gas tube attached to Armalite’s low profile adjustable gas block.
With a small hex key you can easily adjust how much gas is cycling through your system for specific loads, suppressed use, or you can be just like me and just back the little adjustment screw all the way out of the block and the spend the next 5 minutes trying to finagle the tiny devil around the holes in the hand guard to screw it back in.
The upper and lower receivers are made of a healthy, forged, 7075-T6 aluminum and are hard anodized. In the manual, they make a point to state, “Almost all complaints concerning appearance come from customers who forget that the M-15™ is a Military Specification rifle, not a polished commercial or collectors-grade rifle. It is an industrial product, not a custom rifle, and bears finishes appropriate for its intended purposes.” So, basically, “Quit your crying!”, or “Don’t ask us to shell out for a nicer finish!” or whatever.
Armalite kept the receivers pretty basic and didn’t opt for too many fancy features like ambidextrous bolt controls, mag releases, or sci-fi looking lightening cuts. They did spring for an ambidextrous selector lever and a slightly redesigned bolt catch/release which are both…fine. For some reason, they decided to go with an A2 style flat trigger guard, which I found to be an odd decision.
Armalite really did some serious leg work keeping the cost of this rifle down, but of the features on the upgrade list, you’d think the damn trigger guard would make the cut. The A2 trigger guard is almost universally abandoned at this point due to it’s being uncomfortable against your firing hand’s knuckle, claustrophobic, cheap to upgrade, and simply ugly, but I guess the couple extra bucks weren’t quite worth it. I’m not mad; it just seems strange.
The trigger is listed as Armalite’s “2 Stage Precision” trigger which is adjustable for three different weights and extremely smooth and crisp. This trigger, while a little heavy compared to most “precision” triggers even on the lightest setting, does the job and I’d have to be hard pressed to justify dropping another two bills or so on a nicer trigger that would provide me with a very marginal improvement.
There is a feature unique to this trigger that was a bit of a surprise. Instead of a hammer pin retaining spring being built into the bottom of the hammer, this function comes in the form of a small “D” shaped clip that’s basically held onto the side of the hammer by friction.
If you’re not expecting to see that as you pull out the tigger group, like you might if you were trying to adjust the trigger weight, you might end up unknowingly dropping it on the carpet and having it disappear forever. You might then wonder why your hammer pin is walking out of your rifle while you’re on the range. Should you find yourself in this position, you’ll be pleased to know that Armalite’s customer service is fantastic and will send you a replacement free of charge! This totally happened…to a friend of mine…
There’s a standard Mil-Spec buffer tube, BCG, and sling attachable end plate. They threw in a host of Magpul furniture items, namely an MOE+ grip, STR stock, MBUS flip-up sights, and you also get a “Raptor” ambidextrous charging handle. All in all, it’s a pretty impressive upgrade package all for less cash that a similar rifle from a competing company, just those won’t come with half the upgrades. The closest comparison I could find was FN’s FN 15 DMR and that has an street price of $300+ more than the Armalite. So, it looks good on paper. How does it perform?
Based on the chambering, barrel length, barrel internals, and trigger, it’s obvious that this rifle was purpose-built to accurately push out a little farther than your average “tactical” AR-15. I would never presume to say that my skill level on the bench rest is remotely capable of testing the accuracy limits of a rifle, but with a Vortex 4-12x scope mounted, even I was able to print reasonably respectable groups.
The M-15 predictably favors heavier, match grade ammo, but it didn’t fall apart with the lighter, cheap stuff either. Surprise, surprise. For my accuracy test I was firing off sandbags on a bench at 100 yards. I fired 5 shot groups and there was little to no wind. 55-69 grain generally hovered between 1.5-2 inches while the 77 grain OTM groups shrunk down to about an inch group.
I’m convinced that with a bit more skill behind the trigger, the groups would continue to shrink.
Closer range, the M-15 handles quite well. Even with it’s 18”, full profile barrel, it weighs in at only 7.2 lbs unloaded. There’s no way around the fact that having more weight out towards the end requires a little more effort traversing close range targets, but it’s nothing that a little practice can’t overcome, and the smooth, light recoil makes hosing close up targets a breeze.
Of course Armalite built their 3-gun rifles to be monsters on the competitive range, but the M-15 Tactical 18” also holds it’s own under a timer quite well. One thing to consider, though, is the rifle’s versatility. The 3-gun rifles might be a bit out-of-place in a tactical environment with their shiny barrels and tooth-filling-loosening muzzle brakes, but the 18” Tactical rifle gets points for being at home just about anywhere it goes.
I did experience a few break-in failures during my first outing, as I shot the rifle right out of the box without giving it it’s first bath. They were failures to feed as the bolt would travel back far enough to eject the spent casing, but not enough to pick up the next round. I tried over lubing and opening up the adjustable gas block to power it through, (thus the backing of the screw completely out) but everything cleared up once I simply cleaned it.
The only other issue experienced was a strange reluctance to manually unlock to eject a chambered round once the rifle was dirty. I had to borderline mortar the rifle to clear it a couple of times. To be fair, the rifle was really, really dirty, and even in that state, it continued to spit round after round without a hiccup. As of now, I have 3k+ rounds through the gun and have just gotten pretty lazy about cleaning it.
Absolutely ready to rock and roll directly out of the box. It comes with everything you need and a few things you didn’t know you needed. It handles like a dream and has great accuracy potential. Great trigger, and a Keymod hand guard that’s as innovative as it is comfortable. The price is very attractive for what all’s included.
Not much. Maybe a flared mag well or…seriously, something other than an A2 trigger guard would have been nice! It still get’s a little stiff trying to manually clear the chamber of an unfired round. A little man muscle does the trick, but that hasn’t really been an issue with any other AR I’ve used.
Specifications – Armalite M-15 18″ Tactical Rifle
Caliber: 5.56X45 mm / .223
Chamber: .223 Wylde
Barrel: 18” black cerakoted, stainless steel, 1:8 RH twist, full profile
Operation: Rifle length direct impingement
Muzzle Device: OSS Bannar flash suppressing compensator
Included Sights: Magpul MBUS
Hand guard: 15” aluminum Tac Handguard (Accepts QD!!!)
Stock: Magpul STR collapsible buttstock
Grip: Magpul MOE+
Upper Receiver: Forged flat-top with MIL-STD 1913 Rail, 7075-T6 aluminum
Lower Receiver: Forged 7075-T6 aluminum
Trigger: Two-stage precision
Charging Handle: “Raptor” ambidextrous
Finish: Hard anodized aluminum and manganese phosphated steel
Overall Length: 35.6” / 38.9”
Weight: 7.2 lbs.
Comes with one 30-round Magpul PMAG, owner’s manual,
Warranty: Limited lifetime warranty
MSRP – $1699.00 (Street Price – $1300-$1500)
Ratings (Out of 5 stars):
Aesthetics: * * *
The M-15 Tactical doesn’t have any major aesthetic home runs like you’d see on some recent high-end guns, but it does rides a line between sleek, modern accoutrements and parts that are too ugly to not be solidly functional, which is kind of a cool look in itself.
Accuracy: * * * *
This gun was obviously built for accuracy. I squeezed as much out of it as I could without locking it into a vice and got the impression that the gun had a little accuracy left over after my skills had reached their limit.
Reliability: * * * *
The gun isn’t immune to getting dirty and slowing down when it gets particularly sludgy inside, but it’s seen flawless round counts exceeding what I expected and have seen in other AR-15 pattern rifles. The only stoppages I experienced were due to it’s not being cleaned or lubed before it’s first range trip or to operator error.
Features: * * * *
If you tried to build this rifle piece by piece, you’d have a pretty hard time meeting this price point. Armalite made a point to state that their new line of rifles are meant to be ready to go out of the box and they made sure to include the necessary equipment to make…um…non-liars out of themselves. I’ll be honest, I dropped a star for the A2 trigger guard.
Handling: * * * * *
Due to the weight, the slim hand guard, the long gas-system, and excellent furniture, this gun runs fantastically. The recoil impulse is light enough your grandmother would probably enjoy shooting it. A bit front heavy but ultimately, less so than any other rifle-length DMR type rifles I’ve ever picked up. I’ve handled competition rifles that have an edge on this gun, but they’ve usually been pretty heavily upgraded and are pretty much pigeon holed into that particular role, whereas the M-15 Tactical is not.
Overall: * * * *
The Armalite M-15 Tactical isn’t a ground breaking firearm. It doesn’t pioneer any new tech (except maybe that QD/Keymod rail thing) or break any records. There are certainly more exciting, sexy, and maybe even functional rifles on the market if you’re willing to pay the price, but, that’s the point. The Armalite is a rock solid, mil-spec rifle that comes out of the box ready to perform and at a price point that it frankly shouldn’t. If you’re trying to pinch a few pennies all while sacrificing exactly nothing in quality and features, the Armalite M-15 Tactical is definitely worth a close look.