Things have been changing over at Armalite. There’s been an invasion of 3-gun shooters, and it has had a radical impact on the company’s products. They’ve gone from producing National Match style AR-15 rifles that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the 1990’s to offering what might be the slickest 3-gun rifle on the market in less than a year, and the man behind the push is Tommy Thacker, former 3-Gun Nation national champion and pro 3-gun shooter. The flagship product they are leading off this new charge with is their M-15 3-Gun Rifle, a gun designed to Tommy’s specifications, and it might just be the new go-to gold standard for 3-gunners.
Karla wrote up her first impressions of the 13.5 inch version of this gun a while back, and she had nothing but good things to say. Karla is an amazing 3-gun shooter and someone I learned a lot from while I was on the FNH USA 3-Gun team a while back, so I respect her opinion when it comes to firearms. She loves the 13.5 inch version, but I very much prefer a little extra barrel length on my guns so I asked for an 18″ version to test out and review.
The very first thing people notice about this gun is the muzzle brake. Even when I pulled it out of the box at the gun shop, that’s what drew my dealer’s interest the most. There isn’t really a ton of recoil associated with the 5.56 NATO cartridge, but when you’re in a competition where fractions of a second matter every little bit of help matters. The brake is an Armalite design, with three chambers and intended to allow the end user to custom tune the exhaust to exactly match their gun and their ammo. The screws on the side of the brake regulate the amount of gas being expelled in each direction, so you can tinker to your heart’s delight with just a flathead screwdriver and some free time on the range. Even so, as-is from the factory it was pretty much spot on.
The brake does an excellent job — recoil is almost nonexistent, and getting fast follow-up shots is easy as pie. In fact, a French journalist I was at the range with said she didn’t like it as much as other guns because it just didn’t have any recoil. She preferred the SIG SAUER 556xi Russian.
Another factor impacting that recoil is the adjustable gas block. Hidden under the handguards, the low profile gas block can actually be adjusted so that there’s barely enough gas coming back to cycle the action. A finely tuned gas system will keep the bolt carrier from slamming around like a 500 pound man throwing a temper tantrum, which in turn will keep your gun from being jolted off target. The gas block can be user adjusted, so even if you change your loads and need to re-calibrate your gas system its all within your capabilities. All good things.
The barrel on the gun is stainless steel (for extra bling — no use winning a competition if you don’t look fabulous doing it) and sports a medium profile throughout the entire length. Even though the barrel is 18″ instead of 16″ like most 3-gun rifles, it still feels remarkably light to hold and easy to maneuver. The barrel is chambered in .223 Wylde, a compromise chambering between 5.56 NATO and .223 Remington that combines the best parts of each chamber to provide what many consider to be a more accurate barrel.
Surrounding that barrel is a custom handguard that Armalite is now selling as a separate piece for project guns. The concept is something I wish more gun manufacturers would embrace: just enough rail for the job, and standard options for when you need more. The top rail on the handguard has been mostly removed, with only a little bit left at the very end for mounting iron sights or such. But while the handguard is slimmer and slicker than most 3-gun rifles out there, the end user still has the option to add more stuff. They’ve used the keymod standard mounting system for this handguard, so if you feel the need for more rails you’re only an Amazon order away — no proprietary pieces to buy.
That slimmer profile handguard not only saves on weight and improves ergonomics, but it also adds to the usability. Eliminating that rail section allows optics with large objective lenses to be mounted closer to the rail, which lowers height-over-bore error and should make for more accurate shooting.
The receiver set is pretty standard. There’s nothing really special about the design, but the parts have been well selected. The trigger is a Timney 3-pound single stage trigger, which is a fine choice in both manufacturers and design and provides a very crisp and clean trigger pull. The safety is ambidextrous, meaning lefties and righties alike will be able to enjoy the firearm. The grip is an Ergo Grip, which isn’t my personal favorite but definitely an improvement over the usual A2 AR-15 grip. And rounding off the changes is a nifty bolt catch / release paddle that is designed to allow the user to lock the bolt back a little easier than normal. The charging handle is also ambidextrous for our south-pawed pals.
The real exciting part is in the rear.
Most guns in this category just come with a Magpul CTR and call it done. Armalite went the extra step to actually put a proper stock on their gun, working with Luth-AR to get an Armalite branded version of their stock for the rifle. The real claim to fame of the Luth-AR MBA-1 stock is that it allows the end user to adjust both the length of pull and the cheek riser height for maximum ergonomics, but adds only a little over a pound and a quarter to the gun. That’s a full half a pound less than a Magpul PRS stock, and damn near half the price, but with very similar ergonomic capabilities.
Out on the range, all these parts really come together. The gun handles like a dream, and you can definitely feel that the action moves just enough to cycle — but not a millimeter more. To really see what she can do we strapped a U.S. Optics MR-10 to the top rail, shoved some Eagle Eye ammo in her, and let it rip. The results were, quite frankly, amazing.
She’s a shooter, there’s no two ways about it. To be frank that’s the best group I had all day — the group size for this gun varies a bit depending on the diet you feed her but doesn’t exceed 1 MoA.
The gun shoots, and it shoots well. Not only is it accurate, but it also recoils with only the faintest of shoves and stays rock-solid on target. The best part: all this can be yours for one simple payment of $1,599. That might seem like a good chunk of change, but considering what other firearms manufacturers are charging for their 3-gun rifles that’s a bargain. Colt Competition wants $500 more for their rifle. So does JP Enterprises. Stag offers a 3-gun rifle for the same price, but without all the bells and whistles you get here. In short, considering all the options, Armalite’s gun is the best bang for your 3-gun shooting buck.
Specifications: Armalite M-15 18″ 3-Gun Rifle
Caliber: .223 Wylde (5.56 NATO / .223 Remington)
Magazine: One 30-Round Magazine included (takes standard AR-15 mags)
Ratings (out of five stars):
Accuracy: * * * * *
With good conditions (and before my morning cup of coffee) its a one-hole gun. On average, its 1/2 to 3/4 MoA. Meets and exceeds my 1 MoA for $1,000 benchmark.
Ergonomics: * * * * *
Everything on this gun feels perfect. The stock might seem a little plastic-y, but that’s because its made of plastic. Its solid as can be.
Reliability: * * * * *
No issues. We fired hundreds of rounds without a hiccup.
Customization: * * * * *
Adjustable gas system. Adjustable muzzle brake. Adjustable stock for comb height and length of pull. Picatinny rail. Kemod compatible handguards. I don’t think it could be any more customizable if you slapped a Transformer on it.
Overall: * * * * *
I like it. A lot. For the price, its damn hard to beat.